Monday, May 23, 2016

Kay Tempts Basil

In A Notorious Affair (1930), Patricia Hanley (Billie Dove) defies her father, Sir Thomas Hanley (Montagu Love), and jilts her fiance  Dr. Alan Pomeroy (Kenneth Thompson), when she elopes with struggling violinist Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone).  Patricia happily gives up her privileged life to share Paul's poverty, and ultimately his success.  But with that success comes temptation, and Paul becomes involved with the sexually predatory Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis), creating a scandal that involves both Paul and his betrayed wife.

Adapted from the play Fame (written by Audrey and Waverly Carter), the original play may have starred Gerald de Maurier (father of author Daphne.  This AFI Catalog talks briefly of the play's history).  Like many films of the early sound era, this movie suffers from the stagnation of the static camera and microphone.  Scenes that, a year or two later, would be full of movement and energy just sit there because the sound equipment forces the actors to stay stock still.  As a result, the film and the actors seem stiff and un-engaged.

All three of the leads, Francis, Rathbone, and Dove, had theatrical backgrounds.  Basil Rathbone was a veteran of both the London and Broadway stage, but was relatively new to film (he'd done 7 silent films and 3 talking films prior to A Notorious Affair).  Kay Francis had appeared in 4 Broadway plays, as well as 6 films.  Billie Dove, however, had made her career as a Ziegfeld Girl (billed as The American Beauty), not as an actress, though she had already appeared in many silent films and several talkies. (A TCM article about the film discusses the actors' backgrounds).
In spite of Basil Rathbone prior appearances in talkies, he seems rather uncomfortable in this film.  As we are used seeing him in roles in which he dominates the screen (a particular favorite is his turn as the rouĂ© in Confession, with his co-star here, Kay Francis), this Basil was a bit off-putting.  We talked about him in some detail in our discussion of his fantastic performance in The Mark of Zorro

But if anyone owns this movie it is Kay Francis.  Olga is quite the seductress, and with a sexual appetite that knows no bounds.  Ms. Francis' ability to telegraph her thoughts with only her eyes serve her in good stead here.  Watch her when she sees a stableboy entering a barn; we know exactly what is about to happen as she quietly enters the barn and shuts the door behind her.    Likewise, the look on her face when she first sees Paul - it's as though she is looking at a steak after a 30 day fast.  But Olga bores just as quickly as she hungers, and her relationship with Paul mirrors her tet-a-tet with the kennel man - once fed, she's done.  The New York Times review had it right when they say that "Kay the scheming countess, puts Miss Dove somewhat in the shade."

While we can't wholeheartedly recommend A Notorious Affair as a film, for anyone who is a fan of Kay Francis, this is essential viewing.   Not only are you able to see her before she becomes the Warner Brothers cornerstone, you get to see her playing the kind character that wouldn't come her way for a number of years.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stuck on a Desert Island (with a DVD player)

In celebration of National Classic Movie Day, and as part of the Classic Film and TV Cafe's blogathon, I'm going to venture on choosing the five (!!) movies I want with me when I'm stuck on a desert island.  For someone with over 1,000 DVDs in her library, this is no easy task, but I'm going to give it a try with the caveat that the five I pick today may not be the same five I pick tomorrow!

I know that when forced to choose, I'm going to want to mix up the genres a bit, so I'm not watching the same kind of film over and over,.  Let's start with a musical, and my selection here is without equivocation.   Whenever Singin' in the Rain is on, I have to watch the whole thing.  I start out saying "I'll just watch this scene", and the next thing I know, the movie is over and I've re-watched it again.  I actually do that with a lot of movies, which is probably not a surprise to anyone reading this.  Regardless, Singin' in the Rain is special.  With great music, wonderful dancing (Donald O'Connor doing "Make 'em Laugh" is an especial favorite), and terrific actors (Jean Hagen as Lola Lamont - she is perfection!)  it has everything.  It also serves as an introduction to the beginning of talkies.  It's a film to which I frequently refer people, especially when they are puzzled as to why films look like they do in 1929 and 1930.  Plus, it's a film that you will finish with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
If you've never see I Remember Mama, you are missing a wonderful film.  My pick for drama has several competitors (mainly A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Johnny Belinda and The Enchanted Cottage), but for this week, I'm going with Irene Dunne in one of her last films.  As the titular Mama, Dunne is perfect as Marta Hansen.  Sure, Mama at time seems without fault, but it's hard to care or even notice as Dunne is so unbelievingly convincing as this warm and loving wife and mother.  Narrated by the family's oldest daughter, Katrin (played beautifully by Barbara Bel Geddes), the story is a series of incidents in the life of the Hansen family over a number of years, which makes it perfect desert island viewing.  Each "story" can be watched as part of the whole progression of the film, or as an independent short story.  Especially poignant is an incident that revolves around the illness of the youngest daughter, Dagmar (June Hedin), and the inability of Mama to see her ailing child after surgery (hospital rules forbid any visitors for 24 hours post surgery.  Wow, have things changed with time!)  Dunne's heartbreak and guilt (she'd promised the child she would be there when she woke) in this segment reaches out from the screen and tears your heart.  Ultimately, it is the strength of the family and the care that the immigrant mother and father show to their children as they try to avoid "go[ing] to the bank" that you will remember.
There are some really great westerns, and I have to admit that I had trouble deciding on just one.  It came down to two:  The Searchers and Westward the Women (add to the mix, a friend suggested Shane and The Big Country.  Yes, my friends make my life harder).  Ultimately, I chose The Searchers since it is again one of those movies I fall into each time I see it.  John Wayne is exceptional as Ethan Edwards, a man driven to almost insanity by his hatred of Native Americans.  When Ethan's niece, Debbie, is captured by a group of Indians who murdered the rest of her family, Ethan and Martin Pawley, a young man of mixed heritage who was raised by Debbie's parents, go on a quest to recover Debbie from her captors.  But as the years pass and Debbie goes from childhood to young adulthood, it becomes clear to Martin that he must continue on the journey, no matter the cost.  For, if he abandons it, Ethan will surely murder the young woman he now sees as a squaw.  The story is intense, with Wayne creating a character that is impossible to like, but with whom the viewer feels a bond.  Also notable are Jeffrey Hunter as Martin and Ward Bond as the Reverend Clayton, both characters that act as counterpoint to Wayne's driven loner.  Finally, there are the magnificent vistas of Monument Valley, which director John Ford uses to tell his tale.  It's a film with so many layers that, with each viewing, you'll see something new. 
There are a number of comedies, especially romantic comedies which come to mind when asked to pick a desert-island selection: Victoria, Victoria, The Major and the Minor, Roman Holiday are just the tip of the iceberg.  But I decided to select Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers as Polly Parrish, the temporary employee of Merlin and Son Department Store.  When her job is about to come to an end, Polly goes out on her lunch break to find another job.  She sees a woman abandoning a baby at a foundling home.  Fearful the baby will roll from the stoop, Polly rushes in - and is mistaken for the baby's mother by the staff.  As a result, Polly finds herself saddled with a baby, as well as a suitor, in the form of David Merlin, the "and Son" of the department store.  The film is funny and sweet, the baby is adorable, and our romantic couple have a great chemistry.  But what I love about this film are the attitudes of everyone towards this seemingly unwed mother.  Sure, we, the audience, know that Polly is a "good girl", but the other characters don't, and uniformly they treat her with kindness and compassion.  I especially love Polly's landlady Mrs Weiss (played to perfection by Ferike Boros), who, rather than condemn the girl, goes and gets her adult son's baby things and becomes Polly's go-to baby sitter!  In an era where unwed mothers didn't exist, or were punished (usually by death) at movie's end, Bachelor Mother gives us a picture of a society that embraces the mistakes of a young woman, and ends by creating a happy family, all without violating the Code.
I'm not a huge horror fan, but I love suspenseful films.  The Spiral Staircase is one film that I considered for this category, but really there was no contest in the ultimate winner: The Uninvited.    It really does have everything - a phenomenal story, great cast, two ghosts, a really mysterious house, and a haunting musical score.  (In an earlier blog entry, above, you'll find a link to a You-Tube video of the magnificent theme, Stella By Starlight).  One of the problems with suspense films is that, once you know the answer, you don't always enjoy rewatching the film.  But The Uninvited still is a pleasure even when you know what is coming.  Much like Laura, it's the acting, and the relationships of the characters that keep you returning to this film.  Ray Milland is exceptional as Rick, the new owner of Windwood House, as is Ruth Hussey as his sister Pam.  But the person who steals the film from under everyone else is the ethereal Gail Russell, playing Stella Meredith, the object of Rick's love and the focus of the beings that haunt the house.  The Uninvited is a movie that will make you believe in ghosts.
As I said, this is a list that could change at a moment's notice, and you'll notice that the list lacks a few films that one might expect to see on a desert island list.  So, let's give a nod to To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind The Best Years of Our Lives, The Thin Man, Casablanca, just a few in a list of "essentials" that film fans love.  These are wonderful; I own them, I would never give them up. I rewatch them regularly, but you all KNOW about these films.  With my list, I hope I may have brought up a few films that might not have made your own "essentials" queue.

William Cameron Menzies and Gone with the Wind

Though I've already posted on Gone with the Wind several times, I'm again going to discuss it, this time in relation to a interesting program held at AFI Silver (in partnership with Smithsonian Associates), which was part of a series entitled William Cameron Menzies: Inventing Production Design.  James Curtis, the author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, spoke about Menzies contributions to filmmaking in general, and specifically about his impact on the film that would become Gone with the Wind.

Using examples from Menzies' surviving art work (a sketchbook was miraculously saved from the attic of his home before the building was razed), Mr. Curtis discussed the contribution of Menzies' amazing eye in creating the look and feel of the film.  Gone with the Wind was always going to be a Technicolor film; this gave Menzies the opportunity to use color in the telling of the story.  Mr. Curtis pointed out the pastel hues of the early scenes - think of Scarlett entertaining her beaus on the steps of Tara, compared to the deep reds and oranges of the escape from Atlanta.  The sketches tell the story of Menzies vision of the film.
Today, we see the term "production designer" on all films, but Menzies was the first person to have that title; in fact, it was created to describe his unique contribution to filmmaking.  He won the first awarded Oscar in Art Design for his work in The Dove and Tempest (both in 1929) and was given a special Oscar for Production Design in 1939 for Gone with the Wind.  Of course, there WAS no Production Design award at that point - the Oscar in that category was only renamed (from Art Direction) in 2012.

In 2016, the Art Director's Guild instituted an award named after William Cameron Menzies.  The first awardee was Robert Osborne, "for his work in championing classic motion pictures." 

Menzies would eventually go on to try his hand at film direction - Things to Come (1936) and Invaders from Mars (1953) are the two that are most highly regarded. But his credits in this area cannot surpass his credits in production design.  With films like Kings Row (1942), Our Town (1940) and Made for Each Other (1939), he created a vocabulary of images. 
I'll leave you this the video of an interview with Jim Curtis:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Barbara Screams

Barbara Stanwyck's final role on the big screen was in a William Castle horror/suspense film entitled The Night Walker (1964).  Its major claim to fame (besides being Stanwyck's last go at movies) was that it reunited her with her former co-star - and former husband - Robert Taylor.  Stanwyck plays Irene Trent.  Married, unhappily to jealous tyrant Howard Trent (Hayden Rorke), Irene's sleep is plagued by dreams of a fantasy lover (Lloyd Bochner).  When Howard is killed in a freak accident in his laboratory, Irene's not heartbroken, and happily leaves their damaged home in the hope of escaping from the stressful dreams.   But the dreams begin to escalate in intensity; terrified she is going mad, Irene goes to her husband's attorney, Barry Morland (Robert Taylor) for help.

On some levels, one wonders what would prompt Ms. Stanwyck to appear in this rather ludicrous story.  Though hired first, she ends up billed under her ex-husband, Robert Taylor.  According to this article in the Florence Times, from May 9, 1964, Stanwyck was willing to appear with her ex, if he and his wife (German actress Ursula Thiess) agreed.  Taylor said it was fine with him, but when asked, the current Mrs. Taylor allegedly said "not necessarily."  

While Stanwyck gets second billing, it is clearly her film.  Even with an outlandish plot, special effects that are laughable, and an ending that makes you want to go "Huh?", Stanwyck is still excellent.  In an age when older actresses were having to become laughingstocks in the Grand-Guignol style (think What Ever Happened to Baby Jane), Stanwyck is still elegant, and even regal.  Her beauty was even more striking as she aged (my father - a huge fan - always said she got better looking every year), and at age 57 she looks like a youth when compared to much less well-preserved (and 4 years younger) Robert Taylor.  (The book Barbara Stanwyck: Miracle Woman  by Dan Callahan also comments on the physical differences between the stars.  Be aware - there are spoilers).
Interestingly, Joan Crawford is alleged to have been William Castle's first choice for Irene.  She declined, perhaps because she was at that point committed to Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, a role that was ultimately given to Olivia de Havilland when Crawford became ill (or, perhaps just couldn't stand the thought of working again with her rival, Bette Davis).

Possibly the biggest problem with the story is the lack of continuity.  Howard Trent is horribly jealous. Why?  He has a laboratory in the attic. What is he doing there? Irene owns a beauty salon, which she owned before she met Howard.  Why did they marry?  Why is Howard blind?  The questions go on and on, but we get no answers.  We're supposed to wonder why Irene is having these odd dreams, but given her rather strange marriage, it's no wonder that she is dreaming of a handsome man who adores her.  And if you listen carefully, you actually can figure out WHY "The Dream" is someone who actually exists.  It's quite probable that Irene met him at some point. 
It was very pleasant to see Hayden Rorke in a film role - he actually had a very lengthy film career in character parts before he became so very familiar to us all as the much put-upon Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie.  While this was not his last film role, he primarily did television after this movie.  He'd started film acting in 1943; prior to that, he'd appeared on Broadway in 6 plays (including The Philadelphia Story, with Katharine Hepburn - he played Mac, the night watchman).  He continued working until 1985, and died in 1987, age 76.  He was survived by his partner, Justus Addiss.
Also in the cast, in tiny parts, are Jess Barker (who we saw in Good Luck, Mr. Yates) and Rochelle Hudson (probably best known as Shirley Temple's older sister in Curly Top).  Blink, and you'll miss Ms. Hudson as Hilda, the manager of Irene's beauty shop.  Barker at least gets a few minutes screen time as Mr. Malone, the inspector of the damaged house, at the beginning of the film.  A shame really, that they didn't get more to do.
As Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review states, "the whole thing would not be worth reporting if it didn't have Barbara Stanwyck in the role of the somnambulistic sufferer and Robert Taylor as her husband's lawyer who tries to help."  Small wonder that Ms. Stanwyck eschewed further big screen roles in favor of television.  Her next role would see her in the part of the inimitable Victoria Barkley, with star billing as MISS Barbara Stanwyck  for the four-year run of The Big Valley.   That role would earn her four Emmy nominations, and two wins.  She also would win another Emmy in 1983 for her performance as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds(Obviously, the Emmy voters were a lot smarter than the Oscar voters!)

We'll leave you with this trailer from the film.