Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ringing Out the Old: 15 Posts from 2009

Classic Movies Digest went online in late March of 2009 and in the nine months since its inception, much has been covered in the way of classic movies, so much more has not....yet. Great response has been given by the blogs readers and as a reflection on the past year as it concerns CMD, I wish to offer you the highlights from 2009.

The following are 15 posts which were deemed some of the more popular, by way of feedback through blog comments, Facebook and/or Twitter comments, notes sent via e-mail and page hits. They also include some of my personal favorites. The order in which they are listed is random and each title is clickable in order for you to easily catch any post you may have missed.

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In Like Flynn
    One of the most memorable films since its release in 1938, The Adventures of Robin Hood cemented the stardom of Errol Flynn and made a bundle for Warner Brothers. Technicolor extraordinaire!

  • The Glass Key (1942): Lake and Ladd in Hardboiled Hammett
    A classic crime drama from Paramount, the film re-teamed Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a red hot pairing who became an iconic Hollywood on-screen couple.

  • The Many Faces of Those Glorious Character Actors
    By far one of the most popular posts of the year, Character Actors showcases some of the marvelous supporting players who make the films from Hollywood's Golden Age, the well rounded, multi faceted stories they should be.

  • Black Narcissus: Technicolor Masterpiece
    A cinematic masterpiece from British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is brilliant in almost every way. Even if nuns in a remote convent aren't your cup of tea, you might be surprised.

  • 42nd Street: Brother, Can You Spare a Dame
    "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star." That's the famous line Warner Baxter said to dancer Ruby Keeler in this classic Depression-era musical, and she did! Both on screen and off.

  • George Sanders: A Scoundrel for All Seasons
    Readers either love to hate this suave cad or hate to love him but regardless they made this post spotlighting the urbane actor very popular.

  • Bride of Frankenstein: A Toast to Gods and Monsters
    Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester make electricity of the most morbid sort in this classic horror flick from Universal Studios. One of the most creative and intriguing films of its genre.

  • 13 Classic Movies I've Never Seen ...But Really Want To
    A post with a personal slant, it arguably got the most response than any other Classic Movies Digest entry in 2009. A final update on this post is planned for January 2010.

  • Scarlet Street (1945): Classic Film Noir
    Film noir at its finest. A femme fatale, murder, sex and Edward G. Robinson in a frilly apron. You gotta see this one.

  • My Darling Clementine: An American Classic
    John Ford's poetic western, climaxing at the legendary OK Corral. Fonda, Mature and Darnell are great but Ford's direction and the gorgeous photography are the stars here.

  • Laura (1944): Sophisticated Murder
    Gene Tierney became synonymous with her title character in Laura. The most stylish murder mystery of the 1940's, it made a star of Tierney and didn't hurt Dana Andrews or Clifton Webb either.

  • Judy Garland: Before the Yellow Brick Road
    With all that's been written about the superstar, this post touches on her early innocent days, before booze and pills took their toll. A young girl on the cusp of stardom.

  • A Letter to Three Wives: Is It Your Husband?
    With A Letter to Three Wives, master screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz put dialogue and direction together to create a sublime slice of middle class Americana. Sharp and witty, Mankiewicz' Wives set the stage for his greatest work the following year, All About Eve.

  • The Innocents (1961): Spectres of Complexity
    The classic ghost story based on Henry James' novel. Deborah Kerr gives one of her finest performances as a timid governess who may or may not be seeing spirits. Classy and spooky in every respect.

  • The Awful Truth: Grant, Dunne and a Dog Named Smith
    One of the funniest and most clever screwball comedies to come out of the genre, The Awful Truth stars comedic greats Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as perfect foils for one anothers mishaps. As a divorcing couple still in love, they are A #1.

There you have it. It's been a fun year (or should I say nine months) here at Classic Movies Digest and I hope the coming year will be even more so. Check out the next post to find out some great stuff CMD has in store for 2010. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945): It Ain't Gabriel

When The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) was released by Warner Brothers in 1945, it was a major box office dud. The comedy-fantasy just wasn't what audiences nearing the end of World War II were looking for. The financial failure was so profound that its star, Jack Benny, used it as comic fodder for years to come on his radio and television shows, and whether or not it was a factor, Benny never made a starring feature again. But, although the film has a reputation for being unfunny, I strongly beg to differ. When I was young, The Horn Blows at Midnight played annually on New Years Eve, due to its theme of great change at the midnight hour. It is filled with one gag and/or joke after another, some timely, many timeless.

The story is cute as well as comedic. As the film starts we find Benny as a trumpet player in a radio station orchestra. The drifting tones of the radio commercial announcer put him to sleep and in his slumber he is transported to Heaven 1945-46 (that's what the screen says, really), where untold scores of angelic heavenly hosts make up the grandest orchestra ever to behold. This lighthearted view of kingdom come offers a corporate scenario of eternity ~ even a Hollywood studio in 1945 perhaps ~ where orders come from "the front office". In Heaven, Jack is a naive, slow witted angel named Athanael, who plays trumpet in the celestial symphony. His girlfriend, Elizabeth, secretary to "the Chief", recommends him for the job of destroying the planet Earth, which has gotten out of hand. The task of planet destruction usually goes to the demolition expert (Gabriel?) but Athanael is given the task, since the Earth is one of the lesser planets, whose creation was "merely a six day job....practically slapped together".

Using the elevator of the swanky Hotel Universe in New York City as his cosmic transport, Athanael descends to find two fallen angels turned playboys, who manage to dissuade the nit wit from his task of Armageddon. Now a fallen angel himself, the bemoaned bugler must make his way around the Big Apple as a babe in the wood, even losing his trusty trumpet to a waiter from "Joisy" because he didn't have enough of something called 'dollas' to pay for his meal.

Gorgeous Alexis Smith is at her glamorous prime as Elizabeth, the harpist/secretary with the heavenly figure. She is merely window dressing for Benny's jokes but displays much style and grace. Also on hand as a pretty trinket is beautiful blonde Dolores Moran, a Warners starlet who always raised the temperature in her scenes. The rest of the cast is simply littered with superb character actors, offering a veritable who's who of supporting players. Suave slimeball Reginald Gardiner; ranting curmudgeon Guy Kibbee; tough and dumb hood Mike Mazurki; classic Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont; Little Rascal cum Baretta Bobby Blake; and the incomparable fussy & prissy Franklin Pangborn, who nearly steals the show. As fallen angels Osidro and Doremus, Allyn Joslin and John Alexander are wickedly decadent, offering the ex-patriot Athanael a job peddling stolen ladies foundation garments ~ Osidro: "The job for you is hot girdles" Athanael: "But I don't know anything about a girdle, hot or cold...I don't even know what a girdle is!"

The Horn Blows at Midnight has become a cult classic of sorts, its virtues and value discovered over time. It's a wonderfully creative film and very 1940's modern. It's Warners version of ultra chic 1945 with laughs thrown in all around, not only verbally but with heavy dashes of slapstick as well, furnishing not one but two hilarious cliffhanging (literally) episodes atop the roof of the Hotel Universe at midnight when Athanael must blow his horn. Clever and engaging, The Horn Blows at Midnight would make a great Christmas/New Years Eve double feature with Christmas in Connecticut (also 1945 from Warners). Try it, you may like it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


For all the readers of Classic Movies Digest and classic film fans everywhere, here are a few reminders of the magic and glamour of Christmas past with a few of filmdoms most magical and glamorous stars. Merry Christmas to you all.

A peek at Betty Grable's fabulously famous gams as she spreads Yuletide cheer

Judy Garland and choir at MGM getting in the Christmas spirt in 1937

Who knew Bette Davis could be so colorfully festive at the holidays?

Beautiful Paulette Goddard by her tree....say, where's the mistletoe?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Cheaters (1945): Have You Seen It?

The bread and butter at Republic Pictures was its low budget westerns which were churned out at a breakneck pace, but on rare occasions, the studio would produce a quality "A" picture with more lavish sets, costumes and music than the dusty prairie afforded. The Cheaters (1945) is one example of Republic's foray into "A" movie territory. The film centers on the Pidgeon family, a snobbish set of eccentrics whose self-centered lives are infiltrated by an out of work ham actor, who they take into their home at Christmas. Facing financial ruin, the Pidgeons hatch a scheme to garner an inheritance, given by their wealthy uncle to an unsuspecting innocent actress. Between the family of crazies, the actor and the actress cum heiress the mayhem is rampant. There is a hint of My Man Godfrey (1936) in The Cheaters except with lesser known actors in a less cohesive package. Had this film been made at MGM with an A-list cast it would most assuredly be a well remembered classic.
As the actor, a charity case who is initially taken into the Pidgeon household as merely a shallow stunt, is noted stage thespian Joseph Schildkraut. The Austrian native had several notable screen roles before The Cheaters, even becoming the first non American Oscar winner as Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. His part as Anthony Marchand or Mr. M, as he is hailed by the Pidgeons, is no star maker, but his confidence and presence shines through. Billie Burke, best known on screen as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and off screen as Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld, plays the kind of role she became famous for, the flibbertigibbet social matron, for whom social standing, status and celebrity reign supreme. As Mrs. Pidgeon, she is a snob but not a vicious one, instead, she is frivolous, financially foolish and flighty.
Best known as bad girl Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939), Ona Munson is terrific as Florie Watson, a part originally slated for actress Binnie Barnes. Munson does a fine job as the down on her luck actress, who inherits a bundle. She is completely down to earth and world weary at the same time. Sadly, Munson would commit suicide ten years later in New York City. Also noteworthy are Eugene Pallette as the Pidgeon patriarch, Norma Varden, as his loyal if not cynical secretary and Anne Gillis as spoiled to the bone daughter Angela (think Veda from Mildred Pierce in a comedy, if you can!).

The film's director, Joseph Kane, was Republic's top western man, but occasionally took the helm of some of their other more ambitious projects, such as The Cheaters. Repackaging for television in the 1950's, the movie became known as The Castaway and was chopped down to an hour. Long lost to many classic movie fans, the film resurfaced on Turner Classic Movies in December 2008.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Christmas and Stanwyck, These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

Unlike Remember the Night (1940), the Christmas flick starring Barbara Stanwyck, which is relatively unknown to the masses, Christmas in Connecticut is a Yuletide offering with Stanwyck that gains more of a following with each passing year. The highly successful actress, professional to a fault and proficient in both heavy drama and screwball comedy, created in this film, a character whose stylish sense of humor has charmed classic film lovers for over 60 years. In fact, the film itself has every bit of style and panache today ~ if not more so ~ as it did in 1945, when it was released by Warner Brothers. Even the department store delivery girl is chic and modern when she ushers in Stanwyck's swanky mink coat.

A Christmas Eve staple for decades, Christmas in Connecticut features Babs as Elizabeth Lane, author of a wildly popular homemaking column in the fictional magazine Smart Housekeeping. However, as it turns out, the Martha Stewart of her day is a complete fake and hasn't a domestic bone in her cosmopolitan body, and when her publisher asks her to play hostess to a young attractive war hero for Christmas, all heck breaks loose. The cast of characters, which is perfect to a fault, rings in the holiday with complete hilarious abandon, making each successive viewing more familiar and more smile inducing.

Barbara is joined in the merriment by Dennis Morgan as Jefferson Jones, the sailor, whose obvious charms entice both a Navy hospital nurse (Joyce Compton) and our magazine darling. But he's not alone, the cast is bulging at the seams with delightful talent including the rotund Sidney Greenstreet as Stanwyck's abominable boss Alexander Yardley, who huffs and puffs his way from Long Island to Connecticut, eating anything he can get his hands on along the way. And speaking of jolly fat men (no, HE'S not in this movie), this film offers double duty with S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall joining Greenstreet in a corpulent clique. As Uncle Felix, the Hungarian Sakall's verbal massacre of the English language is matched only by his deadpan delivery of it. When he is informed of the definition of the word catastrophe, it leaves his mouth pronounced "cat'e stroph" ~ no final "e" ~ in the thickest Hungarian accent imaginable and used often at the most opportune times. Joyce Compton is a peach as Nurse Mary Lee, who orchestrates the whole fiasco in an attempt to nab a marriage proposal from "Jeffy Boy" (Morgan). Reginald Gardiner, Una O'Connor and Frank Jenks round out the top notch ensemble.

So much of the dialogue in Christmas in Connecticut is devoted to food. Stanwyck, the "fabulous cook" who can't even boil water basically depends on Uncle Felix, a fabulous restaurateur, for sustenance. The portly gourmet delivers to her door a "yummy mushroom omelette" after her own attempts at breakfast yield a tin of sardines! It is from Felix that she obtains the copy for her magazine cavalcade of culinary delights. " I took crisp lettuce, romaine, and crinkly endive from my own garden for my husband's favorite salad. For this I made a rich, creamy blue cheese dressing. Then to prepare roast duck his favorite way, I rub salt and pepper on the inside, then brown the duck in its own fat..." The gastronomic references continue with Mr. Yardley's refusal to partake in his doctor's recommended Christmas menu: mashed prune whip and creamed turnip fluff. I'd pass too. But the epicurean descriptions add a festive holiday element displayed throughout the movie, an element enhanced by several snowy horse drawn sleigh rides ( jingle bells included). Stanwyck, Morgan and the rest of the crew combine to make Christmas in Connecticut a light and fluffy holiday confection, which if missed would be "cat' e stroph."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Bishop's Wife (1947): Story of a Well Tailored Angel

"This is a picture calculated to make an audience leave the theatre with a good feeling. It has a warmth and charm that makes believable the fantasy and has been put together with complete understanding by all involved." That is how the entertainment trade paper Variety began its review of The Bishop's Wife in November 1947. It is an apt statement to make for what has become a perennial holiday favorite. Many films move us on a personal level but Christmas movies hit us right at the heart for whatever the reason. They elicit such good and warm memories, whether as in my case it was watching them with parents, grandparents and other loved ones as a youth or simply having them playing in the background during holiday gatherings or decorating the tree. They are like old friends and to enjoy them at Yuletide becomes a tradition of sentiment not to be underrated or scoffed at. Samuel Goldwyn's The Bishop's Wife is one such seasonal classic.

Could there be a more suave, debonair or charming angel than Cary Grant? The actor made the perfect Dudley, a heavenly messenger/guardian sent to answer a prayer for guidance given by Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), a clergyman torn between the financial politics of building a massively ornate and superficial cathedral and the emotional needs of his neglected wife and child (Loretta Young and Karolyn Grimes). A poignant story told with charm, humor and tons of Hollywood gloss, the film offers a cinematic respite from the commercial brouhaha presented in modern times.

However, the final product, known and loved by audiences today, was a far cry from that originally planned. Originally directed by William A. Seiter, he was replaced by Henry Koster (who eventually was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film). Koster in turn switched the actors playing the parts of Dudley and the bishop. You see, Grant was originally set to play Bishop Brougham and Niven, the charming angel. Can you imagine? Another casting change came with the replacement of Teresa Wright, who was originally set to play the title role but at the time of Seiter's firing, Wright discovered she was pregnant and Loretta Young was cast. As the star trio settled into their respective roles, it became apparent that each was perfectly suited to his or her part.

The supporting cast appeared to be "heaven sent" as well, offering an assortment of characters from the wonderful Gladys Cooper, as the snobbish Mrs. Hamilton, a wealthy parishioner, whose money the bishop hopes to use in order to build his shiny new cathedral, to James Gleason as Sylvester, a friendly, down to earth cabbie, who admires Dudley's zest for life. There's also Elsa Lanchester, as the bishop's maid, Matilda. Her sense of flighty and giddy cannot be beat. There are also some carry overs from the previous years holiday offering, It's a Wonderful Life. Karolyn Grimes, Zuzu in the Capra classic, appears as the bishop's daughter Debby, while one of the boys Grimes meets playing in the snow is Bobby Anderson, young George Bailey in Life. Also on hand from Bedford Falls is Sara Edwards, who played Mary Bailey's mother, Mrs. Hatch, this time around playing a church organist.

The film is laced with touching sentimental vignettes, sure to set the mood for any lighting of the tree. When Grant's Dudley relates the Biblical story of David to young Debby, he ends his tale with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm to a captivated audience which includes the bishop's entire household. The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir sings O Sing to God, ushering in the Christmas spirit and raising goosebumps along the way and Cary even gets in on the musical feel good, playing a harp solo ~ what else would an angel play ~ of "Lost April", a beautiful composition by musical director Emil Newman (Grant was actually dubbed by musician Gail Laughton).

Not to be forgotten are Monty Wooley as a gruff professor who experiences the joys of the season after meeting the urbane angel, Sara Haden, as the bishop's secretary, Mildred Casaway and Gregg Toland's magnificent cinematography. Cary Grant was paid a handsome sum to play the handsome angel but for audiences of the day as well as those in the present, it was money well spent.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Young in Heart (1938): Charming Charletons

Not to be confused with Young at Heart, a 1954 musical starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, The Young in Heart (1938) is a delightful, almost forgotten comedy produced by master showman David O. Selznick. Although not a holiday related film, The Young in Heart is often shown during the Christmas season and its theme of love, faith and generosity changing hard hearts into soft, is perfect for this time of year (actually any time of year).

The Carletons are a family of charming cons, grifters of the highest order, on the make for the biggest bundle they can find. The foursome includes father Carleton or Sahib (Roland Young), as he is called, due to his fictional background in India (sahib is an Indian term of respect which refers to European men stationed in India during its colonial period); mother Carleton or Marmee (Billie Burke), yes, as in the affectionate maternal moniker given in Little Women; dashing son Rick (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.); and clever daughter George-Anne (Janet Gaynor), whose mentally at the helm of the pack of charismatic mercenaries. Tossed out of Monte Carlo (or as it is called via screen text at the film's beginning ~ The Riviera: Coney Island with a Monocle) by the authorities for shady dealings, the Carletons head to London, homeless and penniless, but magnificently tailored. En route, they meet a very kind but very lonely and more importantly, very wealthy old lady aptly named Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree). She is taken by the striking group (in more ways than one) and desolate about her solitude, invites them to stay with her at her London mansion. As part of a grand ruse, the mooching menagerie moves in with the old gal and starts acting responsibly, the men even gaining employment, something they've never known. Paulette Goddard and Richard Carlson play Fairbanks and Gaynor's sweethearts respectively.

Not a big box office hit, nor a much viewed classic in recent years, in 1938 The Young in Heart was overshadowed at the Selznick studios by the pre-production of the producer's mega project Gone with the Wind (1939). In his autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. devotes a mere quarter of a page to his contribution to the film. Paulette Goddard, a neighbor of David Selznick and hopeful for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in his film, was put under personal contract to the producer and cast in The Young in Heart. Married to Charlie Chaplin at the time*, Goddard made her feature debut in his silent classic Modern Times two years earlier and Heart would be her sound debut in a featured role (the vivacious actress had bit parts and was a chorus girl in some early musicals). Also making their debut is Richard Carlson, an actor who became a staple in Hollywood as a dependable second lead in several fine productions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, first billed Janet Gaynor would make this her last film before retirement and marriage to costume designer Adrian (although she would make one more film, Bernardine in 1957). Famous as the first actress to win a Best Actress Oscar, Gaynor was at the height of her career when choosing to leave films.

Roland Young and Billie Burke, as the wacky, ditsy heads of the Carleton family, reunited in this film after making a splash in the previous years ghostly comedy Topper. They would again make funny as daffy marrieds in the two Topper sequels. Fluttery Burke adds just the touch of feather brained whimsy for which she is famous. As the key figure of Miss Fortune, Selznick wanted to use famous Broadway stars Maud Adams and Laurette Taylor and both actresses even made a screen test but in the end, they passed on the opportunity and little known Minnie Dupree was cast, giving a charming performance as the spinster with the heart of gold.

As awards go, the clever comedy was nominated for Oscars in the Music and Cinematography categories. Much thought to detail and resources were put into The Young in Heart and the great deco sets are superb. Speaking of design, the car in which the Sahib attempts to sell as his livelihood, the "Flying Wombat", was actually a 1938 Corsair and was designed by Rust Heinz, member of the famed Heinz Ketchup family. Reported cost in 1938 dollars to produce the car...$24,000! Unfortunately, with Heinz death, plans to complete the auto never materialized.

* For more on the Charlie Chaplin ~ Paulette Goddard Marriage you may want to check out, "The Chaplin/Goddard Marriage: Was It Legal?"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Remember the Night (1940): Unsung Christmas Classic

Classic movie lovers know Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (complete with blonde wig) as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, the adulterous murderous duo in the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944), but four years before they became the duplicitous pair of nasty doings, the stars made a little remembered Christmas film ironically called Remember the Night. Each brought their own brand of star power and persona to their roles in the Preston Sturges written flick, MacMurray as a strong and low key hero caught up in the whirlwind that is Stanwyck in a jam.

Set on Christmas Eve in New York City, MacMurray plays a prosecuting attorney who feels sorry for shoplifting Stanwyck (and what a piece she nabs!) after he requests a continuance for her case, causing her to be faced with jail time over the holiday. Softhearted Fred (who I'm sure noticed Barbara's gams in court) works it out with a bail bondsman to get the comely crook out until after the new year. Mistaking the attorney's intentions, the bondsman ~ accurately called 'Fat Mike' ~ gets Stanwyck out of jail and hauls her over to MacMurray's digs. Having been up this street before, the hard boiled dame plays along but the attorney on his way to his mother's farm for Christmas, is flustered and bumbling (as MacMurray does so well). Realizing Fred isn't the wolf she assumed, Babs wants to stay with him and with no where else to go, tags along with him to experience the down home, warm spirit of the season she'd never known before.

Made at Paramount Studio and directed by Mitchell Leisen, the film has alot going for it creatively. Leisen, one of the studio's top directors during this period, had a background in set and art direction and his attention to detail always showed in his films. The leisurely pace of some of the scenes allows for the viewer to linger over the scenario and take it all in to its full effect without being rushed. A fine example is the exchange between Stanwyck's Lee and MacMurray's Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) while dressing for a holiday barn dance. There isn't alot of dialogue between the two actors as Patterson helps Stanwyck into a corset and reminisces over her lost love of more than a quarter of a century, but the feeling is there and the pathos and sentiment is powerfully felt. One scene to which the pace is an extreme detriment in this blogger's eyes at least, is one played out by Stanwyck's defense attorney. His tirade of comic courtroom defense seems to go on as endlessly as a wedding toast given by the groom's boorish and long winded second cousin, once removed! This performance aside, the film is both charming and touching.

One noteworthy outcome of Remember the Night is the emergence of Preston Sturges as a writer/director. Upset that his script for the film was cut and jumbled about by director Leisen, he was determined to go out on his own to direct his own scripts. When Paramount gave him the chance later the same year, he did just that with The Great McGinty, winning an Oscar for his screenplay and establishing himself as a top talent in Hollywood. He was so impressed with Barbara Stanwyck that he told her that he would write a screwball comedy just for her and the following year did so with The Lady Eve. Leisen was also impressed with the ultra professional Miss Stanwyck and in one account claimed by the director, Stanwyck stayed tied up in all the tight fitting garb for the corset scene for over an hour just in case she was needed before her performance was required.

Along with Patterson's Aunt Emma, Beulah Bondi adds a homespun touch as MacMurray's loving and supportive mother. Always the eternal maternal (unless she played the eternal spinster, of course), Bondi is lighthearted and lays the groundwork for her portrayal of Ma Bailey in Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Sterling Holloway is a bit irritating as Willie, the lazy/hyperactive (depending on the circumstances) farm hand to the elder femmes, but taken into context, Bondi and Patterson help him carry his scenes to completion. MacMurray and Stanwyck, two personal favorites, make the film glide with charm, both of the humorous and sentimental variety. Among the numerous holiday films, both modern and classic, on exhibition this season, my hope is that Remember the Night is added to the must see repertoire of classic movie fans.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wuthering Heights (1939): I Am Heathcliff!

As yet another representative of Hollywood's golden year of 1939, when so many American films of high quality and popularity were produced, Wuthering Heights ranks in the upper echelons of that illustrious year. One of the fine productions of the late 30's by producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler, theirs was a superb match for quality artistic filmmaking, as was shown in their earlier collaborations, Dodsworth (1936), These Three (1936) and Dead End (1937).

Wuthering Heights is considered one of the great romantic films of classic Hollywood. Based on the 1847 novel by Emily Bronte, its literary roots were transferred to the screen by way of famed writing team Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht with pre-directing days John Huston along for the screenwriting ride. The film only covers half of Bronte's book, leaving out the second generation's story completely. None the worse for the omission, Heights is a masterpiece of movie making and the winner of the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Film of 1939 ~ beating out Gone with the Wind and all the other timeless classics of that year.

With so many good aspects to the movie, one to note is the performance of Laurence Olivier. Years after the film was released, the actor credited William Wyler for helping him with his performance by reining in his stage method and taking a more subtle approach on film. It wasn't easy though and there were tensions on the set, both with Olivier and Wyler, as well as co-star Merle Oberon. Although Olivier's Heathcliff isn't an outstanding performance, it is his presence that so defines Wyler's variation of the role, not Bronte's. The film created a Gothic heartthrob, not necessarily a gypsy devil of the moors, as depicted by Bronte's book. It certainly created a star in Laurence Olivier, who followed his Heathcliff role up with yet another famous literary character, Maxim deWinter in Hitchcock's Rebecca the following year. He and Oberon are the definitive Heathcliff and Cathy, as this film is the definitive cinematic version.

The classic tale is set in 19th century England. It relates the story of Heathcliff, a dark and brooding gypsy boy, found starving in Liverpool by wealthy and kind hearted Mr. Earnshaw and brought to live with he and his children, Hindley and Cathy. Hindley, jealous of his father's love for the orphan, despises Heathcliff, while young Cathy loves the wild boy, and he in turn loves her. As they grow, the hate between Hindley and Heathcliff also grows, as does the love between Heathcliff and Cathy. Torn between her love for Heathcliff and the material pleasures offered to her through a marriage with a neighboring aristocrat, Edgar Linton (David Niven), Cathy confides to her housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) that it would degrade her to marry her low born lover, unaware that he is listening at the door. When Heathcliff runs away after this revelation, Cathy, realizing the mistake she has made, marries Linton and resides in comfort and luxury at the neighboring estate with her husband and his young sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald). After a significant time, the brooding and vengeful anti-hero returns, affluent and refined and ready to repay old grudges with blackhearted vengeance. After paying the mounted gambling debts accrued by the constantly drunken Hindley, Heathcliff buys his estate, Wuthering Heights, out from under him and allows him to remain there to be tormented. When he is rebuffed by the now married Cathy, even though she still loves him, he woos and marries young Isabella, only to make her and the rest of the complicated melange miserable.

British stage star Olivier wasn't so keen to play the role initially. Earlier experiences in Hollywood hadn't been particularly pleasant ones and even more, his then lover, Vivien Leigh, had been rejected for the role of Cathy in favor of Oberon, who was under contract to producer Goldwyn. Leigh was offered the lesser role of Isabella but rejected it as too dull (she went on later that year to play the greatest role Hollywood had to offer...Scarlett O'Hara). However, after re-reading the quality script and with encouragement from Leigh, Olivier accepted.

Famed cinematographer Gregg Toland's camera work takes a prominent place in the film's success. Deeply focus and expertly lit, this film was the precursor to his masterful work in 1941's Citizen Kane. Of his numerous Oscar nominations, including Kane, Toland's only win would come from Wuthering Heights. It was the first year the Academy divided the prize for both black and white and color work ~ Gone with the Wind won the color honor. Toland's cinematography was actually the only Academy Award won for the film, although it was nominated for a total of eight, including Best Picture, Best Director and the performances of Olivier and Fitzgerald.

Other versions of the famed novel have been filmed but none have come close to capturing the romance or aesthetic detail that the 1939 installment did. It made stars of its leads, increased the fine reputation of its creators and was wildly popular at the box office. In any other year, Wuthering Heights may well have been the picture of the season. Nonetheless, it is a classic to be revisited and enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Scarlet Street (1945): Classic Film Noir

Walter Wanger was a successful independent producer who in the 1940's was married to actress Joan Bennett. Bennett was in several Wanger productions from the the late 30's to 1940, when the pair married and the actress signed a non-exclusive contract with 20th Century-Fox studios. One of her first films under her Fox contract was Man Hunt (1941), an anti-Nazi yarn directed by German director Fritz Lang. Bennett, always a popular actress and when given the opportunity, one able to rise to the occasion in a challenging role, didn't have the acting credentials of many of her peers (though she came from a respected family of actors). However, under Lang's direction she blossomed and three years after Man Hunt she and Lang re-teamed to make The Woman in the Window, a sophisticated and stylish film noir co-starring Edward G. Robinson.

In early 1945, Wanger formed his own production company with Bennett and Lang as his partners in the venture. Named after Joan's eldest daughter, Diana Productions was created as an artistic outlet for Lang to direct and Bennett to star while Wanger handled the financial end. The films made under the Diana moniker would be released through Universal Studios. Thanks to her previous work with Lang, Joan Bennett was being taken much more seriously as an actress and her reputation as a sultry femme fatale was being established. This period was a high point for Joan, as her contract with Fox had just ended and she was an independent artist with part ownership in a production company developing films for her to star in.

As the company's premiere project, a remake of the French film La Chienne (1931) - The Bitch - was chosen. Directed by Jean Renoir, La Chienne was a dark story of a prostitute and her pimp taking advantage of a middle aged milquetoast. The new version was titled Scarlet Street and it was the perfect choice to showcase Bennett's new femme fatale image and a classic example of film noir, a genre of film growing in popularity. The roots of film noir are found in brooding crime dramas of the 1930's. They developed in the 1940's as stylized suspense thrillers, dark and dangerous, depicting society's underbelly and highlighted with murder and sex. Scarlet Street had all of the above with Fritz Lang's meticulous direction to boot.

The Woman in the Window had been a hit, so the films male stars, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea, joined forces with Bennett and Lang (pictured above on the set) again in Scarlet Street. The story revolves around the relationship between Christopher "Chris" Cross (Robinson) and Katherine "Kitty" March (Bennett). Chris is a meek cashier, married to a shrill harridan out of loneliness, whose only solace is painting pictures every Sunday (an act his shrewish wife only allows him to do in the bathroom of their small New York flat). On his way home one night in Greenwich Village, he rescues Kitty from an attacker, who, unbeknownst to Chris, is actually her boyfriend/pimp, a scuzball named Johnny Prince. After a late night drink and a little conversation, Chris takes Kitty for an actress instead of the tramp she is and becomes enchanted with her. She, in turn, mistakenly thinks Chris is a wealthy artist. At Johnny's prompting, Kitty tries to bilk her innocent admirer out of money he doesn't have. Believing the harlot loves him and afraid of losing her, Chris embezzles from his boss to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. Deceit, betrayal and greed only lead to tragedy for all involved.

Like Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson's career was also in full swing, having completed The Woman in the Window and another classic film noir, Double Indemnity the previous year. Christopher Cross was a variation on his Woman in the Window character, a married middle aged innocent who becomes entangled in a web of intrigue and murder because of a beautiful brunette of questionable character (also played by Bennett). Along with The Whole Town's Talking (1935), it was a great example of Robinson's acting range, being on the opposite end of the spectrum from the tough guy gangster roles that made him famous. Dan Duryea also reprised a similar role to his Window character. His Johnny Prince is wiry weasel of a brute who likes to knock his "girlfriend" around and with strong hints of sado-masicism, Bennett, as the girl, seems to be drawn to him all the more for it. To pass the board of film censors, the relationship between Bennett and Duryea's characters as prostitute and pimp was watered down as much as possible while still getting the point across.

Rumor has it that Bennett and Fritz Lang were lovers during this period. With the actress married to the films producer and the business partnership of the trio taken into account, it made form an odd venture. Still a highly successful one for all involved, particularly Joan Bennett. In Scarlet Street, she gives a solid performance, one of the best of her career. Kitty March is arguably the definitive role of the brunette portion of her long Hollywood tenure. *

*For more on how hair color played a role in Joan Bennett's career, read Joan Bennett: Do BLONDES Have More Fun?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Meet John Doe (1941): Frank Capra Takes On Facism

Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck. Frank Capra. All in their prime. What's not to like? Meet John Doe (1941) was made at a time when Hitler's reach was spreading throughout Europe and Capra, always the idealist, spoke to that reach through his film. With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made in 1939, the director ended his long term relationship with Columbia Pictures, a relationship which raised Columbia's standing in Hollywood significantly. Along with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith formed the two legs of an unofficial trilogy which represented Capra's signature filmmaking during this period. Meet John Doe formed the third leg, with Gary Cooper in the role of the common, every-man, aptly given the moniker John Doe. Barbara Stanwyck has the role played in the previous films by Jean Arthur, the cynical career gal who is eventually won over by the honest, innocent rube.

The movie tells the story of Long John Willoughby (Cooper), a down on his luck bush league baseball pitcher with a bum arm. He is plucked from hoboville to personify the fictional irate citizen John Doe, created by newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck). Per Ann's column, Doe, frustrated and disenchanted with society, threatens to jump off a high rise roof on Christmas Eve. After a deluge of response from those wanting to save/help Doe, Cooper is drafted as the disillusioned wretch incarnate. What starts out as a publicity stunt becomes a dark cloud over Cooper's conscience, when John Doe clubs are formed across the nation to spread his mantra of "Love Thy Neighbor" and the whole movement is threatened by a dark and ominous influence.

Cooper, relishing the opportunity of working with Capra again after their success with Deeds, signed onto the picture without seeing a script. This decision said alot for his enthusiasm to work with the director, as Cooper was riding high with a succession of recent hits and his Oscar winning Sergeant York, would be made the same year as John Doe. In turn, Capra wanted Cooper specifically for the lead role. The Capra-Cooper magic hit again with Doe, but not without a few snags. The film tends to get a little talky at times, such as when Cooper's eccentric hobo sidekick (Walter Brennan) goes on a tirade about the helots, his word for those who seek security and creature comforts and get caught up in the soft life. Capra gets a bit heavy handed with the lectures as well as with his classic "Capra-corn" sentiment, but what's wrong with a little sentiment, it hits all on some level.

As a Warner Brothers production being directed by Capra, the studio's reigning bombshell, Ann Sheridan was tagged for the Stanwyck role. Contract entanglements nixed the idea so thoughts roamed to Olivia de Havilland. When she didn't work out either, Stanwyck was cast. Always a good combination with Frank Capra, the gutsy Brooklyn born actress made several pre-Code films with the director at Columbia. Although not her best work, she and Cooper click and her obvious and immediate attraction to his character when they first meet is convincingly carried through the film. There is foreshadowed evidence of Elizabeth Lane, Stanwyck's character in 1945's Christmas in Connecticut, in her performance. As Lane's driving force is ownership of a stunning fur coat, the ambition of Stanwyck's Ann Mitchell is also grounded in material gain, much to her chagrin when her superficial desires interfere with her relationship with Cooper.

The supporting players are a veritable who's who of Hollywood's second tier. James Gleason as Stanwyck's cigar chomping, hard boiled newspaper boss. Walter Brennan as Cooper's crabby, harmonica playing side kick. Edward Arnold, wonderfully menacing as the power hungry Mussolini wannabe. Spring Byington as Stanwyck's good Samaritan mother. Regis Toomey as a small town soda-jerk, who with his wife, Ann Doran (oddly uncredited in a sweet and substantial performance) head one of the newly formed John Doe clubs. Even future cast members of Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Harry Holman and Sarah Edwards are on hand as Mayor and Mrs. Hawkins.

With no satisfactory ending agreed upon, several were filmed. Essentially this is one of the films flaws but doesn't detract from the overall quality of the movie. Though a tad overlong, Meet John Doe provides both an idealistic punch, as well as a great showcase for both its stars , particularly Gary Cooper. His quiet and simple approach to acting was used to perfect advantage and is a great complement to Stanwyck's brash city girl. Originally one of my "13 classic movies I've never seen but want to", I can happily say it is marked off my list in a most satisfactory way.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Public Enemy (1931): Cagney Gives a Bang Up Performance (and a Grapefruit Facial)

The gangster film of the 1930's belonged essentially to Warner Brothers studios. Other studios made occasional forays into Gangland but the genre was Warners baby. The decade began with the studio producing Little Caesar (1930), a powerful crime drama starring Edward G. Robinson. Then in early 1931 production was started on an even grittier picture which was to star Edward Woods as brutal hood Tom Powers and James Cagney as Tom's sidekick, Matt. Yet when early rushes were viewed by the film's director William Wellman, he felt Cagney would make a more effective Tom Powers and swapped the actors. The switch and the movie, The Public Enemy, put Cagney on the map and made him a superstar.

The film tells of the rise and fall of a Chicago hoodlum in the early 20th Century. Cagney's is a tour de force performance. He is a brutal, amoral, self-centered, cold blooded killer. Hot headed and cocky, Cagney's Tom has no respect for anyone, save his mother (Beryl Mercer) and even that is questionable. Much of the film's power comes from its proximity in time to real gangster activity in the United States. Like a "ripped from the headlines" story of present day, its grit and realism made a strong impact on Depression era audiences who were still in the midst of Prohibition. Yet with all the violence encompassed in The Public Enemy, any killing is done off screen, making the unseen even more heinous than the seen. Made well before the strict enforcement of Hollywood's self imposed Production Code, the film gets away with much in the way of violence and sexual overtones.

Another up and comer in the movie world to be featured was Jean Harlow. Although hers was a small role in terms of screen time, she smoldered and oozed sex, giving audiences a sneak peek of what she would offer in her MGM hits a few years later. The blonde bombshell was only 19 when The Public Enemy was filmed but she exuded the confidence and appeal of a woman many years older. Other females featured in the male dominated photoplay were the always delightful Joan Blondell and starlet Mae Clarke. Cute Blondell does fine with the handful of lines that she is given, but it is Miss Clarke, whose scene with Cagney shoving a grapefruit in her face at the breakfast table, who is best remembered. The grapefruit scene became an icon of Hollywood clips, shown in many retrospectives through the decades (Mae Clarke also starred in another classic 1931 film, the original Frankenstein, as Colin Clive's fiancee). Cagney recounts in his autobiography that Clarke's ex-husband, Lew Brice (brother to comedienne Fanny Brice) would often buy a ticket for the film, go into the theater, watch the grapefruit scene and leave.

As stated before, The Public Enemy shot James Cagney to stardom and made him a hot commodity at Warners, but it was at a price. The former hoofer and vaudevillian was typecast as a gangster for much of the 1930's despite colorful excursions in Footlight Parade (1933) and Warner's all-star A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). It wasn't until his Oscar winning role in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy that his full range was appreciated. However, his performance in The Public Enemy shouldn't be minimized as typecasting. His is a riveting portrayal, one can't take their eyes off his brutality and callousness, a menacing coil ready to spring into action at a moments notice, whether to kill in cold blood or shove citrus in his girlfriend's face.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"The Women" Revisited

Thirty-two years after the debut of the classic comedy The Women, two of its co-stars, silver screen divas Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford, greet one another at a soiree in 1971. Word has it that Joan and Paulette were much closer on the set than Joan was with MGM rival Norma Shearer.

Joan was already a veteran in Hollywood when The Women was produced, while Paulette was just on the cusp of stardom. By all accounts, director George Cukor had his hands full with his all female ensemble. Could you imagine being a fly on the wall of that set everyday?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Innocents (1961): Spectres of Complexity

From a solid black screen, the sound of a child, eerily singing an echoing lullaby is the first indication that the film that follows is one of a creepy and spine chilling nature. The screen remains blank for a full 44 seconds before the 20th Century-Fox studio logo slowly presents itself, the sing-song voice continuing in the background. Thus begins The Innocents (1961), a ghost story of high artistic quality. A work of psychological horror as opposed to physical. There is no gore, nor are there monsters. The principals involved are actually quite attractive; beautiful, charming children, the lovely albeit prim governess, even the ghost seen in close up is ruggedly handsome. All of which allows the imagination of the viewer to expand even further than if physical ugliness were laid before them.

When I first saw The Innocents, many years ago, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about it. I certainly didn't dislike it and I appreciated its paranormal themes, but its vagueness about some of these themes was something I wasn't used to as a teenager. However, upon later viewings with a more mature and discriminating eye, these ambiguities showed themselves as examples of masterful creativity on the part of producer/ director Jack Clayton. Clayton had been nominated for an Oscar two years prior for Room at the Top and was establishing himself as a quality director.

Based on Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film opens to an interview between a wealthy Victorian Englishman and Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), candidate for governess to his very young niece and nephew, who live away from him in his country estate. A self proclaimed "very selfish fellow," The Uncle, as he is billed, asks that the inexperienced caregiver take complete charge of the youngsters, as he wants no part in their upbringing. The former nanny, Miss Jessel, died and Miss Giddens would replace her as sole guardian. Upon her acceptance of the job, the attractive spinster is taken to the beautiful but solitary estate where she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the female half of her enchanting charge. Miles (Martin Stephens), Flora's brother is away at boarding school. Almost immediately, the governess receives word from the boy's school that he is expelled for corrupting the minds of the other lads. Mrs. Grose finds this impossible to believe, as she knows him as a spirited but innocent and loving boy. Upon his arrival home, the new governess finds Miles to be just as Mrs. Grose described; charming, outgoing and affectionate. They form a cheerful, caring bond, with Miss Giddens doting on the youthful pair.

The blissful existence discovered by the nanny is interrupted when strange occurrences take place in and around the manor house. The children become sly and secretive and Giddens starts to see a man around the place that she recognizes from a photo to be the former valet, Peter Quint. But as Mrs. Grose tells her, "It can't be, you see he's dead. Quint is dead." More eerie shenanigans and the vision of Miss Jessel looking very much alive lead to more questioning of Mrs. Grose, who reveals that the former governess and valet Quint were lovers. "Rooms, used by daylight as though they were dark woods." Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the two spirits are possessing the bodies of the children for their own evil purposes, but how can she eradicate them and save her precious wards?

The creepy nuances of The Innocents is well paced, moderately at first then building the suspense to a crescendo of rapid pace encounters of a dark nature. The music box melody from the films' introduction is sporadically scattered about for a most chilling effect. Another spooky scene is the eerie game of hide and seek between Miss Giddens, Flora and Miles. As the governess goes in search of the hidden tykes, she encounters in the decrepit, dusty attic, a toy clown jack in the box, the head of which is mysteriously bobbing about. The Gothic feel of the film is achieved with outstanding lighting and camera work. There are hints of Jane Eyre and even The Uninvited (1944), just as there are hints of this film in the 2001 Nicole Kidman yarn, The Others.

Deborah Kerr gives a memorable performance as Miss Giddens. The actress touches ever so slightly on her characters repressed sexuality and the scenes of the governess and young Miles in a mouth on mouth kiss are still considered racy even today. The Innocents was not the first nor the last time Kerr would play a governess. Five years earlier, she immortalized the role of Anna, governess to the royal children of Siam in The King and I and in 1964, she would again play caregiver to the young in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden. The child actors, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, were not allowed to see the entire script due to its adult nature. Their portrayals were eerily sublime and Franklin would go on to a fairly prosperous career. A role I found particularly favorable was that of young Flora's pet tortoise. His name is Rupert.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Boris Karloff: Did You Know?

His Frankenstein's Monster character is arguably the most recognizable horror icon in movie history. He appeared in well over 100 films and was a household name. Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in London in 1887. He made his way to America by way of Canada and was cast in dozens of films (mostly silent) before becoming infamous as The Monster in James Whale's 1931 classic Frankenstein. He and the movie were a smash hit and Karloff (as he was simply billed at times) was a star in the horror genre of film. He reprised his role twice in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) which co-starred Basil Rathbone.

Although his lengthy career included so much more both inside and outside the horror realm, even those roles are overshadowed by his signature character. The evil Oriental in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). An executed man back from the grave in The Walking Dead (1936; an excellent underrated thriller). Mord the Executioner in Tower of London (1939). James Lee Wong in the Mr. Wong mystery series. So many wonderful performances by a commanding and versatile actor.

To commemorate the life and career of this talented thespian, I wanted to point out a few interesting tidbits about Karloff that you may or may not know. What better time to honor the work of the original Monster than late October.
  • Karloff was married six times (talk about the Bride of Frankenstein!)

  • He is a great nephew of Anna Leonowens, whose life inspired the drama Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and the musical The King and I (1956)

  • He was an inspiration for the original illustrations of the Incredible Hulk

  • While filming Son of Frankenstein, the actor's daughter, Sara Karloff, was born on his 51st birthday

  • Despite his menacing screen persona, Karloff, a relatively mild mannered man, would often dress as Santa Claus for children's hospitals and parties for disabled tykes

  • He was a charter member of the Screen Actor's Guild

  • Due to his appearance in the stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace, he was unable to appear in the 1944 film version with Cary Grant and the part of Jonathon Brewster went to Raymond Massey

  • He was the narrator for the animated Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). When the tale was put to vinyl, Karloff won a Grammy in the Spoken Word category

Boris Karloff died in 1969 at the age of 81. His popularity with movie goers has only increased with passing time. His rich life and career centered around the ghouls that he created on film and that legacy continues as we enjoy his large body of work, both at this festive time as well as all year long.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Cat and the Canary (1939): Chills + Laughs = Hit!

When I was a senior in high school, I lobbied for our drama group to put on The Cat and the Canary for our annual production. We did and I was fortunate enough to win the part played by Bob Hope in the 1939 film version. It was alot of fun, though at the time, I'd never had the opportunity to see any of the film versions of this classic mystery. When I did finally see the movie, co-starring Paulette Goddard, it was just as much fun as I remembered my high school hijinks to be.

Released by Paramount in November 1939, The Cat and the Canary is one of the lesser remembered gems from that big movie year that ushered in Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and the like. It brought both its leads, Hope and Goddard, to the forefront of stardom and raked in a pretty nice profit for Paramount. Originally filmed as a silent in 1927, then again with sound as The Cat Creeps in 1930, The Cat and the Canary was based on a stage play by John Willard and was a take on the "old dark house" formula, which threw several people together in a spooky mansion of sorts with no means of escape and creepy shenanigans aplenty (Think And Then There Were None with laughs). The 1939 installment offered a winning combination of murder, mayhem and the madcap comedy of young Bob Hope, who plays Wally Campbell, one of a motley crew gathered at the eerie New Orleans estate of a dead relative for the reading of the old man's will. Paulette Goddard, stunning as usual, stars as Joyce Norman, the lucky stiff (did I say that?) who inherits the old boy's dough. The catch is if she is found to be insane, a second, separately named heir will get the loot. The codicil puts the beautiful heroine in a dangerous predicament.

Bob Hope had already been under contract to Paramount for a couple of years but hadn't found his niche. The studio wanted to take advantage of his huge popularity on radio. With the character of Wally Campbell, the bumbling, charming, comic coward, he hit the jackpot. It would be his signature film persona for the rest of his career, culminating in the "Road" pictures he made with fellow Paramount players, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Gorgeous Paulette Goddard had just finished filming the extremely popular The Women at MGM, after losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind and was under personal contract to producer David O. Selznick. Embroiled in his Civil War epic, Selznick sold Paulette's contract to Paramount when the studio offered the comely actress a seven year option. The Cat and the Canary was Goddard's first film under her new contract and was the turning point in her career. Paulette was married to comic icon Charlie Chaplin at the time Canary was made. Chaplin had been the childhood idol of her co-star Hope and during the same time the film was being shot, Bob saw Paulette and Chaplin at the Santa Anita racetrack. He went over to speak to Goddard and she introduced the two men. The awestruck Hope told his idol how he had enjoyed Modern Times (Chaplin's last silent film, released a few years prior), as well as working with Paulette. Chaplin in turn complimented the young comedian saying, "I've been watching the rushes of The Cat and the Canary every night. I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen." He was right. Hope's gags and one liners set him apart. In a scene between Wally Campbell and Cicily, another potential heir, Cicily asks: "Don't big, empty houses scare you?" to which Hope's Wally answers, "Not me, I used to be in vaudeville."

The film also featured John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Elizabeth Patterson and Gale Sondergaard, who is always a treat. The Cat and the Canary proved so popular with moviegoers that a follow up, The Ghost Breakers was rushed into production by Paramount to re-team Hope and Goddard. It met with equal success.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Laura (1944): Sophisticated Murder

Gene Tierney was "undeniably the most beautiful actress in movie history" according to her boss at 20th Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck. Indeed, she was one of the screen's most gorgeous stars, with a persona of elegance and cool sophistication. It was this graceful elegance which lent itself perfectly to Laura (1944), the stylish and sophisticated murder mystery that made her a star and is the movie with which she is most readily associated. Unusual in one respect, compared to most films of its time, the main character, Laura, doesn't appear on screen at all for the first quarter of the movie, except in the representation of a portrait above her fireplace, and for the next quarter, only in flashback.

The film begins in the plush New York City apartment of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an acid tongued, poison-penned columnist and radio personality who is being questioned by detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) while typing his newest column in his ornate bathtub (Thank goodness its not an electric typewriter....say, what's a typewriter). Detective McPherson is investigating the murder of beautiful Laura Hunt (Tierney), successful ad executive and protegee of Lydecker. McPherson's investigation finds a menagerie of decadent, amoral Manhattenites with various relationships to Laura. As the case progresses, the tough talking, hard boiled detective becomes infatuated with the portrait of the victim and obsessed with her via personal interviews and the dead woman's private papers. Falling asleep one night in Laura's apartment, under her mezmorizing portrait, he is awakened by none other than the object of his obsession. Laura is alive and it turns out that the dead woman, whose face was obliterated by the gunshot, is a model at the ad agency who was using Laura's apartment the night of the murder. So who tried to kill Laura and is she now safe?

The film was wrought with problems and delays from the outset. According to Tierney's autobiography, Jennifer Jones was originally offered the title role but refused (as did Hedy Lamarr). Stylistic director Rouben Mamoulian was originally assigned to oversee the picture but fired well into production. Producer Otto Preminger was then allowed to produce and direct the film, a job that was first denied him by boss Darryl Zanuck, due to an old grudge between the two. It turned out to be, what some call, Preminger's finest work, and the bald headed Austrian was nominated for an Academy Award.

Prissy and effete stage actor Clifton Webb was Preminger's choice for the prissy and effete character of Waldo Lydecker. Zanuck, however, didn't care for Webb, a known homosexual. After a test revealed that Webb's mannerisms were perfect for the character, Zanuck relented and the actor won both an Oscar nomination for the role as well as a long term contract with the studio. It is hard to believe that Webb's aging dandy would actually lust after the young and nubile Tierney~and even harder to believe that she would have any physical attraction to him. His interest would be seen as having more of a controlling rather than romantic nature, despite what the script might try to imply. It is also hard to imagine Laura's romantic involvement with her fiancee, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a weak, sponging Southern gigolo, who plays pattycake with Laura's wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Her vitality and vivaciousness is much more suited to the virile detective McPherson and an immediate attraction can be felt between these two. Both Tierney and Andrews had rather mediocre careers before they made the noir classic, but the films popularity made instant stars of both.

Besides the Oscar nomination for Preminger and Webb, the movie also raked in nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (B&W) and Best Cinematography (B&W). The latter won the coveted prize for Joseph LaShelle. Composer David Raksin's score was also very notable including the haunting title tune which became a beloved standard. On the strength of her performance in Laura, Tierney was cast in the plum role of Ellen in the dark Leave Her to Heaven, the following year and received her own nomination from the Academy.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): Hyde and Hopkins at Halloween

As Halloween approaches, the blogosphere will be filled with words and images devoted to the celebration of this much lauded holiday. As far as film blogs go, there is much fodder for this fun filled fright fest. Although I enjoy the Universal horror set as much as the next guy and one couldn't get more delightfully creepy than Vincent Price, I wanted to spotlight a film from a studio that was the least likely to have a reputation for scary flicks.

Paramount in 1931 was home to stars such as Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. European elegance and sophistication displayed by directors like Ernst Lubitsch became the studio's trademark. So it was unlikely that one of their top productions that year would be an installment of the scary supernatural genre. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, premiering on December 31, 1931 but generally released after the New Year, was based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story of a Victorian physician who discovers a formula which releases the dark, uninhibited side of his human nature. The sinister side, known as Hyde, is attracted to a sluttish dancehall singer while the refined and genteel Dr. Jekyll (pronounced in this version as Jee'kyll) is engaged to a mild mannered young society lady.

Arguably the best of the three famous film versions of the tale (a 1920 silent with John Barrymore and an opulent 1941 version from MGM starring Spencer Tracy), it stars Fredric March as Jekyll/Hyde, a role which garnered the actor his first Academy Award (for which he tied with Wallace Beery in The Champ). By way of early but impressive special effects and the artistry of make-up whiz Perc Westmore, the handsome March was transformed into the hideous Mr. Hyde, the carnal, brutal, decadent essence of the human dark side. This image, along with that of Lon Chaney's Phantom, Karloff's Frankenstein's monster and Lugosi's Dracula, shape the iconic image of Hollywood monsters from the early film era.

As much as Jekyll launched Fredric March into full fledged stardom, it pushed female lead Miriam Hopkins one step closer. Originally interested in the refined fiancee of Jekyll ( a role which was played by Rose Hobart), she was convinced by director Rouben Mamoulian to take the risque role of prostitute Ivy Pearson, object of Hyde's desire. With the enforcement of Hollywood's Production Code still a few years away, Hopkins' performance was quite raw and erotic and her stock in films increased considerably after her role in the film. Later the same year she would star in one of the decades most sophisticated comedies, Trouble in Paradise.

Mamoulian was an intelligent, innovative and creative director and these traits were very evident in Jekyll/Hyde. His is a very stylized production, with elaborately detailed Victorian sets, effective use of black and white as colors and several elements of the creepy kind: the camera taking in the view from Dr. Jekyll's eyes at the beginning of the film, straight on close ups of the actors faces in various forms of emotion and enthusiastic organ music, such as not heard since the Phantom of the Opera. Fine performances are given by all the principal actors and Karl Struss' excellent cinematography was nominated for an Oscar as was the writing of Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, who adapted the Stevenson classic. The mix of horror and eroticism make Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a unique and intriguing alternative to the standard spooky fare offered the classic movie lover this All Hallows Eve. Enjoy.


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