Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Judy's Over the Rainbow - and so is Elphaba

This will probably be one of my odder blog posts, but the coincidence compels me to discuss a recent screening of the much loved The Wizard of Oz along with the Broadway play Wicked.  We literally saw the two within one week of each other, so we arrived at the play with a totally clear picture of the 1939 classic in our heads.

I'm sure you are all familiar with the plot of The Wizard of Oz.  It's a film I grew up with - it was aired once a year (usually around Thanksgiving), and though my father was not a fan of musicals, the decks were cleared so my brother and I could watch it.  I recall being terrified when the image of the Wicked Witch of the West replaced that of Auntie Em in the giant crystal ball.  Interestingly, at a discussion of the film I attended a few months ago, the speaker said that he found that women/girls were frightened by the crystal ball, while men/boys related their fear of the flying monkeys!  We watched on a black and white TV set, and, since I grew up on 1930s and 1940s b&w movies, it was a revelation to me when, seeing it on a big screen for the very first time, Dorothy opened the door to COLOR.  I was able to live the experience that must have greeted most viewers in 1939!
Then there is Wicked, the story of Oz BEFORE Dorothy's arrival, loosely based on the book by Gregory Maguire.  It tells the story of Oz from the point of view of the woman who will become the Wicked Witch of the West.  Born green - the result of her mother's imbibing a "green elixir," which she acquired from the soon-to-be Wizard of Oz - the child Elphaba Thropp is despised by her parents.  Nevertheless, she is a loving woman, devoted to her crippled sister, Nessarose, and eager to please her father (her mother died giving birth to Nessarose).  She accompanies her sister to Shiz University, where the headmistress, Madame Morrible, discovers that it is Elphaba who has the talent to be a witch, not the pouty Nessarose.  And while Elphaba is eager to work with the Wizard of Oz, she is horrified to discover that he is merely a talentless bigot, who is systematically destroying Oz by turning the inhabitants against one another.  He has started by enslaving the talking animals of Oz.  Why? Because a common enemy unites people.  The Wizard intends to make Elphaba a tool in his further efforts to subjugate Oz, but Elphaba will have none of it, and by "defying gravity", she escapes to begin an organized resistance against his rule.
I had seen Wicked several years ago, when Idina Menzel was still playing Elphaba. This time, Elphaba was enacted by Caroline Bowman, an amazing singer and actress.  The role of Glinda was ably filled by Kara Lindsay, who gave Elphaba's description of Galinda's personality ("blonde"...) a whole new meaning (and no, that is not a misspellling.  Galinda changes her name to Glinda).  All in all, it's a wonderful cast in an amazing production, and if you find yourself in New York, or with access to a traveling version of the play, try to see it.

What the play does is tell us how the various characters came to be - from the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda, and the Wizard, to the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow.  We even find out why those damned shoes are so important to the Wicked Witch.  We never actually SEE Dorothy, though we find out she is there (and that Elphaba finds her and her dog "Dodo" REALLY annoying).  Nevertheless, Dorothy is a key ingredient to the success of the story.  As the story ends, you will begin to see how tightly Wicked and The Wizard of Oz link to one another. 

So let's end this post with a little music - first, the ever wonderful Judy Garland sings Over the Rainbow

And the ladies from Wicked sing about their friendship in For Good.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Barbara Suspects Errol

Five months after the opening of The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the next Warner Brothers pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Peter Godfrey was released.  Cry Wolf (1947) stars Stanwyck as Sandra Marshall Demarest, a newly married woman who arrives at the home of her recently deceased husband to find a mystery.  Sandra's marriage to James Demarest (Richard Basehart) was a secret one, much to the consternation of his guardian, Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn).  Sandra is quite open that the marriage was one of convenience for her and for Jim - the marriage would allowed Jim to gain access to his inheritance. In exchange, Jim promised Sandra (his close friend from school) a stipend to support her graduate work (she is studying for a doctorate in geology) and a divorce in 6 months.  But, on his visit home to notify his family of his wedding, Jim died suddenly.  Now Sandra has arrived at his family home to find out exactly what happened to her young husband.

Stanwyck is really impressive in the film.  Her athleticism stands her in good stead as she rides horses, journeys through the house in a dumbwaiter, drops from ceilings, and climbs fences in search of the truth (TCM calls her a midlife Nancy Drew!).  She also has a magnificent wardrobe, designed by her favorite costumer, Edith Head.  (Ms. Stanwyck ALWAYS looked amazing in riding clothes!  Take a look at her 20 years later in The Big Valley!)  But, while we are told Sandra is a PhD student in geology, that point is never pursued.  She could be anyone, not a highly intelligent graduate student.  We wished that her training had been actually used to solve the mystery.

As to Errol Flynn, if you are expecting him to be a romantic swashbucker, think again.  His Mark Caldwell is a stiff, unattractive liar.  And Flynn is not afraid to play him as such; it has been said that he ultimately relished the role BECAUSE it was so different from his usual fare, finally giving him a chance to play a more dramatic part.  That the film attempts to tack on a romantic ending is a betrayal of the work of both actors.  It's clear that Mark is genuinely suspicious of Sandra from the outset, and she doesn't like or trust him one little bit.  He's also quite the male chauvinist: “Next time you hear some odd noise in the night, just follow the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes."  Why an educated woman would want him is beyond our ken.  As a result, the ending of the film seems like it belonged to a different movie.

Quite frankly, a lot of the film doesn't make sense.  Mark claims to be protecting Jim and sister Julie (Geraldine Brooks, in her first film role) from [spoiler] the family's hereditary strain of insanity, but he does little to actually CARE for them.  He just keeps them hidden.  And, when Sandra arrives, claiming to be Jim's bride (regardless of her claim to a marriage of convenience), Mark makes no inquiries to determine if Sandra might also be bringing an heir to the Demarest fortune within her.  One would think he would confide in her, regardless of his fears that the family skeleton could have an impact on the political career of his brother. 

Much of the suspense focuses on just WHAT is going on in Mark's laboratory.  He is not called Doctor, so he isn't a physician (heck, his lack of knowledge about mental illness proves that).  So, WHAT is he doing?  We never find out (and when we see the lab, it doesn't look like anything was ever DONE in it.  It's too clean to even be Mark's library!)  The lab is more of a MacGuffin - just stuck in because working in a lab sounds mysterious and Frankenstein-y.  Visions of Mark trying to reanimate Jim's dead corpse run through one's mind.
Errol Flynn was not the first person considered for the role of Mark - Dennis Morgan was the original thought (which would have been a reunion for him and for Stanwyck).  And Dorothy Malone was to be Julie.  Unlike Ms. Brooks, Malone would have come to the production with some film credits under her belt - including her standout performance as the bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep.    But Brooks does a good job with a fairly thankless character.  That same year, she would graduate to a better part as Joan Crawford's stepdaughter in Possession. Ultimately, Ms. Brooks would make her name in television, as a featured guest star in such shows as Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, and Bonanza (where she appeared as Ben Cartwright's first wife - and Adam's mother - Elizabeth Stoddard Cartwright), and in the theatre.  She died in 1977, aged 51 of a heart attack.  

Totally wasted is Jerome Cowan as Mark's brother, Senator Charles Caldwell.  We enjoy seeing Cowan, and one wonders why he was even bothered with this virtual cameo.

The music by Franz Waxman is quite excellent, and the costuming by Edith Head is exceptional.  Her designs are classic, and could easily be worn today.  Head was Stanwyck's favorite designer - according to Criterion, "Stanwyck was so enamored of the clothes that Head created for her characters that she hired her to design her personal wardrobe."  According to Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer, Stanwyck was so impressed with Head's designs when they worked together in Remember the Night, that she asked for Head to be her costumer in all her films.  Stanwyck had a notoriously long waist, which Head was able to camouflage, changing the direction of Stanwyck's film career to include more "dress roles".

So, while Cry Wolf starts well, by the end it feels rushed and is not really all that convincing.  The New York Times was also not a fan of the film.  As this TCM article points out, critical opinion in general was not very kind.  However, you do have an opportunity to see Errol Flynn in a role that was very unconventional for him (and hints at the character of Soames in That Forsythe Woman), Stanwyck looking stylish, and a young actress at the start of her career.  Here's a trailer to the film:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Barbara Has Her Portrait Painted

Our film for this week, The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), opens in a bucolic setting.  We meet Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck) and her beau, Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) as they vacation in the Scottish countryside.  Though they only met a week ago, they appear deeply in love.  Geoffrey is a painter, and is happily sketching his new love.  It begins to storm. The couple race for shelter; Geoffrey covers his beloved with his coat, then ventures back into the rain to help their guide.  When he returns, he finds Sally cold and distant.  She has inadvertently discovered a letter in his pocket - addressed to Mrs. Geoffrey Carroll.  Sally runs out into the storm and leaves Scotland.

Geoffrey, however, is now obsessed by Sally.  He sees her as his muse, and determines that he must get her back.  So, on his way home, he stops at a chemist's shop and manages to purchase a supply of poison.  Within a year, he is married to Sally.  Within two, he has lost his interest in his wife, and has discovered a new muse in the person of Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith).  And it seems that Sally is destined to follow the first Mrs. Carroll to the grave.
As this TCM article points out, The Two Mrs. Carrolls was not well received upon its release (It had, in fact, moldered in the Warner Brothers vaults for two years before its release).  Time magazine felt Bogart was miscast as an artist, while the New York Times's Bosley Crowther called the film 'a monstrosity" (they also stated that its release was delayed by the Warner Brothers for two years).  We, however, could not disagree more.  We found The Two Mrs. Carrolls to be an enjoyable film, with a strong cast that really pulls you into the action.  The film is based on a play that ran for 585 performances on Broadway, (with Elisabeth Bergner as Sally and Victor Jory as Geoffrey; produced by Bergner's husband, Paul Czinner). 

Let's start with Humphrey Bogart, who is wonderful as the insane artist.  Bogart plays Geoffrey with a delicacy that makes you at times doubt he could possibly BE a murderer.  His devotion to his daughter, Beatrice (Ann Carver) is sincere.  And his early scenes with Stanwyck exhibit a true love.  But, like Mr. Hyde, his dark side is quickly revealed, and the violent underbelly of the character is apparent.  Time's comment that "Bogart appears uncomfortable. Violence and murder are old stuff to him, but madness and paint brushes are not quite his line," is a bit odd.  For one thing, Bogart was well acquainted with "paint brushes" - his mother, after all, was the noted artist Maud Humphrey and baby Humphrey was her frequent model.  (For more on Maud Humphrey, visit this website from the Winterthur Museum). And he was no stranger to playing insane characters either - his Joe Gurney in King of the Underworld and George Halley in The Roaring Twenties are not exactly poster children for mental health.
We know that Geoffrey's passion for Cecily would eventually head down the same road as his love for Sally, though Alexis Smith plays Cecily as such a viper, it's doubtful anyone would really care.  While Sally runs from the possibility of an affair with a married man, Cecily relishes it.  And while Geoffrey is quite insane, one wonders if Cecily's disregard for Beatrice would have been the eventual cause of her demise.  We'll never know.

We loved Stanwyck as Sally.  She's a strong woman, who, overwhelmed by her discovery of her husband's perfidy, still takes charge of the situation.  Is she afraid of him? You bet, but she doesn't give in to being a victim.  She fights to the very end.  One also never doubts that Sally is a woman of integrity.  We know that Cecily is a manipulative witch, but Sally is a loving mother and wife who is supportive of her husband when his career is on a downturn, but is not a doormat.  That her warm relationship with her former fiance is believable is due to Stanwyck's sincerity as an actress.

Also impressive is Ann Carter.  The actress had a short film career, and is remembered especially for The Curse of the Cat People and I Married a Witch (as Veronica Lake's daughter).  She makes Bea a remarkably knowing child, but manages to avoid that smart-alacky attitude over-intelligent movie children often have.  Her career was over by 1953.  Around that time, she contracted polio. She eventually recovered, went to college, married, and had three children.  When she died in 2014, at age 77, ovarian cancer, she had been married to her husband (Crosby Newton) for 57 years.
I'm not big on spoilers, but the picture above was too good to resist, as actress Stanwyck observes the artistic results of Geoffrey's tormented mind.  The revelation of Sally as The Angel of Death is a shocking moment - much more powerful on the screen.   No details here, but suffice it to say, it's a scene to look out for.  The blog The Last Drive-In has a number of photos from the film (many are spoilers, so beware); this photo was one of them. 

The director of the film is Peter Godfrey.  He had already directed Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut and Cry Wolf (which we will look at next time) and had directed Alexis Smith in The Woman in White.  One wonders if he was familiar with Hitchcock's Suspicion - the scenes of Bogart carrying the poisoned milk to his wives is very reminiscent of Cary Grant on the same mission.  Godfrey's career was respectable - he appears to have retired after directing some television episodes in the 1950s, and died in 1970. 

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film. Next week, another Peter Godfrey/Barbara Stanwyck mystery.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Barbara's Boat Sinks

Before Walter Lord wrote A Night to Remember, before James Cameron went trolling on the ocean bottom to snatch images of the wreck of a great ship, there was Titanic (1953).  Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as Julia and Richard Ward Sturgess, the film used a family dispute to tell the tale of the doomed ship.  Not that this was the first telling - there had been a 1915 silent version, as well as a German film from 1943 (which the commentary on my disk stated was more a diatribe against the inefficiencies of Great Britain than a tale of the factual Titanic).  And while the 1953 film is focused on the marital discord of the Sturgess family, it also attempts to tell - within dramatic reason - the true story of the sinking of RMS Titanic.

Julia Sturgess and her two children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter) board the HMS Titanic, ostensibly on a brief vacation to see Julia's midwestern family.  Unbeknownst to her children, however, Julia intends to relocate the children to America permanently.  Her husband's chosen lifestyle - wandering from hotel to hotel to partake in the social season for that particular venue - has become stale to Julia, and she sees her children becoming petty snobs who look down on their family and their country.  In hot pursuit is Richard, who manages to board the sold-out ship by bribing the head of an immigrant family - give Richard his steerage ticket, and Richard will pay the man what amounts to a small fortune to take a later boat.  Richard then boards with the rest of the Uzcadum family, and boldly forces himself into first class and his wife's cabin.  The couple begin a battle for what they both see as the future of their offspring.
The film mixes the lives of the fictional characters with those of historical ones.  We see John Jacob and Madeleine Astor, and Isidor and Ida Strauss board.  We meet Maude Young (Thelma Ritter), a character based on the Unsinkable Molly Brown.  We also follow the activities of the crew, most notably Captain E.J. Smith (Brian Aherne) and Second Officer Lightoller (Edmund Purdom, in his film debut), who periodically converse about the iceberg that will doom the ship.

It's particularly enjoyable to see Robert Wagner in the role of Gifford Rogers, a young man who becomes instantly smitten with young Annette Sturgess.  This was one of Wagner's earliest movies - he had come to the public's attention the year before, when he played a shell-shocked soldier in the Susan Hayward film With a Song in My Heart.  In Titanic, he has only a few scenes, but one that is worth noting is with Stanwyck:  he seeks her advice on how to best court her daughter.  Their easy conversation doesn't give any hint of the feelings of the two stars.  In the video below, Mr. Wagner discusses his relationship with Stanwyck.  He fell in love with her on this set of this picture, and, after a four-year affair, proposed marriage.  Stanwyck declined, because of their age difference (he was 23 when the affair started; she was 45).  Here is a video of Wagner discussing his love for Ms. Stanwyck:
Clifton Webb is always a fascinating actor to watch.  He takes a character who could be merely a mustache-twirling villain, and gives him many layers of emotion, affection, and disdain.  By the end of the film, his Richard Sturgess becomes something of a hero, as he faces the inevitable with courage.   We watch him use his children as weapons against his wife, but then see the love that he has for them, an affection that is quite mutual.  

Stanwyck's Julia is likewise layered.  She lives in an era where she and her children are still the property of her husband.  She must sneak away from him if she is to retain custody of the children.  But we also discover that she has betrayed her husband - we never learn if he has been equally lax in adhering to their marital vows (she never accuses him of it, so we must assume he has been faithful).  By adding this piece of information, Julia becomes somewhat less attractive.  While we don't root for Richard, we begin to understand him.  Both Webb and Stanwyck give us flawed, human characters.  To choose between them is not easy. It's fun to know that Mr. Webb was actually a big fan of Ms. Stanwyck, stating "that woman's an absolute dream to work with." (Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb By Clifton Webb)
Thelma Ritter is one of my personal favorites.  In listening to the commentary on my DVD, I was dismayed to hear the film critic Richard Shickel say she always played the same character (he also couldn't remember Robert Wagner's TV credits, but that is another issue).  I beg to differ - surely, she played tough-minded middle class women, BUT, her characters are always nuanced.  In Titanic, she hasn't a lot to do - there are a lot of characters, as I've previously noted, and she has very little screen time.  But what she has, she makes use of.  She becomes the eyes of the audience - as Richard suffers an emotional reaction to his wife's betrayal, it is Ritter's Maude who sees his despair. 

Other appearances worth noting are Richard Basehart as George Healey, a priest who has recently been defrocked because of his alcoholism; Allyn Joslyn as Earl Meeker, a man who survives the disaster by sneaking on a lifeboat dressed as a woman; and the lovely Frances Bergen - mother of Candace, and wife of Edgar - as the pregnant Madeleine Astor.  
The story of a man dressing as a woman to escape the ship is a common one in Titanic lore.  The only truth to the story that is known is that John Jacob Astor put a woman's hat on a small boy, in order to get him onto a lifeboat.  The rule of the era was that women and children were evacuated first, and while men did survive in lifeboats, none are known to have sneaked on in women's garb. 

Originally, the film was to be called Nearer My God to Thee, the song that was allegedly playing as the ship slipped into the ocean, though there is no historical basis for this rumor.  This TCM article provides more information on both that rumor and the film itself.  

In the meantime, we'll close with a trailer that serves as an introduction to some of our main characters.  We'll be back next time with another Barbara Stanwyck film: