Friday, February 28, 2014

Joan and Her Roommates

Our Blushing Brides (1930) introduces us to three roommates and colleagues in a local department store: Jerry March (Joan Crawford), a no-nonsense young woman, focused on her career, who doesn't have a whole lot of regard for men; Franky Daniels (Dorothy Sebastian), a lazy person, looking for a husband - any husband; and Connie Blair (Anita Page), a fairly naive girl who is deeply in love with the boss (David Jardine, played by Raymond Hackett), and who sees him as her ticket to a life of ease and happiness.

After a date with Marty Sanderson (John Miljan), Franky, in a drunken stupor, elopes with him.  It doesn't hurt that he appears to be quite wealthy.  Then, Connie moves into an apartment that David has rented for her - without benefit of marriage.  But Connie is sure they will wed, as soon as David convinces his father of their deep love.  Jerry meets Tony Jardine (Robert Montgomery), David's older brother, who woos her.  But when she realizes he is interested only in a quick visit to his bachelor pad treehouse (yes, you read that right - a treehouse), she walks out.

We were really impressed by the art design in this film.  The settings are attractive, but appropriate to each economic level.  The apartment Jerry shares with Connie and Franky is slightly more upscale than the one she ends up in when she is alone, and appropriately so.  But the designers still make the apartments places that young women would live, not just sets.  The one exception to this was Tony's treehouse - it is just much too large on the inside to fit the dimensions outside.  Perhaps Tony knows how to cast an Undetectable Extension Charm (a la Harry Potter). 
Jerry works in the store not only as a model, but as a salesperson.  One of our group recalled that her mother told her of a store practice in which salespeople did try on clothing for their preferred customers.  We felt that the film gave us a little insight into the business world of the 1930s.  The emphasis on  clothing in the film also provides a display of some lovely dresses of the period (all far more expensive than the average woman would be able to afford), but the fashion shows finally got a bit over the top.  In the last one,  it looked like they were channeling Busby Berkeley.

As always, Robert Montgomery is a pleasure to watch.  He makes Tony attractive, though he is not afraid to show him as a bit of a cad.  But he also allows us to see Tony grow as a person.   We found the male characters in general to be interesting. They run the gamut from coward to thief to someone who grows into a good guy. 

We were very impressed both with Joan Crawford, as well as with her character.   Jerry is a good person, very devoted and loyal to her friends. When she sees David in a movie theatre with his fiance, Evelyn Woodforth (Martha Sleeper), Jerry goes to Connie to be a support, but cannot bring herself to tell her of what she witnessed.  The beauty of this section is Crawford's reactions.  Without speaking a word, we see all the emotions running through her head - Crawford's silent film training is evident.  Jerry's loyalty to her friends is also admirable because of the obvious differences between her, Connie and Franky.  Quite honestly, Jerry is a lot smarter and more ambitious than either of them - Connie, especially comes across as a complete dolt.  Yet, Jerry sticks with them, even when their stupidity has gotten both of them into untenable situations.
We have a wealth of interesting performances here.  Hedda Hopper is back for a brief bit as Mrs. Weaver, a woman who is quite unpleasant.  We also have Edward Brophy as Joe Munsey for some  comic relief.  Brophy's long career extended from 1920 until 1961.  He died in 1960, at age 65, during production of his final film, Two Road Together. Anita Page also had an interesting career.  She appeared in many films from 1925 until 1936.  Then, after a long break, she appeared in a few more movies, first in 1961, then again in 1996.  She died in 2008, at age 98; her final film was released in 2010.  Dorothy Sebastian acted until 1948, dying in 1957 (age 53) after a long bout with cancer.

Interestingly, Crawford and Paige had already starred in the silent films Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929), MGM's "jazz age" trilogy (. Sebastian joined them in Our Modern Maidens.  This TCM article gives a bit more detail on the film and the trilogy.

The opening scene immediately places us into the world of the film, and introduces us to our heroines and their various personalities.  We see the girls clocking into work and listen to their discussions of their jobs and men.  Though the final scene in the film is a bit jarring in its abruptness, all in all, this is a well-paced film. We should mention, however, that the title is more ironic than a reflection of the story.
Before we go, here is an introduction to Jerry and Tony:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gary Has a Three Wives (Almost)

Gary Cooper stars in the title role as Casanova Brown (1944), a man who discovers that his one-day marriage to Isabel Drury (Teresa Wright) has resulted in a daughter - a child she is planning to give up for adoption.

Upon returning from a trip, Cas Brown rushes to the home of Madge Ferris (Anita Louis), intent upon asking for her hand in marriage.  Her father (Frank Morgan) is determined to circumvent him - Mr. Ferris is not keen on marriage, having been unhappily with Madge's mother for over 20 years.  When Cas receives a note from a Chicago maternity hospital, Mr. Ferris' curiosity  forces Cas to reveal that he was briefly married about 9 months before.  His bride's family took an immediate dislike to him, and when he carelessly allows a cigarette he is hiding (Mrs. Drury, played by Patricia Collinge, despises "cigarette fiends") to set fire to the house, his goose is proverbially cooked.  He leaves in disgrace, and without his wife.  The marriage is quickly annulled. Though Mr. Ferris discourages it, Cas travels to Chicago to investigate the mysterious letter, only to find out that his former bride has a baby girl she has decided to give up.  A horrified Cas cooks up a scheme to take possession of the infant.

As films go, this one has a fairly absurd plot, with scenes that go on for much too long.  Much of the film is over the top.  The scene in which the Drury's home becomes an inferno is played for laughs (watching a beautiful home and all its contents become an inferno is funny?).  And then, there is the section where Cas arrives at the maternity hospital: men assume CAS is pregnant (huh?) and Cas blithely allows a complete physical to be performed without ANY questions.  We wondered on what planet anyone would accede to multiple blood tests, physicals, and x-rays with nary a question?  In an age of escalating health care costs and uninsurance woes, this just doesn't age well.  Also ludicrous is Cooper's ability to merely don scrubs in order to sneak his daughter out of the newborn nursery.  He's a man in scrubs - naturally, he is a doctor... (?!)

The film plays the Drurys as a farcical couple; Mrs. Drury's penchant for astrology is annoying.  Assumedly, a 1940's audience would find her aversion to cigarettes to be odd as well (though as non-smokers in the 21st Century, we applaud her for that). Luckily, we don't have to put up with her all that long; she is only in the one, extended scene.  Quite frankly, Patricia Collinge is totally wasted. 

We also found it distasteful that the hospital literally sneaks in the news that baby Drury (the name on the bassinet) is being put up for adoption.  The rights of the father (and we know that the doctor and staff are well aware that Isabel and Cas were married at one point) are completely ignored.  Cas' panic at the loss of his daughter is understandable.  And Cooper, with his wide, lovely eyes and amiable demeanor makes Cas' predicament all the more sympathetic.  He is one of the reasons that the film ends up being somewhat enjoyable. The other is his reunion with Teresa Wright.  They are an enjoyable couple (just watch them together in Pride of the Yankees). One just wishes they had a bit more to work with. 

We found it fascinating that the film was nominated for three academy awards: music, art direction, and sound recording.  The competition in Dramatic or Comedy Score category, which had 19 nominations included Max Steiner (for Since You Went Away and The Adventures of Mark Twain), Miklos Rozsa (Double Indemnity, Women of the Town), and Alfred Newman (Wilson).  Since You Went Away took the prize.  Art Direction had 7 nominations (including Gaslight and LauraGaslight won).  Sound had 10 nominations, with Wilson taking the prize from Kismet, Double Indemnity and Cover Girl).

Though filmed right in the middle of World War II, Casanova Brown makes no mention of the War.  Perhaps it was considered escapist fare, but we found it strange that the War was so completely ignored.  It was also the first feature of Independent Pictures.  For more information on Independent Pictures, see this TCM Article on Casanova Brown

Though several worthy supporting players grace this film, with the exception of Frank Morgan, most have little to do.  We already mentioned Patricia Collinge;  Anita Louise is similarly wasted.  She really appears as a pretty face with no job but look lovely (which she does do quite well).  The always amusing Mary Treen gets a bit more screen time as the nurse, Miss Clark, and while she is amusing, this clearly is Cooper's film.  He is in nearly every scene, and when he is in the scene, the film focuses on him.  And of course, Frank Morgan is a delight as a character who, in close analysis, one would find despicable in real life.

Finally, a quick mention of Jill Esmond as Dr. Martha Zernerke.  It's always fun for me to find a film with a woman doctor.  Interestingly, Zernerke's sex is not dwelt upon; she is portrayed as competent, and ultimately sympathetic.  Her sex has no impact on her ability to do her job.  Esmond, by the way, was Laurence Olivier's first wife and the mother of his eldest son, Tarquin.
In closing, we leave you with Cooper arriving at a clinic for testing.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Marlene Steals a Baby

Marlene Dietrich plays a stage actress who falls in love with a baby and runs off with him in The Lady is Willing (1942). Elizabeth 'Liza' Madden (Dietrich) is walking home from the theatre one evening when she happens upon an altercation.  A baby has been found abandoned in a building and the neighborhood is in a tizzy.  A police officer hands Liza the baby, and it is love at first sight.  So, since the baby has no parents to speak of, Liza simply takes him home, and begins the role of Mom.

Of course, Liza quickly discovers that it's not that easy for a single woman to adopt a baby, much less a woman who is up to her ears in debt.  You see, Liza has a lovely apartment, wonderful clothing, and lots of debts.  She has a tendency to financially support relatives and friends - or dead-beats, as her assistant, Buddy (Aline MacMahon), calls them.  So, Liza must marry, and marry fast or little Corey (David James) will be taken from her.  She approaches Dr. Corey McBain (Fred MacMurray) to take on the dad role (Yes, there is a reason for the fact that Dr. and baby have the same name).  In exchange, he can switch from his specialty of pediatrics to what he really loves, research.  Of course, it will be a marriage in name only, and of course, Corey and Liza will begin to want a more lasting relationship.

This is a cute film; while not great literature, it was fun to see Marlene Dietrich doing a comedy.  Being, Dietrich, she is still intense, but she also makes the character likeable, if not a trifle naive.  And while Liza is not the brightest bulb in the pack (for example, she has a lot of trouble understanding Mr. Micawber's basic rule for financial happiness: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery."), she has a kind and loyal heart.  Naturally, she also has a magnificent apartment (thanks to production designer Lionel Banks) and spectacular gowns (by Irene). Amusingly, when she needs another apartment, she is easily able to get the one next door.  As New Yorkers, we found that quite funny (though, I have to admit, it was a lot easier to find housing in NYC in 1942 than it is today).

A bit of trivia about the clothing: In this TCM article, we learn that Dietrich injured her ankle very early in the production and was required to wear a cast.  She twisted her ankle attempting to protect the little David James, whom she was holding at the time.  Thus, for most of the film, she is wearing long evening gowns or slacks.  There is a brief glimpse of the magnificent Dietrich legs, but nothing more than that.  But it is a small price to pay to see some of the clothing she gets to model. This brief YouTube Video gives you a picture of the fall that caused the injury and the resulting cast:

Fred MacMurray is also very good as the pediatrician who dislikes children.  Corey McBain is initially hard to figure out.  He's cold and somewhat aloof, but once we meet his ex-wife, Frances (Arline Judge), and find out that his deeper ambition is to be a researcher, his alienation is much more understandable.  His soberness acts as a lovely contrast to Dietrich's exuberance.

But, for us, the standout performance in the film is Aline MacMahon.  She is always so good, sharp but affectionate.  Her regard for Liza is obvious, but not forced or phony. As usual, MacMahon gets some of the best lines in the film, and even without words, she is a riot (watch the clip from the film below to get a look her some of her excellent silent moments.

The film is filled with excellent character moments. Charles Lane as ambulance-chasing lawyer K. K. Miller is at his abrasive best.  Elizabeth Risdon as the child services worker Mrs. Cummings brings some interesting perspectives to what could be just an old-maid villain.  A married, working woman with children, Mrs. Cummings is a caring professional, who understands the yearning for a baby. We found it Interesting that she is "permitted" to work in an era when married women, especially were often banned from jobs. (Though released in 1942, The Lady is Willing was actually filmed in 1941, prior to U.S. involvement in World War II.)

The film also has some aspects that fly in the face of censorship.  When Lawyer Miller arrives with a couple who claim to be baby Corey's parents, Dr. McBain proposes a blood test to determine parentage.  Or, he queries, is the wife afraid that the test will prove her husband is not the father!  Liza's Broadway co-star, Victor, seems to be interested in her, but when McBain comments on Victor's bestowing a kiss on Liza, she remarks that "he kisses everyone".  Could Victor be gay?  We should add that we were impressed with Victor (Roger Clark), who proves to be a true friend to Liza in the end. 

The one drawback to the story was the sub-plot of McBain's ex-wife.  The storyline is contrived and the film would have been much stronger without her.  She felt like she stepped in from another movie; she never quite fit the picture we had of McBain, and her impact could have been compensated for in a more imaginative way. 

We refer you back to the TCM article listed above for a story about Dietrich making a play for MacMurray during the filming (he wasn't interested).  The article also contains a summary of a rather scathing review from The New York Times.  We felt that Mr. Crowther was not seeing the same film we were.   Variety, on the other hand, enjoyed it, as did our group.  We hope you have the opportunity to judge for yourself.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bette Talks to Herself

Two times the Bette Davis equals two times the passion in 1946's A Stolen Life.  The inimitable Ms. Davis plays sisters Katherine and Patricia Bosworth, twins who are identical in appearance, if not in temperment.  We meet would-be artist Kate, on her way to an island off the Massachusetts coast.  Having missed her connection, Kate asks for a lift from Bill Emerson (Glenn Ford).  She is immediately attracted to Bill, a solitary man who loves the quiet island, and who has no real ambitions to live any other life but the one he already has.  They seem an ideal pair until Pat Bosworth enters the picture.  Once Pat realizes that Bill is attracted to Kate, she goes after him with a vengeance.  The result, Bill marries Pat, leaving Kate bereft.

We were all VERY impressed with Bette Davis in this dual role.  She plays the two characters so that the sisters are subtly different.  Patricia is perhaps more the Davis we are used to in films like Jezebel and The Letter - assertive, domineering, in-charge; Kate is more retiring and inward, more like the character Davis played in Now Voyager.  It's easy to tell the sisters apart when they are separated, but Davis is able to make them different as they converse with one another.  She never seems to lose focus of who she is portraying.  And while the costuming by Orry-Kelly gives us slight clues, those differences are also subtle, letting Davis do the work through her acting.

While Glenn Ford is very good as Bill, he does come across as a bit of a twit.  It's clear that his attraction to Patricia is purely sexual. He states that he likes Kate, but that there was never a spark between them like there is between him and Pat.  Yet, it's clear that Pat is his total opposite - where he is unambitious and wants a simple, country life, she is all about the city and excitement.  Why Pat would want to do more than have a brief fling with him is a big question here.  It's clear that she is gone off with her sister's beaus before.  Does she want to marry Bill only because it is clear that Kate is finally in love? One wonders if Pat is interested in keeping her sister uninvolved (and therefore, closer to her) than in stealing her sister's great love.  By marrying Bill, we know that Kate will never involved herself with him again leaving the sisters' relationship status quo.

The only character that is wasted in the film is Dane Clark as the artist Karnock.  At first, it seems he might be the person who will make Kate forget Bill, but he is so eminently disagreeable, that it's hard to warm to him.  Only in one scene, where he encounters Kate posing as Pat, are we allowed to find him even the slightest bit likeable. Unfortunately, the character never goes anywhere, and we were left wondering what the film would have been like if he had actually become involved with Pat. 

On the other hand, Charles Ruggles gives a well-rounded performance as Kate and Pat's guardian, Freddie Linley.  Though he says very little, his understanding of the sisters is obvious.  He affection for Kate is also apparent.  In the end, we discover he really is the only one who truly "knows" them.  A quick nod also to Walter Brennan doing what he does best - being irascible; no one really does it better!

Bette Davis was a producer on the film, as is discussed in this TCM Article, and she had say in the casting. Dennis Morgan was originally considered for the part of Bill, but Davis would not have him in the part.  The studio then suggested Robert Alda, and while she accepted Alda, she really wanted Glenn Ford.  However, Jack Warner didn't want to pay the money for a loan-out from Columbia, until Davis was able to show him a screen test of Ford in the part.  The film is actually a remake of a 1939 German film, starring Elisabeth Bergner (perhaps best known in the US for her role as Rosalind in the 1936 As You Like It). 

Though A Stolen Life was not really admired by The New York TImes when it was released, we think it is a movie that has aged remarkably well.  In this age of digital special effects, you will be amazed at what was possible in a 1940's film.  You will totally believe that the twins are talking with one another.  To give you a taste of what's in store, here is Bette talking to Bette: