Monday, September 28, 2015

Barbara Likes to Work

Barbara Stanwyck again plays a working woman reluctant to wed, though this time in a more comedic vein, in The Bride Walks Out (1936).  Stanwyck plays Carolyn, a successful model (she's earning $50 a week in the middle of the Great Depression), who is in love with would-be engineer Michael Martin (Gene Raymond).  Michael wants to marry immediately - and wants a stay-at-home wife to live on his $35 a week salary.  He doesn't care that Carolyn loves working and appreciates the independence and the luxuries her job allows her.  And while she is, at first determined to stay single, her love for Michael wins out, and she reluctantly marries him.  Within a few months, she discovers that, even with scrimping, she is unable to make ends meet: they owe the grocer and their landlord, and cannot make the payments on the apartment full of furniture Michael bought on credit.  Add to that, Carolyn just can't cook.

The biggest problem with this film is that you wonder why is Caroline so in love with Michael.  He's supposed to be intelligent - he has an engineer degree, but he hasn't enough common sense to spread on a cracker.  He has no clue of what things cost; he buys new furniture that he cannot afford, when Carolyn has perfectly good furniture from her apartment.  And WHY is he so unwilling to let her work?  They could be socking away some money for a nice home, and to finance his professional ambitions before they have children.  He claims that this is just the way it is in his family, but we never meet his family.  (We wondered if seeing his family would have given us more insight into him). Besides - it's still the Depression - any income in this period is good income.
Gene Raymond plays Michael as someone who lives in the moment and cannot look forward to the future, either financially or emotionally.  He marries Carolyn hoping to change her.   He ignores their finances and the debts he has incurred, yet over her objections, squanders $50 on a party.  Yes, she is hiding some of the financial woes from him, but he isn't looking either.  And when money starts to magically appear, it never occurs to him that their sudden financial security is not possible on his salary.  He wasn't able to save very much when he lived alone on his salary, how he intends to support and save for two with only one person working is unbelievable.

We need a triangle, so early on the film introduces Robert Young as Hugh McKenzie, a wealthy ne'er-do-well, who meets Carolyn and Michael in court, and falls head over heels for the new bride.   As portrayed by Young, Hugh is the only character who grows within the course of the film - he begins as an incorrigible drunk, but with Carolyn's help, he matures into an unselfish individual who wants only what is best for Carolyn.  

As an actor, Young had a remarkable and long career (he was, in fact, on loan from MGM for this role.  See this brief article at the AFI database). His career started with a role in a short film in 1928 (uncredited), but he quickly had a nice role in The Sin of Madelon Claudet as Helen Hayes' adult son.  He worked steadily throughout the 1930s and 1940s, appearing in such films as Journey for Margaret (1942), The Shining Hour (1938), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and Crossfire (1948).  As work in films disappeared in the 1950s, Young segued rather seamlessly to television, first as the titular head of the family in Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and then as the kindly general practitioner in Marcus Welby, MD (1969-1976).  He was married to Betty Henderson for 61 years, and they had four daughters; however, Young's private life was a troubled one. He battled alcoholism and depression for much of it, even to the point of attempting suicide in 1991.  He recovered, and spent much of his later years encouraging those likewise afflicted to seek help. He died of respiratory failure in 1999, five year after wife Betty's death.  The Robert Young Center in Illinois is named in his honor, for the work he did in campaigning for the passage of 708 Illinois Tax Referendum (which created a financial base for the support of a mental health board)
Also notable in the cast are Ned Sparks (Paul Dodson), Helen Broderick (Mattie Dodson), and Hattie McDaniel (Mamie); as well as a brief visit from the wonderful Charles Lane (as a Judge)!  Precursors of the Bickersons, Paul and Mattie spend most of the film sniping at one another, but they prove to be the perfect foils for Carolyn and Michael, as the Dodsons truly love one another without any desire to change the other person. We have a similar situation with Mamie - like Mattie, she cannot understand this man who is forcing his wife to live on a pittance anc be miserable.  Ms. McDaniel, as always, makes Mamie quite feisty and humorous.

Since I first saw her in Top Hat, I've been a fan of Ms. Broderick, who can deliver a bon mot with the best of them.  She appeared in 37 films, from silent shorts to talkies (though she is someone that it's hard to envision silent) and 15 Broadway plays (from 1907 to 1934), notably in The Band Wagon (with Fred Astaire).  Her lengthy marriage to Lester Crawford produced one child - her son, Broderick (the Oscar winning star of All the King's Men).  She had retired from the screen by 1946; she died in 1959 at the age of 68.

One thing we found an interesting counterpoint in the film was the wedding scene of Carolyn and Michael.  As we watch them try to get married, we see another couple in which the husband is nervous and uncomfortable - his mirror is Carolyn.  She is the one is reluctant, who doesn't appreciate the rushed ugliness and irresponsibility of a marriage that has to be hurried, so her husband can return to work.  It made me think of a similar scene in Woman of the Year, where Katharine Hepburn's Tess doesn't listen to the marriage service, and so has no understanding of the responsibilities she is taking on.  Michael similarly will not listen to the service.  The question is - will he ever listen to anyone?

It's intriguing that, in this New York Times review, the reviewer not only didn't like the film, he thought that Michael and Carolyn's marriage was doomed. And unless Carolyn can work another miracle on Michael like the one she worked on Hugh, we thought the reviewer was probably right.  Other reviews, according to this TCM article were acceptable, and the film did well, probably because of Stanwyck and Broderick.  

We'll close with this scene in which Carolyn and Michael meet at her place of work.  It's an interesting look at a couple who aren't exactly on the same wave length.  Next time, another film about marriage, this time from the 1950s. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Barbara Hates Housework

When an independent working woman chooses marriage over career, the results are disastrous in Crime of Passion (1957), starring Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Ferguson Doyle and Sterling Hayden as police detective, Lieutenant Bill Doyle.  Kathy is a columnist on a San Francisco newspaper - she writes the an "advise to the lovelorn" feature.  Trusted by her readership, she manages to convince a woman who murdered her husband to turn herself in, resulting in the offer of a better job in New York, and a successful collar for LA based detectives Doyle and his partner Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano).  But, Kathy, who has always disliked the thought of marriage (she says that "for marriage, read life sentence"), falls passionately in love with Bill, and consents to a whirlwind marriage.  She quits her job, settles in LA with Bill, and tries to become a housewife.  Bill's lack of ambition, however, frustrates Kathy, who is now trying to live her life through him.  She devises a plan - get friendlier with Bill's boss, Chief Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr) and his wife, Alice (Fay Wray), in order to wrangle a promotion for Bill. In doing so, she begins to alienate the Alidos, (Virginia Grey as Sara), who have similar goals, creating problems for herself and for Bill.

This TCM article hits on a point that we found seminal about this film - "it seems to be a strikingly modern commentary about how women were driven mad by the limitations imposed on them in the postwar period."  Indeed, for women today, Kathy's dilemma is quite contemporary, making the film both enjoyable and disturbing.  When a woman, used to doing things herself, used to having the drive to succeed, marries someone who is entirely different from herself, is now bound to house and home, and can find no kindred spirit with whom to commune, is madness the ultimate outcome?  It's obvious that Kathy is attracted to the police community - at dinner parties she wanders away from the female conversation (where they discuss recipes and television - much as she predicted prior to her marriage) to the room filled with police officers, where she is clearly unwelcome.  Stanwyck, in her last film noir (see Eddie Muller's Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) is both strident and desperate as a woman falling apart at the seams.
Sterling Hayden is perfect as Bill Doyle - a nice guy, and a good detective, but rather banal -  and Hayden seriously plays up the banal.  Stanwyck was pleased at the idea of Hayden in the part (according to Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith), but one thing bothered her.  She was distressed by his rather badly tailored suits, so they had a conversation and  he got some better clothing (perhaps not entirely in character, but Hayden makes even good clothing looked rumpled).  The biggest question though is, what we attract Kathy to Doyle, to the extent she would sacrifice everything for which she has worked.  Hayden is certainly an attractive man, but one doesn't doubt that Kathy has ever lacked for male attention.  He wants exactly the opposite of what she wants - he desires a "happy marriage... children and a home."  Does the fact that Kathy (and Stanwyck) are no longer in their prime factor into her decision?  It's hard to say.

With the exception of Alice Pope, women don't come off very well in this film.  Kathy spends much of the film verging on hysteria, and Sara Alidos is a manipulative conniver and vicious gossip.  But, as portrayed by Fay Wray, Alice is different.  She relishes her career as a homemaker, loves her husband, and would be far happier if he were home with her.  She is the only genuinely sweet, unpretentious woman in the film, and Kathy finds herself liking Alice almost despite herself.  In this review of the film from the New York Times, the reviewer joyously welcome Ms. Wray back to the screen.  After a second marriage (to writer/producer Robert Riskin) in 1942, the actress whose beauty slew the beast in 1933, retired.  However, she returned to both the screen (on occasion) and to television (more frequently - most notably with Raymond Burr in Perry Mason) in 1953.  She retired again in 1980 - and turned down roles in Titanic and in the Peter Jackson King Kong.  She died in 2004, aged 94; the Empire State Building dimmed its lights in her memory several days later.
Unfortunately, the film didn't do well at the box office - perhaps because it can be hard to watch.  With the exception of Bill and Alice, this is a movie people by unpleasant individuals.  And, in an era where television was now supplying most of the entertainment, this was not a film which parents could make as a night out with the children.  But it is perhaps that "stark intensity" (as this New Yorker commentary puts it) that makes the film so powerful today. 

We'll leave you with this early scene in which Kathy meets Bill and the obnoxious Captain Alidos.  His first comment to her, "your work should be raising a family, having dinner ready for him when he gets home," sets the tone for the film, as we also see Kathy writing for all the downtrodden women out there.  Next week, we'll see Ms. Stanwyck again go up against male chauvinism in a much earlier (and much more lighthearted) film.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Gene's Portrait is Painted

Is there a better mystery than Laura (1944)? We don't think so, and this week we revisited a film that everyone in our group had seen before (though a few had some memory gaps).  Narrated by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura tells the story of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a successful advertising executive whom it seemed was loved by everyone - except the murderer who shot her in the face with a rifle full of buckshot.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to investigate a case that is full of suspects - Lydecker, Laura's fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the woman who loves Shelby and Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).  Even maid Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams) is a suspect.  All profess to adore Laura, but someone pulled the trigger, and McPherson is having a problem as he tries to figure out who -   having read her diaries and seen her portrait (the color version is below), McPherson too has joined the many who love Laura.  As Waldo quips: "You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse."
Let's begin with the litany of well-deserved praise heaped upon this film:  it won the Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography in 1944; was nominated for Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Interior Design, Best Director (Otto Preminger) and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Web).  In 1999, it was selected for the National Film Registry.  Since then, it has been named number 4 in  AFI's 10 Top 10 in Mystery, number 7 in  AFI's Top 25 Film Scores (if you've never heard the score of Laura you can listen to a version of it), and #74 in AFI's 100 Years 100 Thrills.  The film was extremely well received (you can see excerpts of some of the contemporary reviews within these TCM articles).  And Laura's theme was so popular that 20th Century Fox hired the magnificent Johnny Mercer to provide lyrics to the music the following year (want to hear the lovely words? Here is the incomparable Frank Sinatra singing the song in 1957).

For many of us who grew up watching Vincent Price as the Prince of the horror film, seeing him as the love interest is a new experience.  Price is an actor who makes everything (even those odd horror pieces he did in the 1960s) seem elegant.  His Shelby is equally elegant, but not in the least a nice person. Shelby is unambitious, greedy, self-absorbed, and innately selfish.  He uses everyone; though he professes to love Laura, he is merely using her the same way he uses Ann.  Ann, however, says she and Shelby are the same, and she (unlike Laura) can afford him. Judith Anderson conveys that aspect of Ann beautifully - she is similar to Shelby in many ways, primarily in their greed and in their total disregard for others.  But Anderson gives Ann a strength of character that Price removes from Shelby.  A marriage between the two characters will be interesting;  surely Shelby will again try to stray, but Ann will make certain that his leash is short - no longer than the checkbook in her hand.
And then there is Waldo.  Fox had a number of actors under consideration for this plum role.  Laird Cregar was their first choice, but producer Preminger felt he was too obviously a villain.  George Sanders, John Sutton, and Monty Woolley were also considered for the part, which was allegedly patterned after the critic Alexander Woollcott.  But Preminger wanted Clifton Webb.  Webb had appeared in a few silent films in the 1920s, but this was his first talkie - he had spent his career on Broadway.  He appeared in a total of 23 Broadway plays, most of them musicals.  In fact, if you ever visit the Music Box Theatre in New York City, there is a picture of him in the lobby from The Little Show (1929-1930).  Preminger wanted an actor who was relatively unknown and approached Webb, who ultimately consented.  His Waldo is brilliant, selfish, opinionated, vain - and delightful.  It's hard to dislike Waldo, though one would neither want to be the victim of his tongue (or his "goose quill dipped in venom") nor of his affections.  He is obsessed with Laura, trying toThe scene in which Waldo and Laura first meet - as he lunches at his favorite restaurant - was modeled after the Algonquin Hotel, where Alexander Woollcott had dined (as part of the famed Round Table). And the portrait was actually a photograph of Tierney with oil paint strategically touching it up. Just these two points suggest why the film was nominated for an art direction/interior design Oscar. away anyone to whom she might be attracted.  Yet, in some senses, would he have been a better choice for Laura had he been less obsessive?  Only Waldo appears to understands her drive for a career.

Jennifer Jones was the first person signed for the role of Laura Hunt, but she backed out at the last minute (this AFI article goes into some detail on the casting history of the film).  Also considered were Hedy Lamarr and Eva Gabor.  But Preminger wanted Gene Tierney, and she is luminous as Laura.  Tierney came into the film having suffered a huge personal tragedy - her daughter Daria was born in 1943 with massive physical problems - developmentally disabled, deaf, and sight-impaired.  Tierney was bereft, but things would get worse.  Several years later, a fan approached her, informing her that when Tierney was appearing at a USO show during her pregnancy, the woman broke quarantine to meet Tierney, transmitting the disease to the unborn child.  (The story was fictionalized by Agatha Christie in The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side.  For more on rubella and birth defects and Gene Tierney, see this New Yorker article.)  Tierney's husband, Oleg Cassini suggested in his autobiography that Laura's ethereal quality reflected Tierney's grief. 
Dana Andrews also had competition for the role of Mark McPherson - both John Hodiak and George Raft were considered. Andrews was relatively new at Fox - he'd already co-starred with Gene Tierney in Belle Starr (1941), and had appeared in a number of war films for the studio (Wing and a Prayer, The Purple Heart, The North Star), but this was new territory for him.  His work was noticed - this New York Times review is especially impressed with his performance, as is director Martin Scorsese, who singles him out in one of the TCM articles mentioned above.  

Originally,  Rouben Mamoulian was to direct the film, but Otto Preminger took on the task after Mamoulian's first dailies proved to be unsatisfactory.  According to Vincent Price, Preminger felt that Mamoulian had one small issue with the film: "Rouben only knows nice people,  I understand the characters in Laura. They're all heels, just like my friends."  And, indeed they are heels.  One of the beauties of the film is that every character is flawed.  We talked at some length about what happened "after" the film - would Laura actually end up with Mark, or was he yet another one of her "lean strong bod[ies]" who Waldo complained was her criteria for love.  Would Mark understand her need to work? Would Laura leave a successful career to be a housewife, and live on a policeman's salary?  It's clear that she is someone who likes the finer things in life - she has happily given herself over to Waldo tutelage; his view of their relationship is frightening:
"She was quick to seize upon anything that would improve her mind or her appearance. Laura had innate breeding, but she deferred to my judgment and taste. I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her. Through me, she met everyone: The famous and the infamous. Her youth and beauty, her poise and charm of manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality. She had authentic magnetism. Wherever we went, she stood out. Men admired her; women envied her. She became as famous as Waldo Lydecker's walking stick and his white carnation."
We know she has populated her apartment with his gifts, so his appraisal of her does give one pause.

The scene in which Waldo and Laura first meet - as he lunches at his favorite restaurant - was modeled after the Algonquin Hotel, where Alexander Woollcott had dined (as part of the famed Round Table).  And the portrait of Laura was actually a photograph of Tierney with oil paint strategically  touching it up.  Just these two points suggest why the film was nominated for an art direction/interior design Oscar. 

This version of Laura was broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre on 5 February 1945, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Otto Kruger (as Waldo), and then again on 1 February 1954, with Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Joe Kearns and Carleton Young.  It's also been remade twice:  first as a one-hour telecast on 19 October 1955, on The 20th Century-Fox Hour, starring Dana Wynter, George Sanders and Robert Stack. Then, on 24 January 1968, a new adaptation by Truman Capote was aired, starring George Sanders, Robert Stack and Lee Bouvier.  George Sanders as Waldo was an especially delicious casting idea.

We'll leave you with the opening scene from Laura.   Next time, we'll be viewing another film about a strong woman faced with the choice of career vs. home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ava Takes a Bath

Mogambo (1953), the remake of Red Dust is unique in that the same actor plays the lead over twenty years later.  And frankly, it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it.  Victor Marswell (Gable) is a big-game hunter in Kenya.  Most of his work involves trapping animals for American zoos, though he will take on the occasional tourist or researcher.  But when  Eloise Y. (Honey Bear) Kelly (Ava Gardner) arrives, he is not prepared for the consequences.  She is there to meet the Maharajah of Bungalor, who it happens, canceled his trip without informing Honey Bear.  Since the next boat back isn't for a week, Honey Bear is stuck; a romance quickly develops between her and Vic.  But not for long, because when the boat arrives, Vic happily shoves her on it - he assumed a brief fling, she (unbeknownst to him) had other ideas.  The boat is also the bringer of business - Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) and his wife of 7 years, Linda (Grace Kelly) alight.   Donald plans on researching gorillas in the back country.  Vic is at first reluctant - he considers gorillas far too dangerous, but changes his mind as he becomes attracted to Linda.  Further complications ensue when Honey Bear returns - her boat broke down - the tension between the two women is palpable, as each makes her bid for Victor's affections.

Mogambo does not veer extensively from the story of Red Dust.  It changes character names,  the location of the action, and the reason for the visit of the Nordleys.  It also extends the story somewhat.  Much of this is in the nature of a travelogue.  We are treated to many shots of stunning African vistas, exotic animals, all in wide-screen and Technicolor.   Much of this is done to attract an audience that is dismissing film for their television -  TV is not really available in color, so the film entices audiences with the promise of excitement and beauty.  And viewes Clark Gable without his shirt (still a rather pleasant slight).  The film was shot on location, a huge incentive for hunters Gable and director John Ford, and for Grace Kelly, who was delighted at the idea of a trip to Africa.  Allegedly, Gable and Kelly also became romantically involved while there (at least according to Donald Sinden).  This series of TCM articles is worth a read for many tidbits about the film.

Other actors were considered before the cast was finalized:  Stewart Granger (as Victor - Granger actually suggested the remake, with himself in the lead.  Sam Zimbalist, however, wanted Gable); Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson, and Gene Tierney (for the part of Linda) and Lana Turner (as Honey Bear).  And while some of our group members were not impressed with Kelly (her Linda is much harder than Astor's Barbara), there was overwhelming praise for Ava Gardner.  Her character has much more depth than that of Vantine - we learn a little about her past, and her gradual growth into acceptance is a  big plus in liking Honey Bear.  Gardner also get all the best lines.  One of my personal favorites is: "The only lions I ever want to see again are in front of the public library."  Spoken like a true New Yorker!

One thing that the character of Linda has that Barbara does not is more backstory.  Linda and Donald are childhood sweethearts (she's known him since she was five years old).  They've been married for 7 years, and she is only 27 (Barbara and Gary are newlyweds), and Linda has traipsed around the world with her husband, despite that fact that what she really wants is a set home and children.  The affair with Victor becomes all the more understandable when one has all this background information - that she's been trying to sustain the marriage for many years, has been a "good sport" about her husband's penchant for exotic travel, and that she is reaching an age where the call for a family is probably quite loud (a call that Donald doesn't hear).  Her husband's illness, and Victor's rescue of her from an animal trap make him Sir Galahad in her eyes.  Small wonder that she falls for him.

If Gable at times seems impatient, we wondered if it could have been the difficulties he was having with John Ford, who resented Gable's need for retakes (Gable - compromised by years of drinking -  now suffered occasional palsies, that would come unbidden.  He would need to reshoot scenes if they popped up onscreen).
The one problem with the remake is there seems less reason for Victor's attraction to Linda.  Certainly, Kelly is a beauty par excellence, but Gardner is no slouch in the looks department, and demonstrates a sense of humor and good fellowship that Linda sorely lacks.  Yet, Gable shows his to Kelly attraction immediately: Victor's eyes light up when he sees Linda, but there is a gentleness behind it, almost out of character for the rather gruff Victor.  Nevertheless, it does make Victor more attractive - he is not the "two-legged boa constrictor" Honey Bear describes in his relations with Linda.  And even 20+ years older, Gable is stunning - he mesmerizes on the screen, and it is perfectly understandable that Zimbalist would want him rather than Stewart Granger.  No one else could duplicate the role; Gable is too dynamic.
Stories abound concerning the difficulties of working with John Ford, and as noted above, this film was no exception.  Eventually, Gable came to terms with Ford, who had not, it seems, ever seen Gable in Red Dust.  But Gable was not the only one to suffer Ford's wrath - Donald Sinden was also a victim - the ultra-Irish Ford decided to blame the English Sinden for the troubles in Ireland! 

It was Ford who insisted on Grace Kelly for the part of Linda; and, both Kelly and Gardner were nominated for Oscars for their work on the film.  The film also - at Ford's insistence, does not have a soundtrack.  He wanted, and got - animal sounds and native music to be the background to his story. 

We'll close with the scene in which we meet Honey Bear - a scene "borrowed" from the original film.  Interestingly, according to this AFI article, the Censorship Board had problems with the scene; "the PCA believed the shower scene 'involved too much exposure' and demanded that some footage be eliminated"  The ruling was protested (and, it seems MGM's Robert Vogel won).  See if you agree: