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Archive for the ‘Barbara Stanwyck: THE QUEEN’ Category

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Annie Oakley

02 Apr

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens. Western. A country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Stevens who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie barren of distinction, save for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the bragging sharpshooter Annie loves. It’s a marvelous part, and later on Howard Keel would also be excellent in it, as a man whose pride is hurt and who misconducts himself because of it. The roles are great but the script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Alas, the film is puerile, and one wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Oakley wasn’t even her name; it was Moses; she changed it to have more show-biz potency. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — that was not her forte and why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun. And yet why should I feel such dismay? As Somerset Maugham said, “Only the mediocre maintain a level,” and George Stevens certainly was not that. I should keep in mind that he directed a hundred films I never saw and never hope to see. That this was one of the forgettable ones is forgivable and then some.

 

 

Clash By Night

21 Oct

Clash By Night — Directed by Fritz Lang. Kitchen Sink Drama. A woman who has married a decent dullard falls for a hunk of trouble. 105 minutes Black and White 1952.

* * * * *

It is not film noir; it is kitchen sink drama of the kind that Chayefsky was writing and that was all over live TV at the time. It’s by Odets, and later even the great Rita Hayworth appeared in one of these KSDs, Story On Page One, also by Odets. This version is excellent and Bogdanovich and Lang himself do the Extra Features voice over, which is an education and a treat. We have here a strong story, well acted by Robert Ryan as the cad and Barbara Stanwyck, although not by Paul Douglas who plays it for pity – never a good idea. Marilyn Monroe as a small town girl is wonderful in all her scenes and different from the lollypop she often was shown as later; here she’s a fish-scaler in a Monterey cannery; she’s wonderful in a scene where her boyfriend tells her off. Kim Stanley, Lloyd Bridges, and E.G. Marshall made a TV version of this a little later, and it’s interesting to compare the scripts and performances. For one thing, Kim Stanley is better at playing a mother than Stanwyck because she was closer to childbearing age. But here Stanwyck is wonderful as the beaten-down, been-away-for-years failure. And why is that? Because Stanwyck is the least beaten-down person on the planet. In both versions the false naiveté of the husband stretches our gag reflex. But the piece has its power. In the case of Kim Stanley it is the power of a woman whose sexual capacity is stifled by her circumstances and has no way out but toward the arms of a rotter. In the case of Stanwyck, it is her natural power that is stifled with the same tragic result. Odets was a master at dramas of humans with no natural outlet. The ignorant armies are inside us. We are in the land of lower-class melodrama here, and in this case, I can think of far worse places to be. Fritz Lang’s work is always worth seeing.

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Forty Guns

14 Oct

Forty Guns – Directed and Written by Sam Fuller. Western. A cattle baroness with her 40 henchmen holds her own against it all, including love. 79 minutes Black and White 1957.

* * * * *

As Barbara Stanwyck aged, her hair grew grey, so they never made color pictures with her, for in black and white her hair appeared blond, and her face didn’t age. She kept her figure, and she was an experienced horsewoman, so one of the treats of this picture is to see her seat in a saddle. Another treat is to see her dragged a very long stance with her foot caught in a stirrup by a charging panicked horse. She was physically strong, and it shows in all she does. Fascinating scenes with very interesting and unusual writing. It’s also interesting to see her leading man, Barry Sullivan, the local sheriff, a man of peace, who never rides a horse but always drives a wagon, as an equally strong screen presence. I had no idea he was a good actor, but he was. These two are well matched and well supported by Dean Jagger and others. Filmed by Oscar winner Joseph Biroc, an interesting and unusual western by a famously maverick director.

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Ball Of FIre

09 Oct

Ball Of Fire – Directed by Howard Hawks. Screwball Comedy. A virginal professor meets up with a tootsie chanteuse. 111 minutes Black and White 1941,

* * * *

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote this version of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, with Dana Andrews as The Wicked Stepmother, Gary Cooper as Snow White, and Barbara Stanwyck as the ball of fire that wakes him from his sexual sleep. Because it is inauthentic, Cooper’s naïve style dates badly, and the film dates too. This is most noticeable when compared to Hawks’ intolerable A Song Is Born made only seven years later with the exact same script, set, setups, cameraman (Gregg Toland), and even Miss Totten.  Why? World War II had intervened and America was naïve no longer. Yet of the two versions, this is the more swallowable. First of all, Gary Cooper is a prettier object of romance than Danny Kaye, and second of all Barbara Stanwyck. It’s a shame Stanwyck did not make more comedies. The War may have killed that too. She had spunk, a strong breezy style, and a rich sense of humor that fit perfectly into the works of Capra, Sturges, and Hawks. Here she is a bunch of fun as the tart, sexually insolent singer on the lam in a refuge of encyclopeaists. These seven dwarfs are played in the lost manner of the time by the great S. Z. Sakall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, Leonid Kinsky, and others. The brilliant Dan Duryea is on hand as a henchman as is the sparky Elisha Cook Jr as a waiter. Hawks had a ten-year run of huge hits – Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sargent York, Air Force, To Have And To Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, I Was A Male War Bride, The Thing – and this was one of them. It is the most forced of all his comedies, and like all of them it is an owl and the pussycat story, of a person heading toward the cliff of convention being rescued against his will by a ruthless eccentric. A fundamental human sexual predicament, that is to say, one that is still recognizable despite, or perhaps even more recognizable because of our modern sexual liberation.

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Crime of Passion

06 Oct

Crime Of Passion – Directed by Gerd Osward. Murder Drama. A successful newspaper columnist gives up her career to marry a decent chap and finds him unambitious and dull. 84 minutes Black and White 1957.

* * * *

Stanwyck is really superb in this picture – and so is Sterling Haydn. There’s a lot of nonsense talk about it’s being film noir. It aint. Film noir depended upon being shot in black and white, and it also depended upon a downbeat and beaten down male character or a ruthless female character as the lead and the sense no one can be trusted. This is not noir. Neither is House Of Bamboo or Clash by Night or a lot of other films talked about as noir. Just because a film is beautifully lit and in black and white does not make it noir. This picture is a good old fashioned woman’s picture – the story of an able and prominent newspaper reporter careerist who falls for a good hearted cop and is driven to distraction by his lack of ambition. The scenes with Raymond Burr are interesting because Burr, who made his career throwing his weight around, is quite sympathetic here. Odd to see it. Barbara Stanwyck is a commanding actress who holds the screen with a minimum of histrionics. She’s older here, but only in years. Her hair was going grey but it looks blond. And her figure is tops. You’ll find it  satisfying to see how many fabulous designer housecoats and negligees can be purchased on an ordinary police detective’s salary. This was Hollywood in the 50s. Fay Wray, Stuart Whitman, and Royal Dano are on hand as well. It’s not noir. It’s pulp. You’ll enjoy it.

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Lady Of Burlesque

27 Sep

Lady Of Burlesque – Directed by William Wellman. Murder Mystery. A burlesque queen and her colleagues are beset by a backstage slaying. 91 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine, and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class, and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she is not voluptuous, she does not have the machine-gun heart or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for three reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a destroyer surging across a duck pond. She had great humor, and she had the common touch. Iris Adrian adds her piquant lip to the burley-que life, which was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A G-string tells less than a three-foot hat! Highly entertaining, Wellman was a master of scene management — and rain, which occurs in many of his films. His scenic management alone, although one is not aware of it, is a treat, a delight, an encouragement, and a reassurance here. Check it out, It’s fun.

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The Furies

05 Sep

The Furies – Directed by Anthony Mann. Western Melodrama. An aging cattle baron and his baroness daughter clash over their mates, their land, and some squatters. 109 minutes Black and White 1950.

* * * *

Barbara Stanwyck is 43 when she makes this, and she is too old. True, she was a great star, and the best of all the two-dimensional female film actors. She refused Technicolor because her hair was gray, so she does look blond, her face admittedly is unlined, healthy, unchanged, her figure is lithe and trim, her stride is strong, and she looks great on a horse. But everyone who saw this when it came out knew that she was 43, because everyone had grown up with her. There was something older about her anyhow, even when she started in film aged 20 in 1927. The picture is a turgid melodrama, and it is ingenuous to claim it to be anything more. It is not epic, it is not noir, it is not The Eumenides or Greek tragedy. The execution of the film by the director is unremarkable because nothing in it can escape the necessities of turgid melodrama, which means an impenetrable thickness of plot on all levels that must be obeyed. The writing is occasionally witty, but the direction of the performances is questionable. Walter Huston overplays and indeed garbles and miscalculates the role of the rapscallion, domineering, and impractical cattle baron. By “overplays” I mean, when everyone in a story calls you a rogue, the best thing for an actor to do is not to “play The Rogue” but to play the opposite. Even if it was ever supposed to, the tension between Huston and Stanwyck never adds up to an Electra complex, because they both enjoy one another so much in their dash, ego, similarities, and common respect. They have too much sense of humor about one another to be neurotic and too many honest, horn-butting clashes to be unhealthy. Anyhow, while Stanwyck is a two-dimensional actor and therefore is incapable of over-acting, likewise there can be nothing beneath the performance. When Judith Anderson, with her lizard voice, comes in it is not as a sexual rival to Stanwyck but as a rival for her management of the ranch, and when Wendell Corey comes in as Stanwyck’s boyfriend, it is not as a sexual rival to Huston, but simply as a claimant to part of his property. Jannine Basinger in her book on Mann claims that Corey is like Huston and Anderson is like Stanwyck, and there’s something to be said for that, but not enough. The story and its execution is just old Stetson. Gilbert Roland is lovely as a blood brother to Stanwyck (and in love with her), Blanche Yurka is delicious in the Blanche Yurka role of Roland’s bruja mother, and Beulah Bondi commands the screen for our reassurance in both scenes in which she appears. Henry Bumstead deserves great credit for the adobe ranch mansion he made for the set. Otherwise the filming and direction are ordinary. Supposed to be New Mexico, it does not look like New Mexico. Rather like The Old Germany, The Furies is The Old Hollywood.  Its story is unconventional, the treatment of it conventional. It had to be: Stanwyck was starring. Yet, who could have played this part besides Stanwyck? No one. All the younger stars were too goody-goody. Hollywood fell partly because a failure of taste in developing strong-willed female stars to-be. In 1930 there was Crawford, Davis, and Stanwyck. In 1950 there were no young tough ladies on the horizon at all.

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Crime Of Passion

28 Apr

Crime of Passion – Directed by Gerd Oswald.  Female Pulp. A successful columnist marries an ordinary Joe and goes nuts. 84 minutes Black and White 1957.

* * * *

Barbara Stanwyck is really superb in this picture – and so is Sterling Haydn. There’s a lot of nonsense talk about film noir. Film noir depended upon being shot in black and white and it also depended upon a disenfranchised, downbeat, beaten-down male or female character as the lead and the sense no one can be trusted. This film is not noir. Just because a film is beautifully lit and in black and white does not make it noir. This picture is a good old-fashioned woman’s pulp – the story of an able and prominent newspaper columnist who falls for a good hearted cop, retires, and is driven to distraction by his lack of ambition. The scenes with Raymond Burr are odd to see, because Burr, who made his career throwing his weight around, is quite sympathetic here. Stanwyck is a commanding actress who holds the screen with a minimum of histrionics. She’s older here, but only in years. Her hair was going grey, which is why she steered away from color movies for so many years, but it looks blond. And her figure is tops. It’s a double-edged proto-woman’s lib picture. All female noir films deal with a woman disempowered after WWII, at which point they marry, not for love but for money and power, using sex as the hook. This is not the case here; here the problem is the drabness of housework. Still, after Stanwyck loses her income, it’s entirely wonderful to see how many fabulous designer housecoats and negligees can be purchased on an ordinary police detective’s salary. This is the 50s; this is still movie star time. You’ll enjoy it.

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Annie Oakley

17 Dec

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens — a country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Steven who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie devoid of distinction, except for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the boasting sharpshooter Annie loves. The script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Sorry, but this film is puerile. One wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun.

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East Side, West Side

17 Dec

East Side, West Side — directed by Mervyn Leroy — drama about a society woman who finds her husband is stepping out on her. 108 minutes black and white 1949

* * * *

Cyd Charisse had an appealing lady-like quality to her, something modest and reserved. Also something inherently comedic, as can be seen in her ravishing poker-faced finale-dances in the saloons with Astaire and Kelly. Here she is less brilliantly dressed than the female star who is the addiction of James Mason in the picture, a sex addict helpless to stop himself. Understandable if the object of his compulsion happens to be Ava Gardner. Gardner really can’t act, and she knew it, and both things show. She was a very interesting woman off the screen, one hears, rather like Paulette Goddard was — direct, honest, and fun. Here, as usual, she is forced and broad and untrained, and it is painfully obvious in her scenes opposite Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck always had the common touch as an actress. She was a girl from Brooklyn and never lost her Brooklyn accent. She was tiny, had a marvelous carriage, moved fabulously, exuded physical strength, had great direct execution as an actress — everything was clear and ready — and she had an interesting alto vocal quality to boot. But the voice is somewhat flat and she is always all too ready with a response. She is canny as an actress in her few pauses, but she does tend to rush her lines and leaves most of her material unexplored for its details. (For a detail-brilliant actress see Geraldine Page.) She lacks breadth and range: she seldom played comedy, although she was a Good Time Charley at it when she did. But essentially her dramatic range even at high pitch is monotonous. She is peculiar in looks and in energy. She was convincing as someone who worked for a living, someone who did things. Here she plays a Park Avenue matron, which is, of course, ridiculous, but she gets away with it, not because she acts it or has to act it, but because every character in the story plays up to her as such, just as, for film after film, she is referred to as a beauty, which, of course, she was not. But she was someone whom we were all accustomed to, like Dick Tracy or Blondie. Into this Hollywood cocktail arrives the earthy and naturally humorous Van Heflin, with his lovely technique, who breathes an air of reality into the proceedings that nearly topples the picture. But he is a very adaptable actor and one who is appealingly self-effacing. The film is a fancy MGM production — pulp, of course, but, if one likes pulp, as I do, a show with a lot of residual merit.

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Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

Lady Of Burlesque – directed by William Wellman – a backstage mystery comedy about a hooch dancer and a couple of murdered canaries. 91 minutes black and white 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class at heart and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she does not have the aplomb or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for two reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a naval destroyer moving across a duck pond. And she had the common touch. The burley-que life on stage was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A g-string tells less than a three foot hat!

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