Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jean is in Paris

Suzy (1936) stars Jean Harlow as Suzanne "Suzy" Trent, an American showgirl living in London during the first World War.  She meets inventor Terry Moore (Franchot Tone), who quickly falls in love with Suzy and convinces her to marry him.  But when Terry is murdered by a group of German spies, Suzy, afraid she will be accused of the crime, runs to Paris.  There, she meets a French flyer, Andre Charville (Cary Grant); it's nearly love at first sight, and the two quickly wed.  Things get complicated when she discovers that Terry was not killed in the attack, and that Andre still has an eye for the ladies.

As always, Jean Harlow is wonderful in a part that could come off as rather sleazy, but in her capable hands becomes charming.  Suzy announces her ambitions to marry a rich man in the first scene, but when push comes to shove, she is just too intrinsically honest to let money influence her decisions.  Certainly, some bits of the plot seem transparent - we KNOW the German spies will be back, and we are aware that Terry is alive when Suzy thinks he's been murdered.  In spite of this, it's a story that keeps you involved, with just enough twists to keep you engaged.  And while this TCM article comments that at least one reviewer felt that casting Harlow in a drama was a huge waste of her talents (likewise this New York Times review would banish her completely to comedy), her subtle humor is a big help in the film, and her dramatic talents completely live up to the script.
It's always a pleasure to see Cary Grant in anything - even when he is a cad (and a third billed cad at that!)  He's one year away from his magnificent (and arguably starmaking) performance in The Awful Truth, but his aura is already there.  When he's on screen, it's hard to take your eyes off him.  He had been loaned to by Paramount to MGM for this film, much to his disgust.  It was only when he was allowed to work with screenwriter Lenore Coffee to make his character more palatable that he agreed to participate.  The work shows.  He and Coffee create a man who is a scamp, a spoiled brat used to getting his own way.  But they imbue him with just the right amount of charm so that the audience understands Suzy's deep love for him.  It's interesting to note that Clark Gable was at one point considered for the role.
Suzy really has two loves in the Charville household - her affection for Baron Charville (Lewis Stone) is also boundless.  The Baron is initially horrified at his son's impetuous marriage to a showgirl, but grows to love her for her caring ways.  Lewis Stone, who would go on to acclaim as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series, is quite wonderful in this film.  With just the slightest flicker in his eye, he conveys both his affection for Suzy as well as the knowledge that the letters she is reading from his neglectful son are made up for the Baron's benefit.  Much as she truly loves Andre, by film's end we know that her actions are motivated more by her love for her father-in-law.
Andre's paramour, Madame Diane Eyrelle is played by Benita Hume.  Ms Hume started her acting career on the London stage (she would also appear in one Broadway play in 1930), switching to film acting in 1925.  In 1926, she appeared in Easy Virtue, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Noel Coward.  She segued easily into talkies, but was primarily relegated to supporting roles.  When she married Ronald Colman in 1938, she retired from films, though she did frequently appear on the Jack Benny radio show with her husband, playing Benny's neighbors.  Eventually, the Colmans even had their own radio (and later TV) show, The Halls of Ivy.  Colman died in 1958.  The following year, Ms. Hume wed George Sanders, a union which lasted until her death of bone cancer in 1967.  Below is a small piece from Colman and Hume in the TV version of The Halls of Ivy (from 1955, with a little Mary Wickes for good measure!):

We'll end today with the scene, noted in this entry from the AFI Catalog as one that is frequently shown in retrospectives.  And why not - we get to hear both Jean Harlow (dubbed) and Cary Grant (not dubbed) sing! The song, "Did I Remember" (Music by Walter Donaldson; Lyrics by Harold Adamson), was nominated for an Oscar in 1936 (It lost to "The Way You Look Tonight" from Swing Time, Music by Jerome Kern; Lyrics by Dorothy Fields).

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Barbara Marries a Radical

Following their dynamic introduction in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck reunite in B.F.'s Daughter (1948).  When Polly Fulton (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of wealthy industrialist  Barton F. Fulton (Charles Coburn) meets Thomas W. Brett (Van Heflin) in a speakeasy, the sparks fly.  Polly is almost engaged to Robert S. Tasmin, III (Richard Hart), an up-and-coming young lawyer who refuses to consider marriage until he has a stable income.  Tom Brett is an economist, who is earning extra cash by lecturing, and who's books have decried B.F.'s capitalist methods.  Despite this, the two fall in love and marry.  But once Tom starts to become successful, his relationship with Polly - and with her beloved father - begins to deteriorate.

While not the best Barbara Stanwyck movie ever made, this is an interesting and well acted film.  Based on the novel by John P. Marquand (the author of H.M. Pulham, Esquire and the creator of Mr. Moto), the story centers on the relationship between Polly and Tom, and less on that of Polly and B.F., as the title implies.  (This TCM article points out that the novel was much more of a political satire than the movie could ever include).  The film establishes immediately the loving relationship between father and daughter; the tensions between B.F. and Tom are more fodder for the problems of the newlyweds than an issue for B.F. and Polly.
When you have an actress as strong as Stanwyck in the part (according to this AFI catalog entry, Katharine Hepburn was also considered for Polly), some things become much easier.  Polly's need for something to keep her involved in her husband's life radiates from Stanwyck.  When Tom no longer needs her to help manage his career, she throws her passion into creating a home worthy for him (or one that SHE sees as worthy of him!).  As the war starts, a brief glimpse of Polly in a uniform immediately telegraphs her involvement in the home front efforts.  Stanwyck makes Polly a woman of action, rather than a passive onlooker.

Polly's finances become a recurring issue throughout the film.  Bob won't wed her because he will not live off her money (actually, B.F.'s money).  Thought Tom initially says that her money makes no difference to him - B.F. can continue to supply her with an allowance, since Tom doesn't want Polly to feel she cannot live the life to which she is accustomed - Tom reneges once he a success.  The house she builds - with her money - becomes symbolic of what he sees as his dependence on her.  A lovely desk, with a typewriter that mechanically hides under the surface becomes an irritant that Tom can't get past.  Helfin's Tom is a bit of a disappointment, though it isn't Heflin's fault.  He often seems petulant and inconstant.  He demands that Polly need him, but when she does, he just isn't available.  As a result, the character is more annoying than appealing.
The character that was perhaps the most puzzling was Martin Delwyn Ainsley (Keenan Wynn), a reporter who never seems to get much of anything right.  We learn of him almost immediately, when B.F. listens to Ainsley criticizing B.F. for ostensibly bringing on the Great Depression (the film opens in 1932) .  Polly meets Ainsley through Tom - of course, they are friends - and Ainsley is complicit in Polly's campaign to secretly get Tom a lucrative lecture tour.  Though Polly has worked with Ainsley and welcomed  him to her home, Ainsley betrays her confidence, and further fractures her already fragile marriage.  Late in the film, a series of radio broadcasts show Ainsley's ineptitude as a commentator - his grand predictions continually prove to be wrong; Tom also says that Ainsley never gets anything right.  If that is the case, is Tom wrong as well, since he has always held Ainsley in such high regard?  It gives one pause.
We were all very impressed with the wonderful Margaret Lindsay as Polly's best friend, "Apples" Sandler.  "Apples" (she has no real first name) is a loyal friend, a loving wife, and a smart, practical human being.  She hasn't a mean or jealous bone in her body, and Lindsay plays her as a stalwart.  Her love for Bob is true and deep, though she has an awareness of his regard for her.  Ultimately, she is the one with the stable marriage, because she accepts Bob for who he is.  A wonderful actress, who worked steadily in the 1930s and 1940s, Lindsay is probably best remembered as Henry Fonda's Northern bride in Jezebel (1938).  She also appeared as Kay Francis' gambler-daughter in The House on 56th Street (1933) and as Olivia de Havilland's nasty aunt in Gold is Where You Find It (1938).  By the 1950s, Lindsay was finding film work harder to come by, so she segwayed into episodic television.  Never married, she had a partner, actress Mary McCarty.  Lindsay died in 1981, aged 70.
Repeating her role as Stanwyck's mother is Spring Byington (Gladys Fulton), again playing (as she had in Meet John Doe) a gentle soul the total opposite of her assertive daughter.  We get a brief glimpse of Marshall Thompson as a young sailor, and Barbara Laage (who would later appear in The Happy Road with Gene Kelly) is Eugenia Taris.

This New York Times review was not enamored of the film, and we did think that the ending felt abrupt and hastily slapped together.  That being said, it's a good movie, with some excellent acting, and definitely worth seeing.  We'll leave you with an early scene, with the Fulton family.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Humphrey Finds the Black Bird

This month, TCM Presents featured The Maltese Falcon (1941) as their Fathom Events entry.  The private detective firm of Spade and Archer is visited one day by the intriguing Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor).  During her interview with partner Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart), she relates the story of her younger sister, Corrine, who has been seduced by Floyd Thursby.  Miss Wonderly wants Sam to find Corrine and steal her back from Thursby.  The entrance of Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) changes the dynamic, though.  He takes one look at Miss Wonderly and announces he will personally handle the case.  But when Archer is killed that night, Spade begins his own investigation, finding that Miss Wonderly is not who she said she was, and that there is a lot more to the story than she let on.

Often discussed as the first film noir, The Maltese Falcon is beyond doubt, a masterpiece.  It has been placed at #23 in the 100 Years, 100 Films; #26 in their list of 100 Years, 100 Thrills, #6 in their Top 10 Mystery films.  It was one of the first films entered into the National Film Registry.  Even back in 1941, New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther was singing its praises, especially for the Humphrey Bogart's "excellent revelation of character".  At the 14th Annual Academy Awards, it scored three nominations: Best Picture (losing to How Green Was My Valley.  I make no comments here. I LOVE How Green Was My Valley.  Plus, it was a tough year to pick just one best picture.), Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet, who lost to Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley), and best adapted screenplay for John Huston (who lost to Here Comes, Mr. Jordan.  Yes - I love that movie too).
Mary Astor was also nominated that year, but not for her role as Bridget O'Shaughnessy/Miss Wonderly.  In 1941, she also appeared as the bitchy concert pianist, Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie.  She was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for that film, and won.    

When you see The Maltese Falcon on a big screen, some little, but interesting things pop out at you.  As Spade walks down the street, we see a movie theatre marquee behind him.  Playing at the theatre - The Great Lie!  A little product placement by Warner Brothers?  It's small, but you can see it in the image below.  The Great Lie was released in April of 1941; The Maltese Falcon in October.
This was Sydney Greenstreet's (Kasper Gutman) first film role - he was 62 at the time.   He began his career on the London stage (in 1902).  By 1905, he was in America. and from 1907 through 1940, he appeared in 30 Broadway plays, including the works of Shakespeare  (As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor), Chekov (The Seagull), Ben Jonson (Volpone), and Oscar Wilde (Lady Windemere's Fan).  Though both the British and American film industries approached him to enter the medium early on, he refused until he was signed by Warner Brothers for our film.  Paired with Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo) for the first time in The Maltese Falcon, the two would become a virtual team, eventually appearing in 9 films together.  Between 1941 and 1949, when he retired, Greenstreet appeared in 54 films, including Christmas in Connecticut, The Woman in White (where he does a magnificent Count Fosco), Flamingo Road, They Died with Their Boots On, and Devotion.  He died in 1954, the result of diabetes, aged 74.

Another thing that was very noticeable on a big screen was the reaction of Wilmer, aka the Gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.) to Gutman's intention to give him over to Spade as a scapegoat.  Wilmer is crying as he attempts to escape from the apartment.  The he original Dashiell Hammett novel hints at an intimate relationship between Wilmer and Joel Cairo.  That Cairo (and Gutman) would be willing to sacrifice him to Spade is perhaps part of the motivation for his reaction - and subtly hints at a subject the film would not have been able to tackle.
Kudos to Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, the indomitable secretary to Spade and Archer.  Effie is no fool - she knows everything that is going on in the office, but also knows how to keep a secret.  Her loyalty to Spade is boundless, yet we don't have the requisite lover pining for the man who doesn't notice that she's alive.  Effie likes Spade, but she knows who he is, and also knows he's not likely to fall for her.  And she seems just fine with that.

These TCM articles point out that George Raft was (again) slated to star in the role that eventually went to Bogart.  The film, being handled by a new director, was not important enough for Raft's taste (and was he ever wrong!).  Edward G. Robinson was also briefly considered.  Thankfully, though Warner's decided that Bogart's star was on the rise (he'd just had a huge success with High Sierra), and gave him the part.  Bogart is quoted as saying that The Maltese Falcon "was practically a masterpiece. I don't have many things I'm proud of but that's one."  A fascinating array of actresses were considered for the role of Bridget: Olivia de Havilland, Loretta Young, Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Brenda Marshall, Janet Gaynor, Joan Bennett, Betty Field and Ingrid Bergman (AFI Catalog), and Lee Patrick was originally considered for the part of Iva Archer (which eventually went to Gladys George), with Eve Arden a first choic for Effie.
When a film has the acclaim that this one has, physical objects which represent it become iconic.  The Black Bird that Bogart holds at the end of the film is one of those items.  In this recent Vanity Fair article, the tale of the elusive bird, which sold at auction for $4.1 million, is detailed.  You'll also find a slide show about the Falcon. 

We'll leave you with this opening sequence from The Maltese Falcon, and the question - would you trust this woman?