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Archive for the ‘Billie Burke’ Category

Small Town Girl

01 Aug

Small Town Girl – directed by László Kardos. Musical. 92 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

The Story: A small town girl acts forbidding to a passing socialite jailed for speeding, until she lets him out of his jail and herself out of her own.

~

Competent directors of musicals of that era were somewhat discounted, but this is a well directed picture. It tracks through a half dozen different movie musical modes, the night club, the town square ho-down, the smash Broadway production number, the jig on the street, the church solo, and so forth, yet all of them are cohesive with the film as a whole.

Jane Powell remarks in her autobiography: “I was mostly in pictures set in sunny climates…. It makes everybody look better, and more romantic, and it makes everybody happy, particularly audiences who live in cold climates.” There is a good deal of plain truth to her observation, and the hot lights Technicolor required in those days also work to produce that sunshine to illuminate a small town no larger than Culver City.

Duck Town is the town into which speeds a snooty socialite played by Farley Granger. His spoiled, lubricious face fits the part, a part which becomes more fun as he plays off the gullibility of Chill Wills, the local constable. We warm up to him.

Granger is affianced to the Broadway musical star Ann Miller plays. She spins about in circles like a mosquito, this time upon a carpet of disembodied musical instruments. It’s sensational. Busby Berkeley choreographed, of course.

Even more sensational is the dancing of Bobby Van. Van appeared and disappeared  like a mushroom overnight. And the reason is simple. He was a spectacular specialty dancer along the lines of Ray Bolger and Dan Dailey and Dick Van Dyke, gangly, lithe, and homely. He might have gone on to a career, but, when Louis B. Mayer left MGM, the new management was not interested in musicals any more, and, besides, Van spoke with a pronounced Bronx accent such that no fancy footwork could drown.

But whenever he is dancing we watch his talent with wonder and appreciation. At one point he performs a seven minute number in which he simply hops right through the town. What he wants to do is move onto the big time, although his father, S.Z. Sakal doesn’t see it that way. Perhaps because he might, like us, meet Nat King Cole singing there.

Powell sings with her usual gleam of eye and voice. Here she is no longer a teenager, but a proper young lady and about time too. Her underlying quality of righteous authority plays through the perky daisies of her doily, and gives a likeable because recognizable resonance and ground to her. Before Powell had always wanted to be liked, which didn’t quite work, because we already wanted to like her. Now things are simpler. And better.

It’s a bright accomplished musical suitable for the whole family, and anybody who might drift by.

 

In This Our Life

18 Nov

In This Our Life –– directed by John Huston. Drama. A young Southern woman runs over the lives and loves of everyone in town. 97 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

I saw it when it came out and remember it well –– because of its closing scene in which Bette tells off Charles Coburn and then drives her convertible over a cliff. The scene was actually directed by Raoul Walsh, but what was impressive about it was the intensity and rashness of Davis’s ability to tell the truth. The question is not whether she is mean, selfish, immoral, or even sociopathic, but her daring to find in her guts and let loose the emotional truth. I never forgot it, and neither did anyone else who saw it. It was what I could not do at the time, nor for years to come. There was no major film star of Bette Davis’ era who was not a full embodiment of Women’s Liberation. This was Davis’ version.

Davis deplored the picture, which is incorrect, for she chews scenery already there for her digestion. She is never bigger than the part. And she is certainly never smaller than the part. Her costumes, by Orry-Kelly, are superb in their careful want of subtlety: she is always tricked out for game. Perc Westmore executed the makeup, which gives her a bee-stung upper lip and mascara flounces at the outside corners of her eyes. Her hair is free curling just above the shoulder with a disgraceful bang on her brow.

Bette Davis is the most kinetic of all major female stars. Her body is always engaged or about to spring. More than any other actress of her time, she brings to the screen the quality of someone no one has ever loved, and this gives her sexual seething. One way or another she is hot.

This picture is made in her heyday, between The Man Who Came To Dinner, which is her best screen performance, and Now Voyager, which is one of her most iconic. Once again she plays the brat. She had played it for years. And she played it successfully until All About Eve, after which she played it unsuccessfully, because, once over forty, it became barbaric, immature, and neurotic. After Eve, Bette Davis ceased to be an actress and became a persona, which is to say she became a statue in a public park forty years premature to her death.

But here she is giving vent to what all of us, males and females, only wish we could give vent to –– the suppressed life we’ve had to sit on, now released, fuelled, nasty or not, with the rage of our resentment at having had to sit on it so long.

This is John Huston’s second picture, and it is very well told. Ernest Haller who filmed Gone With The Wind makes beautiful light arrangements, and Ed Koch who will write Casablanca does a sound and economical script, particularly since the Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Ellen Glasgow it comes from hinges on the Davis character’s attempt to incriminate a negro boy for a crime she herself committed. In a memorable jailhouse scene, Davis attempts to cajole and manipulate this boy to confess to it – a scene she plays well, as does the boy. Davis had found the actor, Ernest Anderson, as a waiter in the Warner’s commissary, saw his quality, and got Huston to use him; Anderson went on to have a long acting career. The handling of the negro truth has a moving first-time ever quality that rings true still.

His mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, and it is interesting to see her well-matched in a key scene opposite Olivia de Havilland. Both women were up for supporting Oscars for Gone With The Wind, and when McDaniel won it, de Havilland fled to the ladies’ room in a weeping rage. A friend shook her and said to her that McDaniel would never have another chance to win an Oscar and that de Havilland would, and it brought her to her senses. And here the two women are, face to face, filmed by Ernest Haller once again, while a score by that same Max Steiner strums by.

Olivia de Havilland gives a subtle, strong reading of Davis’ sister. Never in competition with Davis, because her instrument is essentially lyrical, the small telling registrations of her face bring this good woman to life fully. She’s wonderful to watch. She presents a formidable antagonist to Davis. It is one of de Havilland’s most fully realized characterizations.

But it is Davis’s film. Her leading men, Dennis Morgan and the penguin actor George Brent form part of a strong supporting cast which includes Lee Patrick as the care-free friend, and Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the parents. But it is Davis’ scenes with Charles Coburn that are exemplary of Davis acting at her best. Davis had more brass than a doorknocker and she and Coburn come alive to one another whenever they are together, because Coburn has brass too. Their incest scene on the couch is one for the books.

Bette Davis played The Brat for years: Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Dark Victory, Mr. Skeffingon, Elizabeth And Essex, The Little Foxes, and this is her quintessential take on it, and not to be missed. The title comes from the last line of a poem of George Meredith from Modern Love, a book inspired by his wife’s running off with another man. In In This Our Life, Bette runs off with another man. She also runs off with the picture.

 

Father’s Little Dividend

11 Apr

Father’s Little Dividend – Directed by Vincent Minnelli. Family Comedy. A young married couple gets pregnant and the to-be grandfather struggles with the responsibility. 81 minutes Black and White 1951

* * * * *

We grew up with this beautiful girl, now dead in old age. One saw her entire life on screen. When she appeared in children’s films, I was a child. And here is an example of the girl when she was still the girl next door whom one might fall in love with, a teenager, here playing a young married woman in a light comedy. Light comedy was a genre Elizabeth Taylor did not appear in after she, still a teenager, became a mother, but her touch is deft and masterful, and the result endearing and touching. She was a skilled actress from the start. The picture is a sequel to Father Of The Bride and might better have been called The Grandfather Of The Bride. Once again filmed by the talented John Alton who would concurrently do the ballet sequences for Minnelli in American In Paris. Joan Bennett not only has Taylor’s coloring (and in fact once played Taylor’s part in Little Women), but she is swift and easy and right on the money with Spencer Tracy whose picture this is and who commands it without seeming to. It’s hard to analyze Tracy’s talent. It seems to find its foundation in a certain immigrant toughness, here at ease with the lowly tasks of realistic middle-class comedy. Tracy always plays a character without neuroses. Hepburn called him an Irish potato, and it’s as good a likeness as any for the humor of a person who always plays the difficult, painful, sometimes undignified yet necessary position of someone useful. His comedy seems to arise out of a natural grudge, and the comic situation to develop around that grudge,  irony being the last resort of the situation his character itself has created. None of what I am saying here does justice to his gift. Like some great screen humorists, the comedy arises not from what he does, so much as from his doing what he is, and he is not so much funny in himself as he is someone around whom humor naturally arises. There ought to be a word to describe this skill. Comedian doesn’t do it. Humoran is awkward. But that’s what it is, and why this film and its prequel were such enormous hits and are still worth our time.

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