Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Doris Answers the Phone

Newlywed American Kit Preston (Doris Day) is wending her way home through a London "pea-souper".  A voice in the night calls her by name, then threatens her life.  Panicked, Kit runs home and tells her husband, Anthony (Rex Harrison).  He reassures her that it is common London practice to try to spook people in a London fog.  But the next evening, Kit receives a phone call from the same voice, again threatening to kill her by the end of the month.  The police are summoned, but are suspicious that no one else heard the voice but Kit.  Meanwhile, Kit becomes more and more terrified as the calls escalate - calls that no one hears but her. Our film this week is the mysterious Midnight Lace (1960).

Our discussion started with a birthday toast to Ms. Day, who turned 95 on April 3rd. For several members of our group, this was the first time they had seen Ms. Day in anything but a musical comedy.  And while her performance here is perhaps not as impressive as her work in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), she is still excellent as the terrorized victim.  According to the AFI Catalog, Ms. Day became truly hysterical (using as an inspiration for the scene a moment in her life when her first husband became abusive) and Ross Hunter had to shut down production in order to allow her to recover. 

If there is one problem with the film, it is that, in many respects, it has not aged well.  Kit is so remarkably helpless.  Sure, she's being stalked, and that is scary, but she does nothing to protect herself (she's wealthy - couldn't she hire a bodyguard?) She is aware that the police doubt her veracity, yet when her husband is finally in the house during one of the calls, she hangs up the phone before he can get on the extension (though why she doesn't just hand him the phone is another issue!)  There are times when you want to shake her!
On the plus side, you have a real mystery, with a number of worthy suspects that keep you guessing throughout the film.  We'll start with Roddy McDowall (who was odds on favorite among the newcomers to the film) as Malcolm Stanley, money-grubbing son of Kit's put-upon housekeeper, Nora (Doris Lloyd).  He provides the character with just the right amount of sleaze and menace, and given that he really only has a couple of scenes, Malcolm is a character that stays in your mind as the action progresses.

Mr. McDowall started his career as a child actor in the UK; in 1940, his family moved to the United States to escape the Blitz in England; by 1941, he was starring in John Ford's How Green was My Valley, and in 1943, he became the first owner of the collie America loved in Lassie, Come Home.  Mr. McDowall worked steadily in Hollywood, in both film and on television; worked on Broadway (he was Mordred in the original cast of Camelot, and played Artie Strauss in Compulsion, the role assumed by Bradford Dillman in the 1959 film) and in regional theatre, making a reasonably seamless transition to adult roles.  A highly regarded photographer, he worked for magazines such as Look and Life, as well as publishing several books in the field.  He remained close friends with his Lassie co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, was also a dear friend of his Midnight Lace co-star, Myrna Loy (he called her "Fu" because of her early role in  The Mask of Fu Manchu),  and was known for his parties, in which he would screen classic films for his guests.  Winner of both a Tony Award and an Emmy, Mr. McDowall died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 70.
Herbert Marshall  has a few scenes as Charles Manning, another possible culprit.  A deep-in-debt gambler, Charles COULD be trying to kill Kit to distract Tony.  Marshall, unfortunately, has little to do in the film; mostly, he looks worried and distracted.  It's always good to see him, but he really is underutilized in the part.

John Gavin's Brian Younger at first seems like a nice guy, who is always in the right place at the right time, but then there are those mysterious phone calls from the local pub.  What IS he up to?  Gavin, an amazingly attractive man, is well cast here, though I would say his perfect part was as Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), in which he mocks his white-bread good looks.  A reasonably successful actor, who appeared in Spartacus (as Julius Caesar) and Psycho (both 1960), Mr. Gavin would leave film and television work for a career as a diplomat (Ambassador to Mexico) during the Reagan administration.  Currently retired after a successful business career, Mr. Gavin and his wife Constance Towers have been married for over 40 years. 
Finally, there is a half-hearted attempt to make Kit's Aunt Bea Coleman (Myrna Loy) appear to perhaps be in cahoots to drive Kit crazy.  But really, Myrna Loy?  Her role as the reassuring voice that attempts to soothe the increasingly agitated Kit is very small, but she is a welcome presence in any film.  A noted liberal, Ms. Loy related in her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming that she cautioned conservative John Gavin about being seen with her - she stated that he must have been, since he "rode Reagan's coattails right into an ambassadorship."
The voice that plagues Kit is discussed in this TCM article, comparing it unfavorably to something that  "now it sounds like a character on The Cartoon Network."  And while that is true, we did find the voice unnerving enough that, if we received a call  like that, we'd be calling the police as well.  Wacky, perhaps, but also unsettling.  

Doris Day has 17 glorious outfits designed by Irene in the film.  The decision by the group was that the one above, was our favorite (I'm a sucker for hats that match a dress!)  The midnight lace of the title was a jet black lace pegnior, that was probably the most ordinary of the items of clothing Ms. Day wears. Several of the outfits are viewable on Google Images.

 The film opened to moderate reviews (see this Bosley Crowther overview from the New York Times).  In New York City, it premiered in Radio City Music Hall (along with a new stage show and The Rockettes), always a sign of a prestige film.

We'll leave you with this trailer from Midnight Lace

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cary Takes the Train

As a happy start to the month of April, TCM Presents on Fathom Events featured North by Northwest (1959), an Alfred Hitchcock adventure starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.  This presented an excellent opportunity to see this fascinating film on a big screen

Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing, except to make Roger's initials "ROT") is a successful and rather cavalier Madison Avenue executive. Twice married and divorced, Roger has a jaundiced view of the world. There is in advertising, he says "no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration."  But it is a precept he adheres to in life, as he lies constantly to his mother and his latest girlfriend. Out for a business drink at the Plaza Hotel, he signals a bellboy to assist him in sending a telegram to his mother.  But when he follows the bellboy to the counter, he is accosted by two men Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein), who had requested that the hotel (and that bellboy) page George Kaplan.  Assuming that Roger is answering that page (and is therefore Kaplan), they escort him from the hotel at gunpoint, and bring him to a home on Glen Cove, Long Island, where he is briefly questioned by a Mr. Townsend (James Mason).  When Roger cannot answer their questions, they force-feed him bourbon, and toss him into a car, with the intention of sending him over a cliff.  Roger escapes, but the consequences of his attempts to prove what really happened lead him into a series of dangerous adventures.  
Even after repeated viewings, North by Northwest is an exhilarating movie. Of course, my repeated viewings were on television screens, and you have not seen the film (shot in VistaVision) until you've seen it on a big screen - the cropduster sequence alone is worth the price of admission! Cary Grant is perfect as a jaundiced, flippant man who is catapulted into a world of violence and misdirection. But the world in which Roger finds himself is, in many ways, not much different than the world he lives in - one in which there is only "expedient exaggeration".  For what is George Kaplan but an expedient exaggeration?

Interestingly, Cary Grant was not initially considered for the role of Roger.  Having just concluded Vertigo, Hitchcock considered continuing his relationship with James Stewart by casting him in the part.  Though Stewart dearly wanted the role, Hitchcock ultimately decided that Grant was a better fit, and delayed his shooting start until Stewart was committed to Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) (See these TCM articles for more information).  It's been reported that Grant was a bit reluctant to play the role, because he felt he was too old for the part (he wasn't!)
One story about Hitchcock's direction of Cary Grant is amusing.   An individual on the set one day (when the crew was shooting in the Plaza Hotel), noticed that Cary Grant just began filming his scene with no direction from Hitchcock.  He approached the director, and asked: "'You haven’t even said 'Good morning' to Cary. How does he know what to do?' Hitch answered casually, 'Oh, he’s been walking across this lobby for years. I don’t need to tell him how.'"  (Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog).  Mr. Grant, of course, had retained an apartment at the hotel for many years. 

There were also issues with casting Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall.  Though Ms. Saint had already won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954), MGM wanted Cyd Charisse in the role, and Cary Grant was angling to have Sophia Loren cast in the part (he was deeply in love with her at that point).  But Ms. Saint brings that cool Hitchcock blonde with the inner raging fires to the part.  She said in a interview for  Vanity Fair that the intensity of the train kissing scene caused a photographer to fall off his ladder, so engaged was he in action! She also gets to wear my second favorite dress in all of moviedom (see it above. My first, for the record, is Grace Kelly's black and white outfit in Rear Window.  Both created by the imaginative Edith Head).
The film features several interesting villains - James Mason is quite good as Phillip VanDamm.  But the performance that really stands out is that of Martin Landau as Leonard, VanDamm's "right hand."  Landau, with eyes that never seem to close, and a serpentine way of walking is both disturbing and fascinating.  This AFI catalog entry notes that the Production Code Administration (PCA) was concerned at Leonard's seeming effeminate. With lines like "Call it my woman's intuition, if you will" and VanDamm's response that "I think you're jealous. No, I mean it. I'm very touched, very," Hitchcock plays up an interesting relationship between the two (and ignores the PCA).

The disappearance of the character Licht (as portrayed by Robert Ellenstein) became much clearer when the film is viewed on a big screen.  Licht is one of the men who kidnaps Roger (he's on Mr. Grant's right in the lobby card at the top. He's also notable for his odd way of holding a cigarette). We see him several times; then he disappears.  Why? Well, he was on the cropduster flight that attacked Roger! The newspaper announces that two people were killed in the crash (not as easy to see on a TV screen), and someone was firing a gun BACK at Roger (as the plane passed him, so the sniper was leaning from the plane window and firing back at him.).  Ergo, Licht was the sniper, and one of the two people killed when the plane collides with the oil tank truck.
Two other performances are really too wonderful to ignore.  The first is Jessie Royce Landis as Roger's mother, Clara Thornhill.  A bit dotty ("You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?") and mercenary (she takes $50 from her son to con a room key from a hotel clerk), she is also delightful and droll.  Famously, it's been said that Ms. Landis was YOUNGER than her onscreen son, however she had claimed herself younger than she actually was (she was in reality 8 years older than Mr. Grant).  Regardless, they make a delightful combination.

Leo G. Carroll (The Professor) had already appeared in five Hitchcock movies, including Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941); the latter was Cary Grant's first film with Hitchcock.  Born in England in 1886, Mr. Carroll started his career on the London stage, eventually moving to New York, where he appeared in 35 Broadway plays, including the title role in The Late George Apley (1944), a screen part that would go to Ronald Colman and Detective Rough in Angel Street (1941), which would be reworked for Joseph Cotten in Gaslight (1944).  Seemingly always cast as an old man (his film career didn't really start until he was nearly 50), Mr. Carroll played a wide variety of supporting roles from Phelps Finnegan in Sadie McKee (1934) to Count Bertil Jacobsson in The Prize (1963).  For two years, he dealt with two chatty spirits on TV's Topper (1953-1955), but he became known to a new audience as the enigmatic Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).  Mr. Carroll was married to Edith Nancy de Silva from 1926 until his death at the age of 85 in 1972.
When North by Northwest opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (and other venues nationwide), it garnered praise, as in this New York Times review, which commented that it was "the year's most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase,"or a review in Variety which said that "the Alfred Hitchcock mixture - suspense, intrigue, comedy, humor. . . Seldom has . . .been served up so delectably." In 1995, it was added to the Library of Congress'  National Film Registry.  And the American Film Institute put it in 4th position in their 100 Years, 100 Thrills listing.

If you've not yet seen this film, please do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with the sexually charged dinner conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Barbara Runs a Carnival

Charlie Rogers (Elvis Presley) goes through life with a chip on his shoulder.  After an altercation with some college boys in the "tea room" (where Charlie works as a singer), Charlie leaves town for greener pastures.  En route, he gets into yet another brawl with Joe Lean (Leif Erickson), this time for flirting with Joe's young daughter Cathy (Joan Freeman).  An equally angry man, Joe runs Charlie's bike into a ditch, severely damaging the bike and destroying Charlie's guitar.  While waiting for his motorcycle to be repaired, carnival owner Maggie Morgan offers Charlie the chance to pick up some money, working for the carnival as a Roustabout (1964).

Let's begin by admitting that only one member of our group would identify as an Elvis fan, and she was the only one who had seen any of his other films.  I've seen pieces of many of his films, but this is the only one that I recall watching from start to finish.  By and large, Elvis was not a fan of the movies he was making around this time, referring to them as the "Presley Travelogues" (TCM article).  While this is not a great film, by any means, producer Hal Wallis invested time and capital into making it the best film possible in its genre.

There just isn't enough Barbara Stanwyck in the film. Period.  Every scene she is in is stronger because of her presence, and she makes Elvis a better actor when she is working with him.  Hal Wallis convinced her to do the film; she thought it would be fun, and that she would reach a new audience. (Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan).  As always, she got along with everyone, including Elvis.  She found that he was prompt, professional, and always knew his lines, as well as being quite pleasant.  She took second billing, under the title, just as she would take second billing in to her ex-husband in The Night Walker, released the same year as this.

Ms. Stanwyck had already started to venture into television, as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show (an anthology series which featured her in short plays. She won an Emmy for her work in the show, but it was not one of her favorites ), and with guest roles in shows such as Zane Grey Theater, Wagon Train, and Rawhide.  So, it's no surprise that she left film for a starring role in The Big Valley the following year. Always her own woman (take a look at this New York Times article for a glimpse into this woman who refused to hide her age, and relished her career.  Of course, Ms. Stanwyck was a woman who looked better with every year, and made a pair of jeans (made specifically for her by her friend and frequent collaborator, Edith Head) look like haute couture.
We did find her introductory scene to be a bit frustrating - it's really had to believe that Maggie would tolerate Joe's outlandish behavior (and that she would allow him to drive when he is obviously drunk).  But this was the only scene in which she allowed Joe to run roughshod over her.  After this, when she is in a scene, Ms. Stanwyck is in charge.

Sue Ane Langdon is quite amusing as the "seer" Madame Mijanou.  Her scenes with Mr. Presley display a warm give-and-take, and a later scene with Joan Freeman give us a look into the woman beneath the surface of all the sass.  Ms. Langdon made a few films, but she made her real mark in television.  In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she appeared in many of the major television shows, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mannix, Perry Mason, Bonanza, and Happy Days.  She and her husband, Jack Emrek were married from 1959 until his death in 2010. Now retired, Ms. Langdon lives in the San Fernando Valley in California.
It's always a pleasure to see Barbara Stanwyck, and while this is really an Elvis Presley movie, Ms. Stanwyck makes her presence felt.  We'll close with a trailer, with heavy emphasis on Mr. Presley.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Barbara is Bedridden

Leona Cotterell Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is alone at home; she is bedridden and cannot maneuver her home unassistedLeona cannot find her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), who was supposed to be home to care for her. The servants are off, and Leona is annoyed.  She gets on the phone, attempting to find her husband, but some wires cross; she overhears two men discussing the murder of a woman.  Leona tries to get help for this "poor woman," but she soon begins to believe that the "poor woman" is herself.

The story of how Leona and Henry became a couple in Sorry Wrong Number (1948) is told in flashback; using this technique, we learn much about the backstory of this very unhappy marriage.  Based on a popular radio play, the film expands the 27 minute radio story  by inserting this background information.  Though the radio play was wildly successful with the marvelous Agnes Moorehead in the lead role, the studio deemed her to be too much a character actress to reprise her role.

Barbara Stanwyck was justly nominated (her final competitive bid) for an Oscar for the role of Leona. She lost - again - this time to  Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  She did have other tough competition: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit) and Irene Dunne (I Remember Mama), any of whom certainly deserved the award (and Ms. Dunne was another excellent actress who never won an Oscar, despite being nominated 5 times).  That being said, Leona is a character that runs the gamut - she's tough, decisive, and authoritative in the flashback scenes; whiny, carping, and domineering as she lies in her bed.  Stanwyck, craftswoman that she is, makes it all hang together - you believe the trajectory of Leona's life. 

Burt Lancaster's Henry goes through a similar metamorphosis.  A milquetoast at the beginning, he allows Leona to bulldoze him away from the woman he supposedly loves, (Sally Hunt as played by Ann Richards).  By the time we see him in the present, the roles have begun to reverse, with Henry taking the lead in the marriage and in business (though not in a good way).  In what is essentially a new part from the radio play, Lancaster crafted a character that was far different than any he had played before (TCM articles). Initially, Hal Wallis had wanted Lee Bowman for the part (who was often cast as weaker men), but Lancaster lobbied for the role and got it when Bowman proved to be unavailable.  He's excellent in the part. 
As Leona's father, James Cotterell, Ed Begley portrays a power-obsessed man, who is overly protective of his daughter and demeaning to his son-in-law.  At the same time, he's also a bit of a cad, far more interested in his latest girlfriend than in  his daughter's troubles.  In a sea of characters who are dichotomous, his is perhaps the most contradictory part in the film. Begley makes it easy to understand how Leona has been driven to hypochondria by her father's bullying nature.

We particularly liked Ann Richards in the role of Sally Hunt Lord.  She ends up being the only truly sympathetic character in the film - she loves her husband and son, but still is protective of Henry.  Despite the fact that Leona literally stole Henry from Ann, she does her best to assist Leona.  Born in Australia, Ms. Richards had a very short film career, appearing in 18 films (and one television show) between 1937 and 1960.  She's probably best remembered as Dilly Carson in Love Letters (1945).  She retired from film in 1949, to raise her three children with her husband Edmond Angelo (she would reenter the film arena to appear in Mr. Angelo's 1952 film Breakdown), and to write poetry (two volumes of her poetry were published in 1971 and 1991).  She died in 2006, at the age of 88. 
According to an article in the AFI Catalog, the film had a bit of trouble with the Production Code Administration (PCA) regarding Henry's plan to steal from his father-in-law's pharmaceutical company.  Early versions of the script made it much more obvious that Henry was stealing and selling drugs (ergo, drug trafficking, a code no-no).  The script had to be amended so that he was selling "products of all kinds," not drugs.  It's a fine point, but it made the PCA happy.

 Several excellent actors make brief appearances in the film.  Wendell Corey has one scene as Dr. Alexander, the man to whom Leona goes for a "cure" to her invalidism.  Leif Erickson as Detective Fred Lord, who is husband to Sally and is also investigating Henry's nefarious activities, makes an appearance.  And as the sinister Morano, William Conrad shines in a single scene. With his imposing presence and magnificent voice, Mr. Conrad always makes an impression.

We highly recommend this film; if you've not yet seen it, you are in for a treat.  We'll leave you with a trailer from this excellent movie.