Thursday, February 23, 2017

Queen Joan

When Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) arrives at the home of her cousin, Eva Phillips (Joan Crawford), she discovers a mess of unhappiness.  Eva's sister-in-law, Carol Lee (Betsy Palmer) despises Eva and is loathe to tell her about Carol Lee's engagement to Judson Prentis (John Ireland); Eva's husband, Avery is rarely sober, Eva's son Ted (Tim Hovey) has constant nightmares. Jennifer, however, is immediately enchanted with the affectionate Eva, and becomes her acolyte and defender.  Little does she know Eva is not the woman she images; she is, in fact, the heartless Queen Bee (1955).

We always enjoy Joan Crawford, and seeing her play the witch is generally a pleasure.  But Queen Bee really taxes that pleasure button.  Based on a novel by Edna Lee, the film is melodrama at its worst.  The plot has holes in it a mile wide, and the characters are superficial, and annoying.  Even Ms. Crawford suffers from the inconsistencies in a character that could have been a companion to Harriet Craig. Eva is uptight, controlling, and jealous, just like Harriet, but she is Harriet on steroids. Unlike Harriet, she is contradictory.  On the one hand, she emotionally tortures her family endlessly. One the other hand, she falls into an inconsolable depression when a person she has just tormented beyond endurance dies.   Once she recovers, she's back on the torture trail.  She is, to quote Winston Churchill, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

But she's not the only character that makes you throw up your hands in despair.  Let's look at her husband, Avery.  When we meet Avery, he snarls at Jennifer about the scar on his face.  His family, even the sister that loves him, calls him "Beauty" as a nickname!  The scar and the nickname are brought up the once, and then dropped.  We know he got the scar in an auto accident, but it is a throwaway reference. He's a raging alcoholic (allegedly because he is married to Eva); he also is fairly spineless.  Even with the health and well-being of his children are at stake, he is terrified of confronting his wife.
Which makes us question why Jennifer would fall in love with him.  She despises him on first meeting, but within a hair's breath is madly in love (and for no good reason.  The man is constantly inebriated and is verbally abusive to boot).  But quite frankly, there's not much to like about Jennifer either.  An orphan, she has come to the Phillips' home because Eva, who has been supporting Jennifer in Chicago, has invited her.  Jennifer has had a good education, thanks to the financial munificence of the Phillips', but she doesn't seem to have made any effort to support herself by getting a job.   At first enamored of Eva, she ultimately discovers her to be a monster.  But still Jennifer stays.  Why? Her affection for the children? This great love for Avery? Again, the film gives you no legitimate reason for her actions.  In its review of the film, the New York Times  talks about Ms. Marlow "gawk[ing] and quak[ing]."  I hate to agree with Bosley Crowther, but he's right on this one.

As if all this is not enough, the film throws in the abusive Miss Breen (Katherine Anderson), the stereotypical evil nanny (the character Bette Davis would play in The Nanny).  The character arrives when Eva suffers her nervous breakdown, then stays on to emotionally and physically torment the children.  Miss Breen serves a point - she provides Eva with a source of blackmail at the end of the film, but quite frankly, Eva could have gotten her blackmail information without Miss Breen's annoying presence.  All Miss Breen contributes is to make Avery, in his one moment of rebellion, again look like a weakling.
It is nice to see Fay Wray (Sue McKinnon) in the film, even if it is only for about 5 minutes. But, the presence of her character is, again, rather pointless (she's a rather dotty lady who was emotionally damaged when Eva stole Avery from her.  She doesn't know how lucky she was!) According to this TCM article, Ms. Wray announced her return to film (she had retired when she married Robert Riskin, to care for her child from her prior marriage and to her two children with Mr. Riskin) after her husband's death in 1955.  Ms. Crawford not only sent her a note saying "Welcome...we need you", she arranged for her to be cast in the part of Sue.  It's a thankless role, but Ms. Wray is excellent in this little snippet.  While not her first post-retirement role, it was certainly not her last.  She would continue to act in both film and television until her final retirement in 1980.  She would marry again, in 1971; she and Dr. Sanford Rothenberg were together until his death in 1991; Ms. Wray died in 2004, aged 96. 
Oh, yes, and then there is the supernatural element of young Ted, and his dreams of a horrific car crash, which, by the conclusion of the film, we discover has a supernatural element to it (the abusive nanny wasn't enough of a leap into the macabre).  

This AFI Catalog entry notes that the film received Oscar nominations for black and white cinematography and for costume design (it lost to The Rose Tattoo and I'll Cry Tomorrow, respectively).  The film also changed the ending of the book, possibly to provide what they considered a happy ending.  But nothing is all that happy about this film, and it did Ms. Crawford no good service.  So, unless you hunger for the complete Crawford, avoid this one.  We'll leave you with this clip in which Ms. Crawford is matchmaking for  Ms. Marlow:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Barbara STILL Hates Housework

The fishing town of Monterey, California is the setting of Clash by Night (1952), a film noir that features Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle.  Mae's been living in New York, the mistress of a wealthy married man.  Though they were deeply in love, he was unable to divorce, and when he died, the small settlement he left her was taken back by her lover's family.  Broke and depressed, May returns to her childhood home, now occupied by her brother Joe (Keith Andes).  Mae's beauty and strength of character attracts a gentle fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas), as well as his friend, the cynical and callous Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan).  Though frightened of marriage, Mae decides that Jerry might be her salvation, even though she is dangerously attracted to Earl.

Clash by Night  is very intense film, and as such, it is hard to actually LIKE it.  We have characters we can understand, but many of whom are terribly hard to admire.  Stanwyck's Mae Doyle is at the top of the list.  She was born in Monterey, but left because she hated it there.  Now she's back, but she still hates the place.  Why does she return? Wasn't there somewhere else she could go? And strong as she is, was it so impossible to stick it out in New York City, where it seemed she was happy?  Stanwyck, in a sense, creates a character that is a cypher.  We never really know Mae, a woman who wants to be happy, but can't seem to find real contentment.  Her marriage to Jerry seems an act of desperation. And though she loves her child, her sorrow and pain after her daughter's birth hint at the least of post-partum depression - or perhaps we are just looking for an excuse for her misery.
Jerry, as played by Paul Douglas is a sympathetic character, but also a weak, and sometimes pathetic, man.  His love for Mae is genuine.  He is a good and loving father to their daughter, Gloria, but he is manipulated by everyone. Earl, who is supposedly his friend, ridicules him.  His Uncle  Vince (J. Carrol Naish) uses him as a source of money, and as a tool for vengeance on Mae (Uncle Vince's predilection for pornographic poster art, and his constant "requests" for money put Mae in the position of asking her husband to get Vince out of the house.  You can't blame her for that). And Mae, who cares for him but has no love for him, consents to marry him - with his knowledge that there is no love - in order to have a caretaker and provider.  So, while you feel for Jerry, it's difficult to like him, he is such a patsy. 

Robert Ryan, who played the part of Joe (Mae's brother) in the original Broadway cast of the play, was the only cast member to appear in the movie (the play featured Tallulah Bankhead as Mae and Lee J. Cobb as Jerry).  Ryan, as Earl, gives us a portrait of a man who is a lost soul.  Too intelligent for his job as a movie projectionist but too unambitious to do anything else,  Earl spends his life drinking too much and ridiculing everyone and everything around him.  Mae, who is initially repulsed by Earl's negativity, finally responds both to his sexuality and to his intellect.  But in the final analysis, Earl is not someone who can even take care of himself, much less a wife and child.  Should Mae leave with him, we wondered how long it would be before he abandoned her and the child for which he has no regard or affection.
Perhaps the most attractive characters in the story are Joe and Peggy (Marilyn Monroe).  Peggy deeply loves Joe - and he loves her - but she is no victim.  Their love ultimately is one of equals, and will succeed because of their commitment to one another.  Ms. Monroe was really breaking through in this small, but pivotal role.  And while her relationship with Stanwyck was cordial, the seeds of her later problems had already begun.  According to this TCM article, director Fritz Lang was frustrated by her lateness and inability to remember her lines.  Stanwyck, however, never lost her cool, and would do repeated takes when Monroe forgot her lines.  Ultimately, Stanwyck would comment, after Monroe's death that Monroe "drove Bob Ryan, Paul Douglas, and myself out of our minds."  However, "she didn't do it viciously, and there was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once."

The film, not surprisingly, changed a great deal of the play (by Clifford Odets).  The setting is changed from Depression-era Staten Island, New York (which, of course, makes Mae's return far less drastic).  And the endings of the play and film are far different (no spoilers, should you want more information take a look at this article in the AFI Catalog).  Joan Crawford, Jeff Chandler, and Mala Powers were considered at one point for the parts of Mae, Earl and Peggy, all interesting choices.  Regardless, without Stanwyck's powerful and layered performance, this film would likely have fallen apart (this New York  Times review comments on the strength of the performances in a film that they don't necessarily think holds together).
As we've said before, any Stanwyck movie is worth a look, and this certainly is, not only for her, but also for strong performances from Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas.  And the opportunity to see Marilyn Monroe before she became a love goddess is a treat.  We will leave you with this clip from the film, in which Mae returns to her brother's home, and meets the woman he wants to marry. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Kay is Divorced - a Lot

The "horror" of Divorce (1945) is the topic of this film, which stars Kay Francis as Dianne Carter, a four-time divorcee who has just shed her latest husband, gaining both her freedom and a pot of money.  Following the divorce, Dianne decides to return to her home town for a brief visit.  When she arrives, she reconnects with her former boyfriend, Bob Phillips (Bruce Cabot), now a real estate professional, happily married to Martha (Helen Mack) and the father of two sons.  But happiness is a relative term; once Dianne sets her cap for Bob, the marriage is doomed, and Martha has little recourse but to seek a divorce and try to start her life over.  

Kay Francis starred in and produced this, the first of three pictures with Monograph Studios.  Her contract with Warner Brothers was over, as was her work during World War II, and it seems that the idea of having more control over her films held some attraction (TCM article).  Like the film, Allotment Wives, this picture uses a growing social issue to attract an audience.  As the War ended, the number of divorces began to grow dramatically (see this article from the Washington Post), probably a result of the hasty marriages made during the war.  Regardless of the actual reasons for the rapid increase, the film looks at divorce as an evil, with the character of Dianne as a predatory homewrecker.  And while the plot is a bit simplistic, and some of the characters not entirely fleshed out, it does a decent job of setting a tone.
Though low budget, the film does recruit some strong actors, most notably Ms. Francis, whose performance gives a depth to the character of Dianne.  The other excellent performance is that of Helen Mack.  Her Martha is not a whimpering wife - Ms. Mack gives her a strength and pride that is not usual for the "loving wife" that she is being asked to play.  Within the context of the divorce, she juxtaposes nicely with Dianne, who has built her finances with the settlements from her multiple marriages.  Martha, on the other hand, refuses all monies from her husband, even child support - If Bob can not be an actual support for their children, she will work and support them both emotionally and financially. Her refusal to depend upon him both empowers her, and emasculates him.

Bruce Cabot, on the other hand, is a football, passed back and forth between the two women (interestingly symbolized by a football game early in the film, which Martha attempts with her two boys).  Cabot's Bob is almost passive - first guided by his wife, then abruptly manipulated by his former girlfriend.  That passivity makes it easy to understand why Dianne would even want him. He's quite a talented real-estate agent - Dianne sees both money and control in any relationship with him. According to the AFI catalog, Cabot was not the first choice for the role - it was originally earmarked for Paul Kelly (who would appear with Ms. Francis later that year in Allotment Wives). 
The presence of Jerome Cowan, playing lawyer Jim Driscoll, is another added pleasure.  We recently saw Mr. Cowan as the lecherous neighbor in My Reputation; his part here is not all that much bigger, but considerably more sympathetic.   A character actor who brings veritas to any role that he plays, Mr. Cowan appeared on Broadway beginning in 1923, and would continue appearing on stage until 1959 (his final stage appearance was in Say, Darling). His work on Broadway led to his casting in Beloved Enemy (1936), starring Brian Aherne and Merle Oberon (Mr. Cowan took on the role of the villain of the piece).  He worked continuously from then on - probably his most noted performance is that of Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he was also excellent as one of Bette Davis' suitors in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and as the harried district attorney Thomas Mara in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As the age of television began, he deftly moved into the medium, appearing as a guest star in such shows as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Bonanza.  His final appearance was on an episode of Alias Smith and Jones in 1971.  He died in January of 1972, survived by his two children and his wife of 43 year, Helen Dodge. 
One other appearance worth noting is that of Larry Olsen, as Michael Phillips, the older of the two boys so devastated by their parents divorce.  Mr. Olsen had a decent career as a child actor, but is bet remembered today as the older brother of Susan Olsen (of Brady Bunch fame). We will return again with another film from one of our favorite actresses. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Barbara, The Mail-Order Bride

Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck) has hopes of a better life - a torch singer in a New York City speakeasy, she is engaged to the wealthy Don Leslie (Hardie Albright), much to the regret of her lover, Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot).  Alas, the engagement is quickly broken; when Don discovers her past relationship with Eddie, he dumps her, and Joan, who is not willing to resume her affair with Eddie runs away to Montreal.  Eddie, however, is determined bring her back. His men find out she is working there; when she realizes that another confrontation is at hand, she bribes her maid, Emily (Leila Bennett) to let Joan serve as Emily's replacement - as a mail order bride in North Dakota.  There, she meets James Gilson (George Brent), a taciturn farmer with little knowledge of women or of conversation in general.  The result a horror of a wedding night, and a married couple who are at odds with one another.  Thus begins The Purchase Price (1932).

This film pointed out to us the benefits of rewatching a movie together after a long gap.  We originally discussed The Purchase Price back in 2009, shortly after the film came out on DVD via the Forbidden Hollywood collection.  For all of us, it was our first time viewing the film (You can see that post here).  As we were discussing the film, we referred back to our earlier comments, and discovered that much of what we originally said had changed, most especially our reactions to the two male leads, Jim and Eddie.

We initially found the character of Jim to be a bit creepy; his almost violent attack of Joan on their wedding night was most off-putting, and it resulted in our really disliking him from that point forward.  But on closer examination, we began to like him a bit more. He has the potential to be a great husband, but his uncommunicative behavior and his total lack of grace is still a bit disconcerting.  He hasn't got a clue on how to behave with a woman, for one thing.  Sure, he advertised for a bride, but manhandling a strange woman almost immediately in no way to win affection.  But, when Joan reacts and hits him, he does NOT hit back or force himself on her further.  He leaves the room, and does not come back uninvited.  He even suggests that they begin divorce proceedings so she can get on with her life.  Ultimately, Jim's character grows and changes, to try to become a better man for her.
Eddie, on the other hand, will not take no for an answer.  Essentially, he is a stalker, constantly pursuing Joan, even when she's told him that the life he offers is not the one that she wants.  He's married, and cannot marry her.  He does seem to love her, in his own way, and ultimately proves helpful to her, but his ego seems to be such that he cannot let her quietly exit his life.  We also wondered if Joan is, for Eddie, the only decent person in his life, and the only person who provides him with the appearance of class, another reason why he might not wish to just find another woman - he knows he'll never find anyone as good.

The town in North Dakota, as portrayed here, seems more like hillbilly country than the northern U.S.  But where so many of the male characters that live here (like Bull McDowell, as portrayed by David Landau - a letch if ever there was one) are distasteful, the few women we see are rather nice, especially Mrs. Tipton (Adele Watson) and her daughter Sarah (Anne Shirley).  Joan visits them when she discovers that Mrs. Tipton has had her new baby alone (except for the presence of her very young - and very frightened daughter).  Ms. Shirley - uncredited here, had been working in films since the age of four (under the name Dawn O'Day).  She was 14 when she appeared in The Purchase Price (and had previously played Ms. Stanwyck as a child in So Big,  released the same year, and, as I was recently reminded, would later play Ms. Stanwyck's daughter in Stella Dallas)  She is quite sweet in this very small part, and is worth looking for.
Don, the man that dumps Joan, is only in one scene, but it is a terrific one. Director William Wellman takes full advantage of sound to portray the sorrow and hypocrisy of the event.  As Don scolds and rejects Joan for being involved with a bootlegger (a bootlegger he utilizes), the hotel lobby in which they sit becomes silent - the nosy inhabitants of the hotel all hush to listen to their conversation.  Even the street outside is silent.  But, as Don exits in a huff and Joan sits there in abject misery, conversations begin again, and a garbage truck drives up the block.  It's an impressively done moment. 

Stanwyck again does her own stunts, most notably in the fire scene at the end of the film, resulting in some minor injuries.  Her relationship with her director was very friendly, and Mr. Wellman is quoted as saying "On one of Miss Stanwyck's interviews she mentioned me as one of her favorite directors and ended with 'I love that man.' Needless to say I was very proud and had a lump in my throat which does not happen to me very often. Barbara Stanwyck -- 'I love that girl.'" (see this TCM article)

Naturally, the New York Times review did not like the film (we seem to say that a lot), but in this case, we think the reviewer is quite wrong.  This is a good film, with strong performances from Stanwyck, of course, and also from George Brent and Lyle Talbot.  We will leave you with this clip in which Ms. Stanwyck herself sings: