Friday, July 31, 2015

Barbara Tempts Fred

Thanks to TCM's Fathom Events series, we were able to view Double Indemnity (1944) in a theatre on a big screen. And what a difference it makes!  The action becomes all the more intense, and you notice little things that you never saw before (like the fact that Walter Neff inexplicably wears a wedding ring).  And the performances fairly sizzle!  But regardless of the screen size, this is a film that has appeared on the AFI's 100 Greatest Movies list (at #38), on their list of greatest love stories (#84), greatest thrillers (#24), and greatest villains - the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (#8).

A brief rundown of the plot is in order:  We meet Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), as he literally shuffles into his office.  He turns on his Dictaphone; his coat falls back, and we see a hole in his shoulder.  He begins to record a message for his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), regarding a recent insurance claim: "you said it wasn't an accident, check. You said it wasn't suicide, check. You said it was murder... check."  And thus begins Walter's "confession" of the murder of his client, Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and his torrid affair with Dietrichson's wife, Phyllis.
We were treated to an introduction by Robert Osborne; this TCM article will provide some of the information he discussed.  For example, Alan Ladd and George Raft were originally asked to play Walter Neff; both turned the part down - Raft because he wouldn't be playing the good guy (Brian Donlevy is another actor who allegedly passed on the role).  Fred MacMurray was the next choice. MacMurray was also not sure that the part was for him, but director Billy Wilder thankfully convinced him otherwise.  MacMurray is a revelation as Neff; one wonders at the reaction of audiences from 1944, who were only familiar with MacMurray's prior work as a light comedian in romances.  Two reviews provide only the merest glimpse: this New York Times was not enthused by the film, while Variety praised Fred MacMurray for his "considerable restraint" as Neff.  Wilder would later cast MacMurray as the philandering executive Walter Sheldrake in The Apartment.  Again, according to this AFI article, some amount of convincing was required on Wilder's part.

Edward G. Robinson was also not originally thrilled to be playing Keyes.  Robinson had spent his career since Little Caesar playing the lead.  Now, though his name was still above the title, he was third billed, and playing a character part to MacMurray's leading man role.  However, his willingness to take on a character part paid off well.  He is outstanding as Keyes - smart and interesting.  A lesser actor would have not had the power to threaten Walter's complacency over his perfect crime.  Robinson, who had long played overpowering men (despite his diminutive size), continues to do so with this cagey insurance executive.  His importance as an actor within the genre of film noir is undeniable.  After Double Indemnity, he would go on to impressive performances in such noir classics as The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, and The Stranger (where he again chose the character part to great effect).

The current ending of the film was not the one written by co-author Raymond Chandler.  Originally, the film would have ended with Walter's execution in the California gas chamber, but following previews the scene was cut - over Chandler's vocal objections (A scene in which Phyllis and Walter commit suicide was also written, but was rejected and never filmed).  The Production Code Administration's Joseph Breen found the execution scene "unduly gruesome", and Wilder did not feel that it matched with his vision of the film, so it was excised from the picture.  Though lost, production stills of the scene survive.
And then, there is Stanwyck.  She is amazing as Phyllis - beautiful, smart, passionate, but cold and calculating.  Watch her eyes as her husband dies in the car seat beside her - you can see into her soul in that scene.  The Modern Times blog discusses Stanwyck's concerns with the role - her fascination with the character, and her fear that she - who had never played such a whole-hearted villain before - was not equipped to play  the complex part.  Luckily, Billy Wilder thought otherwise, and he again was able to get the right actor for the right part.   To me, her most interesting scene is the death of her husband, but the second scene that comes to mind when talking about the film is her descent down the staircase, her leg adorned with a gold anklet.  RogerEbert.com has an interesting article that discusses the anklet, which was not a part of James M. Cain's original story.  The addition of the anklet provides insight into both Phyllis and Neff - Phyllis marked, in a sense as the possession of a man she despises, and Neff, who finds the anklet almost as fascinating as the woman who wears it.  The anklet is a sexual bond between the two.
If you've never seen this impressive movie, by all means get hold of it (DVD, BluRay, streaming, rental, library - whatever meets your needs).  I'm sure you'll be as enamored of it as we are.  We'll close this with an early scene (and one which also raised a flag with the Breen office), Walter's first conversation with Phyllis (and you'll get to see the infamous anklet):

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ronald is a Thief

The Unholy Garden (1931), an early talkie starring Ronald Colman, was our film for this week.  Barrington Hunt (Colman) is a thief, on the run from the law.  He escapes to the Palais Royale, an "unholy garden", or thieves' hideout.  There, he meets Camille de Jonghe (Fay Wray) and her grandfather, the Baron Louis de Jonghe (Tully Marshall), who are also in hiding from the Baron's brother, from whom the Baron stole a sizeable chunk of money.  This also makes the Baron an attractive target for the criminals who inhabit the Palais.  They enlist Hunt to exercise his charms on Camille, in hopes of locating the hiding place of her grandfather's money (and of getting past the Baron's rather large handgun).  Hunt is attracted by the prospect of a large profit and some personal time with the lovely Camille, but the situation becomes complicated as he finds himself attracted to her.

There's not a lot to praise about this film - it's really a mess.  Colman is, of course, good, but he doesn't have a lot to work with.  A lot of the plot is jumbled (just WHY did the Baron steal his brother's money? Why did he bring his granddaughter along? And, WHY does she stay - she, seemingly, has her own money.)  Interestingly, this  New York Times review was quite favorable.  They found it a "packet of excitement and fun".  Their only complaint concerned the theatre's sound levels - too loud for Mordaunt Hall, even in 1931.  Despite the positive review, this TCM article says that the film did not really do well in the box office.  We agreed with the general public, and wondered if Mr. Hall saw a different film.
As you can see from the poster art, Colman's name is prominent in the advertising.  Yet, in the film credits, he is listed last, though clearly he is the star.  Nothing about his listing suggested his starring role; we found that odd.  We expected, at the very least an "AND" to separate him from his costars, but there was nary one to be found.  Colman had already had an extensive career in silent films and had made several talkies, including his turn as the gentleman turned investigator Hugh Drummond in Bulldog Drummond (1929). The billing was as peculiar as the film itself.
Fay Wray rather overdoes it as Camille - a lot of crying, cowering, and screaming.  She was two years away from the film in which her screams would make her a household name - King Kong.  Wray's career was long - from a short in 1923 to the TV movie Gideon's Trumpet (starring Henry Fonda) in 1980, but after King Kong, she was relegated to B films.  She retired - temporarily in 1942 - following her marriage to Robert Riskin, but returned to films in 1953, eventually finding a more secure home in television.  She died in 2004, aged 96.

We can't really recommend this one, unless you are a fan of Colman (which we are).  Just have your copy of Talk of the Town available to watch afterwards.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Does Jean Love Cary or Ronald?

The members of our group have all seen Talk of the Town (1942) before, but it has been some time since we visited this fantastic movie, and decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with this splendid cast of characters.  The film opens with the trial of Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant).  Dilg, an ardent activist, is accused of setting file to the Lochester Mills, and in the process, killing the night watchman Clyde Bracken (Tom Tyler).  The town is ripe for a lynching; in desperation, Leopold escapes from his cell, injuring his ankle in the process.  He arrives at the country home of Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), a childhood friend.  Nora is in the midst of cleaning the house, which she is renting for the summer.  Though she is not eager to assist Leopold, his injured ankle and the town's angry attitude convince her to give him shelter, at least until she can contact his lawyer, Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan).  However, a complication arises - Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), a noted Harvard jurist, arrives a day early.  Nora has to scramble to not only keep Leopold hidden and but also keep herself in the house, to hide him from the reclusive professor.  And if that isn't a big enough problem, the following day, Professor Lightcap finds out he is being proposed for the Supreme Court, so any kind of scandal will endanger his appointment - and a murderer living in his house is not the kind of publicity he needs.

In his book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris discusses the previews of the film.  It's widely known that Columbia decided to use audience previews to help them decide on the film's ending.  Two conclusions were shot: one with Cary Grant leaving with Jean Arthur; the other with Arthur selecting Ronald Colman.  That the film ends, thanks to audience reviews, with Grant is the result of those polls.  But what isn't as widely known is WHY the audience selected Grant.  According to Harris, the war-time audience (the film was released on August 20, 1942)  felt that Arthur should marry the man of draft age because "later on, the mature men will have [the women] all to themselves." (p. 167)  The idea that Nora would marry Leopold, see him off to war - and death - and ultimately end up with Michael (who is over 40 and therefore ineligible to serve)  is somewhat disturbing.  We wondered, had the survey been done a few years earlier, who would have won?  As much as our group adores Cary Grant, the consensus here was for the more stable, more mature, and more intelligent Michael Lightcap.  Leopold Dilg is just too much of a loose cannon (an unusual role for Mr. Grant) to appeal to our simpler tastes.  This TCM article goes into more detail on the tension between Colman and Grant, neither of whom was used to playing second fiddle to another actor, and on Colman's reluctance to appear in a Columbia film, due to his intense dislike of Harry Cohn (Stevens promised Colman that Cohn would never be on the set - and kept his word).
Director George Stevens was well-respected for romantic comedies, like The More the Merrier (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination as best picture) and Woman of the Year, as well as for dramatic romances like Alice Adams and Penny Serenade.  However, upon his return from World War II, where he was one of the first people into Dachau as the Allied forces entered Germany (his footage was used during the Nuremberg Trials), Stevens remade his career, never venturing into comedy again.  Instead, he chose films that, to his mind would "tell the truth and not pat us on the back" (Harris, p. 418).  The Diary of Anne Frank, Shane, Giant (Oscar-winning Director of 1956, and A Place in the Sun (Oscar-winning Director of 1951) are among his magnificent post-war efforts.   Steven would continue directing until 1970.  He died in 1975, aged 70.
There are some wonderful character actors in the film.  Edgar Buchanan, who had already worked with Grant and Stevens on Penny Serenade, appears as Sam Cade, Dilg's lawyer and an old school chum of Lightcap's. Glenda Farrell has a small part as Regina Bush, the rather crude and gabby girlfriend  of the "deceased" Clyde, and Lloyd Bridges has a brief appearance as Donald Forrester, Lochester's newspaper editor and reporter.  But the performance that stands out (and even rates a mention in this New York Times review) is that of Rex Ingram as Lightcap's valet, Tilney.  Though playing a servant, Tilney is a quiet, distinguished man.  More than just a valet, he serves as Lightcap's confidant and occasional adviser, for Tilney, unlike Lightcap, has seen something at the world.  He has even been married, albeit unsuccessfully.  Ingram had a relatively long career, beginning his film work in 1918's Tarzan of the Apes, and concluding with an appearance on The Bill Cosby Show in 1969.  A graduate of Northwestern University's medical school, he left for Hollywood, then for Broadway, where he appeared in 13 plays from 1934 to 1962.  He died in 1969, aged 73.

All in all, this is a film we highly recommend, and perhaps is close to being an essential.  We'll leave you with this video, to whet your appetite -  the first meeting between Professor Lightcap and Miss Shelley.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Introducing...Cary!

We return to the land of the pre-code with This is the Night (1932). We are introduced to Gerald Gray (Roland Young), a wealthy man-about-town who is having an affair with Claire Mathewson (Thelma Todd), seemingly under the nose of her athlete husband, Stephen (Cary Grant).  When Stephen returns suddenly, and finds his wife with Gray and packing, the pair fabricate an excuse for the trip Claire is obviously planning - Claire will be accompanying Gray and his wife to Venice.  Stephen decides this will be a perfect interlude with his wife, and an opportunity to meet Mrs. Gray.  The very unmarried Gerald must find a wife, and fast.  He hires Germaine (Lili Damita) - a young innocent who needs a job, and manages to convince Gray and his best friend Bunny West (Charlie Ruggles) that she is a woman of the world.  Will Stephen be convinced that Germaine is Gray's wife, or will he decide she is a better choice for himself than Claire?

Had this not been the first film of Cary Grant, it is likely it would have been forgotten long ago.  It's pretty silly, in a number of ways.  In fact, Grant himself loathed the film and the character of Stephen, who he considered to be a nitwit.  Following the premiere of the film, he was afraid he would be typed as the cuckolded husband for the rest of his career.  He got quite drunk, and decided to leave film entirely.  However, several of his friends, including Orry-Kelly, persuaded him to stick it out.  (Thank heavens).  He would make a total of seven films in 1932, including Blonde Venus (starring Marlene Dietrich), Hot Saturday (with Nancy Carroll), and The Devil and the Deep (with Charles Laughton).  The following year, he launched into the role of the male lead - a position he would never relinquish in his 34 year film career - in Mae West's She Done Him Wrong.   For more on Grant and the film's background, see this TCM article.
It's also somewhat hard to envision the slight, balding, nebishy Roland Young as the love interest of not one, but two, women.  Can one really imagine preferring him to Cary Grant? It is a stretch, but the films asks us to do so (without, I might add, much success).  Young was far better used in movies such as Topper, Ruggles of Red Gap and especially Give Me Your Heart, where he played a successful suitor, but of a more age and temperament appropriate woman.  Young was already 45 when the film was released, and frankly looks older.  His career began on the London stage, continued into silent and talking films, the Broadway stage, and into television.  In fact, his last appearances were in 1953 - the year he died - on the television show The Doctor and in the film That Man from Tangier.  A gifted actor, This is the Night just does not show him to advantage. 

Lili Damita is fine as Germaine, but it's difficult to understand her attraction to Gerald, given that there is no real romance between them. Even the ending of the film has them staring into each others eyes, nary a kiss to be seen.  She began her career in France, and came to America as sound burst on the scene.  Her career was not especially long, and she is best remembered now for her seven year marriage to her much more renowned second husband, Errol Flynn (she was previously married to Michael Curtiz).  She made her last film in 1938.  Her only child, Sean Flynn disappeared in Cambodia in 1970, where he was working as a photojournalist.  Damita spent several years trying to locate him, sadly to no avail.  For more information on her, visit this New York Times obituary.
With all the hanky-panky in the film, it's no wonder the Hays Office complained about it.  Never mind the blatant affair between Gray and Claire. The continuing motif of Claire losing her dress in public is quite risque (And given the dresses Claire almost has on, it's apparent there is nothing much under them).  The entry from the AFI catalog goes into more detail on Paramount's issues with the film's content.
The film was based on a Broadway play, Naughty Cinderella, which ran from November of 1925 to February of 1926. The part of Gray was played by English actor Henry Kendall, who also appeared in a number of films, including Hitchcock's Rich and Strange.  The play was also made into a silent film, Good and Naughty, with Pola Negri as Germaine and Tom Moore as Gray.  We can't really recommend the film especially, but it is fun to see Cary Grant begin his illustrious career (after all, even Shakespeare had clunkers!)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Barbara Marries Joel

Banjo on My Knee (1936) begins at the wedding of Pearl Elliott (Barbara Stanwyck) to Ernie Hollie (Joel McCrea).  Ernie and his father, Newt (Walter Brennan) live and work on the Mississippi, they are, as the introduction to the story tells us, part of a community of riverboat people who live outside of towns.  Pearl is an outsider (we are not told how she and Ernie met), just that she was a servant in her past life, has little education (she never got past the 4th grade, and can just barely read and write her name), and she loves Ernie dearly.  She is readily embraced by her new community, with the exception of Leota Long (Katherine de Mille), and it looks like all will be well.  But the arrival of Mr. Slade (Victor Kilian), a local businessman, creates a problem - he gets fresh with Pearl, Ernie decks him, and everyone thinks Mr. Slade (who fell over the side of the boat) is dead.  Ernie has to get out of town immediately.  Of course, Mr. Slade is fine, Ernie returns from 6 months at sea with money in his pocket.  And a plan - he is going to leave again (and leave Pearl) to head to Aruba, where he will set up a home for them.  Incensed, Pearl leaves him; first Ernie, then Newt go looking for her.  But Ernie is a man with a temper, who doesn't have the best judgement in the world, so finding Pearl becomes very complicated. 
Stanwyck's Pearl is an appealing character.  Despite her lack of education, she is intelligent and self-sufficient.  She didn't marry Ernie to support her - we quickly see that she is well able to take care of herself.  She is also honest and forthright.  When Warfield Scott (Walter Catlett) takes her to New Orleans to "work" for him, she arranges to pay back his expenses, rather than become his mistress.  Her relationship with her father-in-law also demonstrates the character's virtues.  In the long run, Newt is much more sympathetic to his daughter-in-law than he is to his son.  A little willing suspension of disbelief is needed in the film - though Stanwyck is supposed to be a poor girl, she's got awfully nice clothing (costumes by Gwen Wakeling). We also get the added treat of seeing Stanwyck, the Broadway performer.  She again is allowed to do her own singing, and dances a perky routine with Buddy Ebsen (Buddy).

Joel McCrea, on the other hand, has a fairly thankless role as Ernie.  Ernie is an immature idiot, and is not very good husband material.  In fact, we found Ernie to be very reminiscent of Ed, the character he plays in The Primrose Path.  Given the choice of Pearl ending up with Ernie or Chick Bean (Anthony "Tony" Martin), we were rooting for Chick, a much more attractive character.   

Joel McCrea very much wanted to work with Stanwyck again after they appeared in Gambling Lady (1934), and the feeling was mutual.  Stanwyck requested McCrea as her leading man in  Internes Can't Take Money (noted for being the first Dr. Kildare movie).  And McCrea returned the favor when her requested her as is his lead in Trooper Hook (1957), their final of 6 films together.  For more information on their partnership and friendship, visit these TCM articles.
The opening of the film is a bit slow, but once Pearl relocates to New Orleans, the action picks up.  William Faulkner was hired to do some of the dialogue writing on the film, but none of what he wrote survived; Nunnally Johnson gets the actual screenwriting credit.  The country background is always evident; even when Newt and Pearl go to the city, Newt's contraption is a constant reminder of his rural roots.  His determination to play "St. Louis Blues" to his son and bride on their wedding night calls up the idea of the country shivaree.

The film is full of notable character actors.  Walter Brennan, the man who was never young, plays Ernie's father, Newt.  Brennan, whose career would span from 1925 to 1975, with (according to the IMDB) 243 screen and television credits, is probably best known to some of us as the lead in The Real McCoys.  His film career is notable, winning an Oscar (the same year as this film) for Come and Get It, and appearing in such highly regarded films as Meet John Doe (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), My Darling Clementine (1946),  and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), to name a VERY few.  He was married for 54 years to his wife, Ruth (until his death in 1974 at the age of 80).  A noted conservative, he actually campaigned against Richard Nixon in 1972 for being too liberal.
Buddy Ebsen had nearly as long a career as Brennan, though he really made his greatest mark in television, most memorably in The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones. His gangly looks and rubbery dancing pretty much typecast him as a country guy, though in his later years, his more distinguished appearance helped him to get more interesting parts.  He started his career in vaudeville, dancing with his sister Vilma.  He continued doing films throughout his career (for example, the role of Doc in Breakfast at Tiffany's), but by1951, he was devoting more and more time to television.  He famousy danced with Shirley Temple in Captain January (1936), his first appearance without Vilma (she appeared with him in one film: Broadway Melody of 1936, then retired).  He's also remembered for being the first choice for the role of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, but the aluminum-based makeup landed him in the hospital and he was replaced by Jack Haley).  Like Brennan, he too was a conservative, and (though it was not in his home state), campaigned against his former colleague Nancy Kulp when she ran for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania in 1984. 

In a very small part is Theresa Harris, an African-American actress who has one scene - she sings St. Louis Blues in the New Orleans club.  If you've seen Baby Face, then you are familiar with her characterization of Chico in that excellent film.  She shares no scenes with anyone in this film (it probable that the number was inserted with the intent of removing it in the South).  But she would appear with Stanwyck one more time in The File on Thelma Jordan. This New York Times article discusses the career of Ms. Harris.

The Breen office was not entranced with the film, and demanded a number of changes, according to this AFI article.  They were especially concerned with what they saw as a preoccupation with Ernie and Pearl's wedding night festivities (or lack thereof).  Darryl Zanuck ultimately agreed to tone down the drinking and to make it more obvious that it is Newt's desire to serenade the couple (rather than his wanting a grandchild) that has him pushing them into bed.

So, while not a great movie, some excellent performances, and worth a look.  We'll end this week with Stanwyck singing "Where The Lazy River Goes By"