Monday, April 23, 2018

Nina's Not Herself

Julia Ross (Nina Foch), an American secretary living in London is rather at the end of her rope. She's been unable to find a job, her boyfriend is marrying someone else, and her landlady has told her to pay up her back rent or get out. Julia seeks out a new employment agency, and is delighted when Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty) and her son Ralph (George Macready) offer her a job as Mrs. Hughes private secretary. There is a catch, Julia will need to move into their London house. Plus, they seem awfully pleased that Julia has absolutely no connections.  My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is our film for this week.

It took a B movie to finally get the always excellent Nina Foch a starring role, and she takes the part and runs with it. She gives Julia a strength of character that is admirable. Julia Ross is no demure damsel in distress. Despite her circumstances, she keeps trying to escape. Sure, she makes mistakes, but that doesn't stop her from trying again. Julia is fighting for her life, and she knows it. Ms. Foch makes you believe that Julia is clever enough to best these rather nasty villains.
And nasty they are indeed.  We'll start with George Macready who is truly scary as Ralph. If you've seen him in Gilda (1946), you are then familiar with his stare and the nasty scar on his cheek, which could terrorize the strongest of hearts (the scar was real - the result of an automobile accident). He uses it well here, tied to a nasty habit of playing with knives. George Macready started his career on Broadway, appearing in 17 plays including a 1927 Much Ado About Nothing (as Benedict) and Victoria Regina (1935), with Helen Hayes and Vincent Price (as Victoria and Albert). That play would result in a life-long friendship between him and Mr. Price. They shared a love of art, and would eventually open a successful gallery together (though they had to close it after two years - their film careers got in the way. For more on the The Little Gallery, see Victoria Price's biography of her father). Mr. Macready had a respectable film career, but really made his mark in television, appearing in a vast number of shows, including Perry Mason, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Night Gallery, Peyton Place, and Bonanza. Married once (the marriage ended in 1943), Mr. Macready died of emphysema in 1973. Speaking of himself, he owned to his affection for playing maniacal killers, but admitted that "at heart, I'm really a harmless and calm person."
If you've seen Gaslight (1944) or I Met My Love Again (1938), they you've seen the OTHER side of Dame May Whitty. Be advised, she is NOT the same character here. She's an evil piece of work - this excellent article from the Film Noir Foundation compares Mrs. Hughes to such paragons of motherly virtue as Ma Jarrett in White Heat (1949) and Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Dame May presents a careful performance - all sweetness and light to the outside world, but actually nerves of steel and a willingness to kill if the situation call for it. It's an excellent performance, in the kind of part she was not usually called on to perform.

This is considered a breakthrough film for director Joseph H. Lewis (TCM article). He would go on to direct the penultimate film noir, Gun Crazy (1950). My Name is Julia Ross is especially notable its tightness - there is a lot packed into that 65 minute running time - and wonderful lighting that really expresses the mood of the piece from cinematographer Burnett Guffey.
Nina Foch continued her career, primarily as a second lead in A films, like An American in Paris (1951)  and Executive Suite (1954) (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award). Julia is an extremely attractive character mainly because of the tenacity Ms. Foch brings to the role. She is no namby-pamby waiting to be rescued - as plans are foiled, she begins to devise new ones. Sure, she's trying to get help from Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno), but in the end, it is Julia who is her own savior.

We wanted to also acknowledge the work of Doris Lloyd as Mrs. Mackie, Julia's landlady. It would have been so easy to make her the traditional evil landlady, but the script and Ms. Lloyd rise above that, making her an integral part of the solution to Julia's problems. We found it delightful.
The story was included as part of a Lux Video Theatre television broadcast in March of 1955, with Fay Bainter and Beverly Garland as the female leads (AFI Catalog). Some aspects of the story were included in Dead of Winter (1989). Take a look at the cast of characters to this film - our heroine is now Julia Rose, and another character is named Dr. Joseph Lewis!

Bosley Crowther's New York Times review is not all that great - but he was very wrong. We cordially invite you to enters the nightmare with Julia (as did Robert Osborne in his remarks).  We'll leave you with a scene from the film:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Ronald is from Boston

George Apley (Ronald Colman) is from Boston. He believes the world revolves around Boston, and that only Boston manners - as decided on by him, of course - are the proper ones. His life becomes problematic, however when his son John (Richard Ney) falls in love with a "foreigner" from Wooster, MA and his daughter Eleanor (Peggy Cummins) becomes involved with an English professor, Howard Bolder (Charles Russell) who believes that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a radical; he also has the temerity to be a Yale graduate.  Welcome to the world of The Late George Apley (1947).

In a sense, one of the biggest problems with the film is the title. The LATE George Apley? George Apley isn't dead! But in the play (which ran for a year on Broadway, and featured Leo G. Carroll as George) from which the film is taken, the story is related by Horatio Willing (here played by Richard Hayden) after George's death in 1924. As a result, you spend much of the movie waiting for George to leave this world. The action of the film instead centers around events in 1912, with George dealing with the romantic relationships of his children. Neither has chosen a potential spouse that fits George's notion of appropriate. The film looks at his ability to accept his children adults, able to make choices about their own futures. It never gets to the end of the play.
Ronald Colman is perhaps the best part of this film; he is able to make George wry and amusing. Mr. Colman had an excellent sense of comedic timing; he also understood character distance - he keeps George ever so slightly removed from the action, until such time that it is imperative that he become deeply involved.  It is something Mr. Colman used to superb effect in The Talk of the Town (1942), and it works well in this film. He and screenwriter Philip Dunne are thus able to make George sympathetic, which would not be an easy task with a a lesser actor. (AFI catalog)

Making George and company sympathetic is a tricky task. He adoration of Boston and his disregard of any other part of the world can become trying. Though we never meet Myrtle Dole (John's love), we do meet her father. And while we first accept Julian Dole (Paul Harvey) as being wiser than George, we wondered if we should have done so. Mr. Dole proposes exactly what George's father did to George, and what George wants to do to Ellie - separate her from her lover for an extended period to break up the relationship. Mr. Dole's reasoning certainly seems rational - Myrtle will never be happy in Boston, while John will never be happy outside of it. In the end, we are looking at two fathers who infantilize their children, rather than letting them decide the future for themselves.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Agnes Willing (as portrayed by Vanessa Brown).  Agnes sees herself as plain and dull, primarily because John - her intended husband according to the Apley and the Willing seniors - is totally uninterested in her. However, after conversations with Catherine Apley (Edna Best) and Ellie, Agnes begins to see herself and her power differently. We are treated to the growth of this character, as she learns display herself differently and push back when others try to make her a walking mat. A late scene with Howard goes on a bit too long, but it does give Ms. Brown an opportunity to show off the new Agnes.

We were also pleased to see Mildred Natwick (as Amelia Newcombe, George's sister). Though Amelia is, quite frankly, a harridan, Ms. Natwick is always enjoyable in any part she plays. She works well with Mr. Colman, and with Percy Waram, who plays her husband Roger. And it is quite pleasurable to see the always excellent Peggy Cummins in a film. With only 26 film credits, it's a novel experience to be able to see something other than Gun Crazy (1950).
If the The New York Times review is an example of the reception the film received, it did not really wow the critics. The Late George Apley is by no means a bad movie; it's just not one of Ronald Colman's best films, even if his performance is top notch. Certainly consider it if you have a chance to see it.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Myrna on the Home Front

The war is over and three servicemen are on their way home. Sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), bombadier Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and infantry Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) meet on the plane to Boone City. Each returns to family, but each has changed: Homer lost his hands when his ship was torpedoed; Fred saw his friend crash, and now has horrible nightmares, and Al is tormented by his memories of the men who didn't make it home. Are The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) behind them or still to come?

In the first year of its existence (1989), the National Film Registry  added The Best Years of Our Lives to its list of films of "enduring importance to American culture." And indeed it is. It is perhaps the best film of the post-war period, if not one of the best of all time.  Directed by William Wyler after his return from the European Theatre of Operations, it was, in fact, his first film after spending over three years in bomber planes making documentaries for the U.S. Army Air Force. As a result of the noise in the planes, he lost his hearing, and was virtually deaf for several years. Wyler understood well the life facing disabled veterans. He therefore fashioned a movie (based on Time Magazine article "The Way Home," and a treatment by MacKinlay Kantor) that dealt with disability on a variety of levels. (For more on the film and it's creation, see this Film Preservation Board essay).
The most obvious examination of disability is the casting of double amputee Harold Russell as Homer. Unlike his character, Russell was injured in a training accident, and spent the war in the hospital. Mr. Russell was included in a training film Diary of a Sargeant (1944); when Wyler saw that film, he decided to change the character of Homer from a man suffering from severe spacticity. While clearly not an actor, Russell's gives a genuine performance; his scene, late in the film, with actress Cathy O'Donnell (as Homer's fiance, Wilma Cameron) is truly moving, giving real truth to the film. 

Mr. Russell became the only actor to receive two Oscars for the same performance: he was awarded a competitive Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (the other nominees were: Charles Coburn in The Green Years, William Demarest in The Jolson Story, Claude Rains in Notorious, and Clifton Webb in The Razor's Edge), as well as a Special Oscar for "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans." (TCM article). Years later, Mr. Russell sold one of the Oscars, in order to get funding for his wife's health care.
Fredric March won the Best Actor award that year, but  Myrna Loy as his wife, Milly Stephenson didn't even get nominated! If anything is a travesty of the Oscars, it is the fact that she was NEVER nominated for Oscars for any of her wonderful performances. (The Academy did try to finally rectify the oversight in 1991 by awarding her an Honorary Oscar. You can see her acceptance here). Her performance as Milly is inspired. Watch her face as she realizes that Al is in the house. Then, see if you can refrain from tearing up as she explains to daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright, who was only 12 years younger than her on-screen mother) why even her "perfect" marriage has its challenges. Her quiet dignity, as she silently, but sympathetically, observes the changes in her husband are beyond stirring.
Dana Andrews (who also was not nominated for this picture) is excellent as a man returning to a wife he finds he no longer loves (Virginia Mayo as the rather despicable Marie Derry), and who is forced back into the same dead-end job he left to serve his country. Fred Derry is still suffering the effects of the war. He has vivid nightmares of the death of his friend, he feels ill-equipped to take on a more responsible job ("I just dropped bombs" is his response to any queries about his ability to prove experience based on his war service), and his wife only wants him to wear his uniform and party. It is in the company of Peggy Stephenson that he is able to find any comfort or understanding, but his marriage is a block that he can't get around. Mr. Andrews gives us a character that shows the most growth throughout the movie - he really does go from a boy to a man.
Though they only have a few scenes, Roman Bohnen and Gladys George as Fred's father and stepmother Pat and Hortense are magnificent. Their most powerful scene occurs towards the end of the film; the scene is a simple one - Pat is reading a document aloud to Hortense which explains the citation Fred received from the military. With just Mr. Bohnen's voice and Ms. George's eyes, we see the love and pain that they feel for their son. The war, we see, impacted more than those who fought.

Equally effective is Hoagy Carmichael as Homer's uncle Butch Engle. Butch serves as the springboard to Homer's reentry into life - teaching him to "play" the piano, quietly encouraging him to open up to his parents and to Wilma, and perhaps more importantly, keeping him from slipping into alcohol as a refuge from his troubles. Another interesting casting note: Mr. Wyler used his 4 and 7 year old daughters in one of the drugstore scenes.
The film opened to enthusiastic reviews. The New York Times called it "this best film this year..." and Variety said it was "one of the best pictures of our lives." Since then, it has continued to be held in high regard, coming in at #37 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Edition (the same position as the original list) and at #11 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Cheers. Richard Brody singled it out for a DVR alert in his New Yorker commentary. It also was financially successful, earning over $11,300,000 in its first North American release. It was even re-released in 1953 to note the return of troops for Korean, to equally favorable reviews (AFI catalog). Yet, despite this, Mr. Wyler was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee - certain scenes were deemed Communist propaganda!

If you have never seen The Best Years of Our Lives, we strongly urge you to get hold of a copy. It is worth your time. We'll leave you with the trailer from the film.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Ronald Goes Mad

Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is a highly regarded Broadway actor, and while there is no debate on his talent, attitudes towards him as a person differ drastically. Mr. John has a problem - he totally inhabits his current role. As his ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso) says "when he's doing something's wonderful to be with him, but when he gets going on one of those deep numbers... We were engaged during Oscar Wilde, broke it off during O'Neill, married during Kaufman and Hart, divorced during Chekov." Despite this, Tony's producer is encouraging him to tackle Othello, a part he longs to do, but which also terrifies him for its intensity of emotion. A Double Life (1947) is our film this week.

Ronald Colman won a well-deserved Oscar as best actor for his performance in this movie. (His competition was: John Garfield, Body And Soul; Gregory Peck, Gentleman's Agreement; William Powell Life With Father; Michael Redgrave, Mourning Becomes Electra) He was originally reluctant to play the part - the part was first intended for Laurence Olivier - but persuasion from director George Cukor and screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin convinced Mr. Colman to take on the role and the Shakespearean text that went with it. (TCM article). They were certainly right; Colman's experience on the stage stood him in good stead, and he is an impressive Othello. You would never guess he was uncomfortable with the text; his portrayal is crisp and magisterial.

Considered a film noir, A Double Life also has moments that call to mind the horror genre. The scenes of Tony's descent into madness could rival the Hammer films of the time, with the use of unseen voices echoing from Tony's weakened mind. And is it any wonder that Tony has become unhinged - by the middle of the film, we learn that he has appeared in the play for over two years - 300 performances, of 8 performances a week?  It's amazing he didn't lose it after a year of doing what is probably considered one of Shakespeare's most intense and demanding roles (today, most actors leave their show at the end of one year). We did wonder if part of the screenwriters were (on some levels) mocking The Method, in the form of an actor who too deeply submerges himself into the character he portrays.
Both Signe Hasso and Shelley Winters (as Pat Kroll) are very good in their parts, though in many regards, the characters are there to counterpoint one another. Ms. Hasso is the dutiful wife (yes, they are divorced, but it is clear that she still considers Tony to be her husband) and Ms. Winters is the local slut. Ms. Hasso is very good as a woman torn between her love for a man, and her fear of  his increasing instability and violence.

I have to admit to a certain bias against Ms. Winters, who I consider to be an over-actor of the first order (that being said, her predilection for over-emoting worked beautifully in A Patch of Blue (1965), probably her best performance). But she is good in this role; you do find yourself sympathizing with her in what would prove to be her breakthrough role (AFI Catalog). Director Cukor badly wanted her for the part; in order to relax her, he filmed a rehearsal without her knowledge and used that as her screen test.
There is one decidedly problematic character, and that is Bill Friend (Edmund O'Brien). Bill is the publicity agent for Tony, he also has a crush on Brita and cannot understand why she does not reciprocate his feelings. Later in the film (spoiler here), Bill works with a reporter to label a killing as "the kiss of death" murder as publicity for Tony's production of Othello. He KNOWS Tony will object, that Tony will find such publicity tacky and distasteful. Yet Bill is seemingly surprised when Tony blows his stack and fires Bill. Bill's immediate reaction - Tony is involved in the murder. As Bill tries to involve the police in his newly blossomed theory, he is asked if there is any ulterior motives to his belief. He says no, though Mr. O'Brien provides a slight reaction, demonstrating that Bill is quite aware that he has a definite bias against Tony. It's really hard at this point to have any sympathy for Bill; the irony of his last name is apparent.
A very young Betsy Blair makes an appearance as The Girl in the Wig Shop, a young woman eager for a stage career - so focused that she is willing to change anything about herself to get a job impersonating Pat Kroll. The Girl presents a counterpoint to Tony - he becomes the part without choice, while she willingly subsumes herself for a chance at fame.

Though not as widely known as it should be, A Double Life has come up in recent commentaries. For example,  the New York State Writers Association at SUNY provides this fascinating examination of the picture within the tradition of Film Noir. They note the moody atmosphere created by cinematographer Milton Krasner - as well as the horror roots of production studio Universal. And this L.A. Times article released in 2014 after the premiere of Birdman finds a remarkable similarity between the two films, as they concentrate on stage actors becoming immersed in their roles.
George Cukor and Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin formed a partnership with this film - the first of seven collaborations, including Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, and Pat and Mike. Mr. Colman was convinced to take on the role as one that would result in an Oscar - and George Cukor kept his promise, campaigning hard to get Mr. Colman the award. Mr. Colman would only make three more films after this, turning his attention to radio and then television in The Halls of Ivy, with his wife Benita Hume. The New York Times review was glowing in its praise, not only for the film, but for Mr. Colman, saying it was "the role of his lengthy career." Despite Mr. Colman's fears, the Times was impressed by his portrayal of Othello. 

This is a fascinating film, well worth your viewing. We'll leave you with this trailer.