Friday, May 22, 2015

Barbara Has Breakfast

Our film this week in a romance from 1937.  Breakfast for Two features Herbert Marshall as Jonathan Blair, a ne'er-do-well playboy who has spent his adult life drinking, carousing, and ignoring the family business, the Blair Steamship Company of New York (except of course, for the income that it brings him).  On one of his drunken jaunts, he meets Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck).  Valentine is from a wealthy family, and is on a visit to NYC from Texas.  It doesn't take her long to decide that Jonathan is the man for her.  But Valentine is not willing to take him on as is, so she decides to rehabilitate him: force him to take responsibility for the steamship line (and its many employees) and, in the bargain, break up his affair with Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell), a gold-digging actress who only serves to aid and abet his bad behavior.  With the cooperation of Jonathan's valet, Butch (Eric Blore), Valentine begins her campaign to turn a boy into a man.

Stanwyck is delightful as Valentine.  She's tough and smart; much smarter, in fact, than Jonathan deserves.  We spent a good portion of the movie wondering just WHAT Valentine sees in Jonathan.  Part of the problem for that reaction rests on Herbert Marshall.  Put in contrast to the dynamic Stanwyck, Marshall is comes off as rather passive.  Forces revolve around him and he weakly responds.  He and Stanwyck really have no chemistry together; he is already a rather bland actor (which works beautifully in films such as The Little Foxes and The Enchanted Cottage), but here, he just is a nonentity.  

Though this was a film role Ms. Stanwyck was enthusiastic about getting (she found the light comedy a relief after the intensity of Stella Dallas), after this, she began turning down parts from RKO.  During her suspensions, she got work on the radio, including several roles on the Lux Radio Theatre (These Three, Dark Victory, and Morning Glory are a few examples).

Herbert Marshall had an interesting and lengthy career.  He began in film during the silent era (his first film was in 1927 - Mumsie) , but already had an extensive stage resume, appearing in his first play in 1911 (Lady Ursula).  He served in the army during World War I (in a regiment that also included Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, Cedric Hardwick, and Claude Rains).  Shot by a sniper in the knee, his leg was eventually amputated just below the hip.  He determined to return to acting -  his limp was barely noticeable, in spite of being in some pain, both from phantom limb syndrome and from the pressure of the prosthetic itself.  Interestingly, his second silent film (now in Hollywood) was in The Letter, as the murdered lover Geoffrey Hammond.  He segued to the role of the husband, Robert, in the Bette Davis remake.  Mr. Marshall continued acting in films and on television until the year before his death.  He died, age 75, in 1966 of heart failure.

We were also amused by Donald Meek as the Justice of the peace who cannot pronounce the name Jonathan (it comes out as Joe-Nathan).  Each time Jonathan corrects him, he waggles his finger and proceeds to mis-pronounce the name yet again.  But the funniest one in the movie is, without doubt, Eric Blore.  His Butch is loyal to his boss, but sick and tired of Jonathan's laissez-faire attitude towards life.  Blore plays Butch as almost fatherly towards this man he sees as "his charge".  And while Jonathan's infantile behavior might once have been amusing, Butch now sees it is time for him to grow up and assume some responsibility.

Totally wasted is Glenda Farrell.  She's merely a blonde bimbo who has little to do but shriek and look vexed.  She has little dialogue, and isn't given even the merest chance to show what she can do.  Too bad.  She could have been a better foil for Stanwyck.
The film's sets are gorgeous and ornate, reflective of the Jonathan's opulent lifestyle.  Originally titled A Love Like That, it was filmed in sequence.  See this TCM article for more background information.

The window washer scene, which is a particularly funny routine, was based on a vaudeville routine that the director (Alfred Santell) saw years earlier in the The Gus Edwards Kids Act,  Edwards was a vaudeville staple, but was also a composer, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame

We leave you with a delightful scene between Marshall and Farrell. We'll be back soon with more Stanwyck.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Gene Dances in the Rain

In celebration of National Classic Movie Day our contribution to the blogathon being hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe is the magnificent Singin' in the Rain (1952).  We had the pleasure of seeing it recently at the Strathmore Music Center, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra accompanying the film.  Computer technology, it seems, allows them to strip the music, but leave all the voices in place - thus, Gene and Donald and Debbie get to sing with a magnificent symphony orchestra providing support. 

Singin' in the Rain is the story of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a silent movie star who is faced with the loss of his career as the sound era begins.  He and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) hatch a plan - to take the horrid sound melodrama that their studio is about to release and turn it into a musical. The problem? Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), Don's addle-pated co-star, who has a voice like air raid siren.  So, they enlist the help of Don's great love, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to supply Lamont's singing and speaking voice for this one picture.

With the exception of "Moses Supposes" and "Fit as a Fiddle" ("Make 'Em Laugh" contains the music of "Be a Clown", with new lyrics), all of the songs in Singin' in the Rain are recycled from other films (this article will give you a rundown of where the songs first appeared).  And the story, in some senses, hearkens back to early Rooney-Garland "let's put on a show" musical comedies.  Yet, Singin' in the Rain is unique and brilliant, and possibly the greatest musical ever made - certainly the American Film Institute places it highly.  On their list of the 100 Best Love Stories, it placed 16.  On their list of the100 Best Movies, it placed 5th.  It was number in the list of the 100 Best Songs, and in the list of the 100 Best Musicals, it wins as number 1!  There are many reasons why, not the least of which is an outstanding cast, and dance numbers beyond parallel.
Gene Kelly both stars in and co-directs (with Stanley Donen) the film.   His masterful dancing is especially evident in the "Broadway Ballet" (his partner in that number is the glorious Cyd Charisse), and in the even more famous title song routine.  There is a special joy in the latter number that is rarely scene in film.  Don's jubilance in his newly found love is contagious.  It's impossible to watch the him dance through a heavy rain without wanting to join him.

In her first major role, Debbie Reynolds is lovely.  She is a combination of innocence and spunk that only she is able to portray.  She learned to dance on the set; mostly taught by Gene Kelly, but also by Fred Astaire, who was visiting the set one day.  This video from AFI has Reynolds describing the encounter.

Donald O'Connor is masterful in the role of Cosmo.  As impressive a dancer as Gene Kelly is, it is next to impossible to NOT watch O'Connor when they dance together.  It's also hard to understand why O'Connor is not up there with Kelly and Astaire in the oft-named great dancers.  He could do it all - tap, novelty, ballroom; was an impressive actor, and an excellent choreographer.  In this tribute written by Roger Ebert at the time of O'Connor's death,  the genesis of the "Make 'Em Laugh" number is discussed.  O'Connor invented the dance due to an injury that forced Kelly to pass the reigns to him - and gave him some extra time to do it.  He would go on to receive a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.     

Which brings us to the true shining light of Singin' in the Rain, the always wonderful Jean Hagen.  Her Lina Lamont is a work of genius - vain, selfish, quite dense, but not ever stupid, Lina is a character you can't like, but adore anyway.  Like my fellow blogger at A Person in the Dark, I'm appalled that she was snubbed for a well-deserved Oscar (and didn't even get a Golden Globe nomination!)  But we can still revel in her artistry, and laugh at her dialog, delivered in a voice that is far from her own.  When you watch the film, pay close attention to the dialogue in the reworked sound version of  "The Dancing Cavalier".  It was decided by the powers-that-be at MGM, that Debbie Reynolds voice wasn't quite the thing for the dialogue, so they went back to the source - Jean Hagen spoke for herself, without the shrill LaMont cadence.  The section of notes from the AFI Movie Page provides a wealth of backstory on the film, as do these TCM articles.

The film opened on March 27, 1952 at Radio City Music Hall, hallmarking it as a prestige film (the opening also featured the Rockettes in "The Glory of Easter", a pageant second only to their Christmas show).  The New York Times review was not exactly an enthusiastic "thumbs-up".  Bosley Crowther, however, has been proven wrong by history, and we still have this film to watch (repeatedly, in my case).  I'll leave you with Ms. LaMont being wired for sound - a wonderful moment with a great actress, and a bit of film history to boot.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Barbara is Back with Fred

Every actor has that little known film that you think should be more highly regarded: There's Always Tomorrow (1956) is one of Barbara Stanwyck's.  In it, she plays Norma Miller Vale, a successful fashion designer who decides to drop in on an old friend, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) while vising Los Angeles on business.  Norma worked for Cliff over 20 years before, when he was a beginning toymaker and she was the designer for his doll clothing.  In the intervening time, he has become a successful businessman with his own toy manufacturing business.  He has a wife, Marion (Joan Bennett) and three children: college man Vinnie (William Reynolds), high-school drama queen Ellen (Gigi Perreau) and middle-school ballerina Frances (Judy Nugent).  Despite his success and a marriage that seems a happy one, Cliff is desperately unhappy - he is virtually ignored by his children, and his wife shows little understanding for his need to connect with her.  So, when Norma shows up on his doorstep, their former friendship rekindles, but into something much deeper.

MacMurray is the focus of most of the film's action.  He shows us a man desperate for a closer relationship with his wife and children, but always ignored by a family that is just too busy for him.  He seemingly has few friends - when his wife is unable to accompany him to the theatre, he has no one to call. The reappearance of Norma gives him a rope to grasp - someone to talk to, something he has not had for a long time.  MacMurray is able to clearly show the conflict within Cliff - he truly loves his wife, but he wants her to be a companion again, not just a mother.

Which brings us to Joan Bennett.  Her Marion is someone who has created an image of herself and her life that is entirely about her children.  She no longer views herself as Cliff's wife - he is secondary to her self-image.  In one scene, Norma shows Marion a stunning evening gown that she believes will be attractive to Cliff.  Marion dismisses it as "too young" for her; of course, it is gorgeous on Ms. Bennett, who has an amazing figure.  But Marion sees herself as old, and certainly not in need of a gown that would be sexually appealing to her husband.
In one scene, Marion runs down the awfully BUSY day she is going to have.  Among her duties - return books to the library, do the marketing.  As working women, we shook our heads in despair - we ran all her errands (minus bringing the youngest child to school) AND hold full time jobs.  And Marion has a housekeeper (Jane Darwell as Mrs. Rogers) - I'm sure it was rather hard for most film audiences to muster any sympathy for this rather privileged woman.

The children are the crux of the movie.  They are rude, selfish, and spoiled.  When their parents are speaking alone in their bedroom, the children walk in unannounced and interrupt.  They are rude to a guest in their parents' home.  Their father is treated by them only as a source of money.  Much of their behavior devolves back to Marion, who doesn't even tell her husband about his youngest daughter's ballet recital.  When Norma finally tells off the older two, you want to cheer.

Stanwyck is, as always, magnificent.  Norma loved Cliff deeply when they were young; it's something she has not really gotten over.  But neither of them is looking for a physical relationship.  They are seeking friendship; but because of Cliff's loneliness, the friendship begins to deepen for both of them.  Stanwyck treads a careful path - make Norma likeable as "the other woman".

To counterbalance the romance of Cliff and Norma, we have the beginning of young love - that of Vinnie and his fiancee Ann (Pat Crowley).  William Reynolds gives us a Vinnie that is a brat - a young man who is still, as Ann tells him, a little boy.  Pat Crowley is wonderful as Ann - she is a grown-up - the only one of the young people who see's Cliff's anguish, and the only one who knows he is not capable of deception.  We looked forward to her scenes; Ann is a great character.
This was not Reynolds first experience with Sirk - he had already appeared as Jane Wyman's selfish son in All That Heaven Allows.  He would go on to a career in television in The F.B.I.  Following that, he left acting to work as a businessman.  The young actresses who played his sisters also eventually left acting.  Gigi Perreau only recently made a few movies, after leaving acting in the 1970s; Judy Nugent (who also worked with Sirk in Magnificent Obsession) stopped acting in the 1962 - shortly after marrying actor Buck Taylor (they divorced in 1983).

This is an excellent movie, with a mature examination of infidelity.  Directed by Douglas Sirk, it is not surprising that the characters are adults.  He had already directed All That Heaven Allows (1955), another film that concentrates on a mature woman.  Our couple are not kids in first love - they are  middle-aged, with a host of adult issues that must be faced.  Interestingly, the film was not all that well received when it was released, as this New York Times review demonstrates.  That's unfortunate, especially now, when we so rarely see films about grown-ups.  Yes, the story is rather ordinary, but the acting and the actors make it very special.  This TCM article is much more appreciative of the subtleties of the narrative and of Sirk's storytelling.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film: