Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rita's on Broadway

We see a suicide note.  Charles Engle (John Qualen) has decided to end his life after his wife runs off with another man, taking with her $3,000 Engle embezzled from his employer.  His boss, Mr. Hopper (George Watts), tells him he has until 6am to retrieve the money and return it. So, Charles goes out to jump in the river, but the police by the waterfront scare him into away from the pier and into The Pigeon Club.  In his ennui, Charles throws what money he has around, raising a number of eyebrows, including those of an unusual trio.  Bill O'Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), in some senses the narrator of the film, is a con man who hopes to make a bit of money off this new mark.   Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth), is a would-be performer looking for someone to cast her in a stage play, or provide a few bucks til she finds a producer.  Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has just had a play fail miserably, and his girlfriend leave him; he would like to find an angel for his next play, and he thinks Charles is the answer.  So begins Angels Over Broadway (1940).

Angels Over Broadway shows great promise as it opens; it is witty and interesting.  Even the double meaning of the title - the Broadway "angel" (or financier) being sought by all three of our characters, framed in comparison to the angelic deed that the three agree to perform in order to save Charles' life - shows imagination.  By the end, however, the plot begins to implode, and we felt that the writers just didn't know how to end it.  Some of the plots just seem to stop (Gene Gibbons, for example), and the ending given to Nina and Bill has an artificial feel to it.  It's too bad, really, because there are some great characters that showed a lot of promise.
We particularly enjoyed Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s small time con man.  He's properly smarmy, but is also attractive. Fairbanks is always a dynamic actor, and he tries hard to make his character realistic.  But, there are problems even a talented actor can't overcome.  For example, though he and Nina bicker, and he denies an attraction, he seems protective of her.  But there is little chemistry between him and Rita Hayworth, and her character is really a riddle. Hayworth doesn't get to do very much, and her character's actions are contradictory.  It doesn't feel like Nina has an awakening; the character does a complete about-face in her attitudes and actions, and its not clear why.  But she is not given a lot to work with - the screenplay is much more interested in Fairbanks and in the always wonderful Thomas Mitchell.

Also given short shrift is John Qualen, a great character actor with a sizeable part in screen time, but no real opportunity for character development.  Qualen gives the appearance of sleepwalking through the film, and while in other films he is often portrayed as an everyman, he is rarely weak in his portrayals.  Here, he is not so much nebbishy as he is a non-entity.  Qualen had a lengthy career, working in films and television from 1931 to 1974. Many of you will remember him as Vera Miles father in The Searchers or as the expectant father in Whipsaw.  His career started on Broadway; he went to Hollywood to recreate his stage role in the screen version of Street Scene and became a favorite of director John Ford.  Qualen appeared in Ford's films over a thirty year period.  John Qualen died in 1987 (aged 87) having been married to his wife since 1924.
Ben Hecht was actually nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Angels Over Broadway (it lost to The Great McGinty), and it was well received critically.  Audiences, however, did not warm up to the film.  This TCM article goes into more depth on the film and on Rita Hayworth.

Having recently seen the film Raffles, we were amused when Gene steals a brooch, and his ex-girl friend announces "You're no Raffles".  All in all, we were sorry that we didn't enjoy Angels Over Broadway more.  It showed such promise!  It might be worth a look, just for the beginning of the film, and to see Fairbanks in top form.  

We'll leave you with a scene from early in the picture, as Bill begins his flirtation with Nina:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kay's Velvet

Kay Francis is again our star this week, co-starring with another of our favorites, George Brent in Living on Velvet (1935).  George is Terry Parker, a flyer who is en route, with his mother, father and sister, to Newport for a family event, when the plane is trapped in fog.  Try as he might to break into clear skies, Terry is thwarted, until his plane runs out of fuel.  The plane crashes - and Terry's entire family is killed.  Terry walks away from the plane with some scratches, a headache, and a great deal of survivor guilt.  From this point, Terry lives his life wildly - he is "living on velvet" - he should be dead, but is not, so he will live life to the fullest, and not worry about the consequences.  But then he meets Amy Prentiss (Kay Francis), the love of his friend Walter "Gibraltar" Pritcham (Warren William).  For Amy and Terry, it is love at first sight; but the problems that ensue as they try to live within each others lives is the focus of the film.

The film remarkably is able to stay true to its theme; it doesn't throw in artificial agents (like, say, a pregnancy) to force character growth.  It is the story of a marriage, full of love, but one in which the persons involved have very different views of life.  Amy understands that Terry's apparent immaturity is not that, but a grief so deep it is hidden from all but those who know the man intimately.  George Brent is able to make Terry understandable and relate-able.  Terry is not whiny or morose; regardless, you feel his pain.  Brent is able to throw a cast to his eyes that remind you of the deep pain the rules his life.

Richard Brody's video analysis of the film, from the New Yorker, is worth a few minutes of your time.  In it, he talks about the serious tone of the film, and the conflict between Amy, a woman from a well-to-do family who sacrifices a life of comfort for the man she loves, and Terry, who wants to spend his gift of life dipping into his ever growing bucket list.  Amy wants a family, a nice home, and no pending bills.  Terry wants to do what he wants, when he wants, and hang what comes after.  After all - life is short, and he wants to do it all.

Though the film has funny moments (we'll talk about one of them a little later), this is NOT a comedy.  Oddly, the advertising (as seen above), seems to imply that it is, showing Kay Francis in a lovely evening dress and a top hat.  And in the image below, a funny love triangle is implied.  While we do have a bit of a triangle, Gibraltar is a friend to the couple, once  he realizes that he is an afterthought to Kay.  There are no amusing fights.  One wonders if the public felt tricked when they realized the serious theme of Living on Velvet.  Certainly, Kay Francis had already appeared in comedies (like 1932's Trouble in Paradise), but she was best known for women's pictures, or "weepers" - and she is the name above the title - so it's hard to fathom. The New York Times review from 1935 makes no mention of the advertising, but it was not positive, They liked the beginning of the film, but felt that the ending was unconvincing.

We were very impressed with the way the film portrays the moment when Terry and Amy meet.  Certainly, it's highly romantic, but it is a lovely enactment of love a first sight.  Ms. Francis, especially, shows the intensity of her reaction (a clip is below).

An image that is particularly jarring is the newspaper headline which informs us of the death of Terry's family.  We get to meet them, if only for a few moments.  That the film used known character people of the caliber of Samuel S. Hinds and Maude Turner Gordon makes the headline even more surprising.  In much the same way that Janet Leigh's abrupt death in Psycho is a surprise because of who is playing the part, we had a similar reaction when we realized that the characters were indeed dead.

There is one very funny scene that has to be mentioned.  Terry and Amy are on a bus, in their first flush of love, and he asks her to just talk.  She complies: "Thirty days has September. Apwil, June...".  He stops her and asks her to repeat: "Thirty days has September. Apwil".  And he begins to tease her about her lisp, asking her to say "Around the rocks, the rugged rascal ran", which she gamely tries - and, of course, fails to say with the dreaded "W" sound.  Finally, she repeats her first line, and when she gets to it, carefully says APRIL, then, grins happily.  As fans of Ms. Francis and her delightful lisp, it was a hoot to see her not only acknowledging it, but laughing with us about it.

For those who would like more background information on one particularly scandalous aspect of the film, this very brief  TCM article is worth a look.  Our Kay, it seems, had a very busy vacation just before the filming started, resulting in an abortion, and a long recovery process.

Warren William as Gibraltar is absolutely terrific, as a man who loves, but who won't settle for less than the real thing.  Once Gibraltar realizes that Amy will never love him the way she does Terry, his every action is to facilitate their marriage.  Mr. William started his career on Broadway, appearing in 22 plays (primarily in supporting parts.  Once in Hollywood, he worked steadily - appearing mostly as lawyers and businessmen - throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, but by the end of the war, he was only in 3 films.  He was quietly married to the his great love, Helen Barbara Nelson from 1923 until his death at age 53 of multiple myeloma in 1947.  His beloved wife died a few months later.

We also enjoyed Helen Lowell as Amy's Aunt Martha, the nay-sayer in the marriage of Amy to Terry.  Aunt Martha doesn't like Terry one bit, and isn't adverse to saying it; Ms. Lowell makes her a force to be reckoned with!  She was 69 when she appeared in this film; she would die two years later, having appeared in 31 films.

Before we go, we want to mention again the costuming by Orry-Kelly.  There is a gorgeous dress with a cameo belt that we were lusting after (a couple members of the group are big fans of cameo jewelry).  As promised, we leave you with a portrayal of love at first sight:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Kay Loves the Desert (and Errol)

In 1936, the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Kay Francis as saying "I don't do much in it,  Things just happen about me. I am just a wife who has been unfortunate in love, as usual."  She was speaking about Another Dawn (1937) in which she plays Julia Ashton, a woman who has turned her back on love after the death of her aviator fiance.  But, when Colonel John Wister (Ian Hunter), who she likes and admires, proposes marriage, she agrees.  His deep love for her convinces her that they can be happy together, and she is ready for an adventure - his post is in the Sahara.  The presence, however of Captain Denny Roark (Errol Flynn), creates a problem, as Julia and Denny fall deeply in love, with neither of them willing to hurt John.

The fairly conventional ending is probably the weakest part of the film.  Nevertheless, the movie is worth watching for the interplay between Kay Francis and Errol Flynn.  As the wife who is unwilling to betray her husband, Ms. Francis is beautifully stoic.  And Flynn, as the loyal officer is - well, just beautiful.   This article from TCM sums it up nicely:  "Even if Another Dawn doesn't reach the heights of some other Errol Flynn vehicles, it is still a treat to see this iridescent specimen of masculinity at his peak in his mid-twenties, handsome and dashing in a British Army uniform."  And while this is no Adventures of Robin Hood, Flynn is very good as the conflicted officer.  Flynn can act, and act well - the fact that this film holds up at all is really due to him - he makes you believe that Denny cannot be dishonorable.
Frieda Inescort has a relatively small role as Grace Roark, Denny's sister.  We've seen Ms. Inescort before in a very different role - as the rather bitchy older sister in The King Steps Out.  But in Always in My Heart. she not only appeared with Kay Francis, she also was in the similar role as the "other woman;" for Grace claims to be in love with John.  One strange thing about the way Ms. Inescort plays the role occurs early in the film.  As John is about to leave for his holiday, he asks Grace if he can kiss her.  She looks rather uncomfortable, and as he leans over to lightly kiss her on the lips, she turns her head so the kiss lands on her cheek.  It's rather a shock when she later confesses her deep love to her brother (close as they are, he doesn't know either).   Is Grace so deeply in love that she fears his touch will unlock her reserve, or is it something else? It's hard to know, but Ms. Inescort makes Grace a more interesting character.

Also in the cast is Herbert Mundin as Wilkins, John's aide-de-camp - a soldier who has been accused of cowardice by his comrades.  Naturally, part of the plot of the movie has to demonstrated that he is not, in fact, a coward.  We've seen Mundin before in The Adventures of Robin Hood, as Much.  He was also in David Copperfield as Barkis.  After a stint in the Navy during World War I, Mundin appeared on the London Stage and on Broadway, then landed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1931.  After a successful career, in which he played a variety of character roles, Mundin died in a car crash, aged 40, in 1938.

The film took awhile to be released, and was not really the first choice for either of our lead actors.  Kay Francis, due to her schedule, became exhausted, so there was a filming delay while she recuperated.  Errol Flynn found the script uninteresting; his dislike of director William Dieterle compounded his disregard for the film.  And other actors also were unimpressed with the script.  First considered for the role of Julia was Bette Davis, but she accepted a suspension rather than take the part.  Tallulah Bankhead was also considered as Julia, but that idea was discarded.
One of the impressive aspects of the film is the music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  The militaristic air hits at the men's love for the military and their lives.  He'd only scored a few films, and his English was not strong, so Korngold was surprised and distressed that the whole of his score for the film wasn't used. But, he used the music (the love theme) for his Violin Concerto in D Major, and in 1995, the full score was reassembled and recorded by Naxos.

And we can't have a Kay Francis film from this period without magnificent costuming, here by Orry-Kelly.  A nice job is also done with the special effects.  One does feel the desert in the film.

All in all, this is a good film about good - and very British - people.  Colonel Wister especially has a very progressive view of world politics - he is hoping that he can help the process of seeing the native population of the Sahara region ready for self government within a few years. 

We leave you with the trailer for Another Dawn, which features Korngold's glorious score.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hester Street

The Washington Jewish Film Festival was held at AFI Silver in late February - Early March.  We attended a screening of Hester Street (1975), directed by Joan Micklin Silver, and starring Carol Kane as Gitl Bogovnik, a Jewish immigrant from Poland.  We were fortunate to have Ms. Kane participate in an interview session after the film.

Hester Street is a story of immigration and assimilation.  Jake (Yankel) Bognovnik (Steven Keats), has been living in America for several years, working in garment sweatshop.  Jake lives as an American, not as a Jew; he has changed his name, shaved his beard, no longer wears a yamaka, sees women when he feels like it, and generally lives a secular life.  Though he cannot read or write, he has learned to speak English.  He looks down on his fellow immigrants who have not learned English, or who still cling to the old ways.  He's very attracted to Mamie (Dorrie Kavanugh), a young woman who is a frequent visitor to a local dance hall.  Mamie is very Americanized - dresses well, and, it turns out, is carefully saving her money to open her own dance hall.  But, just as Jake is getting to know Mamie better, he discovers that his father in Poland has died.  It becomes imperative that he bring over his wife Gitl, and their small son, Yossele (Paul Freedman).
Jake is horrified when he sees Gitl and Yossele.  She wears a sheitel, and conservative clothing.  Her son has a pais.  Jake's embarrassment is immediately obvious - he slaps Yossele for stroking his face (the child has never seen a man without a beard), and cuts off the pais the minute they arrive home.  He scolds Gitl for her garb, and demands that she remove her sheitel; she agrees to don a kerchief, but is horrified at the idea of showing her hair - she is a married woman - it would shame her to show her hair.

Just how much assimilation is required to make a home in a new world? For Jake, it is total, to the detriment of his religion and his culture.  To Gitl, a more moderate course is required.  She will learn English, she will adjust her garb to better fit into her new environment, but she will not give up her religion.

Gitl's mentor in change in played by Doris Roberts.  Her Mrs. Kavarsky is now a woman of New York, but one who understands the  collision of cultures that Gitl is trying to circumvent.  Mrs. Kavarsky is also aware that Jake is more interested in starting a new life with Mamie than in learning to accommodate his wife's needs.  Roberts is wonderful in the role.  She is strong and protective; she is also cagey.  She understands the workings of this marriage - Ms. Roberts gives the impression that perhaps Mrs. Kavarsky has lived through a similar problem.  Regardless, she comprehends the need to adapt, and carefully educates her new charge in the ways of the city.
The other influence on Gitl is Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), the boarder in the Bognovnik apartment.  Mr. Bernstein is an educated man, who in his youth wished to be a rabbi, but found he did not have the temperament for the job.  He now works in the garment factor with Jake, but his evenings are devoted to his studies, as he reads and comments on the Torah.  He also begins to tutor young Joey in Hebrew, something his father is unwilling - and unable - to do.  Thus, Gitl is able give Joey his culture, while still allowing him to adapt to a new land.  And Joey will get the education his parents do not have - he will also be able to read and write.

The performance that is most impressive is that of Carol Kane.  Much of her dialogue is in Yiddish (we learned in the Q&A that accompanied the film that Ms. Kane learned the script phonetically), and she must convey her story with her eyes.  Below is the scene in which she arrives at Ellis Island.  Watch her as she tries to comprehend the confusion around her, as she first sees her husband, and as she begins to understand that the man that she married is gone.

Filmed at a miniscule budget of $400,000 (it was filmed in New York City in 34 days), the film was only seen by the public thanks to the tenacity of producer Raphael Silver (the husband of the director), who brought it to the Cannes Film Festival.  The word of mouth allowed them to open it in New York, and finally to a wider audience.  This TCM article goes into greater detail on the trials of getting the film produced and out to its audience.  This glowing review from the New York Times provides a glimpse into the reception the film received at the time.

As promised, we leave you with Gitl's arrival at Ellis Island: