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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: HOLLYWOOD CRISP’ Category

Broadway Melodies of 1936 & 1938

08 Jul

Broadway Melody of 1936 & 1938 – directed by Roy Del Ruth. Musicals. Black And White.
★★★★★
The Stories: Where is the leading female dancer going to come from for the Broadway producer’s first show?
~
Robert Taylor.

We became allured.

Here he is in the plum of his youth, 1936, aged 24, a good actor and completely accessible – which establishes him as someone an audience wants to watch.

For what does an audience do to make a star?

In the audience it is the inherent desire to dive into somebody more admirable than themselves – or more noble, more detestable, more beautiful, more adept, more funny, more something. And to do that one must be allowed to stare at that person in a way real-life ordinary modesty never permits but that movies do.

This happens at virtually the first glimpse of Robert Taylor.

Wow! – what a beautiful male! – beauty – with its untouchable advantage – human survival made easy!

An easy masculinity, too – a passport which – male or female – we all all wish we could own.

And so we become fans. Which is to say we, unbeknownst to him, start going steady. We write fan letters so he shall know it. Or we don’t. We simply buy tickets to see how we’re doing around hm.

Soon we become enamored, we lose critical discretion, for we are engaged. We can’t help ourselves.

The unwitting habit of loyalty weds us to him in a sort of morganic marriage. Marriage. which means we put up with anything – any alteration, miscasting, loss of skill, or scandal. Old and beat up, our star still lodges, and, also inside us, a fidelity remains as a memento of an aspiration felt when both his body and our own were young.

For years our bodies will remain faithful to that first fresh impression, keep seeking it whenever we go to see him– that impression stamped not always in the first movie, but soon enough – Roman Holiday for Audrey Hepburn, A Place In The Sun for Elizabeth Taylor, his early comedies for Tyrone Power.

The movie-goers’ eye awakens, and our spirit reaches out for something true. As in Robert Taylor in Broadway Melody of 1936. Here, he is, more true than he will ever be again.

It’s partly the casting. He plays a Broadway producer – that is to say, no one with any ancestral ties – a free-floating, natural-born businessman with the easy self-assurance of a man used to himself, one with no particular fear of failure, his body relaxed and his responses spontaneous. His mouth, smile, eyes, gesture, emotional shifts are immediate, ready, unself-conscious, and devoid of vanity. His response to other actors is fresh and right. He a young man of breathtaking beauty, but one who knows how to husband it ethically and isn’t fooled by it. We like to watch its play across his face. To follow it we become a following.

All this would disappear from Robert Taylor’s instrument as he was cast in noble roles of he-man, hero, and morally elevated Westerner. The intelligence of his instrument quickly fled. So did his sense of humor. Five packs of cigarettes a day dissipated his looks. He will in l937, be miscast, for instance, as Garbo’s young lover in Camille, for the part requires, among others, the quality of a sexually fresh boy, which Robert Taylor probably never was. A 25-year-old male that good looking has long since not been a boy.

Nevertheless, here he is in Broadway Melody of 1936, an actor of 24 yet of such ease of being it is no wonder he entered the aesthetic souls of audiences his same age who stood by him through the years.

He was never a bad actor, but he became a lesser actor. Here, he is nothing of the kind, and the story – although Jack Benny, the radio humorist is starred – is about Taylor and his maiden effort to mount a Broadway show. It is backed by a rich tootsie who has eyes for him. But no dice! His gaze is fixed on dancer Eleanor Powell, whose maiden voyage into leading roles this is.

What can be negatively said about the film can be said about every female in the piece: Sydney Guillaroff has not yet been hired by MGM to do their hair. The women are hair-doed in skull-gripping sausage curlettes, unbecoming to all, particularly to Powell, whose Dracula dog-teeth, small features, and large flat face require international espionage to be properly revealed.

Everything else about Broadway Melody 1936 is neat! Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed do the songs, the same songs they will do again in Singing In The Rain and In Broadway Melody of 1938.

In Broadway Melody of 1938: same Broadway producer, same gal dancing her way to stardom. Same backing of a blond bitch. Same Buddy Ebsen galumphing around as a Vaudeville rube. Same writers, Sid Silvers and Jack McGowan. Same brilliant editing by Blanche Sewell. Same impeccable direction by Roy Del Ruth. Francis Langford and Robert Benchley and the stifling Sophie Tucker appear in one film or the other. Una Merkel with her pecking voice wittily plays the producer’s conniving secretary in 1936, while 1938 displays a fourteen-year-old Judy Garland full of hope and good will, and in great voice to woe Clark Gable.

In ’38, George Murphy dances with Powell in a spectacularly good singing-in-the rain dance that is not danced to “Singing In The Rain” – and what all this means is simply that one good thing follows another.

For the dance numbers and specialty numbers in both films are imaginatively introduced and wittily executed. An extended Murphy, Powell, Ebsen dance sequence in a boxcar with a horse, surprises with an imaginative use of camera in a small space. The premise of every number seems right and fresh and vivid, and we are spared the staginess of Warner musicals of this era.

The stardom of Eleanor Powell was different from that of Robert Taylor in that it never took place.

Two reasons for that. Maybe more. But one was that her dancing, while effective, was not graceful. She employs the high kicks and top-spins and cartwheels of the acrobatic dancer, which is to say, it is closer to a circus performance. When you see her en pointe, the elbows and knees are over-extended. The ballet dancers chorus behind her makes her look like a horse.

She had phenomenal speed as a dancer and an eagerness to please. Unlike Ruby Keeler, he didn’t have to look at her feet. There is a witty glee in her eyes while tapping that has miles to spare. She is above technique. It’s fun to see.

But none of this ever changed. She always does the same thing, the same kicks, the same spins, the same tommy-gun taps. Astaire and Kelly took great care, in each film, to present something new in dance. Eleanor Powell has a good figure, the right height, 5’5”, and she’s pretty. She is a passable actress, too. She’s not unlikable. But she’s not very open. She’d like to be, but she’s not. And you’ve seen it all before.

This may have come about because she was a female, and, in those years, males controlled movie choreography in a way that females would never be allowed to do. She may have been told, “Do what you did before, Eleanor!” Or, maybe that’s all she could do. Anyhow that’s what happened.

Monotony, and not being open, the audience could not dive into her, nor really could a leading man. You are absolutely convinced that Robert Taylor loves her – simply, directly, happily – but there is no chemistry between them, because, in her, love is not a cartwheel. In her, a cartwheel is a cartwheel.

Judy Garland in ’38, as a frumpy, unformed teen-ager, starts singing, and no matter what the song, you root for her. In you go! You take the risk. Wow! What is going to happen here?

I feel for Eleanor Powell. I admire her. But she does not become a movie star – not because she isn’t placed as one, for she is – but because she is supremely good at one thing and is less good at all the rest. Momentarily arrested, audiences turned away.

Here she is at her best, and so is everybody else. Foolish entertainment was a staple of Depression breadlines. This one is glitzy, light, and slightly fattening – although the costumes by Adrian will mask it and so will the lighting by William Daniels. He began filming Garbo and ended filming Elizabeth Taylor. All this brings you something beautiful, a diversion both working-class and classy.

I recommend it, not for a history lesson but for an evening’s innocent pleasant diversion. You won’t feel cheated by any of it but feel surprised by most of it!

Check it out.

 

Smart Money

20 Apr

Smart Money – directed by Alfred E. Green. Crime Comedy. 81 minutes Black And White 1931.
★★★★★
The Story: A small-town barber with a lucky streak heads for the big-time and succeeds in all his dreams but that of a lady to kiss.
~
He is my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson. I love to watch him. I never tire – even though his effects linger from film to film. Richard Burton said of him that if he were on the screen with the most beautiful man alive, you would not watch that man, you would watch Robinson.

More alive as an actor than any other!

James Cagney made seven films in 1931, and The Public Enemy hadn’t come out yet, and Robinson, after Little Caesar, has the lead. They both started in New York Yiddish theater, and were friends, but this was their only film together.

It’s fun to see that Cagney could just as easily have played the part, or at least part of the part. The difference between them is this.

Robinson’s acts a character who is full of himself. But Cagney never played a character who was not full of himself. Robinson had to act it. But for Cagney being full of himself was the basis of his craft. It made him the schoolyard bully his entire career. It was not the basis of Robinson’s craft. Robinson has to summon hubris into the role. So Robinson is more appealing in the part than Cagney would have been. And the role has another part to it: Robinson is big-time, he is generous, kind, gallant, but no woman loves him. What would Cagney have done with that!

Perfect part for Robinson, and he played it more than once. Rather than romantic leads, who got the girl, Robinson often played professionals – such as the detectives he played in Orson Welles’ The Stranger or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Absolute authority of attack is his genius. And, boy oh boy, does he know his lines!

The film was directed by a studio work-horse, Alfred E. Green. Green, an admirable director, knows exactly how to tell a story with a camera, exactly where to put the camera to do it, exactly what value to give a scene. He directed more Bette Davis films than another director. She learned her craft under him. I always welcome his name on the credits and know I am in good hands..

I have never before seen Evalyn Knapp, marvelous as the most important of the many blondes Robinson is drawn to. She is touching and real from the time she first appears till the time she withdraws. Not much of a career; one wonders why. Still, she is lovely. And all the blondes are lovely and good in their parts. Robinsons’ tremendous ebullience and bonhomie carry the film, which dates no more than anything well-made dates, which is to say no further than our affection for a bygone era.

 

The Shop Around The Corner

03 Dec

The Shop Around The Corner – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Romantic Comedy 1 hour 33 minutes Black And White 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Much ado about two young folks who bicker but, unbeknownst to one another, are writing pen-pal love letters to one another all along.
~
It’s always been a great story, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is but its extreme variant. Here we do not have nobility and rapiers and Dogberry. Instead, we have MittleEuropean pastry by its greatest chef, Ernst Lubitsch. If we are not in Vienna we are in Budapest, and if not there, at least in the high season of that Hollywood middle-class bliss, light comedy. With a truth all its own.

It’s a perfect Christmas movie. For it works itself toward snow and galoshers, and decorating the holiday shop window as a plot twist.

Margaret Sullivan has top billing because everyone in those days adored her; indeed Jimmy Stewart in his early acting days had a crush on her, but his friend Henry Fonda married her. Yet Lubitsch focuses his camera on Stewart, for as we all know to our joy he was one of the great comic actors of film.

Comic actor?

Yes, but not the Jerry Lewis sense. You might better say, or I might better say “an actor of comedy of character.” Which is to say he appears to be unwitting in his effects, although a master of them.

Well, he’s marvelous for actors to watch, and endearing to us all. In Stewart’s delivery, when he wants, there is something inherently humanly humorous. What is it, would you say?
His attack on the material is preceded by a resident forgiveness. It simply has not gone out of date. But why do we root for him? Of course, he’s an accessible type, but with the most sensual of mouths. Skinny. With a voice like the spring on an old screen door.

In all this, I must stop. I am raving. For he is is surrounded by tip-top actors. Joseph Schildkraut as the unctuous nephew of the boss played with hearty bluster by Frank Morgan and by that true-blue actor Felix Bressart as Stewart’s buddy in the shop.

The Shop Around The Corner is generally considered to be a perfect film. It is thought of as Lubitsch’s greatest comedy, one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Is it, though? Join the line and find out. Or find out again. I saw it when it first came out in 1940 and remember it fondly. I saw it again last week and, as you can see, remember it fondly.

 

In Name Only

06 Oct

In Name Only – directed by John Cromwell. Romantic Drama. 94 minutes Black And White 1939.
★★★★
The Story: Out fishing, a young woman finds herself attracted to a handsome man on a horse, but he’s married and his wife would rather kill him than release him.
~
Carole Lombard tended not to make “serious” films. She felt a responsibility to her studios to make money for them, and her comedies were perennial hits. She made George Stevens’ “Vigil In The Night” to get an Oscar and she’s darned good in it but she wasn’t even nominated. So you might think that a film with this title, particularly one with Cary Grant, would be a 30s comedy, but it aint.

It’s a serious romantic drama, and well worth seeing because everyone is good in it. Grant is an actor seamlessly adaptable to any genre. He is so victorious in tuxedo comedy that one supposes this film might turn into one, but it never does.

Kay Francis plays the calculating wife, and, in its way, she is the most interesting character – or almost. For what motivates a human being to trick someone she does not love into marriage and then clutch it to her forever? I don’t mean the outer motivations of money and place, I mean the inner motivation, the inner human contraption. Only an actor could truly display such a thing, and Kay Francis reveals glimpses of it.

But of course, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant have the focus of our hearts. And Grant is at his handsomest – although, oddly, his sports clothes are of the wrong material. Why is that? Was this before he brought his own clothes to his roles?

Lombard’s misery at being his mistress is completely convincing, as is the sexual energy between them. Lombard was an actor of clearly defined decisions. She always knew how to tell her story clearly, using a single small detail. The audiences of her day appreciated her for this.

She has that wonderful female quality of the comediennes of her era – and all of them had it – Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy – they were game. They were up for some fun. They were game dames. Women who were ready to take a chance. To throw themselves into it – whatever it was. It’s not a quality you find in modern film comediennes, good as some of them are.

 

Imitations Of Lives

30 Sep

Imitations Of Lives, 1934, 1959. directors John. M. Stall and Douglas Sirk. 108 minutes Black And White 1934. 124 minutes Color 1959.
★★★
The Story: A black woman and a white woman raise their daughters together, but one daughter wants to pass as white and the other wants her mother’s boyfriend.
~
The difficulty with the films’ material lies in that the attention given to the white story is greater than the attention given to its greater, unique, deeper title story, the story that actually would carry the film if it were handled honorably – that of the black business-partner/housekeeper and her daughter who wishes to pass as white.

The prosperity-story of the white woman’s rise to professional security is never in doubt because each lady is played by superstars Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner. When each has her success, each becomes a fashion plate. Even when poor, we never see them messy. We never see them seriously depressed. These things are touched on, but we are spared. Each ascends into fox furs by the hot air balloon of Hollywood narrative bunk.

Colbert has an advantage over Turner in that Colbert’s leading man, Warren William, is a more ambiguous charmer than Turner’s and possesses a masterful wit in lovemaking and dialogue, whereas Turner’s fella’s sense of humor is nowhere evident.

Colbert also has more natural presence and give as an actor than Lana Turner, is more humanly appealing, just as pretty, more instinctual, just the right age, and a lot of fun. She can also play on several levels. That is, she has the advantage of being more diverting. Being diverting was enormously important for a film actor of her era, for presence, charm, humor, and sheer character was necessary to divert us from the improbable routines of the stories.

Lana Turner is diverting, yes, for as long as you find an artificial flower to be diverting. For Turner has a hard time holding your attention surrounded, as she is, by her accoutrements of makeup, dress, and a hairdo as stiff as a mummy’s beard. In the 1959 remake, instead of rising to fortune on pancakes she rises to it as a Broadway actress, if you will. Saddled with a young daughter, a widowhood, and a cold-water flat, her costly, peroxide perm stretches our credulity way past Lana Turner’s girdle. For Turner is already a woman of a certain age, and what encumbers her even more is that her leading man, John Gavin, is younger and far more beautiful than she.

Jean-Louis coifs Lana Turner with his costumes. They stun and they are no more to be believed than her hairdos. Turner knows how to entice. And she has a moment or two as an actor, but she is left to her own devices by the director, and since she lacks taste and sensibility as an artist, her moments get lost in her performance decorations, one of which is her refuge to easy tears. We also come to understand why she never played in comedy, for she has no sense of humor.

And then enter My Lady Squeal, Sandra Dee – immediately at one with the vulgarity of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment. For the screen smears us with the candy of technicolor general lighting – that favored Hollywood illumination of the ‘50s which cursed us with American Dream pastels and avocado kitchen appliances. It fattens the film as it fattened the age. The film is swinish.

In both versions their false-eyelash direction, acting, writing, lighting, sets forbid the black women’s story from being played authentically. Juanita Hall and Louise Beavers, actors of quality, cannot play the parts because they cannot play the parts realistically but only as written in the false styles of each film, styles dead to any human relationship that is not narrative in motivation.

The issue of the story is not that of wanting to pass, but why. We never see it.

So, neither Beavers nor Hall can play their parts of the mothers beyond a general expression of sweetness, forbearance, and pain – sometimes all at once. The writing allows them no particularity, idiosyncrasy, or detail. We have to swallow an indigestible self-sacrifice from each. To these actresses of this race no other choice is provided. It’s really a form of racial bigotry passing.

Both films do have grand black funerals — the Beavers’ one being particularly characteristic — the pallbearers’ itching their rears, the horses caparisoned with net. The Juanita Hall cortege imitates it, but, of course, it is less impressive in color. Mahalia Jackson sings the elegy, and even Lana Turner is allowed to show a line on her face.

Turner’s version is an imitation of the life of An Imitation Life which wasn’t even an imitation of life to begin with. It makes no sense to think of these films as Black Flicks That Matter, but does make sense to think how, for a long time, black flicks, even when they appeared to exist, didn’t matter because they really didn’t exist at all, except as tokens still content to shove blacks into the rear of the human bus.

 

Ace In The Hole

29 Aug

Ace In The Hole – produced, written, and directed by Billy Wilder. Docudrama. 115 minutes Black And White 1951.
★★★★

The Story: To hot up the headlines, a sleazy reporter stretches out the rescue of a man trapped in a mine.
~
A remarkable film. In some ways. None of which count.

I saw it when it first came out and disliked it for a reason I now understand. It is over-written and over-acted, which is a form of waterboarding. Force everything down our throats and we have no room to respond. The movie failed in America.

Looking at Kirk Douglas chew every line to death with his many teeth, I wonder at him. Is this a human being at all? I have never found him so, save once, Lonely Are The Brave. Otherwise, I watch him force his lines and attitudinize, and I realize that the director must also have wanted this. But why? Douglas’s character becomes a crazy Hitler – an egomaniac who can manipulate events into a spectacle that will hypnotize a multitude. Billy Wilder was a Nazi-fled Austrian Jew, and I don’t think the film has anything much to do with America, a country, unlike Germany, geographically too large to give itself to a single morbid distraction.

For supporting players, the difficulty when the leading actor overacts is the requirement to play into his pitch and overact too. The only one who escapes this necessity is Porter Hall, the one character in the picture you believe.

What’s remarkable about the picture is its setting in New Mexico and the vast cast of extras which gathers to witness the rescue of the trapped prospector. The costumes by Edith Head are tip-top. But the main appeal of the film as a story lies in the way it is told by the camera, which is in the hands of (18 Oscar nominations) Charles Lang. He’s as much responsible for Paramount style as Claudette Colbert is. It is one of those films whose posthumous reputation can be credited more to him and the Paramount production team than by the temperament of its director.

Wilder always kept things simple. It’s a good rule. He had made Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard, and was to go on to make Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, most of which Charles Lang also filmed. But if you have a bastard for your leading role, he must first be human. Human first. Bastard second. In fact, human alone would probably suffice.

 

Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
★★★★★
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
~
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.

 

Miss Pinkerton

21 Jun

Miss Pinkerton – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Murder Mystery. 66 minutes Black And White 1932.
★★★★
The Story: A hospital nurse takes on a police case in a creepy mansion.
~
Joan Blondell is the face of the ‘30s. Big-eyes open to life, quick of tongue, game, pretty, and strong as an ox. Not Crawford or Shearer or Hepburn or Lombard or Arthur, but this lower-class tootsie, Joan Blondell, a little too susceptible to love, but up for any role, any case, any dance. She was the world’s greatest tonic for The Great depression. As lovable as she was skilled.

She played leading roles sometimes, such as Miss Pinkerton, but she was not a leading lady but a jolly soubrette.

Here she plays a bored-to-death hospital nurse who is assigned the care of an old woman in whose grisly mansion a shooting has occurred.

So many plot twists and angles and changes and characters interlope on her attention that you wonder how the makers of the picture are ever to solve the murder. I’m not sure they ever did.

The film is beautifully shot, and imaginatively directed by Lloyd Bacon. He keeps us guessing and off balance, yet leaning forward still into what is going on.

The picture is 1932, a year in which Blondell made nine films, and is advertised as pre-code. While it has nothing risqué in it that I could tell, it sure has a lot of love twisters. And more meaningful looks than a bathhouse. And it has the suavely smirking George Brent as the likeable detective assigned to crack the case. He has a voice like a cast iron radiator. Smooth-talker that he is, he soft-soaps her into his arms consistently and, of course, at last. She is eager.

This is Warner Brothers cheap entertainment, which does not mean it is bad entertainment. Not at all. Coney Island is good entertainment, because it is well done. So is this.

We passed the time with Blondell in many a movie in those days, and she went on acting (in over 100 pictures) right until the end.

She was sexy, funny, ripe, and vulnerable. A fast-talking dame, she could dish out the snappy dialogue with the best of them. To Cagney she delivered the renowned put-down: “You’re the biggest chiseler since Michelangelo!” He never recovered – in that movie anyhow.

We watch her in this one with complete sympathy, interest, approval, and concern. But she saves herself from doom every time. No one could scream on camera like Joan Blondell. No one was ever so simply likeable.

 

Test Pilot

31 Mar

Test Pilot – directed by Victor Fleming. Drama. 1 hour 59 minutes Black And White 1938.
★★★★★
The Story: A champion test-pilot refuses to be grounded by the lady he married, despite the good offices of his best friend.
~
What a terrific picture!

Beautifully written!

Alive!

Complete!

Clark Gable before he got frozen into Clark-Gable-roles, one ice cube after another. Which means the studio knew what lines he said good, and so gave him scripts in which he could say those good lines his way. John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, the same. Line reading actors at the end of lively careers.

But here? Not yet. Wow! Is he good!

Clark Gable has one of the great, mobile, actor-faces. Many events in that face. Broad readable features. Big expressive eyes. Flexible brows. A mouth that, even silent, never stops telling stories. And, like many actors of his era, a distinctive voice and delivery. The face is an entertainment in itself. Plus a big masculine energy. Lots of humor. And willingness to play the dope.

Here’s he plays a rash Test Pilot, womanizer, and cocky, short-fused, high-liver who emergency-lands his plane in a Kansa farm field, owned by the lovely good sport Myrna Loy. Brash, blunt Gable falls for the lady.

He brings her home, where his side-kick, Spencer Tracy looks askance at the dare-devil’s marrying anyone, when death lies in the very next sky. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were one of the country’s favorite screen marriages of the ‘30s.

Watching Gable seize this part in his handsome jaws and shake it for all it’s worth reminds us of the sort of the happy-go-lucky sap he played so thoroughly in It Happened One Night, for which he won the Oscar in ’34.

The flight footage is the best I have ever seen – exciting, different, convincing. In fact, the film shows Tracy and Gable flying a B-17, which became a principle WWII weapon. The flight sequences were taken at air shows of the sort we used to go in the ‘30s. It’s whiz-bang entertainment. The U.S. (then) Army Air Force supplied the planes, and they’re fascinating to watch.

After the comic beginnings of the marriage, Loy realizes she has gotten herself into a pickle – the mortal danger test pilots court. Her part is a changeable personality, so you never know how she will resolve this irresolvable matter. Tracy offers her consolation and bitter truth. He plays the fulcrum of two crucibles in which a wobbly love loves on. You never know how the love story or the flight tests will end.

Victor Fleming, soon to direct Gable in Gone With The Wind, provides the actors with space to perform to the max. Test Pilot is wittily written; it was nominated for three Oscars, Best Editing, Best Story, and Best Picture.

I had a grand old time with it. You will too.

 

The Mayor Of Hell

03 Nov

The Mayor Of Hell – directed by Archie Mayo. Prisonflick. 90 minutes Black And White 1933

★★★★★

The Story: A tough ward boss, as a reward for delivering votes, is given supervision of a boys’ reformatory, and it gets to him.

~

The trashy title should not put you off from one of the best movies of its era and one of James Cagney’s most brilliant films. Of course, being Cagney, it’s a gutter drama, but what a drama! What a story!

Cagney himself is in top display as an actor – fluid, immediate, and interesting. Of all the great stars, he was the most tragic artistically because his acting depended upon a manner, and the manner was so fixed that he could never play a part opposite to it, try as he might. Highly volatile, perched always on the balls of his feet (because of lifts?), his oddly made-up, glancing Lawrence Olivier eyes, he presents a constant perturbation. Off camera he was a honey, a gent, and a man of some cultivation. But he wanted to but could not play gentler parts because his technique had become fixed – probably by his many years on Broadway before he even got to Hollywood – as a live wire. He could only act one way.

Allen Jenkins, his old roommate from their chorus boy days, plays the dumb Damon Runyon sidekick. And he is but one in a cast that is top-heavy in every role no matter how small.

The beautiful Madge Evans plays the nurse at the reformatory. Watch her. She had been acting in movies all her young life, and everything she does is alive, fresh, apt, and necessary. She was brought over from MGM to soften the atmosphere. She’s so lovely. She’d such a fine actor.

Broadway star, Dudley Digges plays the mean reformatory head, and he will make you want to kill him. It is a thoroughgoing performance of a man ruled by terror and terrorizing everyone around him.

The leader of the reformatory boys is Frankie Darro, a tiny toughie. He plays in concert with 200 boys, each one particular, each one creative and vivid in the many scenes in which they appear, both regimented and in mobs.

Archie Mayo knows how to make the whole thing work and move and capture the truth and the comedy and the sentiment of Edward Chodorov’s fine screenplay. The Special Features commentary is tip-top. If your parents ever threatened to send you to the reformatory, you were right to be scared, because this is what they had in mind.

 

Winter Meeting

29 Jun

Winter Meeting – directed by Bretaigne Windust. Melodrama. A WW II hero courts a well-to-do spinster and breaks down her barriers to love. 104 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★
In its day, the picture was not successful, in the sense that other Bette Davis vehicles had been, which does not mean it lost money. It was concurrent with Davis’s huge salary boost to over $10,000 a week, and she is worth every penny of it if quality of performance is any standard. She is wonderful from beginning to end. It is not one of her bitch ladies, such as she crowded out her career and her talent with by playing for the last 40 years of her acting life. It is a quiet performance of a subdued intelligent woman; her transitions from mood to mood, from reception to speech, are an acting lesson to behold. She is always present and she is always free.

She talked about this film as the turning point of her career. One wonders what she meant. Did she mean she no longer looked young enough to hold the screen to a romantic possibility? She certainly looks great, though: she has lost the weight from her pregnancy. Davis had her first child when she was pushing forty. She was a tiny woman and extra weight showed on screen. Here she is svelt and limber. She walks with elegance and ease. Her training with Martha Graham shows in every move she makes, both physically and emotionally.

The top-of-the-line Warner’s staff backs her: Max Steiner does the score; she is beautifully dressed, and Ernest Haller once again masterfully lights her. Janis Paige and John Hoyt and Florence Bates support her.

But Davis said later that she should have gone to Hal Wallis and told him to shelve the production because it wasn’t working. What she meant by that may have related to James Davis as her leading man. They couldn’t get the actors they wanted, so they used an unknown. But, seeing it now, James Davis works OK. He’s not a conventional Hollywood handsome guy. He’s massive; his eyes are dark, recessed, and unreadable. He looks like he’s going to off the deep end, and that works fine, for indeed he is playing a troubled soldier hiding more than one bad secret.

In the course of their association, they have long talks, and these are intelligent explorations of their lives both now and before. Her tiny figure next to his mass is arresting. She is a much better actor than he could ever have become, or rather his style is that of a cowboy, so that you know that they would never really mate well, even had it all worked out between them, which I hope I do not betray your expectations by whispering to you that it does not.

But here she is at the peak of her powers, which in her case was very close to the end of them, and she is grand to watch, an honorable practioner of her craft.

 

Beau Geste

13 Jun

Beau Geste – directed by William Wellman. Action adventure. 112 minutes Black And White 1939.

★★★★

The Story: Three orphan boys grow up together, join the French Foreign Legion together, and act nobly together.

~

In a neck-and-neck race with George Steven’s Gunga Din at RKO, Beau Geste is a scene by scene adaptation of the 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman. As such it is slow going. Until it isn’t.

For nothing happens until the last scenes, in which Brian Donlevy, the nasty sergeant in charge of the garrison, literally mans the battlements by stuffing its crenellations with the corpses the marauding Arabs have made of his men – which scares the Arabs off.

This is a super-duper and justly famous battle scene, worth waiting for. It inspires the star of the picture, Gary Cooper, who hates the sergeant, to admit Donlevy is a great soldier. Donlevy, however, is perhaps ill-cast, for he does not have a mean streak, which is needed, but a wicked sense of humor, which is not. He plays the part well, nonetheless.

It’s all well directed by William Wellman, who made sure not to leave out his favorite, a rain-scene, even though everyone is indoors. Those indoors enclose the three adopted boys of the lady bountiful of the house, who possesses the famous infamous “blue water” sapphire which figures into a plot that frames the action of the boys once they join the French Foreign Legion. Is that clear?

I hope not, because to distract us from this plot, we have various young to-be stars trickling through the desert sands, Broderick Crawford, for one. Alfred Dekker, J. Carrol Naish for two more. And for another, Susan Hayward, the most strictured of all actresses, who is the fond focus of Ray Milland.

Milland is the only one of the three English boys to have an English accent. Gary Cooper, who was schooled in England, does not assume one. Wonder why. Nor does Robert Preston as the third of the boys. Preston with his Dennis Quaid grin and zest is the most welcome of energies always, and who could be more convincing than he to save the day at last?

The story is a long-winded set-up for the final scene. You keep wondering when something is going to happen as we lumber through the boyhoods of these boys.

Gary Cooper as a child is played by Donald O’Connor, of all people: O’Connor the most spritely, Cooper the least spritely of actors? Is this because Cooper looked older than he was and O’Connor’s youth was supposed to correct it? Here Cooper is 38, too old for the part of a runaway youth in 1939, the miracle year of American Film. Robert Preston is 21, which is more like it.

Cooper had written into his contracts that he never play a character who dies. Perhaps because as an actor he is already dead, so if he did die how could you tell? He used his inertia to act. He is never one to pick up cues before sucking attention towards himself. Sloth and sluggishness stole whole scenes.

His stardom has always annoyed me. In real life he was shy, elegant of dress, and had an enormous penis – an infallible combination for female appeal – but on the screen, I don’t get it. I suppose people felt that a taciturn male must be more profound than a talkative one and more attractive and more masculine, which, with Robert Preston on the screen is proved pure baloney. I knew that when I was six years old and saw this movie when it first came out.

If you can wait for the finale when it comes it’s an entertaining show. And you won’t have wasted your quarter. Or your 17 cents, which is what a matinee cost me in 1939.

 

Beau Geste

03 May

Beau Geste – directed by William Wellman. Action adventure. 112 minutes Black And White 1939.

★★★★

The Story: Three orphan boys grow up together, join the French Foreign Legion together, and act nobly together.

~

In a neck-and-neck race with George Steven’s Gunga Din at RKO, Beau Geste is a-scene-by-scene adaptation of the 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman. As such it is slow going. Until it isn’t.

For nothing happens in the film until the last scenes, in which Brian Donlevy, the nasty sergeant in charge of the garrison, literally mans the battlements by stuffing its crenellations with the corpses the marauding Arabs have made of his men, which scares the Arabs off.

This is a super-duper and justly famous battle scene, worth waiting for. It inspires the star of the picture, Gary Cooper, who hates the sergeant, to admit Donlevy is a great soldier. Donlevy is perhaps ill-cast, for he does not have a mean streak, which is needed, but a wicked sense of humor, which is not. He plays the part well, nonetheless.

It’s all, of course, well directed by William Wellman, who made sure not to leave out his favorite, a rain-scene, even though everyone is indoors. Those indoors enclose the three adopted boys of the lady bountiful of the house, who possesses the famous infamous “blue water” sapphire which figures into a plot that frames the action of the boys once they join the French Foreign Legion. Is that clear?

I hope not, because to distract us we have various young to-be stars trickling through the desert sands, Broderick Crawford, for one. Alfred Dekker, J. Carrol Naish for two. And for yet another, Susan Hayward, the most strictured of all actresses, who is the fond focus of Ray Milland.

Milland is the only one of the three English boys to have an English accent. Gary Cooper, who of course was schooled in England, does not assume one. Wonder why. Nor does Robert Preston as the third of the boys. Preston with his Dennis Quaid grin and zest is the most welcome of energies always, and who could be more convincing than he to save the day at last?

The story is a long-winded set-up for this final scene. You keep wondering when something is going to happen as we lumber through the boyhoods of these boys.

Gary Cooper when little is played by Donald O’Connor, if you can figure: O’Connor the most spritely, Cooper the least spritely of actors. Is this because Cooper was an actor who looked older than he was and O’Connor’s youth was supposed to correct it? Here Cooper is 38, too old for the part of a runaway youth in 1939, the miracle year of American Film. Robert Preston is 21, which is more like it.

Cooper had written into his contracts that he never play a character who dies. Perhaps because as an actor he is already rather dead. If he did die how could you tell? Cooper is an actor who used his inertia to act. He is never one to pick up cues before sucking attention towards him. Cooper’s sluggishness stole scenes.

His stardom has always annoyed me. In real life he was shy and had an enormous penis – an infallible combination for female appeal – but on the screen, I don’t get it. I suppose people felt that a taciturn male must be more profound than a talkative one and more attractive.

I knew, when I was six years old and saw this movie when it first came out, it wasn’t necessarily so.

Still, it’s an entertaining show. And you won’t have wasted your 17 cents, which is what a 1939 matinee cost me.

 

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943

★★★★

The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.

~

She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.

 

 

I Wake Up Screaming

18 Mar

I Wake Up Screaming – directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Who-Dun-It. 82 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★

The Story: A young waitress is fostered by a promoter, and she rises into café society until she is murdered, leaving her sister to find out who did it.

~

Gary Giddens of The New York Sun called I Wake Up Screaming one of the most beautiful black-and-white films ever made. The photographer is Edward Cronjager, perhaps the most prominent member of a family of Hollywood cinemaphotographers (Seven academy Award Nominations). At this stage of his long career he is at Fox, and this is one of the first film noirs ever made, and, if you are to judge by its photography, it would be a film noir, with its strong use of dark lighting, angles for dramatic effect, rich shadows, and so on.

But I do not define film noir solely by the way a picture is filmed. My definition of film noir includes that but also must include certain subjects and two sorts of character must be in them. Either a leading male character, who is so troubled and angry he must move outside or beneath the law to realize his destiny. Or a leading female character who is disempowered and must also move outside or beneath the law. And it must be in black and white.

These films emerge from 1941 through just after The War until 1951 or so. In the case of the male character, think of them as written for returning soldiers who have seen in the war a life that lay outside all law. It has made them cynical, hard, pessimistic, bitter, cold, and almost ruthless. The same is true for the female character. She has been on the home front in power to run businesses, work in factories, or mastermind all aspects the home. At The War’s end, all this is stripped from her. She moves into something for which the word crime is a euphemism.

Very few films fill these strictures for content, characters, and filmed treatment. One of them is Murder, My Sweet starring Dick Powell one of the two seminal film noir actors, the other being Alan Ladd in, say, This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia. These men engage in relationships (sexually highly charged because of their coldness) with un-marriageable blonds, such as Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, and the great Claire Trevor.

Few people will agree with this careful view of the matter. Actually I am the only person who has to agree with it and I do. And it has nothing to do with I Wake Up Screaming which is noir only in its remarkable photography.

Betty Grable’s career started two films before this, both  musicals, both in color. But this year, 1941, she was to make one color musical, and two black and white films – one a comedy, A Yank In The RAF with Tyrone Power, and Wake Up Screaming, a drama.

I mention all this not just because she was to become the biggest grossing female star of her era and one justly loved by audiences all her life, but because, having made these two black and white films, Zanuck, the head of Fox, said, because of her Technicolor coloring, he would never put her in a black and white film again, and he never did,. But he wanted to. He wanted her to appear as the tart in The Razor’s Edge, a part Anne Baxter won an Oscar for. Grable refused on the grounds that she didn’t have the acting chops for drama and that the public would only accept her in sequins with her legs showing.

It’s a great example of actor-folly in believing that what the fans wanted should rule. Carole Lombard had the same failing. She never made another serious film after George Stevens’ Vigil In The Night, in which she is very good. Grable also fouled up on getting to play Miss Adelaide in the film of Guys And Dolls, a part she was subsequently to do a number of times on the stage. Grable is perfectly fine in I Wake Up Screaming. She’s responsive, game – a good dramatic actress. And she’s Betty Grable, which means she is sympathetic and you immediately care about her.

Grable is top-billed but the story is really that of the Victor Mature character, and the focus falls rightly on him. People dismissed him for years as a hunky lower-class Italian, which he may have been, but boy is he vivid when he shows up, and he has no trouble carrying the film. He is actually an excellent actor, particularly playing lightweight scalawags. He’s alive, susceptible, and full of fun. Look at his eyes. Delightful performance.

To help him we have no less than Allan Mobray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Carole Landis. But supporting them all is the remarkable Laird Cregar as a sicko detective. He is an actor worth seeking out wherever you can find him – Hangover Square, Blood And Sand, Heaven Can Wait, This Gun For Hire, and Charley’s Aunt. Very few parts but remarkable. Dead at 26.

So this is a particularly rich collection of talent, and the story because of them is worth digesting. These are the days before Elmore Leonard. But this is the sort of thing he would do, particularly as regard the Laird Cregar character. Dwight Taylor (Laurette Taylor’s son) adapted the novel for the screen. I say see it. It’s beautiful in its way, and, when you do see it, tell me, why does it have that title?

 

 

 

Hail, Caesar!

18 Feb

Hail, Caesar! – written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Comedy. 106 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Scandals that flare up must be doused by the studio fixer.

~

What do I make, one asks at first glimpse, of this Jollywood piece?

It opens in a confessional with Josh Brolin disgorging petty sins with wracked soul. When the priest asks him how long since has been to confession he says something like 27 hours, and is fobbed off with the penance of a few hail maries. We know at once by the solemnity of Brolin that we are in Jollywood land, that is to say we are in the selfsame satire-land as Singing In The Rain, dealing with the same object, and at just about the time Singing In The Rain was shot; that is, we are in the dread early ‘50s and we shall, therefore, now gorge on a full blown and deftly played Jollywood satire.

Jollywood? A comedy actually making fun of Hollywood.

And what pleasures there are, to be sure!

We have Tilda Swinton as vicious identical twin sisters, as antipathetic to one another as de Havilland and Fontaine. Swinton does the spitting cobra better than anyone around. Then we also have Scarlett Johansson in a major impersonation of Esther Williams in full fishtail and from the Bronx.

With this sort of acting, the actors do not have to do anything but – as Jack Nicholson has told us – “act accordingly,” which means that all Johansson has to do is inquire about the strength it must take for a legal clerk to stamp a page, and all Jonah Hill has to do it raise his big clerk’s to say “It’s my job” and let them fall on the first woman who has ever flirted with him in his life – and you know, no further word said, that something hysterically unlikely is to happen.

How do actors do that?

The words are not nothing, but the fleeting attitude of the actor seals it.

And here every actor is in sync with a subtlety of style which the Coen Brothers command from every side. It’s called making fun of something without using a pig bladder.

Brolin, a marvelous actor, once again carries the film. He plays the role of the fixer, Eddie Mannix from MGM days (although Capitol Films is what the present firm is named), and he goes about putting out fires that might incinerate reputations.

The main of these is the kidnapping of superstar George Clooney, almost through filming a film of the bloated Quo Vadis ilk, but snatched off by a covey of commies who claim blackmail from Brolin. Clooney is the most deft of light comedians, but his funniest scene in the film is his most serious: I shall not tell you; you’ll know it when it comes.

As side dishes we have Frances McDormand as an overdressed obsessive film editor, Ralph Fiennes as an Edmund Goulding type director, and Channing Tatum superbly dancing a big Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave production number. Each one hits the comic nail delicately on the thumb.

But the performance that seals the film and steals it too is by the darling Alden Ehrenreich – at least he plays a darling – as a young singing cowboy thrust into a drawing room comedy. He’s great at rope tricks and fancy bronc riding, but he can’t seem to get his lips around a word beyond “Tarnation!” He’s a wonderful actor and fresh as a daisy. You must delight yourself with this performance. Don’t miss him.

The film is pure entertainment.

Pure?

Sheer entertainment. That is, it is transparent. You think maybe that the values of the ‘50s Hollywood are dead and gone? Think it at your peril. The ‘50s are gone, but the values are in full force in 2016. How could it be otherwise?

The Coen Brother are, after all, masters of the hollow.

 

 

 

 

 

The Burning Plain

18 Jan

The Burning Plain – written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga. Drama. 107 minutes Color 2008.

★★

The Story: A young woman sets fire to the trailer her mother and her boyfriend are making love in and burns them to death.

~

It’s a failure on the grounds that the screenwriter who, usually works in a dovetailing mode, takes on a story which needs a classic three act construction. It is also a story whose contents he does not understand. The story he thinks he has written overlooks the story in front of his nose. Again a writer directs: again an error.

The real story is of a girl who deliberately murders her mother. In the movie this is denied by the girl, but since she is played by Jennifer Lawrence, an actress devoid of innocence, who is to believe her? No, no, instead it is an Electra story. What we need to see is her direct intention to murder her mother and her life’s response to that deed. And Jennifer Lawrence is the ideal Electra.

What obscures the mistake, but does not eliminate it, is the presence in it of two film stars, Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron. For when such women present themselves before us, we are faced with an enormous displacement of truth. For such ladies occupy a vast amount of film room. Castles topple around them. Redwoods bow down. Their mere arrival does this. This is always the case with certain film stars. With the greater truth of their very selves, they kidnap us, steal our fascination, credulity, shyness, and reason They are whales in teacups. They can’t help it. We want something good to happen to Theron. It is our nature to. And it is her nature that we should. We feel for Kim Basinger. It is our nature to. It is her nature that we should. The distraction is nobody’s fault. But their presence alone is enough to disguise that they are both performing in the wrong tale.

Basinger certainly is touching as the housewife/mother of four children, stuck nowhere, and losing her looks, maybe (which she has not) and losing her appeal, maybe (which she has not), and taking a rash bite of the apple before all apples are taken away. Her vulnerability steals our hearts.

Theron rides high as the grown-up version of Lawrence. We admire Theron’s mastery as a restaurateur. We go along with her flutters and affairs and how astonishing she looks in clothes. We wish the script afforded her an opportunity to meet the story head-on, but the real story is not there for her engagement with it.

Interesting to see Lawrence as a teenager playing one. Soon she too will grow large on the silver screen. She almost does it here. Won’t be all her doing either, but also ours.

Anyhow, it’s good for us to see how big big stars are, the space they displace, and that we just naturally accord to them. It’s just what they do. It’s just what we do.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: HOLLYWOOD CRISP, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Basinger

 

Blood And Sand [1941]

22 Dec

Blood And Sand [1941] — directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Sports Drama. 125 minutes Color 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A poor illiterate boy from Seville becomes Spain’s greatest matador, marries his beautiful childhood sweetheart, and then meets Rita Hayworth.

~

The lipstick on her mouth is the slash of death. As soon as she appears in purple, you know Tyrone Power is in Dutch. Anyone would be.

She’s 22 but she plays a woman of marked sophistication and massively confident sexual greed. She is never dressed down but always up and never less than to kill. Like gold coins, men move through what her choreographer Hermes Pan called the most beautiful fingers in the world. The part made her a star.

Even here, you can see what a good actress she is, her gift dependent upon her responsiveness. Just watch her in the big confrontation scene with Linda Darnell; watch how everything Darnell says to her hits her and what Hayworth does with it.  She has a natural inbred Meisner technique.

There are many attributes that made Hayworth a star, but let’s just notice one of them: her beautiful carriage. You’d have to wait until Cyd Charisse to meet her match. Look how the shoulders and hands are carried as she dances. She has three dances here, one sitting down playing a guitar in which she moves only her shoulders, one where she turns Power into a bull of her bidding, and one in full upright fornication which she does with Anthony Quinn.

Quinn, when young, is sexier than Power. His eyes burn with the hatred of an Italian whore; nothing could be hotter. And then we have Linda Darnell who is 17 years old here and unutterably touching. These film stars have such natural gifts. Darnell has the power to inhale with her eyes. It’s not a trick. She simply does it as an attribute of what she is. To witness such things is to cause wonder.

The weak link in all of this is Power himself who never has a hardon as the matador. He never investigates the character; he misses the eager brash guttersnipe of that scampering scamp of a boy he began as. You never feel his love of the sport, upon which the story depends. Of course, as in all bullfight movies, you cannot show the actor actually fighting the bull. If it were football, it would be different.

Blood And Sand is renowned for its color scheme of gold, ice blue, and blood red which the director imposed on it, and its Special Features contains a commentary by a modern cameraman Richard Crudo, a tutorial on the cumbersome challenge of Technicolor, which here is thick, rich, and saturated.

Mamoulian paints with film, right from the start with an all-but-naked adolescent boy racing through a blue moonlit countryside. He spray- paints Hayworth’s banquet flowers black. He spray paints John Carradine’s deathbed sheets grey. Darnell’s dresses are always white, black, or true blue. And Mamoulian dyed Hayworth’s hair auburn, which it remained for the rest of her career.

The backstage work of bullfighting is arresting, and we are treated to a supporting cast of considerable strength: Carradine as Power’s faithful friend, J. Carroll Naish as a wise fellow matador; Laird Cregar as louche journalist full of himself; as Power’s mother, storied actress Ala Nazimova. The movie is a lot of different sorts of fun: its camera work, color schemes, bright casting, two gorgeous young women. Although, as a whole, as you will see to your amusement and forgiveness, lead does not add weight to melodrama.

 

 

Quality Street

13 Aug

Quality Street – directed by George Stevens. Costume Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★

The Story: In 1805, a young woman hopes for a proposal from the local doctor, but instead he leaves for The Napoleonic Wars and comes back 10 years later, when, in revenge for his rebuff, she pretends to be her own 20-year-old madcap niece.

~

One wonders why Katharine Hepburn chose to drink this flagon of box office poison, after three flops in a row. Was it because George Stevens was to direct it? He had directed Alice Adams, a hit, and they had had an affair then.

It’s J.M. Barrie, and Maud Adams, Of Peter Pan fame, had starred in it on Broadway in 63 performances. It hardly offers Hepburn room for her trump suit of self-possessed, willful, smart, game women such as she would play in Stevens, Woman Of The Year.

Perhaps Hepburn thought the double roles of Phoebe and Livy would be an acting showcase. But neither female is particularly interesting or true in her hands. Hepburn’s faults as an actress are in full display with them: she puts on airs, she is arch, she is coy. She possessed the terrible trick to summon tears in a second and even control which eye would flow. Her performances all her life tend to be lachrymose, therefore, when only the audience should be.

Of course, there is still plenty in evidence of what we love her for: her remarkable face, her unflinching delivery, her ability to play an upper middle class female, and her ability to get her mouth around such lines as: ‘O, sir, this dictates of my heart enjoin me to accept your offer.’ According to her lights Hepburn snaps the script up like a macaroon. Good for her. Reluctance would have been awful.

The setting is Jane Austen land, and the genre is A Woman’s Film. The women are all in a tizzy about any man who passes who looks dashing. Eric Blore, he of the interminable grimace, as a sergeant is not dashing of course and ends up with the movie’s only authentically human character, the lusty, busty housekeeper, adeptly played by Cora Witherspoon. Estelle Winwood plays the gossip. The exquisite Fay Bainter plays Hepburn’s colluding sister. Franchot Tone plays the doctor beautifully, and looks beautiful doing it.

Maybe RKO thought the Barrie play would show class and tone. She had already played The Little Minister. But the period style stiffens into a pose. A greeting card has more weight. George Stevens, usually a master of screen treatment, films the whole thing as the stage play it is, four square, as fully lit as a cameo. Walter Plunkett’s costumes are frocks from fashion plates, women cradling shawls in the crook of their elbows when no sensible woman would have done so. Actually, Hepburn’s modern American manner is quite out of place in costume pieces, save in Little Women, which requires a hoyden in a long dress. Jo’s an A-level Hepburn character; Phoebe/Livy aint. Quality Street? A curiosity piece.

 

Something To Live For

06 Aug

Something to Live For – produced and directed by George Stevens. Drama. 90 minutes Black And White 1952.

★★★

The Story: An alcoholic actress is rescued by an AA sponsor who falls in love with her.

~

Made between George Stevens’ masterpieces, A Place In The Sun and Shane, this film seems to have no explanation for its existence at all. It is baffling to both to watch it at the time and to contemplate afterwards.

The story destroys it. It was written by Dwight Taylor, an experienced screenwriter, who certainly knew about dipsomania, since alcoholism was rife in his family: his mother was the greatest of all American actresses and alcoholics Laurette Taylor.

The film starts with Ray Milland, an AA doing outreach rescuing (by some inexplicable coincidence) an aspiring actress from a binge. He then 13-Steps her, by falling irrevocably in love with her. She loves acting, but is failing at it. We then learn Milland has a job as an art director in (by some inexplicable coincidence he is failing at it). He also has a pregnant wife and two children (one of whom by inexplicable coincidence turns up at a rendezvous between Milland and the actress). The actress also turns up at a party (by some inexplicable coincidence), which Milland and his wife attend. The wrap-up takes place at the actresses opening night on Broadway to which (by some inexplicable coincidence) his wife at the last minute obtains center-of-the-orchestra tickets. And so it goes.

Perhaps the rockiness of the script defeated George Stevens’ famed treatment and handling, but little of what he does resuscitates the narration. There are his shots through windows and there are his slow fades and there are his usual and unusual angles and set-ups – but none of this can seize the material: it is too slick for talent to grasp.

The problem also lies, as it often did with Stevens, in the casting, about which he could be lackadaisical. The Diary Of Ann Frank is ruined by miscasting the leading role with a teenage fashion model. Max Von Sydow a blue-eyed Swede, good actor though he is, is hardly a Middle-Eastern Jew named Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Elizabeth Taylor could never have been a showgirl we are asked to accept her as in The Only Game In Town.

Here we have three Academy Award actors in the major roles, and none of them belong in them. Teresa Wright as the little wife does her plaintive routine in a thankless role. But casting Ray Milland and Joan Fontaine as the art director and the actress smears the material, making it Englishish. Milland had won an Oscar for playing a drunkard in The Lost Weekend, and he is good here as a reformed alcoholic sexually obsessed with the actress, but, through no fault of his own, his particular vocal projection does not belong in this hard-headed New York City material.

And then there is Joan Fontaine, an actor almost always miscast, except as a country mouse. Her vocal projection is strangled. She always plays the flaxen-haired, vapid, flaccid, fair Rowena of Ivanhoe. The part is really meant for an actor who is willing to exploit her mean streak, as Bette Davis did to win an Oscar for doing the part in Dangerous. But Fontaine falls back on pathos, her stock in trade. (Even her hair-do seems miscast.) Stevens used her in a minor role in Gunga Din, where she is fine, and in Damsel In Distress dancing with Fred Astaire, in whose arms she is completely out of place, as here. Why?

Stevens sometimes used actors who just happened to be on the studio roster and lucking-out, as he did with Shane. But here, at Paramount, the skewed casting is exacerbated by the colliding of coincidence and by the forcing of drinks on the two recovering drunkards. Drinks are thrust at them, dangled before them, shoved on them, poured into their water glasses. Alcoholism does not work that way. Alcoholism is an inner mental condition, a lure in the physical system. It exists as a sovereign space in the imagination. Having once succumbed to the salvation of the first drink, the license to continue is unleashed. It is not a moral or ethical defect nor one of want of fiber, but a chronic disease, like diabetes. The script does not grasp this and the rendering of the material by the director does not show he understands it.

George Stevens was a director with flawless consideration for his audience and what they could do and were very willing to do. I would love to understand why he thought he could do anything for an audience with this cast in this material at all. But it is interesting how each work of a master is not necessarily a masterpiece. For, as W. Somerset Maugham pointed out, only the mediocre achieve a level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vigil In The Night

23 Jul

Vigil In The Night – produced and directed by George Stevens. Medical Drama. 96 minutes Black And White, 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Two nurses try to escape their pasts in a cruel and dangerous profession.

~

The five important pre-War directors in American film – George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and John Ford – all were permanently affected by it, as were the actors who went.

Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, Clark Gable engaged in dangerous action in The War. Sweet Kid Galahad, Wayne Morris, flying a Hellcat off the aircraft carrier Essex, shot down 7 Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five Japanese ships. As did the whole nation, all came back solemnized by The War.

Before The War, George Stevens made comedies such as Swing Time, the best of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, Vivacious Lady with Jimmy Stewart, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, and Woman Of The Year, the first and best of the Tracy/Hepburn comedies. During The War, George Stevens filmed Dachau. After The War he never made another comedy.

So the pre-War Vigil In The Night comes as a surprise in Stevens work. It is serious. It is an ER melodrama such as we have seen many a one on TV, set in the nursing profession, with Carole Lombard in a role of the sort she was never known for.

The highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, she ordinarily played lamé women of a highly volatile disposition in slapstick comedy. Here she is burkad in nurses’ caps and scarves and aprons. She appears to wear no noticeable lipstick or eye makeup. Because she had a scar on her left cheek, her face has a heavy, but matte, foundation. Her blond hair is seldom visible.

The story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who, like Keats, Stein, Maugham, W.C. Williams, was a medical doctor, so, written from the inside, the movement of the material rings true as narrative.

If Vigil In The Night had been a masterpiece, the film would have been a masterpiece. But unlike Stevens’ A Place In the Sun and Shane, no visual or narrative power on the part of the director can budge it beyond its convention of well-ordered melodrama. Its convention is honorable and solid, of course. It is narrative-driven. But it cannot escape the many corners of its own story. This story holds the film firmly in hand, and the only escape from it is the question that arises in the viewer as to whether the leading nurse will renounce her profession of nursing for marriage to the doctor who is in love with her.

This is the sole drama for the audience. All the rest of the drama is elected to the screen, moved forward there, resolved there. In Vigil In The Night, there is nothing for us to do. In Shane and A Place In The Sun there is everything for us to do. In A Place In The Sun, the power of the film lies in the director’s ability to leave an immense part of the story literally in the dark, at a distance, over there, for our delectation and voyeurism. To Watch it, a huge amount of imagination is called for, as to watch Shane. To watch Vigil In The Night no imagination is called for. The plot suborns it all.

The astounding thing about it, this being so, is the director’s handling of the material: the almost silent-film opening with its Bela Lugosi music, the angles of the camera, the overhead shots of the operating room, the director’s movement of the cast through wards, his placement of personnel, his characteristic use of windows through which to shoot, the taciturn handling of a bus accident so that, in not quite knowing what is going on, we experience the confusion of the episode, the management of every scene to make it unobtrusively interesting and right for us, shooting the child’s rescue through the slats of the crib, his arrangement of bodies in light, his ability to tell the emotional story through stark movement. From the point of view of treatment, Vigil In The Night is a masterpiece. Otherwise, not.

He produced the film, under the fine, overall production of Pandro S. Berman at RKO with whom he had worked successfully before. And as usual, he edited the picture himself. The only blight on the film is Alfred Newman’s music, which sentimentalizes emotion by supplying sentiment already there. Stevens’ soft spot for polemic also peeks out here – a trait that was to sink him years later.

What you have at the center of all this are four main characters: Carole Lombard as the career nurse, Brian Aherne as the honest hospital physician who must fight the head of the hospital board for healthier conditions, Anne Shirley as Lombard’s sister who doesn’t belong in nursing at all, and Ethel Griffies as the hospital head matron of nursing.

In scene after scene, through imaginative shifting of points of view and position Griffies holds the story in suspense as to the question of whether Lombard and her sister Anne Shirley can escape or redeem their pasts.

Brian Aherne, the archetypical leading man, is an actor of lyrical rather than dramatic strain, which perfectly suits the sexuality of the character he plays, since he needs to not claim Lombard without her express permission. Stevens films him with his eyes lowered in one scene; unusual for a camera to dwell on an actor like that; it suits the character perfectly.

As it should and must, the film retains our engagement because of Carole Lombard.

What is it about her? There was always the sense she was a madcap amateur, with the voice pitched too high.

Not so here. Here she is entirely under wraps, and one is given latitude to respect what she does and is. Quite simply, quite obviously, she was that rare combination of an actor who was both truly beauteous and, behind that, truly appealing.

With her hair concealed, the planes of her face emerge, and they are something to behold. Large, wide-spaced eyes. Mobile mouth. High cheek bones. A long, delicate jaw-line. Slender figure. And the voice, for once, placed low. Regard the slight movement of her exquisite brow. The features are severe; what lies behind them is not.

Technically it is a part hard to do without pushing and thus betraying the virtue we are expected to credit this character to possess, which is that of self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, a capacity for grueling, dangerous work, command in emergency, nobility. None of these does Lombard “play.” We are left to supply them, and we do, willingly. Thus we root for her. She herself makes nothing of them – and makes nothing of making nothing of them, as is right, for they would be already part of her character’s nature, and she and the director knew that the muscle of the story and her movement in a scene did the job. Lombard keeps it simple.

She had chosen the part because the wanted an Oscar. She had been nominated for My Man Godfrey, but she was not nominated for Vigil In The Night at all, and you can see why: the part goes nowhere. No alteration is available to her from beginning to end; no arc. She is superb in it, but superb is all she can be. Still, she is a perfect vessel for Stevens’ direction. Had she lived, one wonders if he would have used her again, as he tended to do with actors.

Stevens tells and lets the actor tell the emotion of the story with movement alone. By this I don’t mean grimace, expression, gesticulation. What I mean is that he makes the dynamic of the scene itself move the actors, not emotionally, but physically, to tell their story. You know what they feel by where and when they walk, how closely they stand to one another. For Stevens, emotion is narration, narration is actor placement, placement dictates scenic content. Stevens was the cameraman of Laurel and Hardy, and knew that their power lay not in jokes or in what they said or in slapstick, but in the collection of drama available inside the wider context of each scene they played. It had to do with the quite careful but unforced allowing of comedy to emerge – you find this over and over in Stevens’ comedies.

You find it here. Finding it here might not be enough to lure you to see this film, but Vigil In The Night is more than a text for screen scholars or students. It is master work by a great film artist. It is a masterpiece of directorial and acting entertainment in which every resource available to render the material for us has been engaged, invented, imagined.

 

The Story Of Emile Zola

25 Nov

The Life Of Emile Zola – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. 219 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★★

The Story: A famous writer mounts a polemic against the injustice of a Jewish Army officer falsely accused of treason.

~

The word Jew is never mentioned. But it is seen written down on a list. From this we are able to deduce that Dreyfus was scapegoated to Devil’s Island for years – for his taste in  neckties perhaps?

Idiotic. And forced. Forced into silence by the Hollywood style of the era, which ten years later would produce Gentleman’s Agreement, which the Jewish moguls in Hollywood begged Daryl Zanuck not to film. Zanuck had been turned down at a Hollywood country club because he was Jewish; he wanted vindication; he filmed it anyhow. And he wasn’t Jewish at all.

Here we have the same cowardly, goody-idealism and naiveté of approach. Here everyone is wide-eyed and jejune, everyone’s eyeballs stuffed with white bread. In contrast to this, the execution of the material is coarse, one big bang scene following upon the one before, like a rhino in a puce tutu jetéeing en pointe from one Alp to the next. This is the Warner’s bio-style of the ‘30s. To call it crude would minimize its delicacy.

The piece is overwritten wherever it can manage, and the actors tend to fall into the trap of that, which is to say, they emotionalize. You have to watch Henry O’Neill and Harry Davenport neatly underplay their parts to appreciate the peril of such a script. As Cezanne, Vladimir Sokoloff himself barely escapes with his life, but has a lovely reading of his exit line when Zola asks for him to stay as a reminder of the old days: “You can never return to them, and I never left them.” Gale Sondergaard, with her poisonous smile, can’t help herself but emote, although she has one lovely moment in court, and even the magnificent Louis Calhern has trouble keeping his corset on. The script writers should be spanked.

The problem is that the script is mostly exposition and narrative. Because it jams in Zola’s life from age 22 to his accidental death forty years later, the dramatic scenes are foreshortened and perforce glib. In playing scenes that are purely expository or narrative, an actor’s temptation is to goose them up with emotion to provide them with human interest, but the emotion involved is generally ungrounded or generalized or forced, and the humanity resulting becomes spurious. The audience has to sit through this pretension in order to endure The Story Of Emile Zola. It’s a story that has it’s value, to be sure, and, although I don’t know from the placard which opens the film how factual the screenplay is, there is certainly a general inauthenticity in the enacting of it.

Muni took it on just after his Louis Pasteur, for which he had won The Oscar. It had the allure for him of playing another good guy, a hero of history, someone to admire, a ”moment in the conscious of mankind”. After playing parts like Scarface, Muni may have come up against the problem Cagney had after playing public enemy number one – the frustration inherent to be always shooting men and slapping women. For Muni, Zola’s story might prove another perfect antidote – on the surface of it: Emile Zola! What a mensch!

However, the question one must ask of a performance is: is this a credible human being?

Here, for me, the answer is no.

Jerome Lawrence in his book on Muni recounts Muni’s preparation for the role: how he researched Zola’s gesture, his pince-nez, his tummy-tapping, his ancestry. Muni was a great master of stage makeup so Muni prepared the makeup for the part four months in advance. He grew his beard and hair to the length they would be at the end of the film; the beard would be shortened as he youthened to 22. Thus the film had to be shot backwards. The Westmores, the makeup and wig family at Warners, met with him and photographed Muni over and over to perfect the makeup for each of his four ages.

All of this is interesting, but all of it is surface. Muni made his living in the Yiddish theatre playing old men from the time he was a teenager to age 33, so he was a master of stage whiskers. And I notice as I watch that I am more interested in the whiskers on him than I am interested in Zola himself. Actually, I thought the whiskers were pretty good, but false.

In fact, I believe the whiskers may have sabotaged the performance, for obliging Muni, at 42, to start filming Zola at 62 may have tricked him into believing that acting-for-age was called for to distinguish him at that age from his younger versions still to be filmed, so Muni makes him somewhat doddering. A sort of foolish, fond old man, and cuddly. The result is that I never believe there is a real person there, but only A Noble Personage-who- is-sometimes-rather-dear.

If you consider the texture of the performance, you can see that Muni’s craft as an actor leads him often to a specious and superfluous craftiness. He seldom fails to overdo. He seldom keeps it simple. His idea is to entertain us with his acting and for us to like him. His performance might work all right on a New York stage. But here, inside it all, I do not detect a recognizable human being. Opposite him, as a corrective, Joseph Schildkraut must underplay even his own shouting. Muni did not win the Oscar for this. Schildkraut won it.

One wonders why. A put-upon Jew? If so, the award supplies an irony to the anti-Semitism which the movie timorously avoids.

Why see this film? A number of reasons: To Have Seen It. To experience the very interesting oddity of a French courtroom of the 1890s. To consider the whiskers the many male actors wear, for it must have taken the makeup people three years every morning to get these men into their muttonchops and mustaches. And to see Muni deliver what William Dieterle called an uncut, six-and-a-half minute tablecloth speech in the courtroom at the end, which he does simply and well.

The film was highly praised by critics. Why? Zola was the Bernstein and Woodward of his day, a whistleblower for all time, and like Zola, the reviewers too were journalists. Muni won the New York Film Critic’s award for this one, and the film won the Oscar for best picture of the year. Also for best screenplay.

Oscar Wilde knew both Dreyfus and Esterhazy. Esterhazy, the real traitor, Wilde found to be charming, Dreyfus dull. “It is always wrong to be innocent,” was his conclusion, and in this, as in all things Wilde was not wrong.

 

Orchestra Wives

05 Nov

Orchestra Wives – directed by Achie Mayo. Back Bandstand Musical. 98 minutes Black And White 1942.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman marries a trumpet player with a touring band and lasts.

~

If you want to see The Glenn Miller Band in full force in one of the two movies Miller made before he died in WWII, here you have it and him. He’s a good actor, and the band is allowed to play their full versions of big hits such as “I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo.” This is the grand finale, and it’s placed there because it is performed by a dance act which no other act ever could follow. That is to say, of course, that is danced by the Nicholas Brothers. Ann Rutherford, into her nineties, reminisces about the shooting of this sequence. She says you could not fit a sardine into the sound stage when they shot it; everyone on the lot came to watch. Fayard Nicholas tells how Daryl F. Zanuck would come down and watch rehearsals, and how Fayard was worried to show him an unfinished piece, but Zanuck said he wasn’t concerned because The Nicholas Brothers always did good work for him.

They sure do it here. And The Fox Contract Player Treasure Chest is opened up to reveal the presence of Gale Evans, Harry Morgan, and Jackie Gleason – none of them even credited, for some reason. Another group of contract players just above them at the time, Mary Beth Hughes, Virginia Gilmore, and Carole Landis play bitches, opposite the super bitch Lynn Bari. Cesar Romero in impeccable suits plays the smarmy but ever-affable piano player of the band chased by alimony-hungry wives, and that excellent actor Grant Mitchell plays the father of the heroine of the tale.

She falls under the spell of the trumpet playing and gorgeous masculinity of George Montgomery. He had a face, unlike Carole Landis’; his is filmable at any angle and in any light. To humanize his looks, they do have a character eccentricity to them, and he does not look well in hats.

Opposite him and playing the leading role is Ann Rutherford. She is not an actor who can carry a film any further than apple pie can carry a banquet. She plays her attraction to Montgomery as a form of coma. The sexual eagerness which all the other orchestra wives have for him is circumcised from her performance, and so the film sags when her character lies in the accustomed comforts of such a film.

But the film comes back to full life when the songs by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon are sung. They are wonderful songs: “Serenade In Blue,” “People Like You And Me,” “Bugle Call Rag,” and the really great, “At Last.” These are sung by the stars of the Miller band, Ray Eberle and the saxophonist Tex Beneke, The Mondernaires, and Marion Hutton, who looks so much like her sister Betty Hutton, you’d find it distracting were she not so good. If all this is not sufficient, adding one more notch to your collection of the Nicholas Brothers’ film work will be.

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

Nobody Lives Forever – directed by Jean Negulesco. Grifter Drama. 100 minutes Black And White 1946.

★★★★★

The Story: A G.I. comes home to his former crimes scene and heads for a multi-million dollar scam.

~

John Garfield, perfectly cast as both a G.I. and a criminal. It’s his way, which is always the same way: the sensitive tough-guy, Bronx marshmallow. Very lovable. Very understandable. These are qualities which come with some actors and don’t come with others, and they determine work. Work in two ways: casting, and the way he executes scenes. For out of these qualities spring choices in handling scenes. The acting craft holds outlets for these people. They are not ordinary, these people. They have vitality, presence, and looks. They have in them that which wants to be seen. So in discussing acting in relation to them, it is almost impossible to view them dispassionately. It is almost impossible to define the skill with which the tiger dismembers the faun. What is first, mainly, only possible, is to experience being impressed. That much is sure.

Like them or not, there they are up on the silver screen where they belong. With him and always opposite him are all the other members of the cast, all as vital. George Coulouris as the sleazy crumb horning in on Garfield’s grift. George Tobias, as always comical as the almost useless sidekick. Two comical thug fools, in James Flavin and Ralph Peters. His two-timing, slapable canary played by Faye Emerson at the peak of her beauteousness. And the astonishing Walter Brennan as the pickpocket guru. All these are contrasted in their comical or threatening positions to him and to the only one who is not threatening, but is lovely, Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the widow they mean to cheat. Fitzgerald’s performance makes the film work. She is smart but justifiably ignorant; she falls in love with Garfield and you believe it; she registers everything quietly and truly. Don’t miss her. She lets you perform the part with her. Garbo did the same.

The film’s finale is handled somewhat clumsily. But otherwise the film is beautifully directed, which is a question of values attended to in a way noir does not often offer. W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar, High Sierra, This Gun For Hire, The Whole Town’s Talking, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle) wrote it.

Give it a viewing. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Ride Lonesome

26 Oct

Ride Lonesome – directed by Budd Boetticher. Western. 73 minutes Color 1959.

★★★★★

The Story: A bounty hunter must bring in a murderer and encounters mortal danger inside and outside his posse.

~

Randolph Scott was for decades one of the most popular stars in Hollywood, and towards the end of his long career he made seven excellent films with Boetticher, of which this is the next to last and one of the best.

Scott came from a well-to-do Virginia and North Carolina family, and made a great fortune from films. He exuded the demeanor of a Southern gentleman too well bred to surrender to the admissions of the actor, but in time he loosened up internally and became an object of riveting registration. He is 61 when he makes this picture; his face has become marbleized; he is a national monument; he is stalwart, shrewd, and physically flexible when on horse; watch his body move. He is careful about what he laughs at, but contains a droll humor. When he is on screen all attention goes his way because he works the moral drift. Probity leads him. And that leads everyone else. Unlike Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, he is never hollow; he is without bombast. Burt Kennedy wrote this script, as he did for other of Scott’s best pictures, and knew Scott’s instrument and wrote fine music for it.

This is a trek movie. Like Stagecoach and many another it involves a long, tense, journey.

Accompanying Scott is the weak-minded young prisoner Scott has captured. But two other men go too, both interested in killing Scott so they can bring in the prisoner themselves and collect their own reward. They are interesting, because their reward would be amnesty from their past crimes and because they are played by James Coburn in his film debut, as a young lunkhead who idolizes the other one, played by the redoubtable Pernell Roberts. Roberts was the best Petruchio I have seen; he did it at The Phoenix in New York on Second Avenue back when. He had the kind of masculinity and big theater presence and great voice you found in Robert Preston. The fifth wheel in this posse is played by Karen Steele (Boetticher’s mistress at the time), an actress in whom our interest is stifled by her pyramid titties, immaculate beauty parlor appearance, and stiffness. Lee Van Cleef is, of course, the arch villain tracking them down.

The precision of the film gives us the story in all its timeless conventions and necessary taciturnity, and the director has given it to us in the spectacle of the taciturnity of the rocks amid which it is shot. It is sensational to look at. It would be wonderful to see this picture on the big screen, it must have been marvelous to witness it there at the time of its release. It’s still good to see it now.

 

Nine

22 Oct

Nine – Directed by Rob Marshall. Soundstage Musical. 2009 COlor 118 minutes.

★★★★

The Story: A film director puts off everyone as his film goes into production, but he can’t admit he has no script.

~

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this musical in which one cannot say he dances any more than a monkey might, for his strong body is put to musical acrobatic uses, and perhaps he has two left feet. The dancing and the singing are left up to the cherishable skills of Marion Cotillard, Penèlope Cruz, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren. Who could ask for anything more?

Not I. The dances are super-duper and the songs are fun. Judi Dench is a musical comedy singer from way back, and does a wicked Follies Bergère number with a mile long boa. Fergie in a wilderness of hair that somewhat unnecessarily masks her interesting face reviews her philosophy of Italian love in a wild song and dance. Kate Hudson plays an American reporter who does a big witty number about Italian Cinema.

For the musical is about the block Day-Lewis has in writing his next musical. All the women pose delays, distractions, denials. And in the end Nicole Kidman writes his new film off because he cannot show anyone a script. He is impotent. She sings goodbye to him.

What starts with Penèlope Cruz performing a hot comic turn as his mistress winds up with Sophia Loren singing him a lullaby to reform – no two actresses have resembled one another in film history more than these.

One would not question the execution of this material. One might question the strength of the source of this material. For it devolves from Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is about a similar predicament for a director. It starred Marcello Mastroianni. Mastroianni is an interior sort of actor, the kind that doesn’t move much, and the story of impotence is too navel-gazing to move me much either. Both seem weak. And Day-Lewis is cast in and plays the part along the lines of Mastroianni also. His opening scene where he lies to the press is his funniest, and it also displays his Italian accent and manner ruthlessly.

No, it is neither he nor the story that carry the film, but the women, their exuberance, their talent, and the dances in which the choreographer has put them to use.

I liked it. I didn’t think I would. But I like it. Because I liked these women, their sauciness, their independence, their smart take, their beauty, their agility, their out-front-ness, and the talent in each of them whose bigness warrants their being up there before me. They gave me their all and I took it for the plenty it was worth.

 

RECKLESS

05 Oct

Reckless – directed by Victor Fleming. Dramedy. 97 minutes Black And White 1935.

★★★★

The Story: A Broadway musical comedy star is in love with her producer who is too above it all to propose, and tragedy ensues.

~

This was the product of David O Selznick during his brief stint at MGM while Irving Thalberg was recuperating from a heart attack in Europe, and it reveals two things plainly. One is how well-produced the film is, and Two is how ungainly his story ideas were. For the screenwriter is actually an alias for Selznick himself, and the story falls into traps which are fascinating to behold the actors climb out of or fail to climb out of. It’s worth seeing in all respects.

Selznick was L.B. Mayer’s son-in-law, and Thalberg had not been told of his replacement, so there is a certain shame before us here. The plot also hinges on a matter unspoken. Selznick resigned before long; he went into independent production, produced Gone With The Wind, using Victor Fleming to direct it; Thalberg returned to MGM and never trusted Mayer again.

What we have is a handful of terrific actors playing out a sophisticated backstage comedy, which turns violent. It was based on the Libby Holman scandal. And it starts with William Powell, that master of insouciance, playing a gambler with Damon Runyan sidekicks. He has backed the career of Jean Harlow as the actress. In a superb proposal scene you see Powell at his comic best; in a too-long drunk scene you see him ill served.

From the start, everything depends upon the skill of the playing of every actor before us. As a substitute for the absence of reality in the story, each must perform at the pitch of their talents, and they do.

Harlow is exuberant, convinced, lithe, and on target. Her grandmother is played by May Robson, and fortunately given a lot to do. Franchot Tone as the millionaire playboy is almost too good in the role. If he had been a bad actor the film might be better, but he isn’t. His is a portrait of a balloon bursting. Henry Stephenson as his father is a mystery of probity; is he kind; is he cruel? Rosalind Russell plays the jilted fiancée with a nobility so humorous you cannot but root for her. And Mickey Rooney as a child is so alive on the screen, you don’t wonder Spencer Tracy called him the best actor in Hollywood.

None of these players can extract the rotten tooth inflaming this material, which is a front-page story of the sort Warners did better. Fleming is a dynamic director; he never shows too much when he can help it. But you can just hear Selznick whispering those logorrheac memos over his shoulder. Still, Harlow triumphs in a closing closeup. Her voice is badly placed but her energy is winning. There is a wonderful moment she has picking up a hat and tossing it back. Watch for it. Audiences loved her not because she was sexy and didn’t wear underwear, but because she was so alive! She still is.

 

Guardians Of The Galaxy

29 Sep

Guardians Of The Galaxy – directed by James Gunn. Sci-Fi Comedy/Adventure. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★

The Story: A club of renegade do-gooders seek a magic orb to keep it out of the wrong hands.

~

Will this never end! This was my mantra as I watched this clunking monstrosity repeat itself over and over. Now we have the orb, now evil Ronan has the orb, now we have the orb, now Ronan – the same ploy repeated interminably, the interminability broken by action sequences so fast you cannot enjoy their elaborations, amid settings so ornately imagined the director dare not give us time to appreciate them. For it’s either back to the orb or into a space battle or a onto a recess into sophomoric humor lead by Chris Platt beating off of the barbs of Bradley Cooper disguised as fast-talking, wirehead Raccoon, who is actually quite funny.

John. C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro and Glen Close freeze-shrink their immense talents to earn their pay playing characters with no discernable character. While the great Lee Pace stands before us in ruins as the villain Ronan, his beautiful speaking voice turned into a steam shovel and his interesting face shrouded in makeup, costume, and shadow.

Everything about the movie is made-up and everything depends on makeup. It’s worth seeing for the makeup. Is it? No.

The film seems not to be based on a Marvel comic strip so much as on a Buck Rogers Saturday matinee kids’ serial. That is to say, it is based on the perpetual repetition necessary for its existence at all. Except here we see all the serials at once, an endeavor that hangs itself on its own cliff-hangers. Raiders Of The Lost Arc with jokes but no humor.

 

Forbidden

19 May

Forbidden – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1932

★★★★★

The Story: A small down librarian heads for the high-life and finds true love.

~

Imperturbably soigné is how we usually see Adolphe Menjou, tailored so perfectly you don’t even notice it – except here we peer under the togs and find an actor of chance.

He had moved from playing betrayed and betrayer of husbands in the Silents, and now in the Talkies, we find a character with perfect diction and a well placed voice. All of which is to the good when his tuxedo gives out to a warm heart inside it. Surprise, surprise!

An unusual love story, pre-code, in which that heart is given to his mistress, played by Barbara Stanwyck, whose heart is also true. But Menjou can’t marry her, or won’t, he says, because he is already married to a woman he is indebted to. Perhaps it is the case that he can’t divorce and remain a successful politician. In any case, what we have is a story that rings true in its execution at every turn. All I know is I care for both these people and have not a single word of advice for either of them. All I can do is watch.

A triangle is completed by Ralph Bellamy as a muck-raking journalist, with a mean streak that gets wider as the years elapse. It’s not his usual thudding part, and he is very good in his crudeness, energy, and drive for Stanwyck’s hand. Surprise, surprise!

The story takes them through the years. They age. And things get worse for all of them as they do. Surprise, surprise!

Each scene is beautiful Their romance at night horseback riding on the beach is one of the most stunning scenes I have ever seen in a film. And the big confrontation filmed outside in a downpour is emblematic of the hardship true lovers will put up with to be with one another. Again – no surprise –  because all of it filmed by Joseph Walker.

And, also no surprise, it is written by Capra’s standby Jo Swerling.

Stanwyck is interesting, vulnerable, raw. When speech fails, Capra uses her as Silent actress, and she never gets it wrong, too big, too broad, too much. Always just right. She was one of those actresses who was greatest when young. Here she is 24. Her name is now above the credits. It will never find itself anywhere else.

She and Capra made four films in a row together. Then, years later, Meet John Doe, a collaboration of masterworks, as fresh and true in their execution and playing as a glass of milk at dawn.

 

 

Rain Or Shine

07 May

Rain or Shine – directed by Frank Capra. Backstage Comedy. 88 minutes Black And White 1930.

The Story: A madcap, double-talking circus manager is caught between his love for the pretty circus owner and his love for the circus which needs saving.

★★★★★

~

There is an elephant here. Here and there is an elephant. Here, there, and everywhere there is an elephant. The elephant is the circus itself, which needs an elephant to move it around and to provide comic weight. Very Funny.

Because  — also very funny — the light comic weight is carried by one Joe Cook whom no one has ever heard of, but who was the star of the Broadway musical of the same name.

Capra threw out all the music and focused on Cook, who is certainly worth the camera. He is a master of circus double-talk and con, and his sequences with his stooge Tom Howard are on a The Marx Brothers plane for pataphysical loonyness. They are doubly funny because you have never seen these characters before.

Capra was a master of crowd scenes like none since, so the handling of the material seems completely up to date, as does that of cinemaphotographer Joe Walker – particularly when Cook, to save the circus, embarks upon a series of acrobatic acts that make one’s jaw drop with delight and incredulity. Cook is a Cirque du Soleil all rolled up in one. Wow!

What makes Capra still modern? Still admirable? Still funny?

His narrative foreshortening, for one. He moves things along with an intelligence which trusts ours intelligence to catch up, and we are flattered and join in. Also Capra’s care for The Actor: everything Capra devised was meant so the audience could enjoy The Actor. And so two-scenes are kept in play instead of the folly of back and forth closeups, and you really get to understand what is going on in people. Capra had a steady crew of cronies who worked with him, and you see their credits and welcome the smartness of screenwriter Jo Swerling again, just as you see a drenching rain scene in every film and wonder how he will get his players out of it once more. Also Capra’s big heart, which shades and colors everything.

Is that enough?

It’s enough for me.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterwork of this director of great Americanness. Rain Or Shine’s an early one. Underlying honesty is our forte, a beckoning to the truth of the matter, a condition discovered when justice is balanced between folks. To righten the scales, Joe Cook performs an act of comic sabotage. It is nothing to the one Capra himself inflicts as he let’s loose a stupendous grand finale. How would anyone dare! Although anything less entertaining in the end would be unthinkable, un-Capra-like, unfinished.

 

Ladies Of Leisure

05 May

Ladies of Leisure – directed by Frank Capra. Melodrama. 99 minutes Black And White 1930

★★★★★

The Story:  a call girl models for a rich artist and falls in love with him and he with her, and all is well until his socially prominent parents intervene.

~

To see this film is to see one of the great stars of the movies in her first principal role and to see her at not just her first but her best.

Some movie stars start slow. They take a good long while to jell in the public value: Bette Davis, Bogart, Grable, Monroe, Hayworth. Others appear instantly out of the brow of Zeus, with something so particular, so fresh, so honest, and so inherently entertaining in all that, that the public never ceases wanting again what they first saw in them suddenly and at once: Brando, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Vivien Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, Chaplin, Garbo.

Barbara Stanwyck falls into the second category. And Women of Leisure is her Roman Holiday, East Of Eden, Streetcar Named Desire, and Torrent. She comes forth fresh, full, young, open, ready, and of a wide range within the confines of the material. The confines of the material are large, for they are full scale melodrama.

We don’t see melodrama any more as a serious dramatic medium, but in 1930 and before it was an accepted, honorable, and, by audiences, well understood and appreciated dramatic medium.

Melodrama is a word that means drama with music. And in movies you used to find a lot of it. Now Voyager with its big Max Steiner Score is a good example of it, and as you watch that movie you wonder if the acting of the actors could carry the scenes without the music elbowing in. But what the music did in movies was actually to elbow out written scenes. Movie music supplants writing, speech, dialogue, the working out of human drama through what people say to one another.

But in stage melodrama, the music was not present. (I’m not talking about meller-dramer, which is mock melodrama, in which music often is present: Irma Vep, Little Mary Sunshine.) In real stage melodrama the music is verbal, or rather the emotions attached to the words are a music which the words, in their completeness, cue in the actors. The only modern equivalent still played is opera. Opera dramas are ridiculous; the music sublime; the words are none, they are in a foreign tongue. But in real stage melodrama, the music is written out in lengthy dialogue, and in these scenes, nothing is ridiculous save the comic relief interluding them. Melodrama, that is to say, depends upon dramatic scenes written out to their fullest extent. No twist or turn is left out of the dialogue of a scene. The 19th Century theatre was rich with melodrama as serious theatre. Schiller a great exemplar of it, Pirandello makes use of its tropes, Shaw of its volubility. There is great pleasure in watching. good melodrama played out to the full by good actors willing in invest.

In modern plays, we do not often have such scenes; in modern movies never. Dialogue scenes are short and rationed. Emotion in them is rationed. It’s a different way of playing. It’s a good one. And actors expert at it are (by no means little) admirable since certainly through taciturnity they can avoid being hams. Sometimes less is more.

But sometimes more is more. And melodrama is always more. Screenwriter Jo Swerling has written a good one.

Stanwyck in his piece might become hammy at any moment, and never does. Watch her take the big confrontation scene with the young man’s mother. Seven minutes of sustained and varied dialogue and emotion in a demonstration of screen acting you will seldom ever seen again from any actor at any time in a movie. The scene does not move around, it does not stop and start, it does not cut away from her unduly. Rather it stays on her and watches her and honors what it is seeing in her. It is also written out unflinching through all its permutation and possibilities. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is withheld. Everything is offered the actors and us. And we revel in it. The length and scenic fullness of melodrama allows the audience to see into the actor’s being. It gives the actor time. That is its key virtue. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility to give ourselves to it.

Provided the actors can negotiate. it.

Any young actress starting out might well place herself here before this actress as she was starting out. It’s a big part, the focal role of the film. It offers her a range, and she takes it and runs with it in directions you would not expect. She is never sentimental, weep though she does, and she is never shallow, wise-crack though she does.

Her co-star is a lunky actor, who is neither good nor bad, so his performance does not sabotage hers. And she has decent support in Blanche Sweet and the rest of the company.

And she is held like a treasure by Frank Capra who directed her. He learned at once that Stanwyck had only the first take, and so he rehearsed everyone separately, went through the blocking with her, and then shot it with two cameras so as to gather the co-actors in the shot. He shot her closeups first so they were fresh. He had a superb sound man, and one of the great cameramen in movies, Joe Walker. Capra said to Stanwyck, “You are not beautiful, but I will do something for you that will bring out the beauty that is in you and in your acting,” and so he and Walker did. Stanwyck’s skin was luminous under light, she had high cheek bones, and an alto voice perfect for sound. And she had the common touch.

Capra did not want to use Stanwyck in this pictures. He interviewed her, and she was surly. She had come to Hollywood and made some bum films that led nowhere; no one was taking an interest in her; no one told her anything about screen acting. She was about to go back to New York where she had had a big success as a stage actress. But she had made a screen test at another studio; Alexander Korda, then a young director directed it; they had no one to act opposite her and no script, so Korda asked her what she wanted to do, and she played a scene from one of her Broadway hits. When she later told Korda that Capra didn’t want her, Korda (or, depending on the story, her husband Frank Fay) went to Capra and took the test over and urged him to see it. Unwillingly Capra did, and in it he recognized exactly what he needed. That surly girl was a brilliant actress waiting to be released.

What he saw, and what all of us still see in Ladies Of Leisure, is a young actress flying at her full potential: honest, straightforward, strong, vulnerable, varied, brave, loving, and smart. These are the qualities Stanwyck has been famous for forever. It is wonderful; it is refreshing to see them here and for the first time.

And no musical score. Stanwyck does it all.

 

Baby Face

05 Feb

Baby Face – directed by Alfred E. Green. Drama. 71 minutes Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

The Story: A speakeasy owner’s daughter and her negro pal take off to make their fortunes with two dollars between them and a plan for one of them to sleep to the top.

When Zanuck headed up Warner’s before he moved to Fox, he seldom allowed a female to carry a film. Instead, they were used as leading ladies opposite strong male stars. Baby Face is one of his few exceptions.

Zanuck thought up the story and worked on it with Barbara Stanwyck. We have full records of their sessions. They needed to get it into a form which would work with the censors, which in fact eventually it did not. Stanwyck is 25 at this time, and, since the Silent Era, she is making about four pictures a year. In some of them she plays the calico virgin, in others the hard-bitten dame. Or it might be better to say, she plays, as she did in The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity, a duplicitous woman. Here, she seduces and abandons one man after another on her way to the penthouse, which she actually arrives at. Over the bodies of John Wayne, Douglass Dumbrille, Henry Kolker, and Donald Woods she stalks, leaving them all pleading for more.

This is a wonderful ploy on the part of a script to make a star desirable in the eyes of both male and female audience. And Stanwyck is perfectly convincing at it up to a point. She’s great at flirting. But her technique is inconsistent and her choices sometimes unwise. For instance, the way to play telling lies is to be forthright, but Stanwyck plays innocent, she plays poor-me, she plays The Victim. But nobody would ever be convinced by it. At other times her line readings are flat. Both these things remained true for her all her long life as an actor.

But what is truer is her conviction. She is an actress of only surface emotional depth, but she is completely honest on that level, and that level is all that it takes to tell the story of a film, which is really what the audience has come to be satisfied by. Which is why so many B films were well attended: their stories were always more arresting than the performances of them.

Stanwyck had a good voice for film. Sound editors for early Talking Pictures had trouble with its range, but once they got used to that, it worked well, and we are speaking here of an actress who was only in movies at all because of that voice. There was a directness to Stanwyck’s delivery that her crews applauded and were moved by. She was a one-shot actress, so you didn’t get to rehearse with her, but she was an actress of immediate dispatch. She was on the mark, ready, go. In fact, she was go. It’s great to see it.

Stanwyck, like Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, was a redhead covered with freckles, and was, like them, plastered under a mask of makeup to hide them. Here they wanted to dye her hair, but Stanwyck never let her hair be dyed. Instead Perc Westmore, head of makeup at Warners and scion of a family of expert wigmakers, produced (they’re something to behold!) seven wigs each one richer in effect than the one before. And Orry-Kelly puts her in one overdressed outfit after another until at last, when married to banker George Brent, she seems entirely clothed in gold.

Time lists Baby Face as one of 100 greatest films.

 

Mata Hari

25 Jan

Mata Hari – directed by George Fitzmaurice. Turgid Melodrama. 89 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★★

The Story: A beautiful spy sleeps with and plans to run off with the enemy.

It’s quite stupid. The writing is scenically dead. But no scene in which Garbo ever appeared is dead. Each scene is perfervidly alive. She is 24 yet she is older and wiser than anyone else in the neighborhood, which includes, as usual, Lewis Stone, who is quite inert, as he often was playing opposite her. Stone has the George-Brent-foible of imagining that to come alive opposite a female star would be to pull the rug out from under her, not realizing that great female stars depend on the surprising and advantageous occasion slipping rugs provide. His woodenness is at one with the balsa of the script.

So here we have her already in power as the fatal woman who drives men wild and who  murmurs to their adavances, “Later.” Lionel Barrymore is one such dumbstruck dumb cluck, and sweet Ramon Navarro is the antidote to him. He’s a Russian pilot carrying messages back and forth to Moscow. She is a spy intent on intercepting them. Barrymore is the military go-between betraying his nation. It all takes place in Paris, and Garbo dances, or, one should say, prances about in skin-tight, gold, toreador pants. Indeed she is never without weird far-Eastern rigs and odd chapeaux. To see them is not to believe them. She is more manly than any of the men. Which is maybe why they throw themselves at her glittering boots. From whose vicinity she nudges them humorously aside.

Mata Hari, in the film (although not in real life, for she was married and the mother of two and over forty) was a woman alone, as was Garbo, and Garbo frequently played such women, women getting by through superior intelligence, daring strategies, consummate allure. Whatever tools that come to hand to promote their survival, her characters seize upon with the ready address of a hardened feminist. Garbo almost never plays a mother. Is almost never actually married, and never happily. In her roles she sleeps her way to the top or has done so. In the enneagram Garbo, a high Virgo, would be not a sexual or social, but a survival type. And perhaps her screenwriters were helpless not to conspire with her vaunted solitude and yet, in blind addiction made role after role of that solitude, a corset that limited her to the range of the isolate. MGM kept her playing these fallen women, fallen, though somehow still unavailable.

This sort of part, Mata Hari, was crazy for Garbo to do, but maybe she felt it would be a change of pace. After all, she was the top actress, the top moneymaker at the top studio. Adrian was doing the things, Douglas Shearer was recording it, Cedric Gibbons was to design it. The director had a reputation for taste and being good with women – yet Mata Hari is not well directed, and the continuity is lousy. But, of course, that is not the point, for it was extremely well filmed – by William Daniels, whose great lighting created her, for herself and for us. This is the period when Garbo does not let anyone on the set, including the crew. The scene is surrounded by black screens. Occasionally Thalberg alone stood far off in the shadows. He watched in admiration, amazement and respect, as we do to this day. Yes, the story is preposterous. But watch it and see how Garbo conjures something out of nothing. Into this grotesque shell of a production, this pearl.

 

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

15 Jan

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 88 minutes Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

The Story: A girl from a nice New England family is kidnapped by a Chinese warlord.

Nils Asther is certainly one of the more fascinating actors of motion pictures. The actor he puts one in mind of is Garbo. Like Garbo he was Scandinavian, and like Garbo he was very beautiful, and unlike Garbo he was called The Male Garbo – although in a way she was also the male Garbo. In any case, he is a power of subtlety as General Yen (oh, rightly named!) hankering after Barbara Stanwyck. He wears a brilliant make-up, achieved by shaving his eyelashes (which caused his eyes to bleed) and a viperish mustache. He smokes a cigarette so you know exactly what six things he is feeling at the moment, and you presently come to care about his soul, which is his main resemblance to Garbo after all. His eye make-up is so severe he never blinks.

For we are in the arena of miscegenation, and there is no doubt about the story playing upon our inner horror of mating outside our race. We wait out the story to see if it will take place. Oh, horrors! Can a white girl from a proper old New England family actually give herself to An Oriental? We are not dealing with preaching what is Politically Correct here. The film starts with the fine actress Clara Blandick laying it out flat: “They are all tricky, treacherous, immoral. I can’t tell one from the other. They are all Chinamen to me.” So we are immediately thrust into in the underground of our own natural prejudice.

The great character actor, Walter Connolly makes his film debut here in a ripping role, that of a scallywag financial wizard finagling the General’s power. His acting, his presence, and the writing of his part keep tipping the scales not just backward and forward but everywhichway, so our expectations are all a-tumble.

The great cameraman Joe Walker, who filmed many of Capra pieces, brings glory to the screen. His camera placements and lighting are a university education in camera craft.

The only difficulty is that Stanwyck is miscast as a girl from an upper crust New England family, for she is nothing of the kind and does nothing even to suggest that she is. She is common. Stanwyck brings her fabled honesty to the part, which she did all her long life, but that is not enough. But sometimes it was just enough, as here, but she never played deeply with accents, never learned character work. She brings herself at the moment. She started as a dancer so she brings physical certainty to her roles. There are never two things going on. If she says yes and really wants to say no, the “Yes,” will sound like “No.” She is without ambiguity, uncertainty, or subtext. But she is steady on. She has a fine voice for film and a face camera ready in any light and under any conditions. And, a rarer thing than you might think, she is an actor with the common touch. She never blinks either.

The film is magnificently produced. It cost over a million to make. It was the first movie ever to play at Radio City Music Hall (where it failed), and Frank Capra said it was his favorite film. The material is surprising and real, and the treatment unforced and free. It certainly is one of the most interesting films of the ‘30s.

 

Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe

02 Dec

Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe – directed by George Seaton. Musical. The female star of a celebrated New York nightclub falls in love with a man she is trying to con. 104 minutes Color 1945.

★★★★★

Pinup Girl was Fox’s top grossing film for the year. Betty Grable retired to have a baby. Then returned, high spirited as before and even slimmer.

William Gaxton is her co-star on stage, and his grown son, Dick Haymes is her co-star off. Gaxton , a seasoned vaudevillian, refuses to allow his son to enter show business, and Gaxton’s girlfriend Beatrice Kay is jealous of the father’s attention to his ambitious son. So she contrives to bribe Betty Grable with the lure of a mink coat if she can distract the son, whom Betty doesn’t like at all, from the father’s watchful eye, and keep the son on his path as a doctor of medicine.

It sounds like a bit of a stretch doesn’t it? Well, it is, for Dick Haymes had, of all the singers of his era, the most beautiful singing voice. He could have succeeded in show business without really trying. His singing makes your heart stand still; he’s a good actor; his face is interesting to watch. And we only go along with the plot against him because we are told to.

What works, as usual, is the abundance of comic dance and song numbers – which Hermes Pan staged and choreographed. And there is one in particular with Beatrice Kay and Betty Grable competing – modern songs against old-fashioned songs ­ that made me laugh myself silly. It is Beatrice Kay who does it: she is a high-priestess of camp. So if you ever wondered what camp really is, take a look at her in that number.

All this takes place in the crude backstage of the glamorous Diamond Horseshoe in New York, which we see very little of. The bristling Phil Silvers is around, as a stage manager, of course. The noble Margaret Dumont has a cameo, as does the suave pianist Carmen Cavallaro. In short, the whole affair is a pleasure feast, and, with the country at war, a war relief.

I saw this when it came out. I went to every Betty Grable musical when it came out. Everyone did. She was dessert served once a year, and if you don’t know what war-time rationing was, that’s all right. We were on less food, less gas, less clothing. We had rationing booklets. I still have mine.

And if you don’t know what it was to need wartime morale-boosting, well, good, but Betty Grable was the lady to do it. Why don’t you catch her act and see why?

 

 

Meet Me After The Show

01 Dec

Meet Me After The Show – directed by Richard Sale. Musical 87 minutes Color 1951. ★★★★.

The Story: A Broadway star gets amnesia when she get fed up with her husband’s controlling behavior.

What made Betty Grable the biggest star of them all?

She could two difficult things well which no other musical star could do: she could both sing and dance. Neither Judy Garland nor Rita Hayworth nor Doris Day nor Cyd Charisse could do both. They could all act, and each could do one other thing well, but could not do two things well. Betty Grable could.

She is also a true soubrette (in leading lady disguise) – meaning that she is a master at low comedy shenanigans and comic byplay, particularly in dance. She was always dolled up and presented as The Great Beauty, but most of her musical numbers were comic specialty numbers, and at them she is superb. As instanced by her number with a polar bear or dancing with two sixty year-old twins or with Gwen Verdon as juvenile delinquents or dancing with the beefcake boys (of which Jane Russell’s “Is Anyone Here For Love” from Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” is a reprieve. Russell leads with her pelvis; Grable with her eyes and ready wit). Her timing is impeccable and she understands and gives her own human folly to everything she danced. Her choreographer Jack Cole understood her well.

But the main thing about Betty Grable is that she is the most inherently optimistic human in the world, and anything that happens to contradict that hurts her in a way that hurts us.

This is a woman who is completely trusting. And you love her for it. Watch how she plays right out to the audience. No other musical star did that. Grable is playing to a “theatre” audience, but the effect is darling for the camera. She gives herself so innocently.

She is never hard or troubled. There is no neurotic edge to her. But she can contend. She is not without ways and means. She is never a victim long. She has background and resources. She is hard-working, and she plays hard-working girls. It’s always her ace in the hole. You respect her for it.

The plot of this picture is unusual for a Fox Betty Grable musical, which usually had Betty as an up-and-coming star, involved with two men at the same time. Here she is established and married, The second half, where most musicals fail, actually picks up color and pace, as Betty reverts to her vulgar down-South saloon beginnings and where she smooches on the beach with the dripping Rory Calhoun.

Arthur Arling shot it. Fred Clark and Eddie Albert lend good support. Cary Grant was set to do it, but couldn’t. MacDonald Cary, a really competent actor, does not have the sense of fun required for musical comedy style. But Betty carries the film. But more! When she appeared in Hello, Dolly! later in her life, no star who appeared in that show ever received the ovation she received when she entered. Why was that? Why did people love her? She gave it all she had – yes – but she was so open.

 

Cover Girl

28 Nov

Cover Girl – directed by Charles Vidor. Musical. A hoofer in A Brooklyn nightclub becomes a fashion magazine cover-girl and a Broadway star, much to the chagrin of her buddies. 107 minutes Color 1944.

★★★★★

Rita Hayworth was a true dancer, which is to say she was born to dance, and if one could say she was a great dancer, it would have to be not because of her technical prowess and range. There were things she could not do, had not been trained to do, did not have the body to do.

But on the grounds of musicality, enthusiasm for the dance, and port de bras, she is one of the greatest dancers ever filmed.

By musicality is meant: is she just ahead of the beat? She is. This means that the music is a response to the dance, that the music comes out of the steps, rather than the other way round. That is what makes a dance a musical dance insofar as a dancer is involved. It gives something for the orchestra leader to follow. For it is the dance our attention is primarily on.

Enthusiasm is the sense that the dancer loves to dance. This comes off of Hayworth in every dance she does here. Dancing with Phil Silvers and Gene Kelly in “Make Way For Tomorrow” you see how dance gives her glee and glee her drive. You see she is the one of the three most enjoying herself. She does not intend it to, but this draws focus to her. You want to watch and stay with such happiness.

It also validates her being a dancer at all, for this enthusiasm makes clear that she is a born dancer as well as a trained one. It gives us pleasure in her confidence in her physical strength and in her natural power, as this enthusiasm releases the spectacle of her might to us. Which brings us to the question of port de bras.

By port de bras is meant how the arms, shoulders and upper back are carried – the sheer beauty and propriety of her arm movements, how they are held, where they are held, how they float. But in Rita Hayworth’s case, superb as she is at port de bras, she is also endowed with broad flexible shoulders, a back strengthened by practice, and the most beautiful arms and hands in the world.

Of course, usually Hayworth’s arms are held above her waist, but they work with a grace so rich and natural and skilled, that it constitutes a dance in and of itself. This comes out of nightclub flamenco where she danced as her father’s partner from the time she was twelve. So it is not the difficulty of the execution of steps that makes her dancing great, but the grasp of it with the flamenco fire-carriage of her arms, carried high above her diaphragm. This is flamenco-style; it gives her dancing duende. Watch her as she dances with Gene Kelly in the fashion showroom number. Look at his port de bras. And then look at hers. Gene Kelly was an agile dancer, good looking, and sexy, as was she, but she is the one you look at, and you can easily see why.

Rudolph Maté films her magnificently, as he was often to do. He discovered how shadow revealed her inner visage, and he knew how responsive she was. Watch for those lingering closeups on her subtly changing face.

Cover Girl is probably some kind of ur-musical, in that we get Kelly first doing the sort of work that would change musicals to an earthy, lower-class, non-backstage, jazz/ballet style. We have the first of his famous, midnight, city-street dances, which we find again in Singing In The Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather – dances where he uses trash cans, street lamps, and passing drunks as props; indeed we have two such dances. His dance to his own reflection in “Long Ago And Far Away” is probably the most elaborate and interesting dance he ever did, because he dances the truly neurotic.

Kelly, selfishly, loses the opportunity to properly dance “Long Ago And Far Away” with Hayworth. Is it Kern’s greatest ballad? Most of a musical’s numbers are comic numbers, and Jerome Kern is the least original of all the great composers at them; there are a number of them here; they are serviceable. But no one could write a more rapturous melody than Jerome Kern. “Long Ago And Far Away” is still with us.

Phil Silvers, Eve Arden, and Otto Kruger fortify the tale of a chorus girl from Brooklyn becoming a fashion magazine cover-girl and then a Broadway star. Apart from this, you might notice a certain treatment going on here: you might notice that Hayworth is becoming enshrined.

But never mind: here she is in all her grace and beauty and skill. Ask yourself the question: whom do you care about here and why?

Or don’t ask it. She doesn’t ask for analysis. She’s an entertainer. That’s what makes her happy.

So just treat yourself to her. She is receptive, she is talented, she is ravishing. She gives off sexuality like fire. And she is also that oddly rare thing among actors: she is touching.

 

 

 

Tonight And Every Night

26 Nov

Tonight And Every Night – directed by Victor Saville. Musical. Starring a loyal American girl drawn to leave by her romance with a Canadian flyer, still a London musical theatre stays open during the blitz. 92 minutes Color 1945.

★★★★★

Baz Lurhmann, in an Extra Feature, describes Rita Hayworth as a big tall girl.

Actually she weighed 120 and was 5 feet 6. She gave the impression of being tall because her male dance partners, Astaire and Kelly and others, were short, and because of her long, slender arms and legs, and because her rib cage was straight, and like many dancers, her hips were shallow. This gave her more of a long, tubular, model figure.

Jean Louis her designer at Columbia Pictures said of her, “She had a good body. It wasn’t difficult to dress her. She was very thin limbed, the legs were thin, the arms long and thin and beautiful hands. But the body was thick, She also had a belly then, [She was pregnant by Orson Welles.], but we could hide that.”

Jack Cole, who did her choreography, said, “She did not have a good figure, but she had beautiful breasts, beautiful arms and the most beautiful hands in show business …. As a young woman she was always a much more beautiful person than she photographed ‘cause they did really icky Columbia make-up for star ladies, with that too hard glossy mouth.

“She was a wildly good humored lady to work with, and she worked very hard. Not that she was wildly talented, but she was wildly suited to what she was doing at the time she was doing it. She was the sum total of a group effort – the way they dressed her, made her up, wrote for her, what she did with it, was a group job. What separates her from similar studio products is this inherent erotic thing of her own.”

So Sammy Kahn and Julie Styne will do the songs. Rudolph Maté films her in a way that gathers her up and continues to film her in a way that produces the Hayworth as we will come to know and admire. She will have a top supporting cast: that emerald lavaliere of an actress, Florence Bates will play the eventual Judy Dench part, Lee Bowman is the leading man, Marc Platt does a sensationally funny dance audition number, she has a couple of delightful cockney charwomen to give it a London lift. And Jack Cole will do her choreography, and go on to do it for her signature dance in Gilda. 

“You couldn’t treat her like a dancer – she could dance, but you couldn’t put that burden on her, she didn’t go to class every day .… I got to know what she could do facilely .… With Rita it looked like she really could do it, and more. There was the effect of ‘stand back I’m going to move now.’”

Since the dancer scheduled to do “What Does An English Girl Think Of A Yank” sprained his ankle on the day it was to be shot, Victor Saville asked Cole to dance it with her himself. He felt ill suited to the character, but there was nothing else to be done. “So I rehearse with Rita a couple of times around and we’re ready to start. Well, baby, I don’t know what hit me, when they turned the camera on. Monroe was the same way – when it was for real, it was like ‘look out.’ For this first shot …suddenly this mass of red hair comes hurtling at me, and it looked like ninety times more teeth than I ever saw in a woman’s mouth before and more eyes rolling, and … you know, she was the most animated object ever.

“Rita always did it for real – she always gave more than she got.

“We got along good, we liked each other, Rita knew I was very understanding of what she could and what she couldn’t do. She was very good humored and disciplined. If it was in her to do what you asked of her she’d do it very well and with energy, unlike some.”

These remarks by Jack Cole are from John Koball’s astute book on her work, Rita Hayworth, Portrait Of A Love Goddess: The Time, The Place, And The Woman”. I quote it because it helps tell you what you are looking at. Which is why I write these pieces for you.

Here we have Hayworth in a jolly good part in a book musical, shot in glorious 3-strip Technicolor. The color scheme is rich and quiet. The songs are light and the numbers odd. The plot is unusual. You’ll see.

For, all around, it is one of her most entertaining musicals. She is absolutely lovely.

 

My Gal Sal

22 Nov

My Gal Sal – directed by Irving Cummings. Period Musical. American songwriter Paul Dreiser struggles from the rural Midwest, through raree shows, and into the arms of a beautiful musical star. 103 minutes Color 1942.

★★★

Like Victor Mature, the movie is a big lug. It is also A Gaudy Fox Musical, first meant for Alice Faye, then for Betty Grable, but finally made with Columbia-import Rita Hayworth, and Gaudy doesn’t suit Rita Hayworth, because she is already gaudy enough, with her dazzling smile and power to seduce.

It is also true that Fox musical numbers were usually comic numbers, and they don’t work well for Hayworth, since they are not in her proper range.

Finally, while Hayworth lip-syncs her songs well, she is not actually singing them. Only two major musical comedy stars of that era actually could both sing and dance well: Grable and Garland. Ruby Keeler did neither well, though she did both continually, as though talent for one or the other would one day break through.

What Hayworth did better than any of them was dance her particular dances. Only one of them works at all well for her here, a ballroom number, choreographed and partnered by Hermes Pan, and even here the costume is a demerit. Still and all, watch her port de bras. Her arms are lyric. Pan said she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen; her upper-body carriage is always emblematic; she had a goddess in her shoulders.

But she does not prevail over the stupidity of the musical numbers staged for her. A movie of the previous year, Strawberry Blond, at Columbia is a much more heartening film. Again, she plays the title role, and it is of the same period and features the same sort of barber-shop songs – although in Strawberry Blond, the music is a constant background, not hitting us in the face like a fly ball as it does here. Besides, that was directed by Raoul Walsh, and this wasn’t.

Phil Silvers, with his personality of a merry cactus, has a couple of good scenes, The lovely and talented Carole Landis plays an early girlfriend of Mature. James Gleason is the cheating music publisher Mature makes rich.

Indeed, as you can see, we are generally in the realm of Gilded Age con men, and all the males of the film, save for the constipated Bruce Cabot, fall into this category. Mature is the con man’s con man. And his playing two pianos at once in a medicine show he works is spectacular and fun and odd and endearing – indeed, an act of genius. Mature was a big hearted galoot and game, and these qualities were a fine foundation for his career in films. As an actor in his craft he is without particular interest. You might say that even interesting roles didn’t lend him interest. He could do it and do it full out, but he lacked the artistic intelligence and imagination to create something marvelous – unless playing two pianos at once is imaginative and marvelous – and you know something? – I daresay it is!

 

Strawberry Blond

21 Nov

Strawberry Blond – directed by Raoul Walsh. Period Comedy. A bad-tempered dentist falls afoul of a beautiful woman and a con man. 97 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

A Whitman’s Sampler of 1910: beer halls, high button shoes, brass bands, barber shop quartets, and Irish wildness.

Perc Westmore did Rita Hayworth’s makeup and discovered that her hair was so abundant that she could never wear a wig. But he dyed it to make her the title character, which she carries off beautifully. This is her second A-film, having just made Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. She is very young. She is flabbergasteringly beautiful. She is perfect as the phony flirt and even better as the rolling-pin wife of Jack Carson.

James Wong Howe upgraded every film he filmed, and you can see it in this one, which otherwise might have been a Fox Betty Grable musical. He colors scenes with shadow, the play of leaves across a face, and this gives them a romantic importance which they actually inherently possess and need.

For as with all of Raoul Walsh’s films, the love story grounds the project. Walsh tells the story imaginatively and crisply, as usual, and his actors are on the mark – free and liberal in their choices. It is entirely without the crass Irish sentimentality you find in Ford and McCrary. Walsh was great with actors. He did not watch their scenes; he only listened to them off-stage. The great stage director George S. Kaufman did the same. If the truth was heard, it would be seen. The result is the actors shine. And this is Walsh’s favorite picture.

It is James Cagney’s film, and he abounds; scarcely a scene he does not appear in. He was after a change of pace, and balked fiercely about doing this, until Hal Wallis and Jack Warner offered him 10% of the profits and brought in the Epstein brothers to rewrite it. It had been a stage play and then Gary Cooper’s only flop. They switched the milieu from the Midwest to New York City, where, of course, Cagney belonged.

Cagney is a curious actor. He acting personality is one who wants to be ahead of the game. This means that he is not actually a responsive actor, since he always has his fear for the possible in mind. His definition of acting was: “Look ‘em in the eye and tell the truth” – which is fine if you are a machine gun. So I find it hard to acknowledge his talent; I do but I find it hard to. His headlong “personality” worked well here, since he plays a man consistently duped. He was high-waisted, long legged, and short, and carried himself  step-dancing tall at all times, which is nice. His scenes with Alan Hale as his Irish blarney drunk father are scrumptious. Hale is just terrific in the part, and Cagney plays along with him almost bursting out laughing at Hale’s inventiveness.

But it is Olivia de Havilland who carries the film. She is full of mischief, sweet, pretty, and real. Raoul Walsh’s acknowledgement of the truth of her love is the waking moment always. James Wong Howe films her like the bonbon she is, full of flavor, rich, molded to a shape, and toothsome. The passage of feeling across her face validates this charming comedy, and carries its value as an entertainment right to this day.

 

Miss Sadie Thompson

20 Nov

Miss Sadie Thompson – directed by Curtis Bernhardt. Drama. Quarantined on a South Seas island a dance-hall girl and a man of the cloth battle it out for their souls. 93 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

It’s stupid of me to suggest that the screenplay needed to be rewritten from scratch. For here it is 60 years later and the wench is dead. But do you ever get the feeling of a lost opportunity that must be corrected, and you know exactly how to do it?  Somerset Maugham’s story Rain was done on Broadway by Jeanne Eagles, and then in a silent with Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore, a talkie with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston, and this with Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer.

The original story begins with a long introduction of the missionary. The stage play starts with scenes with the owner of the Pago Pago hotel and his native wife. This version begins with a bunch of rowdy Marines, bored and hard up for female companionship. It plays like a stock version of South Pacific. You never believe them for a minute. They bray. And they pray. And they bray. The problem is that the director establishes no balance, pace, or variety with these men nor is it afforded to Rita Hayworth when she arrives as a tourist off the freighter that is to carry her to a job on a farther island.

You never believe the reformer/missionary and his cortege either, because they are not given enough screen time. They are interesting people, and Maugham knew they needed to be revealed first and fully. For the story is the conflict of two passions, one for perfection and the other for pleasure. Each passion contains a flaw fatal to it as they play themselves out against one another. In the Swanson version, the missionaries are established (by Raoul Walsh who directed, wrote, and starred in the role now played by Aldo Ray) as a bursar collects their entries for his autograph book, and we learn immediately from the pieties they indite therein the intensity of their persuasion.

This version is actually filmed in Hawaii, which brings a proper tropic to it, and which Charles Lawton, who filmed it, sustains in the interiors shot at Columbia. “The Heat is On” which Hayworth dances is beautifully filmed in the atmosphere of sweat, tropical rain, and the mist rising from hot male bodies watching. Her dance, her very presence in a film is worth the price of admission and the time. And I wanted her to be directed better, this is true for the film itself, which was a bowdlerized version cut down to fit the Hays office, women’s clubs, the Catholic Church, and other groups who crossed their legs about it. Didn’t work. Hayworth’s dance is so steamy that the film was banned.

Swanson brought to the part her long skills as a film actor in serious parts (which Hayworth did not have) and her abilities as a natural soubrette, which is how Maugham wrote her. Hayworth is no soubrette, but she unleashes herself on the part admirably, and, being Hayworth you care about her, even as you recognize how her beauty and joie-de-vivre will get her into trouble. Hayworth is the most subtle of the three actresses who played Sadie, she is the most sexually powerful, she is the most convincingly flagrant. In her performance is a performance greater than the one the director had the talent to give her. Maugham said she was his favorite of all the Sadies. She’s mine too. And why? Rita Hayworth is that rare thing, an actor you actually automatically want to root for.

 

Love Affair

18 Nov

Love Affair – directed by Leo McCarey. High Comedy. A career woman and a philanderer meet on an ocean liner and agree to meet again in 6 months time, but their plan is run over by a motorcar. 88 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

Charles Boyer was a lush screen lover. He had wonderful drooping eyelids – bedroom eyes they were called in those days – a sensual mouth, and a deep French accent. Yum! Monsieur Boyer was also a marvelous actor, and you can see behind the surface charms lie even greater charms – innocence, affection, loyalty, and the tact of true fun.

Irene Dunne comes to this from success as the ingénue Magnolia in Showboat, which she had done on the stage, and which she had just completed aged 38. Here she is 41. She is fabulous, and sings Plaisir d’amour and Wishing. She never loses her glad eye. She never forgives because she never blames.

And here we see something the old Hollywood could do nowhere better, which was to star actors of a certain age as though they had no age at all.

So these two over 40 stars come together in a story which will subsequently be re-made, also by McCarey, with Deborah Kerr, aged 36, and Cary Grant, aged 53. And again with Warren Beatty, aged 57, and Annette Bening, aged 36. Each version is worse than the one before, indeed, each one is atrocious, but the first one, this one, which is first class, perhaps because it was written by Donald Ogden Stewart and perhaps, if what David Thomson says is so, because McCarey allowed the two stars to improvise their scenes.

Boyer didn’t like it, but fell in with it. Dunne was excellent at it, and it is her performance which carries the film once it turns solemn, for she does what Cary Grant later did, she plays the entire predicament of her injury as further grace for light comedy. She resists pathos like the plague. Boyer on the other hand has one of the great screen moments when he realizes what has happened to her. Watch for it; watch it happen to him.

This is comedy of faces. This is high comedy. This is comedy of the most life-loving fun. You may call it sophisticated, but it is also the comedy of two people experienced enough to suppose they would neither of them find anyone to be married with, which accounts for the real background of the story and the justification for their age, which Rudolph Maté films understandingly.

The dread, minute Maria Ouspenskaya plays the part of the grandmother, and she is not bad for once. It was finally played by Katharine Hepburn in her last film role. But the grandmother of them all is Catharine Nesbitt in the Grant/Kerr version.

McCarey’s drunken sentimentality over those singing children may give you the dry gripes, but isn’t it strange that material that, in its remakes, would disgust you, you should find in this, its first and original version, such charm, such delight, such perfection.

It’s the actors, of course. Boyer and Dunne. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Salome

17 Nov

Salome – directed by William Dieterle. Biblical Epic. The king of Galilee and his queen are in mortal conflict over the rant of a desert prophet, but whose side will their daughter take? 103 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

What sands, what scimitars, what sanctimoniousness!

John the Baptist on a soapbox in the dessert preaches not salvation but sedition. That is, he defames Queen Herodias because she has married twice — which is hardly prophetic, since she has been married to Herod for twenty-five years.  It seems rather hard of John. And what is worse the poor actor who has to spout this rigmarole is ill equipped for the chore. He plays it with his blue eyes constantly raised to the second balcony. Ya know what it is? It’s a bunch of hooey, that’s what it is. And it’s so aggravating, ah, if only someone would come and behead that actor – and – oh, blessed chance – whadyaknow? – someone does. But I won’t tell you who.

Into this Biblical thingamajig we have four good actors, in major roles, and all at their  professional best.

Judith Anderson with her voice of an old Chevrolet reprises her peculiar-relation–to-daughter-figures number from Rebecca.

Then we have Charles Laughton, one of the most inventive actors ever to draw breath. As he is warned against the prophet. watch him hug the pillars like a baby. Watch him put the make on his step-daughter. Watch him respond to each of Salome’s veils as they drift off of her. Watch how he agrees to Herodias’ request. He is so marvelous, you would suppose him to be playing one of the greatest roles ever written. Well, actually he is playing Herod, so perhaps he is.

Then there is Stewart Granger, who is handsome, sensual, humorous, intelligent, sensitive, and has a delicious speaking voice. Professionalism can do no more. For there again you see an actor completely convinced; the role is of a Roman Centurion, at ease in the role and also in a little white skirt. Every time he is on screen, your morale goes up. With his grey-at-the-temples look, he is well cast opposite superstar Rita Hayworth.

For, oh dear, she is twenty years too old for the part. Salome has to be a fifteen year old girl, and Rita Hayworth was well into her 30s when this was mounted for her. She, of course, is wonderful, as good an actress as you get in movies, you get behind her completely. And her dance of the seven veils (we get to, but not past the seventh) is sensational. Her power to taunt and entice was unequalled. And her dance is all about those kind of illicit, illusory invitations. Worth the price of admission.

Also worth for the costumes, by Jean Louis. They will take your breath away. C.B. DeMille never had things so wonderful on the human form. Nor did he ever, as Dieterle did, shoot 18,000 feet of exteriors in the Holy Land. Nobody had ever done that, and they are very interesting. Indeed, no expense has been spared on the production; beautifully shot by Charles Lang; sumptuous, even dazzling; and, apart from those four performances, another reason for seeing Salome.

 

Call Me Mister

10 Nov

Call Me Mister – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Musical Comedy. GIs on their way home from war are entertained by a dueling husband and wife. 96 minuets. Color 1951.

★★★★★

Laughter is a door and a room. The door is the joke. The room is laughter itself, a room which one remains in hardly remembering the door at all. For once one is in the room of laughter, the door of the joke is at one’s back. We’re laughing because we’re laughing. We can’t even remember what we’re laughing about.

Betty Grable is like that. One does not estimate the talent she had, if one is to enjoy the skill. What one does do is get oneself lost in the brightly colored room which she is. Good nature exudes from her, and it is real. Set in the most vulgar and phony and energetic of all musical comedy settings – the Fox Musicals – she is down to earth, truthful, human. As an actress she is vulnerable to influence, high responsive, humorous, feisty, has a reasonably good opinion of herself, and is confident of her gifts, such as they are. She one of the two greatest actresses of musical comedy, the other being Judy Garland. But Garland made very few movies playing a grown woman, whereas Grable went on right up to her forties.

She started in film in 1929, when she was thirteen, tricked up in a G-string and hoofing it in the chorus. You can see her as a teenager dance “Knock-Knees” with Edward Everett Horton in Rogers and Astaire’s The Gay Divorcé (RKO 1934), and she is cute as a bug’s ear. She made many minor musicals, even one with Judy Garland, but was still in her early twenties when musical comedy star, Alice Faye left Fox and Grable took her place. Grable had a huge acting and dancing experience behind her by the time this happened. When you see her, mark her speed. Watch her move through the paces of “I’m Going To Love That Man Like He’s Never Been Loved Before,” a big hit from that era. Look how ready and eager she is! It’s refreshing. And authentic.

Like Marilyn Monroe who patterned herself somewhat on Betty Grable, Grable had a complexion for color film. She photographed idealistically. And you sure can see it here, where elaborate hairdos do not distract you from it.

She made a number of films with Dan Daily, and he was her only true co-star because true equal. Unlike the other moustaches, he could really dance. And you can see how well both of them do this as they contrive to put on a show for returning servicemen from Japan.

The story is the usual Betty Grable story of a woman whose man is two-timing her – except that she’s got a bigger career than him –– so there!

Except she’s not that hard-boiled. Naw. She lands her man. Our Betty deserves a love.

Why?

Because she is a love.

 

My Blue Heaven

08 Nov

My Blue Heaven – directed by Henry Koster. Musical Comedy. A famous couple want a baby. 96 minutes Color 1950.

★★★★★

If you are interested in musicals at all, My Blue Heaven is one of the breakthrough ones to see. For it is a Fox musical with the glare amputated. Formerly and for the most part, Betty Grable musicals were set in exotic settings or in The Gilded Age of vaudeville, and Grable would depict an unmarried star on the rise, being two-timed along the way by some handsome cad in a moustache. But here she is already well married and also already well established as half of the Lunt and Fontanne of musical comedy. And the color coding of the musical is no longer loud, vulgar and gaudy, but subdued and natural to its era, which is the ‘50s. The setting is modern, and the story has to do with Grable becoming a mother. Odd.

In 1929 when she was 12, Betty Grable’s mother dyed her hair blond, put her a G-string, and got her in as a chorus girl in the film Happy Days. By the time she made My Blue Heaven she is 33, earning $300,000 a year, Fox’s top star, and for ten years one of the ten top box office attractions in the world. What this has to do with this film is that she had three failures before she made it, and Fox musicals were very expensive to make: $3,000 a minute – partly because of the enormous time rehearsing the numbers. So on the one hand musicals had to succeed and on the other no one quite knew how to make them. But MGM had led the way, so now Betty Grable was made a contemporary American, which made sense, because nobody in the world was more so.

For this one Grable has again her most likeable co-star Dan Daily. He also was her only true co-star, because he was the only one who had big musical comedy chops. He is a gifted dancer, clown, and actor, as was she. Daily has an entertaining face, as did Grable, and they both liked one another enormously, you can see it on the screen. In all four musicals they made together, they are married from the start. But most important, for this film they used a script by Claude Binyon and Lamar Trotti, which is witty, cogent, and surprising, one of the best musical comedy books I have ever seen. Arthur Arling, who had filmed her often and knew now to do it, shot it. It is well-paced, plausible, and bright.

Also on board were oodles of musical numbers written for it by Harold Arlen. These consist of a series of light comedy satires, one of Rogers and Astaire, one of Rogers And Hammerstein’s South Pacific, one of Irving Berlin holliday songs, and the last, also of Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby in Berlin’s Anything GoesDon’t Rock The Boat, Dear, which was a hit in its day and is still a delight. The witty lyrics of this and all these songs were written by Ralph Blane. Mitzie Gaynor, David Wayne, Jane Wyatt, Una Merkel, Louise Beaver lend a happy hand.

Of all the movie stars in the world, Betty Grable is the one most easy to love. If you love loving someone, and I know you do, watch her. She’s a tonic.

 

FBI Girl

23 Oct

 

FBI Girl – directed by William Berke. Crime Fighting/ Police Procedural. Leafing through the fingerprint files, a clerk must trap the truth about a sordid senator. 74 minutes Black and White 1951.

★★★★★

Even in a pinafore, Audrey Totter always looks like the hostess in a West Virginia nightclub run by racketeers, and as such she is always a big plus to any film she appears in. Her mouth is so voluptuous that even when she is playing a good girl, as here, you think she must go bad by the next reel. It lends her roles a sumptuous ambiguity. I like her very much. As to the level of talent she possesses, this is not question one asks of such an apparition. It would be like asking the Angel Gabriel if he can type. Oh, no, one sits back and rejoices in the atmosphere her presence guarantees.

 

Such is also the case with Cesár Romero, except it is quite easy to see that he can act like gangbusters, which is, in fact the part he plays. Romero’s screen energy is always peppy, always out front, vigorous, and apt. He was a handsome man who never aged, who looked marvelous in clothes – and here it looks like he wears them from his 1,000 suits wardrobe. His beautifully tailoring does not suppress his vitality or his humor.

 

Romero was to make hundred of movies. He went on acting into his 90s. He played parts that Gilbert Roland and Anthony Quinn ditched. He didn’t mind. For he had also played with perfect confidence cads in a mustache opposite Getty Grable in her heyday, and added a lively foil to that fine entertainer’s ebullience. It’s always good to see him.

 

It’s never good to see George Brent, unless you find fascination in staring at wallboard. It is extraordinary how inert he is. Listlessness was his volcano. He played opposite Bette Davis in 12 of her pictures. Did that laminate him? The odd thing is that, off camera, he was evidently desirability itself. Set next to Romero in this piece, the contrast is destructive to a degree of Brent, and Romero is not attempting to steal scenes. Brent has the animation of a Steiff penguin, except that in Brent’s case, although the adjective is abused, he was life size and his suit didn’t fit.

 

Tom Drake, late of the boy-next-door roles, gives you a sense of the terrible destructiveness of cute youth. The boy-next-door, if he is this cute and this aware of it, is but one step, if even one step, away from the cad-next-door. And this is the part he plays.

 

If the movie is silly, it is held at anchor by the performance of Raymond Burr, the man you love to hate, a sort of male Eleanor Bron. For perhaps not the only time but at least here his performance is restrained, collected, interior, and, despite that he plays a vile and ruthless assassin, one cares about him, for some reason. Sometimes Burr was an actor, not just of a part, but of parts, and this is one of those times.

 

Though it says it is, it’s not noir, and the plot is not plausible. For belief cannot be suspended when one gazes upon the arresting gowns Totter dons as the customary evening attire of a file clerk. On the other had, she is even more out of place in an apron. When credibility knocks at the door in Hollywood, no body comes to answer.

 

Cony Island

21 Oct

Cony Island –– directed by Walter Lang. Period Musical. A vulgar saloon singer gets mentored into Broadway by a con man who loves her. 96 minutes Color 1943.

★★★★★

Betty Grable remains the greatest female “entertainer” of movies. She remained on the top ten box office stars list for ten years, one of the few actors and the only woman ever to do so.

It is easy to write her off. Oh, yes, she was all tarted up in spangles. Yes, her hairdos were mad confections and her costumes Technicolor flamboyant.  She played low-class dames from show-biz, and she was famous for her legs. She was the star of mere Fox musicals. She lacked class. MGM was more high-tone. Fred Astaire never danced with her.

Well, Hermes Pan, who choreographed Astaire’s sequences with him, choreographed this film and dances with her here. In his view, she and Rita Hayworth were the best of the female dancers. He could give her an elaborate sequence and was amazed that she could copy it immediately! “Honey, I’ve been doing this since I was eight.”

She was a good singer, she had a complexion that Zanuck demanded always be shot in color, she had a living-doll figure, with a subtle sensual hip action natural to her.

She is equaled only by Judy Garland, a performer of enormous actor-intelligence, who had many of the same qualities as Grable – one being, a wicked camp humor. Neither were ballroom dancers — those were Rogers, Hayworth, and Charisse — but Grable in her way was just as much fun.

Grable was a superb film actor in the Musical Mode, which has its own acting tropes and requirements. Within this mode, she clearly can do anything, and as such she is one of the greatest film actresses who ever lived. Oh how dare you, you might say, Bette Grable was not Garbo. But it would smarter to say, Garbo was not Betty Grable. Betty Grable  is fresh-as-a-daisy, highly responsive, giving, funny, emotionally susceptible. She could be frequently wrong-headed and often embarrassed. Fox gave her stories to suit her bent and nature, because she was unchallenged in her craft, talent, and appeal. In comic dancing, which most of her numbers were, she has no rival. Watch her for her speed, delivery, imagination, and self-parody.

Grable’s energy is essentially volatile but longing to settle down. She chases men, which Garland also did and which Monroe never did. Grable has a big open expression, is vulnerable to being hurt, is eager, and the most obvious thing about her is that she always plays someone hard-working. She’s in rehearsal; she’s got to step for a living; she’s a vaudevillian with a lot of shows to do a day. Betty Grable, unlike Alice Faye, has not got a lazy bone in her body. She’s a good singer, but can’t coast on the power of her singing, like Faye and Garland. But inside, she is naturally musical. She loves music; it’s so plain; it’s a treat to see it – it’s a physical entity with her like her cute figure and full lips. It’s in every dance she dances.

When she is on screen you cannot take your eyes from her. This is not just a result of the solo position of her numbers or that she is the lead. It is the inherent talent to draw focus. Her like-ability makes her a great star, and the fact that, behind the sequins and feathers, she is unpretentious, good-natured, innocent, accessible, and real. It makes her the pin-up of World War II and the top female star in the world. She deserved it and still deserves it.

Cony Island one her many hits, is a piece of Gilded Age froufrou.  It begins with four rowdy musical numbers in a row, topped by Charlie Winninger singing Who Put The Overalls In Mrs Murphy’s Chowder. No, it aint refined, but boy is it good! There are two kinds of vulgarity, one is empty and one is full; one is flaccid and one has vigor, one gives you a belly ache and one gives you a belly laugh. Neither type have any taste, but the second type, to which Betty Grable and her films belong, sure is tasty. Indulge yourself. She’s like an icecream soda. You’ll end up refreshed.

 

Tough Assignment

20 Oct

Tough Assignment – directed by William Baudine. A local reporter and his wife stalk gangsters rustling cattle. Crime. 64 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★★★

This is lodged in volume 5 of Forgotten Noir, but it has nothing to do with Noir, either in content or treatment — it’s not even filmed as one. But that doesn’t matter. It’s a B film; it was meant to be a B film; it gets 5 stars because it fulfills its intent.

What’s interesting about it is the playing of the minor characters. Each one of them holds the screen in a way that the principal actor does not. Don “Red” Barry as the reporter had played Red Rider for a good long while, and you have to conclude that his prominence here stemmed from the role he had played rather than from his skill or star power.

Not so the supporting people. Joel Blumberg is one of the rare Bonus Feature commentators who, unlike almost all directors, is completely informed and prepared for his subject. For what he does is recite their credits and careers as crew and actors: Steve Brodie, Marjorie Steele (who married Huntington Hartford, the A & P heir who financed the film), Marc Lawrence, Iris Adrian; the editor Harry Gerstad, who this same year won an Oscar for editing Champion and later for High Noon; Stanley Price, Sid Melton, Ben Weldon, Stanley Andrews.

These crew members and actors each made hundreds of films apiece. I love their long careers. The piece-work they did and made a decent living doing. I love actors, their stubbornness and willingness to adapt, their modesty, and their aspiration. For there is not one of them that is not giving his all to the part he plays – and doing that counts for everything in material like this, which would stump the sophistication of a backward third-grader. The director would get $500 to make such a film and make it in a week and go on to the next gig– and the actors did the same, maybe earning less. If you watch these actors in scenes they support, they are more interesting than the star or than the scene they are appearing in, which understandably may draw our attention at first.

But instead, just watch Marc Lawrence, that pock-marked thug with the sunken jaws and keen black eyes. Just watch him respond to the scene at hand. He was working the Bs between filming Diamonds Are Forever, Days Of Wine And Roses, Johnny Apollo, This Gun For Hire, The Ox Bow Incident, Key Largo, Captain From Castile, The Asphalt Jungle, Marathon Man and hundreds of others. He started in the Bronx and entered Eva Le Gallienne’s company and The Group. He died at 95 still active. I love it.

So I sing the praises of actors, actors like these, actors so special in their energy, mein, and visage that they would seldom play leads, but swelled many a scene and made it better. And made an honorable career for themselves their whole lives long.

 

Mr. and Mrs Smith

01 Sep

Mr. And Mrs Smith – directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screwball Comedy. A young married couple find out they are not married at all, and all screwball breaks loose. 95 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

After Rear Window and for the next 20 years of his professional turnout, sad but true, Hitchcock grows incompetent as a director, but this film is his second Hollywood picture after Rebecca, and incompetency is nowhere visible.

He has a crackerjack script, and two of the most engaging and popular light comedians of the era in Robert Montgomery and Carol Lombard.

Montgomery is pure puff pastry. He is masculine, sexual, even lecherous, and keen. He maintains a demeanor of mischief  behind even his more earnest pleas for the hand of his erstwhile wife. You can always see him think, and he is always willing to be happy. So he combines intelligence and an easy-going nature. You can always see how smart he is, and therefore how dumb.

Opposite him is Lombard, who has a fine figure and who wears clothes beautifully and is perfectly willing to look foolish in them. She has a cold face and icy cheekbones – a fat woman’s face really – but she has such a big heart she carries all her contradictions before her like a prize bouquet. She can turn on a dime. She is a creature of many moods and sudden twists, not all of them wise. She is like a bird aflutter. Which suits this role perfectly, for she is determined to make her marriage fun.

Lombard was not a particularly accomplished actor for most of her career, nor a particularly gifted one to begin with, but she learned how to place her voice, how to free up her body, how to throw caution to the wind and wax sentimental, how to display her wiles. So that by the time she is making this film, her craft is virtually inherent. She has, to start with, what all great comic actors must have: she is big hearted and forgiving. By this time, she has become what her reputation promised she was, an accomplished comedienne. Her performance in this picture is only exceeded in brilliancy by the one which followed, To Be Or Not To Be, her last film.

She is one of the most generous of all actors. And you can see this on display as she supports Gene Raymond’s prolonged drunk scene. Raymond has the Ralph Bellamy/Rudy Vallee role of the the thud, that is, the best friend who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t curse, and has a mother. Lombard gets him squiffed. And Gene Raymond is hilarious as, rising to his great height, he seems about to topple over at any moment. He ventures one lickerish look at Lombard, and you will fall off your chair laughing.

Hitchcock keeps the silliness ripping along licketty split. The sets look real and appropriate. Indeed, the entire movie takes place in enclosures, cabs, cabins, apartments, offices, which present no escape route for anyone and promise civilized sex as the only denouement for all the comic confusion. Hollywood Golden Age comedy at its best.

 

Undercurrent

13 Jul

Undercurrent –­– directed by Vincente Minnelli. Turgid Melodrama. A confirmed spinster marries a handsome tycoon and finds things about him no one would want to find. 116 minutes Black and White 1946.

★★

Does the idea of Katharine Hepburn becoming the lover of Robert Mitchum seem seemly to you? Well, that’s what happens here.

Actually one must ask whether the idea of Katharine Hepburn becoming the lover of anyone seems natural. She played many spinster roles and in what you get, for the most part and with one exception, Woman Of The Year, you never sense her as a sexually attracted woman.

This is not to say she is not sexually attractive. Men are attracted to her. But what attraction is in her for any sex at all is bodied forth here in her preposterous performance opposite Robert Taylor, who certain knew his way around sex.

It’s a fascinating performance. She is moment by moment touching and completely phony, coy and actually frightened, arch and straightforwardly honest. As an actress she does not seem to have any sense at all of when she is being just terrible, just false, just fabricated, just artificial, and when she is true blue.

She is an actress first of all devoted to The Noble. And it is also probably true that she had no real attraction to males – or let us say, felt it so rarely that she could not summon it at will. So what we get is an actress pretending to love. And her means to that are to woe the audience into sympathizing with her. And the means to that are to make her characters gauche and gawky and full of lollypop sentiment and glassy-eyed idealism. So, being devoted to The Noble, she is well within her ambition to make sexual attraction seem adolescent – or her idea of adolescent – for no adolescent would carry on with such Golly-Gee gyrations and such brutal bashfulness. You cannot believe her for a minute. She is just play-acting.

She is an actress who produced herself. All actors do that. They make something up in the shower, and that is what you get. It is a true strand of their nature. But Hepburn wants something more; she wants to be fascinating to those who watch what she does, and everything she does is subordinated to that questionable ambition. Noble and Fascinating.

No wonder she was box office poison. She is so because as a show-off she is irritating.

But she is also, the next second, brilliant, unusual, and lovable. Such a curious flower not suitable for every occasion, our Kate. Our Kate with the blinders on.

 

 
 
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