Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Kay Wants a Man

In Man Wanted (1932), Kay Francis plays Lois Ames, a successful publisher who has taken over her late father's company.  As she toils by day, her husband, Fred (Kenneth Thomson) plays polo and essentially lives off her earnings.  When Lois' secretary (Elizabeth Patterson) quits in a huff, Thomas Sheridan (David Manners), a salesman, offers to step in temporarily.  Tom, however, proves to be efficient and capable; as a result, Lois advances him within the company. But complications ensue when Tom finds himself falling in love with Lois, much to the annoyance of Tom's fiance, Ruth Holman (Una Merkel).

Take your mind back to movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  Think of the women in these movies - by and large, they are subservient to men in some way; those that are not sacrifice their autonomy by the end of the movie, or are punished in some way.  Not this one.  As my colleague at  Precode.com, says, this is a movie where "our heroine [is] not punished for being devoted to her job, and she’s damned good at it."  And it is rather amazing to watch.  Kay Francis' Lois is tough, smart, and fair.  She loves her work, and enjoys working with people who also enjoy their jobs.  Her relationship with Tom Sheridan grows BECAUSE they are so good at what they do, and are so committed to it.

It IS hard to believe that Lois could really be in love with Fred.  He's such a lazy and lackadaisical man.  He does nothing except play polo, and doesn't seem to mind doing nothing - he's perfectly satisfied with living off Lois' money.  He's also perfectly satisfied with cheating on her with Ann Le Maire (Claire Dodd).  One particularly interesting scene focuses on Lois' discovery of Fred's relationship - she tosses a hotel room key at him, letting him know she is aware of his infidelity.  Ms. Francis is magnificent in her quiet disgust.  This was Ms. Francis' first film for Warner Brothers (see this AFI Catalog article), and she does an excellent job.
David Manners gives a the character of Tom real force and dignity.  The film is careful to position Tom so he is Lois' equal in everything but job title.  He is as smart and as ambitious as she is.  His love for her is also dignified.  When he believes that any pursuit of Lois would be rejected - she has openly affirmed her love for her husband - he begins to bow out of her life as quietly as possible.  There are no scenes, no impassioned pleas for her affection.  His only indignity, perhaps, is in settling for the very annoying Ruth.  Una Merkel does a good job of making you want to throttle Ruth, if only to get her to shut up.

Mr. Manners began his film career in 1929; within a year, he appeared as the romantic lead in the 1930 version of Kismet.  We've already seen him in two other films: Torch Singer (1933) and The Miracle Woman (1931).  Regardless of his quick advancement in Hollywood, by 1936 he left for Broadway (where he appeared in three plays) and to pursue other interests, such as painting and writing.  He would eventually settle in California, with his life-partner, Bill Mercer (they were together until Mercer's death in 1978).  Mr. Manners died in 1998, at the age of 98.
Elizabeth Patterson has a small role as Lois' first secretary, Miss Harper.  In one scene, we see her literally lounging at a desk, with her feet up.  When Lois tells her they will be remaining in the office to complete some work,  Miss Harper refuses, and then asks should she return in the morning.  Essentially, she quits a well paying job.  Given that the film was released in the middle of the Depression, we wondered if a woman with steady employment would really quit, or refuse to work late, knowing it will be the end of her job (and whether audiences would accept her choice)?  Regardless, Elizabeth Patterson is, as always, excellent as the secretary with attitude.  Ms. Patterson worked in film and in television from 1926 to 1961.  She also appeared on Broadway in 26 plays (between 1913-1954), and was appeared frequently in the television series I Love Lucy.  Ms. Patterson never married, and died at the age of 91 of pneumonia.

Of course, Ms. Francis has magnificent clothing - but much of it is tailored for a working woman (but still exquisite).  Her gowns were credited to Earl Luick.  And Lois' beautiful office was designed by Anton Grot.

We'll leave you with the trailer to the film.  You will also see Andy Devine  in the role of Tom's friend Andy Doyle.  Join us again next week.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Audrey Plays the Field - and the Guitar

The Fathom Events TCM Presents for November was the excellent Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).  Audrey Hepburn, in a performance that has become iconic, appears as Holly Golightly, a peripatetic young woman who has temporarily settled in a small apartment on Manhattan's East Side.  Holly owns nothing except a bed.  Even her pet, Cat, the "poor no-name slob" who shares the apartment with her does not belong to her.  Holly doesn't work - she parties, and goes out with men who reward her with $50 for the powder room or for a cab.  She also goes to Sing Sing once a week to bring a weather report from Sally Tomato (Alan Reed) back to his gangland ties.  She's trying to save money, to afford a home with her soldier brother, Fred, but can't seem to get ahead, despite her relatively spartan lifestyle.  Her life is changed when would-be author (and gigolo) Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into the apartment upstairs.
When we see the images, like the one above of Ms. Hepburn as Holly, it's easy to forget that Holly is not a particularly nice person.   She uses people constantly, she is eminently selfish, and is careless to a degree that in the person of another actress would be unforgivable.  But Audrey Hepburn makes us believe, along with O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam) that Holly is a "real phony" - she truly believes the story that she has concocted about her life. In her introduction, Tiffany Vazquez pointed out that Truman Capote, the author of the novella on which the film is based, openly disliked the film, especially the casting of Ms. Hepburn.  He wanted Marilyn Monroe in the part.  But that's a piece of casting I would find hard to swallow, and would certainly have made Holly a very different character.  Surely, Ms. Monroe was a fine actress, but even at her most naive moments, there is a worldly wisdom that Holly really should not have.  It would be hard to imagine Ms. Monroe as a "real phony".  She just seems to know the world too well.
Nor is Paul Varjak a prince among men.  His apartment is being paid for by his lover, the very married - and very rich - Emily Eustace Failenson (Patricia Neal).  Discouraged by his lack of success as a writer, Paul still claims it as his profession, while pointing to a typewriter without a ribbon.  It's only after Holly gives him a ribbon (and questions his relationship with Emily), that he begins to write again. George Peppard is able to make Paul likeable; he too has an innocence that makes him appealing, and makes his attraction and care for Holly easy to believe.  Mr. Peppard was not the first choice for the role - Steve McQueen was offered the role.  However, Mr. McQueen was currently on the television show Wanted: Dead or Alive, and CBS would not permit him the time off.  This would, of course, have been a very different movie (think about it - McQueen and Monroe.  It's not an easy picture for me).
The one performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's that is totally ignominious is Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi.  Made up as the worst kind of racial stereotype, Mr. Yunioshi is a lecherous fool.  Holly, as selfish as she is irresponsible, can never remember her keys, so she constantly rings Mr. Yunioshi's bell.  He continues to ring her in. Why? Because she has hinted she might pose for him.  It's revolting, really.  Years after the film, both Mickey Rooney and Blake Edwards disavowed the portrayal, saying they wished they had not done it (see this series of TCM articles), though Mr. Rooney said that at the time, he thought the role was funny.  It was after he began hearing that character was actively disliked that he began to see the problem with Mr. Yunioshi (See this article in the Deseret [Salt Lake City] News.)
Regardless of this one characterization, this is a wonderful film.  It's #61 on AFI's list 100 Years, 100 Passions and in 2012 was added to the National Registry of Historic Films.  It has also had tremendous influence on a generation. What woman doesn't own a "little black dress"?  Which of us doesn't want to visit Tiffany's (yes, I've gone - in a hat and sunglasses.  And Holly is right - they ARE very nice in Tiffany's).  And how many people equate the images shown here with Audrey Hepburn?  It's an iconic performance that has stood the test of time.
Also iconic is the song "Moon River."  As this article from Vogue, 10 Things You Never Knew About Breakfast at Tiffany's points out, the song was almost cut from the film!  Luckily, Blake Edwards won, and we get this wonderful moment, with Audrey Hepburn singing Henry Mancini's magnificent song.  It is a moving moment, that gives us an image of a Holly Golightly we see only this once in the picture.  We'll see you next time, with more of our group's discussion.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Errol Fights the Nazis

The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor just passed; our film this week commemorates the occasion with a look back to a film from the second World War.  Edge of Darkness (1943) takes place in Norway, circa 1942.  Told in flashback, the film tells the story of the village of Trollness.  The Nazis have taken over the country, and the populace are being starved and murdered by their conquerors.  Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn) a local fisherman, chaffs at his inability to fight for his country, and is about to leave the woman he loves, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan) to join the resistance in England.  But when word comes that the British are planning to arm the population up and down the coast in an effort start a revolution in the country Gunnar determines to stay and fight.  He becomes the official leader of a resistance movement which includes Karen, Gerd Blarnesen (Judith Anderson), and Lars Malken (Roman Bohnen).  But not everyone is willing to fight. Karen's father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Walter Huston) and his wife Anna (Ruth Gordon) prefer to live quietly within the strictures of the dictatorship.  And there remains the danger from the local Quislings, who include Karen's uncle Kaspar Torgerson (Charles Dingle) and brother Johann (John Beal).

When this film was released on April 24, 1943, America had been at war with Germany for just over a year.  Certainly, there had been films that dealt with Nazi atrocities before (To Be or Not to Be (1942) and The Mortal Storm (1940) are two examples), but this was perhaps the first one to portray ordinary people resisting the Nazi juggernaut.  And a powerful statement it is.  Even though the film starts showing the carnage of a decimated Nazi stronghold, and a Norwegian flag flying above it, we've no idea of who did it and what became of them.  The strength of this movie is the fact that many incidents are unexpected.  It keeps you engaged with both the multidimentional storyline and the characters. For more information on America's view of the situation in Europe during this period, see this New York Times book review of The Holocaust in America.
The depth of the characterizations is best exhibited by the minor characters that we expect to be tropes, but are not.  The talkative grocer, Lars Malken, as ably portrayed by Roman Bohnen, is the best example.  From the minute we meet him, we expect that he will betray the resistance with his anger and his need to express show off his commitment.  Another is the relationship between Gerd and the German soldier whom she loves.  Our initial reaction is that he will come to side with the resistance, and love will triumph.  But this film is not about the standard Hollywood tropes.  It's attempting to create a glimpse into the real horrors of the war in Europe.

Ann Sheridan is an actress who, in my opinion, is not given enough credit for her excellent portrayals, and she excels here.  Especially notable is the scene in which she discovers her brother, who has been working for the Nazis, is returning to Trollness.  Her reactions are subtle, but pointed.  Ms. Sheridan's career began in the sound era (and her lush voice is perfect for sound), and worked steadily through the 1930s and 1940s.  As her film career slowed in the 1950s, she segued into television, including a year on the soap opera, Another World.  In 1966, she accepted the lead in the TV series Pistols and Petticoats, but died of cancer (age 51) before the end of the first season.  She was married three times, including a one-year marriage to George Brent.  Allegedly, it was this film which ended the marriage, as Ms. Sheridan may have gotten a little too close to co-star Errol Flynn.  See this TCM article for more on the sexual shenanigans that plagued this film.  If you are not familiar with Ms. Sheridan, this film is an excellent start.  Then consider viewing The Man Who Came to Dinner, Nora Prentiss, I Was a Male War Bride, and (my favorite of her films) Tropic Zone
We were not as impressed with Ruth Gordon, who plays Ms. Sheridan's mother, Anna.  I personally am not a member of the Ruth Gordon fan club, and this is not a film that will make you one.  Anna is rather whiny, and comes across as peculiar and rather stupid.  Ms. Gordon didn't have an especially impressive film career, but with 33 Broadway plays to her credit (she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi in The Matchmaker in 1956), she kept busy.  She was also writing with her husband, Garson Kanin (they were nominated for three Oscars: for A Double Life (1947), Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).  But Ms. Gordon's film and television performances skyrocketed after she won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary's Baby (1969). You can view her amusing acceptance speech here.  She died, aged 88, in 1985.  She was survived by her husband of 42 years, Garson Kanin, and her son Jones Harris (born in 1929), the result of a long-term affair with producer Jed Harris - though they never married, the couple openly acknowledged their son.
Edge of Darkness is based on William Woods novel of the same name (see this AFI Catalog entry  for more information on the film's background)Though it got a tepid review from the New York Times, we highly recommend it.  With a strong story, and impressive acting, it is definitely worth your time.  We'll leave you with a scene from the end of the movie:

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Barbara is Strange

On a rainy night, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) meets Martha Smith (Janis Wilson) at the train yard in Iverstown, as they try to escape from the town and all it represents.  Orphaned Martha despises her guardian - her Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson), the town's doyen and tyrant.  The feeling is mutual - Martha's father was a millhand in Miss Ivers mill; upon his death, Miss Ivers grudgingly adopted her sister's child, and forced her to take the name of Ivers, hoping to obliterate all evidence of his existence.  Escape, however, proves futile for Martha; with the police force on alert, Martha (and her beloved cat) are apprehended and returned to the not-so-tender mercies of her Aunt.  Undeterred, Martha attempts to escape again, but the consequences of the attempt are such that they will haunt Martha for the rest of her life.

Thus begins The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a film noir classic starring Barbara Stanwyck as the adult Martha, Van Heflin as the grown Sam, and Kirk Douglas (Walter O'Neill), appearing in his first film role. To say that this is an odd picture is not meant as an insult.  The film is complicated and dense. As this New York Times review says, it is a film where all the characters' "sordid deeds are neatly pulled together like so many pieces in a jigsaw puzzle."

Several impressive performances contribute to the film's appeal.  Barbara Stanwyck, of course, is outstanding as Martha.  She plays a woman who wants freedom, but who has spent her entire life in one prison or another.  Does Martha really love Sam, or does she love the freedom that he represents?   Does her warped nature come from the cruelty she faced from her Aunt, or from the blackmail of Walter and his father?  And is she ultimately responsible for the two deaths in the film, or should others take the blame?  Regardless of the answers, we know that Martha has spent her life trying to atone for what she sees as her sins, by trying to make Iverstown and the factory less of the hell that it was when her Aunt was alive.
For Lizabeth Scott as Antonia 'Toni' Maracek, this was only her second film role.  Her character serves as an interesting contrast to Martha, light where she is dark, common, where Martha appears high tone, but, like Martha, she too is a prisoner.  Though Toni's prison is a real one - convicted of a crime she denies committing, she is on probation, but constantly facing the specter of jail.

Lizabeth Scott had a long and complicated life, but a relatively abbreviated career.  With 31 film and TV credits (between 1945 and 1972), she is best remembered for this film, Dead Reckoning, and Too Late for Tears, all film noir classics.  Her looks and her voice are reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, but she didn't really have the versatility of Bacall.  She started her career in the New York theatre; she was Tallulah Bankhead's understudy in the part of Sabina The Skin of Our Teeth (much to Ms. Bankhead's disgust. For more discussion on this, see the Wikipedia article on Ms. Scott)  She did eventually get to play Sabina - when Gladys George became ill.  This performance brought her to the attention of Hal Wallis, the producer of our film. Wallis wanted to bill his find with her name above the title, but Barbara Stanwyck objected (Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars by Bernard F. Dick).  It didn't help.  The virtually unknown Scott still got third billing above the title (it has been alleged that Scott and Wallis were having an affair, or at the very least that Wallis was infatuated with her). 
Scott's troubles began in the 1950s.  Confidential Magazine published an article accusing her of being lesbian.  She sued; the trial ended with a mistrial.  Add in her growing stage fright, and her career was virtually over.  She tried singing; the attempt went nowhere.  So, she segued over to televsion, where she had a relatively decent career.  She also returned to college (at USC).  She married twice - both lasted less than a year; she was linked romantically with Burt Lancaster, James Mason, Helmut Dantine, and Burt Bacharach, among others.  She died in 2015 of congestive heart failure.  She was 92.   To hear more about Ms Scott, try this interview that was done in 1996. 
Kirk Douglas is outstanding in this role, which would be an unusual one for him.  Walter is a weakling, dominated by both his father and Martha.  His guilt and feelings of hopelessness lead him into alcoholism.  In this TCM article, Douglas relays his method for creating a character like Walter:  "when you play a weak character, find a moment when he's strong, and if you're playing a strong character, find a moment when he's weak. I had a moment when I was at the desk - I stood up, grabbed Van Heflin by the shirt, and stared him in the eye. He was amazed at this sudden moment of strength, and it confused him. We shot it, and the director said, 'Very good.' Van Heflin said, 'Let's do it again.' The next time I grabbed him, he just looked down contemptuously at my hand. How smart of him - he took away the strength. Nothing wrong with that. As an actor, it was the right thing to do."  His work was not unnoticed - this AFI Catalog entry notes that Louella Parsons was particularly taken with this "wonder boy."
Several child actors appear in the beginning of the film.  We were particularly intrigued with the performance of Janis Wilson.  Ms. Wilson had a notably short career; between 1942 and 1948, she appeared in only seven films, after which she left show business.  But when you realize that those films include Watch on the Rhine and Now Voyager (along with this film), she  had an impressive resume.  She was 18 when she retired - always a difficult age for teen actors.  Interestingly, she met her future husband (they married in 1955) when she was 12 years old (on the set of Now Voyager.)  She died in 2003. 

It's not surprising that Stanwyck's dresses are spectacular.  Her favorite designer, Edith Head, created them.  Ms. Head would later say that Stanwyck's long waist usually resulted in her costumes being dowdy looking, but Head found ways to camouflage her waist.  As a result, Stanwyck would often request Head design for her (even in private life).  See this review of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 for a brief discussion of their relationship. 

We leave you with the trailer for this fascinating film.  And we send advance birthday wishes to Kirk Douglas, who will reach 100 on December 9th:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Is Kirk Really Bad?

A few years ago, we discussed The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (you can see our prior review here.  You'll also find a detailed description of the plot and characters there).  We decided to revisit the film, this time looking at it from a slightly different perspective - our discussion for this viewing focused on the character of Jonathan Shields, as wonderfully portrayed by Kirk Douglas.

So, the question is, is Jonathan Shields really bad?   We have three characters who are furious at him.  We looked at them in some detail.

Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is angered when Jonathan passes him over for an experienced director on the film of Fred's script, The Far Away Mountain.  Is Fred justified in demonizing Jonathan?   When we first meet Fred, he is working as a professional mourner because he cannot sell a script.  Jonathan teams up with Fred and succeeds in getting them both jobs in Harry Pebbel's (Walter Pidgeon) studio.  Though Fred is not aggressive in blowing his own horn, Jonathan is. The final result, Fred becomes an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, marries the woman of his dreams (to whom Jonathan proposes on Fred's behalf), and has a happy, stable family life. Does Jonathan backtrack on his promise to get Fred the acting gig? Sure.  Would Fred have gotten it, if Jonathan had pursued it further? Probably not.
Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) spends most of her time drinking and sleeping with men.  She perpetually mourns for her late father, a great actor, notable bon vivant, and drunkard.  Georgia however is notable for her beauty and for her inability to act.  Jonathan, who was friendly with her father, sees talent where no one else does, and goes out on a limb to hire her to star in his picture.  She inevitably breaks her promise to not drink and disappears on the first day of shooting.  Urged to replace her, Jonathan instead sobers her up, and keeps her in the production.  It's Georgia who envisions a great romance - Jonathan, a man plagued with his own demons, has no such idea.  However, he attempts to protect Georgia from his relationship with Lila (Elaine Stewart); it's Elaine who makes sure Georgia knows.  And Jonathan makes it clear he is furious at her callous revelation. Did he mislead her romantically? Probably.  Is he really out to hurt her? No.
James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), tempted to Hollywood by a hefty paycheck and by his wife Rosemary's Gloria Grahame) eagerness to sample the bright lights of the big city, signs a contract to write a screenplay of his book.  But Rosemary is a time suck.  We learn that it took him seven years to write his first book, primarily because of her interruptions.  To get the screenplay written, Jonathan asks his friend Victor "Gaucho" Ribera (Gilbert Roland) to squire Rosemary to the local hotspots to keep her distracted.  Though we hear only one half of a telephone conversation, it's clear Gaucho has more on his mind than squiring. Jonathan, however, is very clear in his response.  "I said 'squire', Gaucho".  He responds.  Is the fact that Rosemary and Gaucho choose to bring the relationship further than was requested Jonathan's fault? Not really, but perhaps he should have picked less of a Lothario as an escort.
The person who should resent Jonathan most is actually his biggest supporter.  Harry Pebbel becomes Jonathan's employee after Jonathan and Fred strike out on their own (assumedly, without his key writer and director, Harry cannot keep his B picture studio going).   Harry could see Jonathan (and Fred) as traitors, yet he is the one who forces our characters to look inward - to realize that their fame, awards, success all stem from what Jonathan did for them.  He does not defend, but points out truths (like the fact that Jonathan let Georgia out of her contract over Harry's protestations).  As such, Harry becomes the bellweather for our opinion of Jonathan, and he is hard to ignore.

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Kirk Douglas doing it.  He makes the character a real person - a combination of both the bad and the good. The nuances of Douglas' performance become more visible with each viewing of the film.  Since it's likely that Jonathan was loosely based on real people (see this AFI Catalog entry for some of possible candidates), it is important that Douglas create a real individual, not a caricature, which he does admirably.
When the film opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the New York Times review was not particularly enthusiastic.  Regardless of their opinion, the film won five Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame) and Helen Rose for her splendid costume design (b&w film).  If you've not seen The Bad and the Beautiful in awhile, give yourself a treat and watch it again.  Now, we're not saying that Jonathan Shields is a prince among men, just that, on second viewing, you might find yourself rooting a bit for his comeback.