Friday, March 31, 2017

Kay Designs

Based on the 1931 novel by Polan Banks, Street of Women (1932) tells the story of Larry Baldwin (Alan Dinehart), who by all accounts is happy and successful.  He and his partner Linkhorn Gibson (Roland Young) are just about to complete work on a new skyscraper that will be the tallest building in the world.  Larry is also very much in love with dress designer Natalie Upton (Kay Francis), who he considers his muse.  But Larry is married - to the cold and conniving Lois (Marjorie Gateson) - and has avoided divorce to protect his daughter, Doris (Gloria Stuart).  But Doris is now 18, and Larry decides it's time for him to be truly happy - by divorcing Lois and marrying Natalie.

In most respects, this is a standard Kay Francis pre-code melodrama - she's in love, she suffers beautifully, and though she is involved with a married man, we know that their love is true and pure.  But, get past that, and you have a lovely story that really does keep you engaged throughout.  Though Ms. Francis' Natalie is considerably younger than Larry Baldwin, they have similar issues to face: primarily two young people who are dependent upon them for love and support, and who are equally unforgiving of their elders' passions and affections.  For Natalie, her younger brother Clarke (Allen Vincent) is the source of her grief.  Natalie's unease at revealing her relationship to Clarke makes a nice parallel to Larry's reticence towards opening up to his daughter.
While Kay Francis is perfect as Natalie, we had a hard time with Alan Dinehart in the role of Larry.  It's really difficult to understand what she sees in him.  Certainly, he is intelligent, but far from being the strong, silent type, Dinehart plays Larry as weak; he is cowed by everyone - his wife, his daugher, even Natalie.  In fact, the only person who really loosens him up is Mattie (Louise Beavers), Natalie's maid.  The interactions between Ms. Beavers and Mr. Dinehart are the scenes that finally show Larry as a human being. And while Mattie is just another of the many maids played by Ms. Beavers, she is warm, affectionate, and wise.  She brings a humanity to her part that only an actress of her skill could realize.

The juveniles - Doris and Clarke - are more brats than fully realized characters.  Doris shows her affection for her father with a long kiss on the lips, that was more incestuously disconcerting than a signal of real affection.  When it comes to understanding her father's misery at home - with a woman for whom Doris has little to no regard - she is uncaring.  At the same time, Clarke, who has been supported by his sister since their parents' deaths, cannot conceive that Natalie might actually be able to make enough money to support them on her own (never mind that he's been willingly taking her financial support without question, including several years in Paris). Now that he no longer needs her, he rejects her needs and is cruel and biting to a woman who has shown him nothing but encouragement.
Allen Vincent had brief acting career - he appeared in 26 films from 1929 to 1939.  Beginning in 1941, he worked as a screenwriter, and received an Academy Award nomination for Johnny Belinda (1948). Gloria Stuart, however, is probably best known for two films that were 64 years apart: The Invisible Man (1933) and Titanic (1997).  The latter earned her a nomination as Best Supporting Actress.  In between times, she worked on screen and off - retiring from films for a time (beginning in 1946) to run an art furniture shop, paint, and create bonzai trees (some of which are in museums).  When her husband (to whom she'd been married since 1934) became ill in the 1970s, she returned to television work, and eventually to films.  Ms. Stuart died in 2010, age 100. Her ashes were scattered in Santa Monica Bay, per her wishes. 

Roland Young as Link is delightful.  His portrayal really makes you wonder why Natalie doesn't select him instead.  He's supportive and affectionate towards her, a good friend to Larry, and he is much smarter and stronger than his partner.  He is quite believable as a potential lover, and very much called to mind the part he played would later play in Give Me Your Heart (1936), where he represents the older, more experienced romantic.   He also is quite cagey, and a later scene involving Lois shows how sly and knowing he really is.
The sets are by Anton Grot (who did the set design for Stolen Holiday) and are marvelous, especially Natalie's somewhat art deco apartment.  No costumer designer was cited, so we must tip our hats to the Warner Brothers costume department for again making Ms. Francis a raft of delicious gowns. 

We'll leave you this week with the film's trailer. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Kay's a Model

Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains) is about to pull off a huge business deal, but he needs to convince his backers of his stability.  So, he hires mannequin Nicole Picot (Kay Francis) to come as his date to an important party.  This leads to Stefan owning his own investment firm, and Nicole becoming the head House of Picot, a major design house.  Stefan loves Nicole, but she's not ready for marriage, at least to him.  Unbeknownst to Nicole, Stefan is the mastermind behind a huge swindle.  To avoid investigation, he convinces Nicole to go away with him for a brief vacation, where she meets Anthony Wayne (Ian Hunter) on her Stolen Holiday (1937).  

The date of the release of the film makes it rather remarkable, as there are elements in it that you would expect in the pre-code era, not in 1937.  Stefan is as dishonest as they come, but it is impossible to dislike him.  There is an implication that he and Nicole have been lovers, and though one of our lead characters is "punished" for their sins, another minor character easily gets away with an horrific act.  Based on an actual scandal (see this brief note at the AFI Catalog), the ending is true to the real-life facts.  Warner Brothers, however, carefully distanced themselves from the real story with a disclaimer at the beginning of the film (TCM article). It's amazing that they were able to produce the script as they did, and it makes the film far more provocative. 
As always, Ms. Francis gets a gorgeous wardrobe from Orry-Kelly that she shows off to perfection.  Her severe hairstyle at the opening is quite in contrast to the feminine gowns (you can see it in the image above).  The set design by Anton Grot is splendid and Ms. Francis is placed into it like a jewel.  

The only real problem with the film it is that Ian Hunter doesn't bring much to the part of Anthony Wayne.  Perhaps it is the comparison to Rains, but quite honestly, it's hard to understand why Nicole is attracted to Wayne, he seems such a non-entity.  When Ms. Francis is with Mr. Rains in a scene the dialogue sparkles, but once she is with Mr. Hunter it seems banal and dull. It's a shame, really, because he was just fine as Ms. Francis' romantic interest in I Found Stella Parish (though, to be honest, we did prefer Paul Lukas in that film).  Mr. Hunter is a capable if uninspiring actor; but put up next to someone like Claude Rains, he fades into the background.
Claude Rains.  There really is music in that name.  The man could pretty much do anything - villain, romantic lead, supporting actor.  Bette Davis was a fan (Mr. Rains daughter discussed their relationship on a TCM Word of Mouth oral history), and in fact thought that Charlotte Vale of Now Voyager would have eventually married his Dr. Jaquith (TCM article).  He's really magical in this film - he takes a character that could potentially be unlikable, and turns him into the most interesting person in the movie, despite his rather larcenous nature. According to Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David J. Skal and Jessica Rains, he and Ms. Francis didn't get along.  He disliked her unwillingness to participate fully in scenes where he was being filmed for a close-up.  One assumes this may be the reason they didn't work together again.

Mr. Rains began his film career at age 44 with The Invisible Man (1933).  By that time, he'd been on stage in London and New York, served in the first World War (with colleagues Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, and Herbert Marshall); attended, and then taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and returned to the stage.  When he returned to New York, and was appearing on Broadway, he was approached by Warner Brothers (after RKO decided he was not right for A Bill of Divorcement).  Beginning in 1933, he worked steadily, appearing films such as Mr. Skeffington (1944), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938),  Four Daughters (1938),  and King's Row (1942). And, of course, Casablanca (1942). Nominated for four Oscars (all in the supporting actor category), he never won, but did get a Tony Award for his performance in Darkness at Noon (1951). With his delicious voice, he was a popular radio voice, and transitioned to television in the 1950s and 1960s.  But he still continued in films until 1965, two years before his death of intestinal hemorrhage in 1967.  In one of his final films, Twilight of Honor (1963), he worked with Richard Chamberlain, who was making a name for himself in Dr. Kildare.  Mr. Chamberlain did a tribute to his co-star on TCM; the year after the film, Mr. Rains appeared with Mr. Chamberlain again in Dr. Kildare.
Also in the cast is Alison Skipworth as Suzanne, who acts as a surrogate mother to Nicole.  Ms. Skipworth is quite amusing in the role, and really gets most of the good lines.  She's a delight in the role!

We'll leave you with the trailer to the film.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bette Meets Little Miss Evil

This month TCM Presents offered a theatrical screening of the story of the woman who is #23 (on the Villain side) of the Greatest Heroes and Villains of all time (according to the American Film Institute).  We are speaking, of course, of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (1950)

The event was hosted by TCM's own Ben Mankiewicz.  In his commentary, he spoke briefly about his Uncle Joe, who at the 1951 Oscar ceremony took home two Oscars for the film as Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The was the second year in a row for him to receive the same awards: he had won the previous year, for A Letter to Three Wives, and he remains the only person in Oscar history to accomplish this feat.  All About Eve  was nominated for 14 awards (a record at the time. It has since been tied by Titanic), and won 6, including Best Picture.

Two of the nominations were in the category of Best Actress. Both Bette Davis (Margo Channing) and Anne Baxter vied for the Award (Ms. Baxter was not willing to be nominated in the Supporting Category, since she was the title character).  It's been speculated that they split the vote, resulting in Judy Holliday winning for her performance in Born Yesterday (certainly a worthy winner as well)

If you are not familiar with the story, a few words are in order.  On the evening of the annual Sarah Siddons Society Awards, Broadway actress Eve Harrington is being presented with its highest honor.  From the audience, fellow awardees director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) and playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and famed actress Margo Channing look on.  As she watches the action, Karen recalls the night she met Eve, introduced her to Margo, and changed their lives forever.
The film has a fascinating history, and I heartily recommend the book All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs.  The film was based on a short story that appeared in Cosmopolitan. "The Wisdom of Eve" is allegedly based on a real incident involving actress Elisabeth Bergner and her secretary Martina Lawrence, but it has also been speculated that supposed impetus is  a rivalry between Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott, when Scott understudied Bankhead in The Skin of Our Teeth.  Regardless of who was the factual inspiration, the screenplay gives us a portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals - a woman who is just one in a long line of ambitious individuals.

Once you've seen the film, it's hard to imagine anyone but Bette Davis in the role of Margo.  She literally inhabits the character.  However, Ms. Davis stepped in at the last minute when Claudette Colbert severely injured her back, and had to bow out.  At age 42, Davis was fast becoming a has-been - her last part was in Beyond the Forest (1949), after which she and Warner Brothers studio bid each other a not-so-fond farewell.  Beyond the Forest has one major claim to fame - it's the film in which Davis uttered the immortal - and often parodied line - "What a dump."  When  Joseph L. Mankiewicz called and offered her the part, if she could be ready in 10 days, she jumped.  She credited Mankiewicz with "resurrecting her from the dead." (TCM article)

Tallulah Bankhead would claim that the film was "all about" her.  And while Ms. Davis steadfastly denied Ms. Bankhead as an inspiration, some aspects of the role do seem to very much hearken up images of Ms. Bankhead.  When she started filming, Ms. Davis had laryngitis, so she maintained a lower vocal range throughout the film - a voice that closely resembles that of Ms. Bankhead.  The "surprise" curtain call as Margo stands alone on the stage of "Aged in Wood" was also taken directly from Ms. Bankhead, who it was reported used that gimmick when she did her own curtain calls.  And accidentally or not, Ms. Davis' most famous dress in the film looks amazingly like dresses worn by Ms. Bankhead (see below).
About the dress - Edith Head had to quickly alter or remake dresses for her new star.  When Ms. Davis tried on the party dress, Ms. Head was horrified to realize that the dress was too big above the waist.  Davis saved the day by pulling the neckline down around her shoulders, giving the dress a sexy (and coincidentally more Bankhead-like) look.

Ms. Davis' is not the only stellar performance in the film.  Anne Baxter is an impressive Eve, going from wide-eyed innocence to malevolence with the merest flick of an eye. Eve will use anyone and anything to get what she wants, and it is never more apparent than when she sets her cap at Lloyd Richards.  Watch as she sexually manipulates her friend (Randy Stuart) to call Lloyd for her.  There's a hint of  relationship that's more than just friendly between the two.
Marilyn Monroe, in an early role as would-be actress Miss Casswell is quite amusing - the scene in which she sets set her sails to accost Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) after calling him an "unhappy rabbit" is priceless.   And Celeste Holm brings charm and poise to the part of Karen.  But for me, it's the "character" performances that make this film what it is.  Let's start with Thelma Ritter as former vaudevillian, and Margo's dresser, Birdie Coonan.  It sometimes seems that Birdie gets a good portion of the wonderful lines.  For example, after Eve tells the story of her life, Birdie retorts "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."  Or, when Bill asks her what message she would like delivered to Tyrone Power once Bill arrives in Hollywood - "Just give him my phone number; I'll tell him myself."  But more than the lines (and this is a phenomenal script for good lines), it is Ritter's delivery that makes them.  Her Birdie is smart and cagey - she is the first person to spot Eve as a phony.  As always, Thelma Ritter is a gem, and it is always sad for me that Birdie disappears in the last third of the film.

But can any discussion of the perfect delivery of perfect lines be complete without a discussion of George Sanders.  His Addison DeWitt (who may have been based on critic George Jean Nathan - AFI catalog). is a masterpiece of wit and malice.  A theatre critic who describes himself as: "My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater."  We learn quickly that Addison is an impressive judge of people. Without a word, Sanders shows us that Addison, like Birdie, knows that something about Eve is not right. Eve, who has managed to play nearly everyone like a violin, does not realize Addison is not be played.  Sanders is a perfect partner for Eve, and a perfect foil for Bill Sampson and Lloyd Richards, both of whom remain far to oblivious of Eve's manipulations for a very long time.
Claudette Colbert was not the only person considered for Margo - Susan Hayward (deemed too young), Ingrid Bergman (didn't want to leave Italy), Marlene Dietrich, and Gertrude Lawrence were all in the running at one time or another.  Jeanne Crain was also considered for Eve, but her third pregnancy prevented her from getting the role (she and her husband eventually had 7 children).  John Garfield and Ronald Reagan were discussed for Bill, and both Jose Ferrer and Clifton Webb mentioned as Addison.  The film would be performed four times as radio productions (the last one, in 1954 featured Claire Trevor, Ann Blyth, William Conrad and Don Randolph).  It would ultimately be remade as a musical - Applause, which starred Lauren Bacall as Margo in the original cast.  (I saw it after Ms. Bacall left. Her replacement - Anne Baxter!)

As I mentioned before, All About Eve is an awards favorite, and the praise just keeps on coming.  It was #28 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, and in 2014, Richard Brody of the New Yorker discussed the film as a commentary on the difference between film and theatre.  But All About Eve was not just a film that was discovered later in its life.  These reviews in Variety and the New York Times demonstrate that the film was immediately a critical hit.

I'll leave you today with a clip from the film - perhaps the most famous line in the film (though there are others that are just as magnificent).  It was voted #9 in AFI's 100 Greatest Quotes; so here's Ms. Davis warning us to "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Joan is Broke


In Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) lives a carefree and spendthrift life.  She spends her days sleeping and her nights drinking and dancing.  But her happy-go-lucky lifestyle end when her father dies amid the 1929 Stockmarket Crash.  With the Crash goes all their money and their friends, leaving Bonnie and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) to fend for themselves in the real world of work.  Bonnie sells their house and all their belongings, finds a comfortable apartment for herself and her brother, and gets a job writing for a newspaper.  Bonnie finds her new life refreshing and stimulating, but Rodney wants nothing more than to drink and loaf, so he decides to fast track to wealth by working as a bootlegger for the ruthless gang chief Jake Luva (Clark Gable).

The title of this picture really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, quite frankly, and I find no reference that there was any thought to another one.  The authors of  Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk & William Schoell refer to the title as "a clumsy attempt at irony;" that is certainly one theory. We see some ballroom dancing at the beginning of the picture; then later, Bonnie works in a nightclub.  Ms. Crawford performs one dance routine, but it is rather awkward and heavy footed, reminiscent of her dancing style in Untamed. Regardless of the dancing (for this really is a gangster film, not a musical), Ms. Crawford is engaging and enjoyable as a young woman eager to make her own way in the world.  She makes the transition from spoiled heiress to working girl seem almost effortless.  One scene in particular makes the transition believable.  As Bonnie and Rodney are forced to sell their possessions, Bonnie watches as her supposed friends ridicule her poverty, and giggle about bidding on her possessions.  Bonnie face is composed, but determined - without a word, Crawford shows us a woman who has just discovered the worth of these worthless individuals
Cliff Edwards plays ace reporter Bert Scranton beautifully.  The one person on the paper who goes out of his way to assist Bonnie in her efforts to excel, their relationship becomes one of teacher and student.  Bert never abuses his position with her, never demeans her.  Their friendship is just that - it never becomes sexualized.  As a result, in just a few brief scenes, we come to like and admire Bert, making his untimely end even more shocking.

Mr. Edwards was better known when the film was released as "Ukulele Ike."  He was a singer and had a big hit in 1929 with Singin' in the Rain.  But today, he is best remembered as the singing and speaking voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940).  He was successful on both Broadway (appearing with the Astaires in Lady Be Good (1924) and as a recording artist, and it was his prowess on the ukelele that made it a popular instrument.  During the 30s and early 40s, he was very busy on film, usually in supporting parts (as here, and in another Crawford film, Montana Moon).  He also had a successful career on radio, both as a guest singer and on his own show, The Cliff Edwards Show.  He segued into television, where he hosted his own show, and was a guest on The Mickey Mouse Club and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  However, years of heavy spending, multiple alimony payments (to three ex-wives), and alcoholism took their toll.  He died in 1971, without a cent to his name.  The Actor's Fund (which had helped support him in his illness), the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, and Walt Disney Productions (which during his life time gave him voice work) all paid for his burial.
Which brings us to Clark Gable.  As this TCM article and New York Times review demonstrate, even before Gable was The King of Hollywood, he was a notable presence in film.  Quite frankly, when he is in the scene, you can't take your eyes off him. And when he is with Crawford, the chemistry is palpable.  The Times review singles him out for "a vivid and authentic bit of acting."  This was his first role opposite Crawford; they would eventually appear in eight films together.  In this one, he was billed sixth (she, of course, got top billing).  By the end of the 1931, he was getting second billing just below Crawford.  What started as a friendship on this picture would develop into an outright love affair, and you can see it beginning in this film, especially when they kiss.  One scene between them is particularly interesting.  Bonnie sits at Jake's piano, playing the "Moonlight Sonata" that previously had been played for him by his moll, Della (Natalie Moorhead), but while Della plays it straight, Bonnie plays a jazzy version.

One is really sorry that Jake is such a creep - he is much more attractive than Robert Townsend (Lester Vail), Bonnie's lover at the opening of the film (oh, yes - this is a pre-code film.  Bonnie and Bob clearly spend the night together).  Bob is also a bit of a creep, rejecting Bonnie when her wealth is gone, but the character goes through an epiphany when he watches the demeaning manners of their mutual friends towards Bonnie.  Ultimately, Bob is still not all that attractive, but he does make himself into a better man. 
We were all amused to see Bonnie (in 1931) with a hand-held hair dryer.  THAT was the ultimate in wealth, in our opinion!  In the end, we all agreed this is a worthy film for any Crawford fan, especially because of the Gable connection.  We'll leave you with this early (and very pre-code scene) of party guests stripping to their skivvies for a moonlight swim.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Barbara Marries an Immigrant


It's 1909.  Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) nervously awaits the return of her cousin (and possible fiance) Jeff  (Ralph Bellamy) from Germany.  But Jeff's return changes both of their lives when Mary meets his friend, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger).  Hugo and Mary fall deeply in love, marry, and begin a family, consisting of their dachshund Cammie and their son Teddy (Ronnie Cosby).  Hugo begins a successful career as a professor in Rossmore College, and becomes an American citizen.  Their lives seemed blessed, until World War I erupts.  From that point on, Hugo and Mary are shunned as the enemy, and their happy existence becomes a series of tragedies.

Ever in My Heart (1933), a pre-code film, is almost relentlessly sad; there are parts of the film that are almost too much to bear.  Since it begins as an almost lighthearted romance, the ultimate spiral downward makes for an even more intense viewer experience. Released by Warner Brothers studio, which also gave us such socially relevant films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, which looked at the American criminal justice system) and Heroes for Sale (1933, which dealt with the problems faced by World War I veterans); this film too is attempting to highlight injustice within the United States. The film, however, came out as Germany was electing a Nazi government, and beginning their persecution of the Jewish population (Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940).  As a result, it probably was not perhaps seen in the light which screenwriter Bertram Millhauser had intended.
Barbara Stanwyck was not fond of this picture (TCM article) or any of her films at Warner Brothers; she called them "a series of parts that were much alike - women who were suffering and poor, and living amid sloppy surroundings."  That may be true, but she is dynamic as a woman who watches her life crash in ruins about her.  We have no doubt of her sincerity when Mary refuses to leave her husband, despite their reduced circumstances.  When neighbors, who had been their friends begin to reject them because of her husband's nationality, Stanwyck gives Mary a quiet but determined dignity.

We were enchanted by Ronnie Cosby in the role of young Teddy.   He is just delighful in the role of the affectionate child whose life becomes a tragedy.  Mr. Cosby's career began with a small role in 1929's Madame X.  He worked steadily through 1939, appearing in films such as Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933), Little Men (1934), and the 1937 remake of Madame X.  His last appearance was in 1941's Birth of the Blues.  He died in 2010, at the age of 82.

Ralph Bellamy is also excellent as Jeff, Mary's first cousin and original intended.  Jeff is carefully set up as a contrast to Mary's brother, Sam (played with a certain amount of petulance and jealousy by Frank Albertson).  When Sam revolts against his brother-in-law merely because he was born in Germany, it is Jeff who tries to soothe the family. Though Jeff describes himself as passionless, is always a true friend to both Mary and to his rival, Otto.  When Mary's family ignore her, it is Jeff who ultimately convinces Grandma Archer (Laura Hope Crews) to take in the starving couple. That Jeff is also a member of the very biased family is sometimes hard to remember - he is much more like the very open-minded Mary than the rest of the Archers.  We understand why Mary at one point was considering a marriage with Jeff.

As is often the case, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Kruger were not the first choices for the Wilbrandts. Kay Francis and Paul Muni were originally considered (AFI Catalog).  Not surprisingly, The New York Times reviewer was not enamored of the film, calling it "meaningless to this new generation" because it was not "news any more that the war propaganda which dramatized the Germans as baby murderers and wife beaters was prejudiced."
This comment by the Times in 1933 is quite ironic, given that Ever in My Heart is much more timely today than any of us might like to admit.  Just days before we viewed the film, I heard this report from NPR story concerning US residents, most of the Muslims, who are fleeing to Canada - and to arrest - rather than staying the in U.S. This film is testimony to the fact that these are not new prejudices, and that despite this film's pleas for tolerance and understanding, history keeps repeating itself, with the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and today with a political agenda aimed at a particular religious group.   

As we publish this article, the news of Robert Osborne's death has just been announced. It's with a heavy heart that we add our voices to those that mourn this kind, wonderful and intelligent man.  I had the privilege of meeting him at a reception several years ago; he was gracious and welcoming.  But more than this, I will miss my nightly visit with him on television, where he answered my need for more information, and provided a context and an appreciation for the films that I've always loved.  I have learned at the feet of a master; he will be greatly missed.
 
We will leave you with this trailer and with a reminder that no one in the United States should be forced to state that "they let me be a citizen, but they won't let me be an American."