Monday, February 29, 2016

Kay Faces a Storm

Following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess Sophia, a small town in Hungary begins to feel the effects of the war.  Kindly mayor Dushan Radovic (Walter Huston) and his friend, Captain Geza Petery (Nils Asther) do what they can to minimize the effects, but, they have problems.  The first is that Radovic is a Serbian, while Petery is Hungarian.  The second is that Geza and Petery's wife Irina (Kay Francis) have fallen desperately in love. 

Storm at Daybreak (1933) could have been a good movie.  The elements are there.  Unfortunately, the film is way too long, and feels as though it were padded for no very good reason.  A party scene seems to go on forever, and to no apparent purpose - it attempts to inject humor into a situation where there is precious little.  A scene in a railway yard brings Geza momentarily back into the lives of Irina and Dushan, but for no reason; he's gone in an instant, and it doesn't forward the action a jot.  One wonders what the writers were trying to accomplish.

The script makes Walter Huston's Dushan comes across as a complete moron who is unable to see that his wife and his supposed best friend are having real problems.  Despite the fact that Irina makes it clear that she would rather Geza not be around their home, Dushan keeps bringing him back, making it hard for two people who want to forget their feelings for one another to function.  And Huston, a remarkable actor in so many other roles (watch him in Dodsworth, for example) overacts horribly.    Also opting for over-the-top is C. Henry Gordon as the villainous Panto Nikitch.  He manages to twirl his mustache without even having one.   One can almost hear the director (Richard Boleslawski - this TCM article provides a bit more information about him) shouting "Give me MORE!!"  We wanted a lot less.
The New York Times review (the reviewer was Andre D. Senwald), though calling the film "dull entertainment", was far more impressed than we were with Huston (who "blusters picturesquely"), but not very complementary of Ms. Francis  (she "hardly seems suited to the enigmatic and mysterious qualities demanded in the rĂ´le of the wife.")  Quite honestly, Kay Francis is the best thing in the movie.  She doesn't have a whole lot to work with - the part is formulaic at best.  But she carefully underplays Irina, making her far more attractive.  That being said, a scene in which she runs out into a rainstorm in a huge dress (she could barely get it through the door) to warn her lover of impending doom, was almost ridiculous.  Not her fault - she actually GOT the dress through the door - but a true waste of her talents.
We have two favorite character actors present: Eugene Pallette as Janos, Geza's aide-de-camp, and Louise Closser Hale as Militza Brookska, the housekeeper in Dushan's home.  Attempts are made to milk their performances for some humor; mostly, it doesn't work (though Pallette does get all the best lines.)   By and large they are wasted, as is everyone else in the cast.

That the film is formulaic is not really a problem, usually it's a formula we like.  But this one is not going down as our favorite Kay Francis movie. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tyrone's on Trial

Ruta Lee, who appeared in the small role of Diana in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) spoke about her appearance in the film during the TCM Cruise.  Ms. Lee got the part when Arthur Hornblow, Jr. saw her at a Frank Sinatra night club appearance.  Hornblow approached her, and asked her to do a screen test; after which Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole) insisted that her hair color be changed (so Ms. Lee became a brunette for the film).

Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) has just returned home from hospital, with his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) in tow, when he is approached by solicitor Mayhew (Henry Daniell) to possibly take on the defense of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) who is about to be arrested for the murder of Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow who Vole had befriended.  Sir Wilfred finally agrees to take on the case (over the objections of Miss Plimsoll), as he is convinced of Vole's innocence, and the barrister he intended to recommend is not (John Williams as Brogan-Moore).  Complications ensue in the form of Vole's wife, Christine.  Is she really trying to help her husband, or is she using the murder as a means of getting rid of him for good?

I've seen this film dozens of times on television; I always appreciated the humor that floats through this very serious story.  But, seeing it with an audience really impressed upon me how FUNNY it really is - especially the interplay between Charles Laughton and (his wife in real life) Elsa Lanchester, who acts as straight woman for his bon mots.  For example, when Miss Plimsoll checks Sir Wilfred's thermos (to verify no brandy is present), he counters her with "If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you."  And when she informs him that she was engaged to a lawyer but he died, he responds, "He certainly was a lucky lawyer." But the humor would not work if the audience didn't sense the affection between Laughton and Lanchester, and they easily give you the sense (even before the ending of the film) that these two are now a team.
Based on a short story by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution was adapted by Ms. Christie as a play which opened on the West End (London) in 1953. David Horne starred as Sir Wilfred and Derek Blomfield appeared as Leonard Vole.  When the play moved to Broadway, Francis L. Sullivan took on the role of Sir Wilfred, with Gene Lyons as Vole.  The character of Miss Plimsoll does not exist in the stage version.

Only one member of the Broadway cast reprised her role in the film - Una O'Connor as Janet McKenzie, housekeeper to the murder victim.  Born in Ireland in 1880, Ms. O'Connor started her career on the stage, in both Ireland and England.  In 1911, she appeared in her first Broadway play (The Playboy of the Western World), and by 1929, she was appearing in films, first in the UK and then in Hollywood.  She's perhaps best remembered as Maid Marian's lady-in-waiting, Bess in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and as Reginald Gardiner's housekeeper in Christmas in Connecticut.    But, even while doing films, she still managed to squeeze in the theatre - she appeared in 11 Broadway plays and 64 films, and ventured into television in the 1950s.  She was 77 when she appeared in this film, and when it wrapped, she retired.  She died two years later.
This was also Tyrone Power's final film appearance. According to these TCM articles, Power was not the first choice for Leonard Vole - William Holden was.  Also considered were Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, and Roger Moore.  Power, who had at first turned down the role, finally accepted; with this role came the part of Solomon in Solomon and Sheba, which Power started shooting on September 15th, 1958.  But on November 15th, after shooting a dueling sequence, Power complained of arm and chest pain.  Despite being rushed to the hospital, he died of a massive heart attack.
Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were also considered for the role of Christine, and while Gardner very much wanted to do it, Billy Wilder wanted his friend Marlene Dietrich in the lead.  Without giving anything away (in case you've not seen it), it has often been said that Dietrich lost out on an Oscar nomination because of the secrecy about the film's ending. 

Finally, there is Charles Laughton.  Laughton was nominated for an Oscar for this role, but lost to Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Certainly, a notable performance, but my vote goes to Laughton.  A consummate actor, an impressive director (he directed once - the magnificent Night of the Hunter, and Robert Mitchum once claimed Laughton was his favorite director), Laughton won the Oscar once - for his role in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1934), and was nominated twice more - for this and for The Mutiny on the Bounty.  His performance here is layered and substantial.  He's funny, he's businesslike, he's subtle, he's passionate.  All in all, his performance is special.  

These  notes from the AFI catalog go into some detail about the changes to the script, including, interestingly, the film's end.  The film got excellent reviews, as is evidenced by this New York Times review, and the AFI named it #6 in its list of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas.  All in all, this is an excellent film, only enhanced by being able to learn some of its history firsthand.

We'll close with this scene, in which Christine Vole is interviewed by Sir Wilfred: two actors at the top of their game.  Unlike her husband in an earlier scene, Christine takes no nonsense in her examination:

This posting is part of the Oscar Snubs Blogathon.

Barbara Writes a ANOTHER Column

The purchase of a newspaper by the powerful D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) results in the firing of most of the staff when Norton hires Henry Connell (James Gleason) as his new managing editor.  Norton wants circulation numbers, and that means that "dead wood" needs to be cut.  Included is columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who is the sole support of her mother and two young sisters.  Ordered to supply her final column before she leaves, Ann tosses off a letter, supposedly from a man, John Doe, who intends to commit suicide on Christmas morning in protest for the ills of the world.  When her prank results in a nationwide outcry to find and help John Doe, Ann and Norton manufacture a "John Doe" in the form of down-on-his-luck baseball play Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who agrees to pose as Doe for a fee.  Her job secure, Ann happily works for Norton, unaware his motives are far from pure.

Thus begins Meet John Doe (1941), one of director Frank Capra's most well-regarded films.  Number 49 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Cheers, it's one of the films that helped to invent the term "Capraesque" - films about the ability of the honest underdog to achieve his goals through courage and perseverance (sometimes called Capra-corn).  Capra's abilities as a director held such trust with his actors that Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, James Gleason and Spring Byington all agreed to appear in the film without a completed script.  Capra went into the project without a satisfactory ending, and actually test marketed FIVE different endings (TCM).  The one we see today is the one that garnered the most public appeal, and was suggested in an anonymous letter to Capra from someone who had seen the multiple endings (AFI catalog).

Originally, Capra thought in terms of Jean Arthur and James Stewart for his leads.  He also considered Ronald Colman (who would have been all wrong!), and he tested both Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland as well.  Barbara Stanwyck came on board when Warner Brothers refused to allow Ms. Sheridan to do it (she was being punished). 

We are indeed lucky that the stars were willing to take on such a nebulous project, because the casting is spot-on. Cooper is able to convey the innocence and confusion of John, without making him into a complete idiot.  And then there is Stanwyck.  The role of Ann is a difficult one - we have to understand her desire for money, but still like her and root for her.  The rapport between her and Spring Byington (as Ann's mother) is essential; there bond in the film is undeniable.  As a result, we root for Ann, even when we know that she has really gone over the edge in the push for John Doe's stardom.

Spring Byington provides the focus that we need to understand Ann.  Generous, kind, loving; a mother who adores her children, and whose love for her late husband ventures almost into adoration, Mrs. Mitchell is both inspiration for Ann as well as motivation.  Ann sighs as her mother donates money to those she feels are in need, even as the family is on the verge of being penniless.  And, as Ann struggles with the motivations needed to make John Doe convincing, it is Mrs. Mitchell who suggests her late husband's diary as a source of inspiration.  With 119 film and television credits to her name, Byington was a dependable and much admired character actress, usually playing a mother or older relative of the lead character.  She started on Broadway; her first feature film role was as Marmee in Little Women (1933) (We've discussed her films When Ladies Meet (1941) and My Love Came Back (1940)).  She worked in both film and television until 1968.  She died in 1971, aged 84.  
Interestingly, this was one of the first films to deal with Fascism in America (this glowing New York Times review is very appreciative of the "inspiring message for all good Americans" that is present in the film.  Capra, who had been born in Italy (he had settled in Los Angeles by age five, so it is unlikely that he remembered much of his birthplace), may be reacting to the fact that it had already been overtaken by fascism. 

Though the fact that the ending was an afterthought is often evident when you watch Meet John Doe, it doesn't detract from your enjoyment of the film or of the performances of these amazing actors.  We'll leave you with a trailer:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Kay's Found!

I Found Stella Parish (1935) is the story of an actress, Stella Parish (Kay Francis) who is making her London stage debut.  Her producer, Stephen Norman (Paul Lukas), eagerly anticipates her opening.  He believes her performance will garner stellar reviews.  He has also fallen in love with her and wants her to marry him.  But Stella, who keeps a small London apartment, rarely ventures from her home for anything but work.  She has a secret life - living in the country are her mother (Jessie Ralph as Nana) and her small daughter, Gloria (Sybil Jason), both of whom she carefully shields from the public eye.  Stella has good reason to fear - she has a secret past, which catches up to her on her opening night.  In terror, she snatches up her little family and runs, pursued, unbeknownst to her, by reporter Keith Lockridge (Ian Hunter).

We were fortunate enough to see this with some commentary by Robert Osborne, who talked about Kay Francis as the star of melodramas that sometimes leave you with questions, but questions for which you don't really care about getting answers.  So, while the plot doesn't ALWAYS make sense (for example, who IS the man who threatens Stella, and why do we never see him again), we really didn't care.  The fun in this movie is just going with it and not worrying about the slight vagaries of plot. According to this TCM article, most of the reviews for this film were favorable (and the film made a quite hefty profit), though the New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugent, no Kay Francis fan, was not impressed.  He seems to find her lisp distracting (he comments that she could not be a success on the London stage with her lisp.  I have two words for him.  Claude Rains).
In the relatively small part of Stephen, Paul Lukas shines.  Warren William was supposed to play Stephen (he had been considered for Lockridge, but was moved into the smaller role.)  William was not pleased to be given such a minuscule part, so the studio let him out of it.  Lukas appears only in the beginning and the end of the film, and is in the rather thankless position of a man in love with a woman who does not reciprocate (and who ultimately falls in love with someone else).  Lukas plays his part with subtlety, and gains the affection of the audience by his generosity of spirit.  He had already appeared with Kay Francis in three other films: Illusion (1929),  Behind the Make-Up (1930),  and The Vice Squad (1931).  This would be their last one together.  Probably his most notable role was in Watch on the Rhine (1943), as Kurt Muller, an anti-Nazi agent for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.  He had segued into television by 1949, and continued working in both film, television and on Broadway until 1970.  He died in 1971 at the age of 80.
Sybil Jason is quite adorable as little Gloria.  We were very impressed with her scenes with Ian Hunter - he seems especially engaged when he is interacting with her, and those moments appear unforced and even spontaneous.  Sybil Jason was born in South Africa in 1927, and had a very short career.  Her first part was an uncredited appearance in 1934; her last was in 1940.  She starred opposite Ms. Francis twice (our film, and Comet Over Broadway (1938), which also starred Ian Hunter).  Her final two film appearance teamed her with Shirley Temple - The Blue Bird (1940) and the film that is probably her most famous one The Little Princess (1939) in which she played the scullery maid, Becky.  Basically retired at 13, she would eventually marry (a marriage that lasted for 58 years) and have a child.  Though she believed that Shirley Temple's mother requested most her of best scenes be excised from The Blue Bird, Ms. Jason and Ms. Temple-Black remained lifelong friends.  Ms. Jason died in 2011 at age 83.
Several scenes in the film were quite interesting.  In one, Lockridge meets Stella, who has disguised herself as an older woman.  He takes her hand, and his eyes betray to the audience that he has notice her hand is not that of an old lady.  Another is a scene in which reporters harass Stella for more information about her illicit past.  That one in particular was quite reminiscent of the paparazzi of today.

Ms. Francis again gets a wonderful array of lovely dresses designed by Orry-Kelly.  I was particularly impressed with a Greek-key designed dress she wears onstage, as well as some amazing hats!  We'll close with a trailer from the film.  We highly recommend it!
For some other reviews of this film, visit: Journeys in Classic Film and Immortal Ephemera.  Both do have spoilers, as does this outro from Robert Osborne

Friday, February 12, 2016

Jane Joins the Army

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Captain Beth Ainsley (Jane Wyatt) is onboard a military transport ship.  This is not her first time in the military, and the action of  Army Surgeon (1942) flashes back to Beth's experiences as a member of the Army Nurse Corps in World War I.  We later find out that Beth is  a physician, who has chosen to serve her country in the only way she can, by volunteering as a nurse.  In Europe, she meets a former admirer, pilot Lieutenant Philip Harvey (Kent Taylor), and Captain James Mason (James Ellison), a doctor who is eager to get to the front.

This is not a particularly good film - the story is all over the place, and it never really decides what it want to be.  Is it a love story? A war movie?  You'll not be able to decide, even after watching it.  By trying to be all things to all people, what you really have is a mess.

While Jane Wyatt is always a pleasure to watch, we found Kent Taylor to be quite annoying.  According to this TCM article, Randolph Scott was considered for this part; we were intrigued as how this would have changed the quality of the film.  Not that he could have done much for the overall story; he'd have needed a script doctor for that.  This AFI catalog entry does give an excuse for Taylor's lackluster performance - following a fight scene with Ellison, he ended up with SEVEN broken ribs. 

Likewise James Ellison, a decent, if slight actor (you might know him from Vivacious Lady or The Plainsman) only gets to bristle periodically.  Sure, it's a B picture, but they really could have done better.  And that was reflected in the box office - it lost over $46,000.

As someone who is interested in the portrayal of women physicians on film, this did have at least one component that was fascinating.  The film is very vague about Beth's military position in the frame portions of the film.  We know she is an officer - a Captain in fact (and was a Lieutenant in the First World War).  But, since the Sparkman-Johnson Bill, which allowed women physicians to serve in the military AS physicians (Dr. Margaret D. Craighill was the first woman doctor to enter the military), was not passed until April of 1943, Beth cannot be in as a physician.  Do the authors intend this to be a call to the public for women physicians in the armed forces?  And, I'm told that her rank as Captain does speak to the fact that she has re-entered the service, not stayed in the military.  Were she a career nurse now, her rank would be higher.  We have to assume that she is back in as a nurse, perhaps hoping that she will eventually be allowed to practice her real profession.

Next week, we'll return with a more interesting film.  Sorry, we just can't recommend this one.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Kay Carries a Lamp

The early life of Florence Nightingale, as portrayed by Kay Francis, is the subject of The White Angel (1936).  The film follows Nightingale's announcement of her intention to be a nurse, to her training at the Deaconess Institute in Kaiserwerth (Germany), to her work in Scutari during the Crimean War.

 In an era where nursing is a respected profession, it is important to emphasize the impact of Florence Nightingale in the creation OF the profession.  Nightingale horrified her well-to-do family when she told them that she had a calling to become a nurse.  The job that was nursing in England during this period involved hiring slatterns to primarily sit in hospitals and drink.  Hospitals were NOT a place you wanted to be - they were filthy, and the "nurses" did little to help the situation.  But Nightingale changed all that, first with her work in Scutari, and then with the books and reports she published after her return to England.  This film, while rather loose in its faithfulness to the story of Nightingale's life, emphasizes the spirit of the adoration that was heaped upon Miss Nightingale during and after the War. 

It's interesting that The New York Times, though they liked Kay Francis, is disturbed the the "reverential tone" of the film.  Yes, Ms. Francis does sometimes seem to be "striving to live up to Longfellow's 'Lady With the Lamp.'", but that is a hard image to lose.  Below is a copy of the film's poster, alongside an 1891 painting.  Tthe film mirrors the idolization of Ms. Nightingale that came down from the 1850s.  As referenced in the film, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did write Santa Filomena (1857) about Miss Nightingale.  To a 21st century mind, this adoration can be off-putting, but it is well within the attitudes that prevailed during Miss Nightingale's life.

The Lady with the Lamp popular lithograph reproduction of a painting by Henrietta Rae, 1891.
We do take exception to some of the a-historical elements in the film. The most egregious examples is the introduction of the character of Ella Stevens (Ara Gerald), a woman who comes from nowhere to act as a nurse supervisor in Scutari.  Given all the tensions that are already present in the film, most notably with the character of Dr. Hunt (Donald Crisp), was it really necessary to import this inane woman as a foil to Florence?  It adds nothing to the plot, and only serves to reiterate the importance of the rules that were established by Miss Nightingale at the start of her venture (and the audience is already well aware that she is correct in her judgements).

What the screenplay DOESN'T do is to add a phony romantic subplot.  Charles Cooper (Donald Woods) professes his love for Florence, but she has absolutely no  interest in him.  In his biography, Eminent Victorians (which the film credits as their key source), Lytton Strachey notes that at one point, Nightingale found someone she considered to be "a desirable young man", but whom she ultimately rejected in preference to "A profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill and employ all my faculties, I have always felt essential to me..."  Woods fills that bill nicely; and Francis is excellent at displaying affection, but not romantic love.
It was interesting to see Donald Crisp fill the role of the overtly hostile Dr. Hunt.  Crisp shows much more of the imperious tone he would display in The Uninvited, but NONE of the affection and kindness.  This was a Donald Crisp we were unused to, though with 170 film and television credits, Crisp has played just about everything.  His film career began in the silent era (he played Ulysses S. Grant in Birth of a Nation); prior to that, he had served as a trooper in the Boer Wars. He studied with D.W. Griffith to become a director and during the silent and early sound eras, he directed 72 films.  Ultimately, he found the work trying, and returned to acting exclusively.  He appeared in some of the truly great films: Wuthering Heights (1939), How Green Was My Valley (for which he won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor of 1941), Lassie Come Home (1943), and National Velvet (1944). Married and divorced twice, Crisp worked until 1963 - his last role was as Grandfather Spencer in Spencer's Mountain.  He died in 1974, at the age of 91. 

It's unusual for Kay Francis to not spend an entire film in eye-catching clothing, but her few lovely gowns are still designed by Orry-Kelly.  Even with such an interesting subject, this movie still didn't do well at the box office (see this TCM article). As mentioned, it is not Ms. Francis' acting tht is the problem, but perhaps audiences so used to seeing her in melodramas were not prepared to watch her as an actual historical character. 

This was not the first time Nightingale's life had been portrayed.  During the silent era, Julia Swayne Gordon would portray her in The Victoria Cross (1912), and Elisabeth Risdon starred in Florence Nightingale (1915).  After our film, the story would be attempted again - this time by the British in the 1951 film The Lady with the Lamp starring Anna Neagle.  And, in 1985, a television movie with Jaclyn Smith was released. Though the 1951 film is probably the best of the bunch, we think this movie is worth your time, most especially for Ms. Francis' excellent performance.  Here is a trailer to give you a taste:

Friday, February 5, 2016

Ronald Goes to Shangri-La

Based on the 1933 novel by James Hilton, Lost Horizon (1937) tells the story of Robert Conway (Ronald Colman),  a highly respected author, former soldier, and now an influential member of the British diplomatic corp.  When unrest breaks out in the Chinese city of Baskul, Robert and his younger brother George (John Howard) go there to rescue the 90 white citizens who are trapped in the city.  The last plane out is boarded by Robert and George, along with three other escapees:  Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a swindler who escaped to China to avoid imprisonment,  Alexander P. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), a paleontologist who was one of Barnard's victims, and Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), a woman with a past who is dying of tuberculosis.  Exhausted by their ordeal, the group does not notice til the morning that they are flying in the wrong direction, and have been kidnapped by an unknown Asian man.  The plane crash-lands in the Himalayans, and the group is miraculously rescued by Chang (H.B. Warner), who takes them to his home, the monastery of Shangri-La.  The group's immediate reaction is to demand ways to get home to "civilization," but very quickly they, one by one, begin to think about making a life in Shangi-La.  Except George, who is desperate to return to London, and to drag his brother there by whatever means possible.
If you saw this film before the restoration that was released in 1986, you owe yourself another viewing.  The film was severely cut by the studio in both 1937 and in 1942, deleting a lot of information on the motivations of the the secondary characters.  It was those expurgated versions that made their way to television in later years.   Though some of the filmed footage is lost, a soundtrack of the full film was discovered in 1973; using still photographs, the American Film Institute was able to reconstruct the film according to director Frank Capra's original vision.  The DVD version of the film also includes an alternate ending to the film (which was thankfully eliminated from the film early one) -  Capra's ending is far better (this article from the AFI Catalog goes into more detail on the film's production, and this article in the Chicago Tribune gives a more complete outline of the scenes that were added to the restored version).

James Hilton based his tale of Shangri-La on another legendary location - the mythical Tibetan city of Shambala.  This article from PBS's In Search of Myths and Heroes will provide a little more information on Hilton's inspiration for the place of perfect harmony.  Principle photography on the film ran from March 23 to July 17, 1936, and in the months before and during production, Germany occupied the Rhineland, and Italy invaded Ethiopia.  With Hitler beginning his reign of terror, it was becoming apparent to Europeans - and to Americans - that another war was in the offing.  Though written by Hilton between the wars, by the time the film was released in 1937, Robert's despair of a world gone mad was perfectly relate-able to the contemporary audience.
The character of George, as portrayed by John Howard, is an interesting one.  George has spent his life reflecting in his brother's glory; were he to stay in Shangri-la, his one source of self-esteem - that of being the great Robert's brother - would be gone.  At first, it's easy to sympathize with George; the group is being lied to, and he is more than angry at being held against his will.  But Howard brings George's resentment to a fever pitch.  Ultimately, it's hard to like him - he claims to be in love with Maria, but his actions don't speak of love - they display his willingness to use any means or any one to get out.  John Howard does an excellent job of creating a character that has no self esteem, but much pride.

Sam Jaffe, who portrays the High Lama, was 46 when this film was released, and this was only his third feature film.  His career began in the Yiddish theatre; during the period from 1918 to 1937, he appeared in 14 Broadway plays, including The Jazz Singer and Grand Hotel.  He was actually the third choice for the role of the High Lama - the first two choices (A. E. Anson and Henry Walthall) both died before filming began.  This TCM article provides more detail on the early casting of the film. Two years after this Lost Horizon, Jaffe starred in the title role in Gunga Din (1939).  He later appeared in such notable productions as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but by 1955, he was blacklisted after he refused to name names to HUAC.  His greatest fame occurred in television, when he appeared as Ben Casey's mentor, Dr. Zorba, in Ben Casey.  Married twice (his first marriage to Lillian Taiz ended with her death in 1941.  His second was to the actress Bettye Ackerman - who appeared as Dr. Maggie Graham in Ben Casey), he continued acting until his death in 1984 (aged 93).
Another actor whose fame came primarily from television was the lovely Jane Wyatt, who appears as  Sondra, the young woman who encourages the High Lama to bring Robert Conway to Shangri-La.  While this was not her first film, it was probably her most notable one.  For the most part, Ms. Wyatt was relegated to starring roles in B movies.  By the 1950s, she had switched over to television, where she became best known for her role as Margaret Anderson in Father Knows Best (1954-1960).  She would create the role of another important mother when she appeared as Spock's human mother, Amanda in the episode Journey to Babel in Star Trek - a role she would reprise in Star Trek: The Voyage Home (1986).  She was one of the many performers who went to Washington, DC in 1947 to protest the HUAC hearings.  She continued acting until 1992 (her final role was as older Vicki in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles).  Married for 65 years, Ms. Wyatt died in 2006, at the age of 96.

Lost Horizon was remade as a musical in 1973, with Peter Finch as Conway, Michael York as George, and Charles Boyer as the High Lama.  With not a singer in the bunch, the film was not especially noteworthy. 

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film, and a strong recommendation to see it:

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ronald, King of the Beggars

Kismet (1944) is a fable.  It is the story of Hafiz (Ronald Colman), who calls himself the King of the Beggars.  Hafiz is always plotting - he hopes to find a good marriage for his much-beloved daughter, Marsinah (Joy Ann Page), while he is having a romantic liaison with the wealthy Jamilla (Marlene Dietrich).  What Hafiz doesn't know is that Marsinah has already found the love of her life, a young man who she believes is the son of the gardener for the royal palace, but who is actually the Caliph (James Craig) and that Jamilla is the courtesan of the Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold), who is plotting the Caliph's death.

As always, Ronald Colman is excellent as Hafiz, and the film, in fact, gives him an opportunity to show his range - for comedy, drama, romance and even a bit of farce.  His rapport with Marlene Dietrich is obvious; their interplay is really what makes the movie.  And while the script isn't exactly suspenseful - it is, after all, a fairy tale - it's fun getting there.  Colman, superb storyteller that he is, never lets us forget the fantasy aspects of the storyline, and revels in the experience.
It seems obvious that Colman is having a good time in this production;  Marlene Dietrich also seems to be enjoying the experience.  Always a striking actress, she is more so here, with costuming that emphasizes her fantastic legs and exotic beauty.  According to this TCM article, Dietrich was well aware that she was the decoration in the story, and went with the concept.  It was her only appearance in an MGM film (according to this AFI Catalog entry, they never found another film worthy of her). She had to wear 4 coats of gold paint on her legs, which were a horror to remove.  So, she would leave the paint on at the end of the day, and arrive at the Hollywood Canteen with golden legs!  Dietrich's devotion to the troops is the stuff of legend.  My father, an Army Corporal in the Engineers, often spoke of her with affection.  Her hatred of the Nazis was well known - though offered a carte blanch to return to Germany (She was Hitler's favorite actress), she not only refused the offer, but became an American citizen and spent most of the war entertaining the troops in areas in which she was in extreme danger of capture and execution. She spent so much time in the European Theater of Operations that Billy Wilder is said to have quipped that "she was on the front more than Eisenhower" (Some Like it Wilder, 2010).  As one of the actresses on the notorious 1938 "Box Office Poison" list (Glamour in the Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s, 2011), Dietrich was having problems getting film roles around this time (she was 42 when production on the film began), but some of her best films were ahead of her:  A Foreign Affair (1948), Touch of Evil (1958, a small but meaty part), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).  As her film career petered out, Dietrich performed on stage and in cabarets, but following a fall onstage, she was forced into retirement.  In her later years, she refused to be photographed, preferring that her public remember her in her youth.  She died in 1992, at age 90.
Joy Ann Page, who here appears as Marsinah, is best remembered as the young bride in Casablanca. Her role in this film is minor - Marsinah gets little to do except be admired and lusted after.  Her career was short, and she really never got a part as memorable as the one in Casablanca again, despite the fact that she was stepdaughter of Jack L. Warner.  Warner, in his usual curmudgeonly way, refused to give her a contract at Warner's (she had auditioned for, and landed, the role in Casablanca without his knowledge.  Once she had it, he agreed to her being in the film, but it was with reluctance).  She had a total of 22 film and television credits, and ended her career in 1959 after appearing in The Swamp Fox for Walt Disney.  She married William Orr in 1945 (her stepfather actually hired Orr after their marriage, and advanced his career steadily).  The marriage ended in divorce in 1970.  She died in 2008, at the age of 83.
Edward Arnold plays the part of the Grand Vizier with great relish.  His strong voice and powerful laugh only serve to emphasize his evil intentions.  His scenes with Dietrich are especially wonderful - Jamilla is the only human being who actually intimidates him.  It's interesting that no one else seems to have been considered for this part.  William Powell was at one point talked about for the role of Hafiz, Richard Carlson tested for the role of the Caliph, and Vera Zorina, Virginia Bruce and Marilyn Maxwell all tested for Jamilla.  In hindsight, it is difficult to see anyone but Arnold in the role.

Kismet is a story that is a popular one in Hollywood.  Based on a Broadway play from 1912, it was filmed twice as a silent film - in 1914 and 1920.  In 1930, it was filmed with sound (and starred the actor who had done the 1920 silent version, Otis Skinner - the father of Cornelia Otis Skinner, of The Uninvited fame)After a successful Broadway musical version of the story opened in 1953, the story was again filmed, this time with Howard Keel and Ann Blyth singing the leads.  Finally, on 24 October 1967, Jose Ferrer appeared in a television special of the musical.

We'll leave you for this week with the trailer for the film - note the glorious technicolor (but Dietrich's golden legs are nowhere to be seen!  I guess you had to pay your admission to see them!)