Monday, November 26, 2018

Hugh and the Famous Girl

William Thacker (Hugh Grant) leads a rather banal life in the Notting Hill (1999) area of London. He's divorced (his wife left him for a guy who looks like Harrison Ford), he owns a small house and rents out a room to a would-be artist named Spike (Rhys Ifans) and he runs a small travel-book shop in the neighborhood. But his life takes a dramatic turn when film star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) happens into his shop.

On a recent vacation, we had the opportunity to attend a screening of this wonderful romantic comedy. It's a film of which I'm particularly fond, so being able to see it on a big screen with an audience was a very pleasurable experience.  Notting Hill is an unusual rom-com because it does NOT focus on the woman. The film is about William Thacker, and it is his character with whom the audience identifies. So, it falls outside the realm of the chick flick by being centered on a man who is feeling the pangs of what seems to be unrequited love.
Hugh Grant has spent much of his career playing sweet, dithering men who seem totally flummoxed by women. He does so here as well, but it works to his advantage. William is a man who has been hurt by women - he wife left him, and he blames himself for being a disappointment. Anna intrigues him and he is greatly attracted to her, but he also is afraid that his "relatively inexperienced heart would I fear not recover" should their relationship fail. After all, he's barely been able to function romantically since his divorce, and the attraction to Anna is far stronger. Mr. Grant must play the ingenue in the film, yet not look weak doing so. He's able to create a character who is looking for love, and for whom the audience roots in return.
Julia Roberts has a harder role. Anna is constantly on the verge of breaking William's heart, but the audience has to understand that she is as vulnerable as he. When William takes her to the home of his friends Max (Tim McInnerny) and Bella (Gina McKee), Anna participates in a game of "whose life is more miserable" to get hold of the last brownie on the plate. Her response sums up her life:
I've been on a diet every day since I was nineteen, which basically means I've been hungry for a decade. I've had a series of not nice boyfriends, one of whom hit me. Ah, and every time I get my heart broken, the newspapers splash it about as though it's entertainment. And it's taken two rather painful operations to get me looking like this.
Anna has to find the inner strength to accept William's love, and the friendship of his friends. Ms. Roberts is able to make her sympathetic by showing her inner struggle, helping us to understand why she is so suspicious of everyone. She is especially moving when Anna and William climb into a private garden, and Anna expresses her yearning for a love that will last a lifetime.
The film is made more enjoyable by William's cadre of friends. Rhys Ifans makes Spike into a total goofball, who grows from the stupidest man in the world to someone who is actually endearing. William's sister, Emma Chambers as Honey (Ms. Chambers died earlier this year of a heart attack) is a delight as the woman who wants to be Anna's best friend, and who sees Anna as William's true love. Tim McInnerny and Gina McKee bring us a loving couple who perhaps have the most reason for self-pity, but whose love never allows it. And finally, Hugh Bonneville portrays Bernie, the reluctant stockbroker, who also is searching for love, and not finding it.

It's hard to remember that this film is almost 20 years old, because the story is as fresh today as it was when it was first released. It got decent reviews (Roger Ebert, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone all gave thumbs up). In my book, it's a film that warrants repeat viewings.  I'll leave you with a trailer from the film; if you've never seen it, do try and locate a copy!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Barbara Needs a Lawyer

Since the death of her father when she was 9 years old, Fiona Gaylord (Barbara Stanwyck) has been the titular head of the family. As such, she has spent much of her life in court, fighting to get her father's will to probate. An alleged remarriage, the death of various lawyers, and a second will that leaves 10% of the estate to a charity have delayed action on the will and forced Fiona, Susanna (Nancy Coleman), and Evelyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) into near penury. In the 23rd year of the court proceedings, the crux of the matter is now that Charles Barclay (George Brent), who heads the charity that would benefit from the new will, is trying to force The Gay Sisters (1942) to sell their home, something that Fiona rejects.

Based on the novel of the same name by Stephen Longstreet, the plot of The Gay Sisters owes much to Dickens. If you've ever read Bleak House, you'll find that the basic plot is the same - conflicting wills and children driven to near bankruptcy as they wait years for a resolution to their case. The novel is possibly based on actual events: the Barkley Square project is the Rockefellers vs the Vanderbilts regarding the construction of Rockefeller Center. (TCM article).
As is so often the case, Ms. Stanwyck was not the first choice for Fiona. The film was intended for Bette Davis, with sister Evelyn Gaylord Burton played by Mary Astor. Though Ms. Davis and Ms. Astor got along swimmingly on the set of The Great Lie the previous year (the two women rewrote and improvised to strengthen the script (TCM article)), Ms. Davis felt that Ms. Astor would appear to old for the role of younger sister Evelyn. (TCM notes). In the long run, Ms. Davis felt that Fiona was too hard and withdrew, with Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, and Katharine Hepburn all considered for the part. Ms. Stanwyck is excellent in a role that can be unpleasant at times. She is able to make Fiona tough and likeable. 

Another almost casting note was Olivia de Havilland as Susanna, but Ms. de Havilland wanted a vacation, so the part went to Nancy Coleman instead (AFI catalog). Like Fiona, this is a tricky part; Ms. Coleman does a decent job of keeping Susanna from being too much of a doormat, though there are times you would like to shake her. With two such powerful sisters, she is much too unwilling to confront anyone, and it can become irksome after awhile.
In the few films in which he was listed, Gig Young had heretofore been acting under his real name - Byron Barr. The audience, however, liked his character's name, so in this film (and after) he was listed as Gig Young. He's good in the role, though one wonders at the character's attraction to Evelyn. Regardless, Mr. Young makes it clear that sexual chemistry is not enough for Gig. Mr. Young had a long and successful career. He moved into television in the 1950s, but continued acting in films, eventually winning an Oscar (after two prior nominations) for Best Supporting Actor in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). Married five times (including 7 years to Elizabeth Montgomery), he inexplicably shot to death his wife of less than one month, then killed himself. 

George Brent has a nearly impossible role to play. We find out that he's a rapist (sure, he and Fiona were legally married, but it's still rape). He's trying to steal her property for his grand real estate scheme, all because he is in love with her. Huh? Mr. Brent does a decent job; you do end up rooting for him a little - not to win the case, but to come to his senses. 
Young Larry Simms (Austin) is jdelightful as Fiona's ward (and son). The interplay between him and Ms. Stanwyck is wonderful - her stamping of her feet to make him follow orders, and his growing trust of her make Fiona a more likeable person. Mr. Simms (who died in 2009) left films in 1954 -  he really didn't much care for acting - to join the Navy. He would later have a career that took him around the world as an aeronautical engineering. He spent his acting years primarily playing Alexander "Baby Dumpling" Bumstead in the Blondie series. 

The film features a plethora of excellent character performances, including Donald Crisp and Gene Lockhart, as good lawyer Ralph Pedloch and shady lawyer Herschell Gibbon. We also have a brief appearance from Ann Revere as Ida Orner, the nurse who attended Fiona during her confinement. It's wonderful to get such excellent actors in even these minor parts.
The story was aired on the Lux Radio Theater in November 1942, with Ms. Stanwyck and Robert Young as Fiona and Charles. In November 1956 it was revived on the Lux Video Theatre, this time starring Alexis Smith and Don Taylor.

With so much going on, the plot can become a bit dense, but we found this to be an enjoyable film.  The New York Times review, however was very unfavorable; based on some of his comments, we wondered if the reviewer was watching the same movie.  We'll leave you with the trailer to the film:

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Kay Meets a Robber

Welcome to our contribution to the CMBA 2018 Fall Blogathon: Outlaws. As always, we'll begin with a short synopsis of the film.

Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) lives to shop. Her husband, Baron Franz von Hohenfels (Henry Kolker) indulges her with expensive jewels and clothing, but other than that he is completely inattentive. The Baroness' lovers also prove to be bores, so all that is left is looking for ever more expensive gems. When she visits a local store to buy yet another impressive ring, she finds herself in the middle of a Jewel Robbery (1932).

Though the plot is slight, this is a witty and engaging film. From the moment we meet Teri, we are intrigued. Ms. Francis creates a funny, wry character who is sexy and adorable. We first meet her in a bubble bath, where she is playing with the bubbles and the soap. When the soap goes flying from the tub, we experience a moment in which we believe she is really going to pop out of the bath. The film is pre-code with a vengeance! And while it is very dialogue driven, that's not really a bad thing, since the script is so sharp, you want to hear every word.
Sharing the screen with her in their their fifth (of seven) films together (TCM article) is the always-entertaining William Powell. The unnamed Robber is gentile and courteous. Like Teri, he too lives to shop - but he'd rather do it without money. Together, their repartee is engaging and quite suggestive (like I said, this is very much a pre-code film). 

Teri and the Robber participate in a subtle mating dance from the moment they meet. We, the audience, have the pleasure of watching them verbally duel. And with William Powell as the sparring partner, the audience is in store for a battle of wits. The Robber's sophistication and wealth are apparent. The dialogue slips from his mouth like pearls - each line is delivered in such as way as to leave no doubt as to The Robber's attitude towards Teri, as well as his other "victims." One wonders why he is still stealing, as his vault is full of valuable gems, which he seems in no rush to sell. We suspect theft is a game to him - a cat-and-mouse challenge between him and the police, and his quarry.
Initially, Mr. Powell was not interested in the film (TCM article). He'd just married Carole Lombard (his first marriage had ended in divorce) and was eager to spend time with his bride. Unfortunately, the marriage was over by 1933, though the two remained close friends until her death in 1942 (My Man Godfrey was filmed well after their divorce). He was engaged to Jean Harlow when she died in 1937; that same year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He temporarily retired from film, while he underwent radiation therapy. Within two years, his cancer was in remission. His only child had died in 1968 (suicide following a period of prolonged illness and depression; father and son had been quite close, and William's final letter was to his father). In 1940, he remarried Diana Lewis, a marriage which lasted until his death (from heart failure) in 1984 at the age of 91. He'd been retired since 1955 (Mister Roberts was his final film appearance) (William Powell: The Life and Films by Roger Bryant).
Helen Vinson as Teri's best friend, Marianne is also delightful.  The scenes between her and Ms. Francis are amusing.  Their discussion of the Baron, and his lack of skill in the bedroom are more than suggestive, as is Teri's admission that she is merely arm candy for her husband - candy for which he is eager to pay, with expensive clothing and jewelry.  

Also appearing briefly is  Alan Mowbray as Detective Fritz, providing the one real surprise in the movie. Though it should be mentioned that there is another surprise for modern audiences, unused to pre-code films - The Robber's use of a "funny" cigarette, that keeps reappearing in the films at inopportune times is quite enjoyable (and is clearly marijuana, which would, of course, be totally banned from movies when the Code was introduced). (Gestures of Love: Romancing Performance in Classical Hollywood Cinema by Steven Rybin).
Jewel Robbery was based on Ladislaus Fodor's play Ékszerrablás a Váci utcába, which was adapted by Bertram Bloch for Broadway as The Jewel Robbery. The film got mixed reviews (The Complete Kay Francis Career Record: All Film, Stage, Radio and Television Appearances by Lynn Kear and John Rossman and ), some praising Ms. Francis, some criticizing her (we're in the former camp. She's delightful). 

This is a truly entertaining film, and we highly recommend it. We'll leave you with a clip with Mr. Powell and Ms. Francis getting to know one another.

This post is part of the CMBA 2018 Fall Blogathon: Outlaws

Monday, November 12, 2018

Gramercy Park Barbara

Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) and Brandon Bourne (James Mason) appear to be a successful, happily married couple. They dine weekly with Jessie's mother Nora Kernan (Gale Sondergaard), who shows deep affection for her son-in-law. They live in a lovely Gramercy Park apartment. But, there marriage was threatened some years ago when Brandon had an affair with Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner). Her departure helped repair their marriage; however, Isabel has just returned to New York, and she wants Bran back. Our film for this week is East Side, West Side (1949)

Before I begin discussing the film itself, I wanted to comment on the "East Side" setting. One of my favorite places in the world is Gramercy Park. For those of you not from NYC, Gramercy Park is a small region in Manhattan; it encompasses an area from 19th Street to 21st Street, and from Third Avenue to Park Avenue South. In its center is the actual Park, a private garden available only to residents. Centered in the Park is a statue to Edwin Booth; across the street is The Players' Club, which Mr. Booth founded in 1888. Among the inhabitants of the area were James Cagney (who lived at #34), Gregory Peck (you can see him walking in the Park in A Conversation with Gregory Peck), and Margaret Hamilton; John Garfield died in #3. The home in which the Bournes reside is #36 (right next door to James Cagney!) and was my personal dream apartment. Now, there is no way that Jessica can see the river, even from the top floor of the east face of the building (Stuyvesant Town would be in the way), but it's still an impressive residence.
It goes without saying that Ms. Stanwyck is impressive as Jessica. Though Jessie is quiet, Ms. Stanwyck makes sure she is not passive. Jessie is determined that her marriage will survive (her parents' marriage was tumultuous, and it had a toll on their daughter), but neither is she a doormat. She has made it clear to her husband that she won't tolerate his philandering any longer. Though she has suspicions at times, she is willing to trust to a point that he is keeping his word. Ms. Stanwyck makes her pain evident, but also shows us Jessica's strengths - especially when she finally confronts her chief nemesis, Isabel (for an interesting discussion of the scene, please visit this review by Jeanine Basinger in The New York Review of Books. It includes a review of  Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner in which Ms. Gardner alleges an affair with Ms. Stanwyck's husband, Robert Taylor).
None of us are huge James Mason fans; though he is at his best when there is something a bit shady about the character. This film is no exception. Mr. Mason has no problem with making Bran distasteful and weak; the result however is that you know pretty quickly that he is not a fit husband for anyone, much less the caring Jessica. His interactions with Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse, in a rare dramatic role) cut immediately to the chase. He flirts, she puts him down, saying "If I were your wife, I'd cut your heart out!" The audience totally understands her reaction; we don't even need to know that Isabel can summon him with a flick of her little finger to understand that he is spineless.
Conversely, Van Heflin as Mark Dwyer is excellent and immediately likeable. Sure, he falls for Jessica a bit too fast (but it is only an 108 minute film!) and he doesn't appreciate Rosa's affection for him, but he's a good man who has little use for Bran, and is upfront in his relations with the women in his life. Mr. Heflin, in his third appearance with Ms. Stanwyck (they had already appeared together in B.F.'s Daughter and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) , shows an easy relationship with his co-star. There is an equality and regard in their relationship that (appropriately) is not present with Mr. Mason.

Part of the reason that Mr. Heflin's character is so attractive is the regard with which he is held by Rosa Senta. She's loved him since childhood, but she is also a woman with a regard for herself. She won't accept him as a second choice. His honesty towards her; her response to their conversations make both characters attractive.
Let's also acknowledge that the women in this film are remarkable for their solidarity. Sure, Isabel and Felice Backett (aka "The Amazon", played by Beverly Michaels) are heinous people, but the interactions that Jessie has with Helen Lee (Nancy Davis) and Rosa, and the love that Nora has for her daughter demonstrate that not every female discussion results in a catfight. These women are protective of Jessie. Ms. Davis, (in her first screen role; she was on the set of this film when she met her future husband, Ronald Reagan), says it best, when she decries the belief "that [women] aren't capable of affection for one another and honest friendship." Rosa, Nora, and Helen show the depth of female friendships. (TCM article)

Beverly Michaels was also appearing on the big screen for the first time. She was married to the film's producer Voldemar Vetluguin at the time (the marriage would end in 1952). She only appeared in 11 films (3 of them uncredited), but she's quite good in this small but memorable role. After her divorce, she married again, to screenwriter/director Russell Rouse. They were married for over 30 years, until his death, and had two children (their son Christopher is an editor). She died in 2007, at the age of 78, by which time she had become something of a cult figure as a noir-ish bad girl.
As is often the case, Mr. Mason and Ms. Stanwyck were not the first choices for the Bournes - Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert were the considered first. This would also be Gale Sondergaard's final film for 20 years - she and her husband Herbert Biberman were blacklisted; they moved to New York City where she was able to get work on Broadway. Finally, in 1969, she returned to the big and small screen (AFI catalog) with the film Slaves (directed by her husband) and the TV show It Takes a Thief.

We'll leave you with the trailer to this excellent film.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Kay Goes Cocoanuts

The four Marx Brothers enter film and the sound era with The Cocoanuts (1929). The plot, such as it is, (based on their Broadway musical, with a book by George F. Kaufman and music & lyrics by Irving Berlin) focuses on the brothers' antics in The Cocoanuts hotel in Florida. As hotel manager Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) tries to woo the wealthy Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), Penelope (Kay Francis) has her eyes on Mrs. Potter's necklace.

Let's just admit from the start that there is precious little plot here. There's a jewel robbery, as well as our requisite young lovers (Mary Eaton as Polly Potter and Oscar Shaw as Bob) who are being thwarted by Mrs. Potter. But it's all superfluous to the antics of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho (Zeppo gets to play straight man to Groucho in a couple of scenes). Some of the routines can go on perhaps a bit longer than perhaps they should; regardless, it's still the Marx Brothers, and they are hilarious.

This was the Marx Brothers' first talking film - they had done a silent short (Humor Risk, which has since been lost) in 1921. The Cocoanuts film sticks very closely to the original musical, which was on Broadway from December 1925 to August 1926 (and revived for a week in 1927). So, while you have a lot of Marx Brothers' routines, you also have chorus girls kicking up their heels. While the Brothers were filming The Cocoanuts at the Paramount Studio in Astoria, New York, they were also appearing on Broadway in Animal Crackers. They were literally running from the sound stage to the 44th Street Theatre in time for the evening performance. (TCM article).
Perhaps one of the funniest sequences in the film involves Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Kay Francis and several doors. It's the kind of bedroom farce routine that would inspire plays like Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong.  The scene is impeccably timed, and in only her second screen role Kay Francis is a perfect foil for the routine. Unlike Margaret Dumont, she doesn't just let the mayhem happen around her. She reacts and participates. It's an crazily funny routine, and even moves a bit of the sparce plot forward.  If you are only used to Ms. Francis as the suffering lady, take a look at her here and get a whole new view of her range.
The film is, of course, bound to the limitations of the new sound process. Any scenes that involve talking are tied to a location with a microphone. In one scene, in which Hammer is reading a document to Chico, the actors had to use water- soaked paper so it wouldn't crackle. Musical numbers (of which there are many) are performed to an off-stage orchestra.

A highlight of this film (and most of the Brothers' films) is an interlude in which Harpo plays the harp. Watching him play is so enjoyable - you watch his face change as he plays; he becomes one with the beautiful music. Mr. Marx was pretty much a self-taught harpist (see this article from Vanity Fair in 1926 in which Alexander Woollcott discusses Harpo's playing) - his fingering is all wrong for a trained harpist. Regardless, his music is beautiful, and the audience is given a moment of calm to catch one's breath before the next onslaught of mania.
Though the film did not get great reviews (AFI catalog), and the Marx Brothers were highly displeased with it (so much so that they attempted to purchase the negative from Paramount, so they could destroy it), the film made nearly $2 million. This resulted in a total of five films made with Paramount, after which the three Marx Brothers moved on to MGM.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film: