Monday, July 30, 2018

Gary is a Farmer

It's 1862 in southern Indiana. The Birdwell family, Jess (Gary Cooper), Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), Joshua (Anthony Perkins), Martha (Phyllis Love), and Little Jess (Richard Eyer) are getting ready for First Day. Of course, it is not without issues - Little Jess is being plagued by his mother's pet goose, Samantha. Mattie is fantasizing about her love, Gardner Jordan (Mark Richman). Jess is planning his attack for his weekly horse race with neighbor Sam Jordan (Robert Middleton), Eliza is thinking over her sermon for First Day. And Joshua is pondering his potential role in the ongoing Civil War, for the Birdwells are Quaker, and reject violence of any kind. Welcome to Friendly Persuasion (1956)

AFI Silver had a special screening of this excellent film, along with a question and answer session featuring Catherine Wyler (daughter of director William Wyler) and Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of star Gary Cooper). Both women discussed their respective parents' affection for the film - for Mr. Cooper, it was his favorite film - and their belief that their fathers' statements about war are very much present in the film's tenets.

The film is a deliberation on the ability of mankind to avoid violence. The Birdwells are peaceful people. It is apparent that Jess is a convert to the Quaker way of life, whereas Eliza was born to it. Jess has, by and large, accepts the precepts of his religion, though on occasion, he finds the life a challenge. For example, he likes music and dancing. He also can be pushed to violence - when his son is attacked by some bullies, it takes all his will-power to not simply flatten them. Jess is contrasted to Mr. Purdy (Richard Hale), a man who's belief in a peaceable life is valid only til it affects him. With his low-key strength, Mr. Cooper is perfect in the role; it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to do it. We discovered that Bing Crosby was considered for the part when Frank Capra owned the rights to the story (AFI catalog); writer Jessamyn West wanted Mr. Cooper.
Dorothy McGuire provides a quiet dignity that is essential to the character of Eliza. She is the anchor of the family, and of their faith. She's by no means perfect - she too likes music, and is drawn to dancing. She can be moved to anger. But Ms. McGuire shows Eliza's faith, as well as her deep love for her husband and children. Ms. Cooper Janis commented in the q&a how doubly impressive the performance is on a big screen, and it is very true. Ms. McGuire shines in any environment, but in a theatre, she is magical.

I'm especially fond of Robert Middleton's portrayal of neighbor Sam Jordan. With his hearty laugh, and good-humored teasing of Jess, he is an engaging character. But more than that, he shows the depth of his goodness when we see him going off to fight at the river. After lambasting the mercurial Purdy (who now espouses a violent confrontation against the enemy), Sam encourages Jess to stay behind, in hope that someone can be true a vision of peace. (It's interesting that the German poster below shows an angry Jess with a gun, totally contrary to the vision of the film.
The interplay between Phyllis Love and Mark Richman is delightful. Phyllis Love's  career was primarily spent in television and in theatre (She appeared in 8 Broadway plays).  She became a high school drama and English teacher in California. Married twice, she died in 2011, age 85. Mark Richman (he would eventually change his professional name to Peter Mark Richman) still occasionally performs. He was 91 this year, and his last film credit was in 2016. He too did theatre (he appeared in two Broadway plays), and like his co-star, really made his mark in television, appearing in a huge number of shows in the 1960-1990s. He is a painter as well as an actor, and currently is a member of the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

Though the part of Enoch is a small one, Joel Fluellen makes his screen time count. An escaped slave, who has lost his whole family, Enoch opts to fight rather than give in to his potential captors. Jess's support of Enoch, as well as Josh's regard for him speak volumes about their views of the rights of men. We'd seen Mr. Fluellen in Lucy Gallant, and liked him there. In this role, he's really given a chance to demonstrate his talent.
Jessamyn West would write a follow-up to Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee.  That would be made into a 1975 television movie (titled Friendly Persuasion), starring Richard Kiley and Shirley Knight (TCM article). 

Though Mr. Wyler always wanted Gary Cooper for Jess, other actresses were considered for the part of Eliza - Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman (who was still in exile with Roberto Rossellini), Margaret Sullavan, Mary Martin, Teresa Wright, Martha Scott, Jane Russell, Eva Marie Saint, Maureen O'Hara and Eleanor Parker (the latter two actually screen tested). John Kerr and Susan Strasberg were considered for the roles of Josh and Mattie.

If you've never seen this wonderful film, please consider giving it a try. And if you have seen it before, I recommend a revisit. It is a film that always brings something new to each viewing. I'll leave you with a trailer from the film.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Dr. Kay, Part III

Drs. Carol and Niles Nelson are up-and-coming physicians. They have a small private practice together, but are having problems making ends meet - primarily because Niles (John Eldredge) likes to bet on the ponies. But when Niles inadvertently tends to an accomplice of gangster Joe Gurney (Humphrey Bogart), they find themselves in the money. With visions of grandeur dancing in his head, Niles insists on moving their practice uptown. He continues, however, to fritter their earnings away gambling, while secretly working as private physician for Joe and his goons. Niles' death during a raid on Joe's hideout, however, leaves Carol (Kay Francis) in the lurch. Suspected of also being complicit in the gang's activities, Kay has a three months to clear her name with the medical board or lose her license, forcing her to seek out the King of the Underworld (1939).

This is a favorite film for me - it features Ms. Francis as a strong woman physician who uses her skill as a doctor to save the day. This was her third outing as a doctor, and perhaps her best. However, her star had declined at Warner Brothers, and only her co-star, the rising star Humphrey Bogart, was giving above-the-title billing. Regardless, Ms. Francis refused to walk out on her hefty salary from Warner Brothers, and just did her usual excellent work. She and Mr. Bogart got along quite well during the shoot, and his snipe at Jack Warner in a trailer may have been partially a response to Jack Warner's treatment of Ms. Francis (TCM article).
Bogart is impressive as the contradictory Joe Gurney. Joe is no brain trust - he thinks being called moronic is a compliment, but reads biographies of Napoleon. Joe was a poor kid, we learn, who became an expert criminal while in the Reformatory. This is a very a-typical gangster film, with no real "good guy," no moll, and a criminal who is truly stupid. Regardless, Bogart makes him a character who you have to watch - he's mesmerizing. Even lying back on a couch, he's scary.

Because of the strength of Bogart's performance, however, the other male leads - John Eldredge and James Stephenson (Bill Stevens) are almost invisible. Bill really is the "man in distress." When we first meet him, he faints. He's kidnapped by Joe, and has to be rescued (we won't go into detail here. Spoilers would ensue). Mr. Stephenson began his career on the British stage, and was 48 by the time he made his screen debut. He would work as second leads or as the lead in B pictures (like Calling Philo Vance (1940)). He was only 52, when he died of a heart attack in 1941.
We enjoyed the performance of Jessie Busley (Aunt Josephine). She initially comes across as skittish and weak, encouraging Carol to leave medicine and just lead a quiet life that doesn't involve gangsters. But, she is ultimately willing to move with Carol in her pursuit of the bad guys, and supports her throughout the process. She's even up to doing a little matchmaking on the side!
A loose remake of the Paul Muni film,  Dr. Socrates (1935), this film was originally titled Unlawful (AFI Catalog).  A script that is different from the one that you will see on screen is also in existence. And in that script, the ending of the film is far more "traditional" than the one that is one the film you can view today.  

We'll leave you with the film's trailer, with a brief glimpse of Ms. Francis, but no mention of her at all:

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Barbara and the Cavalry

The Cavalry has been ordered to capture Apache chief Nachez (Rudolfo Acosta). Trooper Hook (1957) leads the successful raid. One of the survivors is Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck), a white woman captured by the Apache many years before, who has born Nachez a son, Quito (Terry Lawrence). Though her "rescuers" suggest leaving the boy with "his people", Cora refuses to give up her child. Sargeant Hook (Joe McCrea) is ordered to return Cora to her husband, Fred (John Dehner). Their journey will take them into a land where both Cora and Quito are despised.

If you are not a fan of Westerns, you might have missed this excellent film. In fact, you might have missed it even if you DO like Westerns - it isn't always on the list of the best Westerns, and it should be. With a strong cast, led by two outstanding actors, the film tells a tale of bias in a more-or-less traditional Western format.

As always, Barbara Stanwyck is magnificent as a woman whose world has been upturned twice in her lifetime. Her silence as we meet her sets the tone for the film - hearing a language that has become unfamiliar, suspicious of her "rescuers", Cora is first and foremost a mother who wants only to protect her child. We watch fear and suspicion play over her face, we see her tentative movements. She silently bears the verbal abuse of Colonel Adam Weaver (Patrick O'Moore), she hides from his wife, Ann (Jeanne Bates). But when some townspeople assault her son, she is silent no more. Venom spews from her mouth in a torrent, as she attacks them with a shovel. This is no meek victim; this is a survivor. One lovely moment early in the film has a storekeeper, who has witnessed the harassment of Cora and Quito, waving goodbye to her. Ms. Stanwyck's tentative wave and shy smile are a testament to her ability to convey every emotion with the merest flicker of her eyes.
Joel McCrea's prior relationship with Ms. Stanwyck serves them in good stead in the picture (see this TCM article for a brief rundown of some of the earlier work together). Trooper Hook is also a survivor, with a backstory that parallel's Cora's. Mr. McCrea presents a stoic front, but we also quickly realize that he is an unusual man. Though Natchez is his enemy, he admires him for his dedication to his people. He also admires Cora because she survived. He understands the depths to which the survival instinct can bring you. Mr. McCrea's stoicism is not, however, without feeling. Like his co-star, we learn about him from his eyes and from his stance. His affections and integrity radiate from him without discussion.
Earl Holliman (Jeff Bennett) is a delightful surprise in this film. His character is engaging; unlike most of the men Cora meets, he casts no judgement on her and is delighted by little Quito. Mr. Holliman brings a balance to the film - he demonstrates that not everyone is biased against the Native population. It's also intriguing that Jeff falls hard for Consuela Sandoval (Susan Kohner), as a young Mexican woman en route to her arranged marriage. The attraction is mutual, and there is an implication that Consuela may not be adverse to breaking her engagement. Here too, we see that Jeff is not interested in ethnicity. He responds to people as individuals.

The only real pointless character in the film is that of Charlie Travers, as played by Edward Andrews. Mr. Andrews always displays a tendency to play broadly, and he certainly does so in this film. As a result, Travers is a disappointing caricature. Though the character is inconsistent, we felt that, in abler hands, the part might have added something to the story.
Terry Lawrence, who played Quito is very appealing in the part. According to the IMDB, this was his only film role, but on his webpage, Mr. Lawrence mentions that he did some television and commercial work. He is now a musician.

The AFI catalog mentions that Jody McCrea (Joel's son) and director Charles Marquis Warren's mother, wife, and three children all were listed by The Hollywood Reporter as appearing in the film. Jody appears as Trooper Whitaker, but there is no confirmation of the Warren family's work in the final film.

The paring of Ms. Stanwyck with Mr. McCrea is an inspired one, and both do credit to this timely story. There is a lovely symmetry to it, with the bigotry of characters like Colonel Weaver and Fred Sutliff carefully balanced by the acceptance of Ann Weaver and Jeff Bennett. This is a remarkable film, and one worth your viewing.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Clark's in Advertising

Victor Albee Norman (Clark Gable) has just returned to New York City after several years service in the military during World War II. Vic is determined to make up for lost time by getting a job in advertising; but not just any job. He wants a high-paying one. He approaches "Kim" Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou) about employ in his agency, but Kimberly is skeptical. He has a problem client, Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet) who takes up much of the firm's time, and the only hiring he might do would be someone that would placate the troublesome Mr. Evans. Vic is quite certain he is that man as he enters the world of The Hucksters (1947)

Having served as an officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Clark Gable returned to MGM to appear with Greer Garson in the film Adventure (1945). Advertised with the tag line "Gable's back and Garson's got him", the film proved a disappointment to all. Seemingly, there was little chemistry between the pair. It took two years for MGM to pair Mr. Gable with neophyte Deborah Kerr (Kay Dorrance) ("It rhymes with Star!" said MGM's publicity department), and it doesn't hurt that Mr. Gable also had the superb Ava Gardner (Jean Ogilvie) to bounce off of as well!  This time, MGM's investment paid off, with the film making double the studio's investment.
The Hucksters is a fascinating examination of the world of advertising. Certainly, there are times when its message seems a bit over-the-top, but by and large it paints a picture of the advertising world that would later be echoed in the film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) and in the television show Mad Men.   Based on a novel by Frederick Wakeman, the film is a much sanitized version, as Gable was unwilling to play the part as originally written, calling it "filthy and not entertainment." (AFI catalog). For example, Kay in the book was not a widow - she was very much married and Mr. Gable objected to his character having an affair with a married woman.

Even cleaned up, The Hucksters can be a strong indictment of the world of Madison Avenue. Take the character of Kim, and his drunken confession concerning his career's start. Or, the way in which Vic, who is by and large a good man, manipulates Dave Lash (Edward Arnold) to get what he wants. There is no question that life in this world results in a compromise of integrity if one is to succeed.
Though Mr. Gable was initially reluctant to star in the film, he was extremely supportive of his two co-stars once production started. He'd ask that Ms. Kerr do a screen test; obviously, once he saw it, he was more than satisfied - he had six dozen roses awaiting her in her dressing room. Ms. Kerr later stated that "He did everything possible to put me at my ease, and was a man utterly without regard for himself as a film technician, or for his status in movies." (TCM article) He was similarly supportive of Ms. Gardner, who'd had one major role the year before (she'd done a number of films, often uncredited) in The Killers. When Ms. Gardner had to perform in the night club scene (to an audience of no one - all the extras had left for the day), Mr. Gable arrived, sat down in front of her, providing her with an audience. They became fast friends, and would appear in two other films together (Lone Star (1952) and Mogambo (1953)).
Edward Arnold is excellent in the small role of Dave Lash, an agent who's client, Buddy Hare (Keenan Wynn) has caught the attention of Mr. Evans. Thanks to Gable's demand for changes to the script, the character of Dave Lash was made less charged. Mr. Wakeman's book had made much of Dave's ethnicity - his Jewish heritage was used as a club against him. Instead, the script changes Dave to a man who had had a bit of trouble in his past, but has spent his adult life trying to help children live a better life than he had. Allegedly, Wakeman built the book's character on agent Jules Stein, the founder of MCA (Freddie Callahan as portrayed by George O'Hanlon, was initially a caricature of Lew Wasserman).

A tip of the hat as well goes to the delightfully crude Evan Llewellyn Evans, as portrayed by Sydney Greenstreet. Mr. Greenstreet pulls no punches in making Evans totally reprehensible. The audience is both amused and revolted by his antics, making Vic's rebellion against him a delight to watch. Also watch for Keenan Wynn as the atrocious comic Buddy Hare. His awful routine also shows up the horrid taste of Mr. Evans.
The reviews from Variety and Life Magazine were lukewarm at best (Life said: "Opposite the ladylike Deborah, Clark Gable's mannered virility seems embarrassing - something that never happened to him alongside such tough Tessies as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow..). Regardless, the film made a respectable profit, Ms. Kerr's career was launched, and Mr. Gable was back the following year in the impressive Command Decision.
We'll leave you with a scene from the movie: the introduction of Evan Llewellyn Evans and a suggestion that you look this one up.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Queen Barbara

Jeff Young (or Younger) (Barry Sullivan) is on his way to Rock Creek, when he meets Lucy Lee (Mary Murphy), who's headed there as well to sell her cattle. When Jeff prevents Lucy from being raped by The Sundance Kid (Scott Brady) the two continue to the town together. Once there, Jeff gets a job with Kit Banion (Barbara Stanwyck), at her saloon The Maverick Queen (1956). Kit has been having an affair with Sundance, but is sick of his vulgarity, and finds Jeff to be a much more appealing man. However, Jeff's eagerness to meet the Hole in the Wall Gang arouses her suspicions.

We've already ascertained that Barbara Stanwyck can do anything, but Ms. Stanwyck is the perfect Western actress. She looks like she knows how to handle a gun, she looks like a horsewoman, she won't let anyone - man or woman - run her down. So we were really looking forward to this film. Well, we were wrong. The Maverick Queen is a pretty awful movie. And it's not that Ms. Stanwyck is bad in it - she's actually great. But she's got precious little to work with, and the rest of the cast is inferior at best. Ms. Stanwyck performed her own stunts in the film, by the way (TCM article)
I've previously mentioned my antipathy towards Barry Sullivan, and this movie is case in point as to why I don't like him. He plays Jeff totally flat - no emotion, and little reaction. He's got two beautiful women in love with him, and he can't even muster a smile. It's hard to believe that a woman as dynamic as Kit could fall in love with this nonentity, and Mr. Sullivan's performance doesn't help you to believe it.

Equally dull is the performance of Mary Murphy as Lucy. She's a pretty woman, but she is banal. She's supposed to be gutsy enough that she's willing to run a herd of cattle to market for sale, but you wouldn't believe it from her performance. Her career was not standout - she's remembered today for her performance in The Wild One (1953) - but does anyone remember any actor but Brando in that film? She did quite a bit of television, retiring in 1975.  She died in 2011 at the age of 80.
Scott Brady tries to play his role by not bathing and scowling a lot. Again, why in heavens a woman with the class of Kit would want to sleep with this guy is a mystery. This is not the Sundance Kid as played by Robert Redford thirteen years later; this is a nasty, mean, and crude individual with no class whatsoever.

It's always nice to see Jim Davis (Jeff Younger). He's possibly the only one of the bad guys with any kind of personality, and he's only in a couple of scene. Now, if Kit had been smitten with him, we might have believed it, but the casting department flubbed that one.
The script was based on a Zane Grey novel, which was a motivation for Ms. Stanwyck's appearance - she was a fan, and in fact made several appearances on the television series Zane Grey Theatre (hosted by and often starring Dick Powell). But, compare some of her TV scripts to this, and you'll see a big difference in quality. The tight television format was far more entertaining than this muddle.
With fight scenes that are almost laughable, and music by Victor Young (AFI catalog) that is trying to emulate High Noon, this one is a major disappointment. We will leave you with the film's opening, and a suggestion that you try a different Stanwyck western. We'll have a really good one for you shortly.