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Archive for the ‘Period: 1910-1914’ Category

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.

 

Lilies

17 Jan

Lilies – directed by John Greyson. Drama. An old bishop is forced to relive a youth triangle between himself and two other boys. 95 minutes Color 1996

* * *

Undermined by an over-translation into English of the French play, a group of very competent actors cannot rise above the diction of the script, which causeth them to utter as no mortal before hath uttered ever. The actors play it, nevertheless, as realistic, which is smart and which makes their effort valiant if seldom effective. I also could not tell which of the three young men ended up as the bishop and which as the prisoner until the final scene, which kept me watching, I suppose, to have my curiosity satisfied, but curiosity is small feeling next to what might have been identification with the human situation before me. It starved me of it. The prisoners who perform the reenactment of the youthful betrayal play female parts as well, but this is very hard to do without camping at all, and this they succeed in doing only sporadically. But what really is at stake here is the veracity of youthful homosexual love, and the story is based on an essential lie. The two adolescents are having a mad affair in an Edwardian convent school. One of them, after bad punishment for it, decides to go straight. However, he decides he loves his young friend more. This decision, worked out on a symbolic level, does not take into account the reality of the heterosexual mating strain in him, particularly as he grabs the first passing dish, a rich heiress of great character, played with admirable complacency and a completely flat chest by a black actor, Alexander Chapman. With her the young man makes the decision that he does not love her enough to mate with her, which is to say he must be 100% gay because he does not fall deeply in love with his first straight date. So the male love affair reads as agit-prop for homosexuality, and, since it does not address the central and true issue the polemic is flimsy. What does work is the relation at the end between the bishop and the lover he has betrayed, who is now a prisoner. The director surely has been influenced by Fellini, which is not a bad thing, but extravagance cannot really shroud a corpse.

 

I Remember Mama

13 Jan

I Remember Mama — directed by George Stevens. Comedy/Drama.  The love of a mother for her family forges a life for them in pre-WW I San Francisco. 134 minutes Black and White 1948

* * * * *

Stevens had been a cameraman all during the 20s and his technical grasp of filmmaking is unparalleled by any American director of his time, so just watch how he gives what he gives you – if you can, for his scenic power is so engrossing one cannot detach from the gift itself to pay attention to the wrappings which are an integral part of it. He will make you a voyeur by making you listen through a window. He will make you an eavesdropper by allowing you to hear what two characters standing on a street with their back to you are saying. He will hold you at the distance respect requires as a woman retreats across a barnyard and fades into the unapproachable solitude of widowhood. Or he will bring you so close up into the face of two characters that you are actually a part of the speechless energy between them. He will allow you in. He will keep you at bay. He will let you watch something in the corner. He is always aware of you, always wanting your participation and understanding, but he won’t hammer it home. He will often catch you in with the unexpected. He always has something for you, but he let’s you do your part by yourself. I saw this when it came out and it presents the ideal mother. She is played by an actress I don’t ordinarily like, Irene Dunne, but here I not only admire the actress I admire the character. The film is divided in chapters, each one recounting an episode of heroic devotion to her children. None of them are cloying, although the number of them might be said to be. Dunne’s playing is impeccable, and so is her accent, as are all of the Norwegian accents. She wore padding and no make-up. She was nominated for an Oscar for this. Nicolas Musuraca, famed “master of light,” filmed it. He was nominated for an Oscar for this. Barbara Bel Geddes played the elder daughter and narrator. I identify with this character because were I a female I would be her type, and because, like me, she is a writer. She was nominated for an Oscar for this. When Jessica Tandy turned down the role of the shy aunt, Stevens said, “Let the script girl play her,” so the script girl did, and a long career was born. Ellen Corby was nominated for an Oscar for this. Oskar Homolka had played Uncle Chris on the stage with Mady Christians and Marlon Brando, and when he is on camera Stevens gives him full sway in bringing to life this crusty, rude, frightening character. He was nominated for an Oscar for this. Save for Bel Geddes, the children in the film tend to be little Hollywood child actors, but it would be not before long that Stevens found Brandon de Wilde. Barbara O’Neil, Florence Bates, Edgar Bergen, Rudy Vallee, Cedric Hardwick, Philip Dorn fill out and give depth to the cast.

After The War, Stevens came home shell-shocked and did nothing, but eventually formed a company with Frank Capra and William Wyler. A great post WW II trilogy emerged. Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is about the home-front. Wyler’s The Best Years Of Our Lives is about home-coming. Stevens’ I Remember Mama is about home, the thing fought for and the values that made the fight prevail, set even before WW I, in the city George Stevens grew up in at the time he grew up in it.

 

Girls’ Dormertory

25 Jul

Girls’ Dormitory – Directed by Irving Cummings. Light Drama. A sexy 19 year old French girl seduces her headmaster, who does not notice the woman who really loves him. 66 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * * *

Filmed by Meritt Gerstad to give splendor to the banal, thus were the films of this era made glorious in our eyes if not in our minds. You have to hand it to Hollywood. They knew how to make things appear. Here we have a top flight cast brought into attack upon material that requires a flyswatter. Constance Collier is the redoubtable tank launched against the morals of the girl. Her skirt keeps falling off. This provides neither comedy nor relief. What does count is Ruth Chatterton, here coming to the end of her big career in the 30s at Fox. Have you more than heard of her? Well, she was once married to George Brent, when he was sexy – you know – before he became a talking suitcase. And she resembles with astonishing verisimilitude our own Bette Midler – same face shape, humor, features, figure, and height. She’s very impressive as a power-performer. Opposite her we have that razor strap of an actor Herbert Marshall, smooth, soothing, supple even in a stuffed shirt, innocent, embarrassed, wounded, true. Easy to sympathize with him, no? Opposite him debuts the incredibly seductive young Simone Simon. The film stops dead and your heart stops dead at every close-up of that irresistible upper lip. You want to utterly shame yourself with her. At one of the windows of every Hollywood movie of that era, it would seem, appears the mug of John Qualen, born to sentimentalize, and here wigged out like a codger and playing the janitor. We wait, through the trials and tribulations of the main characters, for a door to open, which in the final scenes it does, to expose to our astounded eyes the first appearance on a screen of the shining animation of the gorgeous face of Tyrone Power. While the movie clumsily stumbles to the wrong ending, our eyes cannot wrest themselves from this beauty, and why should they? Hollywood existed to provide ourselves with such gifts. His talent is in order from the start: he is perfectly in character, plays to the right size of the role, and has a marvelous actor’s voice. He is 22 or so. Unbelievable. All you long for is lodged in wondering did he even look like this when he was 21, 19, 17? Never mind. Here he is at last.

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Tin Pan Alley

04 Jul

Tin Pan Alley – Directed by Walter Lang. Musical. An inconsiderate song plugger looses his mate who runs off to become a stage star with her sister. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

* * * * *

Alice Faye has the most seductive upper eyelids God ever thought of. She is sultry, easy, withdrawn, and has a magnificent bust. It is interesting to see her paired with Betty Grable who is the opposite. Grable is outgoing, open, eager, and everything is in perfect physical proportion. Actually, neither of these fine ladies is the focal character of this picture. That falls to John Payne, who it is difficult not to look at with wonder and amazement. For he is the most beautiful male imaginable. He first appears in the boxing ring dressed in so little that one can see what a strapping physique he had, broad shouldered, slim, and muscular. In this picture he remains clothed for most of it, and looks good in his suits, which work better than the Edwardian rigs worn by the ladies. (His face resembles that of Lee Pace.) Payne is about 27 years old here and at the peak of his masculinity. He has the perfect patined hair of the era. He has a sensual and flexible mouth, with dimples when he smiles. A wonderful nose. A beautifully shaped head. And so forth and so on, but the reason one cannot take one’s eyes off him is that all of this is backed up by a technique that is fluid, full of fun, and highly responsive. Watch him and Faye and Oakie sing a trio, to see what I mean. The show looks really well rehearsed, and that counts for a lot with this sort of backstage musical. Billy Gilbert sings the Sheik of Araby while the Nicholas Brothers do another of their stupendous dance routines. Jack Oakie in his pie-in-the-face style of acting brings the elan of the died-in-the-wool vaudevillian to the scene, and it’s most welcome in all its silliness. Boy, can he put over a bad song well! I have a strong fondness for Fox musicals. I like their color, and their emotional values, and I rejoice in Betty Grable, who was shortly to replace Alice Faye, to become the top box office movie star for 10 consecutive years. Gosh, was she engaging! There is a certain energetic vulgarity to Fox musicals that I appreciate, so different from RKO’s white telephone musicals and the family-value musicals at MGM. Anyhow this is a good example of the Fox genre. A good film to watch with the whole family.

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Tess Of The Storm Country

10 Jun

Tess Of the Storm Country – Directed by John S. Robertson. Melodrama. Will the man in the mansion get rid of that bunch of smelly folks at the bottom of his hill? 118 minutes Black and White Silent 1922.

* * * * *

A full-blown melodrama, nothing omitted but a train wreck. I marvel at what silent film asks of one, for what it asks is one’s imagination. And the way it goes about that is to be mute. So one must interpret, lean forward to hear, pay attention, fill in the blanks. And one is given a lot to pay attention to, a lot to engage with. Mary Pickford is a dream actress, quick, imaginative, experienced beyond measure, and always willing to appear foolish. Here she’s a little hellcat of a fisher shack girl, whose hometown a rich nasty is trying to close down. I have nothing more to say, except watch her fight scenes, and there are a lot of them. And watch her business with the rake. She’s a master. A master actor and a master entertainer. She produced this film. She was the most powerful and capable woman Hollywood has ever known. She founded and personally ran Untied Artists, she wrote certain of her own films and produced a number of them, and some of those of her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She founded the Academy. She founded the Actors Hospital and Home. She founded the School of the Cinema at UCLA. And she was the superstar female actor in the world in her day. Hooray for Mary! The picture is also accompanied by a first class modern score.

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Daddy Long Legs

10 Jun

Daddy Long Legs – Directed by Marshall Neilan. Melodrama. A mischievous orphan girl is helped by a mystery man. 85 minutes Black and White with Color Filters, Silent 1919.

* * * * *

Isn’t this what we’ve always wanted: an unknown benefactor who sees through our detractors’ faults and banks us and banks on us and appears at the end as…. Ah, yes. And so our Miss Mary plays the juvenile orphan on this path, but with many a digression into naughty pranks and hijinks, which solidify the stark disapproval of the matron – but that’s what matrons are for, aren’t they? Some of these antics read like vaudeville turns, for Mary Pickford trod the boards from small childhood in second rate theatre companies touring through Canada and the States, and there she not only learned her craft but the tricks of the trade. So she’s a lot of fun as the movie marks time with a close-order-drill of great energy and variety until it gets on with the plot, which has to do with social rank, of course.  She is really wonderful here, and why is that? Because she is a fine film actress, one might say a revolutionary actress. Everything is simple unselfconscious as only plenty of rehearsals can provide. She does everything immediate and small. She was the first actress in film history to ever have a close-up. And how right that is, for the entire character registers on her visage in response to the forces that beset both her and the orphans around her. You will be interested to see the costumes of the period. And how smoking played such a large part in film acting from the time film started until quite recently. Tobacco in all its forms was the greatest of all actors’ props. It was versatile, it gave something for the actor to do, it was expressive, it could define mood and power. It gave one pause. It gave one interruption. It gave one romantic liaison. Take a look at Daddy Long Legs’ use of it here. It rises like an infernal emanation from behind the back of that chair, like a volcano not yet disturbed.

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The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale

16 Apr

The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale — Directed by Stephen Porter. Romantic Drama. A Southern spinster sets her sights on the handsome boy next door. 1970’s/2002 Color 120 minutes.

* * * *

Tennessee Williams wrote this material four times, and his rewrites never solved the defects it presented. Samson Raphaelson said that while Williams was a much greater playwright than himself, if he had only fifteen minutes with Tennessee Williams he could have solved the problems of his plays, and he’s right. In this one, for instance, Williams writes a long closet or bedroom scene between the mother and John, but places it at the end of the play. The mother should not appear in the park, and it should be set, if at all, at the beginning of the play after the first scene between Alma and her father. This would invest the piece with the power of suspense, and build to the the seduction scene in Act III. Williams was a great playwright but not much of a craftsman. The essential problem of the play for an audience  is Alma, and the fact that, like Flora in Milktrain, Alma talks too much for an audience to care about. She is flibbertygibbet-boring.  But her tragedy is not that she has eccentricites or that she talks too much or is nervous or laughs oddly. Her problem is she has adopted these to make herself different from what she knows herself to be, which is normally sexed but maybe sexually unmateable. Adapting Eccentricities from From Summer And Smoke, Williams removed the rakes-hell boy next door and all the madness of The Moonlake Casino. But Rosa Gonzales and  little Nellie, while not subplots, at least gave the play something solid to bounce back from, and their light sheds upon the boy next door  the color of his vices. Wiliams replaced the rakes-hell with a nebbish. He replaced his righteous father with an incestuous mother. He replaced the melodrama with nothing. Alma got laid. But nothing improved. And nothing happened. The play declined in power and lost its great and brilliant and moving final scene in the doctor’s office. And in neither version is there is there a subplot, no secondary line of interest feeding the main matter, as there is between Stanley and Stella, for instance in Streetcar, or Mitch and Blanche, or between big Daddy and Brick in Cat, and in any Shakespearean play you might mention. What we have instead is two hours of  the rantings of a frustrated spinster and some voluble locals, and a mother who will not shut up, all of them molasses-Southern and rendered with Williams’ infallible ear, but none of them of sufficient dramatic or comic import to supply the deficiencies of a play which, being underwritten, ends up overwritten to compensate. The long bedroom scene at the end of the first part offers us nothing we do not already know from the mother’s merely taking her son’s arm at the fireworks display. Neva Patterson plays the mother here, a part written so it can only be played one way, witchy, which makes her character one-note-monotonous. It’s not Patterson’s fault, although she and all the players over-Southernize their accents, when Williams, by his diction alone, supplies all the accent needed. Summer and Smoke is certainly the better play, and Geraldine Page as Alma is superb in the role. Blythe Danner is an actress so inherently lovely it seems impossible she could remain a spinster, although she does supply a wince to regulate and demote her beauty and the neurasthenic affectations which make her annoying enough to make us think she is unmarriagable. But the part cannot work, because Williams has not got to the heart of it. Frank Langella brings his rich voice to the characterless part of the boy next door. Langella smiles affectionately throughout, a smart move, but it’s a dog’s-body of a part; here’s nothing there; and all one can do is thank him for not making more of a thankless role than can be made. Their losing their virginity together is a beautifully written scene and beautifully played, and worth the price of admission, but it shouldn’t be in the play. These two actors have played together many times on the stage, where I have seen them, and their high style is well suited to one another, and the respect for the talent and workings of one another make them look like Lunt and Fontanne. I love Tennessee Williams. And I love this material. Yes, as Hal Holbrook says in his introduction, it is different From Summer And Smoke. Different, yes. Better, no.

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Heaven Can Wait

15 Apr

Heaven Can Wait – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Sophisticated Comedy. Standing before Satan to see if he qualified for the flames, an old roué reviews his long love-life. 112 minutes Color 1943.

* * * * *

Watch and learn. How does a director get a laugh from an audience by a scene in which nothing is seen but a closed door? All who direct comedy, all who like to watch it and care to wonder how it is done, sit, please, at the feet of the master. This is the Lubitsch Touch at its peak of charm and engagement. The story is a continental pastry of the kind that Lubitsch specialized in, but the war was on, so it’s all transported to New York City. It doesn’t work nearly so well as Budapest would have, but never mind. It extends one man’s entire love-life-time, in periods ranging from the romantic past, whenever that was supposed to be, to more-or-less the present, whenever that was supposed to be. Here as elsewhere, Lubitsch’s collaborator, the invaluable screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, brings us into the ruthless realistic room of sophisticated comedy once again and sets the tone. (Be sure to play his priceless comments on Special Features.) We have of course Charles Coburn to begin with who is a master of the style, indeed a master of all styles, and can do no wrong. Louis Calhern brings his magnificent carriage and his magnificent everything into the role of the roue’s father, towering over Spring Byington’s superb carriage. Dickie Moore plays Ameche as a teen hottie and I’m so glad for him. Gene Tierney is, for once, really good, because she is not forced to force. She plays a character written to triumph by throwing all her lines away. Don Ameche, whose masculinity no one could question, plays it for the fool lying behind his masher, a choice which carries the film perfectly. Laird Cregar is tops as the devil sinking that splendid galleon of an actress Florence Bates. Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette are unthinkably cast as Tierney’s parents, which is a comic spectacle in and of itself. The difficulty with the material is that the persons of the script are essentially dealing with the  jilts and joys of infidelity, a habit of Ameche’s which, this being America and not Hungary, cannot go uncondemned. However, take a deep breath and dismiss all your moral and immoral scruples and sit back and imagine it is once upon a time, and enjoy once again another of Lubitsch’s tribute to life itself.

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Summer and Smoke

04 Apr

Summer and Smoke — Directed by Peter Glenville. Love story. A spinster letches for the ne’er do well boy next door. 93 minutes Color 1961

* * * * *

As a critic, I wonder what good it does to bring to the front things that cannot be remedied. Here, the lighting often fails its needs, and the director should never have been hired, or shot soon after. The leading man is out of place and league. But this movie contains one of the greatest love scenes ever filmed, ever written, ever acted. It also records the performance of it that brought the play out of the obscurity of its original failure on Broadway, and thrust into prominence both the play, the theatre, The Circle In The Square, and the actress who played Alma and plays it here, Geraldine Page. The play lends itself to one’s imagination as one sees it in a theatre, but the scriptwriters have coarsened these references by literalizing them. The director, who is English, has no sense of the atmosphere required for this material or how to diminish the staginess of his performers. Laurence Harvey is right only in his opening scene, for he has none of the juice and charm that would make this character bearable and understandable. And he should be understandable, for Tennessee Williams has done again what he did in Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; he has created a female protagonist whose tragedy is that she puts on airs. Why does she do this? Because, like all of us, at one time or another, she so wants to be someone else, someone whose heart is a little taller than the arrows shot at her. She wants to escape the stern facts of her circumstances. This makes her an isolate and a tolerated mockery. It makes her the sort of phony no man wants to be around. Geraldine Page is able to work this character just short of putting our teeth on edge. With desperate hands she clasps her body as though it would fly apart if she did not. She seethes with the sexuality she has to gainsay in order to sustain her act, but she longs for its release if only the young man would stop carousing. You can see the character in Page’s eyes, which are wide open and which are so true to the feeling, to the longing, to the passion in Alma’s being. It’s astounding that she can do all this opposite Laurence Harvey, with his tight, narrow temperament, and his bad Southern accent, a role made thankless by the actor’s lack of blood, a role perfectly suited to Jack Nicholson back in the day. Yet the great scenes unfold between them, carried by Williams’ superb writing and Page’s profound grasp of this woman’s needs. I never saw Page do it on the stage, but when I asked Mildred Dunnock what she thought of Page in the picture, she said she felt Gerry had lost her lyricism in the role. I should have asked her what she meant, and I repeat it here as a lighthouse for actresses to come. But I cannot do anything now except to say you must see this remarkable performance of this remarkable character in this remarkable play.

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