Friday, November 28, 2014

Ms. Blondell's Sorta Engaged

We were in the mood for a comedy this week, so we selected Kansas City Princess (1934), starring Joan Blondell as Rosie Sturges and Glenda Farrell as her best friend, Marie Callahan.  Though technically this film was released after the Code was being enforced, it has a lot of the earmarks of a pre-code film.  For one thing, our two heroines are clearly on the make for rich husbands, at whatever cost, and they are usually up to hijinks that hint at  the risque.  The movie was filmed in the pre-code era, and originally set for a July release (making it on the borderline of Code enforcement), but Joan Blondell was pregnant (with son Norman S. Powell - the biological child of her first husband, George Barnes, but adopted son of second husband Dick Powell), so the studio opted to wait to release the film until October, after her child's birth.  This TCM article gives a quick overview of the film's history.

The plot is fairly simple.  Rosie is seeing petty gangster Dynamite Carson (Robert Armstrong), much to the disgust of Marie, who thinks Rosie can get a more wealthy husband.  Dynamite presents Rosie with an engagement ring, but Rosie isn't quite sure (thanks to Marie) that she WANTS to be married to Dynamite.  So, she goes out on a date with Jimmy the Dude (Gordon Westcott), who appears to be wealthy, but, it turns out, is an even more petty thief than Dynamite.  Jimmy proceeds to steal Rosie's engagement ring, which forces Rosie and Marie to skip town, rather than tell Dynamite how the ring was stolen.  The girls disguise themselves as Outdoor Girls of America (shades of The Major and the Minor!) to board the train, then manage to get two men to pay their boat fare to Paris, after they get "stranded" on the ship.  However, Dynamite is in hot pursuit, having discovered his ring in Jimmy's possession.

In one of the three films in which they appeared together, Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell make a fun team.  Their chemistry is good, and both can talk at the speed of light - Farrell especially is adept at the rapid dialogue, as noted in the article above.  We were amused at the change in mores from the 1930s - our leads are manicurists, and have opted for that occupation because they are more likely to meet wealthy men (something that we are not as used to in the 21st century.  The nail salon has become the haven for women, and not even wealthy women).  We've noticed this before, primarily in Hands Across the Table, but it is still an interesting cultural phenomena.

Robert Armstrong's Dynamite is not the brightest bulb in the pack.  It never occurs to him that Jimmy stole the ring from Rosie (and he lets Jimmy keep it!).  He blithely assumes Rosie is engaged to him (he never really ASKS her to marry him - he just presents her with a ring, which he shoves on her finger).  The biggest flaw in the character is that he just isn't really all that scary; he's more stupid and obsessed and tenacious.  One rather think that the much smarter Rosie could deflect his interest without a great deal of effort, if she wanted to.
Before we go, a few words on two of the supporting players.  We have Hugh Herbert as Junior Ashcraft, a benign, albeit wealthy idiot who serves as a means to get Marie a wealthy husband.  At least Herbert wasn't clapping his hands all the time (as you can tell, I'm not a fan).  The other is Osgood Perkins as detective Marcel Duryea.  We had never seen Mr. Perkins before, so it was interesting to finally see the father of actor Anthony Perkins.  He's good here, though a bit slimy (but he is supposed to be offputting).  Perhaps we will get to see him again, though he had a very short film career - appearing in only 21 films before he died of a heart attack at age 37. 

We leave you with a scene from the film.  Gotta love the Pre-codes!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ray is Haunted

This week, we revisited one of my favorite movies, the suspenseful The Uninvited (1944). Ray Milland stars as Roderick Fitzgerald, a music critic for a London newspaper who is vacationing on the Cornwall coast with his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey).  Rick and Pam are NOT rich.  They have enough money to get by, and some small savings, but on this fateful day, they encounter a wonderful old house that apparently has not been inhabited for some time.  The house reminds the siblings of their childhood home, the view and seaside location are breathtaking; the Fitzgeralds decide immediately to pool their savings and try to buy the house.

To their surprise and delight, Rick and Pamela find that the owner of Windward House, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), is eager to sell the house at a price they can afford.  However, it is over the loud protests of his young granddaughter,  Stella Meredith (Gail Russell).  The brother and sister take possession of their new home and Rick finds himself becoming involved with the "sleeping beauty" quality that is Stella Meredith.  But before he can move in, Rick must return to London to settle affairs with his employer.  When he returns, he finds Pamela's dog, Bobby, has run away, and Pamela seems tense and withdrawn.  That evening, Rick's first in Windward House, all becomes clear.  The sound of a woman sobbing reverberates through the house.  Only no one is there.

The fabulous thing about this film is that it never denies the existence of ghosts.  It doesn't end by having all the fantastic occurrences explained away by natural phenomena.  The house is haunted; there are ghosts, and while ghosts can be either good or evil, they remain on earth for a reason. And that goodness or evil is a reflection of their human personality, not something that came after death.  It is up to the mortals to determine WHY the ghosts are in the house and try to satisfy them, so both ghost and mortal can at last have peace.  This TCM article goes into more detail on the unique nature of this film.
As the article mentioned above states, by today's standards, this is NOT a scary film - no one gets killed in some particularly gory manner, nor are there long chase scenes by a masked stalker with a chainsaw.  But what there is is a delightfully eerie feeling - enough to put you on edge and keep you there.  Much of this is thanks to the acting, especially the remarkably talented Ray Milland and Gail Russell.  Milland is able to give Rick a controlled panic - he's just invested his life savings in a house that may be uninhabitable, and the girl he loves is dangerously attracted to a house that seems to want to harm her.  And so as Rick, Pamela, and Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) begin to investigate just WHAT causes spirits to stay at Windward House, and why they would want to harm Stella, Milland remains the focal point for the audience.  He is our anchor to reality and our connection to the supernatural; we trust the ghosts are real because HE believes it.

Which brings us to Gail Russell.  Much has been written about her beauty and her sad, short life.  An alcoholic, originating from her severe stage fright (and probably started while filming The Uninvited), she ended up dead at age 36 from malnutrition and liver disease.  (This Los Angeles Times history outlines Ms. Russell's unfortunate life).  But her history should not detract from her performance.  Her Stella is delicate, but determined; innocent yet wise in many things.  She is the glue that binds Rick to Windward, she is the song he composes.  Who can hear "Stella by Starlight" and NOT see Gail Russell's lovely face rise as the inspiration?  She gives Stella a heart that makes you want her to finally live in the house she loves, and find the man of her dreams.  In some senses, she is the soul of The Uninvited.

If Stella is goodness incarnate, then Miss Holloway, as portrayed by Cornelia Otis Skinner is the human link to pure evil.  The dear friend of Stella's mother, Mary Meredith, Miss Holloway hates Mary's daughter with the same passion that she adores Mary.  As the TCM article above mentioned, there is a lot in common between Miss Holloway and Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers, not the least of which is both of their overtly sexual obsession with a long-dead intimate.  Ms. Skinner, a noted stage actress and author, had a very limited screen career - only four films (one silent) and several appearances on television. She's wonderfully spooky here, letting the viewer glimpse the madness that is underneath her calm exterior.

There is another rarely seen actress, Dorothy Stickney as Miss Bird, a resident at the Mary Meredith home.  Though Miss Bird is supposed to be the one who is sick, she seems a lot saner than Miss Holloway!  We'd seen another one of Ms. Stickney's rare film appearances - she appeared as Henry Fonda's obnoxious mother in I Met My Love Again.  Ms Stickney had a very distinct voice, which led to her portraying a number of eccentrics on film and on stage.  She had a long career on Broadway, from her debut in 1926 in The Squall to the mid-1970s, when she appeared in Pippin (assuming the role of Pippin's grandmother after Irene Ryan's sudden death).  Of her many stage roles, two are worth mention here:  in 1928, she played Mollie Malloy in The Front Page and, beginning in 1939, she appeared as Lavinia in the original production of Life with Father.  She was, in fact, in that play for its entire run (til 1947), following it up with a short run, again as Lavinia, in Life with Mother.  Ms. Stickney died in 1998, just shy of her 102nd birthday.
The film was given a well-deserved cinematography nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (it lost to Laura), but interestingly, the song "Stella by Starlight" was not even nominated, nor was the film's score. The songs that were nominated include some standards like "The Trolley Song" (Meet Me in St. Louis), "Long Ago and Far Away" (Cover Girl), "I'll Walk Alone" (Follow the Boys), and (the winner) "Swingin' on a Star" (Going My Way).  Regardless, "Stella by Starlight" became a popular and jazz favorite, performed by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and Miles Davis.

Though it appears that the NY Times' Bosley Crowther was not paying attention during his viewing of the film in 1944, we know you will enjoy it.  We'll leave you with a trailer from this wonderful fillm.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Olivia Loves a Thief

TA. J. Raffles (David Niven) is a young man of society - a well-known cricket player and man about town. Though Raffles has no real income, he lives quite well.  He supports himself with his hobby - in his spare time, he is the notorious Amateur Cracksman, a thief who has been bedeviling the local police.  Thus begins the fourth remake of Raffles (1939).

The film had already been made in 1917 (as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, with John Barrymore), in 1925 (with House Peters) and in 1930 (with Ronald Colman).  We were lucky enough to see some commentary from Robert Osborne, and he mentioned that this version was an almost scene by scene recreation of the Colman film.  Director Sam Wood (who had just come off Gone With the Wind) was too tired to waste effort on a new version, so he just cribbed from the Colman version.  This TCM article goes into a bit more detail.  We hope, at some later date, to view the 1930 Colman film and compare those two films.

Also fresh from Gone With the Wind was Olivia de Havilland, who was assigned to play Gwen Manders, Raffles love interest.  Ms. de Havilland had little interest in the role - it was mere window dressing to Niven's more rakish part (Cary Grant actually pursued the role of Raffles - he even offered to lower his normal salary).  Her disgust at being forced into roles that she viewed as inferior was the impetus for her eventual suit against the studio system.  For more information on this story - and it should be noted that Ms. de Havilland was a leader at great cost to herself in this protest - see this interview at the Academy of Achievement
So, while Olivia doesn't have a whole lot to do here (except be intelligently gorgeous, which is also quite a skill.  Her Gwen is no dummy, and Ms. de Havilland can show you with just the merest glint in the eye what is going in within Gwen's head), David Niven shines.  He is quite dashing as A.J.  Our group found the film quite reminiscent of To Catch a Thief, and were fascinated by Cary Grant's interest in Raffles.  It seemed to us that, while it took nearly 20 years, Mr. Grant DID finally get to play The Amateur Cracksman. 

Many films from the period portray the police as complete dolts.  Not Raffles.  The police inspector MacKenzie, played by Dudley Digges, is a worthy adversary to Raffles, and someone that Raffles respects.  In fact, it is a mutual admiration society - MacKenzie also admires The Amateur Cracksman's skill and daring.  Nevertheless, MacKenzie is determined to put him behind bars. 

There is an attempt on the part of the screenwriter to make Raffles a more attractive - and admirable - character.  At least twice we see him steal in order to help someone else.  In the first scene, he snatches a piece of art, then secretly presents it to a retired (and hard up) actress, so she can collect the reward. This bit of Robin Hood in the character is surely meant to placate the code - we can't quite condemn him when the only thefts we see are those that help a destitute old lady and his future brother-in-law, Bunny Manders (Douglas Watson).
The screenplay is very well done, and there are some well-crafted scenes.  In one instance, Raffles needs to get down to the first floor of Lady Melrose's (Dame May Whitty) home.  However, he knows Inspector MacKenzie is hovering around his door.  His solution, to pretend to put his shoes outside the room, is done in total silence.  It's an effectively done sequence, and David Niven is quite excellent in his execution.  Also fun was Raffles attempt to stash a stolen bracelet in a humidor. Only he doesn't realize that Inspector MacKenzie is a pipe smoker.   And the Inspector has forgotten his tobacco. Finally, there is a wonderful bit where Raffles realizes another thief is in the house. Niven's relish at getting the best of his competition is delightful. 

All in all, a fun film well worth a viewing. We leave you with a clip from the beginning  of Raffles:


Monday, November 3, 2014

Fay's a Lawyer

Sometimes watching a film so firmly set in its own time can be almost painful for a modern audience.  Such is the case with Ann Carver's Profession (1933).  Fay Wray plays Ann Carver, who has married her college sweetheart, "Lightning" Bill Graham (Gene Raymond) after both have worked their way through advance degrees - he as an architect, she as a lawyer.  Though Bill was a football hero in college, the real world places him into an architectural firm, where he gets to do the scutwork for very little money.  Ann has been unable to even find a job.  She's frustrated and Bill is eager to help her find a position.  So, when an evening arises in which he can sing his wife's praises to the head of a law firm, he does so, and Ann takes it from there, providing some advice that results in the firm's winning an important case.  Ann is on her way.

It's at this point that film becomes annoying.  There is no middle of the road for Ann.  As a successful lawyer she is selfish, rude, smug, and an all-around heel.  She becomes the stereotypical career woman - a man-eating viper who cares for nothing but her success.  SHE purchases a large house.  SHE hires many servants (why does a young married couple need a maid, cook, and butler anyway?) - Bill is not consulted.  After all, SHE controls the purse strings.  When she is forced away on business, Bill can't pay the staff - he has no access to HER funds.  All in all, he is humiliated in every way, and Ann, of course, is oblivious to his needs.  HER job comes first, especially since she is the big wage earner.

The biggest problem with the character of Ann is that she is so exaggerated. Her shift from frustrated housewife to power lawyer is dramatic and unrealistic.  This basically nice woman becomes a harridan for no real reason,other than absolute power corrupting absolutely.  It doesn't help that her rise to fame is so unrealistic - within a few weeks of being hired, she is a headline-making, major player in her law firm.   
Of course, this is a precode film, so we have a scene with Ann and Bill snuggling in their big double bed.  There is also Bill's "relationship" with Carole Rogers (Claire Dodd).  The consensus among our group was that there was a brief fling between the two;  however, Bill is ultimately disgusted with Carole's drunkenness and lewdness.  In spite of the affair, it's still hard to work up much sympathy for Ann.  She treats Bill as an appendage - someone to bring her to important work-related dinners - not as a husband.  Appearance is all that matters to her, and when Bill decides a career change will bring him more money, Ann is horrified - what will people think of HER with a "crooner" as a husband? 

We suspect not a lot of attention was paid to Ann Carver's Profession, as it was released the same year as another film starring Ms. Wray - King Kong.  She had already ventured into the land of horror that year (with The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum), but with the popularity of Kong, Ms. Wray became a staple in the genre, and was often called The Queen of Scream. 

Regardless, she had a long career - she appeared in films and on television as late as 1980.  Interestingly, she would marry the screenwriter for Ann Carver's Profession, Robert Riskin, in 1942.  They had two children and were together until his death in 1955.  Fay Wray died in 2004, at the age of 96.  

We'll close with a clip from the 1998 Oscars with Billy Crystal. A tribute to King Kong was part of the entertainment that evening, and Mr. Crystal surprised Fay Wray by introducing her from the audience.  

Oh, and Ruthelma Stevens was barely findable as a party guest.  A shame really...