Monday, October 23, 2017

Joel Fishes

When Boyd Emerson (Joel McCrea) and his friend Frasier (Raymond Hatton) arrive in  Kalvik, Alaska, their entry is greeted by open hostility.  The Silver Horde (1930) concerns their efforts to open a salmon canning business in Kalvik, and the opposition they face from their chief competitor, Fred Marsh (Gavin Gordon).

A remake of a 1920 silent film of the same name (AFI catalog), The Silver Horde is as much about the business of salmon fishing in Alaska as it is a romance. In a fairly detailed sequence, we are shown the details behind the salmon that arrived on the shelf of consumers from the moment the fish are caught until the can is sealed and labeled. And just to be sure that the viewer knows that this is a part of the film, we see both Joel McCrea and Raymond Hatton working on the assembly line. Salmon fishing (in this case, coho salmon) is a major industry in Alaska - school children are taught about the five kinds of salmon, it is that important - and this one episode emphasizes that. More to the point, the industrialization of the salmon fishing would have been an exotic and unique process to the general filmgoer; this segment proves both educational and a quick glimpse of the past of an important food industry. The film, by the way, was actually shot on location in Ketchikan, Alaska (TCM article).
This was the first teaming of Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur (they would do two more films together). However, Ms. Arthur is not the star here.  Evelyn Brent (Cherry Malotte) is. Ms. Brent had long experience as a silent actress - she started in films in 1914.  She's quite good in this film, playing a tough and knowing woman, who has made her money in Alaska working as a prostitute, and is now the owner of a successful copper mine. Ms. Brent worked steadily, well into the 1940s, though she did most of her later work in B films, or at Poverty Row studios. When she retired from acting in 1950, she became an agent (she would make one television appearance in 1960 - on an episode of Wagon Train). Married three times, she died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 75. Unfortunately, many of her silent films have been listed as lost

This was Joel McCrea's second major role and he was pretty much on an upward trajectory for the rest of his career. He's sincere and attractive as Boyd; he manages to keep your sympathy and interest even after he is verbally cruel to Cherry. Mr. McCrea was always an interesting actor AND an interesting man. While many actors who were not in the military played soldiers in movies, Joel McCrea refused to wear a uniform in any of his films. Unable to serve in the Armed Forces, he felt that for him to appear in uniform was disrespectful to those who were serving (TCM article). He loved westerns, and in his later years would only appear in them. After his retirement, he worked on his ranch, where he lived with his wife, Frances Dee (they had three children, and were ultimately married for 57 years) until his death at 84 in 1990.
Blanche Sweet, who plays Queenie, was a notable silent actress, but her career just didn't take off in sound films.  She's quite sassy as Queenie, serving to tie up some plot loose ends and to give us a tiny glimpse into Cherry's past. This film, was in fact, her last until 1959 when she appeared in an uncredited role in The Five Pennies (she also did a few television appearances around this time). She continued to work in radio, and on stage. She had married Raymond Hackett in 1935; after his death, she moved on to a new part of her life - she worked on film preservation. She served on the Board of Directors of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was a consultant to the Department of Film of the Museum of Modern Art. (New York Times obit). She also appeared in Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982). Ms. Sweet died of a stroke in 1986, at age 90. Her ashes were scattered in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
The New York Times review was not particularly complimentary in their evaluation of the film, though they were very enthusiastic about the work of Blanche Sweet. While not a great film, The Silver Horde really has a lot going for it, especially the opportunity to see two future stars before they got their starts.  We'll leave you with this scene of Joel McCrea, looking rather hunky as he fights for his place in the community: 


Monday, October 16, 2017

Ginger is on the Radio

Glory Eden (Ginger Rogers), America's "Purity Girl" has had it. She's been on the radio for a year. She's popular, she's making plenty of money, but she is banned from going ANYWHERE. She wants to go out and dance in Harlem, she wants to wear makeup and date. But under her present contract, she is forbidden from doing anything that might compromise her image of innocence. When she threatens her boss, Sam Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff) with leaving his employ, he agrees to get her a Professional Sweetheart (1933) - and potential husband - that will allow her to date discreetly.

Though at times a fairly silly movie, Professional Sweetheart is enjoyable. Ginger Rogers is very cute as a girl who just wants to have fun, and while Norman Foster (as Jim Davey) is perhaps not the most dynamic actor in the world, he is convincingly sincere. Add a group of excellent character actors, including Gregory Ratoff (playing a part not dissimilar to his role in All About Eve), Frank McHugh (as Speed Dennis), and Allen Jenkins (as O'Connor), and you have a film that is fun and ever so slightly titillating (as you can see from the still below!)
We were pleased to also see Theresa Harris (Vera) in a small role.  She's relegated to playing a maid, of course, and is not even billed in the credits, but she is again (as she was in Baby Face) intelligent and attractive, and more of a confidant to the unhappy Glory than a mere servant.  Unlike Ginger Rogers, Ms. Harris actually gets to do her own singing (Etta Moten sings for Ms. Rogers; why, is a big question).  Ms. Harris has a lovely voice, and is an excellent actress: with 99 film and television credits to her name, Ms. Harris SHOULD be better known. She was the inspiration for a play, By the Way, Vera Stark, which performed off-Broadway in 2011. Married from 1933 until her death, to a physician, Ms. Harris retired from acting in 1958. She died at age 79, in 1985.

Normally, we enjoy ZaSu Pitts (Elmerada de Leon),  but her vagueness gets annoying after a time.  Of course, Elmerada is supposed to be annoying, but she is also supposed to be funny. The film really carries the act a bit too far, so we found ourselves groaning when Ms. Pitts started to open her mouth.

Norman Foster is okay as the romantic lead, but not much more than that. He would continue acting until 1938 (he returned to acting in the 1970s in a few television shows and movies), but he is best known as a director. He directed several of the Mr. Moto films, 1948's Rachel and the Stranger (starring his sister-in-law, Loretta Young), and the noir classic Woman on the Run (1950). He also did much television directing (including 39 episodes of Ms. Young's television shows). He was married for 7 years to Claudette Colbert; after their divorce in 1935, he married Sally Blane; they had two children and were married until his death from cancer in 1976 (age 72).
This was Ms. Rogers' first film under a three picture deal with RKO (TCM article). All three pictures (Rafter Romance, also co-starring Norman Foster, and Chance at Heaven were the other two) were released in 1933, as was her next film, under a new seven-year contract - Flying Down to Rio, her first film with Fred Astaire. They didn't dub her singing voice after that!

Original titles for the film include Careless and Purity Girl, (AFI Catalog) but we felt the release title was the best choice - after all, but Jim AND Glory turn out to be professional sweethearts! Besides the character actors mentioned above, there are brief glimpses of Betty Furness (as a reporter) and Akim Tamiroff (as a waiter).

The New York Times liked the film (which premiered in Radio City Music Hall), as did my colleague at Pre-code.com (for an outline of some of the pre-code naughtiness, please to visit his posting). You can see some of that naughtiness in this clip from the film. A good opportunity to see Ginger Rogers early in her career, Professional Sweetheart is a pleasant romp. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kay Sings?

Would-be actress Pamela Drake (Deanna Durbin) is eager to follow in the footsteps of her mother, noted actress and soprano Georgia Drake (Kay Francis). But when Pamela is offered a role in Karl Ober's (S. Z. Sakall) new play of St. Anne, complications ensue. Though the character is Pamela's age, Georgia is eager to play the role; Pamela, however is unaware of her mother's plan. Thus begins It's a Date (1940).

The film is by no means great literature. The plot is fairly simple; you know almost immediately that John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon) is going to fall in love with Georgia. And that Pamela will discover her mother's interest in the part of St. Anne. It doesn't really matter, though. It's a frothy little film that you can enjoy simply to watch some really fine actors and one amazing singer.

As you can see by the artwork accompanying this post, Ms. Francis is relegated to second billing (along with Walter Pidgeon) under the new star Deanna Durbin. Ms. Durbin had gotten her start at MGM; her first film was the short Every Sunday (1936) with another magnificent singer, Judy Garland. You can hear the two of them singing together in this clip:
Ms. Durbin's contract was dropped (according to the Deanna Durbin Devotees website, Louis B. Mayer instructed his people to "fire the fat one", and they let Deanna go). Universal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, snatched her up. She is credited with single-handedly saving the studio from ruin (TCM article). With a good screen presence and an amazing voice, she became immensely popular, and continued working until age 29, when she retired and completely disappeared from public view. Her son announced her death at age 91 in 2013, providing no details and thanking her fans for "respecting her privacy."

As we've mentioned before, Kay Francis was out of favor with Warner Brothers; they would give her awful scripts or loan her out to other studios, in hopes that she would quit. She didn't (the checks didn't bounce!). Though she is not around for half the movie, she's quite lovely as a good mother who only what is best for her daughter. She also gets some attractive costumes from Vera West.
The film is not short on supporting talent. Besides Ms. Francis and Mr. Pidgeon, we are also treated to such amazing character actors as S.Z. Sakall, Eugene Pallette (in what is basically a walk-on as the Governor of Hawaii), Henry Stephenson (as the ship's Captain Andrew), and Samuel S. Hinds (as agent Sidney Simpson). With such strong performers, the material is elevated beyond the scope of the writing.  All the character parts are small (most of the heavy lifting in the film is Ms. Durbin, with Mr. Pidgeon getting a nice chunk of screen time), but we did think that Mr. Sakall, as always, made the most of what he had, to excellent effect. It is no wonder he was often called "Cuddles". Even here, playing the man who doesn't WANT Georgia in the role, you like him!
The New York Times actually liked the film, with reviewer Frank S. Nugent calling it "a charming, if highly improbable, entertainment" in his review. In some senses, it is a comedic/romantic version of All About Eve, with a bit of singing. The next time you are looking for a film to just sit and enjoy, this is one to consider.  We'll leave you with this scene of Ms. Durbin doing Ave Maria (with a glimpse of Ms. Francis!):

Monday, October 2, 2017

Don Goes to the Devil

Heaven Can Wait (1943) tells in flashback the life of Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche). After his death, Henry heads directly to Hell, where he meets with His Excellency (Laird Cregar). His Excellency is puzzled as to why Henry is there (he's a bit behind, due to the level of arrivals), and queries Henry on his reason for not heading first to  The Other Place (as most arrivals do). For one thing, His Excellency notes, the quality of the music is far better in The Other Place (Mozart and Beethoven are there!).  But Henry, who was a bit of a rapscallion in life, relates his story to explain why he didn't bother trying to obtain entry upstairs.

There is often some confusion between this film and the 1978 film with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. That was indeed a remake, but its plot was taken from the Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  This story is a much simpler one, concerned with a man, his family, and their lives in turn-of-the-century New York City. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch with his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, this is an amusing, slightly suggestive film that is always entertaining. Sure, in the 21st Century, it is a trifle sexist - Martha Strable Van Cleve (Gene Tierney) is off-handedly equated with her father's symbolic cow, Mabel by Grandfather Hugo Van Cleve (Charles Coburn) when Martha and Henry elope (We'll take Martha/You keep Mabel). But, in the final analysis, Martha is the backbone of the family, and much wiser than her mother-in-law, Bertha (Spring Byington) or her mother Mrs. Strabel (Marjorie Main) - or her husband, for that matter!
Several performances really shine in Heaven Can Wait, but none more than that of Charles Coburn. A remarkable character actor who coulc play anything, he is superb as Grandfather Hugo. With that little bit of a twinkle in his eye, you know from the start just where Henry "got it from." Mr. Coburn was already 60 when he began his film career. He had worked on the Broadway stage - beginning in 1901, he would appear in and/or produce 28 plays. He had formed his own theatrical company with his business and acting partner  - and wife - Ivah Wills Coburn. It was after Ivah's death in 1937 that he ventured permanently to Hollywood (he would return to Broadway in 1952, to produce The Long Watch). In the years between 1933 (he filmed a short that year, and a film in 1935) and his death in 1961, he appeared in 99 films and television shows (as well as occasional radio programs). Among his exceptional performances are The More the Merrier (1943), Bachelor Mother (1939), King's Row (1942), and In Name Only (1939). He was (sadly) an advocate of segregation, and a member of both the White Citizens' Council and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (a right-wing, anti-Communist group in the 1950s). He married a second time at age 82 and fathered a daughter. He died of a heart attack at the age of 84.
Director Lubitsch was reluctant to use Don Ameche in the part of Henry - he had wanted Fredric March or Rex Harrison (AFI Catalog). But Ameche's screen test proved him perfect for the role, and Lubitsch reluctantly agreed (TCM article). Reginald Gardiner was considered for the role of Albert (which would eventually go to Allyn Joslyn), and Simone Simon was set to play Mademoiselle (Signe Hasso would take on the part when Simon's billing demands were not met).
Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review was reasonably pleased with the film. Regardless, it has been acknowledged as a classic, discussed by Richard Brody in the New Yorker, who calls it a story of "riotous, uninhibited love." Senses of Cinema calls it "a commentary on marriage, an appreciation for love and dedication, and belongs firmly in Lubitsch’s canon alongside One Hour With You (1932)."

All in all, Heaven Can Wait, is a lovely, wry, and witty film, well worth your viewing. I'll leave you with this interview between Henry and His Excellency, as they discuss the musical options in Hell.