Monday, November 30, 2015

Bette Loves a Druggist

This week, we returned to the pre-code period, and early to an Bette Davis effort (back when she was blonde) with The Big Shakedown (1934).  Bette plays Norma Nelson, a clerk in the neighborhood pharmacy run by her fiancĂ©, chemist Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell).  Jimmy is an easygoing sort, who runs his store more as a local gathering place than as a business.  He's not able to afford for he and Norma to marry, and he is being threatened by a large pharmacy chain that wants to buy him out for peanuts.  Enter Dutch Barnes (Richardo Cortez), a bootlegger who is finding it hard to pedal his wares now that Prohibition is over.  Dutch has a brainstorm - hire Jimmy to pirate PearlyDent toothpaste; Dutch will then sell the identical, but more cheaply made product for less money.  Norma is furious when Jimmy agrees to the scheme, but Jimmy doesn't see the problems (he's making it, after all. He's not SELLING it). Things get complicated, however, when Dutch decides to branch out, first into cosmetics, but then into pharmaceuticals.  And by then, Jimmy can't get out.
The strength of Bette Davis' personality is a real plus in this film.  Charles Farrell's Jimmy is so lackluster that Davis dominant personality gives the film the power that it needs.  In this TCM article, the reviewer laments that Davis as the good girl is wasted, but we think not.  Without the character's innate integrity and willingness to stand up for what is right, the picture would flounder.  You believe that Davis is able to disregard Jimmy AND the mobsters.

One of the wiser choices of the writers is to begin with a fairly inane crime (counterfeiting toothpaste), provide it with some humor (a group of fairly dumb gangsters - including Allen Jenkins - taste testing the product), but then build up to the true crimes: blackmarket drugs, murder, and the destruction of a company.  
Besides Davis, we're treated to two of our favorites - Glenda Farrell as Lilly Duran, Dutch's mistress, and Ricardo Cortez.  Farrell here gets to play both the ditsy blonde and the wronged woman.  Where at first you think that Lily is rather stupid, you quickly discover she's quite smart and observant.  She's also the wrong person to cross, to her misfortune.
Cortez provides a villain who is smart, disarmingly charming, and deadly.  He's seductive, a human cobra sucking in anyone who peers too deeply into his eyes.   Dutch knows how to gauge people's weaknesses, but ultimately his reach exceeds his grasp.  Our group has a fondness for Cortez, an actor who, unfortunately, is not well remembered today.  Born Jacob Krantz in New York City, he started in silents, with studio executives billing him as a Latin lover (to get in on the Rudolph Valentino craze).  While that worked before pictures spoke, sound was a give-away that Cortez, with his Lower East Side accent, was not a Latino.  So, while his roles changed, his popularity did not.  He played more character parts; often the villain, though sometimes a good guy (see Ten Cents a Dance; he's quite good!) He even played Perry Mason at one point (The Case of the Black Cat, 1936).  He appeared in over 100 films, and directed 7.  By the mid 1940s, he was finding parts hard to get, so he "retired" and became a successful stockbroker (though he did appear in two films in the 1950s, and even was in an episode of Bonanza!  Cortez died in 1977 at the age of 76. 

That this is a pre-code film is apparent, even though it came out as the Code was going into closer effect.  A murderer is left unpunished, and our lead character (while he does have to pay a price for his deeds) really doesn't suffer all that much in the long-run.  Fellow blogger at disliked the film; New York Times, however, rather liked it. While this is not great literature (and drug counterfeiting plot notwithstanding, it surely is NOT The Third Man), we think it is worth a look.  The trailer below will give you a taste. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tyrone Finds the True Meaning of Life

This year's TCM Cruise featured a number of films with Tyrone Power (which is never a hardship for me); I saw them all.  The third night of the cruise featured The Razor's Edge (1946), based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel, and introduced by both Alex Trebek and Robert Osborne, both huge fans of this excellent rendition.  (For those of you who liked the Bill Murray remake, sorry - I didn't care for it, and neither did the evening's hosts).

The story focuses on Larry Darrell (Power), who has physically survived the First World War, but is tormented by the death of a friend, who died saving Larry's life on the eve of the armistice.  Why, Larry wonders, should he live, when this man is dead, and what can he do with his life to make up for that death?  Larry's fiance, Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) is sympathetic, and agrees that Larry should travel for a while, to try and find the answers to his questions.  But when, a year later, Larry is still determined to continue his quest, Isabel balks - she is not willing to live as an itinerant, with a husband who has no ambitions to anything but the life of a nomad.  So, they separate, only to be reunited years later, when both their lives - and the lives of their friends and relatives - have drastically changed.
This is a complex film, following the lives of a number of central characters over a period of nearly 15 years, all of whom are in some way related to Larry and Isabel.  The characters are real - with faults and flaws.  We admire Larry, but would find him impossible to live with.  We sympathize with Isabel, but gasp at her machinations.  It's a film of greys - there are almost no black and whites.

Elliot Templeton (Clifton Webb) is a prime example of a "grey" character.  Wealthy, selfish, and somewhat arrogant, Elliot is also generous and intrinsically good.  Late in the film, a priest characterizes Elliot as "a good man. His defects were on the surface, but he was generous of heart ...and kindly toward his fellow creatures."  That he is basically good is reflected in the fact that our narrator, Maugham (Herbert Marshall), actually likes Elliot (also calling him "kind and generous"), even though he feels that Elliot " has no friends, only acquaintances."  Elliot's wealth has allowed him to live his life in Europe, hobnobbing with the wealthy and noble, and to look with aghast at his much loved sister, Louisa (Lucile Watson), who has chosen to spend her life in the Midwest.  But, when his niece and nephew-in-law lose all their money in the Stock Market crash, it is Elliot who takes them in, and supports them and their children til they can get on their feet.  Webb paints a picture of a man whom you like in spite of yourself; he allows us to the see the inner Elliot.
Anne Baxter won her Academy Award for playing Sophie MacDonald, a loving wife and mother whose life is turned upside down after an automobile accident.  Other actresses were considered for the part (Susan Hayward, Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Anabel Shaw, Nancy Guild, and Bonita Granville, according to Ms. Baxter), but it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it.  The character of Sophie floats in and out of the story, as she does in the lives of the characters.  Sophie's alcoholism becomes a major focus of the film, and it is Baxter's seering portrait of Sophie's problem that more than likely cinched the award for her.   While we sympathize with Sophie, Baxter is careful to make her unappealing in the latter half of the film - again, she is painted in grey tones.  And her alcoholism is not something that just appears because of the accident - early on, Sophie tells us that her husband Bob (Frank Latimore) doesn't like her to drink because of what it does to her.   Of course, Joseph Breen tried to get the alcoholism eliminated from the film - Darrel Zanuck refused to take it out, as essential to the story (for more on this and other casting issues see these AFI notes.)

Gene Tierney was not the first choice for Isabel.  Both Fontaine and Olivia de Haviland were considered, as was Maureen O'Hara.  In her autobiography, 'Tis Herself, Ms O'Hara recalls that the deal was all but completedThere was one proviso, however: producer Darrell Zanuck told her to keep quiet about her casting.  She didn't - she told her friend Linda Darnell - who was in a relationship with Zanuck at that point, unbeknownst to Ms. O'Hara - and Zanuck fired her later that day for blabbing.  Regardless of the fact she was not the first choice, Ms. Tierney shines (she was nominated for an Oscar - losing to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce) as Isabel, and creates a character of dimension and layers.  As hideous as some of her actions are, even narrator Maugham cannot dislike her, nor in a sense can we do more than shake our heads at her selfishness.  According to this TCM article, Tyrone Power (newly back from his service in World War II), developed on crush on her.  She privately let him know that, though divorced from Oleg Cassini, she was seeing someone else - future president John Kennedy.  Though Tierney loved JFK deeply, it was not too be.  Kennedy was already looking towards his future in politics, and men married to divorcees just didn't get to be president in the 1940s.
Gray Maturin (John Payne) is the man who has loved Isabel for years, and who ends up married to her when Isabel is unwilling to wait for Larry.  It's interesting that his name is "Gray", because he is perhaps the only non-gray character in the film.  Gray is the only really "good" person we meet.  He loves Isabel unquestioningly and he likes Larry, even though Larry is the competition.  It is Gray who has to interact with Sophie on the most critical day of her life - Payne gives us a man who is caring, but unable to do more than just sympathize.  Payne works hard to make Gray a complex, but not weak character;  he mostly succeeds, as we like Gray and understand how deeply honorable he is. 

One other character of note is that of Miss Keith (played by Elsa Lanchester).  As the private secretary of the Princess Novemali, the part is tiny - at one point, we see her in the background of the action, but finally get to meet her at the film's end.  Like Gray, she is someone who is deeply good.  Though Lanchester only has this one brief scene with Tyrone Power, you will remember her.  Her Miss Keith is a woman of integrity in a world of mere surface.

In the discussion prior to the film, Robert Osborne cited one scene in the film that he thought one of the most beautiful on film.  You can see it below, as Isabel tries to seduce Larry, to keep him from going away again. A magnificent setting, and two of filmdom's most attractive people - this scene does shine.  

We'll be returning to more films from the festival in coming weeks (along with our regular conversations).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Dawn Becomes Anne

All of the members of our group remember with fondness reading the book Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (in fact, I reread the story last year, and found it as wonderful as I had as a child).  This week, we took a look at the 1934 film verson of the novel.  

Siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Helen Westley and O.P. Heggie), own a farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada.  Neither are young and Marilla worries that the farm is too much for Matthew to manage alone.  So, she decides to foster an orphan boy who can help with the work.  They are both surprised when the orphan who arrives is a girl - Anne Shirley (played by Anne Shirley - she officially changed her screen name from Dawn O'Day with this film).  Anne (Ann with an "E" as she insists) is a talkative and imaginative young thing, and Matthew is immediately taken with her.  Though Marilla is at first resistant to the idea of a girl child, she too becomes fond of Anne, and Anne stays on to help Marilla in the house.  The film recounts the "adventures" of Anne Shirley as she grows up on Green Gables. 

There are some differences between the book and the film, as is to be expected.  The character of Mrs. Rachel Lynde merges with Diana's mother, Mrs. Barry (the Anne of the book has misunderstandings with both of them, so this is not an unlikely union.  The part in this film was played by Sara Haden).  The novel ends with Matthew's death, and Anne's return to Green Gables (and in the novel, Gilbert Bythe is studying to teach, as Anne does).  Finally, in  the book, there is no animosity between Marilla and the Bythe family.  If there is one change to the book that irked me (this was my favorite book growing up), it was the film's alteration of Marilla.  While sometimes stern, Marilla is the epitome of fairness.  The film's Marilla, while generally an excellent role model for the growing child, has a tendency towards pettiness, which is just not necessary to carry the story forward.  Anne's own antipathy for Gilbert (based on the incident portrayed in this film, where he calls her "Carrots") is really all that is needed.  This TCM article quotes a very favorable New York Times review, which lauded the film's faithfulness to the novel, but points out that author Montgomery found the film "entirely different" from her conceptualization.  Regardless, the film does one very important thing right - it captures the spirit of Anne Shirley. 
Helen Westley started her film career the year of this film (by the end of 1934, she had 6 film credits to her name.  With Anne of Green Gables opening for Thanksgiving, this was final film of that inaugural year.)  By 1942, the year she died, she had appeared in 38 films, including Banjo on My Knee and Adam Had Four Sons (which we had previously discussed).  Westley, who primarily played cantankerous old women on screen, had a notable stage career prior to and during her tenure in Hollywood.  She appeared in 53 Broadway plays from 1915 through 1939 (including the stage version of The Primrose Path - the filmed version had Queenie Vassar in Ms. Westley's part.) 

Dawn O'Day's new name was a publicity stunt concocted by RKO, but Ms. Shirley opted to continue with her new name as her career flourished.  (See this article from the AFI article for more information).  She would revisit the role of Anne Shirley in Anne of Windy Poplars (1940), but within 4 years of that film, Ms. Shirley retired, following her marriage to her second husband, Adrian Scott.  (She had previously been married to John Payne; they had one child together).  After the union with Scott ended, Ms. Shirley married again, this time to Charles Lederer, a marriage that lasted from 1949 until his death in 1976.  Ms. Shirley died at the age of 75 in 1993.
Tom Brown's (Gilbert Blythe) career started in the silent era (when he was 11 years old) and continued, into talking films and television, until 1979.  He was a regular on the long-running soap General Hospital (appearing as Al Weeks), and had a recurring part (Ed O'Connor) on Gunsmoke.  He died in 1990.

A few small bits of trivia:  both Bonita Granville and Ann Miller appear in small parts (as school girls.  If you blink, you will miss them).  More obvious is June Preston as the little Bluett child (she actually gets a mention in the credits!).  She's not really remembered today as a film actress - she did a few Our Gang films in the 1930's, but is listed in all of her 15 films as some variation of "little girl".  However, Preston had a second career as an adult:   she was a internationally known soprano with the Metropolitan Opera's touring company, later doing recitals in major venues all over the world.

We will leave you with this introduction to Anne Shirley, and also mention that PBS did a remarkable series on Anne of Green Gables and some of the subsequent books (that remained very true to Ms. Montgomery's novels), with Megan Follows as Anne (she is, in fact, nearly perfect in my humble view) and Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla.  Regardless, this version is excellent, and Ms. Shirley is a joy as Anne.  We highly recommend it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Barbara Gambles

Gambling Lady (1934) is an engaging film, which stars Barbara Stanwyck as Jennifer "Lady" Lee.  When her father, Mike (Robert Barrat) kills himself in despair over his debts to a gambling syndicate, Lady seeks employment in the one occupation she knows - gambling.  Lady, like her father, is scrupulously honest, and takes a job with the syndicate on the proviso that they will run an honest game.  When she discovers they have lied to her (and have placed someone into the game who is systematically cheating), she resigns and begins working on her own.  While playing at a society party, she meets Garry Madison (Joel McCrea); they fall in love and he proposes marriage, to the concern of his father, Peter Madison (C. Aubrey Smith).  But Peter, a gambler himself who knew and admired Mike Lee, comes to realize that Lady's love for Gerry is true, and consents to the marriage.  However, the course of true love hits road bumps - the return of Garry's former girlfriend Sheila Aiken (Claire Dodd) and Garry's jealousy of Lady's friend Charlie Lang (Pat O'Brien).

This is a good, fast-moving film, with a lot of story packed into 66 minutes.  Stanwyck, as always, is excellent as Lady Lee, and her rapport with Joel McCrea (in their first of 6 films together) is evident. Particularly notable are two scenes: the first one has Lady playing cards with her rival Sheila, to Sheila's misfortune; the second immediately follows, and shows Garry and Lady frolicking in their bed as Garry tries to convince Lady to return Sheila's losses (this is, after all, a precode film). It's obvious in this second scene why Stanwyck and McCrea became a screen couple. When we viewed Banjo on My Knee several months ago (their second film together) we discussed their screen history.  For more information on McCrea himself, please visit our blog post on Rockabye.   The one criticism we have of his character in Gambling Lady is his jealousy towards Charlie - he should know his wife better.  She is the soul of honesty; how could he even THINK that she would cheat on him?
We like Pat O'Brien, but he is somewhat wasted in the film  - his screen time is small, and there are times when one wonders why Lady would pick Garry over Charlie (Garry can be quite petulant at times, while Charlie is always in Lady's corner).  But, O'Brien has the acting chops to stand toe to toe with Stanwyck, and that is important here - we HAVE to understand Lady's loyalty to Charlie, even though he doesn't always play an honest game.  And O'Brien has an inner integrity that makes his character almost admirable.

This is a film that is loaded with excellent character portrayals.  C. Aubrey Smith's Peter is one of them.  A man of honor, who loves his son and grows to love and even admire Lady, Smith gives us a memorable performance. A versatile actor, who could play sweet (as he does here) or vile (see No More Orchids for one of his more repugnant characters.)  Smith began his living as a professional cricketer, playing professionally from 1882-1890, and highly regarded as a bowler.  When he came to Hollywood, he continued to play, forming the Hollywood Cricket Club, with fellow actors David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Nigel Bruce, Leslie Howard, and Boris Karloff.  His acting career began in London - he, in fact, was the lead in The Prisoner of Zenda (returning to the story in the 1937 film version, in which he played the wise Colonel Zapt).  He worked in silent films in England, then ventured to Hollywood, where he became the unofficial head of the "Hollywood Raj," or British film colony.  In 1938 he was appointed a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, and was knighted in 1944.  Married to Isabelle Wood from 1896 until his death in 1948, Smith was an actor of note, appearing in such classics as The Four Feathers (1939), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and Rebecca (1940).  His final film, Little Women (1949) was released after his death from pneumonia.

Claire Dodd is also quite entertaining as the evil Sheila Aiken; as mentioned above, her gambling scene with Stanwyck is one to see - two pros matching wits (Stanwyck wins, but Dodd gives her a run for her money).  We discussed her career in some detail when we saw her in Lawyer Man (1933).  This New York Times review was quite complementary - and justifiably so - of Ms. Dodd in the film.  Fellow blogger at Immortal Ephemera also singled out Ms. Dodd for praise.

As discussed in this TCM article, Stanwyck had some momentary trouble with director Archie Mayo when he tried to pinch her.  Not surprisingly, she handled the situation quickly and firmly (and he didn't do it to her again).

In 1949. Stanwyck would revisit the theme of gambling in The Lady Gambles, but the two films are in no way similar (the 1949 film is very much a social drama about gambling addiction).   We'll leave you with the trailer from Gambling Lady, and a hearty recommendation to give it a try: 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Eva Marie Loses a Glove

In my last post, I mentioned there would be a hiatus on the blog as one of the members was going on vacation.  That member was me, and I was thrilled to spend 5 days onboard the Disney Magic on this year's Turner Classic Movies Cruise.  Though I've cruised before, I'd never attended a themed event, nor have I had the opportunity to attend any of the TCM festivals.  So, it was with a mix of anticipation and excitement that we arrived at the cruise.  It was, I can honestly say, well beyond my wildest dreams.  We had a ball, and if I have one regret, it's that I didn't have a time turner, so I could do EVERYTHING.  The cruise is so chock-full of events, it's hard to pick just one in a given time period.

For the most part, I attended as many of the interviews as I could squeeze in; but there was still time for films, and over the next few weeks, I'll intersperse our group watching with some comments on films that I viewed during the cruise.  We'll start with our day one film - On the Waterfront (1954).  Eva Marie Saint, a guest on the cruise, provided some comments, along with the always knowledgeable Robert Osborne.
Watching a film in a public venue is always a more magical experience; but it can also be a problematic one.  One "viewer" of the film, we are sure, attended ONLY so he could issue a loud "BOO" when Elia Kazan's name appeared on the screen.  I'm aware that Kazan notoriously "named names" during his examination by the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee), and while I deeply regret his actions, I also know I wasn't there (I wasn't even born yet), so I have no idea how I would have responded to the pressure placed on Mr. Kazan in 1952.  Other people "named names" - Budd Schulberg, Sterling Hayden, and Lee J. Cobb for example; yet they are not vilified the way Kazan is (It could be said that there was no need to condemn Sterling Hayden - he condemned - and punished - himself for years because he was "a stoolie").  But Kazan has become the poster boy for those who need to find someone to blame for this shameful period in America.  That someone would try to ruin this great film by "showing off" his superiority was the only down note to the screening.
One scene that was discussed during the comment section was the "Glove scene" (which I've attached below).  Asked if the scene was scripted or improvised, Ms. Saint talked about the rehearsals between herself and Mr. Brando.  In one of their sessions, she dropped the glove, and he began to play with it, much as he does here.    When Mr. Kazan arrived to discuss the rehearsal process with them, they showed  him this little improvised bit, and he said to include it in the filmed version.  

Another scene discussed by Ms. Saint and Mr. Osborne was this, perhaps the most famous one from the film.  The scene was supposed to have a back projection as the cab sped through the City, however, it couldn't be arranged, so instead, Venetian blinds were installed to shut off the back from view.  Like Mr. Osborne, I've been looking for a cab with Venetian blinds my whole life (and never found one).  This TCM article also discusses that scene.

Before we go, a few factoids about On the Waterfront.  In 1954, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor (Brando), Actress (Saint),  Director (Kazan, who also won the Director's Guild Award), Screenplay (Schulberg), Cinematography (Boris Kaufmann), Black and White Art-Set Direction, and Editing).  Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, AND Rod Steiger ALL received nominations for Best Supporting Actor (the award went to Edmond O'Brien for The Barefoot Contessa), and Leonard Bernstein was nominated for his score (with the award going to Dimitri Tiomkin for The High and the Mighty).  The New York Times review called it "moviemaking of a rare and high order".  It was #19 on the AFI's list of Greatest Films of All Time,  and #3 on the "100 Years, 100 Quotes" list (for You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.")  On the 25 Greatest Scores List, it placed #22, #23 on the list of the 50 Greatest Heroes, and #36 on the "Most Inspiring Films" list. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry.  

If you've not seen On the Waterfront, you should, if only to see the birth of a new form of film acting.  You'll also see performances that still shine, even after over 60 years.

We'll be back soon with more from the Cruise, and more from our weekly discussions.