Thursday, February 26, 2015

Barbara Shoots (at a Target)

Annie Oakley (1935) stars Barbara Stanwyck as the legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley.  The story is loosely based on Annie's early years in the entertainment industry, when she broke into the business by competing against a male rifleman, here named Toby Walker (Preston Foster).  And while the film does get a lot of the information right, it takes many liberties with Ms. Oakley's life, not the least of which is that it changes the name of her partner and husband from Frank Butler.  Nevertheless, it's an entertaining film, as long as you realize it is "FILM history".

Young Annie Oakley is the main support of her family - her mother and younger siblings.  Annie is a crack shot; she hunts quail for an upscale Cincinnati hotel; as she able to hit the bird directly in the head, so no buckshot ruins the meat.  When Toby Walker, the new attraction for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show stays at the hotel, the hotel manager, Mr. MacIvor (Andy Clyde), suggests a shooting match between Walker and the person who is supplying him with his game.  MacIvor, however believes his supplier is a man.  Annie is able to match Toby shot for shot, but when her mother overhears a discussion that Annie's win might cost Toby his position with Bill Cody, she encourages Annie to lose the match.  Annie, who finds Toby quite attractive, purposely misses her next shot. Regardless, her talent with a rifle is noted by Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas), who hires her for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.  Soon, Annie is the star of the show, with Ned Buntline (Dick Elliott) hinting at a bitter rivalry between Annie and Toby (for publicity), while Toby secretly teaches Annie showmanship, and while Toby and Annie fall in love.

Barbara Stanwyck as Annie Oakley

The real Annie Oakley

Let's start with a look at the real Annie Oakley.   She was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860, and following her father's death in 1866, she lived a life of privation.  After being sent to a foster home (she would only identify the people as "the wolves"), she eventually returned to her mother; she began hunting and was able through her work to pay off the mortgage on her family's home.  That same year (1875), she competed against Frank Butler in a Cincinnati challenge match, and won.  Butler was instantly fascinated by her, and the following year, they wed.  By 1882, she joined Frank's act - she was so popular that Frank became her manager and publicist, leaving the shooting to Annie.  After a long career, both with the Wild West Show and on stage, Annie retired.  The Butlers lived in retirement until her death in 1926.  Frank died 18 days later.   For an in-depth biography of the real Annie Oakley, as well as an analysis of Annie Oakley on Stage and Screen, visit: Annie Oakley (The American Experience).

What is really successful in this film is their ability to catch the romance between Annie and Toby.  The audience and Annie never question that the couple are deeply in love.   Surely, it plays fast and loose with the facts, but neither are demeaned.  Annie is clearly Toby's equal, and even after he is told (by her) that she let him win, he is not intimidated by her, but respects her abilities.  Stanwyck is especially vibrant in the role of Annie.  She is sweet when she needs to be, but proud of her abilities and not one to hide her light.  One scene especially shows Stanwyck at her best.  Alone in her room, Annie longs for Toby, whom her colleagues believe has purposefully injured her hand.  She knows the injury was accidental, but Toby has been fired by Bill Cody (Moroni Olsen), and Annie is unable to prevent it or even go to Toby.  Her pain radiates from her; the scene is done in silence.

This was Stanwyck's first film at RKO. She had been appearing in films at Warner Brothers and was dissatisfied with the parts she was receiving their.  She'd already ventured over to First National for The Woman in Red and to Edward Smalls (Reliance) for Red Comrade.  Her next film, A Message to Garcia, would be at 20th Century Fox.  In A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, Victoria Wilson stated that Stanwyck was "outside the protection of a single studio" (full quote at  Perhaps this is why she never won an Oscar.  Regardless, it gave her the ability to control her own career to a degree that other actresses probably envied.  For more detail on Stanwyck's move to RKO, see this TCM article.

We focused a bit of our discussion on the male leads.  Melvyn Douglas appears in a secondary role with Preston Foster in the lead.  We wondered what the film would have been like had the roles been switched.

We've only seen a few films with Preston Foster, and in most of them he had a supporting role (for example, The Harvey Girls (1946) in which he plays the evil Sam Purvis to John Hodiak's heroic Ned Trent); he was briefly discussed when he appeared opposite Carole Lombard in Love Before Breakfast.  Foster had a long career, appearing in film and television til 1967. He had started on the Broadway stage, appearing in five plays between 1929 and 1932.  After that, he was Hollywood bound.  He also had a career as a vocalist and songwriter, appearing in trio consisting of himself, his wife Sheila Darcy (to whom he was married from 1946 until his death in 1970) and guitarist Gene Leis.  When Foster retired from acting, he took on the role of executive director of the El Camino Playhouse, where he wrote, directed and acted in plays (the Playhouse closed in 1966).  Preston Foster died in 1970, at the age of 69.

Also in the small role of Vera Delmar is Pert Kelton, whose distinct speaking voice is instantly recognizable. We've mentioned her before in our discussions of Cain and Mabel and Bed of Roses (wherein she plays the hooker, Minnie) - in this film, she plays a character much closer to that of Minnie.  Vera is a bit of a tramp; she's interested in Toby, and doesn't really care what she has to do to get him.  Kelton makes the most of her short screen time to create a memorable characterization.

Pert Kelton had a very varied career.  Her film career, in which she was generally the wisecracking buddy or a floozy, only lasted from 1929 to 1939.  After that, she seems to have moved back to the East Coast, where she appeared in radio.  In the 1950s, she appeared in short sketches the Cavalcade of Stars as Alice Norton - sketches that would give birth to the television show The Honeymooners.  Kelton, however would not continue on to the series - her husband Ralph Bell had become embroiled in the McCarthy Era blacklist, which led to her being dropped from the show. She did continue in small roles on Cavalcade, and it has been suggested that Gleason attempted to keep her working for as long as he could.  He, in fact, invited her to appear in The Color Honeymooners as Alice's mother (since, by that time Audrey Meadows had assumed the role of Alice). Ms. Kelton died in 1968 at the age of 61.  Though many of the episodes from Cavalcade are lost, here is a short bit with her that survives:

We leave you this time with a short clip from Annie Oakley - the shooting contest between Annie and Toby.  We'll be back soon with a discussion of a more recent film, as well as our evaluation of a Kay Francis film.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Barbara Demonstrates Yum-Yum

When Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) discovers that his seven years of relatively isolated research have led to a complete lack of understanding of current American slang, he ventures out of the confines of his enclave.  In his quest, he meets Sugarpuss (Katherine) O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), an entertainer who is currently on the lam from the cops - seems her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is suspected of murder and wants her out of the way, since she could link him to the victim.  Sugarpuss arrives on Bertram's doorstep, and within an hour has his research colleagues eating out of her hand, as well as a room in their headquarters.  Meanwhile, Joe is planning a wedding - since a wife can't testify against her husband.  And Bertram is falling in love with his sexy house guest. 

Ball of Fire (1941) is another one of those madcap films that show Barbara Stanwyck's gift for comedy, as well as her chemistry with co-star Gary Cooper.  They had worked together earlier that year in Meet John Doe, and Cooper suggested her for the part of Sugarpuss when other actresses turned it down - among those approached were Virginia Gilmore (Sam Goldwyn's first choice, as she was under contract to him at the time), Ginger Rogers (who thought the role beneath her), Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Betty Fields, and Lucille Ball.  Goldwyn and director Howard Hawks were thrilled at having Stanwyck in the role, and their confidence paid off.  (This TCM article gives a little more information on the casting woes of the production).  
Stanwyck carefully balances the greedy showgirl against the young woman who falls in love - against her will - with a man who "looks like a giraffe", "gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk," and "doesn't know how to kiss".  Without the fine hand of Stanwyck, the film could have easily imploded, as it did with the remake (A Song is Born).  Stanwyck gives us a Sugarpuss who glows with love and with sexuality, and who is finally bested by an innocent man who loves her with all of his heart.  She is intelligent, though uneducated, but she is someone who hungers for love AND for knowledge.  And though clearly Joe has gotten her a job in a classy joint, Stanwyck shows us Sugarpuss' roots - watch her walk on the stage as she performs - Sugarpuss started as a stripper.  

As always, Stanwyck is impeccably dressed by her favorite costumer Edith Head.  She has some lovely street clothing, as well as a splendid costume for her act, that is both breathtaking and cheesy at the same time.  And watch how it sparkles in the dull environs of the professors' apartment house - Head makes Sugarpuss the real bright spot in the lives of these sequestered intellectuals.

Equally perfect is Gary Cooper as Bertram.  It would be easy to make Potts merely a jerk, rather than an innocent, but Cooper carefully walks that line.  Certainly Potts is naive, but he is eager to learn and to experience new things.  His enthusiasm for the slang he is discovering is palpable. He is a man dedicated to his scholarship - though much younger than his scholarly colleagues, he hasn't had the opportunity to interact with the opposite sex, but when he does, his inhibitions take a back seat to his passion.
It's interesting to see Dana Andrews in a supporting role.  His Joe Lilac is an egomaniac, surrounded by Yes Men, who is quite sure he can tame Sugarpuss with a large diamond and a marriage certificate.  Given that Andrews has very little screen time, he makes the most of what little time he is provided.  You don't forget Joe - Andrews makes him just sinister enough to keep the comic background, but still have a character that is a threat to our lovers.

This is a film that is blessed with an amazing supporting cast.  We have the always excellent Allen Jenkins as the neighborhood garbage man, who wants to enter a "quizzola" (he's got all the boxtops he needs.  What he needs are the answers).  Dan Duryea as Duke Pastrami, Lilac's lead henchman is delightfully oily, with his rather disturbing laugh is put to good use.  Watch for the scene when he licks his thumb to clean his gunsight - thus tipping his hat to co-star Gary Cooper (who did the same maneuver in Sergeant York).  "I saw this in a movie," Duryea quips. (Interestingly, a few days after seeing Ball of Fire, I was watching Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), and my husband noticed that Fess Parker (as Crockett) does the same maneuver while fighting Santa Ana at the Alamo. Coincidence? I think not.)

And let us not forget the "seven dwarfs" (Yes, the film is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Professor Potts colleagues in research.  Among the superb actors gracing the cast are Oscar Homolka as Professor Gurkakoff (Mathematics), Henry Travers as Professor Jerome (Geography), S. Z. Sakall  as Professor Magenbruch (Physiology), Leonid Kinskey as Professor Quintana, and Richard Haydn as the appropriately named Professor Oddly (Botany).  Sugarpuss calls them a bunch of "squirrelly cherubs", a most apt description.  But rather than just have them there for laughs, they are intrinsic to the plot - it is their combined brain power that will save the day for our couple.

One other note of interest, actress Mary Fields, who plays Miss Totten, is the only actor to appear in the remake, A Song is Born. She plays the exact same character in the remake, though there was a seven year gap between the films.  

Ball of Fire was well received at the time of its release, as is evidenced by this New York Times review.  In 2007, it was selected as a TCM Essentials pick (as well as a 2012 Essentials, Jr. selection).  AND it is number 92 on the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time list.   If you've never seen it, treat yourself to a viewing - and if you have seen it, curl up on a cold evening and watch it again!  We leave you with the scene in which Sugarpuss demonstrates "Yum-yum".  We'll be back soon with more Barbara!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Barbara Runs a Brothel

In the 1962 film Walk on the Wild Side, Barbara Stanwyck takes on an interesting supporting role, as Jo Courtney, owner of a New Orleans brothel, and lover of Hallie Gerard.  Regardless that Jo should be a minor character to the romantic leads, Laurence Harvey (Dove Linkhorn) and Capucine (Hallie Gerard), it is Stanwyck you remember at the end of the film, not Harvey or Capucine.  Her strength and power as an actress resonates throughout the project, and is the one saving grace of a fairly disjointed film.

Dove Linkhorn is hitchhiking his way from West Texas to New Orleans in search of his great love, artist Hallie Gerard.  He meets a young runaway, Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda), and they begin to travel together.  Kitty is a forward young lady, and makes romantic overtures towards Dove, but he'll have none of it.  When he discovers that Kitty has robbed a generous innkeeper, Teresina Vidaverri (Anne Baxter), he rejects Kitty totally, and returns the stolen item (a rosary) to Teresina.  Grateful, Teresina hires Dove to work in her restaurant, and helps him run ads in the local newspaper, in an effort to locate Hallie.
Hallie, meanwhile, is unaware that Dove is searching for her.  She's a lazy woman, she sleeps all day, lives off of Jo Courtney (the owner of a local brothel, known locally as The Dollhouse), and bemoans the loss of her art (the photo above shows Jo examining some of Hallie's work).  For some reason, Jo is passionately in love with Hallie, having discovered her in New York, where Hallie was trying to break into the art scene. It's made repeatedly clear that Jo does not want Hallie turning tricks (Jo despises the touch of men, and she doesn't want Hallie soiled); it's also quite clear that Hallie routinely ignores Jo, and ventures down into the brothel to turn a trick or two.  She doesn't have to provide sexual favors (to anyone but Jo, that is), but she chooses to. Why? Who knows.

It doesn't help that Capucine couldn't act her way out of a sack of potatoes.  A French model who came to America with Charles Feldman (the producer of this film), she had a moderately successful career - she's best known for The Pink Panther (in which she played Inspector Clouseau's adulterous wife, Simone).  But she is so stiff and frozen faced throughout this movie, that one wonders what the heck all these men (Dove, of course, and she's obviously a big hit in the Dollhouse) and Jo could possibly see in her.

She meets her match in lack of affect by her co-star, Laurence Harvey.  Cast as a Texas dirt farmer who's never left his home before, Harvey gives new meaning to the words "cold and aloof".  What worked beautifully in The Manchurian Candidate doesn't work here at all. According to this TCM article it was hate at first sight between Harvey and Capucine.  She accused him of being "unmanly" in his kisses.  He responded by saying that "kissing her was like kissing the side of a beer bottle".  And, as with Hallie, we have all these women queuing up to bed him. It's unreal.
On the other hand, Stanwyck is amazing.  She is controlled, elegant, and sinister.  She does her best to make the viewer understand her passion for Hallie, her disgust of men in general - and her handicapped husband in particular.  She isn't the least afraid to make Jo unlikeable, but with a cool collection that makes her fascinating to watch.  The ultimate professional, she dressed down Laurence Harvey when one of his tantrums resulted in an hour delay.  (He never did it again!)

We also enjoyed seeing Anne Baxter as Teresina.  Sure, her Spanish accent is rather odd, but she does a good job with the character in spite of it.  A historical aside, Baxter discovered she was pregnant at the time of the filming began, and relied on her wide skirts to hide her girth when filming finally ended during her 7 month.  This TCM article will give you more information on the behind-the-scenes of the film.

We get a couple of scenes of Jane Fonda with Barbara Stanwyck, but young Fonda is such a nascent actress (this is only her second film) she is overwhelmed by Stanwyck (the character of Kitty is supposed to be, of course).  Good as Ms. Fonda is, you still can't take your eyes off Stanwyck.  We would have enjoyed a scene between Baxter and Stanwyck - as the bookends for Good and Evil, but alas, it was not to be.  The characters are in the same room for a brief period, but there is no interaction. 

All in all, with a disjointed story line that verges into taudry soap opera at times, a cast that never quite all seem to be in the same movie, and some plot twists that seem to be thrown in just to shock (what is the point of Jo's leg-less husband? A symbol of emasculation, maybe?), this is a film that just never quite gets to the point.  We'll leave you with our introduction to Jo and Hallie:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Barbara Writes a Column

To Please a Lady (1950) stars Barbara Stanwyck as columnist Regina Forbes, a powerful woman who has an influential gossip column.  She sees herself as a crusader for good, but, like all good columnists, she is looking for those items that will intrigue her readship.  When she is told about  local midget racecar driver, Mike Brannan (Clark Gable) by assistant Gregg (Adolphe Menjou), she heads out for the track.  Brannan is a pull-no-punches kinda guy, and will do what it takes to win.  He gives no quarter, and, as a result, has been blamed for the deaths of other drivers.  He shows no remorse for his competitiveness, and Regina goes after him in her column, effectively ending his ability to compete in the racing circle.  Months later, when Regina looks back into his life, she and Brannan find themselves attracted to one another.

Though titled like a romance, this film spends a lot of time on the racing scene.  The last quarter of the film is taken up with the Indianapolis Speedway race, and if you aren't a racing fan (we aren't) it can get rather tedious.  The film was later retitiled Red Hot Wheels for a 1962 re-release, which was more in keeping with the plot line.  As it happens, though Clark Gable was eager to appear in a racing film, he objected to the original title - he thought it would bring up images of his recent marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley (they would divorce in 1952).  In foreign release, To Please a Lady was titled Indianapolis.  The multiple titles hint at the main problem with the film.

A New York Times review of the film very much liked the racing scenes from the film, liked the actors, but did not like the script, which they called a "hackneyed melodrama".  It is easy to understand why they were so taken with the racing scenes - they were filmed at the Indianapolis Speedway, and showed racing filmed at actual speed.  Gable did some of the driving (primarily the scenes where a close view was required) - stunt drivers took over for the rest.  But they are correct.  The script seems to be seeking its context, making the film disjointed.

On the plus side, there are two dynamite performances by stars Gable and Stanwyck.  Stanwyck's Regina is a tough-minded career woman.  She's very good at what she does and she enjoys doing it.  She literally goes toe-to-toe with Gable; she challenges him to "knock that smile" off her face.  When he does, she merely gives him the eye (at which point, he gives her a big kiss).  As discussed in this TCM article, Gable and Stanwyck had not appeared together since Night Nurse.  As with that film, the fireworks between them are palpable.  Two scenes, with Mike and Regina conversing on the phone, are very titillating - the two exude sexual tension.  It's also fun to see a romance between two grownups, who end by respecting each other's occupations.  The film's ending makes it quite clear that Regina will not be relegated to a little haus frau, nor will Brannan give up racing.  But they will make their relationship work.

According to this AFI article, Lana Turner set was to be reunited with Gable in the part of Regina in June of 1949; by September; Stanwyck had been official signed in the role.  There was a radio version in 1951 of the teleplay on the Lux Radio Theatre, with Donna Reed and John Hodiak in the leads, and Adolphe Menjou reprising his role as Gregg.   It's a part for which Menjou is well suited.  He gives the appropriate amount of sneer to the character.  You'll want to watch for the scene where Regina tries to talk to Mike on the phone, while Gregg listens in.
Also in the cast is Will Geer as Jack Mackay, a car designer with a new engine that Brannan wants to buy.  We were, of course, all familiar with Geer from his later career in television.  He had, however, a substantial film career, primarily in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  However, by 1951, his film appearances were minimal - he had been blacklisted after refusing to testify in front of HUAC (here is a brief newspaper article  which talks about Geer's testimony). He and his wife appeared in theatre during this period, including a run with the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, CT (an avid gardener, he planted a Shakespeare Garden on the theatre grounds)  As the blacklist broke down, he again began appearing in films (including Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent) and television.  He died in of respiratory failure in 1978, during the run of the television show that made him famous - The Waltons. 

This was director Clarence Brown's 8th and final film with Clark Gable (We previously discussed Possessed and Chained). Brown had at one time been an automobile test driver, and had owned a car dealership.  His interest in his subject is apparent in this film, as is his precision in filming the race scenes.  An interesting fact - in 1930, he was nominated for the Oscar for TWO films in the same year - for Anna Christie and for Romance

One more note about Clark Gable - he found filming in Indianapolis to be quite hard, as it was the last place that Carole Lombard had been before she died in 1942.  Gable quietly visited several places in the city where his late wife had been on her ill-fated bond tour.  

In closing, we'll just say that we wish there had been interaction between Gable and Stanwyck, because when they are together they smoke.  That Gable and Stanwyck were good friends in real life shows.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.