Monday, October 29, 2018

John Bets on the Horses

Hester Grahame (Valerie Hobson) is a woman of ambition. She has a husband, three children, a lovely home, but she wants more. She wants expensive clothing and to mix in society, but that costs money. Her small income and her husband's earnings are not enough for her to live in the style she requires. Her young son, Paul (John Howard Davies) wants her to be happy and discovers that, by using his old rocking horse, he is able to hone in on the winners of some horse races. But there is a cost in using The Rocking Horse Winner (1949).

Based on short story by D.H. Lawrence (as well as a one-act play), The Rocking Horse Winner is often classed as a horror film. It is reminiscent of the short story The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs or of the film The Innocents (and the story on which it is based The Turn of the Screw by Henry James), with supernatural overtones that one is never quite sure are real. Does Paul really communicate through his rocking horse, or is it mere coincidence that he is able to pick horse race winners? It is his communication with the beyond that is seeping his life's energy from him, or is he just a sickly, over-imaginative child? We never will know.

As portrayed by Valerie Hobson, Hester is a careless person who overdoes everything. She overspends, she overreacts. She doesn't mean to be an uncaring mother, but her social activities are time-consuming. She has Nanny there to look after the youngsters, so Hester is not really aware of the changes going on in her young son. That she is much harsher and more selfish in the short story is probably one of the better changes made by the film. Were she that horrid, the movie would be completely unbearable. As it is, it is still a hard film to watch.
John Mills, who acted as producer for the film, has a small part. It's not an unimportant one, but he's only on screen for about 10 minutes total. Naturally, we wanted to see more of him, and it turns out the audience at the time of the film's release felt the same way. He later posited in his autobiography (Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please) that this was a factor in the film's poor box office returns: "I was deluged with mail from my fans, who said they didn't expect to pay good money only to see me on the screen for about ten minutes." (TCM article) Regardless, he is always an enjoyable actor to watch, and his characterization of Bassett, the Grahame's groom, is of the one totally honest and sensible occupant of the household.
This was John Howard Davies second film role - he had appeared the prior year in Oliver Twist (in the title role). He's very good as Paul, giving him a pathos and a frenzy that are appropriate to the role. He would appear in only two more films; in 1967, he would switch to directing and producing. The result - nominations for television BAFTA's for Monty Python's Flying Circus and Mr. Bean; and a win for Fawlty Towers. He died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 72.
While this is a very well-done and well-performed film, we found it painful to watch. If you are a horror fan, you might find it enjoyable; if you are interested in films that leave much to your imagination and provide much to consider, you will certainly enjoy it. In the end, we were glad we watched The Rocking Horse Winner,  but felt we couldn't recommend it without a caveat that the film is distressing.  We'll leave you with a scene from early in the film:

Monday, October 22, 2018

John Joins the RAF

Peter Penrose (John Mills) arrives at a military base, prepared to take on duties of an RAF flyer during World War II. He meets David Archdale (Michael Redgrave), his new roommate, and the two become fast friends. David is courting "Toddy" Todd (Rosamund John), while Peter is dating Iris Winterton (Renee Asherson). But what will be the effect of the war on their relationships. Our film this time out is The Way to the Stars (1945) [titled Johnny in the Clouds in the United States].

This is a quiet film, which portrays the work of the RAF pilots with sympathy and dignity. It opens after the war has ended. The barracks are deserted; there is a sadness and desolation in the abandoned airbase. Did we not know better, we might assume that the war was lost (you can view the opening in the clip below). This scene reminded us of the moment in The Best Years of Our Lives when Fred Derry finds the airfield of derelict planes. There is the same sense of a lost past.

We then fade back to 1940, and the arrival of our protagonist, Peter. At this juncture in the film, there is some joy. These men are committed to what they need to do, and look at it as the great adventure of their lives. It's not long before Mr. Mills is showing us, primarily through his reactions, that there is no adventure in their duties - just pain and loss. Sure, this is an English film, and there is a bit of "stiff upper lip" but it is clear that this stoicism is required to do the job, not because Mr. Mills or Mr. Redgrave are unaware and unafraid.
The film uses the arrival of Americans as a contrast to the English soldiers.  Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano) begins as the original ugly American. He is the epitome of phrase "over-paid, over-sexed, over-fed, and over here." His friend, Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) is more sedate, and is embarrassed by his friend's bravado. But like their British counterparts, the American soon discover that their boasts of taking the German's down quickly are just that - idle talk. They begin to take on the sobriety of their UK colleagues, and even apologize for their vainglory.

We've seen Douglass Montgomery before; we was using the name Kent Douglass in Waterloo Bridge (the studio didn't want him confused with Robert Montgomery), but when he left America to live in the UK, he went back to his own name. We were not impressed with him in his earlier film, but he is quite good here. Johnny has a dignity and ease that Mr. Montgomery makes apparent. He loves his wife and son, he also cares about the people he meets in England. He becomes the symbol of the caring American that Joe Friselli will need to emulate.
The credits make it clear that the film is written with some experience behind it. Terrence Rattigan, the screenwriter, was himself an RAF tail gunner. Scenario writer Richard Sherman was a Captain in the military (assumedly, the US as he was American). But all the participants had experienced the war firsthand. This TCM article describes an incident in which Mr. Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith experienced a bombing raid.

The Way to the Stars introduced two future stars: Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard both have small roles in the film. Also new to film was Bonar Colleano; he too was introduced in the film, but his career ended prematurely with his early death in 1958 in an auto accident. The film also features appearances by many notable English actors, including Stanley Holloway (Mr. Palmer) (who would become best known to American audiences as Mr. Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964)), Felix Aylmer (Reverend Charles Moss), Basil Radford (Tiny Williams) (probably remembered as the cricket aficionado Charters in The Lady Vanishes (1938)), Joyce Carey (Miss Winterton) and Renee Asherson (Iris Winterton).
The film is also exceptional in that it is a war film that never shows you the war. We see the aftermath of the battles, not the battles themselves. And the only scene that really shows the machinery of war at all is one of Johnny in his airplane. Even the romances of the piece focus on them within the context of the war. The Way to the Stars is careful to not lose the focus. This is about men at war - it is not about the war, nor is it about their love-lives. It is a story of survival, pure and simple.

Though the film was not successful in the U.S. (and is mostly forgotten here today), it is well regarded in the U.K. (See his BFI Screenonline discussion for the British view of the film today) and did well there on its release.

We really recommend that you give this The Way to the Stars a viewing. As promised, here is the opening of the film, with the abandoned barracks of 1946 and the arrival of the troops in 1940:

Monday, October 15, 2018

Lucy's in the Corner

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), recently relocated from San Francisco to New York City, has opened a private detective agency with Kathleen Stuart (Lucille Ball) working as his secretary. He is visited by Lt. Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley) and warned to keep out of trouble. But trouble is following Brad; he's being shadowed by Stouffer (William Bendix), an unpleasant character who it appears has been hired by Anthony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger).  Jardine is a disreputable man who likes to use people and then blackmail them. Welcome to the world of The Dark Corner (1946)

If you've only seen Lucille Ball play the daffy Lucy Ricardo, you are in for a treat.  Kathleen, as portrayed by Ms. Ball is one smart cookie - smarter, in fact, than her boss, the private eye. She's also a lot calmer under pressure; she is witty and determined. Reviews quoted in Loving Lucy: An Illustrated Tribute to Lucille Ball by Bart Andrews and Thomas J. Watson attest to the fact that her efforts here were not wasted: Variety called her performance "tops" and the Los Angeles Examiner said that "given half a chance [she] demonstrates a quality of work that is all too rare in pictures."  High praise indeed! She almost didn't get the part, though. Ida Lupino was originally cast, but scheduling conflicts kept her from appearing. (AFI Catalog) Sadly, the film was not a happy experience for Ms. Ball (TCM article); she did not get along with director Henry Hathaway, who bullied her terribly. 
Clifton Webb (Hardy Cathcart) seems to have been given the Waldo Lydecker part from Laura. Like Waldo, Cathcart is ascerbic, opinionated, and obsessed with beauty. Here, it takes the form of his wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), who, quite frankly doesn't appear to have two brain cells to rub together. She's no match for Mr. Webb, who dominates the scenes they are in (he should, really). But her acting is just not there, and she fades quickly into the background of the film, when compared to the talents of Mr. Webb and Ms. Ball.
Mark Stevens was also a second choice for the role of Brad - Fred MacMurray was suggested initially. It is interesting that Mr. Stevens gets fourth billing in the credits (as seen above), because it IS the lead role. He is decent as Brad, but he has the same problem as Ms. Downs - it's hard to shine when you are working with performers like Ms. Ball, Mr. Webb, and William Bendix. His skills as an actor are not as great as theirs, and as a result, he isn't particularly memorable. He proved to be a reliable actor, with a career that spanned radio, film, and television (He also played Olivia de Havilland's husband in The Snake Pit).

William Bendix is decidedly creepy as Stouffer (or White Suit, as Brad un-affectionately calls him). He's a sweaty mess of a man, with no scruples and a vicious streak a mile-wide. His presence in the film, and his exit from it are both memorable. He provides an excellent foil to the equally evil but far more intelligent Cathcart. Mr. Bendix began his film career in 1942, primarily playing supporting parts such as Gus in Lifeboat (1944). By the 1950s, he had starting moving to television, where he was best known as the title character in The Life of Riley. Mr. Bendix was married for 37; he died in 1964 of pneumonia, having appeared in over 90 films and television episodes/shows.
A highly regarded film noir (see these articles in Slant and in Noir of the Week for contemporary discussions of the film), The Dark Corner was based on a story that appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine by Leo Rosten (he also wrote Captain Newman, M.D.) Ms. Ball and Mr. Stevens would reprise their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre production in November 1947.  Screen Guild Players also produced a version starring Howard Duff and Claire Trevor in May 1952.

This is a really good film, and worth a viewing. Here's a trailer to whet your appetite:

Monday, October 8, 2018

Barbara has a Whip

The Bonell Brothers, Griff (Barry Sullivan), Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix) ride into Tombstone, Arizona with a warrent for the arrest of Howard Swain. Working for the U.S. Attorney General, former gunfighter Wes is not interested in the problems local Marshal John Chisolm (Hank Worden) is having with Brockie Drummond (John Ericson), the out-of-control brother of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the political force in the territory.  But when Brockie attacks Marshall Chisolm, Griff finds himself going head-to-head against Brockie, and by extension, Jessica and her Forty Guns (1957).

Originally titled Woman with a Whip, this is an interesting movie with a decent plot and an excellent cast who play well together. Barbara Stanwyck is in top form as Jessica. She is tough, and she is feminine; she makes it easy to understand why men both love and fear and respect her. It's not her forty gunslingers; it's Jessica herself who is a power to recon with. Interestingly, Stanwyck had SOME competition for the role. Marilyn Monroe, who was a contract player at 20th Century Fox badly wanted the part. Director Samuel Fuller wanted Stanwyck, and he won the day (TCM article). As an aside, Ms. Stanwyck did her own stunts, including one in which she is dragged several feet by a horse - a stunt that the stunt personnel would not do. In fact, Ms. Stanwyck redid the stunt 3 times, until Mr. Fuller was satisfied with it.
Barry Sullivan is good in the film - his stiffness works as stoicism, and he is able to handle the scenes between him and with Ms. Stanwyck well. Their romance has just the right amount of edge to convey strong individuals who click (See this discussion of some of the sexual byplay in this Slant review). He also handles the transition of Griff from stern control to subdued rage. And his rapport with Gene Barry is good. 

Mr. Barry brings humor to the role of Wes; his compatibility with Eve Brent, playing gunsmith Louvinia Spangler (Ms. Brent would later appear in a pair of Tarzan films as Jane, opposite Gordon Scott) is quite sexy. Wes is another man who like his women strong. His comment that he's never had a woman make a gun for him before is tinged with innuendo.
Robert Dix does a nice job of showing growth in the character of Chico. He manages to mature from an impetuous kid to a mature, thoughtful man. Mr. Dix is still acting - he'll be appearing in The Last Frankenstein sometime this year. John Ericson, however, retired in 2008; he makes Brockie a sociopath, though sometimes the character is a bit over the top. Ziva Rodan, in the small role of Rio (blink and you'll miss her), retired to Israel in the late 1960s. She's since returned to California (though not to acting).

Given the respect so many critics have for Samuel Fuller, this film is highly regarded by critics. The Slant review, cited above and this Senses of Cinema article praise his skill both with the script and with the camera. Mr. Fuller had a very different ending of the film in mind; the studio however, over-road him - they deemed his concept too harsh( AFI catalog). While Mr. Fuller's proposed ending really horrified us, we didn't like the one he chose either. We felt that he weakened Jessica, and that with a slight change, she would have remained the strong woman we so admired.
Jessica comments in this film on her age (some statements have been made that Ms. Stanwyck was too old for the part. We beg to differ). But age would be a factor for her career from now on. Ms. Stanwyck would not make another film until Walk on the Wild Side four years later (Barbara Stanwyck: Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan) in which she is decidedly supporting to Capucine. That would be followed by two more films, after which she moved into television where she was far more appreciated.
Filmed in Cinemascope (in black and white), the film is both gritty and beautiful. If this Variety review is any example, it was well received (especially since it was filmed for $300,000 in one week). A Criterion review of the Blu-Ray release also sings the praises of Mr. Fuller and Ms. Stanwyck. We'll leave you with this trailer, and a suggestion to visit Tombstone the next time the film is available:

Monday, October 1, 2018

George Finds a Body

Actress Mona Harrison (Adele Jergens) is expecting a package from costume designer Hector Rose. The package that arrives, C.O.D., which should have contained her Oscar ceremony dress, instead contains the body of Mr. Rose. Panicked, Mona calls reporter Joe Medford (George Brent), to make the body go away. But Joe has other ideas - after calling a photographer - and the police, Joe begins to investigate the murder, in hopes of a big scoop. But he has a slight problem in the form of Rosemary Durant (Joan Blondell), his competition on a rival newspaper. Our film this week is The Corpse Came C.O.D. (1947)

We have here yet another film that wants to be The Thin Man, but isn't.  George Brent and Joan Blondell just don't have the chemistry required to make that happen. Excellent actors both, they just don't gel the way Myrna Loy and William Powell do; their's is a unique chemistry that just is not found in this film. Ms. Blondell and Mr. Brent were better matched in Miss Pinkerton, though that was more her film (this is centered on Joe). Ms. Blondell was not the first choice for Rosemary - Veronica Lake was considered for the role. (AFI Catalog)

That being said, The Corpse Came C.O.D. is not a bad movie. It could stand some editing (it is 87 minutes long. It wouldn't have hurt had it lost about 7-10 minutes). A running gag in which Ms. Blondell ends up locked in a closet goes on for way too long, and much of the slapstick is really unnecessary. There are also a number of missing transitions; for example, early in the film, Joe confesses to a colleague his deep love for Mona, yet by the middle of the film, he's discussing marriage to Rosemary. There's almost a whiplash effect when he says it. He's like Romeo - in love with Fair Rosamund, and two seconds later, passionate about Juliet. But Romeo has an excuse - he's only 16!

All that aside, you have a pretty good mystery story. The  motives are well designed, and the murderer is a surprise, without being completely from left-field. The story is based on a novel by Jimmy Starr, who wrote three Joe Medford novels in total (Hardboiled in Hollywood By David E. Wilt). We wondered if the studio was looking for another series, and it just didn't pan out. If you can ignore some of the silliness, and just concentrate on the mystery, you've got a pretty good whodunit.
Jim Bannon, who plays Detective Mark Wilson was best known as a Western actor, particularly in the role of Red Ryder.  By the 1950s, he had transitioned to television, but didn't really find a good venue. So, in the 1960s, he moved to Arizona, where he worked as a radio announcer (his career prior to moving into acting) and as host of an afternoon TV show.  He was married for 12 years to Bea Benaderet (they divorced in 1950); the couple had two children, including Jack Bannon, who you may remember from Lou Grant. Mr. Bannon, senior died in 1984 of emphysema, at the age of 73.

The opening sequences of the film, with stock footage of Hollywood and images of the various gossip columnists of the day was very entertaining, as were the nightclub scenes. While this isn't a great film, it has some moments, and if you happen to run into it, it might be worth a bit of your time.