Monday, April 29, 2019

Loretta Composes

Marion Cullen (Loretta Young) lives in a small town in Kansas with her parents.  The arrival of Jimmy Decker (David Manners), a salesman from New York, presents Marion with a new view on life - she's never felt she fit in her home, and Jimmy is complimentary of her ability as a songwriter. After a row with her parents - and the announcement by her mother that Marion was adopted - Marion decides to leave Kansas and make a stab at a songwriting career in New York, as well as a life with Jimmy. There's a problem - Jimmy is engaged to Enid Hollister (Helen Vinson), the boss's daughter. This week, we'll discuss They Call it Sin (1932).

This is a neatly done film - tight and enjoyable (69 minutes in total), with characters that you really end up liking. Even those people you think are the most heinous turn out to have streaks of goodness in them. Though a pre-code, most of the naughtiness is Dixie Dare (Una Merkel) in her slip and doing cartwheels that are perhaps a bit immodest.

The film, like many pre-codes, operates a lot on innuendo. We THINK our heroine Marion, may be having a relationship with Jimmy, but she isn't. Later, we think she might be about to bed Ford Humphries (Louis Calhern), but she doesn't. Marion is very much an innocent who spends the film learning to become stronger with adversity. Ms. Young does a good job of portraying that naivety, along with giving the character a strong backbone - this is a young woman who bounces with the punches, and is not afraid to stand up for herself.
There is one other piece of suggestion present in the film. Marion's mother (Nella Walker) is openly hostile to her child from the moment we encounter her. Later, we discover that Mrs. Hollister is not Marion's birth mother; Marion's mother was a showgirl, and Marion is illegitimate. Interestingly, though a religious man, Mr. Hollister is (Joe Cawthorne) is kinder to the girl. We also learn that he asked his wife to take in the orphan child - according to him, an act of "christian charity." Is it possible he is Marion's natural father? The film doesn't tell us the answer, but we left it wondering just WHY he was so eager to adopt the girl. It certainly isn't because his wife wants children.
The men in the film are secondary to Ms. Young; they are moths to her flame. David Manners is the titular leading man. He had recently appeared in both Dracula (1931) and A Bill of Divorcement (1932) (TCM article). Regardless, the character keeps disappearing from the action, and we don't really miss him. George Brent (Dr. Tony Travers) is also absent for a lot of the film; again, the viewer doesn't really care.  Louis Calhern, however, is a lot more interesting as a roué; when he is on screen, you pay attention. Mr. Calhern started his film career in 1921, and on Broadway in 1923, appearing in 28 plays over the course of his lifetime, including The Magnificent Yankee in 1948 (a role he would reprise on film in 1950) and King Lear. With his splendid voice, he was made for talking films, and his career as a supporting player would expand in 1931.  Often he was the villain (as in our film), or the boss (Notorious (1946)). He ventured into the realm of the musical when Frank Morgan died in 1949, taking on the part of Buffalo Bill Cody in Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Mr. Calhern was in Japan for Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was replaced by Paul Ford, and his scenes were reshot, making his last film (another musical) High Society.
The supporting female characters are more interesting then the men. Helen Vinson is rather underused as Enid, but she's always excellent.  The star turn in the film, though, is Una Merkel as the effervescent Dixie Day. She's delightfully funny, and her little cartwheels add that little bit of pizazz (or "ginger" as Warner Brothers phrased in the TCM article above) that one expects in a pre-code . Ms. Merkel is always an actress to look forward to seeing - this film is no exception.
Image result for penn station new york

The gowns by Orry-Kelly are quite lovely, and we were impressed by the set design of Jack Okey.  The scenes of Penn Station are splendid, and for us, a piece of nostalgia. Demolished in 1963 (a controversial action at the time, and long bemoaned by New Yorkers - to quote architectural historian Vincent Scully "One entered the city like a God [now] One scuttles in now like a rat."), the building was a wonder of height and light. Mr. Okey used a combination of stock shots and sets to paint the picture of the station.

We'll leave you with the film opening and the suggestion that you give this one a viewing.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Rosalind is on Stage

Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell) a star of the theatre, has spent her career in light comedies, but she wants to try her hand at more serious plays. She’s been offered the lead in Hedda Gabler, and she's eager for the opportunity. But she is being thwarted by her manager, Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) who has also been her lover. Dunning threatens to tell her fiance, Michael Morrell (Leo Genn) of her past. As they argue, he physically attacks her. In a panic, she strikes him with a trophy. With Dunning dead, Valerie is in faced with owning up to the event or trying to hide it. Our film is The Velvet Touch (1948)

Rosalind Russell leads an exceptional cast in this noir drama, which concerns itself with the impact of guilt on our lead character's life. Valerie is less afraid of getting caught than she is of living with her crime - if the death of Gordon Dunning can really be labeled a crime.

Leon Ames plays Dunning as a cruel, careless bully. He's discarded his former lover Marian Webster (Claire Trevor) in favor of Valerie. He controls Valerie, as we can assume he did Marian. When Valerie seeks to end their relationship, he threatens her, not only with a revelation of their past to her new love, but also with death. When she hits him, there is a real sense of danger - it does appear he is about to strike out at her. It's because of Mr. Ames that we can sympathize with Valerie throughout the film.
The Velvet Touch was the first film made by Independent Artists, the production company formed by Ms. Russel and her husband Frederick Brisson (TCM article).  Mr. Brisson first saw Ms. Russell when she appeared in The Women (1939). Immediately smitten with her, he later asked his friend, Cary Grant, who was filming His Girl Friday (1940) to introduce him to her. Mr. Grant did (he brought Mr. Brisson along on a date he had with Ms. Russell). The rest is history - the couple married in 1941, had a son, and were together until Ms. Russell's death of breast cancer in 1976.

Rosalind Russell started her career on Broadway, so the setting of this film was not unfamiliar to her. In the 1950s, she returned to Broadway to make Wonderful Town and Auntie Mame - and starred in the film versions of both plays (and if you've never seen Auntie Mame, walk, don't run to get access to a copy). Before doing Wonderful Town, she appeared in the film My Sister Eileen (1942), upon which Wonderful Town was based. She won the Tony for Wonderful Town, and was nominated for Auntie Mame. Nominated 4 times for an Oscar, she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1972
Claire Trevor gives us a characterization of a bitter, but weak, woman. It's almost unbelievable that she could have feelings for a heel like Dunning, but Marian is so dependent upon him for her self-image that she is lost by his abandonment and by his death. Ms. Trevor, an actress who spent her career in character parts, appeared in another movie the same year as this one - Key Largo, for which she was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Her competition that year was impressive: Agnes Moorehead in Johnny Belinda, Barbara Bel Geddes and Ellen Corby in I Remember Mama, and Jean Simmons in Hamlet.) This snippet from TCM features Ms. Trevor discussing her work on Key Largo - it's a fascinating story.

The actor that really gives Ms. Russell someone to bounce off is Sydney Greenstreet, in his final film (he would continue his radio career for several more years). His Captain Danbury is a cuddly detective, whose warm familiarity hides an intelligent, observant man. How much he knows and when he knows it is always the question in this film. And though the audience sympathizes with Valerie, we like Danbury and almost want him to succeed.
It is worth mentioning that we have some familiar actors in supporting roles. Frank McHugh as stage manager Ernie Boyle is always amusing; Dan Tobin as Jeff Trent appears in a few scenes, and Lex Barker as young actor Paul Banton was just two years into his film career.  We were excited to see Theresa Harris (Nancy) as Valerie's maid. Yes, she's a maid again, but Ms. Harris shines in everything she does, even with a role as minimally written as Nancy.

The costumes by Travis Banton are wonderful - we were especially impressed by a cape decorated in gold (yes, it's a black and white movie, but we know gold when we see it!). If we have any complaint at all with the film it is the ridiculous title song, which must have been written for another film. Don't listen to it when you watch the film - it will make you NOT want to watch the film!

Ms. Russell and Mr. Greenstreet reprised their roles for the Lux Radio Theatre broadcast in January 1949 (AFI catalog).  As demonstrated by the poster above, in one Latin country, the film was released with the title Hedda Gabler (which must have confused some audience members)! Not surprisingly, Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review was dismissive: "a long and tortuous survey of Miss Russell's efforts to elude discovery as the rather obvious murderess and get on with her promising career." We disagree - this is an enjoyable film that illustrates the impact of guilt on a good person.  We'll leave you with the opening scene from the film, and a suggestion that you take a look at it. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Claude, The Genial Host

Secretary Rosalyn White (Barbara Woodall) is alone in the home of her employer, radio personality and "teller of strange tales" Victor Grandison (Claude Rains). She is on the phone with Grandison’s niece Althea Keene (Audrey Totter). Althea hears a scream on the phone, then nothing; Althea then calmly goes back to her party. The next day, Rosalyn’s body is found hanging from the chandelier; the police deem it a suicide. Some months later, Althea hosts a party for Victor’s birthday. A surprise arrival is Steven Francis Howard (Michael North) who claims to be the husband of Grandison’s other niece, the recently deceased Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield).  Welcome to the world of The Unsuspected (1947).

As part of the Spring 2019 Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir blogathon, we're going to take a look at this interesting film - which is worth watching for the Homme Fatale of the piece - the always intriguing Claude Rains (with a quick nod to one of the queens of noir, Audrey Totter!).

Any opportunity to see Claude Rains in action is one that should not be missed. He does not disappoint as the seemingly sympathetic uncle in this intricate mystery story. It's easy to believe him as a radio host who tells tales of murder and mayhem - likely scaring the hell out of the listening audience (his butler tells Grandison that he doesn't listen to the radio show. It's too scary. Grandison's response - "Do you like your job?"). Mr. Rains gets second billing to Joan Caulfield, however he is almost the whole show. When he is on the screen, I dare you to be able to take your eyes off him. With his imperious presence, one is never quite sure where he stands with regards to his two nieces. We believe he is a loving uncle to Matilda, but there is always that doubt - the true mark of a homme fatal! While Orson Welles was originally sought for Grandison (TCM article), and Robert Alda was announced as the film's lead (AFI catalog), the film is enhanced by Mr. Rains presence.

Audrey Totter is excellent as the malevolent Althea. Ms. Totter makes Althea a mystery - we know she is up to something, but the question is "what?".  She also seems to get most of the best lines. It's always a pleasure to see Ms. Totter; she rarely got star billing in A pictures, but she adds gravitas to any film in which she appears. Like Mr. Rains, she was not the first person considered for the part of Althea - Ava Gardner, Jennifer Jones and Joan Fontaine were all in the running. While we can't agree that Ms. Jones was suitable, Joan Fontaine could have been interesting in the part (take a look at her as Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad (1950) to see her as a down and dirty noir fatale).
Not without her own great bon mots is Constance Bennett as Jane Moynihan, the director on Grandison's radio program: "After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there's nothing I like better than a swan dive into a bottle of bourbon." Ms. Bennett is excellent as the one person in Victor's cadre who isn't afraid of him or after something.

This was Fred Clark's (Police Detective Richard Donovan) first film role, and he is good as a policeman with a brain. He was 28 when he joined the Navy in 1942; when he left the services (he had transferred to the Army), he started his acting career. He made a number of excellent films, including Ride a Pink Horse (1947) and White Heat (1949), but he his primary success was on television. He died in 1968, at the age of 54.
Dana Andrews was originally cast as Steve, but he wanted to part to be expanded; when that proved impossible, he withdrew from the production (as did his suggested co-star, Virginia Mayo) (Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode). Actor Michael North was "introduced" in the film, but he'd actually appeared in 21 films and shorts, mostly under the name Ted North. We found him to be somewhat banal, but it does work for the film to keep him more in the background. The Unsuspected may have introduced him, but it was also his goodbye to moviemaking as a performer. He left acting to become an agent, representing clients such as Red Skelton and Amanda Blake.

Hurd Hatfield (Oliver Keane) and Joan Caulfield (Matilda Frazier) are underused in the film. Neither are particularly dynamic actors, and both fade out next to the talents of Mr. Rains, Ms. Totter, and Ms. Bennett.  Quite honestly, you forget they are there after awhile. 
This The New York Times review was not particularly enthusiastic, (though they liked Claude Rains and Michael North). In more recent years, the film has been discussed for the atmospheric camera work achieved by director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Woody Bredell. (Film Noir Reader 4 by Alain Silver & James Ursini). Whether you watch it for the scenery, the acting, or the story, do consider giving this one a look. We'll leave you with the film's trailer:

This posting is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring 2019 Blogathon on Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Betty Wears Ermine

The kingdom of Bergamo is celebrating the wedding of their Countess Angelina (Betty Grable) to Baron Mario (Cesar Romero), her childhood friend. The festivities are interrupted by gunshot - the Hungarians, Bergamo's longtime enemy are invading. Mario flees to join his regiment, while Angelina awaits the arrival of the Colonel (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and his forces. When he arrives and is denied admittance to the Countess, the Colonel finds himself smitten with a portrait of an earlier Countess of Bergamo, Francesca (Betty Grable), That Lady in Ermine (1948).

Initially directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this is a frothy little musical that is fun and enjoyable. It's a happy film; it's a bit silly, but it is fun and entertaining. It's a fairy tale for adults and doesn't try to be anything else. Based on an operetta titled Die Frau im Hermelin, Lubitsch had hoped to direct it since the studio acquired the rights in 1942. By the time he was able to put the film together, he was suffering from heart disease, and regrettably died during production. Direction was taken over by Otto Preminger (who reshot some scenes, and deleted others). Out of respect for Lubitsch (or so he claimed), Preminger refused to have his name placed on the picture (TCM article).

Betty Grable is quite sweet as the Countesses Francesca and Angelina. As Francesca, she is a portrait come to life - and she is especially fun in that role. She gets to boss the other portraits around, and beam periodically at The Colonel (which is rather disconcerting for him!). Of course, she is also an excellent dancer, and her big number with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is quite energetic and exciting to watch (directed by Hermes Pan!). She also has a beautiful wardrobe designed by Renè Hubert - the full-length ermine coat that Francesca wears in the portrait was real ermine according to the Fox publicity department, and cost $28,000. (AFI catalog)
Douglas Fairbanks is captivating and charming as the Colonel. Though initially domineering, exposure to Francesca - and Angelina - make him loosen up a bit. Mr. Fairbanks portrays the Colonel as a man secure in his masculinity, and so you root for him  to capture the love of the fair maiden. The dance cited above is exciting largely because of Mr. Fairbanks athletic style of dance -   as he leaps on and off  tables, one is reminded of his father, Douglas Sr.

Mr. Fairbanks' foil in the action is Cesar Romero, who doesn't really have a lot to work with. Mario is a wimp, and he is there if only to give the audience someone to root against. Born in New York City (and yes, Cesar Romero is his real name). He started his film career in 1933 - his second film had him as the greedy husband of the former Mrs. Wynant in The Thin Man (1934).  Much of his career, however, was spent playing ethnic parts and in supporting roles - he was Indian in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Italian in British Agent (1934), and Spanish in The Captain from Castile (1947) - but he had his share of leads, including Week-End in Havana (1941).  During the second World War, he joined the Coast Guard, and saw action in the Mariana Islands. He began to transition to television in the 1950's and it was there that he found a new audience - notably with his audacious performance as The Joker in the Batman series. He was popular in the Hollywood community - frequently escorting single women like Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman and Ginger Rogers to events. Mr. Romero never married; he died in 1994, at age 86, of a blood clot. 
It's always a pleasure to see Walter Abel (playing the dual roles of Major Horvath and Benvenuto). He's delightful as a family man who rather likes his surly commander.  Also present in very small parts are Reginald Gardiner (as Alberto, an inhabitant of one of the portraits), and Harry Davenport (as Luigi, the palace storyteller and matchmaker).

When the film was first acquired, Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer were the intended leads. Later, Gene Tierney was considered for Francesca/Angelina and both Rex Harrison and Cornel Wilde were in the running for the Colonel. Not surprisingly, the PCA had some issues with the initial script; some minor tweaks to the ending solved this problems.
We were amazed to discover that Bosley Crowther of the New York Times actually enjoyed the film when he reviewed it. He called it "a glittering and mischievous romp, punctuated with nice music...." While not Lubitsch's best film, it's a lot of fun and certainly worth seeing (it was my favorite movie when I was tiny, and much to my parents' chagrin, in the age before VHS recorders, it was a movie I was always asking to view). We'll leave you with this trailer:

Monday, April 1, 2019

Harry's First Year

2001 is a rather recent film for this blog to cover, but I had the opportunity to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again with a friend, so it seemed like a good opportunity to expand my focus a bit and discuss this rather lovely movie. I'm a big fan of Harry Potter (both the books and the films), so I was pleased when my friend decided we should make that a "movie night" selection.

The basic plot: Baby Harry Potter is left on the doorstep of his Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) Dursley. He endures 11 years of neglect, living in a cupboard under the stairs in the Dursleys' home, belittled by his guardians and their obnoxious son Dudley (Harry Melling).  However, on his 11th birthday, letters begin to arrive, not just by post, but down the chimney, delivered apparently by a flock of owls.  Harru's uncle tries to destroy them, but a visit by giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) results in Harry being taken from the Durleys for enrollment in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry, it turns out, is a wizard, whose parents were killed defending him from a dark wizard, Voldemort. Voldemort disappeared after being unable to kill Harry, and Harry is famous in the wizarding community as The Boy Who Lived.

I was dubious when I read the first Harry Potter novel. It was a children's book after all, and I was a grown-up. I read the first three chapters, muttering under my breath "children's book." And then I became so engrossed that I stopped categorizing it.  As more books were released, I snatched them off the shelf; attending parties in Barnes and Nobles (one treat was listening to Jim Dale read from the prior book), waiting for my book to arrive in the mail, and spending the next few days savoring the new story. I don't often cry when reading books, but the Harry Potter made me cry three times. Thankfully, the movies lived up to the novels, primarily due to the excellent casting of the key characters.
Richard Harris was the perfect Albus Dumbledore.  Sorry, Michael Gambon, good as you are, you will always be second best.  Mr. Harris was not keen on taking the role - he turned it down THREE times and only accepted it when his granddaughter told him she would never speak to him again if he didn't do the part (The Guardian). Sadly, Mr. Harris died after the second film, and the role was assumed by Mr. Gambon.

Severus Snape, as played by the amazing Alan Rickman is really a minor character in this film. He is quite disagreeable, and of course, we won't find out for some time just what Snape's problem is with Harry Potter. Mr. Rickman was at first reluctant to take on a part that, in the first script really just appeared to be a standard child's villain, but author J.K. Rowling told him what was planned for later in the film (Vanity Fair). Once you've read all the books (or seen all the films), you realize how marvelous Mr. Rickman makes Snape - he is a character it is hard to hate.
This is, however, a film about children: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the enduring friendship and partnership that develops during their years at Hogwarts. I've always felt that Harry falls in love with the entire Weasley family, not just Ginny (spoiler - that's in a later book). The Weasleys represent for Harry the family that he lost. 

Mr. Radcliffe is especially good as Harry in this first film. The scene in which he encounters the Mirror of Erised is especially moving. As this child, who has never known love, looks into the mirror and sees the affection in the eyes of his dead parents, it's hard not to cry for him. As he has grown, Mr. Radcliffe has become an impressive actor. I had the opportunity to see him in Equus on Broadway, and recently in a NTLive broadcast of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Look also for the performances of Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom, who will grow to become a fierce and fearless warrior for good). It's an exceptional cast in a movie that I can watch over and over - would that I had the time to binge all 8 of them!

I'll leave you with a trailer of the film. Next time, an earlier classic!

George is in Cleveland

Author Kenneth Bixby (George Brent) is on a book tour with his secretary (and almost fiance) Ann Rogers (Ann Sheridan). Upon his arrival in Cleveland for a book signing, he receives flowers and a mysterious note from "Miriam," the fictional character in his latest book. The sender of the flowers turns out to be Ken's college girlfriend, Julie Wilson (Osa Massen), who's still fixated on him even though she is married to Harvey Wilson (Charles Ruggles). Our film this week is Honeymoon for Three (1941)

With a script based on a relatively successful Broadway play, and an excellent cast, you would think Honeymoon for Three would be a good film. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. The script slides deeper and deeper into silliness, and after awhile, the audience just doesn't care any longer (and starts to look at their collective watches).

It doesn't help that George Brent is miscast as the lothario Kenneth Bixby. Mr. Brent is just to stable to be convincing as a ne'er-do-well.  And why on earth he would respond to a flibbertigibbet like Julie Wilson is beyond comprehension, especially when he has an attractive, intelligent woman like Ann Rogers sitting next to him.
We don't get to see enough of Ann Sheridan. Initially, there is a pleasant rapport between her and Mr. Brent (who would become her husband shortly after the filming ended. The marriage only lasted for a year). (TCM article)  Ann is a calm breath of air next to the overblown Julie, and we DO get too much of Osa Massen. She's a delusional whirligig, with a mania that is just too much to take in. The viewer needs to understand why Bixby would even tolerate her, and the audience just can't.

Jane Wyman, as Julie's almost sister-in-law, Elizabeth Clochessy is also wasted. Ms. Wyman was still playing small roles in 1941 - her real breakthrough as Orry Baxter (for which she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar) in The Yearling wouldn't come for another five years. All she allowed to do in this film is dither, and look adoringly at her fiance Arthur Westlake (William T. Orr), who really isn't worth all that much adoration.

Lee Patrick is equally ill-served as Mrs. Pettijohn, an idiotic woman with a penchance for naming her children after authors (Booth Tarkington Pettijohn???). The character provides a somewhat deus-ex-machina ending to the proceedings, but Ms. Patrick deserves better.
We did like Charles Ruggles who is the only part of the comedy to underplay his role. You feel sorry for Harvey - his wife is insane, and his brother is a bore - and Mr. Ruggles makes you rather like Harvey. Who can blame him for wanting to get Julie off his hands?  Charles (or Charlie) Ruggles started his career on Broadway (in the 1914 production of Help Wanted), and was working in silent films by the following year. He easily made the transition to sound, often in those early years playing the romantic lead.  As time progressed, he moved to character parts, including Egbert Flout in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Major Applegate in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Grandfather Charles McKendrick in The Parent Trap (1961).  A generation grew up with his voice - he was Aesop in the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows. He worked frequently in both radio and television, while continuing to appear in films and on Broadway.  He married his second wife (his first marriage only lasted two years) in 1942; they remained together until his death from cancer, age 70, in 1970.
Originally slated to have starred Olivia de Havilland and Fred MacMurray (AFI Catalog), the film was based on the play Goodbye Again, which opened on Broadway in 1932, starring Osgood Perkins (Anthony Perkins father) as Kenneth - and with a very young James Stewart as The Chauffeur (in his second Broadway role).  In 1933, it was made into a film, with Warren William and Joan Blondell. In 1943, and 1956 (with Donald Cook, Patricia Barry, and Tom Poston), the play was again produced on Broadway. 

While critic Bosley Crowther is never a fan of Mr. Brent (his loss, quite frankly), we have to agree with him in his New York Times review Mr. Brent is just all wrong for this one. Then again, no one would have had a great deal of success with this tangled web of a script. Here's a trailer from the film.