Thursday, December 24, 2015

Tyrone is the Fox

This year's TCM Cruise was a feast for those of us who like Tyrone Power (and I do), so it was with great pleasure that I attended a screening of The Mark of Zorro (1940).  Power stars as Don Diego Vega, a young man who has been living in Spain for some years, being educated for the military.  Diego abhors California, where his father is the Alcalde (Montagu Love as Don Alejandro Vega).  To his adventurous mind, it's a bore, a place to "marry and raise fat children and watch your vineyards grow."  So, when he is suddenly ordered home, it is with a large degree of annoyance that he departs Madrid.  When he arrives in California, he finds that his father's position as Alcalde has been usurped by Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg).  Quintero, with the assistance of his military head Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), is literally bleeding the peasants dry, to build a nice nest egg so he and his wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) can return to Spain.  Diego decides to hide behind the mask of a fop while he plots to free the people from the yolk of Quintero and Pasquale.  But there is a complication - he's fallen head over heels in love with Quintero's lovely niece Lolita (Linda Darnell).

If you've never seen  The Mark of Zorro, you should be watching it now (not reading this blog).  It's splendid.  Based on a story by Johnston McCulley (this AFI catalog entry talks about the legal status of the character), it had been previously filmed as a highly regarded silent film, with Douglas Fairbanks in the lead.  Since then, it has been revived as two television series (starring Guy Williams and  Duncan Regehr), several films, (including two with Antonio Banderas in which he portrayed the protege of the "original" Zorro, Anthony Hopkins), one with Frank Langella, and a spoof with George Hamilton.  The story of Zorro has also been reused - most notably in the character of Batman - Bob Kane has been quoted as crediting the Fairbanks Zorro as the inspiration for his character.
Basil Rathbone is at his dastardly best as Captain Esteban.  He is quite intimidating in the part, and you never forget he is a force to be reckoned with (unlike J. Edward Bromberg's Quintero, who is a weak-willed, but greedy, opportunist).  In real life, Rathbone was an expert fencer, who was continually forced to lose his matches to his less experienced stars.  And while Power (according to these TCM articles) ceded some of his action to his double (the son of film's fencing master Fred Cavens), the effect is unnoticeable in the finished product, in part because of Rathbone's expertise.

Rathbone is high on my list of favorite actors.  The man can do anything - from villain to hero, from Richard III to Sherlock Holmes.  Though he started in silent films in 1926, it's hard to imagine that magnificent voice silent.  We've viewed a number of his films - one of my personal favorites is Confession, in which he has a very small, but crucial part as the evil seducer of women.  He's probably best remembered today for his 12 appearances as Sherlock Holmes (thirteen, if you count a cameo in Crazy House), but he is so much more than the one part - he could do Shakespeare and Dickens; comedy and tragedy.  Rathbone was an actor's actor, with a body of work that consistently demonstrates excellence.   He was nominated for the Oscar twice, both in the Supporting Actor category (for Romeo and Juliet (1937) and If I Were King (1939)).  He won a Tony Award for his performance on Broadway in The Heiress; he also toured in a one-man show An Evening with Basil Rathbone.  He married twice - to Ethel Marion Foreman (they divorced after 12 years) and then to Ouida Bergère, to whom he was married for 41 years, until his death at age 75.

A few words about Linda Darnell are in order.  So often, she is ignored because of her beauty, but, gorgeous as she was, her acting was also quite wonderful.  She gives Lolita a youthful innocence and spunk that are just perfect in this film.  If you really want to see her at her best, though, take a look at her portrayal of Lora Mae in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) or as Edie Johnson in No Way Out (1950).  She started her career with a contract from RKO at age 15, later moving to 20th Century Fox.  As she aged, and film roles became fewer, she started to make the transition to the stage and to television.  After a tumultuous life, rife with depression, affairs, and failed marriages, Ms. Darnell died in a fire in 1965 at age 41.

I don't usually include scenes with spoilers, but this duel between Don Diego and Captain Estaban is one of the best on screen. If you've not seen the movie, get hold of it asap.  You'll love it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Joan Finds Religion

A wealthy woman decides she has found religion in Susan and God (1940).  Joan Crawford stars as Susan Trexel, the estranged wife of Barrie Trexel (Fredric March).  Susan has been in England for several months, and as the action of the film opens, has returned to America, accompanied by her mentor, Lady Millicent Wigstaff (Constance Collier), the founder of Susan's new obsession.  While Susan's friends are not amused by her ardent proselytizing, they like her a lot more than they like her husband, a drunk who can be rather unpleasant in his cups.  They plot to keep the two apart as long as possible, to avoid the inevitable scene.  But, when Barrie and Susan finally do meet up, they agree to reconciliation of sorts, primarily for the sake of their daughter, Blossom (Rita Quigley).  Susan has one proviso - if Barrie takes another drink, she gets a divorce.

We are big fans of Crawford, and she does not disappoint in the film.  Susan's obsessive personality is very reminiscent of two portrayals that were years off - the over-the-top mother in Mildred Pierce and the maniacal homemaker in Harriet Craig. Crawford purposefully makes Susan annoying, with a patronizing voice and attitude that make you want to throttle her.  The minute we meet her, we understand her friends' mixed reaction to her return - she's unable to do anything without making everyone else a party to her interest. 

Crawford was stepping into some big shoes in this character - on Broadway (the play by Rachel Crothers opened in October of 1937), the role of Susan was played by Gertrude Lawrence.  Added to that, MGM had purchased the play for Norma Shearer (who is reputed to have turned it down due to her reluctance to play the mother of a teenager), and later considered Greer Garson (who, the year before had played her breakthrough role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips) for the part (briefly noted in the AFI Catalog).
Frederic March, usually a very powerful actor, plays Barrie as a very weak man.  The slightest pressure results in his again hitting the bottle.  It's hard to understand what Barrie and Susan ever saw in one another, because they are so totally different and so unkind to one another.  It sometimes feels that Barrie is still married to Susan so he has an excuse to drink.

Without giving too much away, we were disappointed with the story line, which we felt really needed a lot of tweeking.  The ending was too off-center, and felt as though it came out of nowhere.   The screenwriter is Anita Loos, no stranger to comedy, or to satire, but the film doesn't really continue the satirical tone that allegedly made the play popular, though this TCM article maintains that some felt the film improved on the play. Without comparison, it's hard to say, but we felt that the satire was severely muted by the film's conclusion.
The film is rich, however, in supporting players:  John Carroll in an exceedingly small part as Clyde Rochester, Nigel Bruce as 'Hutchie', Bruce Cabot as Michael, a very young Gloria De Haven as Enid, Blossom's rival for the affections of a boy and Rita Hayworth as Hutchie's young bride, Leonara.  But the person who really shines is Ruth Hussey as Charlotte, probably the only decent human being among Susan's cadre of friends.  Hussey is a longtime favorite - especially as Ray Milland's sister Pamela in The Uninvited  (one of my personal favorite films, and perhaps the best ghost story ever put to film - we can argue between that and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but I digress).  She really never seemed to get the lead parts (which is a shame) - the preceding year, she had appeared for what seemed an instant as the over-efficient Miss Watts in The Women. She started in films in 1937, had the lead in a few "B" movies like Bedside Manner (1945), and eventually moved over to television, where she appeared in shows like Marcus Welby, M.D. (which starred her H.M. Pulham, Esq. co-star Robert Young) and The Jimmy Stewart Show (featuring her love interest in The Philadelphia Story).  Married for 60 years (and the mother of 3 children), she also performed on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s (including the lead in State of the Union).  She died in 2002, aged 93.

While not the best of Crawford's film, Susan and God is rich in excellent performances.  Here is a trailer to get you acquainted:

Monday, December 14, 2015

Ann Snares William

We selected an excellent pre-code film for this week's discussion - Double Harness (1933) (Femme aux gardénias in France), starring Ann Harding  and William Powell.

The marriage of Valerie Colby (Lucile Browne) and Dennis Moore (George Meeker) leads Joan Colby (Ann Harding) to seek a spouse for herself.  Though she claims not to love him, Joan selects wealthy playboy John Fletcher (William Powell), despite the fact that he pays no attention to his family's business (to the consternation of Joan's father,  Colonel Sam Colby (Henry Stephenson)) and had been carrying on a very open affair with Monica Page (Lilian Bond).  Since John claims he'll never marry, Joan concocts a plan - have her father walk in on them when she and John are in a compromising position in John's apartment.  But there is a problem - Joan has fallen in love with John, and his suggestion of a marriage of convenience to placate her father is not really what Joan had in mind for her future. 

Our reference to the French title is purposeful, because the gardenia plays a major role in the film, symbolizing the relationship of Joan and John. The gardenia is Joan's favorite flower, and a corsage or bouquet telegraphs important moments in their lives. The film was based on the novel Double Harness by Anthony Hope (of The Prisoner of Zenda fame) and a play of the same name by Edward Poor Montgomery.   Elegant costumes were provided by Walter Plunkett - we were especially impressed with a fur embellished dress worn by Ms. Harding.
Ann Harding brings a matter-of-factness to Joan's pursuit of John which precludes disliking her, even when we believe her only motivations are selfish.  Harding makes Joan something of a businesswoman - she sees potential in John, and in return for their marriage, she'll be his helpmeet.  After her realization that she, in fact, loves John deeply, Harding makes Joan warmer and more sympathetic.  But never does she make her a doormat - Joan is strong and smart - she never allows the viewer to believe she is otherwise.

William Powell approaches John in much the same way he would later play Nick Charles - he has humor, but is a casual man, seemingly more concerned with his pleasures than anything else.  But like Nick, he has depth.  Though at first, he doesn't know how to do anything but play, he is taught by Joan that there is a joy in accomplishing something outside of a nightclub.  Powell's scenes with the two women in his life - Joan and Monica - are wonderful.  His eyes always let us know how he feels, no matter what his lips are saying.  Would he marry Joan eventually if he hadn't been tricked? We think so.
Neither of the other women in the film are particularly likable.  Of course, we aren't supposed to like Monica, but Joan's sister Valerie, as portrayed by Lucile Browne, is a selfish bubblehead, who milks her sister for money after running up a debt of $1,000 (nearly $18,000 in today's dollars) for clothing and doo-dads.  In revenge for her sister denying her more money, Valerie tries to break up Joan's marriage.  Browne does a decent job with the character - she doesn't try to make her attractive; our dislike for Valerie was powerful.  Browne appeared in 45 films and shorts between 1930 and 1950, mostly in small and/or uncredited roles. She primarily was a homemaker from 1938 on, after her marriage to William James Flavin (who also left acting to teach).  17 days after his death in 1976, the grief-stricken Lucile died at the age of 69.

While the New York Times reviewer was not particularly taken with this film, fellow blogger at agreed with us that this is a film well worth your time.  Essentially lost for years (these TCM articles and notes from the AFI catalog  describe the history behind the film's disappearance), the film (along with five other Merian C. Cooper films) were aired on TCM and released under their TCM Vault logo in 2007.  When the film was restored, a scene that had been cut - Joan emerging from a bedroom in lounging pajamas, as John awaits her return - was reinserted.  Unfortunately, the film is out of print on DVD again (though still being shown on occasion on TCM).  We leave you with clip of Joan (in her gardenias), beginning her seduction of John.  


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Gumshoe Lee, R.N.

The Nurse's Secret (1941), based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, (Miss Pinkerton) is a remake of two prior films: Miss Pinkerton (1932) (which we'd already seen) and While the Patient Sleeps (1935).  The plot of this film is identical to that of Miss Pinkerton -  a young man is found dead of a gunshot wound in his room.  Is it murder, suicide, or an accident? Police inspector Tom Patten (Regis Toomey) figures this case is the one that can get him promoted.  When the doctor of the woman who found the victim, his aunt and insurance beneficiary Miss Juliet Mitchell (Clara Blandick), needs a nurse, Patten suggests his girlfriend, Ruth Adams, R.N.  (Lee Patrick).  Though annoyed at Patten for his constant cancellation of their dates, Ruth is thrilled to be a female Sherlock Holmes.  However, someone is wandering around the house, and whoever it is may be a murderer.  

Miss Pinkerton was a much more lighthearted effort than The Nurse's Secret.  Ms. Patrick makes Ruth far more serious than Joan Blondell's Miss Adams, and while we liked Lee Patrick, we missed Joan Blondell's sassy attitude.  This is a plot that can get very convoluted, and the humor from the first iteration deflected some of the confusion. Early in The Nurse's Secret, we even get a reference to the first film, when Patten (responding to Ruth's comment about being a lady Sherlock Holmes) replies "Or Miss Pinkerton."

What this film does offer is a panoply of wonderful character people.  First and foremost is Ms. Patrick, who spent most of her career as second lead and in character parts.  As this TCM article points out,  the biggest surprise here is that Ms. Patrick gets to carry the film, and she does an excellent job.  Born in 1901, Lee Patrick has 110 film and television credits (and 26 Broadway plays) to her name.  She started her career in films in 1929, and continued until 1965 when she retired to become a painter.  She was lured back to films once more, however - in 1975 she reprised the role of Effie from The Maltese Falcon in the spoof The Black Bird.  Looking at a list of her film gives one pause - you remember her character, but sometimes forget it was her - even with her chirpy voice, she was a chameleon who changed to fit the part she played.  When you realize that the same person who played Mrs. Biederhof in Mildred Pierce also played Doris Upson in Auntie Mame, it's almost surprising.  Married to the same man from 1937 until her death in 1982, Ms. Patrick was a talent that we sometimes forget (and shouldn't), but should NEVER ignore.

The film also contains performances from some interesting character people, most notably Clara Blandick, best known for playing Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz. With over 100 film credits, Ms. Blandick spent much of her career playing crotchety old ladies, as she does here.  But she was also a noted stage actress, appearing in such Broadway plays as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman and The Enchanted Cottage (as Mrs. Minnett, the role that would go to Mildred Natwick in the film version).  Following her retirement in 1951, Ms. Blandick was quite ill.  Finally, wracked with pain, she committed suicide in 1962, at age 85.

While we think Miss Pinkerton is the better film, this one is not bad, especially if you are more interested in a serious take on the material.  We have a trailer to get you started:

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The New Dick Powell

The poster to the left says it all.  Murder, My Sweet (1944), which was one of the films on the TCM Cruise, was a new beginning in the career of Dick Powell.  He'd spent the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in such films as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, but with this movie he changed the trajectory of his career.   Powell was approaching his 40s, and a middle aged juvenile was a hard sell.  By taking on the part of hard-nosed detective Philip Marlowe, Powell would become a film noir leading man.

A poolside midnight showing of Murder, My Sweet capped day four of the cruise.  Eddie Mueller of the Film Noir Foundation provided the introduction (Mr. Mueller was also the host of the 2015 Summer of Darkness on TCM).  Based on the book Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, the studio found it necessary to change the name, as audiences thought they were going into a musical comedy (the star was Dick Powell, after all).  And, while it completely altered the career of star Powell, it also was the swan song for Anne Shirley, who retired at the end of the film.  (For more on Ms. Shirley, see our recent post on Anne of Green Gables, as well as this TCM article).
Told in flashback by Marlowe, his eyes completely bandaged, the fairly complicated story begins with Detective Marlowe alone in his office.  A man arrives - Moose Malone (Mike Mazurki) matches his nickname - he is huge and not too bright, but he is in love, and his girlfriend, Velma Valento has disappeared while Moose was in prison.  He wants Marlowe to find her. Then, Marlowe is approached to by Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) help him pay ransom for stolen jewels.  That doesn't go well, and at the drop, Marlowe catches a glimpse of a woman, who will also show up at his office when he gets back from the "drop".  That woman is Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), and the jewels were stolen from her stepmother.  As the story unfolds, these seemingly unrelated events begin to merge into one big case, as Marlowe is knocked around, kidnapped, and drugged.

Released three years earlier than The Lady in the Lake, this film has a similar feel in the point-of-view references.  Where The Lady in the Lake rarely lets you see leading man Robert Montgomery (we only see him in mirrors), Murder, My Sweet makes it clear that what we are seeing is Marlowe's story, with blurred effects and blackouts as he is injured or intoxicated. It's a very powerful effect, making the story more intense and engaging.
When the film was released, Dick Powell had just hit his 40th birthday, and he looked it.  Type-cast as a musical comedy actor, Powell wanted to expand his roles.  He bought his release from Warner Brothers, and signed a contract with RKO, on the proviso that his first role would be a dramatic one.  This film ended Powell's career in musicals (though he would continue in occasional comedic roles, including The Reformer and the Redhead with his third wife, June Allyson.  He'd also been married to Joan Blondell).  Powell also began to branch out to work behind the scenes - as a producer on TV's Four Star Playhouse and The Dick Powell Theatre, and as a director of films such as Woman on the Run and The Conqueror.  It was on this last film that Powell was most like exposed to the radiation that contributed in his death from lung cancer at age 58.  Filmed in Utah, the crew members were onsite at the time of a nearby nuclear test.  Susan Hayward, John Wayne, Ted de Corsia, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz were also affected. 

Let's not ignore the wonderful Claire Trevor as Mrs. Helen Grayle. Her languid delivery is perfect for a woman seemingly more interested in drinking than jewelry or intrigue.  You KNOW she is up to something, but until the end, it's not really clear WHAT she is planning.  Trevor was no stranger to Noir she'd already appeared in Crossroads (1942) when she was cast in our film - she has often been called the Queen of Film Noir, notably appearing in such renowned noirs as Born to Kill (1947) and Key Largo (1948), winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the latter.  Married three times, Trevor had one child, Charles, who was killed in a plane crash.  That same year, her husband died of a brain tumor.  For the most part, she stopped acting in the mid 1960s, but in 1982, she appeared in the movie Kiss Me Goodbye, and subsequently did several TV episodes.  She died in April of 2000 at age 90.

The AFI database notes that Ann Dvorak was at one point considered for the role of Ann Grayle.   The film would be remade under it's original title in 1975, with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe (it had already been made as a The Falcon Takes Over in 1942).

Trevor,  Powell and Mike Mazurki would reprise their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre version, with June DuPrez voicing Ann.  Even a year later in the radio play, host Irving Pitchel comments that "in answer to the proverb that a leopard cannot change its spots, we bring you tonight a gentleman who turns his back on many years of light and frothy roles by which he climbed to stardom and takes the part of a ruthless, hard-as-nails detective... He's Dick Powell...."  Such was the impact of Powell's career change.  As I go, I leave you with the trailer to Murder, My Sweet: