Monday, June 25, 2018

Ronald Visits India

The life of Lord Robert Clive (Ronald Colman) is recounted in Clive of India (1935), a somewhat fictionalized account of his beginnings as a clerk for the East India company through his rise as a military officer and later diplomatic official.

Let's begin by saying that this is a very loose interpretation of the live of Robert Clive. For one thing, Lord Clive, as portrayed by Ronald Colman is a much nicer person than the real Lord Clive, who has been referred to by William Dalrymple as "an unstable sociopath" (The Guardian) because of his treatment of the Indian people. Clive's death is still a bit hazy - it's quite possible that he killed himself; at the very least, his dependence on opium was surely a contributing factor. Nevertheless, this filmed account of Clive makes him far more heroic than the real man ever was. (For more on Robert Clive, visit this Wikipedia article.)

Regardless of its take on history, this film belongs entirely to Ronald Colman. He is in nearly every scene, and dominates the movie. There are a number of fine supporting actors, but most have so little screen time, you are likely to miss some of them. Mr. Colman is not afraid to make Clive annoying at times. He's not really going for totally heroic - his Clive is ambitious, impulsive, violent at times, and a tad greedy. What the film does want to do is to mitigate Clive's attempted destruction of the Indian people in his quest for money (TCM article). It's all for their own good, and Colman is pretty much stuck with that attitude.
Loretta Young as Clive's wife, Margaret Maskelyne, is little more than window dressing. She is included to look supportive and sad, and gets to do very little else. A scene in which she leaves her sick child to accompany Clive back to India is created out of whole cloth - the Clives had nine children (four died in infancy), but their oldest boy, and the child born just before Robert and Margaret returned to India, Edward Clive, 1st Earl of Powis, lived to the age of 85. Why the screenwriters (R.J. Minney and W. P. Lipscomb) felt it necessary to insert this dismaying episode is beyond our ken. (It's also rather irksome that both parents refer to the child as "the boy". Really? Don't his parents know his name?)
Colin Clive, who has two very brief scenes as Clive's adversary  Captain Johnstone, was in fact a descendant of Robert Clive. Colin Clive was nearing the end of his career, though his second turn as Dr. Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein, was released in May of 1935 (our film was released in January). Mr. Clive started his film career as a leading man, but by 1935, he was becoming a supporting actor, perhaps due to his increasing dependence on alcohol. He died two years after Clive of India, of tuberculosis exacerbated by his alcoholism.
Even though he was only in a couple of scenes, it's always a pleasure to see Cesar Romero. Cast as  Mir Jaffar, an Indian lord, Mr. Romero brought to mind his portrayal of Ram Das in The Little Princess (1939). We wondered if this role led to his being cast as Indians in both the The Little Princess and Wee Willie Winkie (1937). Mr. Romero always played his parts - even when portraying a villain - with a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. Clive of India is no exception; it would have been nice to have seen more of him in the film. Mr. Romero was not the first thought for the role - it was to have been given to George Regas (AFI catalog).
While there are some good scenes in the film - those with the battle elephants were quite impressive - this film is not going to be ranked among Mr. Colman's best. For Colman aficionados, it's worth a look. Otherwise, see Random Harvest or A Double Life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Ronald Has Amnesia

The first World War is ending, but for John Smith (Ronald Colman), it finished prematurely. Wounded in battle, he was discovered by the enemy, and eventually sent back to his country in an exchange. John will never return to the war - he has lost his memory, doesn't know who he is or where he came from, and is virtually unable to speak. But he desperately wants to leave the hospital and resume some kind of normal life. So, when an opportunity presents itself, he walks out of the hospital, and is befriended by Music Hall performer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). We'll be discussing Random Harvest (1942) this week.

While we endeavor to keep spoilers to a minimum, Random Harvest has so many twists and turns that it is next to impossible to not reveal something in any discussion of the film. So, if you've never seen it before, you might want to watch it before reading our discussion. Or at least be aware that a number of important plot points occur and characters are introduced because of surprise changes in the storyline.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizon (that highly successful 1937 film featured Ronald Colman) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (the film that in 1939 introduced Greer Garson to American audiences). The book is significantly longer than the film, and has a narrative voice that does not appear in the film. And one of the surprises that appears early in the film is saved for the final page of the book. Otherwise, the screenplay is faithful to the book.

Ronald Colman (while a bit old for the character) is absolutely amazing. He really has to play three characters in the film: the shell-shocked John Smith, the loving Smithy, and the aristocratic Charles Rainier. While I'm not fond of the scene in which Dr. Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn) bring Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd (Charles Waldron and Elisabeth Risdon), the parents of a missing soldier, in to see if John might be their son, Colman gives it just the right level of hopefulness. It also establishes John's desperate need to leave the asylum - without a family to go to, it seems likely that he will molder in the hospital until his will to fight is gone. Mr. Colman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance - he lost to James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy - as well as by the New York Film Critics. As two recent pictures had not done well - Lucky Partners (1940) and My Life with Caroline (1941) - this film (along with Talk of the Town (1942) put Mr. Colman back on top of the box office. (TCM article)
Greer Garson is radiant as Paula; like Mr. Colman, she too has to go through several "personalities," though not as drastic as his. With her warm smile and easy grace, it's no wonder that Smithy trusts her instantly. That he could ever forget about her is perhaps the only puzzle of the movie (though we are not at all stunned that even Dr. Benet is in love with her). Ms Garson gets an opportunity to sing in this film (wearing a the shortest kilt on record!). She does an impressive job, and imitates Sir Harry Lauder to boot in the "She's My Daisy" number.  Ms. Garson was not nominated for an Oscar for this role, but it's not all that surprising given that she WON that year for her impressive work in Mrs. Miniver.

Susan Peters, as Rainier's step-niece Kitty, does an excellent job in a role for which Donna Reed was initially considered (AFI catalog). She has to age from approximately 15 to 25, and also make us understand that her attraction to Charles is more than a schoolgirl crush. She achieves this ultimately when she decides they are not destined for each other. Her sympathy for Charles, combined with her understanding of her own needs as a woman endear her to the viewer. Ms. Peters was nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar (she lost to Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver), and she won the Supporting Actress award from the National Board of Review.
Ms. Peters had a sadly short career, appearing in only 24 films and television shows (much of her early work is uncredited). Three years after the release of Random Harvest, Ms. Peters was out hunting with her husband, Richard Quine and some of their friends. She reached down to pick up a rifle; it discharged into her stomach, the bullet logging in her spine. Though MGM supported her through her hospitalization, the realization that she was wheelchair-bound impelled them to pay out her contract. She did work after that, but rarely. Her most notable roles were in The Sign of the Ram (1948), in which she was the villain, and a television series Martinsville, U.S.A. as a lawyer (years before Raymond Burr was a hit as a wheelchair-bound detective in Ironside). She was also able to get some stage work - Tennessee Williams notably altered The Glass Menagerie to accommodate her injury. However, with her marriage ended (it has been said that she divorced her husband because she didn't want to hinder him), she became more and more depressed. She died at age 31, from starvation and dehydration.
The supporting cast, all in very brief roles is impressive: Una O'Connor as the Tobacconist, Henry Travers as Dr. Sims, Rhys Williams as Sam, Reginald Owen as "Biffer", Margaret Wycherly as Mrs. Deventer, Alan Napier as Julian, and Arthur Shields as the Chemist. Having such impressive talent as support for the leads adds immeasurably to the viewing experience.

Though it was not nominated for its cinematography, it should have been. The film makes you believe that it is in color. Some of it is dialogue - discussions of Paula's hair being the "color of a copper penny" and blue beads being the color of her eyes help, but the pink/white tree in front of their house, the warm browns of Biffer's pub, and the lush greenery of the Smith's little town make you forget you are watching a black and white film. It's exquisite work.
Pauline Kael's antipathy towards the film in later years (she said she preferred Carol Burnett's 1973 spoof "Rancid Harvest" because "it was shorter.") nonwithstanding, Random Harvest was a huge hit, earning $4.5 million and breaking attendance records at New York's Radio City Music Hall. It is today #36 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Passions, and in his tribute to Greer Garson, was cited by Keith Carradine as being his favorite of her films. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including Picture, Director, Screenplay, Black and White Set Direction, and Score).  Mr. Colman and Mr. Garson would reprise their roles twice for the Lux Radio Theatre, in January, 1944 and April 1948.

Random Harvest is a real treat, and one that you will revisit over and over again. Yes, it is a melodrama, but WHAT a melodrama, with performances par excellence. We'll leave you with the film's trailer:

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ronald is King

With Paris surrounded by the Burgundian army, the greater population is slowly starving. Not so the court, where King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) has an enormous store of food laid in, and he is not sharing. Fran├žois Villon (Ronald Colman), a poet and rapscallion, robs the King's storehouse of food, to sell to a local pub owner, Robin Turgis (Sidney Toler). Villon's partners in the venture want to kill the Guard of the storehouse (Barry Macollum), but Villon will not allow it; thus, when they are discovered, the Guard protects Villon. But the protection is only temporary - under torture, the Guard reveals the location of the gang's hangout. The King, in disguise, goes to the Fir Cone Tavern to watch the arrest, and overhears Villon boast of what he would do If I Were King (1938). Louis decides to make Villon his new Grand Constable, as the Count de Montcorbier. and gives him one week to solve the problems he bragged he could settle - after which, Louis will hang Villon.
 
The film is VERY loosely based on the life of the poet Francois Villon, probably best remembered today for the line "oh, where are the snows of yesteryear?" (from “La Ballade des dames du temps jadis”). The real Villon was constantly in trouble, was almost hanged, and was eventually banished from Paris. He had a tendency to get himself into fights; on at least one occasion, he killed his opponent (that his opponent was a priest probably didn't help matters any. However, friends and his adopted father - a lawyer - attested to the fact that Villon was attacked several times by said priest). Much of what is known about him is based on his poetry and on a few court documents.   For more information on Villon, visit The Poetry Foundation website.
Never mind that the truth of the narrative is a bit iffy, this is a wonderful film, with an engaging story and strong performances. The combination of Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone is inspired casting; the way they bounce off one another is one of the highlights of the film, along with a terrific supporting cast, spectacular art design, and gorgeous costumes.

Colman gives a Robin Hood flavor to Villon, a man who starts off robbing from the rich to make himself rich, but who, when handed power, finds that his love of his countrymen is stronger than his love of himself. Even when he is seriously misbehaving, the twinkle in Mr. Colman's eyes makes you want to forgive this arrant rogue. He has many fine moments, but he is at his best when he is verbally dueling with Basil Rathbone.
Louis XI is often referred to as The Spider King, and Basil Rathbone takes the name seriously. He literally moves like a spider, as he portrays the devious nature of Louis. He takes genuine pleasure at watching a man being tortured. He chortles with delight at the thought of trapping the robbers in the pub. He eagerly anticipates the fun of tweaking the noses of his courtiers - and of Villon - by making Villon the new Grand Constable. We've never seen Rathbone give a bad performance. This is among his best. Colman was justifiably nominated for his second Academy Award for his performance (he lost to Walter Brennan in Kentucky. The other nominees were John Garfield in Four Daughters, Gene Lockhart in Algiers, and Robert Morley in Marie Antoinette).

Frances Dee is quite lovely as Katherine DeVaucelles, but it's Ellen Drew as Huguette who really should have stolen Villon's heart. Ms. Drew makes this little street urchin delightful and sympathetic. She is the only one who really seems to love Villon without question.  Ms. Drew's career began in 1936, and continued until her retirement in 1961. She spent her career primarily in B pictures; in the 1950s, she made the change to television. Married four times, she had two children. She died in 2003, at the age of 88. (The Guardian).
Henry Wilcoxon appears in the relatively small part of the Captain of the Watch. Though he's not given much to do, he makes the most of what he has, and is memorable in the film. A favorite of Cecil B. DeMille (he appeared in starring roles in both Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935)). By this point, he was appearing in secondary roles (Hardy in That Hamilton Woman) or B films (Woman Doctor). Like many others, he made the switch to television in the 1960s, but not before he produced several films with his mentor, DeMille. Married twice (with three children, one of whom was named after his best friend, Heather Angel; another was named Cecilia after Mr. DeMille) he died at age 78 in 1984.
The story was originally a play with E.H. Sothern in the lead. Later, it was a silent movie with John Barrymore (TCM article).  Lux Radio Theatre presented an adaptation with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Frances Dee in October 1939. In the broadcast, host Cecil B. DeMille mentions that the story holds memories for him: he had appeared in the 1901 Broadway cast with his wife.

According to this AFI catalog article, "a replica of the throne of the Louvre Palace was made in cooperation with the French government." Needless to say, the set design is spectacular. Equally impressive are the costumes by Edith Head; whether she is dressing the commoners or the nobility, the costumes tell a story as well.

We'll leave you with this brief documentary on the making of the film. We heartily recommend that you give this one a try.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Ann is in Front of the Wall

David Starrling (Zacharay Scott) returns from a business trip; his daughter Susan (Gigi Perreau) is thrilled by his return. But his wife, Celia (Kristine Miller) is not. When David goes out of the apartment, he spots Celia in a car with Crane Weymouth (Tom Helmore) and their interaction are clearly intimate.  When David questions her casually, Celia tells him she went to a play with a girlfriend, but that evening, when Celia's sister Dell Faring (Ann Sothern) arrives for dinner with her fiance - Crane - David is able to confirm that Celia and Crane are having an affair. As they argue in their bedroom that night, David picks up a gun, and Celia decks him with a metal handmirror. Dell's arrival a few minutes later precipitates another argument, resulting in Dell firing the gun and killing Celia. As Dell runs out of the bedroom, the screams of young Susan echo down the hall. Our film this week is Shadow on the Wall (1950).

Though this is NOT a remake of The High Wall, the plot elements are remarkably similar - a spouse murdered, an orphaned child, a female psychiatrist trying to figure out what is going on, and a murderer who has no scruples when it comes to protecting his - or herself. And like Herbert Marshall in our last film, Ann Sothern is in far different acting territory in this film. She'd made a big success at MGM in the Maisie series, and had spent most of her career there doing light comedy. But with A Letter to Three Wives, she demonstrated her gifts as a dramatic actress. It's hard to sympathize with the dead Celia - she's spent her life backstabbing her sister and has graduated to cheating on her husband.  But this film takes her crime one step further - Dell Faring will stop at nothing to protect herself, even if it involves the murder of a child. (TCM article). Ms. Sothern makes Dell sympathetic up to the point when she realizes that Susan is a danger to her. At that point, her obsession with getting rid of the girl turn the audience firmly to the Starrling family, and to Dr. Caroline Canford (Nancy Davis) who's attempting to piece together what Susan saw.
I'm not a fan of Nancy Davis (Reagan) ordinarily, but she is perfect in this film. She plays Caroline with an appropriate detachment that emphasizes the professionalism of the woman. Her conversations with Pike Ludwell (John McIntire) demonstrate her concerns about the Susan and her father, but she never lets it get in the way of her duties as a physician. Her subtle performance make Dr. Canford one of my favorite onscreen physicians.

Zachary Scott's biography by Ronald L. Davis is entitled Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad. And while he certainly did play a lot of them, he doesn't here. David is a good man; he truly believes that he is guilty of the crime with which he is charged - albeit accidentally - and is ready to pay the price. His only concern is his child - everything he does while in prison hinges on his desire to find a safe and loving environment for Susan. That we know he is innocent helps in making him sympathetic, much of the credit goes to Mr. Scott's fine performance.
The role of Susan was originally intended for Margaret O'Brien (AFI catalog) - one can almost hear the screams echoing from her mouth! Regardless, Ms. O'Brien was not available for loan from MGM, so Gigi Perreau was cast. Ms. Perreau started her career at age 2, as Eve Curie in Madame Curie (1943). Two years later, she played Fanny Skeffington, Jr. in Mr. Skeffington. In 1956, she was the budding ballerina in Fred MacMurray's family in There's Always Tomorrow. Married and divorced twice, Ms. Perreau has four children. She taught drama for several years at her alma mater, Immaculate Heart High School, and for a time managed an art gallery with her brother Peter Miles (also a child actor). Like most child actors, she saw a gap in her career as she got older, but she is still working today, often as a voice actor.
If the two reviews posted in Ann Sothern: A Bio-Bibliography are any example, Shadow on the Wall was not really all that well received. It appears the reviewers had problems remembering that Ms. Sothern was not Maisie. Regardless, we found this an engaging film, with an excellent cast and well-written screenplay. We'll leave you with the trailer to the film, and the suggestion that you give it a try.