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Archive for the ‘Charley Grapewin’ Category

Alice Adams

31 Mar

Alice Adams — directed by George Stevens. Family Drama. A young woman’s mother strives to upgrade her daughter’s social status. 99 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

Katherine Hepburn was 27 when she made this, and she went on starring in movies until she was 87, and you can understand why. She is an actress without repose. Even when acting repose she is actively doing it. Mind you, she has a very good script here and a first-class director, George Stevens, whose breakthrough film this was. Hepburn had played a series of high-strung, mettlesome, sophisticated girls, but here she plays an ordinary small town girl who wants to better herself. Alice Adams is a girl who loves her crude working class father, but takes after her mother who strives. She puts on airs, tells lies, and hides things to conceal her drab family background. The only result is that she is snubbed and picked on by the town’s worthies; she is not invited to other girls’ soigné parties, and wears handmade organdy when she is, and is a wallflower there. Why should we care about this pushy phony? It’s because in our lives when we were young we all wanted to be someone else, someone better, someone more popular. And because Alice is also kind and tactful, and, when home, direct and earnest, and because Hepburn herself is those things. So, well though we might wonder how tall, dark, handsome, Fred MacMurray, broad of shoulder, with wads of money, magnificent in tails, can stand this pushy dame with her coyness and strained lyricism and little half-laugh, it is because we see through her to Hepburn’s quality and harpsichord sensitivity to the truth about love. Booth Tarkington wrote the novel, and it’s a good one. The director and actress fought for the novel’s ending in which Alice has to go out and drudge as a secretary, but the studio forced this one on them, so it ends with a lecture. Except for Fred Stone as the father who sustains a whine of self-pity that is pitiless, the film is well cast and acted, especially with Ann Shoemaker as the mother, and Frank Albertson as the crude and rightly annoyed brother. Miss Hattie McDaniels is excruciatingly funny as a hired maid at a family dinner meant to impress McMurray, and she is but one example of Stevens’ quiet comic sense which infiltrates and supports many scenes: the look on the face of humanity is what Stevens is a master director of: a waiter asked to play a love song for the fifth time running.  As well as a sense of American mise-en-scene: you really feel you are walking down a small town street and not a back lot. As well as a stunning grasp of lighting, set to fit a mood: Alice coming back into the unlit shabby foyer from that wretched ball. As well as a revulsion to reaction shots in lieu of duets and closeups which enter the spirits of those explored: Hepburn and MacMurray’s kiss. How can Stevens like Hepburn so? For the same reason we do. Hepburn can create all that is false , affected, and pretentious about Alice, but she can also reveal how her feelings are hurt by the failure of her own folly, and how she is touchingly trapped in a cycle of groundless hope. Stevens’ strongest suit as a director was, better than any other director of his time, the creation of Americana: longing set against its conflicting background. The places we see are the places we knew. And the things hoped for are the hopes we hoped. This will eventually reach its fruition in his masterwork, A Place In The Sun. But here, for the first time, a master gathers his powers together.

 

 

Tobacco Road

18 Feb

Tobacco Road — directed by John Ford. Rural Comedy. Will the old folks be shunted out of their shanty on Tobacco Road? 84 minutes Black and White 1941.

* * *

Does John Ford think we’re all stupid? I have never understood the eminence into which this director fell – or perhaps he always belonged there – as a sub-popular entertainer. His sentimentality, his crude humor, his encouragement of excess in his performers, his delight in the sound ethics of a fistfight. It’s all here, Ward Bond included, playing a love-silly hick whose infant wife has run off to Atlanta. The whole thing is directed as though it were a Warner Brothers cartoon, with violence and improbability at every turn. Charlie Grapewin and Elizabeth Patterson play the old folks, and Grapewin is as supercharged as Paterson is American Gothic. Society-bitch actress Gene Tierney, smeared with hog-dirt, skulks behind the shrubs like Moonbeam McSwine in L’il Abner. William Tracy as a rageaholic nitwit does not bear looking at as he creates mayhem wherever his nasty nature drives him. The Broadway play was the longest running play in the history of the American theatre. The novel on which it is based is a trove of rich humor, funny in and of itself, written by America’s greatest short story writer and the finest novelist of his day, as Faulkner and all the others admitted, Erskine Caldwell. But Ford thinks Caldwell needs improving, as though Mark Twain needed slapstick to entertain. The material was supposed to be salacious. Which meant that these hillbillies got married and unmarried without ceremony, but in Caldwell that is not dirty, it simply a piece of the human comedy. And then…and then…you find Ford taking a picture of Elizabeth Patterson’s sad face as she faces homelessness And then Ford places them on the long walk to the poor farm pressed against a hard sky, two old people who have no place to go but down and a hard walk to get there, and you can forgive much. And then you realize that it is all being shot by Arthur Miller a great cinemaphotographer. And that whatever is being given us is in a very meritorious partnership. And that whatever it is, it is professionally done to the maximum. For essentially Ford is a storyteller’s eye. Then you remember Stagecoach a masterpiece. Then you take a star and you add it to the two you sourly accorded it, and you say no more.

 

 

Johnny Apollo

09 Dec

Johnny Apollo – Directed by Henry Hathaway. Drama. The son of an embezzler becomes a gangster to spring his dad from prison. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

* * * * *

Apart from certain story anomalies and inconsistencies, this is an unusual entertainment, since it actually allows full and extreme value of the relationship between a father and a son and also of a senior gangster and his up-and-coming righthand man. Edward Arnold, who is usually annoying because of his monotonous force of voice and movement, relents in his scenes with the son here, and thus their relationship becomes fully emotional and realized. Likewise, the adoration and admiration of Lloyd Nolan for his henchman is carried to its full flower right to the final scene when he is to murder him. Henry Hathaway’s direction of the picture sets up scenes in long horizontal shots like a rifle aiming. Take for instance the scene where this son/henchman first appears, virtually naked, in rowing togs with the victorious crew in the back throwing the coach in the river at exactly the moment when Lionel Atwill reveals to the young man that his father is a crook. Followed by the scene seen from the back of the father in the foreground as he sees his son come home and at a distance walk upstairs without speaking to him. The story, which is not well written on the level of plot, is very well written on the level of scenic content, and Hathaway highjacks it to develop and give importance to nice long scenes of relationships between interesting people, such as those with all the characters with a drunken, shady lawyer played beyond perfection by Charley Grapewin. Everyone is given permission to go for it, from Nolan to Eddie Mars as his henchman, and everyone jumps at the chance. Scenes played behind the mesh of a prison visitors table and behind the rungs of a stairway have a telling impact, because Arthur Miller filmed them. The film staggers to a halt when Dorothy Lamour sings her nightclub numbers, and staggers to a close when we are led to believe that she and the leading actor could possibly end up as a couple, for the lady has no class and the gentleman is class incarnate, Tyrone Power. At age 26 Power, as he had always done, shines right through his incontrovertible beauty to hold the screen and the story together by the generosity, naturalness, and flexibility of his acting. He was clearly the most accomplished male star of his era, and given no credit for being so. But just look at his eyes as he responds to other performers, and look at the absolute rightness of how he plays his scenes and his clarity in doing so. He was the top male star at Fox. He wanted better parts, but he never got them: there were no better parts in those days. This was it.

 

 
 
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