Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Robert is Behind the Wall

After running his car off the road, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor) is found in the vehicle with the dead body of his wife beside him. When it is discovered that Kenet has complained of blinding headaches and periods of blackout following brain surgery, his trial is postponed to discover if he is competent to be charged with murder. Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter), a state psychiatrist, is charged with the task of evaluating Kenet. In the meantime, he'll be kept behind the High Wall (1948).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable film with some small issues, not the least of which is the character of Steve Kenet. As portrayed by Mr. Taylor, Kenet is a violent man, with an instinct towards strangulation when he is riled. We see him attempt to kill two people, and he hurts several more. Yes, he has good reason to be angry at William Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), and he has suspicions about his wife once he arrives at Whitcombe's home. Regardless, his murderous fury is out of place for a man who is ultimately trying to prove he is not a killer.

Kenet's predilection for violence also makes it hard for us to believe that Dr. Lorrison could have feelings for him. Let's start with the obvious - Ann is his doctor; he is her patient. It's totally unprofessional for her to go above her duties as a physician. Plus, she has offered to watch after his child (which, quite frankly, is a bit dodgy as well. One way or another, having the child in her care prejudices her opinion of him). Steve also unleashes his violent behavior in her direction - not exactly conducive to loving behavior.
These points aside, High Wall is a tight mystery that keeps you interested throughout. According to this TCM article, director Curtis Bernhardt wanted to show Kenet as a man damaged by the War. Both Bernhardt and Taylor were veterans; Taylor plays Kenet as someone who is perhaps suffering from PTSD, with violent surges followed by periods of blackout in which he doesn't remember his actions.  It 's a conceit that works well IF you eliminate the love affair between Kenet and Lorrison.

We very much enjoyed Audrey Totter in the role of the psychiatrist. With the exception of her decidedly bad taste in men, Ms. Totter plays Lorrison as a professional woman who is confident in her ability to treat patients and bring them back to a mainstream life.  Ms. Totter's career tended towards roles as second leads in A pictures (such as The Unsuspected 1947) or as the lead in B films. But her B films tended to be film noir, and she shone as the femme fatale.  She was Robert Montgomery's object of lust in The Lady in the Lake (1946) and Richard Basehart's promiscuous wife in Tension (1949). In a 1999 New York Times article (an interview that included noir "dames" Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray and Jane Greer), Mr. Totter acknowledged that "the bad girls were so much fun to play..." When she and her husband, Dr. Leo Fred married (they were married from 1952 until his death in 1996), she slowed down her career to raise their daughter, occasionally appearing in television shows like Zane Grey Theatre and Lux Playhouse.  She continued working until 1987 (her final appearance was in an episode of Murder, She Wrote). She died, age 95, in 2013.
If you are used to Herbert Marshall as a good guy, this film will quickly dissuade you that he is only capable of being a nice guy. He plays Whitcombe as a sociopath - only interested in himself and quite capable of doing whatever it takes to maintain his own status quo. Without giving too much away, there is one incident that is so sudden, and so cold-blooded that you will literally gasp as you watch it happen.

Screenwriter Lester Cole was called to appear before HUAC eight months after the release of this film, resulting in his imprisonment and blacklisting. This was the last script that was produced under his name (AFI catalog); he was able to get three others sold using fronts. His star in our film, Robert Taylor, testified to HUAC that Mr. Cole was a Communist.
The High Wall was produced as a radio play on the Lux Radio Theatre in November 1949, with Van Heflin and Janet Leigh and the leads.  It received a positive review from Variety though it did not do well at the box office.

We'll leave you with this scene in which Mr. Taylor has a flashback. Next week, we'll be looking at another woman psychiatrist dealing with an accused murderer.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Barbara is a Witness

Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) awakens one night, and goes to her bedroom window. She sees her neighbor,  Albert Richter (George Sanders) murder a woman. She calls the police, but when officers Lawrence Matthews (Gary Merrill) and Eddie Vincent (Jesse White) investigate, they find nothing. Was Cheryl really a Witness to Murder (1954)?

Though this is perhaps not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best roles, she takes control of the character with both hands, and brings it up to a new level (check out this wonderful discussion from the TCM website). What could have been a weak and helpless woman, in Ms. Stanwyck's capable hands, become someone of power and sense. Sure, she's afraid, and she makes some mistakes, but she learns from them. Case in point is the scene with the psychiatrist (Lewis Martin) in the mental hospital to which Cheryl has been taken. She's terrified, but she knows the only way to get out of the hospital is to take command of the situation - which she does. The disinterested psychiatrist is forced to sit up and take notice of this thoughtful woman.

Though the plot is nowhere near as good as other films in the genre, the film is reminiscent of other movies like Rear Window (1954; released AFTER this film), Gaslight (1944), and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). There is a certain amount of voyeurism - we watch Cheryl purchase binoculars to spy on her neighbor - as well as a great deal of menace perpetrated on women by men. While our trusty police officers aren't trying to gaslight Cheryl, it's what they succeed in doing. And, like Leona trying to convince the police of a pending murder, Cheryl too is ignored as she tries to convince some really stupid men of what she has witnessed. According to Stanwyck by Axel Madsen, the producers were aware that Rear Window had a similar premise when they began production on Witness to Murder, but believed their film had the punch to compete with it. Frankly, it just didn't.
Witness to Murder is saved from true lameness not only by Ms. Stanwyck's strong performance, but also by the presence of George Sanders as the villain. Mr. Saunders is an excellent actor; he doesn't try to whitewash Richter or attempt to make the audience like him. Richter is a cad through and through, but you enjoy every minute that he is on the screen. That he is a former Nazi is merely fodder for thought. He doesn't need to be anything but what he is - a self-absorbed, hateful bully who is enjoying his cat and mouse game with Cheryl.

George Sanders started his career in the U.K. He'd been born in Russia, but the family emigrated when he was 11 (at the start of the Russian Revolution). He began appearing in films in Great Britain, like 1936's Strange Cargo (not be be confused by the 1940 Joan Crawford film of the same name). That same year, he played the despicable Lord Everett Stacy in Lloyd's of London. But the wonder of George Sanders is that he played a variety of remarkable characters, from the devious Addison DeWitt in All About Eve to the heroic Simon Templar in The Saint series. He was a weak philanderer in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and a dastardly pirate in The Black Swan (1943). He even did a musical (Call Me Madame 1953). There really wasn't much he couldn't do - and do it well. He married five times (including marriages to both Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor). His marriage to Benita Hume Colman (after she was widowed) lasted 8 years, until her death in 1967. He published his autobiography (Memoirs of a Professional Cad) in 1960; in 1958, he did a record of Songs for the Lovely Lady. He continued working in film and television, but by 1970, he was ill. He committed suicide in 1972, age 65. His friend and colleague Brian Aherne published a biography, A Dreadful Man (1979) and David Niven discussed Mr. Sanders in his memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses (1975).
Where George Sanders is always memorable, the same cannot be said of Gary Merrill. While he is certainly likeable as Larry, he's also frustrating. He's smart enough to think that Cheryl is a remarkable woman, but he can't really accept that she is telling the truth. It takes him WAY too long to realize that Richter is the bad guy. By the end, you really want Cheryl to save herself and not end up as a damsel in distress. She's the only one with any real brains.

There was one small point that rather irked us as city dwellers.  Cheryl's door only has a snap lock on it, making it easy for Richter to access her apartment when she is not home. We found it hard to believe that a single woman would have such a flimsy lock and that she would not check to see that the latch had caught when she left her apartment. It works as a plot devise, but not so well as "realistic" drama. (We also found it hard to believe that Cheryl would - SPOILER ALERT - run to a high place when Richter's goal seems to be to throw her out a window. But the lock was more aggravating.)
The film was adapted for the Lux Video Theatre in 1956, with Audrey Totter in the role of Cheryl (AFI catalog). It's probably not surprising that it wasn't a huge hit at the box office, since Rear Window would open a mere three months later, with a far superior plot line.

While not a bad film, this isn't really all that good. The saving grace is the opportunity to see Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Sanders bounce off one another in their only screen appearance together. We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hayley Makes Me Glad

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, I'm going to break with our usual post, and contribute to the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, in which we'll discuss films that are sources of comfort when days are bleak. I'll be discussing Pollyanna (1960), starring Hayley Mills as the title character.

After the death of her missionary parents, Pollyanna Whittier is taken in by her Aunt Polly Harrington (Jane Wyman). Aunt Polly takes her position as the leading citizen of the town of Harrington seriously, much to the disgust of Mayor Karle Warren (Donald Crisp). The Mayor feels that Polly's domination of the town's affairs demean his role as a voted official, and eliminates citizen involvement in the workings of the town. Aunt Polly also has very decided opinions on her late sister's marriage to a man who she saw as beneath the Harrington family, and about the rearing of children. But she is not prepared for is Pollyanna, a little girl secure in her parents' love and accustomed to making lemonade out of lemons. Pollyanna brings with her a determination to be happy and to teach everyone around her "the glad game".
Over the years, the name Pollyanna has become an insult. Merriam Webster defines the word as "a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything".  Pollyanna has not had an easy life - her mother died when she was young, and she's recently lost her father. As missionaries, they were dirt poor, and couldn't even get their little daughter a doll. So, her father invented the glad game as a way to help his child appreciate what she had rather than bemoan what she lacked. Like all of us, Pollyanna gets angry, sad, and frustrated, but she tries to look for the good in people, for then (according to the medallion she has from her father), you will surely find it. 

Hayley Mills is perfect as Pollyanna; then again, I'm rather biased when it comes to Ms. Mills - I think everything she does is great. I recently had the opportunity to see her in an Off-Broadway play, and was thrilled (Party Face). She brings a sincerity to the character of Pollyanna. She's not perfect. She becomes furious at Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead) whose obsession with death frustrates the child. She scolds Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran) for his tree-climbing, but finally climbs trees herself. She loves her Aunt Polly, but lies about her maid Nancy's (Nancy Olson) relationship with George Dodds (James Drury). 

Several scenes have always stood out for me and cheer me when I'm down. After Pollyanna's encounter with Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou), she develops a fascination with the crystals that ornament his lamps - the rainbows they throw when held in the sunlight enchant her. So, in spite of his protestations, she begins hanging them from his window, to fill the house with rainbows - until finally he too is engrossed in the project. Another is her visit to the Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden), who has a fire and brimstone approach to religion (primarily at the urging of Aunt Polly). Though forbidden to talk about her father by Aunt Polly, Reverend Ford is intrigued by Reverend Whittier's beliefs, resulting in Rev. Ford's conversion to a more loving approach to God.

And of course, there is the relationship between Pollyanna and Aunt Polly - a woman who has rejected love (in for the form of Dr. Edmund Chilton, well played by Richard Egan), and is astonished by the instant love that Pollyanna lavishes on her. When Pollyanna runs to kiss her good night, Ms. Wyman's amazement sums up Aunt Polly in an instant. It's a marvelous moment.
Pollyanna's ability to try and see the glass as half-full is truly satisfying. She doesn't always succeed, but if she did, then she really would be the blissfully unaware creature of which she is frequently accused. But she's not. She's a wonderful, warm little girl who wants love (and a doll) and who has the magical ability to put a smile on your face. Don't believe me? Ask Tillie Lagerlof (Reta Shaw) or Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield). They will back me up! I'll leave you with one of my favorite scenes: Pollyanna discovers a rainbow:

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ronald Paints His Masterpiece

Richard Heldar (Ronald Colman) returns from the Sudan with a scar from a head injury he received saving the life of his best friend Torp Torpenhow (Walter Huston) and images from his life in the military. Dick is a painter, and gains success back home translating those images into highly successful paintings. Torp, however, is disappointed that Dick's views idealize the war; Dick pragmatically points out that idealism sells. But then Dick gets an idea for a painting of a woman - a Melancholy, which he knows will be his masterpiece. Using a local street girl, Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino), as model, Dick works steadily on his canvas. But Dick is under time constraints - due to his injury, he is going blind, and only has a few months to work. The Light That Failed (1939) is our film this week.

This film is the third based on an 1891 novel by Rudyard Kipling. The first two, silent films from 1916 and 1923, ended differently than our film. Kipling's novel originally had a very dark ending. But, under pressure, Kipling gave it a happy one. It was this ending that was used by the silent films. Director William Wellman, however, was not going to go for the whitewashed version. He used the original story, with its grim, hopeless conclusion. Bear in mind that Wellman wanted to give his pre-code film Wild Boys of the Road a bleak ending, and was prevented from doing so by the studio. We wondered if perhaps the studio should have intervened again.
Mr. Colman, who is willing to make Richard a nasty individual when called to do so, was not Mr. Wellman's first choice - he wanted Gary Cooper for the role (AFI Catalog), following their work together in Beau Geste. Mr. Colman and Mr. Wellman did NOT get along. According to this TCM article, Mr. Colman wanted Vivien Leigh (who was in the midst of filming Gone with the Wind) for the role of Bessie. Wellman refused - he had auditioned Ms. Lupino and wanted her in the part. This resulted in some on-set verbal sparring (Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati) and Mr. Colman finishing the scene without incident.

Despite the fact that she was unwanted by Mr. Colman, Ida Lupino nearly steals the movie in her breakout role as Bessie. Bessie is a complex and interesting character, and Ms. Lupino makes the most of it. In her able hands, Bessie is both sympathetic and unlikable at the same time. Born in England to performers, Ms. Lupino began working in British films in 1931. After several years in Hollywood in which producers did not know what to do with her, Ms. Lupino became "the poor man's Bette Davis" (her description; LA Times) picking up serious parts Ms. Davis had rejected. Her work in our film resulted in her casting in They Drive By Night (1940), as the mentally unbalanced Lana Carlsen. In 1949, she directed her first film Not Wanted, when Elmer Clifton became ill and was unable to finish the project. She would continue acting and directing, in both film and television until 1978. Ms. Lupino married and divorced three times (to Louis Hayward, Collier Young, and Howard Duff. Her only child was the result of her marriage to Mr. Duff). One of my favorite imaginary images are the reported meetings of the Directors Guild of America; the meeting opened with the words "Gentlemen, and Miss Lupino" (San Francisco Chronicle). Ms. Lupino may not have been the first female director, but she surely paved the way for women directors today.
Muriel Angelus doesn't really impress as Maisie. Where we dearly want Maisie to be an independent career woman, she comes across as a petulant brat. She invites Dick to see her work. When he provides honest criticism - which she had asked of him - she pouts, all the while pointing out that when men have previously praised her work, they had different intentions in mind. Maisie claims to love Dick, but she seems inherently selfish. You begin to wonder what exactly Dick sees in her.

Walter Huston, who is always a pleasure to see in any film, makes Torp a layered character. It is he who finds Bessie, and while we're pretty sure he has ulterior motives in bringing her to his lodging, he ends up feeding her and letting her get some sleep. He is a support to Dick, as well as his sternest critic.
Attitudes towards disability have changed since Kipling's time, making this a difficult movie to watch. But with good performances, and an interesting discussion of art it is a worthwhile film. Just be prepared that you may not like the ending.  

Monday, May 7, 2018

Ronald is Lucky

As David Grant (Ronald Colman) walks down the street, he spies Jean Newton (Ginger Rogers). David is taken with her, and as they pass each other, he wishes her luck. When her errand results in a lucky encounter, Jean seeks out David and asks him to go half on a sweepstakes ticket; they are, she believes, Lucky Partners (1940), and together they can win enough money for Jean to marry her fiance Freddie Harder (Jack Carson). David agrees, but with a caveat - Jean must go away with him on a trip if they win. He promises it will be all above-board, but he wants a few days with alone with her.

This is a cute, if slight film, that borders on being a waste of some excellent talents.  In their only film together, Ginger Rogers and Ronald Colman work well as a pair. They are an engaging couple, and it's a shame they didn't have a stronger script. Though at some point rumors arose of discontent between the two actors, Ms. Rogers firmly denied the charges. She agreed to the role (turning down His Girl Friday!) because of her eagerness to work with Mr. Colman. She professed in her autobiography to being nearly a fan girl on the set, grinning with delight every time she watched him work (TCM article).  Ms. Rogers opted for dark hair for the part, and later regretted the decision. Though she looks very different from the Ginger Rogers we are used to, we didn't think the dark hair was that bad. Her wardrobe, while simple, is totally appropriate to the character, a working girl in New York City.
Mr. Colman had just started his own production company; this film, and My Life with Caroline were the results. Sadly, they were the only scripts he could acquire. He plays the part of David with a twinkle in his eye, but even with the little bit of serious business at the end of the film, he really doesn't have a lot to do except be charming. It is important that we like David, and that we understand why Jean is attracted to him. With Mr. Colman, there is no question as to her reactions.

Jack Carson is such an excellent actor that he does a wonderful job playing a total oaf. This was his first big role, and he handles it quite well. Though director Lewis Milestone later recalled that Carson was in such awe of his costars that he was originally overwhelmed by his casting. Ginger Rogers was reluctant to have Carson in the role of her boyfriend - she recalled he had been an extra on one of her films. It was up to Mr. Milestone to remind her that she too gotten her start as an extra.
Mr. Carson started his professional career in vaudeville. He began getting uncredited screen roles in 1937; in 1938, he started performing on radio. His distinctive voice proved an asset, and he was soon hosting shows. The year after this film, he starred with James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth as the conniving Hugo Barnstead in The Strawberry Blonde. He played another loud in Mildred Pierce (1945). But he also could play leading roles, as in Roughly Speaking (1945), in which he appeared as Rosalind Russell's adoring husband. By the 1950s, Mr. Carson had segued to television, appearing in a number of shows, including The Twilight Zone and Bonanza. Married four times, he had two children with his second wife. He died in 1962, age 52, of stomach cancer.
Spring Byington has the thankless role of Jean's Aunt. While we usually love Ms. Byington, she is completely wasted in this outing. The character is more of an annoyance than a help to the film. It's a shame, because she is an engaging actress of great versatility.

One scene that was quite appealing was a small interlude with an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester, who Jean recognizes as children's book authors of whom she was a fan. Portrayed with delicacy by Brandon Tynan and Cecilia Loftus, the scene was sweet, primarily because of the performances of this lovely couple. 

Without giving too much of the plot away, the film attempts at the end to deal with a fairly serious subject - that of pornography. But the courtroom scene in which this is played out is so desperately silly, that it loses its punch. We have the wonderful Harry Davenport as the Judge, but even he can't pull the sequence out of the morass of nonsense. It's a shame, because it was fascinating to see a film trying to explain the distinction between art and pornography.
Adapted from a French film by Sacha Guitry entitled Bonne Chance (1935) (AFI catalog), Lucky Partners got a surprisingly excellent review from New York Times critic Bosley Crowther when it opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It also did well at the box office, earning $1.39 million.

We'll leave you with the trailer from the film. It's got some fun moments, and it IS your only chance to see Mr. Colman with Ms. Rogers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Loretta is Alarmed

What was once a happy marriage has deteriorated into bitterness and jealousy, due to the illness of George Z. Jones (Barry Sullivan). Bedridden from a heart condition, George has decided that his wife Ellen (Loretta Young) is having an affair with his best friend, Dr. Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling). He concocts a plan to keep the pair apart - he writes a letter to the district attorney, accusing them of trying to murder him, and creates a body of evidence to substantiate his charge.  Ellen unknowingly mails the letter; then George outlines his plan to her - and drops dead. Ellen definitely has a Cause for Alarm! (1951).

Our plot summary is a bit misleading because it's hard to tell if the Jones marriage ever was a happy one. Ellen clearly thinks it was, but, as portrayed by Barry Sullivan, George is a bully and rather creepy. Yes, some of this is the result of his illness - Ranney mentions that the heart condition and the medication George is taking have changed him - but George relates a story in which he beat up one child and then broke a toy so that another child could not have it. Is the story a delusion? Or is he really the jealous monster he portrays?

We must admit to not being fans of Barry Sullivan. He's not a BAD actor, but he isn't all that appealing either. He was excellent in Jeopardy (1953), but not so much in this film. A more sympathetic actor might have made the change in George more apparent. But the flashback scenes reveal a man who is obviously gloating as he steals his best friend's girl.
Bruce Cowling is equally underwhelming as Ranney. He's rather dull and pedestrian, and it's no wonder that Ellen is looking elsewhere for a beau in the early scenes. Mr. Cowling didn't have an stellar career - only 39 film and television credits - however Ms. Young must have had a regard for him - he appeared on her television show 6 times. He's okay in this film, but you forget about him when he's not around. John Hodiak was to have performed the part (which was allegedly shortened after Mr. Cowling was cast), but he dropped out for some reason after filming began (AFI Catalog).

Does this mean that the film is dull? Absolutely NOT - this is a suspenseful ride, with an excellent performance by Loretta Young. In spite of Ellen's lousy taste in men, you feel for her and root for her to succeed in her simple mission - to retrieve a letter from the Post Office before it reaches its destination. That there are men in her life is secondary to the story. This is a film about Ellen Jones, and a period of about two hours in which her life is falling to pieces.

This is a film noir set in the suburbs on a bright and sunny day. Children play on the street; neighbors tend their garden. George is an insurance salesman and Ellen is a housewife. It all seems so middle-America. But upstairs in the Jones house is a man who has become a monster. Eventually, he is a dead man, lying on his bedroom floor with a gun in his hand. It flies in the face of film noir conventions, and yet is very much of the genre. Instead of a femme fatale, we have an homme fatal, who has lured an innocent woman into a life that becomes a hell on Earth.

Thanks to Ms. Young, we are never in doubt that the routine happenings of her day - a client visiting to see her husband, the arrival of his aunt, the postman wanting to see him - are mere contrivances. An emotionally battered woman, she keeps her strength in the face of all obstacles, and keeps trying to protect herself. That she was unable to stand up to her husband doesn't matter. She is no doormat; she keeps trying and (thanks to the character's voice-over monologue) constantly revises her plans.
Written and produced by Ms. Young's husband, Tom Lewis, the film was based on a radio play that was done in real time (TCM article).  Allegedly, Mr. Lewis wanted Judy Garland in the lead, but Ms. Young got a lawyer to appeal on her behalf to Mr. Lewis that he was discriminating against her because she was his wife (IMDB).

The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was very positive. He was, not surprisingly very impressed with Ms. Young. According to Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young by Bernard F. Dick,though the the film was made on a small budget and did make a profit, it was not highly regarded by MGM. Ms. Young, who was approaching 40, was finding it harder to get good film roles, so within 2 years, she had switched over to television.

We'll leave you with this trailer from the film, and a recommendation that you give it a try.