Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Kay is in a Jeep

Four Jills in a Jeep  (1944), based on a book by Carole Landis, tells the true story of the Ms. Landis, Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, as they venture from the safe confines of Los Angeles (where all four were deeply involved in the war efforts) to entertain the troops in the war zone - first in England and then in North Africa.  Along the way, Carole and Mitzi find romance - and Martha dodges a smitten Sgt Eddie (Phil Silvers).

By and large, this is a true story - the four women, spent nearly four months abroad lto entertain the troops in the middle of the danger zone (see this AFI Catalog article).  Carole Landis did meet a flyer (Army Air Force Captain Thomas Wallace) on the tour, and married him in 1943 (they divorced in 1945).  The film presents an interesting picture of the war effort from the point of view of those who decided that staying home was not the best service to the troops.  It's an enjoyable film, with great music, and an array of talent from 20th Century Fox studio - Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, George Jessel, Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, and even Dick Haymes, playing Lt. Dick Ryan (in his first credited screen appearance.  Of course, he is a singer!).  You can see from the advertisement below that these guests get more prominent billing than our four stars.
Though other wartime revues, such as Hollywood Canteen and Thank Your Lucky Stars (both from Warner Brothers) did well, this film did not, and received an unfavorable review from the New York Times.  Released in 1944 (in April, before the D-Day invasion), audiences (now in the war for over 2 years) were likely dejected by the seeming lack of progress.  But it must surely have been welcomed by the soldiers who were not able to see the Four Jills on their tour.

Of course, the film was shot entirely on the studio lot, resulting in the women riding Central Asian (two-hump, or Bactrian) camels in North Africa (the home of the Dromedary, or one-hump camel).  And though the ladies always look immaculate, the film does capture the flavor of what they had to deal with.  Especially impressive is a scene in which the women perform using only cigarette lighters when the power goes out during a bombing raid.

We sometimes forget what a lovely singing voice Martha Raye had.  This film, luckily, gives her the opportunity to show it off.  Sure, it's a novelty number, in which she gets to clown as well.  Had Ms Raye had the looks of a Carole Landis, it is likely she would have had starring roles in big musicals.  However, that was not to be.  The film's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, was apparently not a fan; he commented to director William A. Seiter, "Martha Raye usually talks too fast and too loud. Try to make her play Martha-Raye-off-stage and not Martha-Raye-on-the-screen, if possible."
Ms Raye continued her work abroad after the four month tour.  She was famous for going where the troops were, no matter whether it was 2 men or 2000.  She traveled with the USO during the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.  She was given the honorary rank of Colonel Maggie.  In later years, she would receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with the troops.  She also appeared in numerous films though apparently she was only happy with her work in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux.  When the age of television arrived, she began to work in TV;  she also appeared on the Broadway stage - notably in Hello, Dolly and No, No, Nanette.  Her personal life was not a happy one - she married seven times, all but the last ending in divorce.  Her relationship with her daughter, Melodye Condos, became fraught when Ms. Condos sought to control her mother's money following Ms. Raye's stroke in 1991.  Ms. Raye died of pneumonia, age 78, in 1994, the result of the stroke and serious circulation problems.

This is a cute movie, though not great literature.  Then again, it's not supposed to be. It certainly is worth a look as a glimpse into the lives of those who went abroad to entertain the troops.  Plus, it's one of Alice Faye's last film roles (until she reemerged from her self-imposed exile in 1962), and one of Kay Francis' final roles as well.  We'll leave you with this scene that was deleted from the final picture, with Ms. Mayfair, Ms. Landis, and Ms. Raye dancing and singing for the troops.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Robert Loves a Nurse

Robert Montgomery stars as Lieutenant Wally O'Brien in War Nurse (1930).  The film opens at the outbreak of the First World War.  American women from all parts of the country and all walks of life daydream about becoming a war nurse.  Each has their own reason, and their own view of the mission.  The film follows the lives of  Barbara (Babs) Whitney (June Walker), Joy Meadows (Anita Page), Cushie (ZaSu Pitts), Rosalie "Brooklyn" Parker (Marie Prevost), and Marian "Kansas" (Helen Jerome Eddy) as the women venture to France to nurse the wounded. 

Though Mr. Montgomery is given top billing, this film really is about the nurses - all of them.  Sure, Babs is our "heroine", but each of the women has an interesting backstory and a distinct personality.  We grow to like all of them, and to admire their dedication to an awful and dangerous job.  The men in the story are the window dressing; the women are its heart.

Some movies are eternal, and it doesn't really matter when they are filmed.  Some are time capsules of their era.  In a sense, War Nurse is both.  This film looks back 12 years to "the War to end all wars," yet we know what the characters and filmmakers do not.  That, in a scant 8 years, the world will be at war again.  And though the technology may change, the effects of war and the work of the nurse do not.  We can empathize with the characters because their struggle represents the struggle of all nurses in a war zone. 

Based on the book 1930 book War Nurse: The True Story of a Woman Who Lived, Loved and Suffered on the Western Front (AFI Catalog), this is an excellent and compelling story.  We only had one minor complaint with the film, the levity that was inserted into the script felt forced and flat.  Not that one wants the film to be oppressing, but often the wisecracking just didn't belong.  It sometimes seemed to interrupt the flow of the action, and we were eager for the story to continue.
June Walker, in the role of Babs, is just wonderful.  Her scenes with Mr. Montgomery have a real feeling of truth.  We were especially impressed by the scene in which Wally visits her in her small flat.  Their interplay is excellent, and you come out of the scene sympathizing with both of them for different reasons.  Ms. Walker had a long career, in both television and theatre.  In 1926 (after making one short silent and one silent feature), she married writer/actor Geoffrey Kerr.  They had one child, actor John Kerr.  The marriage lasted until 1942, after which Ms. Walker made a few movies, but primarily appeared in television, working until 1960.   She also had a long career on Broadway, beginning in 1919, and working until 1958.  She appeared in 34 plays including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926, as Lorelei Lee), Waterloo Bridge (1930, as Myrna), and The Middle of the Night (1956).  Ms. Walker died in 1966.   

Hedda Hopper is appealing in the small part of Matron Townsend, an experienced, no-nonsense nurse, who looks over both the male patients and her nurses (see this TCM article).  Robert Ames as Robin Neil is also good.  Ames died the year after this film was released.  A severe alcoholic, Ames was trying to recover, but it is suspected that his sudden withdrawal from alcohol resulted in his death (which was attributed to delirium tremens).
We were especially intrigued with ZaSu Pitts as Cushie (her work in the film is briefly noted in this New York Times review).  With her sad face and voice, Ms. Pitts sound career was frequently in comedies.  In the early 30s, she was often partnered with Thelma Todd, in what has often been referred to as Hal Roach's feminine version of Laurel and Hardy (like Stan and Ollie, Thelma and ZaSu also used their real names in these films).  During the silent era, Ms. Pitts received much deserved praise for her work in Greed (1921); in the sound era, a film to not miss is her performance in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).  She worked steadily, easily moving into television in the 1940s (she was a regular on The Gale Storm Show - also known as Oh, Susanna); her last film was released after her death from cancer in 1963: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Ms. Pitts was also an author: she penned a book Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published just after her death. Her unusual name was a combination of her two birth names EliZA SUsan (pronounced "Zay-soo").

Though a precode film, the characters of Joy and Robin are both punished for their sins (for more on the plot, and an interesting discussion, visit this Pre-code.com review).  For a modern audience, the lack of background music and special effects (a bombing sequence is very clearly backscreen projection), can be surprising.  Regardless, you are still seeing a grim picture of the war, without viewing a lot of blood and gore.  

We'll leave you with this clip from the film.  We highly recommend it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Barbara Marries Robert's Brother

In His Brother's Wife (1936), Dr. Chris Claybourne (Robert Taylor) is about to go on a several year research project to the South American jungle, in search of the cause spotted fever.  But Chris, a very undedicated young man, intends to spend his last two weeks in New York drinking and gambling.  While at the gambling hall of the rather shady "Fish-Eye" (Joseph Calleia), Chris loses a $5,000 (which he doesn't have), and meets model Rita Wilson (Barbara Stanwyck).  The meeting is fortuitous - a smitten Chris spends the two weeks with Rita; by the end of it, he has resolved to resign from the research project and marry Rita.  But there is still the $5,000 debt to deal with.  When Chris asks his brother, Dr. Thomas Clabourne, Jr. (John Eldredge) for help, Tom's agrees, but at a price - drop Rita, who Tom sees as a gold-digger, and go on the expedition, or deal with the debt himself.  Chris agrees to the terms, leaving a heartbroken and angry Rita vowing revenge on the Claybourne family.

In some ways, the biggest problem with this film is the script's portrayal of  Chris Claybourne, whose switch from debauched playboy to dedicated researcher seems almost too abrupt.  Sure, the deterioration of his relationship with Rita plays a part in the character's change, as does seeing colleagues die in South America.  But, he also goes from heartsick juvenile to bitter old man with the flip of a switch.  As a result, it's really hard to get a handle on Chris.  The prior year, Taylor had become very much a matinee idol in Magnificent Obsession and one wonders if the writers were trying to capitalize on the popularity of that film, by making Chris similar to Robert Merrick.  In this New York Times review, the popularity of Mr. Taylor (following his success in Magnificent Obsession) figures heavily in the commentary. 

At one point, (according to the AFI Catalog), Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were being considered for the lead roles in this film; later, it was reported that the cast included Harlow and Franchot Tone.  However, it was already public knowledge that Stanwyck and Taylor were dating (see this TCM article for more about the film); assumedly, that contributed greatly to casting Stanwyck rather than Harlow. Harlow in the role of Rita would have been very different, as Stanwyck gives Rita an elegance and strength that makes her attractive and likeable.  Given Rita's actions later in the film, it could be hard to retain sympathy for her, but Stanwyck has the skill to make Rita much more sinned against than sinning.
Another handicap is John Eldredge as Thomas Claybourne, Jr.  Simply put, he's a blackmailer, a liar, and a weakling.  Surely, one doesn't sympathize much with Chris' proclivity for gambling and then writing bad checks.  But Tom's carping about the lack of money available when he is standing in a house that could house 30 people rather than 3 seems just reprehensible.  And, on top of that, to then elope with the woman his brother wanted to marry - a woman he all but called a whore, is just despicable.  One wonders why Chris doesn't deck him when he returns from South America.  

Joh Eldredge never seemed to get beyond second banana status, and given his performance here, it's understandable.  The scenes in which he tells his brother about his passion for Rita are over-the-top and rather insincereHe had a respectable film career; then moved into television in his later years.  In fact, he worked up until his death of a heart attack in 1961.   Growing up, I remember him clearly as a frequent Superman villain in The Adventures of Superman.
The costuming is good - Stanwyck has some nice outfits, but by and large, the actors look like they've been dipped in Clorox in the jungle scenes - everyone in white, and not a stain to be seen. And we, as mentioned, had some problems with the set used as the Claybourne home.  It makes it awfully hard to believe there are any financial constraints within the family.

Jean Hersholt as Professor Pop Fahrenheim, Chris' supervisor and mentor on the expedition, is very good, as usual.  He is able to provide an amount of gravitas to that role, without making him pious.  However, Samuel S. Hinds as Dr. Thomas Claybourne, Sr. is totally wasted. He has, perhaps two scenes, and does little except worry about Tom, Jr. 
Some amount of the film concentrates on the aspect of heroic medicine, which is very reminiscent of Arrowsmith.  Of course, in 1936, vaccines were a relatively new concept, and there is a convention in films of this era that the noble physicians (Pop and Thomas, Sr.  - who is pouring all his money back into his hospital) are willing to sacrifice their very lives to save mankind.  Chris' father wants Chris to become that kind of physician. That Chris is eager to risk himself to prove the efficacy of his vaccine shows the growth of the character, and that he has indeed become ennobled by his work in the tropics.  In this day and age of controlled clinical trials, and IRBs (institutional review boards that verify that studies are both necessary and will minimize harm), this method of medical research seems outlandish.  But take a look at this brief article on Joseph Goldberger - it was the way of the world at that time.

We will leave you with this trailer from the film.  Next time, we'll be looking at an early movie about the medical profession.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Historical Barbara

This is My Affair (1937) marked the second teaming of Barbara Stanywck and Robert Taylor.  Set during the presidential term of William McKinley, Taylor plays Navy Lt. Richard L. Perry, who is asked by President William McKinley (Frank Conroy) to go deep undercover to investigate the "Mr. Big" behind a series of bank robberies.  Only the President will know that Perry is really working for the government, as McKinley is convinced that the key player is high in his own administration.  Perry starts by investigating Batiste Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and his cohort Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).  To get close to them, he begins seeing Batiste's sister, Lil (Barbara Stanwyck), but quickly finds that he has feelings for the young lady.  As a result, he begins to regret his mission.  Will he stick it out? Or will history itself cause his downfall?

The story of Richard Perry and Lil Duryea is, of course, fictional, albeit set during actual events.  It doesn't take a scholar to realize about five minutes into the film that Perry is getting himself into really hot water by taking on a secret assignment from McKinley, who is not long for this world.  Since our first glimpse of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer) presents us with a man who appears to be a buffoon, a lot of head shaking can occur before the story really begins.  But the real problem is that the movie can't decide what it wants to be - romance? espionage story? historical piece?  musical?  The film never really decides, and as a result we have a bit of a mishmash. 
That our co-stars were romantically involved at the time is perhaps the main reason for this mess.  According to this article from the AFI Catalog, Darryl Zanuck (who wrote the short story on which the screenplay is most likely based under the pseudonym of Melville Crossman), wanted to capitalize on the highly publicized relationship.  So, what might have been a decent espionage story became muddled with the romance between Richard and Lil.  Plus, when you have a star of the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, you want her to shine.  As a result actors like Brian Donlevy and Victor McLaghlen get shortchanged, as their (more important) storyline, gets abridged to almost nothing.  A waste of two fine talents, and not a great use of the Ms. Stanwyck, either.

It's really Robert Taylor's movie, though he doesn't have much of a script to work with.  As a result, his performance is somewhat lackluster, and there is suprisingly not much chemistry between him and Ms. Stanwyck.  There's a lot more chemistry in both The Night Walker and His Brother's Wife, so it is certainly not THEM.  

Taylor had met Stanwyck after her divorce from Frank Fay, in 1935, about a year before they filmed His Brother's Wife (1936) (see A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940)   She was a bit older, and certainly had more experience in the film industry, and what began as a mentorship morphed into marriage in 1939 (a marriage that was somewhat forced on her.  That they were living together became public when Photoplay magazine outed them - along with Gable and Lombard, and Chaplin and Goddard - resulting in MGM encouraging to formalize the union).  They were together until 1952.  Separated by the war (Taylor served United States Naval Air Corps as a flight instructor) and then by work, the marriage suffered.  When Stanwyck discovered that Taylor was involved with a starlet, she asked for a divorce.  Later, Taylor married actress Ursula Thiess (they had two children).  He died of lung cancer in 1969.
It's hard to discuss Taylor without talking about his involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist.  Suffice it to say, when subpoenaed by HUAC, he appeared and testified.  He considered the proceedings to be a circus, but when asked for names, he supplied two.  (You can read a transcript of his testimony or see an excerpt.)  Did he have a choice? Perhaps.  But, to quote Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the evils of the blacklist:  "The blacklist was a time of evil...no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil...[Looking] back on this time...it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."

The cast is chock full of wonderful actors, most of who are wasted.  Brian Donlevy makes the most of the little screentime he has, but Victor McLagen is seems completely out of place - he hams up most of his scenes, making a character who should be menacing rather stupid.  Why an actor of his caliber was placed in this really inferior part is a mystery.  Sidney Blackmer is almost unrecognizable as Roosevelt, but he does get an opportunity to grow the character.  He makes Roosevelt very broad (but Roosevelt was a man who lived life large), but he also shows him to be no fool, and very tenacious.  By the end of the film, he is almost likeable (as much as any other character in the piece!)
According to this TCM article, Stanwyck, who started her career on the Broadway stage (she appeared in the Broadway musical Tattle Tales in 1933, with her then husband Frank Fay), was quite nervous about singing in the film - and asked that Taylor not be on the set while she sang.  Stanwyck has a deep, not unpleasant voice, but these "musical numbers" are really more of a distraction, and add little to the story.

All in all, not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best efforts.  We will circle back to her first film with Robert Taylor next time.