Monday, December 21, 2015

Joan Finds Religion

A wealthy woman decides she has found religion in Susan and God (1940).  Joan Crawford stars as Susan Trexel, the estranged wife of Barrie Trexel (Fredric March).  Susan has been in England for several months, and as the action of the film opens, has returned to America, accompanied by her mentor, Lady Millicent Wigstaff (Constance Collier), the founder of Susan's new obsession.  While Susan's friends are not amused by her ardent proselytizing, they like her a lot more than they like her husband, a drunk who can be rather unpleasant in his cups.  They plot to keep the two apart as long as possible, to avoid the inevitable scene.  But, when Barrie and Susan finally do meet up, they agree to reconciliation of sorts, primarily for the sake of their daughter, Blossom (Rita Quigley).  Susan has one proviso - if Barrie takes another drink, she gets a divorce.

We are big fans of Crawford, and she does not disappoint in the film.  Susan's obsessive personality is very reminiscent of two portrayals that were years off - the over-the-top mother in Mildred Pierce and the maniacal homemaker in Harriet Craig. Crawford purposefully makes Susan annoying, with a patronizing voice and attitude that make you want to throttle her.  The minute we meet her, we understand her friends' mixed reaction to her return - she's unable to do anything without making everyone else a party to her interest. 

Crawford was stepping into some big shoes in this character - on Broadway (the play by Rachel Crothers opened in October of 1937), the role of Susan was played by Gertrude Lawrence.  Added to that, MGM had purchased the play for Norma Shearer (who is reputed to have turned it down due to her reluctance to play the mother of a teenager), and later considered Greer Garson (who, the year before had played her breakthrough role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips) for the part (briefly noted in the AFI Catalog).
Frederic March, usually a very powerful actor, plays Barrie as a very weak man.  The slightest pressure results in his again hitting the bottle.  It's hard to understand what Barrie and Susan ever saw in one another, because they are so totally different and so unkind to one another.  It sometimes feels that Barrie is still married to Susan so he has an excuse to drink.

Without giving too much away, we were disappointed with the story line, which we felt really needed a lot of tweeking.  The ending was too off-center, and felt as though it came out of nowhere.   The screenwriter is Anita Loos, no stranger to comedy, or to satire, but the film doesn't really continue the satirical tone that allegedly made the play popular, though this TCM article maintains that some felt the film improved on the play. Without comparison, it's hard to say, but we felt that the satire was severely muted by the film's conclusion.
The film is rich, however, in supporting players:  John Carroll in an exceedingly small part as Clyde Rochester, Nigel Bruce as 'Hutchie', Bruce Cabot as Michael, a very young Gloria De Haven as Enid, Blossom's rival for the affections of a boy and Rita Hayworth as Hutchie's young bride, Leonara.  But the person who really shines is Ruth Hussey as Charlotte, probably the only decent human being among Susan's cadre of friends.  Hussey is a longtime favorite - especially as Ray Milland's sister Pamela in The Uninvited  (one of my personal favorite films, and perhaps the best ghost story ever put to film - we can argue between that and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but I digress).  She really never seemed to get the lead parts (which is a shame) - the preceding year, she had appeared for what seemed an instant as the over-efficient Miss Watts in The Women. She started in films in 1937, had the lead in a few "B" movies like Bedside Manner (1945), and eventually moved over to television, where she appeared in shows like Marcus Welby, M.D. (which starred her H.M. Pulham, Esq. co-star Robert Young) and The Jimmy Stewart Show (featuring her love interest in The Philadelphia Story).  Married for 60 years (and the mother of 3 children), she also performed on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s (including the lead in State of the Union).  She died in 2002, aged 93.

While not the best of Crawford's film, Susan and God is rich in excellent performances.  Here is a trailer to get you acquainted:

Monday, December 14, 2015

Ann Snares William

We selected an excellent pre-code film for this week's discussion - Double Harness (1933) (Femme aux gardénias in France), starring Ann Harding  and William Powell.

The marriage of Valerie Colby (Lucile Browne) and Dennis Moore (George Meeker) leads Joan Colby (Ann Harding) to seek a spouse for herself.  Though she claims not to love him, Joan selects wealthy playboy John Fletcher (William Powell), despite the fact that he pays no attention to his family's business (to the consternation of Joan's father,  Colonel Sam Colby (Henry Stephenson)) and had been carrying on a very open affair with Monica Page (Lilian Bond).  Since John claims he'll never marry, Joan concocts a plan - have her father walk in on them when she and John are in a compromising position in John's apartment.  But there is a problem - Joan has fallen in love with John, and his suggestion of a marriage of convenience to placate her father is not really what Joan had in mind for her future. 

Our reference to the French title is purposeful, because the gardenia plays a major role in the film, symbolizing the relationship of Joan and John. The gardenia is Joan's favorite flower, and a corsage or bouquet telegraphs important moments in their lives. The film was based on the novel Double Harness by Anthony Hope (of The Prisoner of Zenda fame) and a play of the same name by Edward Poor Montgomery.   Elegant costumes were provided by Walter Plunkett - we were especially impressed with a fur embellished dress worn by Ms. Harding.
Ann Harding brings a matter-of-factness to Joan's pursuit of John which precludes disliking her, even when we believe her only motivations are selfish.  Harding makes Joan something of a businesswoman - she sees potential in John, and in return for their marriage, she'll be his helpmeet.  After her realization that she, in fact, loves John deeply, Harding makes Joan warmer and more sympathetic.  But never does she make her a doormat - Joan is strong and smart - she never allows the viewer to believe she is otherwise.

William Powell approaches John in much the same way he would later play Nick Charles - he has humor, but is a casual man, seemingly more concerned with his pleasures than anything else.  But like Nick, he has depth.  Though at first, he doesn't know how to do anything but play, he is taught by Joan that there is a joy in accomplishing something outside of a nightclub.  Powell's scenes with the two women in his life - Joan and Monica - are wonderful.  His eyes always let us know how he feels, no matter what his lips are saying.  Would he marry Joan eventually if he hadn't been tricked? We think so.
Neither of the other women in the film are particularly likable.  Of course, we aren't supposed to like Monica, but Joan's sister Valerie, as portrayed by Lucile Browne, is a selfish bubblehead, who milks her sister for money after running up a debt of $1,000 (nearly $18,000 in today's dollars) for clothing and doo-dads.  In revenge for her sister denying her more money, Valerie tries to break up Joan's marriage.  Browne does a decent job with the character - she doesn't try to make her attractive; our dislike for Valerie was powerful.  Browne appeared in 45 films and shorts between 1930 and 1950, mostly in small and/or uncredited roles. She primarily was a homemaker from 1938 on, after her marriage to William James Flavin (who also left acting to teach).  17 days after his death in 1976, the grief-stricken Lucile died at the age of 69.

While the New York Times reviewer was not particularly taken with this film, fellow blogger at agreed with us that this is a film well worth your time.  Essentially lost for years (these TCM articles and notes from the AFI catalog  describe the history behind the film's disappearance), the film (along with five other Merian C. Cooper films) were aired on TCM and released under their TCM Vault logo in 2007.  When the film was restored, a scene that had been cut - Joan emerging from a bedroom in lounging pajamas, as John awaits her return - was reinserted.  Unfortunately, the film is out of print on DVD again (though still being shown on occasion on TCM).  We leave you with clip of Joan (in her gardenias), beginning her seduction of John.  


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Gumshoe Lee, R.N.

The Nurse's Secret (1941), based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, (Miss Pinkerton) is a remake of two prior films: Miss Pinkerton (1932) (which we'd already seen) and While the Patient Sleeps (1935).  The plot of this film is identical to that of Miss Pinkerton -  a young man is found dead of a gunshot wound in his room.  Is it murder, suicide, or an accident? Police inspector Tom Patten (Regis Toomey) figures this case is the one that can get him promoted.  When the doctor of the woman who found the victim, his aunt and insurance beneficiary Miss Juliet Mitchell (Clara Blandick), needs a nurse, Patten suggests his girlfriend, Ruth Adams, R.N.  (Lee Patrick).  Though annoyed at Patten for his constant cancellation of their dates, Ruth is thrilled to be a female Sherlock Holmes.  However, someone is wandering around the house, and whoever it is may be a murderer.  

Miss Pinkerton was a much more lighthearted effort than The Nurse's Secret.  Ms. Patrick makes Ruth far more serious than Joan Blondell's Miss Adams, and while we liked Lee Patrick, we missed Joan Blondell's sassy attitude.  This is a plot that can get very convoluted, and the humor from the first iteration deflected some of the confusion. Early in The Nurse's Secret, we even get a reference to the first film, when Patten (responding to Ruth's comment about being a lady Sherlock Holmes) replies "Or Miss Pinkerton."

What this film does offer is a panoply of wonderful character people.  First and foremost is Ms. Patrick, who spent most of her career as second lead and in character parts.  As this TCM article points out,  the biggest surprise here is that Ms. Patrick gets to carry the film, and she does an excellent job.  Born in 1901, Lee Patrick has 110 film and television credits (and 26 Broadway plays) to her name.  She started her career in films in 1929, and continued until 1965 when she retired to become a painter.  She was lured back to films once more, however - in 1975 she reprised the role of Effie from The Maltese Falcon in the spoof The Black Bird.  Looking at a list of her film gives one pause - you remember her character, but sometimes forget it was her - even with her chirpy voice, she was a chameleon who changed to fit the part she played.  When you realize that the same person who played Mrs. Biederhof in Mildred Pierce also played Doris Upson in Auntie Mame, it's almost surprising.  Married to the same man from 1937 until her death in 1982, Ms. Patrick was a talent that we sometimes forget (and shouldn't), but should NEVER ignore.

The film also contains performances from some interesting character people, most notably Clara Blandick, best known for playing Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz. With over 100 film credits, Ms. Blandick spent much of her career playing crotchety old ladies, as she does here.  But she was also a noted stage actress, appearing in such Broadway plays as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman and The Enchanted Cottage (as Mrs. Minnett, the role that would go to Mildred Natwick in the film version).  Following her retirement in 1951, Ms. Blandick was quite ill.  Finally, wracked with pain, she committed suicide in 1962, at age 85.

While we think Miss Pinkerton is the better film, this one is not bad, especially if you are more interested in a serious take on the material.  We have a trailer to get you started:

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The New Dick Powell

The poster to the left says it all.  Murder, My Sweet (1944), which was one of the films on the TCM Cruise, was a new beginning in the career of Dick Powell.  He'd spent the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in such films as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, but with this movie he changed the trajectory of his career.   Powell was approaching his 40s, and a middle aged juvenile was a hard sell.  By taking on the part of hard-nosed detective Philip Marlowe, Powell would become a film noir leading man.

A poolside midnight showing of Murder, My Sweet capped day four of the cruise.  Eddie Mueller of the Film Noir Foundation provided the introduction (Mr. Mueller was also the host of the 2015 Summer of Darkness on TCM).  Based on the book Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, the studio found it necessary to change the name, as audiences thought they were going into a musical comedy (the star was Dick Powell, after all).  And, while it completely altered the career of star Powell, it also was the swan song for Anne Shirley, who retired at the end of the film.  (For more on Ms. Shirley, see our recent post on Anne of Green Gables, as well as this TCM article).
Told in flashback by Marlowe, his eyes completely bandaged, the fairly complicated story begins with Detective Marlowe alone in his office.  A man arrives - Moose Malone (Mike Mazurki) matches his nickname - he is huge and not too bright, but he is in love, and his girlfriend, Velma Valento has disappeared while Moose was in prison.  He wants Marlowe to find her. Then, Marlowe is approached to by Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) help him pay ransom for stolen jewels.  That doesn't go well, and at the drop, Marlowe catches a glimpse of a woman, who will also show up at his office when he gets back from the "drop".  That woman is Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), and the jewels were stolen from her stepmother.  As the story unfolds, these seemingly unrelated events begin to merge into one big case, as Marlowe is knocked around, kidnapped, and drugged.

Released three years earlier than The Lady in the Lake, this film has a similar feel in the point-of-view references.  Where The Lady in the Lake rarely lets you see leading man Robert Montgomery (we only see him in mirrors), Murder, My Sweet makes it clear that what we are seeing is Marlowe's story, with blurred effects and blackouts as he is injured or intoxicated. It's a very powerful effect, making the story more intense and engaging.
When the film was released, Dick Powell had just hit his 40th birthday, and he looked it.  Type-cast as a musical comedy actor, Powell wanted to expand his roles.  He bought his release from Warner Brothers, and signed a contract with RKO, on the proviso that his first role would be a dramatic one.  This film ended Powell's career in musicals (though he would continue in occasional comedic roles, including The Reformer and the Redhead with his third wife, June Allyson.  He'd also been married to Joan Blondell).  Powell also began to branch out to work behind the scenes - as a producer on TV's Four Star Playhouse and The Dick Powell Theatre, and as a director of films such as Woman on the Run and The Conqueror.  It was on this last film that Powell was most like exposed to the radiation that contributed in his death from lung cancer at age 58.  Filmed in Utah, the crew members were onsite at the time of a nearby nuclear test.  Susan Hayward, John Wayne, Ted de Corsia, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz were also affected. 

Let's not ignore the wonderful Claire Trevor as Mrs. Helen Grayle. Her languid delivery is perfect for a woman seemingly more interested in drinking than jewelry or intrigue.  You KNOW she is up to something, but until the end, it's not really clear WHAT she is planning.  Trevor was no stranger to Noir she'd already appeared in Crossroads (1942) when she was cast in our film - she has often been called the Queen of Film Noir, notably appearing in such renowned noirs as Born to Kill (1947) and Key Largo (1948), winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the latter.  Married three times, Trevor had one child, Charles, who was killed in a plane crash.  That same year, her husband died of a brain tumor.  For the most part, she stopped acting in the mid 1960s, but in 1982, she appeared in the movie Kiss Me Goodbye, and subsequently did several TV episodes.  She died in April of 2000 at age 90.

The AFI database notes that Ann Dvorak was at one point considered for the role of Ann Grayle.   The film would be remade under it's original title in 1975, with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe (it had already been made as a The Falcon Takes Over in 1942).

Trevor,  Powell and Mike Mazurki would reprise their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre version, with June DuPrez voicing Ann.  Even a year later in the radio play, host Irving Pitchel comments that "in answer to the proverb that a leopard cannot change its spots, we bring you tonight a gentleman who turns his back on many years of light and frothy roles by which he climbed to stardom and takes the part of a ruthless, hard-as-nails detective... He's Dick Powell...."  Such was the impact of Powell's career change.  As I go, I leave you with the trailer to Murder, My Sweet:

Monday, November 30, 2015

Bette Loves a Druggist

This week, we returned to the pre-code period, and early to an Bette Davis effort (back when she was blonde) with The Big Shakedown (1934).  Bette plays Norma Nelson, a clerk in the neighborhood pharmacy run by her fiancé, chemist Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell).  Jimmy is an easygoing sort, who runs his store more as a local gathering place than as a business.  He's not able to afford for he and Norma to marry, and he is being threatened by a large pharmacy chain that wants to buy him out for peanuts.  Enter Dutch Barnes (Richardo Cortez), a bootlegger who is finding it hard to pedal his wares now that Prohibition is over.  Dutch has a brainstorm - hire Jimmy to pirate PearlyDent toothpaste; Dutch will then sell the identical, but more cheaply made product for less money.  Norma is furious when Jimmy agrees to the scheme, but Jimmy doesn't see the problems (he's making it, after all. He's not SELLING it). Things get complicated, however, when Dutch decides to branch out, first into cosmetics, but then into pharmaceuticals.  And by then, Jimmy can't get out.
The strength of Bette Davis' personality is a real plus in this film.  Charles Farrell's Jimmy is so lackluster that Davis dominant personality gives the film the power that it needs.  In this TCM article, the reviewer laments that Davis as the good girl is wasted, but we think not.  Without the character's innate integrity and willingness to stand up for what is right, the picture would flounder.  You believe that Davis is able to disregard Jimmy AND the mobsters.

One of the wiser choices of the writers is to begin with a fairly inane crime (counterfeiting toothpaste), provide it with some humor (a group of fairly dumb gangsters - including Allen Jenkins - taste testing the product), but then build up to the true crimes: blackmarket drugs, murder, and the destruction of a company.  
Besides Davis, we're treated to two of our favorites - Glenda Farrell as Lilly Duran, Dutch's mistress, and Ricardo Cortez.  Farrell here gets to play both the ditsy blonde and the wronged woman.  Where at first you think that Lily is rather stupid, you quickly discover she's quite smart and observant.  She's also the wrong person to cross, to her misfortune.
Cortez provides a villain who is smart, disarmingly charming, and deadly.  He's seductive, a human cobra sucking in anyone who peers too deeply into his eyes.   Dutch knows how to gauge people's weaknesses, but ultimately his reach exceeds his grasp.  Our group has a fondness for Cortez, an actor who, unfortunately, is not well remembered today.  Born Jacob Krantz in New York City, he started in silents, with studio executives billing him as a Latin lover (to get in on the Rudolph Valentino craze).  While that worked before pictures spoke, sound was a give-away that Cortez, with his Lower East Side accent, was not a Latino.  So, while his roles changed, his popularity did not.  He played more character parts; often the villain, though sometimes a good guy (see Ten Cents a Dance; he's quite good!) He even played Perry Mason at one point (The Case of the Black Cat, 1936).  He appeared in over 100 films, and directed 7.  By the mid 1940s, he was finding parts hard to get, so he "retired" and became a successful stockbroker (though he did appear in two films in the 1950s, and even was in an episode of Bonanza!  Cortez died in 1977 at the age of 76. 

That this is a pre-code film is apparent, even though it came out as the Code was going into closer effect.  A murderer is left unpunished, and our lead character (while he does have to pay a price for his deeds) really doesn't suffer all that much in the long-run.  Fellow blogger at disliked the film; New York Times, however, rather liked it. While this is not great literature (and drug counterfeiting plot notwithstanding, it surely is NOT The Third Man), we think it is worth a look.  The trailer below will give you a taste. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tyrone Finds the True Meaning of Life

This year's TCM Cruise presented a number of films with Tyrone Power (which is never a hardship for me); not surprisingly, I saw them all.  The third night of the cruise featured The Razor's Edge (1946), based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel, and introduced by Alex Trebek and Robert Osborne, both huge fans of this excellent rendition.  (For those of you who liked the Bill Murray remake, sorry - I didn't care for it, and neither did the evening's hosts).

The story focuses on Larry Darrell (Power), He has physically survived the First World War, but is tormented by the death of a friend, who died saving Larry's life on the eve of the armistice.  Why, Larry wonders, should he live, when this man is dead, and what can he do with his life to make up for that death?  Larry's fiance, Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) is sympathetic, and agrees that Larry should travel for a while, to try and find the answers to his questions.  But when, a year later, Larry is still determined to continue his quest, Isabel balks - she is not willing to live as an itinerant, with a husband who has no ambitions to anything but the life of a nomad.  So, they separate, only to be reunited years later, when both their lives - and the lives of their friends and relatives - have drastically changed.
This is a complex film, following the lives of a number of central characters over a period of nearly 15 years, all of whom are in some way related to Larry and Isabel.  The characters are real - with faults and flaws.  We admire Larry, but would find him impossible to live with.  We sympathize with Isabel, but gasp at her machinations.  It's a film of greys - there are almost no black and whites.

Elliot Templeton (Clifton Webb) is a prime example of a "grey" character.  Wealthy, selfish, and somewhat arrogant, Elliot is also generous and intrinsically good.  Late in the film, a priest characterizes Elliot as "a good man. His defects were on the surface, but he was generous of heart ...and kindly toward his fellow creatures."  That he is basically good is reflected in the fact that our narrator, Maugham (Herbert Marshall), actually likes Elliot (also calling him "kind and generous"), even though he feels that Elliot " has no friends, only acquaintances."  Elliot's wealth has allowed him to live his life in Europe, hobnobbing with the wealthy and noble, and to look with aghast at his much loved sister, Louisa (Lucile Watson), who has chosen to spend her life in the Midwest.  But, when his niece and nephew-in-law lose all their money in the Stock Market crash, it is Elliot who takes them in, and supports them and their children until they can get on their feet.  Webb paints a picture of a man whom you like in spite of yourself; he allows us to the see the inner Elliot.
Anne Baxter won her Academy Award for playing Sophie MacDonald, a loving wife and mother whose life is shattered after an automobile accident.  Other actresses were considered for the part (Susan Hayward, Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Anabel Shaw, Nancy Guild, and Bonita Granville, according to Ms. Baxter), but it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it.  The character of Sophie floats in and out of the story, as she does in the lives of the other characters.  Sophie's alcoholism becomes a major focus of the film, and it is Baxter's seering portrait of Sophie's problem that more than likely cinched the award for her.   While we sympathize with Sophie, Baxter is careful to make her unappealing in the latter half of the film - again, she is painted in grey tones.  And her alcoholism is not something that just appears because of the accident - early on, Sophie tells us that her husband Bob (Frank Latimore) doesn't like her to drink because of what it does to her.   Of course, Joseph Breen tried to get the alcoholism eliminated from the film - Darrel Zanuck refused to take it out, as essential to the story (for more on this and other casting issues see these AFI notes.)

Gene Tierney was not the first choice for Isabel.  Both Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Haviland were considered, as was Maureen O'Hara.  In her autobiography, 'Tis Herself, Ms O'Hara recalls that the deal was all but completedThere was one proviso, however: producer Darrell Zanuck told her to keep quiet about her casting.  She didn't - she told her friend Linda Darnell - who was in a relationship with Zanuck at that point, unbeknownst to Ms. O'Hara - and Zanuck fired her later that day for blabbing.  Regardless of the fact she was not the first choice, Ms. Tierney shines (she was nominated for an Oscar - losing to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce) as Isabel, and creates a character of dimension and layers.  As hideous as some of her actions are, even narrator Maugham cannot dislike her, nor in a sense can we do more than shake our heads at her selfishness.  According to this TCM article, Tyrone Power (newly back from his service in World War II), developed on crush on her.  She privately let him know that, though divorced from Oleg Cassini, she was seeing someone else - future president John Kennedy.  Though Tierney loved JFK deeply, it was not too be.  Kennedy was already looking towards his future in politics, and men married to divorcees just didn't get to be president in the 1940s.
Gray Maturin (John Payne) is the man who has loved Isabel for years, and who ends up married to her when Isabel is unwilling to wait for Larry.  It's interesting that his name is "Gray", because he is perhaps the only non-gray character in the film.  Gray is, in fact, the only really "good" person we meet.  He loves Isabel unquestioningly and he likes Larry, even though Larry is the competition.  It is Gray who has to interact with Sophie on the most critical day of her life - Payne gives us a man who is caring, but unable to do more than just sympathize.  Payne works hard to make Gray a complex, but not weak character;  he mostly succeeds, as we care about Gray and understand how deeply honorable he is. 

One other character of note is that of Miss Keith (played by Elsa Lanchester).  As the private secretary of the Princess Novemali, the part is tiny - at one point, we see her in the background of the action, but finally get to meet her at the film's end.  Like Gray, she is someone who is deeply good.  Though Lanchester only has this one brief scene with Tyrone Power, you will remember her.  Her Miss Keith is a woman of integrity in a world of mere surface.

In the discussion prior to the film, Robert Osborne cited one scene in the film that he thought one of the most beautiful on film.  You can see it below, as Isabel tries to seduce Larry, to keep him from going away again. A magnificent setting, and two of filmdom's most attractive people - this scene does shine.  

We'll be returning to more films from the festival in coming weeks (along with our regular conversations).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Dawn Becomes Anne

All of the members of our group remember with fondness reading the book Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (in fact, I reread the story last year, and found it as wonderful as I had as a child).  This week, we took a look at the 1934 film verson of the novel.  

Siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Helen Westley and O.P. Heggie), own a farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada.  Neither are young and Marilla worries that the farm is too much for Matthew to manage alone.  So, she decides to foster an orphan boy who can help with the work.  They are both surprised when the orphan who arrives is a girl - Anne Shirley (played by Anne Shirley - she officially changed her screen name from Dawn O'Day with this film).  Anne (Ann with an "E" as she insists) is a talkative and imaginative young thing, and Matthew is immediately taken with her.  Though Marilla is at first resistant to the idea of a girl child, she too becomes fond of Anne, and Anne stays on to help Marilla in the house.  The film recounts the "adventures" of Anne Shirley as she grows up on Green Gables. 

There are some differences between the book and the film, as is to be expected.  The character of Mrs. Rachel Lynde merges with Diana's mother, Mrs. Barry (the Anne of the book has misunderstandings with both of them, so this is not an unlikely union.  The part in this film was played by Sara Haden).  The novel ends with Matthew's death, and Anne's return to Green Gables (and in the novel, Gilbert Bythe is studying to teach, as Anne does).  Finally, in  the book, there is no animosity between Marilla and the Bythe family.  If there is one change to the book that irked me (this was my favorite book growing up), it was the film's alteration of Marilla.  While sometimes stern, Marilla is the epitome of fairness.  The film's Marilla, while generally an excellent role model for the growing child, has a tendency towards pettiness, which is just not necessary to carry the story forward.  Anne's own antipathy for Gilbert (based on the incident portrayed in this film, where he calls her "Carrots") is really all that is needed.  This TCM article quotes a very favorable New York Times review, which lauded the film's faithfulness to the novel, but points out that author Montgomery found the film "entirely different" from her conceptualization.  Regardless, the film does one very important thing right - it captures the spirit of Anne Shirley. 
Helen Westley started her film career the year of this film (by the end of 1934, she had 6 film credits to her name.  With Anne of Green Gables opening for Thanksgiving, this was final film of that inaugural year.)  By 1942, the year she died, she had appeared in 38 films, including Banjo on My Knee and Adam Had Four Sons (which we had previously discussed).  Westley, who primarily played cantankerous old women on screen, had a notable stage career prior to and during her tenure in Hollywood.  She appeared in 53 Broadway plays from 1915 through 1939 (including the stage version of The Primrose Path - the filmed version had Queenie Vassar in Ms. Westley's part.) 

Dawn O'Day's new name was a publicity stunt concocted by RKO, but Ms. Shirley opted to continue with her new name as her career flourished.  (See this article from the AFI article for more information).  She would revisit the role of Anne Shirley in Anne of Windy Poplars (1940), but within 4 years of that film, Ms. Shirley retired, following her marriage to her second husband, Adrian Scott.  (She had previously been married to John Payne; they had one child together).  After the union with Scott ended, Ms. Shirley married again, this time to Charles Lederer, a marriage that lasted from 1949 until his death in 1976.  Ms. Shirley died at the age of 75 in 1993.
Tom Brown's (Gilbert Blythe) career started in the silent era (when he was 11 years old) and continued, into talking films and television, until 1979.  He was a regular on the long-running soap General Hospital (appearing as Al Weeks), and had a recurring part (Ed O'Connor) on Gunsmoke.  He died in 1990.

A few small bits of trivia:  both Bonita Granville and Ann Miller appear in small parts (as school girls.  If you blink, you will miss them).  More obvious is June Preston as the little Bluett child (she actually gets a mention in the credits!).  She's not really remembered today as a film actress - she did a few Our Gang films in the 1930's, but is listed in all of her 15 films as some variation of "little girl".  However, Preston had a second career as an adult:   she was a internationally known soprano with the Metropolitan Opera's touring company, later doing recitals in major venues all over the world.

We will leave you with this introduction to Anne Shirley, and also mention that PBS did a remarkable series on Anne of Green Gables and some of the subsequent books (that remained very true to Ms. Montgomery's novels), with Megan Follows as Anne (she is, in fact, nearly perfect in my humble view) and Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla.  Regardless, this version is excellent, and Ms. Shirley is a joy as Anne.  We highly recommend it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Barbara Gambles

Gambling Lady (1934) is an engaging film, which stars Barbara Stanwyck as Jennifer "Lady" Lee.  When her father, Mike (Robert Barrat) kills himself in despair over his debts to a gambling syndicate, Lady seeks employment in the one occupation she knows - gambling.  Lady, like her father, is scrupulously honest, and takes a job with the syndicate on the proviso that they will run an honest game.  When she discovers they have lied to her (and have placed someone into the game who is systematically cheating), she resigns and begins working on her own.  While playing at a society party, she meets Garry Madison (Joel McCrea); they fall in love and he proposes marriage, to the concern of his father, Peter Madison (C. Aubrey Smith).  But Peter, a gambler himself who knew and admired Mike Lee, comes to realize that Lady's love for Gerry is true, and consents to the marriage.  However, the course of true love hits road bumps - the return of Garry's former girlfriend Sheila Aiken (Claire Dodd) and Garry's jealousy of Lady's friend Charlie Lang (Pat O'Brien).

This is a good, fast-moving film, with a lot of story packed into 66 minutes.  Stanwyck, as always, is excellent as Lady Lee, and her rapport with Joel McCrea (in their first of 6 films together) is evident. Particularly notable are two scenes: the first one has Lady playing cards with her rival Sheila, to Sheila's misfortune; the second immediately follows, and shows Garry and Lady frolicking in their bed as Garry tries to convince Lady to return Sheila's losses (this is, after all, a precode film). It's obvious in this second scene why Stanwyck and McCrea became a screen couple. When we viewed Banjo on My Knee several months ago (their second film together) we discussed their screen history.  For more information on McCrea himself, please visit our blog post on Rockabye.   The one criticism we have of his character in Gambling Lady is his jealousy towards Charlie - he should know his wife better.  She is the soul of honesty; how could he even THINK that she would cheat on him?
We like Pat O'Brien, but he is somewhat wasted in the film  - his screen time is small, and there are times when one wonders why Lady would pick Garry over Charlie (Garry can be quite petulant at times, while Charlie is always in Lady's corner).  But, O'Brien has the acting chops to stand toe to toe with Stanwyck, and that is important here - we HAVE to understand Lady's loyalty to Charlie, even though he doesn't always play an honest game.  And O'Brien has an inner integrity that makes his character almost admirable.

This is a film that is loaded with excellent character portrayals.  C. Aubrey Smith's Peter is one of them.  A man of honor, who loves his son and grows to love and even admire Lady, Smith gives us a memorable performance. A versatile actor, who could play sweet (as he does here) or vile (see No More Orchids for one of his more repugnant characters.)  Smith began his living as a professional cricketer, playing professionally from 1882-1890, and highly regarded as a bowler.  When he came to Hollywood, he continued to play, forming the Hollywood Cricket Club, with fellow actors David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Nigel Bruce, Leslie Howard, and Boris Karloff.  His acting career began in London - he, in fact, was the lead in The Prisoner of Zenda (returning to the story in the 1937 film version, in which he played the wise Colonel Zapt).  He worked in silent films in England, then ventured to Hollywood, where he became the unofficial head of the "Hollywood Raj," or British film colony.  In 1938 he was appointed a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, and was knighted in 1944.  Married to Isabelle Wood from 1896 until his death in 1948, Smith was an actor of note, appearing in such classics as The Four Feathers (1939), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and Rebecca (1940).  His final film, Little Women (1949) was released after his death from pneumonia.

Claire Dodd is also quite entertaining as the evil Sheila Aiken; as mentioned above, her gambling scene with Stanwyck is one to see - two pros matching wits (Stanwyck wins, but Dodd gives her a run for her money).  We discussed her career in some detail when we saw her in Lawyer Man (1933).  This New York Times review was quite complementary - and justifiably so - of Ms. Dodd in the film.  Fellow blogger at Immortal Ephemera also singled out Ms. Dodd for praise.

As discussed in this TCM article, Stanwyck had some momentary trouble with director Archie Mayo when he tried to pinch her.  Not surprisingly, she handled the situation quickly and firmly (and he didn't do it to her again).

In 1949. Stanwyck would revisit the theme of gambling in The Lady Gambles, but the two films are in no way similar (the 1949 film is very much a social drama about gambling addiction).   We'll leave you with the trailer from Gambling Lady, and a hearty recommendation to give it a try: 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Eva Marie Loses a Glove

In my last post, I mentioned there would be a hiatus on the blog as one of the members was going on vacation.  That member was me, and I was thrilled to spend 5 days onboard the Disney Magic on this year's Turner Classic Movies Cruise.  Though I've cruised before, I'd never attended a themed event, nor have I had the opportunity to attend any of the TCM festivals.  So, it was with a mix of anticipation and excitement that we arrived at the cruise.  It was, I can honestly say, well beyond my wildest dreams.  We had a ball, and if I have one regret, it's that I didn't have a time turner, so I could do EVERYTHING.  The cruise is so chock-full of events, it's hard to pick just one in a given time period.

For the most part, I attended as many of the interviews as I could squeeze in; but there was still time for films, and over the next few weeks, I'll intersperse our group watching with some comments on films that I viewed during the cruise.  We'll start with our day one film - On the Waterfront (1954).  Eva Marie Saint, a guest on the cruise, provided some comments, along with the always knowledgeable Robert Osborne.
Watching a film in a public venue is always a more magical experience; but it can also be a problematic one.  One "viewer" of the film, we are sure, attended ONLY so he could issue a loud "BOO" when Elia Kazan's name appeared on the screen.  I'm aware that Kazan notoriously "named names" during his examination by the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee), and while I deeply regret his actions, I also know I wasn't there (I wasn't even born yet), so I have no idea how I would have responded to the pressure placed on Mr. Kazan in 1952.  Other people "named names" - Budd Schulberg, Sterling Hayden, and Lee J. Cobb for example; yet they are not vilified the way Kazan is (It could be said that there was no need to condemn Sterling Hayden - he condemned - and punished - himself for years because he was "a stoolie").  But Kazan has become the poster boy for those who need to find someone to blame for this shameful period in America.  That someone would try to ruin this great film by "showing off" his superiority was the only down note to the screening.
One scene that was discussed during the comment section was the "Glove scene" (which I've attached below).  Asked if the scene was scripted or improvised, Ms. Saint talked about the rehearsals between herself and Mr. Brando.  In one of their sessions, she dropped the glove, and Mr. Brando began to play with it, much as he does here.  When Mr. Kazan arrived to discuss the rehearsal process with them, they showed him this little improvised bit, and he said to include it in the filmed version.  

Another scene discussed by Ms. Saint and Mr. Osborne was this, perhaps the most famous one from the film.  The scene was supposed to have a back projection as the cab sped through the City, however, it couldn't be arranged, so instead, Venetian blinds were installed to shut off the back from view.  Like Mr. Osborne, I've been looking for a cab with Venetian blinds my whole life (and never found one).  This TCM article also discusses that scene. You can also see a clip from it below.

Before we go, a few factoids about On the Waterfront.  In 1954, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor (Brando), Actress (Saint),  Director (Kazan, who also won the Director's Guild Award), Screenplay (Schulberg), Cinematography (Boris Kaufmann), Black and White Art-Set Direction, and Editing).  Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, AND Rod Steiger ALL received nominations for Best Supporting Actor (the award went to Edmond O'Brien for The Barefoot Contessa), and Leonard Bernstein was nominated for his score (with the award going to Dimitri Tiomkin for The High and the Mighty).  The New York Times review called it "moviemaking of a rare and high order".  It was #19 on the AFI's list of Greatest Films of All Time,  and #3 on the "100 Years, 100 Quotes" list (for You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.")  On the 25 Greatest Scores List, it placed #22, #23 on the list of the 50 Greatest Heroes, and #36 on the "Most Inspiring Films" list. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry.  

If you've not seen On the Waterfront, you should, if only to see the birth of a new form of film acting.  You'll also see performances that still shine, even after over 60 years.

We'll be back soon with more from the Cruise, and more from our weekly discussions.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ronald Loves Caroline

We return to the films of Ronald Colman with the romantic comedy, My Life with Caroline (1941).  Caroline Bliss Mason (Anna Lee) is very much a woman who, when she is not near the man she loves, loves the man she is near (with apologies to E.Y. Harburg).  So, while she is on a trip to an Idaho ski lodge with her father (Charles Winninger), she announces that she has discovered her "true love" in Paco Del Valle (Gilbert Roland), a South American millionaire.  Mr. Bliss, being no fool, cables Caroline's husband, publisher Anthony Mason (Ronald Colman), who immediately flies to meet his straying spouse in Idaho.  Anthony been through this before - and as he waits to clear up Caroline's latest mess, he recalls the last time she found her "true love", and her relationship with artist Paul Martindale (Reginald Gardiner).

Told in flashback, the film is primarily the story of Paul and Caroline and Anthony, as Caroline holds her lover off temporarily while she attempts to tell her husband that she loves another.  Perhaps Caroline's one saving grace as a character is that it doesn't appear that she has cheated on her husband in the physical sense (though there is obviously an awful lot of cheating going on in her head). Normally, I wouldn't just refer immediately to a film review, but upon reading New York Times review. we were all struck by how on the mark it is:
"Things have come to a pretty pass, certainly, when Ronald Colman, that old debonair dog, has to work to hold onto his lady as laboriously as he does in RKO's My Life With Caroline. . . And such an unimportant fluff the lady is, too—such an obvious nincompoop! Time was when Mr. Colman wouldn't have given her a "how'dya do," let alone make himself silly for an hour and a quarter chasing after her. Well, that only leads to this conclusion: either Mr. Colman is slipping or his writers are".
Nincompoop is the perfect word for Caroline, and it is hard to envision why any man would put up with her nonsense.  And WHY would one want to give up Ronald Colman for Reginald Gardiner, who is probably one of the prissiest human beings in film? 

We can't really blame Ronald Colman, except for picking the film, as he is good as Anthony, with just the right amount of humor and tolerance for the part.  Though not entirely a comedy, his talents in the arena were better served in Talk of the Town later that same year.  That, far more than this, demonstrated his light touch.  Here, he seems miscast; a better script would have helped.  As discussed in this TCM article, Colman is just too sophisticated and too mature to be interested in such a flibbertigibbet as Caroline.  Regardless, it was a film Colman and director Lewis Milestone very much wanted to do.

Which brings us to Anna Lee.  Though listed in the credits as being introduced to film, Ms. Lee had actually already appeared in 10 films (beginning her film career in 1932), though the roles were either minor or supporting parts.  Later that same year, she would return to a second lead status, but this time in a film that would better utilize her talents - How Green Was My Valley, in which she played Bronwyn, the bride of oldest Morgan son.  Lee, who was born Joan Boniface Winnifrith in Kent, England, had a long and successful career, segueing almost seamlessly from film to television, and ending her career playing Lila Quartermaine, first on the soap opera Port Charles, then playing the same character on General Hospital (performing from a wheelchair after an automobile accident paralyzed her from the waist down).  She died in 2004, aged 91, the year after her a new production staff at General Hospital refused to renew her contract.
Which brings us to Reginald Gardiner - we wondered if, unlike Paco, Paul was under the delusion that Caroline was wealthy (or would get some kind of alimony from her husband.  Fat chance, since she is this close to cheating on Anthony).  We know from her father that any money that Caroline has is from her quite generous husband.  It's rather hard to like Paul, and Gardiner, who really is a rather stuffy actor, doesn't make it any easier.  In a sense, he is playing the same part he played in Christmas in Connecticut.  He wasn't all that likable there either. 

Both Eva Gabor and Miriam Hopkins were considered for Caroline (see this article from the AFI Catalog); after Anna Lee was cast, she also received a long-term contract.  The film, written by Milestone as Palm Beach Limited and based on a French farce, was the first outing for Colman's production company with Milestone and William Hawks, United Producers Corp.  
While this isn't a film we would recommend, it has some interesting moments.  And it does have Ronald Colman.  We'll leave you with this scene from the beginning of the film.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

To Boldly Go...

I don't usually blog about 21st century films  (though, I do go to see them!) - they just aren't old enough for me.  But, I'm going to make an exception this week for Star Trek (2009).  We were treated to a concert of the score, which the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Emil de Cou, performed to the film.  It was a genuine thrill.  And, given there is an awful lot of flying going on, I decided this was an appropriate contribution to the CMBA "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon".

Let's start by confessing that I am a Trekker; I'm a Classic Trek girl, and in the Kirk vs. Picard content, Kirk wins - I suspect it is always your first Captain of the Enterprise that keeps your heart. But, I've seen every episode of every show, all the movies (and the animated series).  I mourned Spock's death in The Wrath of Khan; rejoiced when he returned in The Search for Spock, and cried when Kirk died in Generations.  The release of a new film, with a new Kirk caused some trepidation, but I eagerly saw this film in the theatres the first weekend it opened in 2009 (I was in Hawaii for a business trip, and was hunting for a theatre from the minute I arrived).  At the time, I was concerned at a new actor taking on the role of my beloved James Tiberius Kirk, but Leonard Nimoy was appearing as Spock, and I had faith he would not appear in a film that trashed the long heritage of Gene Roddenberry.

Ultimately, Chris Pine won me over.  He's not the Kirk of the series - nor should he be, as this is a Kirk who's early life is much different than the character played by William Shatner.  This Kirk's life was disrupted by a change in the time continuum - his life inexorably altered by the death of the father who should have been with him until adulthood.  And though all of our favorite characters end up at Starfleet, their lives are all made drastically different by the intrusion of a Romulan ship from the future, which appears, wreaks havoc for a short time, then disappears for 25 years.
There is no question that it is hard to remake/redo/reboot (pick your favorite verb) a beloved series.  Even when the original cast returns, can the magic in the bottle be found to again return the fans to the joy the felt with the original?  The first Star Trek movie (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979) was not an unqualified success, and it took several years for Star Trek: The Next Generation to find its feet.  This film manages to succeed, and also to reference the iconic series that preceded it.  One scene that still elicits applause from fans is Kirk's first view of the Enterprise.  The scene references a similar scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture: the ship hovers in space; it is moving and exciting, even though there is almost no movement.  The ship symbolizes the missions that will follow, but also the missions that we recall from the Enterprise's "past" - the series and movies that have occurred on this iconic craft.  These are, after all, the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise, not of one particular character.
I'm particularly fond of Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. This film provides us with some backstory regarding their meeting, and retains some of the history that we learned in the original television show - that McCoy was somewhat older than the rest of the recruits, that he's not really taken with space travel, but has just gone through a messy divorce, and Star Fleet seems like his only alternative.  DeForest Kelley, the original Bones, gave us a curmudgeon that Urban gleefully honors in his portrayal - it is an homage to Kelley; at the same time Urban provides his vision of the character. It was also a pleasure to me that Majel Barrett's voice was again used for the computer - Ms. Barrett has supplied a voice or appeared in nearly every Star Trek iteration, until her death in 2008.

Also, the film finally provides Uhura (Zoe Saldana) with a given name.  Fans chose the name Nyota many years ago (similarly, Sulu was called Hikaru - a name that was adopted officially in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when Captain Sulu announces himself).  The film also bring back to us the much beloved character of Spock, both as his young self (Zachary Quinto) and as the older Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  Both are excellent, playing a role that is essentially the same person, but are individuals whose lives have created two distinct personalities.  Around the time the film came out, the two actors did an advertisement for a car that is absolutely hysterical, and can be found on YouTube

I started this post with a mention of the event which brought us to this particular screening.  I'm going to close with this video production of the score of the film. There is nothing to compare with seeing a film on a big screen, except having a live orchestra playing the music as the film rolls by.  And the majesty of space travel is well served in this filming of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future.
This post represents my contribution to the Planes, Trains and Automobiles 2015 blogathon of the Classic Movie Blog Association.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Barbara's Lost

Barbara Stanwyck returns as another literary heroine in A Lost Lady (1934).  Marian Ormsby (Stanwyck) is happily celebrating her wedding - she's supposed to marry the next day - when her fiance, Ned Montgomery (Phillip Reed) is gunned down by the angry husband of a woman with whom Ned has been carrying on an affair.  Stunned into a stupor, Marian is convinced to go away to recuperate.  While out for a walk, she falls down an incline, breaking her leg.  She's rescued by Daniel Forrester (Frank Morgan), a wealthy lawyer who is immediately fascinated by this lost lady.  As she begins to heal from her physical and emotional wounds, he proposes marriage.  Though she doesn't love him, she consents to be his wife, and finds happiness for a time in the safety of his love.  But not for long - for other men are attracted to her: Neil Herbert (Lyle Talbot), Dan's protege and Frank Ellinger (Ricardo Cortez), an aviator who crashes - literally - into her life.

The film is based on the novel by Willa Cather, though the link between this story and Cather's novel is thin at best.  In their review of the film, the New York Times called the novel of A Lost Lady "a genuine American masterpiece," with a film that is "mediocre... by comparison".  But according to A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, other reviewers were  not nearly so kind, and neither was Cather - who didn't want any further adaptations of her work.  In fact, her will banned any further film adaptations of her works (along with publications of her letters.  The ban on both was recently lifted by the Willa Cather Trust, as outlined in this New York Times report.)  For someone who's work so focused on the American frontier, and the people who built it, seeing Cather's work made into a mere romantic triangle on rich people from the east must have been very hard for the author, and her fans, to stomach.  While it is undeniably hard to successfully adapt a masterpiece of literature to the screen; script-wise, this adaptation doesn't even come close (and more to the point, doesn't really try).  For more on Cather, visit Willa Cather: The Road is All from American Masters. 

If you go into the film acknowledging that it's not Cather's book, it does have some enjoyable moments, mostly because of the excellent acting of the four leads.  Stanwyck is, as always, exceptional as Marian, a woman who seems unable to select the right man.  And Ricardo Cortez is wonderful; he gives Frank Ellison a subtle shadiness that is perfect for the character, and makes Frank a mirror image of the deceased Ned Montgomery - both men who are more interested in conquest than in love.  Originally, the cast would have included Kay Francis and John Eldredge (see this AFI article.  Eldredge's part is not specified.  Probably, he was being considered for one of the roles that eventually went to Cortez or Talbot).
Lyle Talbot is excellent as Neil, the honorable man who loves Marian from afar, because of his regard for Daniel.  Talbot provides a moral compass in the film, both in his relationship with the Forresters, and in his dislike of the relationship between Marian and Frank. Talbot had a remarkably long and noteworthy career, beginning almost with talkies (he had a lovely voice, in my opinion), and continuing until 1987 (he died at age 94, in 1996).  When film work - primarily as the lead in B movies - began to elude him, he transitioned gracefully to television, appearing on episodes of shows such as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (where he had a recurring part), Bonanza, and Newhart.  His film career was notable: we've already seen him in She Had to Say Yes (1933), Mandalay (1934), and No More Orchids (1934).  His life was recently detailed by his daughter, Margaret Talbot, in her book The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century.

Finally, there is Frank Morgan who shines as Daniel Forrester.  It's hard to make a character who is kind and gentle come across as anything but weak, but Morgan does it.  He gives us a characterization that is pure in heart, but deep in his love for Marian and his desire to build a life with her.  According to this TCM article, he was made up to look far older than his 44 years (though he never really looked young!)  In a few more years, Morgan would be cast in the film that would probably gift him with eternal fame - The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he appeared in over 100 films, and was impressive in all of them. 

We will leave you with a trailer from the film, where you can glimpse some of the lovely gowns designed by Orry-Kelly.  While not a great film, it's certainly worth your time for the excellent acting that is on display; for plot, read the book instead: