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Archive for the ‘Henry Stephenson’ Category

RECKLESS

05 Oct

Reckless – directed by Victor Fleming. Dramedy. 97 minutes Black And White 1935.

★★★★

The Story: A Broadway musical comedy star is in love with her producer who is too above it all to propose, and tragedy ensues.

~

This was the product of David O Selznick during his brief stint at MGM while Irving Thalberg was recuperating from a heart attack in Europe, and it reveals two things plainly. One is how well-produced the film is, and Two is how ungainly his story ideas were. For the screenwriter is actually an alias for Selznick himself, and the story falls into traps which are fascinating to behold the actors climb out of or fail to climb out of. It’s worth seeing in all respects.

Selznick was L.B. Mayer’s son-in-law, and Thalberg had not been told of his replacement, so there is a certain shame before us here. The plot also hinges on a matter unspoken. Selznick resigned before long; he went into independent production, produced Gone With The Wind, using Victor Fleming to direct it; Thalberg returned to MGM and never trusted Mayer again.

What we have is a handful of terrific actors playing out a sophisticated backstage comedy, which turns violent. It was based on the Libby Holman scandal. And it starts with William Powell, that master of insouciance, playing a gambler with Damon Runyan sidekicks. He has backed the career of Jean Harlow as the actress. In a superb proposal scene you see Powell at his comic best; in a too-long drunk scene you see him ill served.

From the start, everything depends upon the skill of the playing of every actor before us. As a substitute for the absence of reality in the story, each must perform at the pitch of their talents, and they do.

Harlow is exuberant, convinced, lithe, and on target. Her grandmother is played by May Robson, and fortunately given a lot to do. Franchot Tone as the millionaire playboy is almost too good in the role. If he had been a bad actor the film might be better, but he isn’t. His is a portrait of a balloon bursting. Henry Stephenson as his father is a mystery of probity; is he kind; is he cruel? Rosalind Russell plays the jilted fiancée with a nobility so humorous you cannot but root for her. And Mickey Rooney as a child is so alive on the screen, you don’t wonder Spencer Tracy called him the best actor in Hollywood.

None of these players can extract the rotten tooth inflaming this material, which is a front-page story of the sort Warners did better. Fleming is a dynamic director; he never shows too much when he can help it. But you can just hear Selznick whispering those logorrheac memos over his shoulder. Still, Harlow triumphs in a closing closeup. Her voice is badly placed but her energy is winning. There is a wonderful moment she has picking up a hat and tossing it back. Watch for it. Audiences loved her not because she was sexy and didn’t wear underwear, but because she was so alive! She still is.

 

Suez

04 Jun

Suez –– directed by Allan Dwan. Historical Epic. Ferdinand de Lesseps struggles to build the Suez Canal. 104 minutes Black and White 1938.

★★★★

He struggles to dig, he has a setback, a woman encourages him, he struggles to dig, he has a set back, a woman encourages him, he struggles to dig, he has a setback, a woman discourages him. The monotony of the story is supposedly counterbalanced by the beauty of the stars and the production values. And the costumes. Except that the film is over-costumed, so you cannot believe for a minute that anyone ever wore any of those clothes to anyplace but on the way to a movie set. Loretta Young is so dressed, she not only looks like the bride on the wedding cake, she looks like the cake itself.

How did people ever go the bathroom in those clothes?

Well, that’s not the sort of question you were supposed to ask of such films. In those days, you were supposed to be humbly and unquestionably grateful for and trusting of the validity of the “history lesson”. Right now all one can say is that Mister de Lesseps was somehow involved in the excavation. The digging itself was easy, since the isthmus in ancient days was navigable. It was the sand of preparation that had to be continually cleared away, and that is what makes up the story here. But we are given two wonderful big-time special effects, a fatal sandstorm and an avalanche set off by those Islamic terrorists again. They still don’t know when to stop. The director Allan Dwan sure keeps things chugging along, though.

A big and experienced supporting cast cannot breathe life into the dialogue which is as stilted as the men’s high collars, although Nigel Bruce, as usual, somehow manages it. The cast is headed up by Our Lady Of The Holy Wood, Loretta Young, and by Tyrone Power. They made delightful comedies together earlier on the 30s and were a popular duo.

Tyrone Power was a man so beautiful you become rapt to see what his face will do next. Since he is an actor of natural discretion, what you see is always authentic, although how he achieves it, given the lines, is impossible to guess, except that his modesty never rises to the level of the vulgarity of them. With Tyrone Power, what you see is what is made gettable by the fact that behind that face lies the quality that made him a great star, his kindness, sense of fun, his gentlemanliness. He’s not vain and he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was inhumanly beautiful but not inhumanely beautiful.

The third star is Annabella, who was soon enough to become Tyrone Power’s first wife. While a good deal older than Power, she is perfectly convincing as a hoydenish teenager. She is French, which makes her seem odd and out-of-place, since, while everyone else at court is French, she is the only one in the cast who actually is so. She is a gifted and very fine screen actor and is wonderful to watch, although might prove irritating to watch much longer.

Anyhow, this is a typical historical Hollywood contraption of the period. It is a showcase. It was a crowd pleaser. And Power and Young when young still are enjoyable to behold.

 

 

 

 

Red-Headed Woman

09 Feb

Red-Headed Woman — directed by Jack Conway. A gold-digging vamp seduces her way to the top. 79 minutes Black and White 1932.

★★★★

This is Harlow’s tenth principal role, and by this time she sure knows a thing or two, and one of the things she knows is Don’t Hold Back One Inch. She plays this fiery tart without a blush of shame, and it’s a treat to see. Harlow is in her early twenties here, and her hair is not the platinum blond it was to more or less remain. She is being thrust forward by MGM as a sex symbol, which annoyed her and baffled her, as it did Marilyn Monroe later on. Both women realized it was quite unreal and unnatural, that nobody was really like that. Several things militate against our respecting Harlow, but being a sex bomb was not one of them. In fact, aside from apparently wearing no undergarments, she is neither sexy nor pretty. Her face is boxy and her lips are puckered with rouge; her nose is from some other face; her voice is completely untrained, grating, and badly placed. As to her being sexy, well, that may have been so at the time to those who were of her own generation and were in their twenties when she was, and saw her first in Wings, where she is quite remarkable and quite unlike her later incarnations. One has to set these things aside to notice her range and how robust an actor she could be. She drives this uncompromising story forward like a steam engine, plowing every cow off the tracks before her. As an actress, she never asks permission. Gentlemen prefer redheads is what she says and she acts on it roundly. Chester Morris is the stolid mid-western millionaire she finagles into marriage, and bounds on from to score all the money in the world. In fact, if there could be such a thing, she is a female bounder. Una Merkel plays her lemony sidekick, and the great Charles Boyer in an early film appearance, plays the chauffeur who becomes her tidbit. The movie is pre-code, and delightfully impenitent as such. Lewis Stone is the first of many fathers-in-law. Henry Stephenson is one of her willing victims – later to be remembered as the speech therapist around whom Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dance in the “Moses Supposes His Toeses are Roses” number in Singing In The Rain. Liela Hyams plays Morris’s wife in a lovely and giving performance. May Robson plays the society dame who warns her son too late. Paul Bern one of Harlow’s husbands produced it. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the first screenplay and Anita Loos the last. The film caused a scandal in America, and Britain refused to show it. It was a huge financial success for MGM.

 

 
 
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