Thursday, January 28, 2016

Santa Claus Comes to NYC

Though Christmas is now but a memory, the TCM presentation of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) on the big screen was a real treat for the holiday season.  The story focuses on Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), an elderly gentleman who takes Christmas quite seriously.  When he encounters a drunken Santa Claus at the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, he confronts the parade's organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), who immediately hires him as a substitute Santa, both for the parade, and later to work in the store.  Doris is rather matter of fact about Christmas; she's raised her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to view it as a commercial holiday - Santa Claus isn't real nor are fairy tales to be regarded as anything more than silly fictions.  There is, she tells Susan, no such thing as "happily ever after," something their neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) finds distressing, since he is hoping for a "happily ever after" with Doris.  So, when Kris announces he IS the real Santa Claus, and is labeled as mentally incompetent by Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the Macy's staff psychologist, Fred decides to represent Kris in court - and prove Kris is the REAL Santa.

As someone who grew up in New York City, shopping at Macy's and Gimbel's, this film has resonances that cannot be escaped.  At one point, we see a shopper's book that Macy's has created to help guide customers to products they don't carry (but that other stores do - one of Kris' innovations).  Most of the stores in the book, including Gimbels - have since closed.  I've been to the Parade once, and watched it on television nearly every year - and the metamorphosis of the Parade from a "home town" event to an advertisement for New York City tourism is something this film makes very apparent.  (I'm not complaining - I like seeing the Broadway plays show their stuff).  So, regardless that this is an annual event, the film provides a time capsule view of a New York that is long gone, when the parade was a local event run by a local store, not a national pastime.  (To this day, Macy's in Herald Square uses Miracle on 34th Street as a window display at Christmastime.)
This Fathom presentation of the film was made especially poignant by the death of Maureen O'Hara on October 24, 2015.  The last survivor of the lead actors in the cast, her portrayal of Doris is on spot.  She makes the character tough, but never heartless - her affections radiate from her lovely eyes, but she is always in charge of her home and her business.  Born in Ireland as Maureen FitzSimmons in 1920, Ms. O'Hara started her career at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  After a screen test, Charles Laughton signed her to a contract and starred her, with him, in Jamaica Inn (1939).  The rest, as they say, is history.  In 1941, she appeared as Angharad in director John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, the first of their 4 films together.  Her most famous screen partner was certainly John Wayne - a collaboration that didn't begin until 1950 in Rio Grande.  Never even nominated for an Academy Award (is that even possible), Ms O'Hara was finally given an Honorary Oscar in 2014.  With her flaming red hair and a complexion that looks like pure butter, Ms. O'Hara was so staggeringly beautiful in color films she was sometimes called The Queen of Technicolor.  Regardless of that beauty, she was an actor without compare.  
Edmund Gwenn actually appeared as Santa in the 1946 Thanksgiving Day Parade, and other members of the cast (like Ms. O'Hara) were shot in the parade to add scenes to the film  (see these TCM articles and the AFI catalog for more background on the film).  Ms. O'Hara was initially reluctant to appear in the film, as she had JUST been allowed to visit her family in Ireland (she was barred from visiting her homeland because of War restrictions.  Ireland was a neutral country during World War II), and was now being called back immediately to appear in " silly little movie about Santa Claus".  She stated that, once she saw the script, she changed her mind - the film, by the way is still #9 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Cheers.
There have been other attempts to trap the lightning in a bottle that is Miracle on 34th Street, with limited success.  Maureen O'Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn reprised their roles for the Lux Radio Theatre version on December 22, 1947.  In 1955, Thomas Mitchell appeared as Kris in a live television version (also starring Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey) for the Twentieth Century Fox Hour.  Meredith Wilson (of The Music Man fame) wrote a musical version of the tale in 1963 entitled Here's Love, which ran for 334 performances and starred Laurence Naismith as Kris.  On December 14, 1973, another television version ran, starring Sebastian Cabot as Kris and Jane Alexander as Doris (now named Karen!).  Finally, a big screen version was again attempted in 1994, with Richard Attenborough as Kris - Macy's refused to allow their name to be used in the film!  Even star John Payne tried for many years to produce a sequel to the story, based on his own screenplay, but the attempts ended when he died in 1989.
Many character actors contribute to this film - Gene Lockhart as Judge Henry X. Harper, the man who must rule on the reality of Santa Claus; William Frawley as Charles Halloran, Judge Harper's cagey political advisor; Jerome Cowan as district attorney Thomas Mara, whose own son is called to testify as to the reality of Santa Claus (how does Tommy know there really is a Santa Claus:  "Because my Daddy told me so"), and Philip Tonge as Doris' colleague Mr. Shellhammer.  But in many senses, the film is stolen in one brief scene by Thelma Ritter as the harried mother who can't find the fire truck her son wants in time for Christmas.  This was Ms. Ritter's first role, and of course, she shines.

We'll close with the scene in which Doris asks Kris to tell Susan he isn't really Santa Claus:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dr. Ronald

Ronald Colman plays a physician with an interest in research in  Arrowsmith (1931).  Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Colman) knows from early in his career that he wants to do big things.  He wants, he tells his mentor Dr. Max Gottleib (A.E. Anson) to cure cancer.  But when he meets and falls in love with Leora Tozer (Helen Hayes), Arrowsmith decides to set up a clinical practice in a rural area, where he can make some money to support what he hopes will be a growing family.  But research is in his blood, and he begins to work on a finding a cure for Black Leg Disease, a bovine infection that is decimating the area.  His success leads to an offer to join the prestigious McGurk Institute in New York City, where, he hopes, he can begin to cure the ills of mankind.

Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith is a layered film, though drastically shortened from the novel.   Helen Hayes, whose wonderful portrayal of Leora gives us a strong but insecure woman, alleged that director John Ford excised much of the script in order to shorten the production time - she claimed that as he had promised to not drink during the filming, he was in a hurry to finish the film (this TCM article outlines the story that is included in her autobiography, My Life in Three Acts.  In John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master by Ronald L. Davis, the story is elaborated on to discuss in a bit more detail the affection that resulted between Hayes and Ford.)
In spite of Ford's alleged trimming of the plot, the film still retains a lot of depth and character development.  Martin Arrowsmith is carefully played by Colman, and he makes the relationship between Martin and Leora especially poignant before and after her miscarriage.  While Martin is always genuinely caring of her, once she loses their child and is told she will not be able to conceive again, his attentions shift more towards his work.  Is Arrowsmith afraid of losing Leora, or does he have problems confronting a life without the family for which he sacrificed his early career?  Having married a nurse, it would seem obvious that Leora would become a helpmeet in his research, but, with the exception of one scene, she does not.  In fact, there are no women scientists in this film (it is the 1930s, after all), and often the female characters are given short shrift.  But, regardless, the story and Colman's portrayal document a marriage that is loving, but tenuous at best.  John Ford: The Man and His Films by Tag Gallagher looks briefly at the marriage of Martin and Leora (but be aware, there are spoilers here).

In a brief role is Myrna Loy as Joyce Lanyon.  In the novel, the character of Joyce was much more substantial, and figured heavily in the conclusion of the story.  Though filmed in the pre-code era (see this commentary by my fellow blogger at Pre-code.com), this movie is remarkably tame.  There is a hint of attraction between Joyce and Martin (is there an affair? It's not clear.  In the book, there is some kissing, but nothing more), but the film does not dwell on any possible infidelity.  Still several years away from her breakthrough role in The Thin Man, Ms Loy was still being cast as the vamp or the exotic, so it is not surprising her part is so suspicious.  But even a brief appearance by Myrna Loy is welcome, and she does not disappoint. (For more information on the MPAA and the film, see this listing from the AFI Catalog).
In an even more brief appearance is Beulah Bondi as Leora's mother.  She has all of one scene, and gets to say very little.  Too bad, as Ms. Bondi is an asset to any film in which she appears.  Born in 1889, she began her career at age 7 in her hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana (playing Little Lord Fauntleroy!)  After receiving a master's degree in oratory at Valparaiso University, she began to get roles on Broadway (she would appear in 11 Broadway productions in her lifetime) in plays such as Street Scene and Rain (a part she would reprise in the screen version starring Joan Crawford). One of the first actresses to be nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actress (for her work in The Gorgeous Hussy) by AMPAS, she never won an Oscar (she was nominated one more time for Of Human Hearts).  Interestingly, she played the same character three times, over a span of 18 years, appearing in On Borrowed Time in the 1939 film, the 1953 Broadway production, and a 1957 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version.  With 86 film and television credits (many of them named Granny or Mom), she is probably best remembered as James Stewart's loving mother in It's a Wonderful Life (though one of my favorite Beulah Bondi moments is her dance with Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady!).  Her final role, in a career of 49 years, would be an Emmy Award winning performance in The Waltons.  She died in 1981, at the age of 92.  This TCM tribute to Beulah Bondi is well worth a viewing:

It is important to mention the presence of Dr. Oliver Marchand, as played by actor Clarence Brooks.  Dr. Marchand is of African descent, and is treated by Drs. Arrowsmith and Sondelius (Richard Bennett) with respect and courtesy.  Though a small part, it is a remarkable one, given the time period.  Dr. Marchand is shown a competent doctor, concerned with in the health of his patients, with an understanding of Arrowsmith's need to check his research with a clinical trial.  Marchand is willing to have his patients serve as test subjects, as it means many who would other die will survive.  That a man of color in the 1930s was shown as a knowledgeable professional is something that should be noted.

One interesting aspect of the film is the need for Dr, Arrowsmith to prove his theory on the plague vaccine with a clinical trial.   The film gives us both a population who refuse to be "guinea pigs" (even though the serum may save some of their lives), and another population who willingly participates.  But, like Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940), the clinical trial is shown as something that prevents patients from receiving medication that will save their lives.  In the 21st Century, we have embraced the notion of the clinical trial, but in the era of heroic medicine, the clinical trial was seen as an unnecessary delay in delivering a cure.

We'll leave you with an early scene in the film in which Arrowsmith learns the joys of primary care medicine.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Audrey Takes a Holiday

TCM's Fathom Events series in November featured Audrey Hepburn's introduction to American audiences with Roman Holiday (1953).  Ms. Hepburn plays the Princess Anya, a young woman born into royalty, but oh so tired, after a long world tour, of the protocols that come with being a representative of her country.  After she has a stress reaction to her duties, her physician gives her a sedative, which only succeeds in making her, to all intents and purposes, drunk.  With her inhibitions gone, Anya makes a break for it, sneaking out of her country's Embassy in Rome.  She's found napping in the park by American correspondent Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who winds up taking her to his apartment, and dumping her on his sofa.  It is only the next morning that he realizes he has a princess - and a doozie of a story on his hands - as Anne Smith (Smitty) takes a day to explore the life of a commoner.

 As is outlined in one of these TCM articles, Gregory Peck, whose contracted stipulated sole star billing, called the powers that be at the studio and insisted that Audrey Hepburn be given star billing with him.  Ever the gentleman, Mr. Peck would later claim that it was merely enlightened self-interest - that he would look ridiculous being labeled as the only "star," when Ms. Hepburn so clearly dominated the film.  But it is also a mark of his total professionalism and dedication to his craft that he so quickly recognized the birth of a new star. 
For dominate she did - has any actress ever looked more radiant in her first starring role?  Of course, she had the magnificent William Wyler as her director - Wyler guided her (along with Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand (also in her first film role), Greer Garson, Teresa Wright - a grand total of 14 actors) to an Oscar in the acting category.  Hepburn is glorious here - she conveys both the innocence and strength of Anne.  Especially effective is a scene at the end of the film, which counterpoints a similar scene at the beginning.  In both, Anya meets with her courtiers, but the results of each scene are quite different.  Hepburn effectively grows the character before your eyes, and you believe in Anya's development as a future monarch.

Hepburn was not the first choice for the part - it was considered as a role for Jean Simmons, Elizabeth Taylor (the first choice of the Frank Capra, who at one point was going to direct), and Suzanne Cloutier (who was screen tested by Wyler).  Cary Grant (who declined the part) was the first choice for Joe Bradley (thankfully - he and Ms. Hepburn would work together FINALLY in Charade.  They were a match made in heaven!).  For more detail on the background of the film, see this extensive article in the AFI Catalog.

Eddie Albert plays photographer Irving Radovich, Joe's friend and conspirator in the quest to get a story about the runaway princess.  Mr. Albert gets to show off his acrobatic side - he was at one point a trapeze performer - becoming the victim of a number of "accidents," as Joe is continually trying to prevent him from spilling the beans about one secret or another (and Joe has lots of them).  Mr. Albert was working as a radio host when was offered a contract with Warner Brothers.  His first film role was Bing in Brother Rat, a role he had originated in the Broadway production.  He, in fact, appeared in 9 Broadway productions, including The Music Man (as a replacement for Robert Preston), and The Seven Year Itch (replacing Tom Ewell).  With a film career that started in 1938 and continued until 1994, he has a large body of work, including film such as My Love Came Back (1940), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and Oklahoma (1955).  His career might have been even more substantial had he and his wife, the actress Margo (they were married from 1945 until her death in 1985), not been caught up the Hollywood Blacklist.  Eventually, Albert segued into television - most famously in the series Green Acres, but also in Switch and a daytime variety show called The Eddie Albert Show.  He lived til age 99, dying in 2005 of Alzheimer's disease.

Eddie Albert wasn't the only person on this film touched by the Blacklist.  In 1992, AMPAS finally awarded to Dalton Trumbo his Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story, which had previously been credited to Ian McClellan Hunter (who himself was later blacklisted) as sole author.  Having just seen Roman Holiday, it was interesting to also see Trumbo, which goes into some detail about the help Hunter provided in getting Trumbo's screenplay to film.
Roman Holiday has been included in the Library of Congress's National Registry of Historic Films as well as being number 4 on the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Passions list. It's a lovely film, with a visualization of true emotions and adult responsibilities. I'm going to close with perhaps the most famous scene in the film, the Mouth of Truth.  Allegedly, Mr. Hepburn didn't know that Gregory Peck was going to pretend his hand had been bitten off, and her quite convincing scream was real.  Regardless, it's a joy to watch, and expertly done.  Enjoy!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ronald Duels

We aren't quite done with swashbucklers, as our film for this week is The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).  Ronald Colman plays Major Rudolf Rassendyll, an English officer on a fishing trip to Ruritania, when he meets Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven).  Both are flabbergasted at Rassendyll's resemblance to King Rudolf V (also played by Colman); Rassendyll, it turns out, is descended from the Ruritania royalty on the wrong side of the blanket.  The King is also amused at the resemblance, and invites Rassendyll to his palace for a night of conversation and drinking, at the end of which, the Rassendyll, Zapt and von Tarlenheim discover the King unconscious, his wine drugged by servants in the pay of his half-brother, Black Michael  (Raymond Massey).  With the King's coronation scheduled for that afternoon, Zapt convinces Rassendyll to step in for the King, for if King Rudolf doesn't show up, Michael will stage a coup to take over the goverment.  Reluctantly, Rassendyll agrees, only to discover that Michael and his henchman Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are all too quickly aware of the masquerade, and kidnap the King from his vacation palace.  Add to the problems - Rassendyll has fallen head over heels in love with the Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), Rudolf's betrothed.  

With an absolutely magnificent cast, this is a film that is not be missed.  Colman creates distinctive personalities in the characters of King Rudolf and Rassendyll (and given he has very little to work with when it come to the King - who we barely see - it is all the more exceptional).  With his fantastic voice and his engaging personality, it is quite clear why Flavia would fall for him almost instantly, even when she thinks he is the King (who she dislikes).

His equal is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr as the arch-villain Rupert of Hentzau.  Fairbanks gives him a sparkle that makes him attractive and treacherous at the same time.  When the film was remade in 1952, James Mason took over the role; while Mason had the evil down perfectly, he just doesn't have the charm that Fairbanks does in the role.  That little twinkle in his eyes, as he performs his nefarious deeds is the difference.  Interestingly, Fairbanks badly wanted the lead role, and almost turned down the part of Rupert when that was offered instead.  His father, Douglas Sr, is the one who talked him into doing it - he told him the character was "witty, irresistible, and as sly as Iago".  That the part was "so actor-proof... that Rin Tin Tin could play the part and walk away with it!", we are inclined to disagree (in our opinions, Mason didn't walk away with it!).  It's proof of the talent of Fairbanks, Jr. that he could make you look away from Colman on occasion.   (This TCM article goes into more detail on the history of the film).
With actors like Mary Astor (as Michael's lover, Antoinette de Mauban), David Niven and Madeleine Carroll in the film, even the small parts are performed by experts.  Niven, who had started in films in 1932, primarily in unbilled parts, was about to become a star.  By 1939, he was the second lead in Wuthering Heights and starred (with Ginger Rogers) in Bachelor Mother.  A versatile actor, noted for his wit (if you've never read his autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon, you owe yourself a treat - many stories of him and Errol Flynn and their bachelor pad are included), Niven was highly regarded in the Hollywood community; in his article for Niven's Star of the Month turn on TCM, Robert Osborne recalled being at an event where a group was laughing at someone's tales.  Mr. Osborne surreptitiously wandered over, to discover Mr. Niven regaling the table with stories.  Mr. Niven married twice - he was widowed when Primula Rollo died after falling down a flight of stairs during a game of hide and seek.  Two years later, he wed Hjördis Tersmeden, and though they were together until his death in 1983 of ALS, it was allegedly not a happy marriage (Niven's close friends Roger Moore and Robert Wagner actively disliked her).  Niven served in the British Army during the Second World War, returning home from America when war broke out.  This hiatus had little effect on his career - he returned from military duty to make such excellent films as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and his Oscar-winning turn in Separate Tables (1958).
Madeleine Carroll is probably one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood history, but not only is she lovely, she is a strong, intelligent, and talented actress.  You believe that Princess Flavia could lead a nation, thanks to Ms. Carroll's strength of character.  After appearing in two Hitchcock films (his earliest "cool blonde") in Great Britain, Ms. Carroll came to America to appear in this film and The General Died at Dawn.  The parts she was given were uneven in quality, and she left filmwork in 1949.  She continued for a few years more in television (appearing, for example, in a Robert Montgomery Presents of "The Letter" in 1950).  She also appeared on Broadway in Goodbye, My Fancy, in the role Joan Crawford would assume on screen).  She also worked on film production aimed at promoting "better understanding among the peoples of the world".  He efforts also helped to raise money for an orphanage housing children injured in France during World War II.  She died in 1987, at age 81.

The film that we see today did change from the original concept.  It seems there was a prologue and an epilogue that were filmed and never used.  The film would have opened with the much older Rassendyll recounting the story of his adventures in Ruritania, now many years in the past.  As the film ended, he would have learned of the death of Princess Flavia.  Interestingly, this differs from the sequel written by Anthony Hope, entitled Rupert of Hentzau, in which Flavia become Queen after the deaths of King Rudolf and Rassendyll.

We'll close with the fencing scene from the end of the film.  According to the AFI Catalog, David O. Selznick was not satisfied with the scenes originally filmed by John Cromwell and brought in W.S. Van Dyke to reshoot them.  The fencing, as you will see, is excellent: