Monday, October 27, 2014

Adolphe's on Vacation

New York City District Attorney Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou) is tired.  He needs a vacation badly, and the only way to get one is to go away and not tell anyone his destination.  So, he throws a dart at a map of NY State, and settles on a small upstate town.  He arrives to find the circus is in town, and with it the mystery of murder attempts on the life of star aerialist Josie La Tour (Greta Nissen).  Thus, The Circus Queen Murder (1933) brings Thatcher and his secretary Miss Kelly (Ruthelma Stevens) very far from a restful countryside.

The Night Club Lady was made the previous year, and was intended to be the first in a series of three movies about DA Thatcher Colt.  However, Circus Queen Murder was the only other one that was made.  It's not really clear why, though perhaps the enforcement of the Production Code played a part in it.  Eventually, Thatcher Colt returned in 1942's The Panther's Claw (starring Sidney Blackmer).  This TCM Article goes into greater detail about the films.
None of us was familiar with Ruthelma Stevens (pictured above), who played Miss Kelly, Colt's secretary, confidant, and more-or-less love interest (he can't go on vacation without her...)  She's excellent in the film; in fact, she is the most appealing part OF the film.  She is a strong actress, with an interesting voice and appealing, intelligent face.  She appeared mostly in B films and in small parts in major films (like The Fountainhead and The Scarlet Empress), as well as on Broadway.  She died at age 84 in NYC.  Though Ms. Stevens is the person you most remember, it is not her that is pictured on the poster - that honor goes to Greta Nissen.   The poster makes it appear that Thatcher Colt is involved with Ms. Nissen, which he most definitely is not.

Another notable actor in the film is Donald Cook, who is best known as James Cagney's brother Mike in The Public Enemy. Featured here as Josie's love interest Sebastian, the character comes across as a gentleman, who is gutsy enough to risk his own life to protect his lover.  And though Josie is married, it's really hard to condemn her for loving Sebastian.  Her husband Flandrin (Dwight Frye) is an insane stalker.  (Of course, this IS a precode film...)  We've seen Cook before as one of Barbara Stanwyck's lovers in Baby Face; he's not the strongest actor ever, and while he is good, he is not the character you will best remember from the film.  It's a well known fact, that he was originally cast in the role of Tom Powers, in The Public Enemy, however Cagney so completely blew him off the screen that the parts were reversed.  Though Cook's film career did not go much beyond the 1940s (he made a few film in the 50s),  he had a substantial career on Broadway, appearing in 20 plays, most notably in The Moon is Blue.  He died in 1961, at age 60.

There were several bits in the film that we found quite intriguing.  First was the use of a bulletproof vest!  Though we were unaware of it, bulletproof vests were being developed as early as 1561.  Also, the film establishes quite early that Miss Kelly is quite proficient at reading lips, a talent that will be important to the film action.  Unfortunately, the one bad aspect of the movie was the tendency to telegraph quite early later action: for example, the knife thrower has the vest to protect his target, so we are waiting for it to be used.  So too the film's title also gives away too much information.

The one aspect of in the film that was a bit off-putting were the circus cannibals.  It turns out, they were a much larger feature in the book on which this film is based - in fact, their chief helps Colt investigate the threats against Josie.  We felt they should either have been eliminated or put to better use.   

All in all, though, we enjoyed the film.  And we enjoyed Ms. Stevens enough that we'll be viewing another of her films next time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kay Flies

Kay Francis takes to the air as Janet Steele in Women in the Wind (1939), a film that looks at flying from a woman's point of view.  Janet Steele has been nursing her brother, Bill (Charles Anthony Hughes), an aviator who was injured in an air accident, and requires expensive surgery to save his life.  Janet, a flyer herself, decides to enter an air race to win the funds necessaryfor Bill's surgery.  She approaches Ace Boreman (William Gargan), an arrogant ladies' man (and friend of her brother's), to enlist his support (she needs a plane!).  Of course, they fall in love.  But there is a wrinkle.  It turns out that Ace's Mexican divorce from his wife, Frieda (Sheila Bromley) is not legal in the United States.  And SHE wants his plane as well.

Obviously, we love Kay Francis, and she is (as always) just fine in this picture.  As we've mentioned before, Ms. Francis was tarred with that Box Office Poison list that also affected Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer.  Warner Brothers had tried to buy Ms. Francis out of her contract; when she refused they stuck her in a bunch of unappealing roles.  Women in the Wind was her last film under that WB contract.  (This TCM article goes into greater detail).  But this film is not really all that bad for a B picture - what we lose are the glorious costumes that usually grace Ms. Francis' films.  While Orry-Kelly is listed as providing the gowns, Ms. Francis spends most in work clothing, which very much become her.  And Eve Arden (as Kit Campbell) looks fantastic in the riding pants that she sports for a good part of the film.
This is not a complicated or deep film, but it has the feel of being about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  The characters (especially the women) are so precisely drawn, it makes the movie better than it should have been.  You end up liking many of the characters, and even those that were not likeable are interesting enough that you want to see them again.  Much of this, of course, is the acting.  With strong character actors like Eve Arden, Eddie Foy, Jr (as Denny Corson), and  Victor Jory (as Doc), the ordinary dialog sparkles.  

We especially liked the way the film portrayed the relationship between Janet and Kit; in fact, for the most part, the picture gives us a glowing view of sportsmanship in the aviation race, both among men and women.  There is, of course, the rotten apple of Frieda, but even she comes through in the end.

One odd bit of film editing occurs mid-film.  A mechanic has tinkered with Janet's plane, causing it to leak gas.  This forces Janet to land in the middle of a field, and try to obtain some gas from a local farmer.  As the plane leaks, the editor keeps cutting to the leaking part.  Then, after Janet gets gas and takes to the air a second time, there is a quick cut to the damaged part.  It doesn't seem to be leaking, but still, our immediate reaction was "oh, no, it's going to leak again".  But, the it doesn't.  And Janet's subsequent problems are totally unrelated to her gas line.  And we can't leave out another continuity error.  When Kit's plane crashes, she comes out of it all neat and clean and uninjured, despite the fact that we see the plane burst into flames.  Ms Arden said in her autobiography that, much to her dismay, "the audience howled" at what was supposed to be her big dramatic scene.

One interesting bit of background (from the article cited above) - the character of Denny Corson was based on Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, a flyer who was SUPPOSED to fly from New York City to Long Beach, California, but instead flew to Ireland.  He had asked for permission to fly to Ireland, but it was denied, so he "made a mistake" and went in the wrong direction.  Though Corrigan never admitted to purposefully going against orders, most historians believe he wasn't such an awful pilot that he couldn't see the difference between water and land.

We leave you with a trailer from the film:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Grace Sings to Franchot

Grace Moore was a Broadway performer and Metropolitan Opera star long before she began to make films.  She has been credited with popularizing opera on screen, and was important enough to the film community that she was given equal billing to Maurice Chevalier (which he did NOT endorse.  In fact, it drove him from Hollywood), and was often given over-the-title billing as MISS Grace Moore.  Any film featuring Miss Moore is bound to contain many songs, and at least one operatic number.  Thus, The King Steps Out (1936) gives us Miss Moore (as Elizabeth/Cissy) singing her heart out to Franchot Tone (Emperor Franz Josef)

The plot is fairly simple.  Cissy, the daughter of Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria (Walter Connolly) is a free spirit who would rather be out in the woods than in the palace.  Her older sister Helena (Frieda Inescort) is in love with Captain Palfi (Victor Jory).  But with 6 daughters to marry off, the Duchess Louise (Nana Bryant) and her sister the Empress Sophia (Elisabeth Risdon) have agreed to a match between Helena and Sophia's son, Franz Josef, much to Cissy's disgust.  So, Cissy follows her mother and sister - with her father in tow - to try and stop the wedding.  Of course, given her predilection for peasant clothing, the Emperor mistakes her for a seamstress, and Cissy is not inclined to disoblige him of his error.

While this is not a great film, it is amusing.  It has a pleasant (though unsurprising script), with songs thrown in helter skelter to maximize Miss Moore's talents.  Loosely based on the the true story of Emperor Franz Joseph, who ended up marrying the younger sister of his intended, it feels like Pride and Prejudice meets The Merry Widow.  The film did well financially (though reviews were tepid) - this TCM article will give you more information about the film's history, and the director, Josef von Sternberg.

The biggest complaint we had about the film was that the scenes at the fair went on a little too long.  However, we were all quite taken with the gypsy woman (Eve Southern, an actress whose career extended back to the silent era), who is the smartest person in the film.  She is the only one who  recognizes the Emperor and who realizes that Cissy is in love with him.  Southern's breezy portrayal makes the character a memorable one, 

Grace Moore is approximately 38 in the film (she looks about 30) and is supposed to be playing a 20 year old.  She PLAYS it young, but you aren't deceived for a moment - she's actually several years older than her co-star, Tone.  She's not a bad actress, but she's here because of her magnificent soprano voice - it is that voice which sold the film.  It's interesting that the "ordinary" people, not the intellectuals, are the ones that would have brought in those film revenues.  (Today's producers would hide under a bed rather than risk money on an opera star.)  Miss Moore would only appear on the screen til 1939, but she continued to perform - for the USO during WWII, and for various opera companies.  She died in a plane crash in 1947.
Also in the cast, playing the older sister Helena, is Frieda Inescort.  While Helena at first seems the victim of much woe, she turns out to be quite the witch - she dumps her boyfriend because Franz Josef is cute, is quite nasty to her sister, and really is only interested in Franz Josef because he IS the emperor.  We rather hoped that Captain Palfi caught onto the fact that Helena was no great catch.  Of course, we've seen Ms. Inescort before - she spent much of her career as the second lead or the other woman in films - her aristocratic good looks played against her being a "regular" person.  She did not have an easy life, though. In the 1930's, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  After her husband's suicide in 1961 (they had been together since 1926), her condition worsened.  However, she used her fame to bring the illness to the public's attention, collecting money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society (from her wheelchair).  She died in 1976, at age 74.  
Quick nods to Franchot Tone, who is enjoyable as the Emperor, even if his curly wig is a bit off-putting (he wears a hat quite often, so that helped), and to Elisabeth Risdon as the mother-in-law from hell.  Even without talking, Risdon can give a look that would scare any perspective daughter-in-law.  Take a look for uncredited William Hopper as a soldier and young Gwen Verdon in the ballet troupe. 

 As we go, listen to Grace, as she sings to Franchot.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Scarlett Loves WHO?

Gone with the Wind on a big screen - can it get any better than that?  Thanks to TCM and Fantom Events, we got the opportunity to see this magnificent movie where it deserves to be seen, in a theatre, on a huge screen, surrounded by fellow devotees of Ms. O'Hara (Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler) and Captain Rhett Butler.  We've had a prior discussion about the film, in the context of Olivia de Havilland's superb depiction of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, but it's impossible to talk too much about Gone With the Wind.  Every time you see it, you see something new.  (By the way, my favorite of her many glorious dresses is to the left).

Let's get one thing out of the way.  I love this film (surprise!), but I'm always waiting for the alternate reel wherein Rhett finally figures Scarlett out and doesn't leave.  Sure, we'd lose some great lines, but Rhett frustrates me a lot.  He knows from the get-go that Scarlett is stubborn, that she has a crush on Ashley, and that she doesn't think she loves him.  But at the first sign of moon-face from her, he gets mad.  It also doesn't help that the motivating factor is her weight gain (after all, he was the one that told her "If you don't stop being such a glutton, you'll get as fat as Mammy. Then I'll divorce you.").  In fact, in the novel by Margaret Mitchell, she's already had three children - can one blame her for wanting to stop being a baby-making machine (the poor woman gets pregnant if a man LOOKS at her)?  

The problem is, I like Rhett so much, I just always think he should know better.  It also struck me this time that, by the end of the film, what he wants most is to become Ashley - "I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn't something left in life of charm and grace..."  The very thing he always ridiculed about Ashley is the life that he himself desires.  But, Rhett is a continual source of self-contradiction - he loathes the war, but runs off to fight as the cause is lost; he laughs at polite society, but struggles to join it when his daughter is born, and he claims no ability to love, yet loves Scarlett with a depth it is hard to fathom.
There are a lot of people who don't like Ms. O'Hara, but I'm one of the ones who does like and rather admire her.  Scarlett is someone I want on my side.   I know that, if the chips are down, and I'm one of her "folk", I'll be protected.  Think about her relationship with Melanie: Scarlett claims to disdain Melanie, to want her gone, so there will be a clear path to Ashley.  Yet, she puts herself in danger to protect Melanie when she could easily leave Atlanta in advance of the invasion.  With cannon-fire surrounding her, and no one to support her, Scarlett stays to safely deliver Melanie's baby, then transports Melanie and baby Beau (and Prissy, who anyone else would have left behind) to Tara, where Scarlett becomes responsible for their care and feeding - when there is no food for anyone.  And, when they do have some food, and Melanie is handing it out to every soldier that comes by, Scarlett chides Melanie, but there is no animosity in her comment.  She says it for effect.  Scarlett knows very well that Melanie will not stop.  Let's not forget Scarlett is 19 years old when she is forced to assume responsibility for Tara, and she and Melanie are afraid that Ashley is dead. Certainly, Scarlett is a lot harder in the novel; the film does clean her up a bit.  But all in all, she handles her responsibilities pretty well for a teenager.  Visit A Person in the Dark for yet another fan of the magnificent Ms. O'Hara!
I had a rather amusing realization this viewing (the big screen helped a lot).  Olivia de Havilland knows how to crochet!  In the scene where Melanie, India, Mrs. Meade and Scarlett are waiting for the return of their men from a "political meeting" (translation - a raid on Shanty Town that will have very bad results), Scarlett is embroidering, India is knitting, and Mrs. Meade and Melanie crochet.  First off, the distribution is interesting.   Scarlett is the only one performing a purely decorative craft - there's not much practical use for crewel work except to ornament a home.  While the other three ladies work on projects that are practical.  But while it's not clear if Alicia Rhett and Leona Roberts know what they are doing, Ms. de Havilland clearly does.  In fact, her crocheting speeds as she becomes anxious - the true sign of an experienced handcrafter - the craft acts as a stress reliever.

Obviously, there is a lot of information available on this film.  One interesting take is Gavin Lambert's The Atlantic article "The Making of Gone With the Wind."  We learn that Gable was terrified to break down in front of Melanie, and even threatened to walk off the set rather than cry.  But his respect for Victor Fleming won the day, giving us perhaps the most remarkable scene of a wonderful career.  We also learn that, since only 1,500 extras were available to film the railroad station scene, 1,000 dummies were interspersed among the extras to portray the vastness of the war's damage.   My husband was particularly looking forward to this scene.  It is a stirring moment, displaying all that is now lost, and the endless suffering caused by a pointless war.  Done with the special effects capabilities of 1939, it is nonetheless a breathtaking scene

We leave you with two clips this time - first, the railroad station scene...

And since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, here is Carol Burnett's over-the-top homage to Ms. Scarlett Went with the Wind

Next time, back to our regular discussion.