Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Barbara is Mad!

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda team up for the first time in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a delightful screwball comedy.  Stanwyck is Melsa Manton, a wealthy society girl, and a member of the Park Avenue Pranksters, a group of nine young ladies with too much time on their hands, who inevitably end up getting into hot water.   After a late night of partying, Melsa takes her little dog out for a walkShe spies an acquaintance, Ronnie Belden run from an empty building.  Curious, Melsa wanders inside and finds a dead body.  She races to a phone, calls the police, and returns to the house.  But when Lieutenant Mike Brent (Sam Levene) arrives, the body has disappeared, and he's convinced that Melsa is having a joke at his expense.  The next day, newpaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) prints an article condemning Melsa.  Incensed, Melsa and her merry band decide that they will find the missing body and solve the mystery of the murder.

This is a hysterical romp, it's delightful and enjoyable - a little candy confection of a movie.  Instead male bonding movie, we have a dynamic young woman and her Scoobies.  It's not great literature, but it is silly and funny and totally relaxing. Watching Stanwyck is a screwball heiress is great fun; nicest of all is that, while Melsa is a bit of flake, she's a SMART flake.  She's brave, and she's always in control  One realizes quickly that her lunacy is based on boredom - give her something to do, and she takes it on and runs with it.
Henry Fonda, in his first of three films with Stanwyck, was allegedly not thrilled with the part of Peter Ames.  He particularly did not like the scene in which the Park Avenue Pranksters overpower him, and tie him to a bed.  On loan from Walter Wanger, Fonda was furious during the shoot, and ignored everyone as much as possible  (see this TCM article).  Luckily, his dissatisfaction with the picture did not sour him on performing with Ms. Stanwyck, or we would not have the magnificent The Lady Eve!  Regardless of his annoyance, Mr. Fonda turns in a good performance, in a role in which he is clearly a very second banana.

Another performance that really stands out (not surprisingly) is that of Hattie McDaniel as Melsa's maid, Hilda.  As is to be expected. her part is small, but she makes the most of what she has.  According to Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel by Carlton Jackson, some audience members had a problem with Hilda tossing a vase of water in Peter's face (on Melsa's orders).  We personally, thought it was a hoot (she did use "distilled water")  Ms. McDaniel can do with a raised eyebrow what other actors cannot do with their entire body.  Her retorts to Melsa are brief and pointed (Melsa: "Miss Beverly is our guest.".  Hilda: "I didn't ask her"), but there is an affection between the two that is undeniable. 
The film opened at Radio City Music Hall, which speaks to a film from which the studio expected a great deal of interest. The costumes by Edward Stevenson are quite lovely, especially considering that he is having to gown nine girls in stunning clothing. Interestingly, in 1944, when Dick Powell walks past a movie marquee in Murder, My Sweet (1944), this is the film being shown.

The screenplay was based on an unpublished novel by Wilson Collison.  The role of Melsa was also considered for Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne; Stanwyck took the part to fulfill requirements in her non-exclusive RKO contract (AFI catalog).  She became ill during production, but despite her having to stay home for a week's recuperation, her director, Leigh Jason, said of her: "I've worked with perhaps eight or nine hundred actors and actresses. Barbara Stanwyck is the nicest." 
We will leave you with the scene in which Peter and Melsa meet at the newspaper office, after his article comes out.  Next time, more Stanwyck, but with another actor with whom she appeared in multiple films. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Kay's Daughter Wants to Sing

Kay Francis returned to Warner Brothers in 1942 for Always in My Heart.  Kay plays Marjorie Scott, the mother of Victoria (Gloria Warren) and Martin (Frankie Thomas).  They live in a small coastal town of Santa Rita, California with their housekeeper Angie (Una O'Connor) and her little granddaughter Booley (Diana (Patti) Hale).  Marjorie (or Mudge, as her children call her) also has a suitor, Philip Ames (Sidney Blackmer), who is not above bribing Victoria and Marty to help him convince Marjorie to marry him.  But, unbeknownst to the children and Philip, Marjorie's heart lies elsewhere - with her husband, MacKenzie Scott (Walter Huston), who's been in prison for over ten years.

We really wanted to like this film, but in the long run, it was pretty hard to do so.  It's a waste of the wonderful Kay and Walter Huston (who we previously saw together in Storm at Daybreak)The film doesn't really know what it wants to be: comedy? drama? musical?  It does know that it wants to find the next Deanna Durbin in Gloria Warren.  As you can see from the ad below, even though Ms. Francis and Mr. Huston are the stars, it is Ms. Warren on whom the ad focuses.  This was the first of her five films (between 1942 and 1947), and she is, quite frankly, not well served.  To be sure, she has a magnificent operatic voice, but this film gives her nothing with which to shine.  Even the title song (more on that later) is done in a way that just makes it a bore.  Add a peripatetic plot, and you have a bit of a mess.
This New York Times review comments that "Miss Warren is . . .a bit mature for her reported fifteen years" and she does appear much older than 15.  But she was actually 16 when the film was released.  Obviously, her mature singing voice doesn't help one believe that she is only 15, but a mature voice never hurt Deanna Durbin.  What Ms. Warren lacked, it seems, were scripts.   The films she made are not remembered, and while she is pleasant enough, the public just didn't didn't take to her.  The director also places emphasis on the operatic quality of her voice, during a period of time when The Big Bands were soaring in popularity.  The one popular song she is given, Always in My Heart, is arranged with a very operatic style and probably didn't help much.  The song was nominated for an Oscar (it lost to White Christmas.  What wouldn't lose to White Christmas?)  Later, it was covered by, among others, Dean Martin.
According to this  TCM article, Kay Francis appeared in the film at Walter Huston's suggestion.  This was their fourth film together.  They do work well (especially considering they aren't given a whole lot of screen time, nor much to work with when they are on screen).  The film minimizes so many issues surrounding the adults - they are reluctant to tell us why Mac is in jail (we don't find out til the last 1/2 hour).  And why are there no pictures of him around the home? Sure, the children think he is dead, but no photographs to remember him by? And the kids never ask? It's an odd piece of writing.  Mr. Huston, however, does get to sing. He had previously appeared in the musical Knickerbocher Holiday (1938-1939) on Broadway, and had a pleasant singing voice and style (see this AFI Catalog article for more information). 

This was also the screen debut of Diana (Patti) Hale, who had almost as brief a career as Ms. Warren.  She was in five films, her last being Thunderhead - Son of Flicka (she had also appeared in the same part in 1943's My Friend Flicka) in 1945.  She returned to television in 1954 in an episode of Meet Corliss Archer, and then left the business.

Sidney Blackmer gets the thankless job of playing Philip, a bore and a stereotype.  Philip is a jerk, who uses his money to get around his beau's children.  He's a bit of a bully, and you spend most of the movie waiting for him to twirl a non-existent mustache as he ships the children far away from their beloved Mudge.  An excellent actor, with a remarkable speaking voice, Mr. Blackmer began his career in the silent era (in 1914) and continued acting in film and television until 1971.   See him as Seth Lord in High Society (1956) or This is My Affair (1937) as Teddy Roosevelt.

We'll leave you with this scene of Gloria Warren singing. Sorry we can't be more enthusiastic about the film, but do enjoy her lovely voice.