Friday, June 19, 2015

Barbara's in Burlesque

Based on Gypsy Rose Lee's mystery novel, The G-String Murders, Lady of Burlesque (1943) stars Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie Daisy (aka Deborah Hoople), star of the Old Opera House's burlesque show.  When the police raid a performance, and Dixie tries to escape, she is nearly strangled by someone. Only the arrival of a stagehand saves her.  Several days later, another of the performers is found strangled to death, her g-string tied around her neck; it becomes apparent that someone has found a very deadly method of closing down the Old Opera House.

Without giving too much away, the location of the action - an opera house - and the presence of a watchman, who not only used to be an opera singer in the house, but is also somewhat crazy, brings to mind The Phantom of the Opera.  This is not to say that Lady of Burlesque is great literature - it's not.  But it is fun; once you realize that the plot has very little to do with burlesque, and is a murder mystery, the sooner you will enjoy it.  As this New York Times review says, perhaps the movie should have just been called "Murder in the Old Opera House".  But that probably wasn't titillating enough.
The film, of course, had it's problems.  The studio originally planned to have Gypsy Rose Lee play herself (in the book, Dixie is, in fact, Ms. Lee), and use the title of her novel.  Not surprisingly, the Production Code Administration objected to the title of the book, and to the strip-tease aspect of the burlesque house.  So, we never actually see Dixie strip - we see her throw a muff and reactions from the audience!  This TCM Article and the accompanying notes page will give you more information on the films troubles with the PCA.

Though released in 1943, the film has absolutely nothing to do with World War II.  A text crawl at the beginning of the film is the only thing to remind us that there is a war going on: "Along the Great White Way, Before the lights went out..."  We  know from that opening and by the fact that burlesque was almost completely gone by early 1940s, that this film is set in the not-too-distant past.  It is pretty clear that the Old Opera House is one of the last of the burlesque houses open. By 1942, Mayor LaGuardia of New York City had pretty much shut down all of the burlesque houses. Those that were left struggled to survive, as did the performers.  As we see in this film, the performers seem to have no where else to go - which makes the idea that someone is trying to close down the Old Opera House even more important to the story line.
Stanwyck does her own singing, and, as is mentioned in the New York Times review (above) the film highlights her dancing talents.  After all, Stanwyck started her career in New York City, dancing at the Ziegfeld Follies, and branching out to do Broadway plays and musicals (like Keep Kool in 1924 and Tattle Tales in 1933).  She even appeared in Broadway play entitled Burlesque (1927), in which she played Bonny, the show's leading lady.  Lady of Burlesque must have felt very familiar to this talented woman.  She's lots of fun in the role - brash and daring, and very self-sufficient.  Her verbal tennis with Biff Brannigan really makes the movie.

Michael O'Shea (Biff Brannigan) had an interesting career.  This was his first of 21 film appearances.  He also appeared in a number of television shows.  His second marriage, to Virginia Mayo, lasted for 26 years, until his death at age 67 from a heart attack.  When film work dried up, he began another career, working as a plainclothes operative for the CIA.

Iris Adrian (Gee Gee) is another actress with extensive credits - 160 credits to her name, mostly playing ditzes. She began her career with a couple of silent shorts, and continued acting until the 1980s - at the end of her career working in television and in Disney films. She died at age 82, as the result of injuries suffered in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
So, take a look at this cute little film, and relish Ms. Stanwyck as she tries to save her theatre.  In the meantime, we'll leave you with an early scene from the film, in which Biff tries to romance Dixie (and we find out Dixie's real name):

Monday, June 15, 2015

Larry and Gloria Have an Understanding

Perfect Understanding (1933) stars Gloria Swanson as Judy Rogers and Laurence Olivier as her fiance, Nick Randall.  Judy and Nick are very much in love, but Judy is afraid of marriage, having seen several bad ones among her friends.  Nick assures her that their marriage will be different, and the two agree to sign a contract, agreeing that they will remain independent people after marriage, and will not allow jealousy to enter their lives.  But marriage isn't perfect, and the outside world intrudes into their fool's paradise.

The film is very reminiscent of both Cynara and Illicit: we again visit the woman who is fearful of marriage, and the man who ends up straying within the marriage.  However, this film takes those movies a step further.  The relationship between Judy and Nick is complicated when Nick suspects Judy of straying, even though he has already confessed his affair to his wife.  The double standard, that the man thinks it is okay for him to stray, but if his wife does, he is horrified, is the crux of this film.
To a greater degree, Gloria Swanson's real life story is far more interesting than the character she plays here.  Judy is rather banal; Swanson was not.  Married six times, she was also reported to have indulged in a number of affairs, both between and during her marriages.  In her autobiography, she claimed the great love of her life to have been Herbert Marshall; she was with him for over three years, but finally gave up when she realized he wasn't interested in divorcing his wife (Edna Best) for her.  But her most notorious assignation was with Joseph Patrick Kennedy.  He produced Queen Kelly for her (it was a flop).  Interestingly, Swanson named the son she adopted in 1923 Joseph Patrick.  A coincidence? Perhaps...  Swanson had actually invested money in this film; and her husband du jour (Michael Farmer) plays the part of George. Swanson does get some stunning clothing: gowns were by Ann Morgan and RenĂ© Hubert (who was uncredited). But it is hard to see why she felt so strongly about this film.

Thankfully, Laurence Olivier has lost the makeup man that he used the year before in Westward Passage, and Nick isn't the cad he'd played in the earlier film.  However, Nick is a bit of an idiot.  Bad enough he has an affair, but to go running to his wife with news of his indiscretion is not only stupid, it's unconscionable.  He knows Judy doubts the viability of marriage, so his confession just throws her even further into the fear that any continuing relationship with a single person is undoable.  So, while the film was interesting in the beginning, it eventually gets bogged down, primarily because Nick is so totally dense.   

Had the film had less of a double standard, and been more understanding of it's fragile leading lady, it would have been far better. We'll leave you with a trailer:

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ona's Hot

One of the more unusual things about The Hot Heiress (1931) is the opening - a sweet little ditty sung by a bunch of construction workers entitled "Nobody Loves a Riveter But His Mother."  The opening makes you think that the movie is a musical; though it has a few songs, it really isn't.  It's a sweet albeit rather tame pre-code movie about our titular heiress' love for an ordinary working guy, who happens to be a riveter.  The film stars Ben Lyon as Hap Harrigan, our working stiff and Ona Munson as  Juliette "Julie" Hunter, the heiress.  It also features Walter Pidgeon as Clay, the man Julie's parents (Homes Herbert and Nella Walker) actually want her to marry. And in a very small part, Thelma Todd as Lola, one of Julie's friends.

The plot is rather simple - Hap sees Julie sleeping in the morning while he is working (he's up high, and can see into the open window.  A little pre-code deshabille in the scene!).  Distracted, he misses a rivet as it is tossed to him; it lands on the floor of Julie's bedroom, starting a fire.  Hap and pal Tom Dugan (Bill Dugan) climb in to put out the fire, and Julie immediately falls for her hero.  The only problem? Her family, who wants her to marry longtime friend, Clay.
Much is made in the film of the class differences between Julie and Hap.  Even their vocabulary is different, with Hap, Tom and Margie very oriented to slang, whereas Julie and Clay speak far more precisely.  This speech difference is emphasized in the scenes in which Hap, Tom and Margie visit Julie's family home for a weekend outing.  It can be a bit disconcerting to the modern ear, but it clearly establishes the differences in the societies, and points out the snobbishness of the "upper" classes.  This is not a film that is sympathetic towards the rich.  Julie is the exception because she treats everyone equally.  In fact, it often seems that she is trying to escape the burdens of her family's wealth - she is not interested in the life they have mapped out for her.

The songs in the film were written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. As the film didn't do particularly well, the duo was not eager to continue in the film industry, negotiated an end to their contract, and headed back to Broadway, where they would write such notable musicals as Pal Joey, Jumbo, and Babes in Arms (all of which would eventually be made into films). This TCM article goes into more detail on their departure from Hollywood.  And while this is perhaps not their best work, we enjoyed the song "Nobody but You" in particular.  The YouTube video below features the first scene with the song.  You also get nice views of our two couples: Juliette and Hap, and Tom and Margie:
It was quite enjoyable to see Walter Pidgeon in a supporting role, as well as a role in which he is rather a heel.  Though never stated, it sometimes seemed that Clay might only be interested in Julie for her money.  He associates with the right circles, and nothing is ever said, but could his family have lost their fortune in the Depression?  Regardless, Clay doesn't seem to love her; the marriage is one that he just assumes will happen.  Her rejection seems more of an inconvenience to him than anything else.

At first glance, we did not recognize Ona Munson as the actress who would go on to play Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.  She's lovely here - cute and pert, with a sweet singing voice.  Munson had a respectable career, appearing in 20 films and three television episodes between 1928 and 1953, and 8 Broadway plays, beginning in 1919.  Her life, however, was a complicated one.  She married three times, but was also rumored to have had affairs with Dorothy Arzner, Marlene Dietrich. and Alla Nazimova.  This brief article from Film Comment provides more detail.  She committed suicide at age 51, after a long illness. 
Inez Courtney who played Margie, was perhaps our favorite character.  Margie is someone who, despite her lower class upbringing, fits in anywhere.  Julie's affection for her is transparent, and, when she is a guest at the Hunter home, it is Margie who has all the male guest crowded around her, and they all obviously are enjoying her visit. Courtney also started our on Broadway - she played Babe in the original staging of Good News, among other things. Between 1930 and 1940, she made 58 film appearances.  At the end of her contract, however, she decided to retire and move to Rome with her husband, an Italian nobleman.  (She opted to not use her title of Marchessa)  She died in 1975, aged 67, in Neptune, New Jersey.

Nella Walker, who plays Julie's mother, seemed to have been playing mothers and society matrons from the time she was young. From 1929 to 1954, she appeared in 117 films, primarily in supporting parts.  Included in her list of excellent films is Stella Dallas, in which she was the future mother-in-law of Laurel Dallas; and In Name Only, as Cary Grant's mother.  Her final film would have her playing the mother to Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in Sabrina (she was 13 older than her senior "son", Bogart).  At the end of the filming of Sabrina, she decided to retire She died in 1971

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.  As you can see, the noise created by construction has not changed very much in 85 years.  And for New York City people like us, the vision of a construction site right next to our bedroom window is nothing new either:

Monday, June 1, 2015

Barbara Pines

Barbara Stanwyck has a relatively small part in Executive Suite (1954).  She plays Julia O. Tredway, the daughter of the late head of the Tredway Corporation, a respected furniture manufacturer, now headed by Avery Bullard (voiced, but unseen, by Raoul Freeman).  However, Julia and her love for Bullard are not the focus of the film; Executive Suite is the story of a critical moment in the history of the Tredway Corporation, as the company's various executives battle for control of the firm after the death of Bullard.

The film marks a reunion for Stanwyck and William Holden (McDonald "Don" Walling).  Stanwyck was the star of Golden Boy (1939), and Holden was a newbie when he appeared in the title role.  As the film rushes came in, Harry Cohn made it clear that was not satisfied with Holden's performance, and was going to replace him.  Stanwyck defended him, and worked with him to improve his performance (Check out this TCM article for that story and others).  Golden Boy became Holden's breakthrough role.  Stanwyck and Holden remained friends, and he tried for years to convince the Academy to present her with an Honorary Oscar for her body of work.  Ultimately, he did succeed, but by the time she received the award, he had died.  In this video, you can will see Holden's praise of Stanwyck at the 1977 Oscars, and her moving acceptance speech in 1983 as she expresses her affection for her "Golden Boy".
The film actually belongs to Holden's Don Walling, the head of Tredway's research and development arm, and on his evolution into becoming a leader.  Disillusioned by his mentor, Bullard, but nevertheless grieved by his death, Don becomes convinced that only he among the corporate vice presidents can keep Tredway afloat.  His passion for a quality product and for the continued stability of the company put him at odds with other members of the board of directors.  Holden gives Don the necessary sincerity and gravitas needed to lead a major corporation.  He also demonstrates a devotion to his wife Mary Blemond Walling (June Allyson) and son Mike (Tim Considine). While some of his colleagues consider him too young to lead a company, the film focuses on his growth into the new position.

Also remarkable is Fredric March as Loren Phineas Shaw, the chief financial officer for the company.  Shaw's economies have put him at odds with Don, having advocated for and won approval of a cheap brand of furniture that, while enhancing the company's coffers, proves an embarrassment to the firm's employees and to many members of the board. March gives Shaw a number of small tics that quickly define his character for the viewer - watch how he constantly wipes his hands.  His Shaw is a character you cannot like, and March is not afraid to make him, while not quite a villain, at the very least an unattractive individual.
A greater portion of the film's $1.25 million budget went to actors' salaries, and to good effect, because each actor gives a distinct three-dimensionality to the characters.  Though only in about 3 scenes, Shelley Winters is excellent as Eva Bardeman, the secretary and mistress of Josiah Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas). Walter Pidgeon's Frederick Y. Alderson gives us a man at the end of his career, who must face the fact that he will never rise to the heights of power that he always hoped was his future. But especially worth noting is the performance of Nina Foch as Bullard's executive secretary, Erica Martin.  Foch was nominated for an Oscar for her brief, but powerful performance as a woman who is privy to her late employer's secrets, but who is the soul of discretion.  In the clip below, Foch describes her conversations with the film's producer John Houseman and director, Robert Wise, as they took a tiny, weak part and made it into the small gem that you see today. To make Erica a real person, Foch and Wise created a backstory for her:
The film opens with point-of-view camera work.  Since we are seeing the world through the eyes of Avery Bullard, his sudden death is quite shocking.  As a result, we never actually see Bullard, not even a photo of him.  This allows the audience to create their own picture of him, based on the various portraits that his colleagues paint.

Also very interesting is the credit role.  We are all used to credits which show brief names of the characters' next to that of the actors, but Executive Suite gives us the characters full names - names that were not used within the film.  We learn that Don Walling's name is actually MacDonald, and that his wife's maiden name is Blemond.   Again, the character's begin to have a life outside the frame of the story - they have a past.  They will have a future.

We were unfamiliar with Lucille Knoch, who the end credits inform us was Mrs. George Nyle Caswell (the wife of Louis Calhern's manipulative George Caswell - another masterful character creation), not his mistress, as we all had assumed.  Ms. Knoch quite good in this part.   She had a relatively short career - this was possibly the largest role she ever had.  She seems to have stopped acting after 1957; she died in 1990.
Interestingly, the film did have a future, of sorts.   It was made into a TV show from September 1976 through February 1977.  It lasted for only 18 episodes, which is not surprising, considering the new show's competition was Monday Night Football, The Rockford Files, and the NBC Movie of the Week.   Given that competition, it's shocking that it made it past the first month.   Only the Don and Helen Walling characters continued in the TV show - they were played by Mitchell Ryan and Sharon Acker.  Even the name of the company was changed in the prime-time soap opera.  It was now the Cardway Corporation.  You can see a advertisement for the show on YouTube.

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film - an introduction to all the characters, including Stanwyck's Julia Tredway: