Friday, January 27, 2017

Barbara Loves a Moonlighter

Almost immediately, The Moonlighter  (1953) defines its title - a moonlighter is a cattle rustler who works by moonight - a skill, no doubt, since it is hard to rope what you can't see.  Wes Anderson (Fred MacMurray) has been arrested for said offense, and the local townfolk are looking forward to a hanging.  Ranch owner Alex Prince (Morris Ankrum) and his strawboss (Jack Elam) decide to take the law into their own hands; they break into the jail, and hang the man in cell three.  Only, unbeknownst to them, it's the wrong man.  The resulting celebration gives Wes and his cellmates the opportunity to beat it out of town.  Wes spends a few months revenging himself on the murderers, then returns to his home town - to his mother (Myra Marsh), brother Tom (William Ching), and to Rela (Barbara Stanwyck), the love of his life, who is now engaged to brother Tom.  Needless to say, Wes is not a happy man.  So, when his friend Cole Gardner (Ward Bond) shows up, he decides the life of crime really is the one for him.

It's great to see Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray back together again.  This was the third of their four films together (we've already discussed Remember the Night (1940),  Double Indemnity (1944), and There's Always Tomorrow (1956)).  Their chemistry together is excellent, and Mr. MacMurray was vocal in his affection for his co-star this TCM article quotes Mr. MacMurray: "I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara. In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman, and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck -- and I did, too!" But this film doesn't really do that chemistry a whole lot of justice.
First off, we don't even see Ms. Stanwyck until nearly half-way into the film.  Secondly, the film doesn't feel like a full unit - it feels like a bunch of little plots all loosely linked together.  The beginning, wherein Wes is almost lynched, seems to be a short piece that has nothing to do with the later plot of Wes robbing a bank.  Plus, much of it makes no sense - why does the upstanding Tom decide to become a thief (when he knows Rela despises that)? Why does Wes resort to bank robbery, when he is so good with cattle (well, we think he is.  We never really see him stealing any cattle.  We do see him roping a few men, and he is quite good at that)? And WHY do three bank robbers make absolutely no attempt to hide who they are from their victims?  It's bank robbery by the Keystone Kops!

There is another major problem with this film, and I shudder to say it - the leads are ALL too old for the parts.  MacMurray is 45; Stanwyck is 46, and William Ching is 40.  The male characters act like teenagers - totally unable to cope with real life, and rebelling like mad.  It's bad enough that one man in his 40s is so immature, but TWO?  While Stanwyck is the right age for both MacMurray and Ching (and I applaud director Roy Rowland and producer Joseph Bernhart for selecting a mature woman to act alongside these two actors), Rela is just too smart and too mature to get involved with these total losers.  There was discussion at one point of having Jennifer Jones and Alan Ladd or Kirk Douglas star (AFI Catalog).  Though somewhat younger, they still would have been all wrong.
For some reason, though filmed in black and white, the film was shot in 3-D (naturally, we saw a 2-D television version).  And though it clocks in at 77 minutes, it has an intermission!  In this New York Times review, the reviewer is just as confused as the utility of the #-D process in the film: it "merely pulls a few cliffs, trees and modest panoramas into clearer focus".  They could have done as much with without making the audience wear funny glasses. 

So, while we wish we could recommend this one, we really can't.  For Stanwyck fans, give it a go (because she is great. She is always great. Ultimately any Stanwyck film is worth seeing at least once), but put it low on the list. Next week, we'll revisit a Stanwyck pre-code film that we originally discussed several years ago.
We'll leave you with a short clip of Mr. MacMurray in danger:

Monday, January 23, 2017

Barbara's Reputation

It's 1942.  Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) has just buried her husband Paul, who died after a long illness.  He has left her financially secure - enough money to live comfortably and send their two sons, Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) to the boarding school Paul attended in his youth.  But with widowhood, Jessica finds that life in her suburban town is much different than she expected.  She is hounded by her mother, Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) about proper behavior and finding a new husband (preferably Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) the family lawyer), is pursued by George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan), a would-be philanderer, and she finds she now that she is no longer part of a couple, she has no no real company except her maid, Anna (Esther Dale).  So, when her friends Ginna  (Eve Arden) and Cary Abbott (John Ridgely) invite her on a skiing tip, she desperately accepts.  It is there that she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent), an officer awaiting permanent assignment abroad.  The two are quickly attracted to one another, but while Scott seems more interested in a fling, Jessica has commitment on  her mind.  Will the two be able to cross the abyss to create a lasting relationship? Thus begins My Reputation (1946).

Our entire group was very impressed with this film.  Yes, it has some of the tropes of a woman's film - the letchy married man, who thinks widows are fair game; the overbearing mother; the gossipy neighbors; the man who is "not the marrying kind" - but in many cases, the film upsets some of those tropes.  As a result, you watch with engagement.  It's not always apparent where the film is going to go next.

As always, Stanwyck is magnificent in a part that requires a lot of character growth (this TCM article is especially enthusiastic about her contributions to the film).  While it can be hard to imagine her as someone mother-pecked, she does it successfully.  Her frustration with her mother, and her initial inability to adapt to the world without her husband are not only convincing, they are spot-on.  We like her for her maternal instincts - to let her boys go away to school, as they and their father wanted.  But we ache for her loneliness, and her desire to just ask them to stay with her, if only for a little while.
The boys at first might seem a bit selfish.  But it is evident that Keith, the older of the two boys, is sensitive to the proprieties and to his mother's needs.  He tries to guide his younger brother, Kim.  But for Kim, the loss of his father has not yet hit home.  The action of the film opens the day after the funeral.  We know that Paul's death was far from sudden (we later find out he was in tremendous pain - assumedly cancer).  We can assume that not only were the boys aware that their father was dying, but that for several days, they've had to be on best behavior, and put up with adult funeral behavior (how many "I'm so sorry for your loss" can a child take?)   Though they love their mother, and want to be with her, they also want to break out.  The early desire to attend a baseball game not only allows them to become free of the funeral responsibilities, it provides a means to memorialize their father, who always took them to the game.  And Jessica understands and tries to allow them to begin the process of life over again.

There's no surprise when George is revealed to be a cad, or when or when Riette (Leona Maricle) is shown to be a harpy.  But, one is surprised when Mrs. Kimble turns out to be right about the town and the proprieties of mourning.  We want Jessica to be the one who is correct, but ultimately, it is her mother who has her finger on the pulse of the community.  A little calculation demonstrated that Jessica was a bit younger than her youngest son when Mr. Kimble died (her mother has been a widow for 25 years), and Mrs. Kimble has had to cope with life alone since then.  She wants her daughter to remarry (with her approval, of course), and she is a stickler for the conventions of mourning.  That she still wears black seems excessive; but Mrs. Kimble understands the responsibilities of being a widow raising children alone, and she wants more for her daughter.  We root for Jessica to find independence; but the film shows us that it comes with a price. 
George Brent treads a careful path with the character of Scott.  It would have been easy to make him either heroic or caddish - Brent makes sure he is neither.  As a man who never imagined himself within a family, he needs to grow and mature.  Though released in 1946, the film is carefully situated in the early years of the Second World War.  Scott is well aware that he will be going to fight.  His reluctance to take on the burden of a wife and family (that could be left alone) is understandable, as is his desire to spend time with Jessica, even if it means she will be away from her children.  But it also marks his innate selfishness, a trait that needs to change if he is to ever be a part of Jessica's life.   This was Mr. Brent's final film with Warner Brothers (AFI Catalog); the same year, he would portray Professor Warren in RKO's The Spiral Staircase.  

We wish there had been more of Eve Arden, who is a delight in everything she does.  Every moment with her is a gift - she plays Ginna as wry and amusing, but supportive to Jessica, and to her husband, with whom she has an easy-going and loving relationship.  With a career that began in 1937, and continued until 1987 (she died three years later, age 82), Ms. Arden spent much of her career playing the best friend (Mildred Pierce, for example), who knows the world WAY too well.  She segued from radio into television with Our Miss Brooks, where she got to play the lead as the smart and assertive Connie Brooks, a high-school English teacher (she also played Connie in the movie of the same name).  Married twice, with three children, Ms. Arden survived her husband of 32 years.  Her final appearance on television, in Falcon Crest, was with her dear friend, Jane Wyman.
The film features excellent performances by a number of child actors, notably Scott Beckett and Bobby Cooper, who play the Drummond brothers as good kids who are trying to cope with a new way of living. Janice Wilson, who we last saw in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers  plays Penny Boardman, a neighbor who is very attracted to Keith, and Ann E.  Todd plays Gretchen van Orman, the daughter of the rather nasty Riette and George.

Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review, is being very cranky, we think, when he says the film is "much ado about nothing—or practically nothing."   We disagree and suggest you give it a viewing.  This trailer will give you a taste.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Kay Scams the Military

Allotment Wives (1945 aka Woman in the Case) opens with an announcement that the film is based on an actual wartime problem - women who would marry soldiers solely for the purposes of collecting their allotment checks.  Colonel Pete Martin (Paul Kelly) is assigned the task of finding the women who are perpetrating this fraud.  His investigation leads him to a service canteen, organized by Mrs. Sheila Seymour (Kay Francis), a wealthy society woman, who, unbeknownst to Pete, is the head of an organization that recruits young women to gull soldiers into marriage - often taking on three or four "husbands".  She is assisted by  Whitey Colton (Otto Kruger), her friend and confidant.  Sheila, a strong woman who has a firm control on her operation,, has a weakness - her daughter Connie Seymour (Teala Loring), who Sheila has carefully stashed away in a boarding school, primarily to keep her away from "the business".  Or so Sheila thinks.  In truth, Connie is out on the town, spending her days finding men and drinking.  Sheila also has another problem - Gladys Smith (Gertrude Michael), who knew Sheila when both were in reform school, and wants payment to keep quiet about it.

Let's start by saying, this is not a great movie.  Unlike my colleague at Kay Francis on Film, this is not a film we would consider essential Kay Francis viewing.  Were it not for the fact that it was her last appearance on the silver screen, we doubt it would be remembered at all.  It's not that Ms. Francis isn't good, she is.  But she doesn't have a whole lot to work with.  Made at the Poverty Row Monograph Studios and originally titled
Allotment Wives, Inc. (AFI catalog), filmed in 10 days, and with a script that required Ms. Francis (who was also a producer) to do some major editing, the inferior production values tend to diminish the viewer experience.  The New York Times wasn't impressed either - their short review was not laudatory.

The benefit, however, at working in Poverty Row was that the censors didn't seem to care as much about what got through (see this TCM article).  There's quite a bit of risque plot - not the least of which is the idea of one woman being married to several men.  There's  the relationship between Whitey and Sheila - it seems very apparent that they are lovers.  And finally, the fact that a woman could unquestioningly lead this group of men.  Even when Sheila is compromised, there is no question that she is still in charge. 

Pete Martin, as played by Paul Kelly, really comes across as a passive character.  It's only by chance that he discovers that Sheila is the ringleader (and he knows about the marriage ring because he's told where to go.  There's no great detecting on his part).  He never even finds the secret back room in the beauty parlor (we all loved that hidden room).  Mr. Kelly is overpowered by the strong performances of Ms. Francis and Mr. Kruger.  You end up rooting for them, not for him.

Paul Kelly had a fairly lengthy career, despite the fact that it was interrupted by his death in 1956, at the age of 57, and a 25 month stint in San Quentin for manslaughter.  Kelly had an extensive career in silent films when a fight with Ray Raymond (both men were drunk) in 1927  over Kelly's affair with Raymond's wife (Dorothy Mackaye) resulted in Raymond's death from a brain hemorrhage.  (See our review of Ladies They Talk About for more on the story).  When he was released from prison, Kelly resumed his career, now appearing in talkies - often as a heavy.  He also returned to a career on Broadway (he had appeared in 13 plays before his incarceration), appearing in 9 productions from 1930 through 1950.  He was nominated for a Tony for his appearance in Command Decision  (in the role Clark Gable would assume in the film version), and appeared in the role that would earn Bing Crosby a best actor nomination for the film version of The Country Girl.  After Mackaye's death in 1940 (in an automobile accident), Kelly remarried.  He worked in film, stage, and television until his death of a heart attack.
Otto Kruger is very good in the film, and plays the character of Whitey as a gentleman, not a thug.  With a name like Whitey, one expects a low-life, but Kruger gives us a man of sophistication and class, which makes the character more appealing than perhaps he should be.  At the very least, it helps us to understand the relationship between Whitey and Sheila.

Mr. Kruger began his career on the Broadway stage; from 1915 to 1949, he appeared in 32 plays, including the part of Waldo Lydecker in Laura.  Beginning in 1915, he appeared in a few silents, but his career on film bloomed with talkies, which is not hard to understand, given his lovely speaking voice.  He primarily played heavies (as in Saboteur (1942).  But on occasion, he got to play a secondary role as a nice guy - Chained (1934), in which he is Joan Crawford's kindly - but older - husband and Cover Girl (1944) where he plays Rita Hayworth's enamored - but older - suitor.  By 1949, he had started to appear on television (he also had a fairly substantive career on radio) and would continue working between film and TV until his retirement in 1964.  Married in 1919 to Susan MacManamy (they had one daugher, Ottilie), they were together until his death at age 89 in 1974.  

So, while not a totally awful film, its not great.  And while Ms. Francis tries her best to give a performance worthy of her talent, she's really not got enough to work with.  If you want to cover her oeuvre, by all means, give it a try.  Otherwise, stick to Confession (to see her suffer) or In Name Only (if you want to see her sink her teeth into a really great villain role).  We'll have more Kay in the future, but next time, join us for a Barbara Stanwyck film.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Barbara's in Red

In The Woman in Red (1935), Shelby Barrett (Barbara Stanwyck) works as a horse trainer and competitive rider. Currently in the employ of the wealthy Nico Nicholas (Genevieve Tobin), Shelby finds her life becoming complicated when she attracts the attention of Johnny Wyatt (Gene Raymond) and Eugene Fairchild (John Eldredge).  Johnny, the son of an upper class (but cash poor) family, sponges off of rich friends (like Nico) and plays polo.  Gene, on the other hand, is a self-made man who rides his own horses in competition, and gracefully loses to Shelby.  Both men are smitten with her, but ultimately, Shelby chooses the more difficult life, falling in love with Johnny.  The pair have to deal with unemployment, family ridicule, Nico's jealousy, and Gene's continuing interest in Shelby. 
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the portrayal of the lead male characters.  One expects a rivalry between Johnny and Gene, as well as resentment of the very capable Shelby.  But surprisingly, there is little of that.  Both men revel in Shelby's intelligence and independence.  And, because the film does not live up to those negative expectations, the viewer is drawn in.  The film is a constant surprise. 

The poster art (above) is notable for giving a totally wrong view of the character of Shelby.  There is no red dress like the one pictured above.  The title comes from a red COAT that Shelby wears while on a boating trip.  The poster portrays Shelby as a temptress, but that's not the way Stanwyck plays her.  Her Shelby is businesswoman, and is passionate about her chosen career and her friends. Though the film was not really all that well received (see this New York Times review), you cannot find any fault with Ms. Stanwyck's portrayal.  She never phones in her performance and is able to give any part she plays gravitas.  Given that, following a riding accident she was afraid of horses, she looks remarkably comfortable in the riding sequences (A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940).
John Eldredge plays a very different character than the one we saw in His Brother's Wife, and he is quite good and likeable.  He's not a wimp here.  He's a strong, intelligent and not easily cowed man.  

Genevieve Tobin also gets a very different role than the one she played in Snowed Under.  Quite frankly, her Nico is a piece of work - wealthy, spoiled, nasty, and vindictive.  A gossip of the first order, she is determined to undermine the relationship of Shelby and Johnny by whatever means available.  Ms. Tobin gives Nico an unattractive edge - a spoiled brat with too much money and too much time on her hands.  Genevieve Tobin made a few films during the silent era (notably as Little Eva in a short of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1910 - she was 11 years old), but primarily she was working on Broadway, appearing in 12 plays from 1912 to 1930).  With the advent of sound, she found some success, mostly as second leads.  But, in 1938, she retired, having recently married director William Keighley.  They were married until his death in 1984; Ms. Tobin died at the age of 95 in 1995.

Dorothy Tree played the pivotal role of Olga Goodyear; she has one major scene in which she is completely inebriated.  She too got her start on Broadway (she appeared in 6 plays between 1927 and 1936); her introduction in sound films was as one of Dracula's brides in the 1931 Dracula (she appeared in both the English and Spanish versions of the film). She mostly appeared in small roles (for example, Martha Rockne in Knute Rockne, All American).  She married screenwriter Michael Uris, had one child, and continued working in films until 1951, when she and her husband were blacklisted.  Using her married name, she started a new career as a speech, voice, and acting coach.  She also wrote on the topic - her last book was published in 1979.  Her husband died in 1967; Ms Tree lived to the age of 85 (she died in 1992).
The film was based on a novel, North Shore, but Jack Warner didn't like the title.  After several suggestions, The Woman in Red was selected.  It had been purchased as a starring vehicle for Bette Davis, but was turned over to Ms. Stanwyck (see this TCM article).   Both Joel McCray and Robert Young were considered for the part of Johnny, and Ricardo Cortez for the first choice for Gene (AFI Catalog).  With this film, Ms. Stanwyck ended her contract with Warner Brothers.  She would never sign another long-term contract with a studio again (perhaps the reason she never won a competitive Academy Award!).

We'll leave you with this trailer.  Perhaps it is not the best film in the Stanwyck catalog, but it is worth a look. We'll return soon.