Friday, April 25, 2014

Joan Meets Her Mom

This Modern Age  (1931) stars a very blonde Joan Crawford as Valentine 'Val' Winters.  Val has been raised by her recently deceased father, who has left her a small income and a very little information about her mother, Diane (Pauline Frederick).  Diane, who now lives in Paris as the mistress of the very married AndrĂ© de Graignon (Albert Conti), has been absent from Val's life for many years (by court order).  De Graignon has set Diane up in a lovely apartment and given her a very comfortable life style.

Curious about her mother, Val journeys to Paris.  She is prepared to dislike the woman her father so abhorred; to her amazement, they love each other immediately.  Diane, determined to find a place for herself in her daughter's life, hides her past (and her present) and invites Val to remain with her in the apartment.  All is well until Val meets Bob Blake, Jr (Neil Hamilton), the son of a fairly snobby Boston family and they fall in love, much to the disdain of Mr. and Mrs. Blake, Sr.  And there is the problem of De Graignon, who is none too happy with the enforced celibacy brought on by Val's presence.

Though the pace of the film is a bit uneven - the middle seems very drawn out, while the ending is rushed and somewhat abrupt - this is an enjoyable movie.  The characters of mother and daughter are well drawn, and Pauline Frederick is a sympathetic figure as the  mother who doesn't want the life she chose for herself to impact her daughter.  Since we never see Val's father, and Val doesn't say much about him, we questioned what she knew about her mother, and what her father was really like.  All we know is what we learn from Diane prior to Val's arrival; we would have liked Val's opinion of him as well.

Joan Crawford is very good as Val.  She is both innocent and intelligent.  You believe that she is completely unaware of her mother's past.  You also believe in her deep affection for this woman who has been absent for most of her life.  

Also quite good is Monroe Owsley as Tony Girard.  For a change, Owsley gets to play a nice guy, and his Tony is a doll.  Yes, he drinks too much, but his genuine affection for Val is apparent.  Though a superficial person, he doesn't have a mean bone in his body.  He wants to love Val, but is so immature that he doesn't know how to love.

Neil Hamilton does a good job making Bob attractive as well.  When we are introduced to his family, it becomes hard to have a lot of regard for Bob, but Hamilton is able to keep you rooting for him.  There is an implication that Bob might have been a bit of a mama's boy - as soon as his parents realize that Bob is seeing someone seriously, they arrive in Paris to check her out.  One suspects they've been doing this to him for some time.  Of course, Boston and Harvard (Bob's alma mater) become synonyms for snobbery in this story.
A quick nod to the always talented Adrian for Crawford's magnificent dresses. Before we go, here is a snippet of the movie from YouTube, in which Val and Diane meet.  Watch Diane's subtle change of expression as she is introduced to her unknown daughter.  And take a look at Crawford's lovely white evening gown:

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Joan B.'s on the Switchboard

I've Got Your Number (1934) is a film about the telephone: repairing them, using them, working with them.  It opens with a fascinating examination of the importance of the telephone in the 1930s - surely dated, but so enlightening.  In an age where we carry our phones with us, to see the phone being demonstrated as a new technology for both good and ill is a revelation.  As a native New Yorker, I also enjoyed the references to the old exchanges that, back in the day, told you the location of the phone (Nowadays, we carry our numbers with us, no matter where we live!)  

The story is a simple one.  Hotel switchboard operator Marie Lawson (Joan Blondell) inadvertently provides information to gangster Nicky (Gordon Westcott) that results in a financial loss for a guest.  Marie is forced to resign when telephone repair man Terry Reilly (Pat O'Brien) determines the security breech was human rather than machine.  Terry assists Marie in finding a new job.  Only problem is, Nicky is planning to use Marie's new position in a financial office to steal some some securities.  

The film is a tad silly, but it is amusing.  Terry and partner Johnny (Allen Jenkins) make telephone repair look like the most fun job in the world.  And while we have some really great actors, the script doesn't give them a whole lot of time to flesh out their characters.  Terry does a complete about-face when he meets Marie - going from rouĂ© to devoted suitor in about ten seconds,though O'Brien does a really good job at making the switch believable.  And Blondell's  Marie come across as very naive.  How can she not know that Nicky is a snake, especially after the incident at her first job?  She's awfully trusting of a man she doesn't seem to like all that much, yet she is obviously, from her banter with O'Brien, very careful of her appearance with men.
Wonderful supporting actors abound:  We've already mentioned Allen Jenkins, who is, as always, a hoot.  We also have Glenda Farrell as Bonnie, aka Madame Frances, a would-be psychic, who's not very good at it and Louise Beavers as her assistant.  And the always wonderful Eugene Pallette as Terry's often frustrated boss, Joe Flood gives a fantastic performance as a man who wants to throttle the devil-may-care Terry, but, when the chips are down, is the first one to come to his defense.  

We were not very familiar with Gordon Wescott.  He made 34 films between 1931 and 1935, but died at the age of 32 from injuries sustained while playing polo. Another interesting bit of trivia - the last scene shows Blondell in bed.  Well, she really WAS confined to her bed - she had just had emergency surgery, and the studio did the scene in Blondell's own bedroom!  The book, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes states that the emergency was actually the result of a botched abortion.

Released in January of 1934, this film just makes it into the pre-code era, and, as a result, it is quite risque - there is much double entendre.  And the scene in which Terry lounges on a couch with Bonnie really needs no explanations.

Orry-Kelly does the film's costumes, and Joan Blondell has some wonderful dresses that no switchboard operator could afford.   The dress with a fur collar is especially attractive.
Before we go, here is a trailer from the film:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Vivien's a Lady

The war is raging in England, and filmmakers rally to do their bit for the war effort.  The results of one of those endeavors is That Hamilton Woman (1941), starring Vivien Leigh as Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Horatio Nelson.  The film was recently shown as part of AFI 100th Anniversary tribute to Vivien Leigh.  Leigh, still basking in her post-Gone With the Wind fame gets top billing here, in this story of passion and devotion to country.  Clearly, the love affair between Nelson and Lady Hamilton becomes an example of England's strength in the face of attack, with tyrant Napoleon standing in for dictator Hitler, and the lovers representing England giving up everything to preserve the nation.  

The story sticks pretty close to history - and juicy history it was.  Told in flashback, this is the story of Emma Hart, the lover of Charles Francis Greville, who arrives in Naples to visit Greville's uncle, the wealthy Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray).  Hamilton is a lover of beauty, in music, in art - and in women.  Unbeknownst to Emma, Hamilton has literally purchased her from his nephew.  Within a few years, Emma, already the darling the English art circle, becomes the wife of Hamilton, as well as his hostess, and a major player in the Naples diplomatic circles.  Enter Horatio Nelson, a young Captain of the fleet.  Emma helps him approach the Queen of Naples for military assistance; afterwhich he departs.  Five years later, he returns; this time, they find themselves deeply in love.  Only problem is, both are married: Nelson's wife, Frances (Gladys Cooper) is at home in England. and quite naturally, she is none too pleased about her husband's involvement with the now notorious Lady Hamilton.  

That the film is attempting to put the past into the context of the present conflict facing England is quite apparent.  As mentioned above, the use of the term "dictator" in connection with Napoleon is a clear pointer to Adolf Hitler.  Nelson, of course, stands in for all the men who would give their lives for the nation. while Emma stands in the for the women who will lose all they love in the fighting.  The film even brings in some of the pictures done of Emma Hamilton:  the picture on the left is used as an emblem in the film.  Next to it is the original George Romney painting of the real Lady Emma.  
The film caused some real consternation among some representatives in Washington, DC, who were eager to stay out of the war.  They even went so far as to subpoena Alexander Korda.  His appearance was to be on December 17, 1941, but the events of December 7th eliminated the need for his visit.  This TCM Article goes into more on the history of the film.

This was the only film that  the always wonderful (and so spectacularly beautiful) Vivien Leigh, and her equally talented spouse, Laurence Olivier did together during the period of their marriage.  The film is also filled with splendid supporting actors.  Gladys Cooper is excellent as Frances Nelson.  The scene in which she sits down to knit as she is forced to converse with her rival, Emma, is great.  Obviously, Ms. Cooper was a knitter - and her needles do as much of the talking as does her voice.  Also good are Sara Allgood as Emma's lower-class mother, Mrs Cadogan-Lyon and Henry Wilcoxon as Captain Hardy.

As a knitter myself, I was interested to see the use of crafts to further our understanding of the main female characters.  As mentioned before, Frances knits.  Knitting, in the era, would have been a middle-class craft, used to create usable clothing for the members of the family.  Knitting was no hobby here; it was a necessary skill to keep the family warm.  Emma however, embroiders.  Embroidery was an upper-class craft, used to create pieces of art.  It was a hobby - an occupation for a woman who had no real work.  The lower-class Emma has risen to the position of having no need to work, while Frances remains the middle-class housewife, despite her husband's rise in status.

I close with a trailer for the film:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Joan Joins an Army

In 1931, a legendary film partnership began.  Joan Crawford and Clark Gable appeared together for the first time in Laughing Sinners, a pre-code romance.  We meet Ivy 'Bunny' Stevens (Crawford) in love - with Howard 'Howdy' Palmer (Neil Hamilton), a traveling salesman.  It's quite clear that the two are lovers, and that Howdy has promised to marry Ivy (or Bunny, as he calls her).  But while marriage IS on his mind, it's not marriage with her.  He has decided to marry the boss' daughter, and coward that he is, he runs away, leaving her a note about his intentions.  Some time later, Ivy tries to commit suicide, but is stopped by Carl Loomis (Clark Gable).  Carl, a Salvation Army worker, encourages her to leave her current life, and become a part of his world.  Giving to others, he feels, is what helped him to recover from the pains of a world that nearly destroyed him.  Within a short time, Ivy too has become part of the Salvation Army.  But then Howdy returns.

That this film is from the pre-code era is instantly apparent.  Ivy and Howdy are obviously having an affair; and a one-night stand is neither condoned nor condemned.  And all that is required for forgiveness to happen is honesty on the part of the parties involved, and a true attempt at repentance.  Because of Gable's forthrightness, Carl is shown as sympathetic and forgiving - not preachy.  He truly believes you can always restart your life, and his talks center on living  life squarely.  God is not brought into the equation.  Relatively speaking, the part of Carl is a small one, and we would have liked to have seen more of him.  Gable gets third billing in the film - behind Neil Hamilton, and Crawford (whose name is above the title). By the time he films Sporting Blood that same year, he has begun to be listed first; by the following year, his name is routinely above the title.

The Salvation Army is portrayed positively; and again, there is little emphasis on the religious aspects of the organization.  Rather, it is shown as a means of helping people get through difficult times in their lives. The Great Depression, which was still severely impacting the lives of Americans in 1931 is a major focus of the film.  Helping your fellow man is the means of both ending the Depression, and finding inner salvation.

As always, much of our conversation focused on Joan Crawford. She is so exquisitely  beautiful in this film, and her portrayal of Ivy is spot on.  Crawford manages to touch gently on the dilemma faced by her character, and to make her likeable and sympathetic.   Though her reformation requires that Ivy quit her job, she is never condemned for working in what appears to be a speakeasy. 
The portrait painted of the traveling salesmen in the film, however, shows them as carousing boozers.  Again, the pre-code aspects of the film are obvious - the purchase of alcohol is still illegal in 1931, yet the salesmen buy it with easy.  And since they seem to travel in bunches, they egg one another into bad behavior.

Laughing Sinners has a short, but tightly written script, based on Kenyon Nicholson's play, Torch Song, which opened on Broadway on 27 August 1930. Guy Kibbee here reprises the role of Cass Wheeler which he originated in that production, the only member of the cast to come over to the film (and Mayo Methot, who would become the wife of Humphrey Bogart, starred as Ivy).  Interestingly, Johnny Mack Brown was originally cast as Carl, but bad previews caused them to reshoot the part with Gable (for more information, see this TCM article).

As we depart, here is a trailer from the film:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Shane Comes Back

For those of you who read Entertainment Weekly, you might have had the pleasure recently to read an excerpt of Mark Harris' new book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.  The book focuses on five directors: John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Huston, and William Wyler, all of whom served in the military during WWII, and all of whom were involved in film-making within the armed services.  Their war experiences, not surprisingly, colored their post-war films, and this book looks in detail at their work during and after the war.   In conjunction with the book's release, AFI Silver featured a screening of the 1953 Shane, one of director George Steven's post-war films.  

Shane features an all-star cast: Alan Ladd as the title character, a gunfighter who is trying to escape his past; Van Heflin as Joe Starrett, Jean Arthur  as his wife Marian Starrett, and Brandon de Wilde as Joey Starrett, a family trying to create a home on the frontier; and Jack Palance (here listed as Walter Jack Palance) as Jack Wilson, the gunfighter who is trying to drive them off their land. It's a fairly simple film: the Starett family is trying to build a farm on the prairie, much to the disgust of Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) a cattleman who claims rights to the whole valley.  The lives of the Staretts and all the settlers have been made miserable as Ryker attempts to run them off.  Enter the loner, Shane, who attempts to restart his life by working for Joe as a handyman.  But given the environment, Shane soon finds that the only way he can help the family he has come to love is to return to his old occupation.
Interestingly, Ladd and Heflin were not the first choices for Shane and Joe.  Montgomery Clift and William Holden were the first choice of director Stevens for the roles of Shane and Starrett.  When they were unavailable, Stevens selected Ladd and Heflin who were under contract to Paramount. This article from TCM discusses some of the studio's attitudes towards the film.

Stevens was able to coax Jean Arthur (with whom he had worked on The More the Merrier) out of retirement for this, her final film role.  Ms. Arthur is quite wonderful as Marian, a strong woman who loves her husband, but who is also attracted to the stranger in their midst.  The scene in which she tries to decide what dress to wear - all but her wedding dress are work clothes - as Shane talks to Joey outside, is gently amusing and poignant.  

Shane is shot in Technicolor, and while it's not a widescreen film, it has an exquisite use of color and vistas.  The film emphasizes the size of the country through the use of widescreen shots.  This serves to elaborate on the greed of Ryker, who desires so much land in an area that is so vast it surely could hold a few more people.  Yet Ryker is given time to explain his need for the land.  In fact, all of the characters are allowed an opportunity to explain their feelings about the range dispute, leaving us, the audience, to decide who is in the right.
And there are quite a few characters: Elisha Cook, Jr., as Stonewall Torrey, a former Confederate soldier with a bad temper and a deep thirst; Ben Johnson as Chris Calloway, a ranch hand for Ryker who starts the film as Shane's adversary, but who ends as his friend; Edgar Buchanan as Fred Lewis, another of the settlers who fears the effects of Ryker's wrath.  We also have two familiar female faces in this group: Nancy Culp (Mrs. Howells) and Ellen Corby (Liz Torrey) have brief moments as settlers' wives.

Ultimately, though, Shane is a love story between a grown man and a little boy, and Brandon de Wilde as the hero-worshiping Joey turns in a wonderful performance.  There is a real rapport between him and Ladd, and their chemistry gives the film its strength.  Sadly, after a career in which he appeared in films such as The Member of the Wedding, All Fall Down, and Hud, de Wilde died in a traffic accident at the age of 30.

We leave you with a clip from Shane, in which the title character demonstrates the proper use of a revolver to young Joey.  One thing to notice is the loudness of the gunfire - director Stevens purposely made the gunshots extra loud: "a gun is a tool," Shane tells us.  But in a sense, it is a tool that destroys lives.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Everyone loathes Kirk

Perhaps the most interesting film to examine Hollywood is The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).  Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a would-be studio executive, who is broke and has successfully alienated everyone who might possibly have assisted him in a comeback.  Jonathan is brilliant, he is inspirational, but he is also the biggest creep you could ever have the misfortune to meet.  As Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) asks former friends  Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), and James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) to consider being part of Jonathan's next production, we are treated to three mini-movies, which reveal their particular relationships with Jonathan. 

Told in flashback, we already know that Jonathan has world has collapsed.  But what we don't know is why these three renowned people - an Oscar winning director, a highly praised leading lady, and a Pulitzer Prize winning author - despise Jonathan.  Slowly, we learn that Jonathan is completely obsessed with his own vision, and he will use his friends' strengths - and weaknesses - to get what he wants.  But we also discover that each of the three became who they are because of Jonathan.

Fred is a would-be director unable to get a job.  He is meek, unassuming, and almost passive.  Jonathan even takes the initiative to propose marriage to Fred's girl FOR Fred.  But once Jonathan steals Fred's pet project,  Fred learns to fight for what he wants.  He becomes a power in Hollywood, and a success in his personal life.
Georgia, the daughter of a famed Shakespearean actor - and noted drunk - is herself a drunk, who thinks nothing of sleeping around to amuse herself.  She is, by her own confession, a lousy actress, and she has no ambitions.  She both hates and idolizes her dead father, and has hidden herself away from even the possibility of success, until Jonathan enters her life.

James Lee is a college professor in Virginia, living quietly with his amorous wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame).  It has taken him seven years to complete his first book, primarily because Rosemary won't let him work. This story is perhaps the most hard to deal with of the three.  In order to allow James Lee time to work, Jonathan involves Rosemary with film Lothario Victor 'Gaucho' Ribero (Gilbert Rowland), leading to both their deaths.  Left to himself, James Lee becomes a successful writer, but at what cost? Is the death of Rosemary worth the success he achieves?  Or, is love and companionship more important than success?
Director Vincente Minnelli carefully weaves in nods to real Hollywood in this fictional tale.  It's very apparent that the unseen George Lorrison (voiced by Louis Calhern) is modeled on John Barrymore; and that Georgia is loosely based on Diana Barrymore. Also, the filming of a horror film involving cat men is a nod to the 1942 film Cat People.  But also alluded to, according to this article from SUNY Albany are such notable filmmakers as David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Val Lewton, and William Faulkner. TCM provides a great deal of information on this film, including the fact that Clark Gable was asked to play Jonathan (he turned it down).  Certainly, it would have been a very different role - Gable was much older (perhaps too old to play the younger Jonathan), and was also too likeable.  Is it possible to loathe Clark Gable?

This is a film with an amazing cast, both of leads and of extras.  Kirk Douglas is electrifying as Jonathan.  He conveys the small things as well as the big ones - his dislike, but love for his father; his admiration for Georgia's father; his fear of loving and being loved.  Barry Sullivan, an actor who is usually not high on my list, is excellent as well.  And Gloria Grahame as the modern day Scarlett O'Hara, Rosemary Bartlow, is stunning.  (Her line, "You have a dirty mind, James Lee, I'm happy to say" is priceless.)  Did Rosemary cheat on her husband? We'll never know, because Grahame paints such a beautiful, multidimensional portrait.  And watch for bit parts from people like Barbara Billingsley and Ned Glass.  This "Behind the Camera" from TCM discusses Glass' role in the film; Glass was a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist, and this film began his problems.

Finally, also from TCM, a look at the critical reception of the film in their Critic's Corner.  The film won five Oscars (from six nominations), as well as receiving accolades from the major critics. 

Before we go, a clip from the film in which Ned Glass as the costumer for "Doom of the Cat Men" demonstrates how NOT to dress a monster: