Monday, July 25, 2016

Miracle Maker Barbara

The Miracle Woman (1931) is the story of Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a minister ousted by his ministry in favor of a younger man.  His heart broken by the betrayal of his congregation, the Reverend Fallon dies suddenlyWith his body still in the chair in which he died, his daughter arrives at his pulpit to announce his death, and to harangue the community on their hypocrisy.  Visiting promoter Hornsby (Sam Hardy) is intrigued, and hires Florence  to run a highly profitable "ministry."  But when Florence learns that her sermon stopped blind composer John Carson (David Manners) from committing suicide, Florence must take a long, hard look at her occupation. 

Watching the film right after Ladies They Talk About did lead to a discussion and comparison of the lead actors in the two films. David Manners' chemistry with Stanwyck is quite appealing, and resulted in a much more interesting dynamic that that between Ms. Stanwyck and Preston Foster.  We were particularly taken with the scene in which Stanwyck and Manners begin to sing together.  There is a naturalness in the scene that speaks to improvisation, though it probably was well scripted.  Manners presents us with a gentle, almost fragile man, who grows stronger because of his love for Florence.  But at no point do we find him weak or ineffectual.  His interactions with Stanwyck speak to an equality between them - each has their own demons; their relationship enables them both to face them.
David Manners career in Hollywood was relatively short.  He only appeared in 39 films between 1929 and 1936, and is probably best remembered as Jonathan Harker in the Tod Browning Dracula (1931).  He found life in Hollywood not to his liking, and eventually relocated to Pacific Palisades, with his partner, author William Mercer.  Manners wrote, occasionally returning to the theatre (appearing on Broadway in Truckline Cafe with Marlon Brando in 1946, for example).  Manners died in 1998, age 97.  A detailed obituary is available in The Independent.

The performance of Beryl Mercer as Mrs. Higgins is adorable.  John's landlady is sweet, caring and humorous.  There is no relationship between them other than that he lives in her building, but she seems to regard him as a son.  Both and this New York Times review (which is not otherwise all that enthusiastic) mention Ms. Mercer's lovely portrayal.

Because of the portrait painted of a dishonest evangelist, the film was banned in the UK (according to the AFI Catalog).  The AFI also notes the similarities between this film, and the 1960 film Elmer Gantry (even down to the fire at the end of the films), though Elmer Gantry was based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, while this film was based on the play Bless You Sister by Robert Riskin and John Meehan (which, in the 1927 Broadway run, starred Alice Brady in the role that would be played by Ms. Stanwyck).

In this TCM article, it's pointed out that, being this is 1931, there is precious little in the way of special effects in the film.  So, when Stanwyck and Manners are in the cage with the lions, they are IN the cage with the lions - a veil was the only thing separating them from attack.  Convinced that Stanwyck was totally comfortable, Manners would later recall, he became "brave" and went on with the scene, only to discover afterwards that she was actually terrified!  Similarly, in the fire sequence at the end of the film.  Stanwyck had to stand amid the flames, and when Capra went in to get her, he discovered (though was unaware of it while filming), that her heart was pounding from fear.  As always, Ms. Stanwyck's professionalism was the stuff of legend.

We'll end with this scene of Ms. Stanwyck showing off her oratory skills.  We'll return next week with an early Laurence Olivier film. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Barbara's in Prison

When Nan Tayor (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested as an accessory to a bank robbery, childhood friend David Slade (Preston S. Foster) tries to come to her assistance.  Slade believes her protestations of innocence - her father was once their town's deacon and was good to Slade.  Slade is now a highly regarded attorney and evangelist and uses his influence to have Nan paroled to his charge.  Moved by his trust in her, Nan confesses to him that she was complicit in the robbery, then is disgusted to realize that he will use her confession against her in court.  Nan is sent to prison, after she confesses to the authorities, but she harbors a deep, abiding hatred for the man she considers as her betrayer.  Nan has become one of the Ladies They Talk About (1933)

In a December 2013 article in the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot listed this as one of her 10 favorite Stanwyck films.  We found the film very enjoyable, but without the punch of say, Stella Dallas or Double Indemnity.  Part of the problem is that Stanwyck's portrayal is so powerful, her leading man is unable to stand up to her force of will.  Whenever Stanwyck is on the screen, you watch her - Foster's David Slade is a non-entity next to her, and it's hard to understand what she - or even Susie (Dorothy Burgess) - see in him.  It's not altogether Foster's fault - really, the film's focus is on the prison scenes.  The romance and warfare between Nan and David are secondary to the interaction of the ladies in prison.
Based on a play by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles entitled Women in Prison, (for more information on the play, visit the  AFI Catalog) the prison scenes are allegedly based on Mackaye's actual experiences in jail.  When her husband was killed in an altercation with Mackaye's lover, Paul Kelly, Mackaye was sentenced to one to three years (she served 10 months) in San Quentin for "attempting to conceal facts" (TCM article) in his death.  [Actor Paul Kelly would serve 25 months for manslaughter; he and Mackaye married after his release from prison, and were together until her death in 1940.  He continued to a successful stage, screen, and television career following his release].   However, any attempt Mackaye may have made in the play to portray living conditions in San Quentin were surely eliminated by the film. The prison is so very nice and homey - it's more like a college dorm room.  Though Warner Brothers had a technical advisor who had served time at San Quentin (San Quentin housed women until 1932, when Tehachapi was opened), they still prettied the prison up substantially.  The women have decorations in their rooms,  record players they can run all hours of the night, and seem to have the run of each other's cells.  Almost everyone seems to get along (except for a woman who is clearly intended to be lesbian - she "likes to wrestle,' Nan is warned.  You can see a picture of her at
Lyle Talbot as Nan's partner-in-crime, Don is wasted in the film.  He has so very little screen time - we would have expected him to visit her in prison, but that is given over to Lefty (Harold Huber), as the visits only start when Don also ends up in San Quentin.  A shame, really, as Talbot is an engaging actor who has proved his ability to go toe-to-toe with strong women.

Lillian Roth appears in the film as Nan's prison friend, Linda.  Roth is best remembered today as the subject of the Susan Hayward film I'll Cry Tomorrow.  In our film, Linda gets an opportunity to sing "If I Could Be with You" to a photo of Joe E. Brown (not our idea of a heartthrob, but under contract to Warner Brothers when they released this film.  Then again, so were Jimmy Cagney and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  Go figure!). A noted Broadway actress, Roth's addiction to alcohol derailed her career.  Between 1929 and 1939, she appeared in 22 films and shorts, often playing herself.  (Starting in 1955, she began to make sporadic appearances in television and films). She also had a substantial career as a concert and nightclub performer.  Married (and divorced) five times, she ended up broke when her last husband absconded with all of her money.  She died from a stroke in 1980, aged 69.  If you are not familiar with Roth, below is a film of her singing to Mr. Brown!

The reviewer for the New York Times commented on the strength of the prison scene in Ladies They Talk About. He says the film "is effective when it is describing the behavior of the prisoners, the variety of their misdemeanors, their positions in the social whirl outside, their ingenuity in giving an intimate domestic touch to the prison, and their frequently picturesque way of exhibiting pride, jealousy, vanity and other untrammeled feminine emotions."  The romance is less than secondary and is merely a method of giving us a "happily ever after" to the proceedings.  We'll leave you with a trailer to the film.  Next week, we'll take a look at another Stanwyck films from Ms. Talbot's list of 10 that we've not yet discussed.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Olivia and the Pilots

Cass Harrington (George Brent) is a Navy flyer through and through, with a family history in the service.  His father was a highly regarded flyer for the Navy, and his brother Jerry (John Payne), also career Navy, wants to join Cass in the Air Corps, though Cass would rather Jerry stay in the submarine service.  Cass is in love with Irene Dale (Olivia de Havilland), but once Irene meets Jerry, she wonders if she has made the wrong choice - Cass is too wrapped up in his work designing a new fighter plane to pay her much attention.  When the brothers both end up at the Naval Air School in Pensacola, where Cass is an instructor, it's clear that something's got to give.  Wings of the Navy (1939) tells the story of these three individuals and of the making of a Navy airman.

In the July 2016 issue of TCM's Now Playing, Robert Osborne writes that Olivia de Havilland, who had signed a contract with Warner Brothers to star in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), "...considered [Wings of the Navy] the absolute nadir of her career.  It was as far afield from Shakespeare as one could get...."  While this isn't the worst film ever made (and probably not her worst either.  There is, after all The Swarm...), it's not all that good.  However, in many ways (according to this TCM article), it was this film that helped Ms. de Havilland appear in her most famous role - she was so irritated that she had been forced to do Wings of the Navy, she redoubled her efforts to land the part of a lifetime - that of Melanie in Gone With the Wind
Really, this film is an advertisement for the Navy, and a means for Warner Brothers to inform the public on the state of the armed services.  It was evident that a war in Europe was in the offing, and the Brothers Warner had already shown their dislike of fascism in 1937's Black Legion.  Shortly after this film was released (February of 1939), Warner Brothers would be the first studio to openly brand Nazi Germany as an enemy in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (released in May, 1939) [PBS History Detectives].  With its emphasis on the flying service, Wings of the Navy is a documentary praising the U.S. Navy Air Corps.  Even the New York Times review felt that "the educational part [of the film] is so interesting that we return to the romantic part... with a feeling almost akin to pain."   The advertising for the release also (discussed on  displays the studio's primary interest in creating this film:  "'For all the world to witness that America will not be unprepared!' [it declared] —and backed it up with bravura footage shot at Pensacola Naval Station in Florida and North Island Naval Station at Coronado, California."
Because this really is a documentary-type film focusing on the military, the interactions between Brent and Payne, and between Frank McHugh (as Scat Allen) are pretty good, and while we always want to see more of Ms. de Havilland, the love story is pretty pointless - just a way to have the girlfriends agree to come with their dates to see the planes.
There are several surprise appearances in the movie, not the least of which is the appearance of Frank McHugh, who brings both humor and gravitas to the role of Scat, a man who has joined the Air Corps to perfect his flying skills.  He is not planning on a career in the Navy - he plans to return to his profession as a crop duster after his term is over, but Scat ends up being the voice of reason in most situations.  Also appearing are John Litel as Commander Clark, and Victor Jory as Lieutenant Parsons.  Jory's part is so small that if you blink, you might miss him!

Much as Ms. de Havilland disliked the film, she did not immediately escape it.  According to this article from the AFI Catalog, she ended up reprising her role (with George Brent and John Payne) in the Lux Radio Theatre production of October 1940.  While we agree with her, it is not all that wonderful a film, we'll leave you with a clip of Ms. de Havilland and Mr. Payne: