Monday, August 31, 2015

Jean Takes a Bath

Red Dust (1932) is the second pairing of that remarkable screen duo of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.  Not surprisingly, they make the screen sizzle from the minute their characters, Dennis Carson and Vantine Jefferson, meet.  Carson is the manager of a rubber plantation, somewhere in the jungles outside Saigon.  The work is dirty and unpleasant, and Carson finds it difficult to manage the native population of workers.  When Vantine arrives unbidden on his doorstep (she's avoiding the authorities in Saigon), their initial verbal battle turns to bedplay, and finally to love (on her part).  But when the time for her to leave arrives, Denny slips her some money, and scoots her onto the awaiting boat, just as surveyor Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his bride Barbara (Mary Astor) alight.  Denny thinks his only problem will be getting Willis accustomed to life in this backwater, but he is mistake, because Vantine returns (her boat broke down) and Barbara is proving even more irresistible to Denny than he ever could have imagined.

Clark Gable is wonderful as Dennis Carson; he makes the character appealing, as well as somewhat disreputable.  Dennis was raised on the plantation; his only absences were trips to Saigon for some R&R. It's not surprising that this man, who would probably have had very little acquaintance with any women but the native population (and whores in Saigon), would be so immediately captivated by Barbara.  She, to him, is exotic.  Whereas, Vantine, who is far better suited to the life he has selected, is just another hooker like those he periodically visits.  Gable is able to make us ignore his rather dastardly behavior - towards Vantine, towards Barbara, and towards Gary - but never allows us to forget it.
And then there is Harlow - wise, smart, strong, resourceful.  Her Vantine is capable of love, but smart enough to not let it ruin her life.  She tries to protect both Barbara and Gary, and she understands Dennis better than he understands himself.  Harlow's quick reaction to the payment Dennis offers her says so much about her character.  And Harlow is a smart enough actress to play the reaction down.  It's there - you see it, but she won't let Vantine - or the audience - dwell on it.  It is enough that we all know he has wounded her deeply.

The interlopers to the lives of Dennis and Vantine, the Willis', initially come off rather badly.  Barbara is officious and whiny; Gary seems like a wimp.  But, we eventually discover from Vantine that Gary is a rather nice guy; and is, in fact, the only person who treats her with kindness and courtesy.  Gene Raymond does a good job with the character - he is often cast as a weakling, but he does make Gary someone that you feel for.  You may be rooting for Gable's Dennis, but you want Dennis to realize that Gary cannot be hurt by his actions.
Astor's Barbara, never loses the officiousness.  She's constantly nasty to Vantine, as much from jealousy as anything else.  But one wonders if she resents Vantine's freedom?  Whatever happens, Barbara will never be anything but a "wife".  She has created herself in the image of her husband.  It is only at the very end of the film that Barbara finally gets a backbone, and does something neither man would do. You can't help but admire it (as Vantine does).  One scene that rather sums up Barbara is the couple's arrival at their new digs, and her horror on seeing the bathing area.  Contrast that to Vantine's freewheeling attitude towards her toilette - it nicely sums up both characters.

This TCM article mentions that the film did NOT run into any censorship issues - a surprise when you see the scene we are highlighting this week.  When Red Dust ran on The Essentials, host Robert Osborne commented on the friendship between Gable and director Victor Fleming that arose from their work on the film.  This relationship would culminate  in Fleming being selected to replace George Cukor as the director of Gone With the Wind - he was Gable's choice for director of what is perhaps Gable's most famous role.  Critic Mordaunt Hall, in the  NewYork Times was not particularly thrilled with the film, but fellow blogger at gave it his stamp of approval. We concur.
Red Dust is unusual in that it was remade over 20 years later with the same lead actor.  We'll take a look at Mogambo next week.  In the meantime, we'll leave you, as promised, with Vantine's bath.  Enjoy:

Friday, August 21, 2015

William Joins the Bar

Lawyer Man (1933) stars William Powell as Anton "Tony" Adam, a Lower East Side lawyer who demonstrates a skill in oratory that lands him a partnership with a highbrow, uptown law firm.  His secretary, Olga Michaels (Joan Blondell), accompanies him on his journey to the top, only to discover that Tony, who had professed love for her in the past, is now far more intrigued with his partner's sister, Barbara Bentley (Helen Vinson).  He's also very interested in publicity and big payouts.  As a result, he accepts the breach of promise case of Virginia St. John (Claire Dodd) - against the advise of his partner Granville Bentley (Alan Dinehart) and Olga.   Then, Virginia's lover Dr. Gresham (Kenneth Thompson) uses his reconciliation with her to have Tony tried for unethical behavior, with significant repercussions to Tony's personal and professional life. 

This is a fast-paced film, sometimes too fast, as the transitions from each stage of Tony's life can feel rushed.  Another problem with the film is that, though it is a film about the law, there are no courtroom sequences, something that was commented on in this Variety review and by fellow blogger, Immortal Ephemera.  We keep being told what a superb lawyer Tony is, but we never get to see him in action.  Perhaps because of the pace of the film, Tony feels like two different people - first he is the noble lawyer of the poor, madly in love with his secretary (though with an eye for the ladies), then he is the avaricious social climber, far more interested in a wealthy, upper-class matron.  However, it also seems that, despite his desires for fame and fortune, Tony never loses his belief in the law - evidenced by the statue of blind justice that accompanies him from office to office.
William Powell was not, it seems, the first choice for the role of Tony.  According to this TCM article, a news item in Film Daily noted that Edward G. Robinson was once considered for the lead. Powell is, as always, very good as the womanizing Tony.  Perhaps the hardest thing he has to do is make us believe that he can pass up Joan Blondell for Helen Vinson (I mean, really - is there even a contest?), but Powell gives Tony just enough naivety that you can see him being captivated by the power and class that Barbara represents.  

We've already discussed several of the 60 films that feature Claire Dodd: Our Blushing Brides (as a Mannequin - her first screen part), This is the Night (as the real Chou-Chou), Ex-Lady (as Iris Van Hugh, the "other" woman), and Ann Carver's Profession (as Carole Rogers, the drunken singer). Her role in Lawyer Man is quite short - she really has only a few scenes, but she is memorable as the vengeful Virginia St. John.  Ms. Dodd worked from 1930 til 1942 in a variety of parts.  Perhaps her most famous turn was as Della Street in two Perry Mason films - The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) and The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936).  In the latter film, she has the didistinction of being the only Della Street to actually MARRY Perry Mason!  When she remarried in 1942 (she was 40) she retired from film.  She already had one child from her first marriage - in the next 7 years, she had four more with her second husband.  Claire and her husband remained together until her death from cancer in 1973.

Though her part is relatively small, Joan Blondell is perfect as Olga.  Deeply in love with Tony, she refuses to play second fiddle to his fly-by-night attitude towards women.  It's clear that Olga will stick with him as a secretary, but her sassy attitude reminds him (and us) that she will not be second in his love-life.  It's hard to image anyone but Blondell in this part.  She has the vivacity, the beauty, but above all, the strength to make Olga credible. 

While as a whole our group did not rate this movie particularly highly, my fellow blogger at  and Mordaunt Hall at the New York Times gave it much more praise. I suggest you take a look at their opinions for more insight into this film. also supplies some interesting perceptions into why Lawyer Man is definitely a Pre-code film (with photos!).

We close with the film's trailer. Next time, another pre-code gem:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ronald Acts as Auctioneer

As promised, we return with a forgotten pre-code gem, starring Ronald Colman.  The Devil to Pay (1930) has Colman playing Willie Hale, the ne'er-do-well (but much beloved son) of Lord Leland (Frederick Kerr).  Lord Leland is an indulgent father, who has spent the last few years supporting Willie's "ventures", the latest of which ended with Willie auctioning off the contents of his Kenyan home in order to get passage money home.  Willie is an engaging young man, but too much enjoys life, especially when they including cards and horses.  And while Lord Leland is initially determined to disown Willie, his love for his son - who doesn't have a mean bone in his body - convinces him to welcome Willie back to the family's good graces, and even give him more money.  Willie determines to spend the money with his sister, Susan (Florence Britton), and her friend Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young).  Not surprisingly, this day of adventure results in Dorothy and Willie falling head over heels in love, despite the fact that she has a fiance (Paul Cavanagh as Grand Duke Paul), and he is intimately involved with an actress of some reputation (Myrna Loy as Mary Crayle).  Add to the mix, Dorothy's father (David Torrence) despises Willie, and you have a formula for conflict.

According to this TCM article, Ronald Colman was eager to play Willie.  He was intrigued with the comic aspects of the character.  Much of his silent career had involved heavy dramas like Stella Dallas (1925) and Beau Geste (1926), and he wanted to do lighter fare.  He is excellent in the role; though in many senses he is far to old to play Willie (he was 39 at the time), he is irresistible as this scalawag with a heart of gold.  Watch him in the scene where he resists spending £15 of the only £20 he's gotten from his father on a dog that he has already named George.  (In his New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall was quite taken with George as well). Colman is adorable.  He has a lovely, breezy relationship with both Loretta Young and Florence Britton in their scenes together.  You never doubt that he is a young man in his mid-20s. And the auction scene that opens the film is very funny - Colman immediately sets the tone for his character for the rest of the film; you will love Willie from that moment on.
We are given another treat:  Myra Loy as Mary Crayle.  She's excellent - she always is, but here, while she is playing "the other woman" she gives us a woman who is a genuinely nice person.  Her relationship with Willie is casual, and she sympathetic and supportive of his love for Dorothy. She is, in fact, a much nicer person than Dorothy.  Ms. Loy is a blonde in this film, perhaps to contrast her to the brunette Young.  We also get an almost nude scene, as Mary steps from a steam chamber.  Her work in this film did not go unnoticed - Louella Parsons praised Ms. Loy's naturalness in her review of the film (Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood)
Florence Britton is memorable as sister Susan.  It's a small part, but she brings a lot to it.  We get a real picture of the Hale family from her (and her father).  Susan serves as a contrast to her carefree brother, but without being stiff or forbidding; there is a warmth to her affection for Willie that doesn't necessarily condone his actions, but still loves him without question.  Ms. Britton had a  brief career - she made 14 films between 1929 and 1933 (we've already seen two of her films: Merrily, We Go to Hell and Brief Moment).  She would appear uncredited in Colman's Arrowsmith the following year.  She died, age 77, in 1987, having retired from the screen in 1933. 

Loretta Young replaced Constance Cummings in the lead, according to this article in the AFI catalog. Also replaced was the director, Irving Cummings (the name similarity is just a coincidence; they were not related.  Irving was born in New York City, nee Caminsky; Constance, in Seattle Washington, nee Constance Halverstadt).  With the replacements, many scenes had to be refilmed, as producer Samuel Goldwyn was unsatisfied with the performance.  

All in all, this is a film worth your time.  Next week, we'll be back with another pre-code film.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dr. Greer

Strange Lady in Town (1955) was of particular interest to me (and to my friends), because it is the story of a female doctor.  I've done some research on women physicians in film, and even presented a paper on the topic; I'd heard of this film, though never seen it before.  It proved to be an interesting addition to women physicians on film.  Strange Lady in Town tells the story of Dr. Julia Winslow Garth (Greer Garson), a Boston physician who has relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where her brother, Lt. David Garth (Cameron Mitchell) is serving in the military.  Dr. Garth is tired of the bias that has continually hobbled her medical career: male physicians in Boston routinely cut at her ability to practice.  She hopes that frontier medicine will enable her to advance her career and help her to help others.  But upon her arrival, she discovers from the spunky Carlotta "Spurs" O'Brien (Lois Smith) that her father,  Dr. Rork O'Brien (Dana Andrews) is yet another of those bigoted physicians, and she will need to get around him in order to grow her practice. 

One of the major problems with this film is the side plot that involves brother David and his predilection for illegal activities.  It seemed like it belonged in another movie, and that the growing list of David's crimes was artificial - merely a way for the townspeople to blame Julia for something.  David's not particularly likeable; one wonders what "Spurs" sees in him.  And why he is "bad" is never really explained - he has risen to a decent position in the military, and appears to be liked by his colleagues (when he isn't cheating them...).  He justifies his crime spree as being just who he is - he's bad; Julia is just too fond of him to notice (apparently, the Army was too fond to notice as well).  The main story:  the conflict between Doctors O'Brien and Garth, the growing relationship between "Spurs" and Julia, was far more interesting and engaging.
This is not to say that Dr. O'Brien is a particularly amiable man; in fact, he's pretty hard to tolerate.  He's ignorant and a bully - upon learning that Dr. Garth has studied under Lister, and subscribes to Lister's belief that sterilizing instruments and washing hands saves lives, O'Brien ridicules her.  In fact, he later complements her on her "perfume", only to learn that the scent is that of carbolic acid (Lister's prescribed sterilizing agent).  O'Brien's saving grace is his daughter.  "Spurs" is so likeable and engaging she mitigates her father's actions merely by her love for him.  Given "Spurs'" garb (she dresses like a boy), complete self-sufficiency, and genuine caring personality, combined with the  free-rein she is given by her father, how much of Dr. O'Brien's bias is genuine, and how much is just male-chauvinist bluster? The film's end (bit of a spoiler here) implies that he is all bluster, but it takes awhile to get there.
Lois Smith as "Spurs" is a revelation - you cannot help but like her; and she almost steals the movie from star, Greer Garson.  Smith, who is still actively working, has had a long career. She is primarily known for her television work - most recently, she appeared on True Blood as Adele Stackhouse; she also had a recurring role on ER, and was a regular on The Doctors.  An inductee into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, Ms. Smith has appeared in 20 Off-Broadway and 10 Broadway plays, including James Earl Jones' The Iceman Cometh in 1973-1974. I'm not sure if Bosley Crowther's comment on her performance in this review in the New York Times does her justice, but "Spurs" is a character with dignity.
Nick Adams appears VERY briefly as Billy the Kid; if you blink, you will miss him.  And Cameron Mitchell is good in the fairly thankless part of David.  But it is Greer Garson who is the star here, and she shines.  This TCM article discusses some of Ms. Garson's travails on the picture, not the least of which was an attack of appendicitis that ultimately required surgery (and none too soon - her appendix was about to burst).  Regardless, Ms. Garson was fond of the picture, having finally gotten to do an "outdoor role".

Strange Lady in Town is very reminiscent of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and we wondered if the creators of that show had ever seen this film.  This 2014 overview discussion of the film is worth taking a look at for the list that they compiled of women physicians in television westerns.  I'm hoping I can locate some of them.
We'll close with the scene in which Julia meets with "Spurs".  Next time, we'll be looking at a Ronald Colman pre-code film.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Edward G.'s Ancient Gang

We decided to return to the pre-code era this week, visiting Edward G. Robinson earlier in his career in the 1932 film The Hatchet Man (also called The Honourable Mr. Wong in the United Kingdom). Featuring an impressive cast of Caucasian actors all playing Asians, the film is quite politically incorrect, but has an ending that will knock your socks off.

Wong Low Get (Robinson) is the titular Hatchet Man for the Lem Sing Tong in San Francisco (a Chinese brotherhood that by modern standards would be the local mobsters).  The title of Hatchet Man is, as the opening crawl informs us, an honorable one that is handed down from father to son.  Following the death of the Tong's leader, the new chief, Nog Hong Fah (Dudley Digges) orders Wong to murder his best friend, Sun Yat Ming (J. Carroll Naish), who was complicit in the death of the leader.  Sun realizes that his death is imminent, and so makes out his will, leaving his fortune and the care of his 6 year old daughter, Sun Toya San (who will grow up to be Loretta Young), to the care of Wong.  His will also expresses his desire that Toya will wed Wong when she is of age.  The men talk, Sun forgives his friend for the deed he must commit, and Wong throws his hatchet.  We see a doll fall from the hand of the young Toya, its head hanging by a thread.  And then the story jumps forward 12 year.

We've already mentioned that this is a movie about the Chinese in America in which not ONE Chinese (or Asian) person appears.  As politically incorrect as this is in the 21st Century, this was standard practice in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.  As this TCM article points out, it was crucial to have a star name to tout, and those stars, of course, were Caucasian.  But, if you had a Caucasian done up to look Asian, next to a person of genuine Asian ancestry, the make-up on your white actor looked outlandish.  So, the decision was to hire an all-white cast, and everyone's make-up was the same.  Only here, it really isn't, as Edward G. Robinson is barely made up, compared to Loretta Young or Leslie Fenton (Harry En Hai).  As a result, Robinson maintains the facial expression that is crucial to his characterization while the other actors look as though they are wearing Halloween masks.
The other problem with the movie, from a modern perspective, is the relationship between Wong and Toya.  Wong raises her as a daughter, then marries her.  It is a trifle disturbing to think about, especially when you throw into the mix that Wong murdered her father.  But, Robinson's skill as an actor helps to mitigate the audience discomfort.  He is loving and gentle - he is even surprised when Toya consents to their marriage.  It's because of Robinson that the viewer can't help but feel sympathy for Wong.

The wonderful character actor J. Carrol Naish has a VERY small part, but as with most things Naish does, you don't forget him.  Naish had a long career, from 1925 until 1971.  He made the transition to television fairly seamlessly, and probably appeared as a member of every ethnic group on the planet. He was nominated for two Academy Awards (for Sahara in 1943 and A Medal for Benny in 1945, for which he was awarded the Golden Globe award).  Naish married his wife Gladys in 1929; they had one child and were together until his death of emphysema in 1973.  In his last role, he starred as Dr. Frankenstein in the low-budget Dracula vs. Frankenstein (which also featured Lon Chaney, Jr.).
Back in 2013, when we discussed She Had to Say Yes,  we talked about Loretta Young and her relationship with Clark Gable.  A new article on Loretta Young was recently released, and in light of our prior conversation, we thought it important to alert you to this new information.  Ms. Young's son, Chris Lewis, spoke to an interviewer about conversations he and his wife Linda had with Ms. Young.  After watching an episode of Larry King Live in 1998 (a show Ms. Young watched regularly), she asked Linda what "date rape" was.  Linda explained, and Ms. Young stated “That’s what happened between me and Clark.”  Ms. Young asked her son and daughter-in-law to keep the secret - she didn't want daughter Judy to think that her conception was totally without love.  But, with Judy's death (of lymphoma) in 2011, Chris and Linda felt it was time to confess his mother's secret, and though neither party from that night is there to confirm or deny, it is an important story to tell.  We hope you will read the article above. 

Directed by William Wellman, the movie is fascinating to watch primarily because of the ending (which we will avoid telling you).  It's interesting that, in a contemporary New York Times review critic Mordaunt Hall had no compunction about blowing the ending.  I know my fellow blogger at was not impressed with the film, and while The Hatchet Man is far from perfect, we think it is worth viewing, if for nothing more than to see the ending.  We will just say that words have power, and curses aimed in the right direction can achieve as much as a weapon. 

We leave you with an early scene from the film - the introduction of Wong Low Get: