Sunday, April 19, 2015

Barbara Gives Up Everything

Barbara Stanwyck desperately wanted to play Stella Dallas (1937), despite the fact it that it would be the hardest part she had played up til that point.  In Victoria Wilson's epic biography of Stanwyck, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, the author goes into some detail on Stanwyck's remarkable performance as Stella Martin Dallas and Stanwyck's efforts to get the job.  Stella is a working class girl, who lives in the small factory town of Millhampton, Massachusetts.  She is attracted to the new man in town, Stephen Dallas (John Boles), the son of a wealthy family.  His money lost, his father dead, Stephen has escaped to Millhampton, to take a job and try to put his life back together.  In doing so, he has abandoned his fiancĂ©e, Helen (Barbara O'Neil).  Stella and Stephen date, eventually marrying.  At first, she says she is eager to become like him, but after a year of trying to live his life, she wants more fun, with the people she understands.  However, the Dallases now have a little girl, Laurel (who will grow up to be Anne Shirley), and though Stella and Stephen bicker constantly, they agree on one thing - Laurel is the center of their world.

It's interesting that the studio originally wanted Ruth Chatterton for the part, and it is not unlikely casting - she had done a similar role in Frisco Jenny.  But Stanwyck IS Stella Dallas.  She takes a woman who could become unappealing and ridiculous and creates a character with appeal and sympathy.  Her Stella is a lonely woman, stuck between two worlds, unable to find her place in either of them. Her only pleasure is her child, for whom she will devote her life, and for whom she wants the best things in life - the life that ultimately only Laurel's father can give her.
Also excellent is Anne Shirley as Laurel.  Shirley gives us a portrait of a girl who dearly loves her mother, and while she doesn't have her mother's same way of dressing, she sees nothing odd about this woman who is a fashion nightmare.  It isn't until she hears others ridiculing her mother that she realizes how outlandish her mother appears.  Laurel's desire to whisk her mother away from these people is a mix of embarrassment and the desire to protect Stella from hurt.  Even when Laurel believes that her mother doesn't want her around, there is still a deep love on the child's part.  In her heart, she knows that Stella will never reject her.  Interestingly, the studio originally wanted Bonita Granville for the role, but she was deemed too young for the older Stella. 

Another impressive performance is that of Barbara O'Neil; her character is so idealized - the perfect society woman, perfect spouse, perfect mother - that it would be easy to just make her a caricature, but O'Neil carefully makes Helen genuine and sympathetic.  The scene between her and Stanwyck is magnificent, each accomplishing communication with their eyes and body that hearkens back to the silent era, but still retains the subtlety of the conversation.  It's a truly heartbreaking scene.
We can't forget the men - especially John Boles, who is also not afraid of making Stephen a bit unattractive.  Though Stephen tells Stella not to change, ultimately, that is what he is trying to force her to do.  And while we may not agree with Stella's wardrobe or attitudes, she is correct in her comment to him that SHE is the one who always has to change, not him.  And though this is not a pre-code film, there is the slightest implication that he is living with Helen while still married to Stella. 

Alan Hale as Ed Munn creates a character that is a companion to Stella, but clearly not a romantic interest.  Where Stella is over-the-top in her garb and attitudes, Ed is crude, foolish, and finally, a drunk (Stella, interestingly, never drinks).  We can't really like Ed - Hale doesn't let us, and with good reason - we need to understand why Stella will never be with him.  This TCM article comments briefly on Hale's outstanding performance.
Costumes for this film were by Omar Kiam, and he does a good job of defining the characters of Stella and Laurel through their dress.  The story was reprised by Ms. Stanwyck, Mr. Boles, Ms. Shirley, and Ms. O'Neil on the Lux Radio Theatre in October of 1937. 

I also wanted to bring to your attention this excellent salute of Stanwyck by Laura Dern, in which she comments that this is "one of the great performances of all time".  Be aware (if you've not seen the film before) that you WILL see the conclusion in this clip.  If you've seen the film, it will provide a reminder of how stunning Stanwyck is as Stella's story concludes.

We will leave you with the film's opening.  Next time, more Stanwyck! 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Peeping James

TCM Fathom Event recently aired the magnificent Rear Window (1954), and we were quite delighted to be able to attend.  Starring James Stewart as L. B. "Jeff" Jeffries and Grace Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and with a supporting cast to die for, this is  unarguably a Hitchcock masterpiece.  For those unfamiliar with the plot, here's a brief rundown of the premise.  Jeff Jeffries, a highly regarded international photographer has been laid up for 5 weeks in a cast up to his hip, having broken his leg trying to get a photo of a race car in action (he got the picture).  During a hot New York summer (it's the 1950s - there's no in-home air-conditioning), with one week of immobility left (stuck in a walk-up apartment he's not left since his injury), Jeff is bored, so he stares out his window, peering into the lives of his neighbors.  He's got nicknames for all of them, and he imagines their life stories from his "rear window" view.  Then, one hot night, as he dozes in his wheelchair, he thinks he sees a murder.

Some years ago, I attended a class on Hitchcock's film.  The class was taught by Donald Spoto, author of many books about Hollywood, but most especially, the author of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. One of the points he made was that, as Jeff looks into the windows of his neighbors, what he sees are alternate versions of his own life and that of Lisa, the woman he loves (but is determined NOT to marry).  He sees a pair of newlyweds, a satisfied older couple doting on a beloved dog, a couple who bicker constantly (with Raymond Burr as the husband, Lars Thorwald), a lonely middle-aged woman (Judith Evelyn as "Miss Lonely Hearts"), a young woman surrounded by suitors, and a composer (played by Ross Bagdasarian), who can't seem to get his work noticed.  Which life will Jeff get? We'll never know (hopefully not the Raymond Burr thread!), but Lisa has own ideas, and is a pretty determined lady!
I don't think there is a movie on earth that has Thelma Ritter (Stella) in it that is bad.  Her very presence moves the film up a notch, in my humble opinion.  Ritter's part was not in the original short story by Cornell Woolrich (neither was Grace Kelly's), and according to one of the TCM articles you'll find here, Ritter's part was enlarged after the initial script was completed to provide some humor and humanity to the part of Jeff.  The film needed, according to writer John Michael Hayes, some comedy to get the audience immediately engaged with the character.  He knew that Hitchcock had cast Ritter, and there is no better mouthpiece for the human condition than the phenomenal Thelma Ritter. 

And then there is the other lady in Jeff's life, the ever-glorious Grace Kelly.  A woman of jaw-dropping beauty, Hitchcock, perhaps more than any other director, was able to make her a woman of parts - beautiful, fashionable, smart, daring, passionate.  Her Lisa is unexpected - Jeff leads us to expect she is only a fashionplate - interested in clothing and nothing else.  And while her entrance - twirling around the room in a dress that I would give my eye-teeth for - seems to support that, it isn't long before we realize that Jeff is an idiot - as Stella told him - Lisa is a jewel beyond price.
Seeing Rear Window in a theatre is a treat beyond compare.  While it is good on a television, it's even more magnificent when you can see the framing the way Hitchcock meant it to be seen. Filmed in wide-screen and Technicolor, the movie still manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere that has become Jeff's life, as he goes from a boundless world, to a confined, one-room apartment.  It is a film you can see again and again, and each time see something new and exciting.

Grace Kelly's marvelous wardrobe was designed by Edith Head.  Every one of her dresses is glorious, but I'm going to leave you with a clip that contains my personal favorite dress.  Meet Lisa Carole Freemont!:

Friday, April 10, 2015

Barbara Wants an Inheritance

We return to the work of one of our favorite actresses, Barbara Stanwyck, in The Man With a Cloak (1951).  Ms. Stanwyck plays Lorna Bounty, a former actress who now serves as the housekeeper and mistress of M. Thevenet (Louis Calhern), a wealthy reprobate who is close to death.  Lorna and her associates  (Mrs. Flynn, played by Margaret Wycherly and Martin, played by Joe DeSantis) are impatiently waiting for Thevenet die, so they can lay claim to his fortune.  Unfortunately for them, the arrival of his grandson's fiancee, Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) appears to be throwing their plans into a cocked hat.  So, when they try to prevent her from seeing the old man, Madeline seeks help from a stranger, Mr. Dupin (Joseph Cotten), a hard drinking reprobate, who thinks nothing of bilking the local tavern owner, Flaherty (Jim Backus) of his liquor. 
Barbara Stanwyck is just magnificent as Lorna Bounty.  She is gorgeous, sexy, and marvelously evil.  Her dislike of Thevenet shines from her eyes, yet she is like a cobra - her eyes draw you in, even as you realize she is going to bite you.  It's amazing that she was given second billing to Joseph Cotton, because, good as he is, SHE is the picture.  And her character is so much smarter than the others in the house.  It's hard not to admire Lorna, Stanwyck is that good.  This commentary from TCM doesn't agree with us.  They feel that she "doesn't quite succeed".  We beg to differ (caution - we're going to avoid revealing the ending, in case you've not seen the film.  The TCM article does have spoilers).

The costumes are by Walter Plunkett, and he does Ms. Stanwyck proud.  Her gowns are  lovely and lavish, appropriate for the way Lorna Bounty sees herself.  Plunkett was a gifted designer who worked in films such as Alice Adams, Adam's Rib, and a little movie called Gone With the Wind.  He worked steadily until his retirement in 1966; he died in 1982, aged 79. 
The Man With a Cloak was released only a few months after Leslie Caron's introduction to American film in An American in Paris. Ms. Caron does not dance here; she is quite effective as the innocent, thrown headlong into a world she does not understand.  Ms. Caron would continue her career, both during her years at MGM, and after, going from musicals to dramas and comedies.  She still continues working in film, has appeared on the Paris stage in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, and has written her autobiography, Thank Heaven.  For many years, she owned a bed and breakfast in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne.  She also has the distinction of having danced with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rudolf Nureyev.  It's easy to class her only as a dancer, and forget that her dramatic work far outweighs her musical films.

Louis Calhern's performance as Thevenet is also spot-on.  He creates a character who is known to be disreputable, but Calhern is able to make him somewhat sympathetic.  A portion of Calhern's performance is silent, hearkening back to his beginnings in film, and his roots stand him in good stead.  A remarkable actor, with an exceptional career, he had already appeared in The Gorgeous Hussy, Frisco Jenny, and The Magnificent Yankee.  Still to come were wonderful performances in Executive Suite, Julius Caesar, and High Society - his final film.  He died in 1956 of a heart attack on the set of Teahouse of the August Moon.

Is this a great film? Probably not, but it is enjoyable, with a cast worth watching, and performances that are notable.  We leave you with a trailer from the film.  It is worth a look:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ann's Apples

Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) tells the story of radio singer Eve Porter (Ann Miller).  Eve's managers have been pushing her hard; she's tired and she has finally put her foot down, demanding a three month vacation.  Her radio sponsor is willing; her managers (Steve and George) are not, and her fiance Walter W. Walters II (played by John Eldredge) is a weak jerk who agrees with the managers.  So, when Steve and George  follow her to her vacation spot, and announce she'll need to leave immediately, to star in a new film.  Eve bolts, hides in a car, and next thing you know she is on a road trip with reporter Ward Williams (William Wright) who thinks she is the Singing Murderess (and hopes to get a story and the reward).

As it happens, the film is a musical remake of It Happened One Night.  Two episodes are taken word-for-word from the original: a scene in which a rather obnoxious man wants to turn Eve in for the reward, and Ward convinces him that Ward is a mobster who's kidnapped Eve; and a very late scene in which Ward goes to one of Eve's managers for reimbursement for the trip.  Like most films in which the original is so well known and loved, it is hard to watch it and appreciate it in a vacuum.  You end up comparing it to the original, and of course, the remake suffers by comparison.  But, with an 11 year gap between the two pictures, it is unlikely that the average viewer made that fatal comparison. 
It's worth noting that Ann Miller dances not ONE step in the film.  Her lovely singing voice is used to good advantage, but her legs are not (we don't even have the famous hitchhiking scene.  Perhaps it was felt that was TOO familiar).  She's quite good as an actress, and her Eve is endearing.  It's actually rather nice to see Ms. Miller as purely an actress, rather than as a expert dancer (which she was - and gloriously so).  

Though we had seen William Wright before (he played Scott in A Night to Remember), we didn't remember him. He's quite funny as Ward, but it's hard to not compare him to Clark Gable, and frankly, he is no Gable. He began his film career in 1936, and often worked in small roles, with larger roles coming during the war years. He died in 1949, age 38, of cancer.  When he was cast in this film, he had already done three films with Miller; in two of them he was her leading man.  This TCM article provides more detail on Wright and Ann Miller. 
A quick note on John Eldredge.  As children who grew up on The Adventures of Superman, it was enjoyable to see this actor who was an occasional guest star (as a villain).  Another actor with a long supporting career, he was a handsome man who was not quite leading man material.  He easily segued into television, though his career there was not long - he died in 1961 of a heart attack.

Since we can't show you the wonder Ms. Miller dancing, we'll leave you with her singing "I'll Remember April".  She has a lovely voice, and it's a nice way to say goodbye to this little film.