Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ronald Loves Caroline

We return to the films of Ronald Colman with the romantic comedy, My Life with Caroline (1941).  Caroline Bliss Mason (Anna Lee) is very much a woman who, when she is not near the man she loves, loves the man she is near (with apologies to E.Y. Harburg).  So, while she is on a trip to an Idaho ski lodge with her father (Charles Winninger), she announces that she has discovered her "true love" in Paco Del Valle (Gilbert Roland), a South American millionaire.  Mr. Bliss, being no fool, cables Caroline's husband, publisher Anthony Mason (Ronald Colman), who immediately flies to meet his straying spouse in Idaho.  Anthony been through this before - and as he waits to clear up Caroline's latest mess, he recalls the last time she found her "true love", and her relationship with artist Paul Martindale (Reginald Gardiner).

Told in flashback, the film is primarily the story of Paul and Caroline and Anthony, as Caroline holds her lover off temporarily while she attempts to tell her husband that she loves another.  Perhaps Caroline's one saving grace as a character is that it doesn't appear that she has cheated on her husband in the physical sense (though there is obviously an awful lot of cheating going on in her head). Normally, I wouldn't just refer immediately to a film review, but upon reading New York Times review. we were all struck by how on the mark it is:
"Things have come to a pretty pass, certainly, when Ronald Colman, that old debonair dog, has to work to hold onto his lady as laboriously as he does in RKO's My Life With Caroline. . . And such an unimportant fluff the lady is, too—such an obvious nincompoop! Time was when Mr. Colman wouldn't have given her a "how'dya do," let alone make himself silly for an hour and a quarter chasing after her. Well, that only leads to this conclusion: either Mr. Colman is slipping or his writers are".
Nincompoop is the perfect word for Caroline, and it is hard to envision why any man would put up with her nonsense.  And WHY would one want to give up Ronald Colman for Reginald Gardiner, who is probably one of the prissiest human beings in film? 

We can't really blame Ronald Colman, except for picking the film, as he is good as Anthony, with just the right amount of humor and tolerance for the part.  Though not entirely a comedy, his talents in the arena were better served in Talk of the Town later that same year.  That, far more than this, demonstrated his light touch.  Here, he seems miscast; a better script would have helped.  As discussed in this TCM article, Colman is just too sophisticated and too mature to be interested in such a flibbertigibbet as Caroline.  Regardless, it was a film Colman and director Lewis Milestone very much wanted to do.

Which brings us to Anna Lee.  Though listed in the credits as being introduced to film, Ms. Lee had actually already appeared in 10 films (beginning her film career in 1932), though the roles were either minor or supporting parts.  Later that same year, she would return to a second lead status, but this time in a film that would better utilize her talents - How Green Was My Valley, in which she played Bronwyn, the bride of oldest Morgan son.  Lee, who was born Joan Boniface Winnifrith in Kent, England, had a long and successful career, segueing almost seamlessly from film to television, and ending her career playing Lila Quartermaine, first on the soap opera Port Charles, then playing the same character on General Hospital (performing from a wheelchair after an automobile accident paralyzed her from the waist down).  She died in 2004, aged 91, the year after her a new production staff at General Hospital refused to renew her contract.
Which brings us to Reginald Gardiner - we wondered if, unlike Paco, Paul was under the delusion that Caroline was wealthy (or would get some kind of alimony from her husband.  Fat chance, since she is this close to cheating on Anthony).  We know from her father that any money that Caroline has is from her quite generous husband.  It's rather hard to like Paul, and Gardiner, who really is a rather stuffy actor, doesn't make it any easier.  In a sense, he is playing the same part he played in Christmas in Connecticut.  He wasn't all that likable there either. 

Both Eva Gabor and Miriam Hopkins were considered for Caroline (see this article from the AFI Catalog); after Anna Lee was cast, she also received a long-term contract.  The film, written by Milestone as Palm Beach Limited and based on a French farce, was the first outing for Colman's production company with Milestone and William Hawks, United Producers Corp.  
While this isn't a film we would recommend, it has some interesting moments.  And it does have Ronald Colman.  We'll leave you with this scene from the beginning of the film.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

To Boldly Go...

I don't usually blog about 21st century films  (though, I do go to see them!) - they just aren't old enough for me.  But, I'm going to make an exception this week for Star Trek (2009).  We were treated to a concert of the score, which the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Emil de Cou, performed to the film.  It was a genuine thrill.  And, given there is an awful lot of flying going on, I decided this was an appropriate contribution to the CMBA "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon".

Let's start by confessing that I am a Trekker; I'm a Classic Trek girl, and in the Kirk vs. Picard content, Kirk wins - I suspect it is always your first Captain of the Enterprise that keeps your heart. But, I've seen every episode of every show, all the movies (and the animated series).  I mourned Spock's death in The Wrath of Khan; rejoiced when he returned in The Search for Spock, and cried when Kirk died in Generations.  The release of a new film, with a new Kirk caused some trepidation, but I eagerly saw this film in the theatres the first weekend it opened in 2009 (I was in Hawaii for a business trip, and was hunting for a theatre from the minute I arrived).  At the time, I was concerned at a new actor taking on the role of my beloved James Tiberius Kirk, but Leonard Nimoy was appearing as Spock, and I had faith he would not appear in a film that trashed the long heritage of Gene Roddenberry.

Ultimately, Chris Pine won me over.  He's not the Kirk of the series - nor should he be, as this is a Kirk who's early life is much different than the character played by William Shatner.  This Kirk's life was disrupted by a change in the time continuum - his life inexorably altered by the death of the father who should have been with him until adulthood.  And though all of our favorite characters end up at Starfleet, their lives are all made drastically different by the intrusion of a Romulan ship from the future, which appears, wreaks havoc for a short time, then disappears for 25 years.
There is no question that it is hard to remake/redo/reboot (pick your favorite verb) a beloved series.  Even when the original cast returns, can the magic in the bottle be found to again return the fans to the joy the felt with the original?  The first Star Trek movie (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979) was not an unqualified success, and it took several years for Star Trek: The Next Generation to find its feet.  This film manages to succeed, and also to reference the iconic series that preceded it.  One scene that still elicits applause from fans is Kirk's first view of the Enterprise.  The scene references a similar scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture: the ship hovers in space; it is moving and exciting, even though there is almost no movement.  The ship symbolizes the missions that will follow, but also the missions that we recall from the Enterprise's "past" - the series and movies that have occurred on this iconic craft.  These are, after all, the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise, not of one particular character.
I'm particularly fond of Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. This film provides us with some backstory regarding their meeting, and retains some of the history that we learned in the original television show - that McCoy was somewhat older than the rest of the recruits, that he's not really taken with space travel, but has just gone through a messy divorce, and Star Fleet seems like his only alternative.  DeForest Kelley, the original Bones, gave us a curmudgeon that Urban gleefully honors in his portrayal - it is an homage to Kelley; at the same time Urban provides his vision of the character. It was also a pleasure to me that Majel Barrett's voice was again used for the computer - Ms. Barrett has supplied a voice or appeared in nearly every Star Trek iteration, until her death in 2008.

Also, the film finally provides Uhura (Zoe Saldana) with a given name.  Fans chose the name Nyota many years ago (similarly, Sulu was called Hikaru - a name that was adopted officially in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when Captain Sulu announces himself).  The film also bring back to us the much beloved character of Spock, both as his young self (Zachary Quinto) and as the older Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  Both are excellent, playing a role that is essentially the same person, but are individuals whose lives have created two distinct personalities.  Around the time the film came out, the two actors did an advertisement for a car that is absolutely hysterical, and can be found on YouTube

I started this post with a mention of the event which brought us to this particular screening.  I'm going to close with this video production of the score of the film. There is nothing to compare with seeing a film on a big screen, except having a live orchestra playing the music as the film rolls by.  And the majesty of space travel is well served in this filming of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future.
This post represents my contribution to the Planes, Trains and Automobiles 2015 blogathon of the Classic Movie Blog Association.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Barbara's Lost

Barbara Stanwyck returns as another literary heroine in A Lost Lady (1934).  Marian Ormsby (Stanwyck) is happily celebrating her wedding - she's supposed to marry the next day - when her fiance, Ned Montgomery (Phillip Reed) is gunned down by the angry husband of a woman with whom Ned has been carrying on an affair.  Stunned into a stupor, Marian is convinced to go away to recuperate.  While out for a walk, she falls down an incline, breaking her leg.  She's rescued by Daniel Forrester (Frank Morgan), a wealthy lawyer who is immediately fascinated by this lost lady.  As she begins to heal from her physical and emotional wounds, he proposes marriage.  Though she doesn't love him, she consents to be his wife, and finds happiness for a time in the safety of his love.  But not for long - for other men are attracted to her: Neil Herbert (Lyle Talbot), Dan's protege and Frank Ellinger (Ricardo Cortez), an aviator who crashes - literally - into her life.

The film is based on the novel by Willa Cather, though the link between this story and Cather's novel is thin at best.  In their review of the film, the New York Times called the novel of A Lost Lady "a genuine American masterpiece," with a film that is "mediocre... by comparison".  But according to A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, other reviewers were  not nearly so kind, and neither was Cather - who didn't want any further adaptations of her work.  In fact, her will banned any further film adaptations of her works (along with publications of her letters.  The ban on both was recently lifted by the Willa Cather Trust, as outlined in this New York Times report.)  For someone who's work so focused on the American frontier, and the people who built it, seeing Cather's work made into a mere romantic triangle on rich people from the east must have been very hard for the author, and her fans, to stomach.  While it is undeniably hard to successfully adapt a masterpiece of literature to the screen; script-wise, this adaptation doesn't even come close (and more to the point, doesn't really try).  For more on Cather, visit Willa Cather: The Road is All from American Masters. 

If you go into the film acknowledging that it's not Cather's book, it does have some enjoyable moments, mostly because of the excellent acting of the four leads.  Stanwyck is, as always, exceptional as Marian, a woman who seems unable to select the right man.  And Ricardo Cortez is wonderful; he gives Frank Ellison a subtle shadiness that is perfect for the character, and makes Frank a mirror image of the deceased Ned Montgomery - both men who are more interested in conquest than in love.  Originally, the cast would have included Kay Francis and John Eldredge (see this AFI article.  Eldredge's part is not specified.  Probably, he was being considered for one of the roles that eventually went to Cortez or Talbot).
Lyle Talbot is excellent as Neil, the honorable man who loves Marian from afar, because of his regard for Daniel.  Talbot provides a moral compass in the film, both in his relationship with the Forresters, and in his dislike of the relationship between Marian and Frank. Talbot had a remarkably long and noteworthy career, beginning almost with talkies (he had a lovely voice, in my opinion), and continuing until 1987 (he died at age 94, in 1996).  When film work - primarily as the lead in B movies - began to elude him, he transitioned gracefully to television, appearing on episodes of shows such as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (where he had a recurring part), Bonanza, and Newhart.  His film career was notable: we've already seen him in She Had to Say Yes (1933), Mandalay (1934), and No More Orchids (1934).  His life was recently detailed by his daughter, Margaret Talbot, in her book The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century.

Finally, there is Frank Morgan who shines as Daniel Forrester.  It's hard to make a character who is kind and gentle come across as anything but weak, but Morgan does it.  He gives us a characterization that is pure in heart, but deep in his love for Marian and his desire to build a life with her.  According to this TCM article, he was made up to look far older than his 44 years (though he never really looked young!)  In a few more years, Morgan would be cast in the film that would probably gift him with eternal fame - The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he appeared in over 100 films, and was impressive in all of them. 

We will leave you with a trailer from the film, where you can glimpse some of the lovely gowns designed by Orry-Kelly.  While not a great film, it's certainly worth your time for the excellent acting that is on display; for plot, read the book instead:

Friday, October 2, 2015

Thelma Moves to Ohio

Marriage, and the difficulties of dealing with the in-laws, is the subject of The Mating Season  (1951), a wonderful (and underrated) romantic comedy, which stars Gene Tierney and John Lund as newlyweds trying to deal with their respective mothers.

When Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney) meets Val McNulty (John Lund) after she nearly runs her car off a cliff, love is almost immediately in bloom, much to the consternation of Maggie's wealthy suitor Junior Kalinger (James Lorimer) and Val's secretary, Betsy (Jan Sterling).  But, if the young couple thought life with Junior and Betsy were their only problems, they were mistaken, because in comes trouble in the form of his mother Ellen (Thelma Ritter) and HER mother Fran (Miriam Hopkins).  Problem 1 - Fran is a horror, who thinks her son-in-law is far beneath her (and Maggie's) notice.  Problem 2 - Maggie has mistaken Ellen for a housekeeper who was being sent over by an employment agency, and Ellen doesn't want her to know that she is Val's mother.  So, when both mothers move move in - Ellen as housekeeper, and Fran by taking over the master bedroom, the marriage begins to feel its growing pains.
Though Gene Tierney and John Lund are the official stars of this film, the movie really belongs to Thelma Ritter as the down-to-earth Ellen. Though Miriam Hopkins thinks it is her movie (see this TCM article for Ms. Hopkins hijinks), there is no way even Hopkins, the ultimate scene stealer, can get the film back from Ritter.  As with pretty much everything she does, when Ritter is on the screen, you are looking at HER.  Do you recall Ms. Ritter in Miracle on 34th Street? She has two, very brief scenes, but you will always remember her as the harried mother in Macys.  In 1951, she was nominated for her second Academy Award for her supporting role in The Mating Season; ultimately, she was nominated six times (and never won.  Go figure).  Ellen is the emotional core of the film, with Ritter providing a perfect foil to Hopkins meddling mother, as she carefully tries to maneuver past the dangers that come with two mothers-in-law in the same house.  There are perhaps no scenes more telling than the pair that show each child with his/her mother.  In one, we see Maggie and Fran in the master bedroom - where Fran has not only separated husband and wife, she has even gone so far as to steal Maggie's only pillow; this is followed by a conversation between Val and Ellen, in which Ellen's desire to sacrifice for her son and his wife is so very clear.

Ritter returned to acting in 1947 after a hiatus to raise her two children (she was married to her husband, Joseph Moran, for 42 years).  Her first picture was Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which she was not credited.  By 1950, however, she had received her first Oscar nomination (for her work as Birdie in All About Eve), and was then nominated again the next four years in succession (for this film, With a Song in My Heart, and Pickup on South Street).  In her 21 year screen career, she appeared in 44 films and television shows.  In 1958, she returned to Broadway, and won a Tony for her role in New Girl in Town (a tie - with her co-star Gwen Verdon).  Ms. Ritter died of a heart attack in 1969, at age 67.
Gene Tierney is also quite wonderful as Maggie.   Badly played, Maggie could be a wimp, but Tierney gives her spunk and integrity.  Her blossoming relationship with Ellen is warm and affectionate.  And when Ellen's real position in the household is revealed, you sympathize with Maggie's fury for the deception that has robbed her of an even better relationship with her new mother.  

Equally wonderful in as very small role is Larry Keating  as George Kalinger, Sr.   The wealthy head of Val's company, Mr. Kalinger, Sr. is impressed by both Val, and especially with Val's mother.  How he got a son like Junior is a puzzle - and one Mr. Kalinger doesn't understand.  The comfortable nature of his relationship with Ellen provides a lovely picture of mature love - placed in juxtaposition to our young lovers, we can almost see the future for Maggie and Val.  Keating, who would eventually go on to a noted television career (as the original Harry Morton in The Burns and Allen Show, and as next-door neighbor Roger Addison in Mr. Ed), died in 1963.
John Lund, on the other hand, is rather banal.  It's hard to understand why Maggie falls for him so quickly, as he often appears stiff and up-tight.  It's not that Val isn't in a precarious position - it's just that, even when he is with Maggie and Ellen,  Lund gives us a Val who doesn't ever seem to become comfortable.  Interestingly, Lund himself was not really taken with his appearance on film.  He is quoted as saying (IMDB):  "Each picture has given me an inferiority complex. I've become face conscious. Projection rooms are torture chambers to me, at this point. When I saw the first day's rushes on To Each His Own (1946), I went home and started packing. I had thought I was smiling tenderly at Olivia de Havilland, but, on screen, I looked as though I were ready to bite her ear off, and I didn't have any eyes at all. After that, I refused to look at myself, but I began enjoying the work."  A competent actor, he might have been better off in character parts - and in fact, in his later years, he switched to radio, voicing the titular detective in Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  But for the most part, his leading man looks shoved him into the romantic lead.  But when he finally got to turn that model on its head - as the uptight George Kittredge in High Society (1956) - he was at his best..  Eventually, he left acting to become a successful businessman.  He died in 1992, after a battle with heart disease, aged 81.

Filmed under the working title of A Relative Stranger (AFI Notes), the film was given okay reviews (though Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not particularly amused).  Regardless, this is a film that has aged remarkably well, and is just a delight from start to finish. We'll leave you with the arrival of Ellen in Ohio - she was SUPPOSED to take the bus...