Sunday, December 15, 2013

MORE Classic Movie Gems for the New Year!

I want to thank all who read my debut eBook, CLASSIC MOVIES:  14 Films You May Not Have Seen, But Should and this month its follow-up, CLASSIC MOVIE GEMS:  16 MORE Films You May Not Have Seen, But Should was published!  It is my take on even more of my favorite movie gems from Hollywood's golden age.

It is available on Amazon's Kindle but can be easily accessed even if you don't own the eReader.  Just download the FREE Kindle app to your Smartphone, iPhone, iPad, tablet or personal computer!  Here is the link for the free app:

If you haven't had a chance to read the book, it is less than the price of a Happy Meal or a coffee shop latte ($2.99) and if you are a member of Amazon Prime you can borrow it for free!  From pre-code classics like the odd but enjoyable THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932) starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy (pictured above) to the colorful charm of CENTENNIAL SUMMER (1946), many genres are covered.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Have You Read CLASSIC MOVIES? If so, THANKS!!!

Just an update on my debut book on classic movies, CLASSIC MOVIES: 14 Films You May Not Have Seen, But Should, which features some hidden gems that classic movie lovers may or may not have seen.  As of this writing, it has consistently been in the top 3 (often in the #1 slot) in its sales category and had a very positive reception among classic movie fans.

It is available on Amazon's Kindle but can be accessed even if you don't own the eReader.  Just download the free Kindle app to your smartphone (both Android or iPhone), iPad, tablet or personal computer.  Here is the link for the free app download:

If you haven't had the chance to check it out it is less than the price of a Happy Meal or a coffee shop latte ($2.99) and if you are a member of Amazon Prime you can borrow it for FREE!  From Pre-Codes like The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins (pictured above) to the colorful charm of Margie (1946), many genres are covered and enjoyed.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dangerous Crossing (1953): Jeanne Crain Goes Crazy.... Or Does She?

Folks who follow this blog and its corresponding page on Facebook know what a fan I am of 1940's/50's cutie Jeanne Crain.  She never made it into the really big time but she had quite a run at 20th Century-Fox while it lasted.  Well, in 1953 that run ended and one of her last vehicles at the studio which had been her cinematic home for a decade, was Dangerous Crossing, a low(er) budget mystery-suspenser that did little to furthur her career or the careers of anyone associated with it.  However, it was the very first Jeanne Crain film I ever saw as a youngster and, though not very plausible at times, it really is a fun and suspenseful potboiler.

Based on a 1943 radio play called "B-13" by noted mystery writer John Dixon Carr, Dangerous Crossing follows the they're-crazy-as-a-bat, they-claim-their-relative-vanished-but-they-were-never-there-in-the-first-place plotline.  This style of mystery had been filmed several times before and would be afterward.  Besides Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, one notable version of the theme was So Long at the Fair (1950), a British historical mystery with Jean Simmons.  Dangerous Crossing was actually remade as a TV movie in the 90's called Treacherous Crossing with Lindsay Wagner.

Ruth Bowman (maiden name Stanton) is a wealthy and beautiful yet emotionally unstable (or so it would appear) young bride (or so she says).  Okay, okay, I know I'm being vague here so I'll just get to it.  Ruth is on a passenger ship bound for England on her honeymoon.  We see her.  We see her groom, John.  The thing is, no one else sees them together on the ship and he up and disappears, making beautiful, confused Ruth seem off her rocker.  It's no wonder, as she is listed on the passenger list as Ruth Stanton and there is no Bowman listed.  To make matters worse when her past is looked into, she seems to have had some emotional issues regarding her father's death.

She interacts with various passengers and crew members as the puzzle just gets more and more tangled.  Among those trying to help her, either solve her mystery or just keep her sedated, is the handsome ship's doctor, Paul Manning (Michael Rennie; you knew he wouldn't be a troll, didn't you?).  As frustrated as she is with her situation, she can't help but be attracted to the tall doctor who is genuinely trying to help her.  So where's her husband?  Or did he even really exist?

As stated above, I love Jeanne Crain.  Her beauty and elegance are top notch in my book and she brought some fine performances to the table when challenged.  This, however, wasn't one of the most challenging ones.  She races around the ship with wide eyes expecting to see Frankenstein's monster at every turn.  When she's happy she's ecstatic and when she's stressed (which is often here) she takes the wide-eyed approach.  She's still lovely though and the movie is still fun.

Besides Crain and Rennie, the cast is scattered with various character actors of the day.  Longtime supporting actress Mary Anderson is on board (couldn't help the pun) as a stewardess who seems to know more than she should.  Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter), a Fox regular, oogles, respectfully of course, Crain as the ships Second Officer, and as the long lost hubby is Carl Betz, betz...uh, er best known as Dr. Alex Stone on the 1950's television comedy "The Donna Reed Show."  Also notable is a friendly and attractive passenger who befriends Ruth, Kay Prentiss, played by Marjorie Hoshelle, who just happened to be Mrs. Jeff Chandler in real life.

When she decided to leave 20th Century-Fox after ten years there, Crain said:  "Fox was wonderful to me but I wasn't happy for the last few years.  I wasn't permitted to go to other studios on loan-outs, and lost the leads in Quo Vadis and Carrie.  Other girls were signed for the roles I wantedat my own studio.  I asked for singing and dancing roles, but the answer was always 'no.'  Now, after ten years, maybe I'll get my big chance."  She didn't.  Nonetheless, she DID get to try a few different characterizations, as with Man Without a Star as a redheaded tough, yet glamorous, ranch owner, out to tame Kirk Douglas and The Joker is Wild (1957) with Frank Sinatra.  When she and Betty Grable, who left Fox shortly after, ended their tenure at the studio, their portraits in the Fox commissary were replaced by images of Terry Moore and Jean Peters.

Friday, July 19, 2013

My Debut Classic Movie Book!

Friends and Blog Followers, I'd like to announce the debut of my very first book! Of course it's about classic movies and as a matter of fact, called, Classic Movies: 14 Films You May Not Have Seen, But Should. Just as the title says, I discuss some often overlooked gems, movies that I've enjoyed and wanted to share with others who MAY not have heard of or had the opportunity to see. It's on Kindle or Kindle app for android or iPhone. If you like classic movies, check it out!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Character Actors: Three of the Best!

I've written a couple of posts on this blog about classic movie character actors or supporting players.  Whatever you choose to call them, they help form the foundation of a solid classic film.  Where would Rebecca be without Florence Bates, Nigel Bruce or the terrific Gladys Cooper?  How about Lost Horizon without Isabel Jewel or Thomas Mitchell?  These actors and actresses add a certain nuance with their characterizations that give zing where there might not be any and act as a foil for the main stars of a movie.  Here are a few excellent examples of these tried and true who made their mark on the silver screen.

Eve Arden
 "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." That quote from 1945's Mildred Pierce is a great example of the kind of lines tossed off so easily and deliciously by Eve Arden (pictured above), who spoke it and others just as biting in Pierce and several dozen more classic movies.  Glamorous and chic, Arden was eternally the best friend of the star or the personal assistant to the main character instead of the lead herself.

Making her film debut in 1929, she took to the stage and then back to movies in the late 30's, breaking through with a supporting role in RKO's Stage Door.  From then on the size of her parts increased and her persona as a seasoned career woman, spouting sardonic wit and rarely getting the man blossomed.

Besides Mildred Pierce (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category), she appeared in Cover Girl (1944), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and Tea for Two (1950).  She found her largest audience on television in the 1950's comedy Our Miss Brooks.

Franklin Pangborn
Flustered, fussy, sometimes prissy, always funny are just some of the descriptives of the characters played by the undeniably entertaining Franklin Pangborn.  This native of New Jersey most memorably played sales clerks, department store floor walkers or efficient headwaiters and always added character to any scene he was in.

Like Thelma Ritter, Pangborn got his start on the stage in the first quarter of the 20th Century entering films in the mid 1920's. Coming into his own in the late 30's and thoughout the 40's, his film resume reads like a veritable "Best of" list from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Among the dozens of films in which he appeared some of the best are My Man Godfrey (1936), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Sullivan's Travels (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942).

Thelma Ritter
Wise-cracking, working class, world weary characters were Thelma Ritter's specialty.  Whenever she was on the screen there was never a dull moment and, though she was lucky to be provided with some of the brightest dialogue written in Hollywood, it was her razor sharp delivery that lingers in the memory.

Ritter made her film debut at the age of 45 in a small but very memorable role as the Christmas shopping weary mother in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  In A Letter to Three Wives (1949), she was again unbilled as tart tongued maid Sadie Duggan, but left her mark so impressively that she was cast as Birdie in All About Eve (1950).  For Eve she received her first of six Academy Award nominations, four consecutively.  Along with Eve, she was nominated for The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), all in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Developing her acting roots on the stage, Ritter was also on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1958 as Best Actress (Musical) for New Girl in Town.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Lady on a Train (1945): Deanna Durbin Solves a Mystery!

With a pert and high-spirited personality, strong, operatic singing voice and youthful confidence, Deanna Durbin was one of the most popular teenage stars of the classic movie age. Long forgotten by all but hardcore fans of Hollywood's golden age, Durbin has often been given credit for saving her home studio, Universal, from bankruptcy in the late 30's and early 40's and at one point she was the highest paid female star in Tinsel Town. Having a string of hits in her corner, this winsome warbler turned her back on Hollywood, retiring to France at the ripe old age of 27.

In 1945 Durbin was in transition from perky juvenile to sophisticated, though still vivacious, glamour girl. Lady on a Train showcased both a more adult Deanna, as well as her lilting singing voice, though, like most DD films, it would hardly be classified as a musical. It was however, the rare movie combination of comedy-mystery, with shades of the Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard classic, The Cat and the Canary.  It also has a film noir feel about it. Dark, moody lighting, guns being brandished and danger (as well as laughs) lurking just around the corner.

Nicki Collins is a pretty and ebullient young San Francisco socialite who witnesses a murder via a passenger train while en route to visit her aunt in New York. When she confronts New York's finest about the dirty deed she has observed, they blow her off as a crackpot when they discover she has been reading murder mysteries. The determined damsel sets out to initiate help from the author of one of her pulp fiction primers, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and solve the mystery herself.

While watching a newsreel in a local theater, Nicki discovers that the murdered gent was a well-known and wealthy businessman. She heads out to his Long Island estate, only to get entangled with his "grieving" family and be mistaken for a nightclub singer with whom the dearly departed was having an affair. Other mishaps occur including getting between Morgan and his snooty upper crust fiancee, as well as causing a near nervous breakdown for her father's assistant (Edward Everett Horton, famous for his jittery, flustered persona), sent East to watch over the zealous lass.

Lady on a Train is fun. Deanna Durbin is fun in it, although it's not a completely typical example of what a DD movie is (as a bubbly teen the star sang more songs and was usually a matchmaker or problem solver of sorts). She does get to sing three tunes in this film, including a lovely rendition of "Silent Night" (the flick is set during the Christmas season), "Give Me a Little Kiss" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day," in a sultry voice and curvaceous outfit.

Surrounding the film's star are a slew of great supporting actors. As members of the deceased man's family, Ralph Bellamy, Elizabeth Patterson and Dan Duryea (in a good guy role....or is it?) join in the mysterious antics. Patricia Morison, Allen Jenkins and William Frawley (pre-Fred Mertz) round out the stellar supporting cast. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound.

The movie is based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who created the crime detective character Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." Another very relevant literary connection to Charteris story and this film is mystery queen Agatha Christie. Her 1957 story "4:50 from Paddington" features a very similar story angle with the main character witnessing a murder while on a train (this story would be filmed as Murder, She Said starring Margaret Rutherford in 1961).

Lady on a Train was produced by Felix Jackson, whom Durbin would marry later the same year. They divorced in 1948, and in 1950, Durbin would marry the film's director, Charles David. It was shortly after this last marriage that the star would retire and live the remainder of her life in France.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Harvey Girls (1946) Judy Garland Takes on the Wild, Glossy West

"Always please the cranks: Anything which suits a finicky customer is bound to be more than satisfactory to the great run of folks who take what is handed them without complaint."  This is one of the 12 points listed in an employee directive for the famed Harvey House restaurants which dotted the mid-west and western landscapes of late 19th and early 20th century America.  Developed by entrepreneur Fred Harvey, the chain of restaurants and lunch counters became the subject of a 1946 hit musical starring Judy Garland and sported a lively soundtrack which included the Oscar winning tune, On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.

The Harvey Girls centers on Susan Bradley (Garland), a young Ohio lass who is traveling via the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe rail line to Sandrock, Arizona to marry H. H. Hartsey, with whom she has a shared correspondence for "lonelyhearts."  She finds his letters of the utmost in romance and poetry.  En route on the train she meets the "Harvey Girls," a group of fresh-faced young women from the east who are headed west to wait table in the Harvey House restaurant.

When Susan arrives in Sandrock (to much musical IS MGM you know), she finds Mr. Hartsey (Chill Wills) is far from the romantic figure she imagined by way of their poetic epistles.  In fact, she discovers that he didn't even write them and their original author was none other than Ned Trent, handsome owner of the local saloon and love interest of Sandrock's head "bad girl" Em (Angela Lansbury, gorgeous in full Technicolor).  She breaks her "engagement" (in a mutual understanding), tells off Ned Trent and joins up with the Harvey girls.  The rest is colorful, glorious musical hokem.

Based on a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Harvey Girls was originally meant to be a straight dramatic picture starring studio blondie Lana Turner (be interesting to see how that would have turned out).  Roger Edens, an associate producer at MGM and a mentor of Judy Garland, wanted to change the venue after viewing a performance of the then popular stage show Oklahoma!  The angle was turned into a western themed musical comedy and Garland, after her success the previous year in Meet Me in St. Louis, was the natural choice to star.

She didn't want to do it, preferring to work with Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief, which her soon to be husband, Vincent Minnelli, was directing.  She was persuaded to take on the Harvey project and in turn created one of the biggest hits of the year (Yolanda on the other hand lost money).  But it wasn't without problems on the set.  Judy was late almost 40 times and was absent 11 total days during production.  Deadpan comedienne Virginia O'Brien, who played Harvey girl Alma, was pregnant and the sense of urgency to get her scenes completed was eroded by Garland's absences, causing O'Brien to virtually vanish from the film's second half.

John Hodiak played Ned Trent, a role that was originally considered for Clark Gable, who had just returned from military service in World War II.  Aside from O'Brien, who did a splendid job as the man-hungry Alma, the top notch supporting cast included Ray Bolger, Cyd Charisse, in her first speaking role (though she did plenty of her signature dancing as well), the always entertaining Marjorie Main and the lovely young Lansbury as the tough talkin', hard livin' Em. (A press release from December 1944 proclaimed Garland, Hodiak and Ann Sothern as the film's stars, the latter in the role of Em.  Lucille Ball was also discussed for this role.)

But The Harvey Girls was first and foremost a musical and the musical numbers were a lively grouping of rousing ditties by Harry Warren and the great Johnny Mercer.  Rising to the top of the heap was the afore-mentioned On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, an energetic extravaganza of muslin, lipstick and tobacco juice. Several versions of the hit tune were recorded, including one by Garland.  The one to become the biggest hit however, featured the song's lyricist Johnny Mercer along with the Pied Pipers.  Just as full of pep are the numbers The Train Must Be Fed, and The Wild, Wild West featuring O'Brien's career defining deadpan.

Critic Bosley Crowther wrote in January 1946:  "Miss Garland, of course, is at the center of most of the activity and handles herself in pleasing fashion, up to and including the high notes. John Hodiak acts rather surly as the saloon proprietor and Angela Lansbury, pouty and pomaded, looks dazzling as the queen of the den. Everyone else enters lightly into this beefsteak and hors d'oeuvre opera. It may be a rather lofty tribute to Fred Harvey's girls, but it's a show."  And a show indeed it was.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Captain Blood (1935): Errol Flynn Becomes a Star!

Studio head Jack Warner said of magnetic Warner Brothers superstar Errol Flynn, "To the Walter Mittys of the world he was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package." Flynn is famous (or more aptly infamous) for many things in his life, some admirable, some not so much. Cinematic swashbuckling is the one thing he is most associated with and what made him a star. As Captain Blood, the handsome actor cut his teeth on the genre and along with Olivia de Havilland began a run of adventure/romance films that made them both icons.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, when one studio had a hit or even a potential hit in the works, another would jump in with their own version. Such was the case when MGM produced Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935 with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. Warner Brothers began production of its seafaring saga later that year, a remake of the Rafael Sabatini 1922 adventure novel Captain Blood. Peter Blood is an Irish doctor in 17th century England. He inadvertently treats the wounds of a participant of the Monmouth Rebellion and is found guilty of treason and, though sentenced to death, is instead sent as a slave to the West Indies. There he is bought by the beautiful Arabella Bishop, who wants to save him from the worst kind of hard labor reserved for the majority of slaves brought to the region. She increases his survival rate even further by recommending him as doctor to the ailing governor of Port Royal, an advantage he wisely accepts.

A plan of escape by Blood and his compadres is foiled by an attack on the colony by the Spanish. Blood and his company of fellow slaves, in fact, do escape by way of the Spanish ship, with the Spaniards left on shore! Piracy on the high seas and a merger with a dangerous French pirate (Basil Rathbone) await the motley crew until Blood inadvertently meets up once again with the beautiful Arabella.

Pre-production of Captain Blood began mid-summer of 1935, with English actor Robert Donat slated to play the lead role. Donat had a hit the previous year with The Count of Monte Cristo and Warner Brothers was ready to cash in on this success. Several reasons have been given through different sources for the actor's refusal to take the role of Peter Blood, from contractual disputes, to asthema, to his lady love who wouldn't leave England, but reason aside, Donat was out and a replacement had to be found. Brian Aherne was discussed as was John Barrymore. The powers that be got wind of a handsome young Austrailian, born in Tasmania, named Errol Flynn, who had recently come under contract at Warners and appeared in two standard films, one as a corpse. Although studio contractee Jean Muir was scheduled to play the female lead, her A Midsummer Night's Dream co-star, 19 year-old Olivia de Havilland was cast as Arabella Bishop. She and Flynn were natural co-stars and continued a successful run as Warner's definitive romantic screen couple.   

Blood was directed by Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, who would become the studio's master in the adventure movie genre. This was his second film with Flynn, the first being The Case of the Curious Bride (the one where Flynn is a corpse) but it began a long string of successful action pictures for the duo. The newbie actor was so nervous at the beginning of the film's shooting, Curtiz had to reshoot some scenes in post production when Flynn felt more comfortable with the process. With an ever growing budget, no full-sized ships were used in the seafaring yarn. Instead, miniatures and existing nautical footage from the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk created the visuals of the high seas. Also adding to the rousing atmosphere of the classic was the superb musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold had come to America just a year before to arrange Mendelssohn's music for Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream and became one of Warner's greatest assets winning an Oscar for his work in the Curtiz/Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Sound Editing, some categories on the strength of write-in campaigns. Everyone involved played a very large part in the success of Captain Blood, but ultimately Errol Flynn, the new star in town, WAS Captain Blood......until he became Robin Hood.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Classic Hollywood: On The Set

A much happier picture than when the cameras were rolling.  Humphrey Bogart, wife Lauren Bacall,
Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor on the set of KEY LARGO (1947)
Paulette Goddard visits James Mason on the set of ODD MAN OUT (1947)
Claude Rains watches as Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid play
chess on the set of CASABLANCA (1942)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Man I Married (1940) Joan Bennett Says 'Nazi Go Home'

1940 saw an increasing tide of anti-Nazi sentiment in Hollywood and though the United States wasn't officially involved in the European war, studios were walking a fine line between creating films denouncing German leader Adolf Hitler and trying to keep a neutral stance. Producer and head of 20th Century-Fox Darryl F. Zanuck took the plunge in the anti-Nazi arena with an underrated melodrama called The Man I Married. On the face of it, the movie seemed to be a tabloid feature with an alternative/ working title of I Married a Nazi, with matching melodramatic poster art promising a flick wrought with sensationalism. But to dig a little deeper, filmgoers found a movie presenting an apt description of Germany at the time just before World War II.

Joan Bennett plays Carol Hoffman, a chic New York art critic who is married to German born Eric (Francis Lederer). The couple, along with their small son Ricky, travel back to Eric's homeland in 1938 to attend to family business. Germany is going through major changes with the Fuhrer at the helm and Eric quickly falls under the spell of the Third Reich, with help from an attractive uber Nazi female (Anna Sten). The fanatacism of the Nazi movement in the late 30's is deftly illustrated. Propaganda, huge political rallies and martial law are all on board, including a disturbing scene where Czech citizens living in Berlin are forced to pick up garbage in the street while armed soldiers watch and mock them.

The Man I Married was Bennett's first film for 20th Century-Fox under her new non-exclusive contract with the studio. The actress had ended her professional involvement with producer Walter Wanger while extending her personal one (the couple married in early 1940 after a long term affair). She was just embarking on the second, more interesting season of her career, as a brunette. After years as a blonde, immersed in ingenue roles, she changed her hair color to a sultry dark shade and saw a vast improvement in her choice of film parts.

Critics ran the gamut on Joan's performance in The Man I Married. A Variety review claimed: "Bennett is excellent as the educated American wife who sees through the schemes of Nazism," while New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote that Joan "might have brought more vitality and internal conflict to her role; as it is, she does little more than model dresses and express incredulity." He definitely was correct about modeling dresses as Travis Banton, the coutour master at Paramount during the early and mid-Thirties, outfitted Miss Bennett in the top 1940 vogue. It is also true that the actress' dramatic range was limited but her presence was surefire.

Fox contract player Lloyd Nolan plays an amicable war correspondent named Kenneth Delane, who opens Carol's eyes to the dangers and horrors of the Nazi regime. Austrian born Francis Lederer does a good job taking Eric Hoffman from affable, charming German-American to enraptured Nazi zombie. George Sanders was originally cast for the part but was still tied up on the set of Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and was unable to commit. One wonders what the suave yet snide Sanders could have made of this role. Otto Kruger, Maria Ouspenskaya and moppet Johnny Russell round out the cast.

A slick, glossy movie, The Man I Married is, nonetheless, worthy of its period in film timeline. The actors give fine performances and the script is fun (perturbed Bennett to newly ordained Nazi husband: "Heil heel!"). By the way, watch for that ending which I'll bet you don't see coming for a mile away. Danke Schoen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Man of Her Own (1932): Gable & Lombard, Love [NOT] at First Sight

The love story of screen stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard is legendary. A physically beautiful couple, who fell in love and married at the peak of their careers, reigned as one of Hollywood's highest profile couples and eventually met with tragedy upon Lombard's death in a 1942 plane crash at the age of 33. No Man of Her Own, filmed and released in late 1932, is famous as the only film in which the appealing duo starred together. Yet the irony is that they weren't a couple at the time, nor did they want to be.

Getting the film onto the screen was a story in itself. The original script was based on a bestselling 1932 pulp novel, written by none other than RKO horror producer Val Lewton, when he was a struggling commercial hack. It was called No Bed of Her Own and bought by Paramount Pictures as a potential vehicle for studio newbie George Raft and its reigning diva Miriam Hopkins. With loose living and prostitution as some of the general themes in No Bed of Her Own, an adaption to film was problematic, even in pre-Code years, and Paramount decided to keep the title but go with a completely different story written by Edmund Goulding and Benjamin Glazer. By the time the proverbial dust settled the title was also found unpassable to the Will Hays office and it too was changed, albeit only slightly, to No Man of Her Own.

Who would have thought that fate would have chosen Marion Davies, film star wannabe and mistress of multi-gazillionaire William Randolph Hearst, to bring about the only screen pairing of Gable and Lombard (sources say they were extras in at least one picture during the 1920's). Davies was making a picture for MGM eventually called Going Hollywood and wanted the number one box office crooner at the time, Bing Crosby, as her co-star. Hearst persuaded studio boss Louis B. Mayer to make a trade with Paramount, where Crosby was under contract. For this illustrious switcheroo Mayer had to offer up big ticket star power and after 1932's Red Dust with Jean Harlow and Strange Interlude with Norma Shearer, Clark Gable was MGM's male star on the rise.

Meanwhile, back over at Paramount, Miriam Hopkins would have no part of the film if Gable received top billing (which was part of the deal) and Carole Lombard, a member of the studio's stable of up and coming stars was cast instead. Although he had been quite chummy with Crawford and Harlow back home at MGM, Gable was relatively indifferent to Lombard during filming and she reciprocated the feeling. She was still very much married to big man on campus William Powell and Gable to wealthy/older/less attractive Rhea Langham (not that that fact had hindered earlier indiscretions).  When the film wrapped, Clark gave his blond co-star a pair of ballerina slippers with a note reading, "To a true primadonna." Carole, not to be outdone, presented him with a packaged ham with his photograph plastered on the front. It was all in good fun and caught on camera for everyone to see.

In this serio-comic pre-Code Gable plays Jerry "Babe" Stewart, a hot shot gambling cheat who can turn a card as well as a lady's head. When the law gets too close to his shenanigans, he lays low in podunk where he meets the local librarian, Connie Randall (Lombard). Connie has the small town blues and an itchin' to see what's out there. They get married on the flip of a coin and Connie goes back to the big city with her groom, unaware of his shady dealings (pardon the pun) and instead believing he works on Wall Street. Trouble steps in when the blonde bride discovers Babe's secret and tampers with his deck of cards. You know the old saying, lucky at cards unlucky in love. Well count it here in spades (pardon again).

Filmed in late 1932, more than a year before the Will Hays office would enforce tougher censorship restrictions, No Man of Her Own offered several opportunities for the risque in its dialogue. When his recent paramour clings to him like a vine on a tree, Gable's Babe responds, "Listen kid, that thing you've got on is pretty thin but I've got tough skin, see, and I don't feel it." Whew!

After filming was complete Gable went back to MGM and Lombard stayed on at Paramount for a while, her reputation as a gorgeous comedienne skyrocketing with each passing year. It wouldn't be until the mid to late 1930's until they began the affair that would eventually lead them to marriage and super couple status in Tinsel Town. As Clark Gable once said, "It is an extra dividend when you like the girl you've fallen in love with." No Man Of Her Own here.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Sea Wolf (1941): An Unsung Warner Brothers Classic

"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven" ~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

Edward G. Robinson is best known to filmgoers as a movie heavy. In fact, the gangland saga Little Caesar (1930) is the film that made him a star and subsequent gangster roles, both sinister and comedic, made him a superstar. In 1941 he took all that experience playing hoodlums and tough guys and wrapped it together in the character of Wolf Larsen in Warner Brothers' The Sea Wolf.

Larsen is a complex figure, both in the film and the 1904 book by American novelist Jack London on which the screenplay is based. Robinson pulls out all the stops to show the character's depth of savagery. He is primitive in his brutishness, while his intellect is of a high caliber, a dangerous combination. His cruelty knows no bounds and is only exacerbated by his intelligence. He is the tyrannical captain of the "Ghost", an aptly named schooner off the San Francisco coast at the turn of the 20th century with a crew comprised of scurvy misfits and cut-throat criminals. Among this motley assortment are Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), survivors of a wrecked passenger ship who are picked up by the Ghost. Van Weyden is a soft spoken author of fiction, Webster an escaped convict with a major chip on her shoulder. On board they join George Leach (John Garfield), a rebellious lad who is one of many criminals on the lam who has found refuge as it were on the sloop, Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart) the drunken and pathetic ship's physician and Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald) the vessel's galley mate, a nefarious imp with an obnoxiously wicked laugh.

The sadistic skipper takes no prisoners when dispensing his brand of brutality and perverse sarcasm. When Lupino's Ruth is dragged on board, she is near death and requires a blood transfusion. Larsen bullies Dr. Louis into performing the procedure, the hung-over surgeon's hands in a constant state of the shakes. When the operation is successful (with Garfield's blood), the recovered Ruth (lone female aboard the ship) finally makes an appearance on deck, unaware that she has betrayed her past in a moment of delirium. Nervously, she makes her way through the filthy, lecherous crew toward captain. At first he is polite and treats her with dignity, waiting until she is baited into a semi-sense of security and comfort before lowering the boom and bellowing out her secret to the gaffows of all on board.

An early 20th century illustration of the character Wolf Larsen

But she is handled with kid gloves in comparison to the treatment the ship's doctor is given. Louis Prescott is a raging alcoholic and can no longer practice on shore, hence his presence on the Ghost. He drowns his sorrows and regrets in mug after mug of hooch. When he successful saves Ruth, he is filled with pride and a renewed sense of confidence, cleaning himself up and demanding to be called Dr. Prescott, instead of being addressed with no respect whatsoever. He takes his complaint to Larsen, who assures him that he and the entire crew will give him what he deserves. Wolf takes him out to the group of ragamuffin sailors where, instead of heaping upon him the honor the physician longs for, he mocks him and kicks him down a set of steps, yet again to the uproarious laughter of the company. Refusing to live in a constant state of ridicule and desperation, Prescott climbs to the top of the mile high mast and jumps to his death, but not before exposing Larsen's secret to all below.

Much of the focus in The Sea Wolf, however, centers around the relationship between the seafarer and the intellectual Van Weyden. In the weak bodied Van Weyden, Larsen found both a physical punching bag, as well as a mental sparring partner. Forcing him into servitude as a cabin boy, Wolf takes control (the thing he thrives on) of yet another being in his self styled universe. Taking as his motto, Milton's quote from Paradise Lost, "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n", Larsen has created and extended to those around him his own hellish domain. Of all the characters, these two extreme opposites are alone together at the end of the film.

Warners had purchased the film rights to the novel in the late 30's, as a possible project for its top serious actor Paul Muni. When initial plans didn't pan out it stayed on the back burner until 1940 when Edward G. Robinson was cast as the blackhearted captain and the studio's top adventure director Michael Curtiz was slated to direct. Casting for George Leach wasn't as simple. Warners offered the role to another of it's top gangsters, George Raft, but Raft thought it too small a role, saying in a letter to producer Hal Wallis: "My dear Mr. Wallis, just read Sea Wolf [script]. You told me in your office [that the role of Leach] would be a fifty-fifty part. I'm sorry to say that it is just the opposite." This from the man who also refused the lead roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, propelling Humphrey Bogart to stardom. Others considered for the secondary but meaty role of Leach were Bogart and Arthur Kennedy until a studio up and comer, John Garfield was chosen.

The cast was superb, as was the production staff behind the camera. Sol Polito's atmospheric cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s haunting score were a perfect complement to Curtiz' brisk pacing. In a year filled with top quality entertainment, Oscar time was tight, but The Sea Wolf did garner one nomination for Best Effects, Special Effects. The film is arguably a masterpiece at just under 90 minutes. Newly installed fog machines, first used the previously year for Errol Flynn's latest swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, added even more gloomy, stifling ambience. Tying all these elements together was Robert Rossen's literate and forceful script.

As the subtitle of this post states, The Sea Wolf is an unsung classic. Many have never seen it and others only heard of it, which is unfortunate, because for those who love older films, especially those with a distinctive Warner Brothers stamp, this film is a great example of all that is good about classic Hollywood. It doesn't have the glamour of the Flynn spectacles but that sparkle wouldn't feel at home on this schooner anyway.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Uncle Silas (1947): Gothic Thriller, British Style

Filmmaking in England during the 1940's, in many cases, was an adventure in visual design. Whether strong crayon coated Technicolor or chiroscuro laden black and white, the photography was exquisite and historical dramas were draped with period costumes and interiors that displayed the most intricate detail. Uncle Silas (1947), known in the United States as The Inheritance, is a perfect example of how these creative elements came together, along with atmospheric music and distinctive acting to fashion a stylized installment of 40's British cinema. It is an English Gothic thriller in the most traditional "Gothic" sense, with a dark, mysterious castle, hidden passages, and danger lurking around every musty, candle lit corner for its young and unsuspecting herione.

The film's star, Jean Simmons, was in the bloom of youthful beauty in 1947. She had played young Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations the previous year, appeared in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus the same year as this picture and would star as Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet the following year, quite a resume for an 18 year old young lady. In Uncle Silas Simmons plays Caroline Ruthyn, a teenaged heiress who goes to live with her mysterious uncle upon her beloved father's death. Silas (Derrick De Marney) is a creepy degenerate, shady past and all, who is after his niece's sizable fortune, unbeknownst to her. The damsel only sees a loving and exciting uncle until the veneer starts to crumble and her existence becomes one of a prisoner, her jailor the weird and rambuncteous Madame de la Rougierre (Katina Paxinou). Throw in Silas' amoral son and you have our fair maiden facing danger at every turn, with only Lord Richard Ilbury (Derek Bond) and a boy hero to come to her aid.

Uncle Silas is based on a novel of the same name by writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish author of eerie ghost stories. Directed by Charles Frank, who also directed the Simmons Victorian suspenser So Long at the Fair (1950), it features the moody cinematography of Robert Krasker (an Oscar winner in 1949 for The Third Man), whose lighting and camera shots produce pieces of Gothic art. Sharing the front of the camera with Simmons were scenery chewers Derrick De Marney and Katina Paxinou. A madwoman on speed, Paxinou is a Greek fireball letting it all hang out, literally eating every scene she is in with over the top face mugging and gesturing. These two make a ham dinner look like an after school snack. Seriously, De Marney's performance is more irritating than menacing. His character is supposed to reek of evil, but instead comes off silly and annoying. The pair are cut some slack merely because the story itself is a melodrama of the old order, so that their pantomime performances seem to fit right in with all the shenanigans.

There are times when the movie's pacing is a bit slow, others where the suspense is high. With high marks on the visual and creative elements, mediocre ratings for De Marney and Paxinou's cartoon caricatures and fair to low scores for overall pacing, the film is still very watchable. As previously stated, it is a great example of the British playbill in the mid to late 40's and early 50's.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hold Back the Dawn (1941): Boyer, De Havilland and the Cockroach You Never Saw

Like so many classic films, Hold Back the Dawn is one of those that played on late night television back in the day but has an obscure status among younger fans of golden age movies.  Not as well known as higher profile pictures of its era, it is a solid classic nonetheless and deserves its rightful place as a bonefide gem.  Produced by Paramount in 1941, it is a unique and intriguing film with a backstory which is just as interesting, if not more so.

As the picture begins, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) is making his way across the lot of Paramount Pictures, obvious by his gait and expression, a man on a mission.  He is searching for, and eventually finds, director Mitchell Leisen, to whom he wants to sell his story, hoping for some fast money.  As his tale unfolds we discover the reason for his need of a quick buck.

Iscovescu is a Rumanian ballroom dancer cum gigolo, who finds himself in Tijuana, Mexico, trying, like so many others in the town, to get into the U.S.  He bumps into his ex-dancing partner, sexy vixen Anita Dixon (played by sexy vixen Paulette Goddard).  She explains that, as a girl of mixed international heritage (she is half Australian, half French), she got her American citizenship via quick marriage (and subsequent quick divorce) to an unsuspecting native.  Her tale gets Iscovescu's sordid wheels turning and he roams the streets of the Mexican border town in search of marital prey from the USA.  Enter Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a young, spinster-ish American schoolteacher.  The suave heel uses all his European charms, along with his thickest accent, to woo the wide eyed innocent into a whirlwind wedding.  What he doesn't realize is that U.S. immigration agent (Walter Abel) is in town, sniffing out fraud and his radar is on Georges in full force.

Hold Back the Dawn
was directed by Leisen, a former set and art director, whose peak years at Paramount these were.  Like George Cukor, his directing style favored the leading ladies in his films and his design background added an elegant visual element to his pictures.  With Dawn, the setting is a dusty, hot border town in Mexico, not exactly the Ritz.  Yet Leisen conveyed a certain sophistication in both character development and camera work, which was matched by the writing of master team Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.  There was, however, no love lost between Leisen and Wilder.  Their feuds over script changes are well documented and, like Preston Sturges before him, were the impetus for Wilder becoming a director in his own right.  One of the more explosive incidents during filming involved a scene where Boyer had to talk to a cockroach in his depressing, isolated hotel room.  The scene was a commentary on Iscovescu's immigration status, with the bitter emigre asking to see the roach's "papers."  Boyer thought the scene was degrading and refused to play it.  Leisen sided with the star, infuriating Wilder.  With the scene cut, Wilder and Brackett exacted their revenge on Boyer by rewriting the remaining scenes of the movie in favor of his leading lady de Havilland.  With the attention devoted to the actress by Leisen, the last portion of the script tipped in her direction and her own talent allowed to blossom in a quality production, de Havilland ended up with her first Best Actress Oscar nomination (she had been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind).

Olivia de Havilland's casting in the film was an ironic aspect to the production.  Screenwriter Charles Brackett had the actress in mind when penning the script, though her home studio, Warner Brothers, rarely loaned its stars and never without a hefty price tag.  The studio, however, was interested in Paramount star Fred MacMurray for a film called Dive Bomber that it was planning.  When negotiations began for MacMurray's services, Warners offered a list of its contractees as a trade off.  Olivia's name was on the list.  Paramount half heartedly accepted the actress in a swap with MacMurray, getting exactly what they wanted at no extra expense.  De Havilland's ironic inclusion in Hold Back the Dawn didn't end there.  Her Oscar nominated status was shared that year by her equally famous sister, Joan Fontaine.  Fontaine was nominated for Suspicion, a romantic suspense thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Their sibling rivalry in Tinsel Town was exacerbated by this competition and the personal rift was only widened when Fontaine was proclaimed the winner on Oscar night (pictured above).

The film is a reflection on the community of American citizen wannabes in Tijuana during the 1930's and 1940's as much as it is on the plight of the main characters.  Rosemary de Camp gives a poignant portrayal as a pregnant European who, along with her husband, is awaiting her final entry papers, desperate that her baby be born on United States soil.  It is also interesting to see the interaction of American citizens making day trips across the border.  These lighthearted visits by tourists are a proverbial slap in the face to those pining to cross the ever taunting border.  Not to pass over the always lovely Paulette Goddard, her Anita is a fiery contrast to the more wholesome charms of de Havilland's Emmy.  In fact, there is a certain irony that Emmy comes across so hum-drum at first, as Olivia de Havilland is so physically appealing, a fact not lost on Anita during their face to face meeting.

Hold Back the Dawn
was also nominated by the Academy as Best Picture, a deserved recognition.   An absolute perfect cast, good direction and writing, make it a film which should be viewed and remembered in the annals of classic movie history.  Catch it if you can.

*Note:  The film being shot by Mitchell Leisen at the beginning of Hold Back the Dawn is I Wanted Wings starring Veronica Lake, and actually Paramount release in 1941.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Paid (1930): Joan Goes to Jail

One of the first names that comes to mind when thinking of classic Hollywood is Joan Crawford.  Her amazing career spanned six decades and the longer she made films, the more iconic she became.  As an icon, she sometimes morphed into a caricature of her own screen image.  The eyes bulging under uber heavy, arched brows and lips painted deep crimson, twisted into a melodramatic snarl.  But long before she was Mildred Pierce, Harriet Craig or even Crystal Allen, displaying her learned screen affectations and perfect diction, she was a burgeoning MGM starlet, a movie queen in training.  Her pre-code shop girl was a box office bonanza.  In 1930, after years of being everyone's favorite flapper, Joan made the film Paid, her first real dramatic attempt and it was both a personal and professional success, ranking her in the top tier at Metro.

In Paid, Crawford plays Mary Turner, a young shop clerk who is falsely accused of theft by her department store boss.  As she is literally dragged off to prison, she dramatically declares vengeance against her heartless oppressor.  While in the pokey, she studies law books and meets up with a tough talkin' toots named Agnes Lynch (Marie Prevost).  Upon her release she joins up with "Aggie", who introduces her to Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong), a longtime crook with a smart mouth.  With these two seedy characters, Mary uses what she learned in jail and plans a scam called the "heart balm" racket, where unsuspecting older men are sued for breach of promise, a legal form of blackmail.  The bitter lass carries her revenge even further and closer to home by marrying the son of her former boss, who was responsible for her imprisonment.

Directed by Sam Wood, who had joined MGM just a few years earlier, the movie was based on the play Within the Law by Bayard Veiller.  It was originally slated to star Norma Shearer, the queen of the Metro lot, but when she became pregnant, the role was open.  Crawford pleaded with her bosses to give her the part and Irving Thalberg (Shearer's husband and second in command at the studio) gave her the chance she needed to put her "Dancing Daughter" days behind her.

Paid was a hit and to show his gratitude, head honcho Louis B. Mayer gave Joan a financial boost.  She received a $10,000 bonus with a note that read:  "In appreciation of the co-operation and excellent services rendered by you, we take great pleasure in handing you your check made payable to your order in the amount of $10,000...this does not affect the terms of your contract dated November 2, 1928."  Not bad for a shopgirl.

The film also marked the debut of Douglass Montgomery, billed here as Kent Douglass, who played Bob, the innocent who Mary Turner weds to get her ultimate revenge.  It's fun to watch Crawford here, honing her craft and giving a good performance before she would ultimately become JOAN CRAWFORD.  She and co-star Marie Prevost would become friends during the filming of Paid and remain so until Prevost's untimely death in 1937 of acute alcoholism.  Among a collection of empty liquor bottles detectives found a promisory note of $110 to Crawford and it was reported that it was Joan who paid for the funeral.

Friday, January 4, 2013

These Three (1936): It's a Lie! (or Is It?)

In many cases films of 1930's American cinema are very stylized, by that I mean they fall very squarely into a specific genre. Astaire/Rogers musicals follow a formula of boy meets girl meets dancing (charming boy, lovely girl, amazing dancing mind you). Shirley Temple movies were just that, perky Temple plunked down in the middle of a sweet and sentimental situation. Gangster thrillers were tough guys with tough talk and a lot of bullots in between. Much of the acting was over the top (wonderfully so in most cases) and many of the characters even more animated.

The collaboration of producer Samuel Goldwyn with director William Wyler created films during this period that, unlike the mainstream themed picture, were independent in spirit, exceptional in technical expertise. The first of the Goldwyn/Wyler successes was a very sophisticated adult drama called These Three (1936). Both powerful and compelling, the film was based on Lillian Hellman's debut play, The Children's Hour, a gripping look at the consequences surrounding a child's lie that her two schoolmistresses are lesbian lovers. Goldwyn bought the film rights to the play aware that the Hays board of Hollywood censors would never allow him to use either its title or its sapphic storyline. However, he hedged his bets by also hiring Hellman to write the screenplay. The lesbian angle was changed from sexual relations between the two female teachers to a heterosexual love triangle with one teacher allegedly committing an indescretion with the other's intended, a local doctor.

Hellman's play was partially based on a court case in 19th century Scotland and on Broadway it ran for 691 performances. It was a real heavy hitter and even with a somewhat "sanitized" version set for movie audiences, it packed a wallop as Hellman successfully tried to illustrate that the power of the story came from the damage a lie can create rather than the nature of the lie. The cast was headed by screen stars who would become Goldwyn regulars. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the slandered teaching duo were played by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins respectively, while Joel McCrea was cast as the third leg of the titular triangle. All three gave fine performances, Hopkins and Oberon arguably the best of their careers. The physical and personality differances between "these two" complemented the picture. If Oberon had been paired with Kay Francis or Hopkins with Carole Lombard, there might have been an imbalance of sorts. Saying this however, it seems less likely that Oberon's elegant, soft spoken Karen and Hopkins earthy and somber Martha would become bosom chums as undergrads.

The supporting cast is outstanding. Catherine Doucet as Martha's worthless leech of an aunt. Marcia Mae Jones as a timid pupil, terrorized into complicity of the lie. Margaret Hamilton, whose small but notable role as a maid won't be forgotten. Alma Kruger as wealthy matron, Mrs. Tilford, whose influence in the community causes the downfall of the reputation of those involved and juvenille actress Bonita Granville. As the prepubescent monster Mary Tilford, Granville was as evil a villain as 30's audiences had experienced, giving Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill or Conrad Veidt a run for their sinister money. Her natural blond hair was darkened to convey a more threatening persona, but her strong performance required no such physical pretense and she was nominated at age 13 for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first year the Academy offered the award (Gale Sondergaard won the prize that year).

The movie met critical acclaim including Britain's Graham Green who wrote: "I have seldom been so moved by any fictional film as by These Three. After 10 minutes or so of the usual screen sentiment, quaintness and exaggeration, one began to watch with incredulous pleasure nothing less than life." William Wyler remade the film 25 years later under its original title and with the original lesbian theme intact (and with Miriam Hopkins in the supporting role of Aunt Lily). It was a pale comparison to the '36 version, Wyler's direction and Hopkins' presence notwithstanding.


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