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Archive for the ‘Grant Mitchell’ Category

Three On A Match

18 Mar

Three On A Match – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Drama. 63 minutes Black And White 1932.

★★★★

The Story: Three grammar school girls stick together as grown women, even more so as one of them goes to the dogs.

~

What is important about this film is not Bette Davis’s cute figure in a bathing suit, nor her part, which is as peripheral to the story as is Humphrey Bogart’s and Glenda Farrell’s and Edward Arnold’s. All three of these make the same impression they were always to make: Bogart as a man to take into account, Farrell as a woman knowledgeable in her own sensuality, Arnold as Humpty-Dumpty pushing everyone off the wall.

Davis plays the least colorful of the three women and the one least connected to moving the plot forward. Joan Blondell plays the light-fingered jailbird who goes straight and marries the boss. We see Davis in the secretary pool at an Underwood, and she really looks like she knows how to type well, for she really did know. One can believe she is a secretary. Later she becomes an au- pair with Blondell in scenes at the beach with a tiresome tyke one wishes they would drown.

Ann Dvojak has the leading role, and Davis, aged 23, could probably have played it beautifully. The point is that Dvojak is excellent and that this is the sort of part that women were getting before 1934, not just wild-assed women who grab men into their beds impenitently and salt their lives with pleasure, but women’s issue parts. These were the pre-Code days of great parts for women which Mick LaSalle writes of in Complicated Women, his celebration of the actresses of this era, their talents, their roles, their films, before the Code put all such roles out into the woodshed for a whipping.

While they lasted, Davis never participated as a leading actress in these sorts of films, although she was of an age to. This is her twelfth film. She is not exactly starting out. Warners still did not know what to do with her. They threw her around like chicken feed. And she knew it.

The sort of parts she fought to play depicted just this sort of woman, women living their lives to the full. They didn’t have to be prostitutes to do it. They could be society women of the sort Norma Shearer played at MGM and Ann Dvojak plays here.

Davis fought for such roles, but Davis fought for what did not exist. Such parts were not mounted after 1934. After 1934, women must suffer for their pleasures or die. The closest Davis could come to such a part was the sexually predacious wife in Bordertown and Mildred Rodgers in Of Human Bondage, who is a tart. She had made 21 films by then, none of them giving her the meaty roles Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Mae West, Mae Clarke, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Barbara Stanwyck played. Davis was good friends with Jean Harlow, but she never got parts like Harlow got. The Code flattened them.

In Three On A Match, Davis is still a Harlow peroxide blonde. Her old chum, Joan Blondell, from New York acting school, has the second lead. Davis is on the sidelines where she doesn’t even look convincing smoking a cigarette.

 

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.

 
 
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