Monday, January 29, 2018

Barbara Desires

Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) had dreams of being a great actress. It's 10 years since she left her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and three children to pursue her career, and all she has to show for it is a job as a small-time player in vaudeville. When a letter arrives from her younger daughter, Lily (Lori Nelson) inviting Naomi to Lily's graduation and senior play, Naomi spends every cent she has to return to Wisconsin as a great actress. While she knows that Lily wants her, the question remains as to her welcome from the rest of her family. Thus begins All I Desire (1953).

Based on Carol Brink's novel, Stopover, this is not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best films, the primary reason being her leading men. It's hard to understand why an attractive and intelligent woman like Naomi would want to be with either Henry or Dutch Heinemann (Lyle Bettger).  Henry is an oblivious cypher, who neglects his children, ignored his wife, and is totally unaware that his colleague, teacher Sara Harper (Maureen O'Sullivan) is madly in love with him. Dutch, on the other hand, is a bully and just short of a stalker. They make quite a pair. On some levels, you want Naomi to go back to vaudeville.
Ms. Stanwyck (who is, as always, magnificent) was not the only person considered for the role of Naomi. Both Joan Crawford and  Bette Davis were discussed as possible candidates for the part (AFI catalog). Either would have been fine, but Ms. Stanwyck brings a vulnerability to Naomi that is important for the audience's relationship with her. This New Yorker discussion focuses on Ms. Stanwyck's invaluable contribution to the film.
The children, however, are another matter. We really enjoyed Marcia Henderson as the oldest daughter, Joyce.  The combination of her mother's abandonment and her father's neglect have taken a toll on her. Yet, she is still capable of love, and ultimately has much of her mother's spunk.  The relationship between her and Russ Underwood (Richard Long) is quite sweet, especially after Naomi pushes Joyce to loosen up a bit.
One of the more interesting friendships in the film is that of young Ted Murdoch (Billy Gray) and Dutch.  Ted appears to be the only person in the town for whom Dutch has any affection; he's kind to the boy, and has taught him to fish and shoot a rifle. It's apparent Ted has no real tie to his father - it made us wonder if Dutch (and perhaps Henry) suspected that Ted was the result of Naomi's affair with Dutch. The film never states it, but given the information we have, it seems a logical premise.

Douglas Sirk, who had wanted to shoot the film in color, brings a beauty to the film's setting.
The lovely period costumes by Rosemary Odell and an amazing set by art directors Bernard Herzbrun and Alexander Golitzen create a convincing reality to the turn of the century backdrop. Sirk had also wanted a different ending to the film. We wondered if he might have been right in his original concept.
We were intrigued to see both Stuart Whitman and Guy Williams appearing in uncredited parts in the film. And it was quite enjoyable to see Richard Long working with Ms. Stanwyck twelve years before they would appear as mother and son in The Big Valley (and in a horseback riding scene, no less!).  Mr. Long was a terrific actor - he started his career with a substantial role - as Claudette Colbert's son in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). After several years in film (mostly as the juvenile), he went over to television in shows such as Bourbon Street Beat and Nanny and the Professor.  He was married twice - his first wife died of cancer about a year after their marriage. His second marriage (to actress Mara Corday) produced three children and lasted until his death at the age of 47 from a heart condition. 

This New York Times review of the film was not favorable, blaming director Sirk for many of its failings. And while All I Desire is not a perfect film, we enjoyed it.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Real Love Story

By and large, the Movie Night Group devotes our screenings to fictional films, but this week we screened a documentary - Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015). The film tells the story of Harold and Lillian Michelson, two behind-the-scenes forces in Hollywood history. Harold was a storyboard artist and later an art director, while wife Lillian was a researcher for films (and the owner of an extensive library). Both a romance and a look into the history of Hollywood, this was one that we had to view together.

The beauty of this film is the genuine warmth that the director shows in portraying his subjects.  According to this TCM article, Daniel Raim had considered a film about Mr. Michelson after talking to him for his documentary on art directors (Something's Gonna Live (2010)) and a short film (The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000)). At the same time, he envisioned a second film that would explore the research process in film, with a focus on Ms. Michelson and her library. But once he talked to them and their friends more extensively, he realized that their stories were so interwoven, that the best way to discuss them was to do one film about them both.

Despite his admiration for the couple, Mr. Raim is not creating a hagiography.  For one thing, it's quite apparent that Ms. Michelson would not allow it. She talks openly about her own limitations - her trepidation about marrying Mr. Michelson, when she really didn't know him very well; her problems dealing with her autistic son (her knowledge about autism proved useful when she researched for Rain Man (1988). However, she would not allow Dustin Hoffman to follow her son around, feeling it was a violation of they young man's privacy). We are presented with a story about two real people, not an idealization of a perfect life.
Ms. Michelson is the linchpin of the film - she  tells her tales with humor.  For example, she recalls being fired from her job with the telephone company when she was seven months pregnant because she was "an affront to the public." Her stories about her research - getting access to a closed FBI office so she could see what it looked like; connecting with elderly Jewish women so she could get an example of turn-of-the-20th Century undergarments (for a scene in Fiddler on the Roof (1971)); interviewing a drug lord for the movie Scarface - are both humorous and awe-inspiring. A voracious reader, Ms. Michelson developed a love for science fiction, which resulted in Mr. Michelson agreeing to become the art director for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). When Robert Wise asked him to do the job, Harold initially  said no; he didn't care for science fiction. But Lillian insisted he do it - turn down Star Trek? Unthinkable!

While photographs of the couple help to tell the story, a great contribution to the film is the illustrations provided by Patrick Mate, a colleague of Harold's at DreamWorks. These drawings provide a visual focus to the unfolding story.  Likewise, Mr. Michelson's hand-made greeting cards, which he would present to his wife for her birthdays, Valentine's Day, and their anniversaries, show his quirky sense of humor, and his deep love for his wife.
Harold's amazing storyboard clearly demonstrate the influence of the story-board artist to film. His work on The Birds (1963) and The Graduate (1967) outline the films shot-by-shot. Interestingly, Mr. Michelson recalled that he viewed The Graduate as a serious film, and was amazed when director Mike Nichols took his work to create a film that was sarcastically funny.

Interviews with colleagues and friends show the affection that the couple engendered inside the film industry. When Harold became ill, Lillian took him to work with her at DreamWorks (one of the many homes that she was able to find for her collection). Harold would sit with the staff animators, and tell them of his experiences. The result: the couple ended up as King Harold and Queen Lillian in Shrek. (Harold and Lillian website)

The reviews for the film were raves. Check out Variety, The New York Times, and Point of View Magazine as examples. We wholeheartedly agree, and recommend that you give this one a look.  We'll leave you with the trailer, and hope you will enjoy the film yourself!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Margaret Looks for Magic

An infant is abandoned at a New York City foundling hospital and the matron on duty makes a phone call to the Institute of Child Psychology. Professor Peter Vincent (Philip Merivale) and Dr. Woodring (Alan Napier) arrive to conduct a series of evaluations on the infant; she is adjudged satisfactory, and removed to the Institute for education. The Institute has a theory about education, and have taken on the infant girl, named Alpha (Margaret O'Brien) to test their theories. Alpha will be taught Chinese, music, chess, math and history, but will be removed from the rest of the world, so as to eliminate any corrupting influences. At age 6, Alpha, now fluent in Chinese, able to read complicated books, and an expert in world history, is ready to be tested by Professor Josh Pringle (Henry O'Neill). When word gets out about Prof. Pringle's arrival, reporter Mike Regan (James Craig) arrives at the Institute to do a story on the prodigy. Bemused by Alpha's concrete understanding of the world, Mike tells her the world is full of magic, a concept that has been rejected by her tutors. So the Lost Angel (1944) ventures out of the Institute to find Mike and prove the validity of magic.

This is a truly delightful film, both moving and funny, with a cast that is in top form. Margaret O'Brien is excellent as Alpha, a little girl who is, at times, more mature than her elders. She manages to make Alpha smart without being a show-off, but also to retain Alpha's innocence and child-wonder of the new world she is being revealed. (The character is somewhat reminiscent of Natalie Wood's Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street.)  In 1945, Ms. O'Brien was presented a special juvenile Oscar, for her work that year (including this picture) (AFI catalog) The story of that Oscar did not end in 1945 - it was stolen from Ms. O'Brien's home in 1954, shortly before her mother's death, found 50 years later (for the full story, visit this blog post) and returned to the ecstatic Ms. O'Brien.
But Ms. O'Brien would be lost if it was not for the rapport that she has with both James Craig and Marsha Hunt (Katie Mallory).  Ms. Hunt is particularly terrific, combining a developing motherly affection for the child with a wariness of her. The scene of their meeting at Katie's nightclub is especially funny. The image of the Alpha and Katie staring at one another in a game of visual chicken is wonderful (Katie loses the match!). They would appear in another film together that same year: Music for Millions.

Ms. Hunt, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, began her film career in 1936 with The Virginia Judge; she retired from acting in 2008, following her appearance in the short film The Grand Inquisitor (for more on her appearance in this film, listen to this Film Noir Foundation podcast on Ms. Hunt). A truly underrated performer (watch her extraordinary performance in Cry 'Havoc' (1943), her career was foreshortened when she was blacklisted. Her crime - she was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, and protested HUAC's questioning of the Hollywood Ten.  Offered the opportunity to apologize for her protest, she steadfastly refused, and channeled herself into working for world peace and the environment (Deadline Hollywood). Now retired, there are ongoing efforts to make a documentary on her life.

The film is gifted with a number of fantastic supporting actors. Keenan Wynn had already appeared in four films, only one of which credited, when he appeared as Packy Roos in our film, and he is  wonderful as a gangster who doesn't read very well.  His interactions with Ms. O'Brien are very funny, resulting in several sweet and amusing scenes. Alan Napier, Philip Merivale, Donald Meek (Professor Katty), and Sara Haden (Rhoda Kitterick) also handle their parts with extreme delicacy. It would be easy to make the members of the Institute into villains, something these remarkable actors avoid. Their love for Alpha is apparent from the beginning of the film - though she is their job, she is also a responsibility, and one that requires understanding and affection.

There are a few more actors to watch for - Ava Gardner in an unbilled roll as a Hat Check Girl. Even though you don't get a good look at her, the voice is unmistakable. Robert Blake, as Mike's neighbor Jerry is credited, but Bobby Driscoll (as Bobby, the boy on the train) is not. This was Mr. Driscoll's film debut (TCM article).
Radio versions of the film would appear on the Lux Radio Theatre in  June 1944, with Mr. Craig, Ms. Hunt, and Ms. O'Brien reprising their screen roles, and in December 1946 with Ms. O'Brien again enacted Alpha on Academy Award Theater. The story had been written specifically for Ms. O'Brien at Louis B. Mayer's orders (he wanted her to be the next Shirley Temple).

After reading Bosley Crowther's review of the picture in the New York Times , we wondered if he had seen the same movie as we did.  Variety, however, did enjoy the film, as did my fellow blogger at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. We'll leave you with the meeting of Alpha and Mike, and the suggestion that you settle down in front of the TV with this little gem. It's an evening well spent.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Joan is Constant

Composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) is frustrated with his current composition, an atonal work that does not seem to be gelling. He decides to visit Switzerland, the home of her dear friend Albert Sanger (Montague Love), a musician of sorts and the father of three young daughters, Toni (Brenda Marshall), Paula (Joyce Reynolds), and Tessa (Joan Fontaine). Lewis brings with him a little musical piece he composed for the children; when he plays it for Albert, Albert encourages him to expand on THAT piece, and forget the atonal work. But when Albert dies suddenly, Lewis takes on some of the responsibility for the girls, especially after he meets - and marries - their cousin, Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith).  There is, however, a big problem. The ethereal Tessa is deeply in love with Lewis.

The Constant Nymph (1943) is based on a 1924 best-selling novel by Margaret Kennedy. This was the third iteration of the story to be presented on film - it had been done as a silent film in 1928, with Ivor Novello, Mabel Poulton, and Benita Hume as the three leads (and adapted by Alma Reville), and again in 1933, with Victoria Hopper, Brian Aherne, and Leonora Corbett. This version of the film sticks pretty close to the novel, which in some ways may work to its detriment, especially in our modern age. As is pointed out by fellow blogger at Paula's Cinema Club, it's a bit difficult to look past the fact that, by the film's conclusion, Tessa is about 15 years old. The idea that this so much older man has fallen in love with her is uncomfortable, to say the least. If only screenwriter Kathryn Scola had made Tessa a BIT older, the film would be more palatable.
Yet, when I initially saw the film (on TCM, after it had mostly disappeared from view), it reminded me of a film and a novel that I really love. Because the theme of The Constant Nymph is very much that of an unattainable love. The other film, Portrait of Jennie (1948) and the novel, Tryst by Elswyth Thane, both focused on young women in love with men that time and fate had removed from their grasp. The difference between them and The Constant Nymph is that the characters are just enough older to make the relationships acceptable. As viewers, we really wanted to look beyond Tessa's age, but this was difficult, as she herself kept alluding to it.

Nevertheless, the performances of Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer were excellent. Ms. Fontaine is convincing as a teen-ager (though she does appear to be in her late teens, not really 14), and Mr. Boyer is romantically intense. Ms. Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film (she lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette; the other nominees were Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier,  Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Greer Garson in Madame Curie); she succeeds in creating a characterization that is both young and unworldly, enthusiastic and frail. Boyer was not enthusiastic about the script (TCM article) - he felt Lewis was being booted about by the women and had no real strength. Warner Brothers, however, met his price ($150,000 and top billing) so he accepted the role, and gave a sympathetic performance.
The same cannot be said for Alexis Smith, who is unimpressive as Florence. Ms. Smith affects a rather odd accent which is more snooty than truly English. It's genuinely difficult to understand what Lewis could possibly see in Florence - from the moment we meet her, she is a nag and a shrew. She has no understanding of his music or his ambitions, and is more concerned with the fame that marriage to him might bring her. As a result, her epiphany at the film's conclusion is forced. 

Peter Lorre is delightful in the small role of Fritz Bercovy.  Mr. Lorre plays the part as a man genuinely in love with Toni Sanger (though it's hard to say why. Ms. Marshall's portrayal gives us a woman who is almost as unlikable as Florence!). Fritz also deeply cares for his two little sisters-in-law, and though he is a tad absent-minded, he is also kind. Peter Lorre began his film career in Germany, with the highly-regarded M (1931). By 1933, however, he had left Germany - as a Jew, he knew the dangers that were facing him with the rise of Fascism. He worked in England for awhile, and eventually emigrated with his wife, Celia Lovsky, to America, where he found work, often as a villain. But what a villain - All Through the Night (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942) are just the tip of an impressive resume. Mr. Lorre and Ms. Lovsky divorced by1945; though he would remarry twice, they remained friends, with Ms. Lovsky often serving as his publicist and manager.  Because of chronic pain, he became addicted to morphine, an addiction he fought and conquered, but it did affect his ability to get roles. He died in 1964 from a stroke, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
Music is very much a factor in the film; the lovely score and Lewis' concert piece were composed by Erich Marie Korngold.  Mr. Korngold was on the set, and was involved in the story development and provided the piano dubbing for Mr. Boyer and Mr. Love.  The tone poem, "Tomorrow," became quite popular, and Mr. Korngold published it as his Opus 33 (Korngold Society) You can listen to the suite below.
Charles Boyer was not the first choice for Lewis - the film rights were originally purchased as a vehicle for Errol Flynn.  One wonders if the January-February 1943 trial of Flynn on charges of statutory rape had something to do with the change in the lead (it certainly would have been an even more problematic film with Flynn playing Lewis). Other roles were also in flux - Joan Leslie was, at one point, cast as Tessa, and both Wendy Barrie and Eve March tested for the role. Margaret Sullavan, Merle Oberon, Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland were also considered for parts in the picture. (AFI catalog).  In 1944, the film would be adapted for radio as part of the Lux Radio Theatre, with Charles Boyer repeating his screen role and Maureen O'Sullivan taking on the part of Tessa.
The New York Times review was ecstatic, calling the film "a fine tribute to the virtues that have made the book endure." In many respects, it is an excellent film; we found that we wanted to find ways to mentally change Tessa's age to make the story more acceptable to a 21st century audience.

We'll leave you with this trailer:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Vivien Crosses the Bridge

Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) is about to leave for the front during World War II. He walks across Waterloo Bridge (1940), and memories of his past enfold before us - memories of Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), the girl he met on the bridge during an air raid in the last war, of their engagement, and of her fate.

The long and the short of our film version discussion was that this was, hands down, a better film. One reason is because of the chemistry between Ms. Leigh and Mr. Taylor. Though she wanted her beau, Laurence Olivier to play Roy (he had a prior commitment and was unable to appear), and stated that Mr. Taylor's casting was "a typical piece of miscasting. I am afraid it will be a dreary job..." (TCM Article), it's clear from the get-go that this was a perfect casting choice.

They had appeared together once before, in A Yank at Oxford (Ms. Leigh was the bad girl). Back in 1938, Mr. Taylor was clearly the star - here, we have equals, and that is one of the reasons this film works so well. We don't have to make allowances for a Roy who is obviously not as convincing as Myra.  Because of their talent, you really watch the couple fall in love.
Ms. Leigh shines as Myra. This film takes the time to give us more backstory to Myra. It also cleans up her story quite a bit (we're not in the pre-code era any longer!). Myra is an innocent in the beginning. A budding ballerina, with a spot in the Kirowa Ballet Company, run by the delicious tyrant Madame Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya). Ms. Leigh is totally convincing as we watch Myra descend into a life of prostitution - desperation and hopelessness reflect in her eyes and in her very posture. It's a beautiful performance from an always amazing actress.

Ms. Leigh was born in India in 1913, and sent to England for schooling at age 6 (her parents didn't return to the UK until 1931). By 1932, she was married to Leigh Holman (they would remain friends until her death); the following year, she gave birth to her only child, Suzanne. Though Mr. Holman was not a fan of acting, Ms. Leigh returned to the theatre in 1935; her work there resulted in her receiving a contract from Alexander Korda. It was while she was appearing in the film Fire Over England (1937) that she met Laurence Olivier. The relationship - both theatrical and personal would endure beyond their divorce in 1960. Her career was a series of magnificent performances - both with Olivier and without. Her work with him in That Hamilton Woman (1941) is inspired, as is a wonderful performance in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) with Claude Rains. Her theatrical roles also gained her much praise, most of it on the West End (often appearing opposite her husband). Ms. Leigh, however, was plagued by bouts of depression - her inability to become pregnant with Lord Olivier's child only exacerbated the condition. After their divorce, she began living with Jack Merivale; he was with her when she died of tuberculosis at age 53. Lord Olivier, who was in the hospital being treated for prostate cancer, rushed to her apartment, and helped Mr. Merivale plan the funeral. At a recent visit to England, I was able to see an exhibit with some of her papers - the Victoria and Albert Museum received the donation of her papers from daughter Suzanne Holman Farrington.
Similarly, Mr. Taylor is both charming and strong. The opening scene tells us so much. Though he is a good and forgiving man, and years have past since their love affair, we know that he still blames himself for Myra's fate. It is as though, when she gives him her good luck piece, she gives away all her luck. Roy has survived, but we know from Taylor's eyes that he is still married to Myra in his heart.

If there is anything that is a bit hard to believe, it is that Myra can't get a job. First of all, this is during wartime - fewer men should mean more jobs for women. Unlike Mae Clarke's Myra, this Myra makes it clear that she is not just looking for jobs as a performer. She's tried a restaurant and a dress shop. Can one imagine a dress shop turning away someone as stunning as Ms. Leigh because she has no experience? That one plot point is a bit of a stretch.
The film is also gifted with amazing character actors - Lucile Watson as Roy's mother, Lady Margaret Cronin is excellent. You yearn for Myra to confide in her - Ms. Watson transmits warmth and sympathy in her performance, and her hurt is palpable when Myra all but shoos her away. 

We also loved Maria Ouspenskaya turn as the nasty ballet school teacher. She all but spits out her venom towards her students, who are merely cogs in her company and not real people at all. As the instigator of all Myra's and Kitty's (Virginia Field) pain, she is an evil delight.

The New York Times review was rapturous in their praise for Ms. Leigh  - this was her first picture after Gone With the Wind (AFI catalog), and she did not disappoint them. They also spared some praise for Mr. Taylor, Ms. Watson, Ms. Field, and C. Aubrey Smith (as The Duke). If you only want to watch this story once, this is the one to pick (they even managed to get around the PCA's objections to the plot without degrading the plot). We'll leave you with Roy and Myra's encounter on Waterloo Bridge: