Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Golden Boy

I've seen several reviews for 1939's Golden Boy that call it a "dated melodrama." Unfortunately, I am inclined to agree with them. I was actually looking forward to watching this, one of filmdom's most famous boxing themed pictures, and thought based on the personnel involved I would thoroughly enjoy it, as I'm a pretty big Barbara Stanwyck fan. But alas, no go.

It was a success on Broadway but much of the staginess translates to the screen. Columbia Studios supposedly wanted to borrow Tyrone Power from 20th Century-Fox to play the title role and John Garfield, over at Warner Brothers, was also very interested, but when the dust settled, it was a very young William Holden who won the part of Joe Bonaparte, a poor kid from rough and tumble New York whose love of the violin is sacrificed for the easy money and fame he gains from his natural abilities as a boxer. As his fight manager, Adolph Menjou does what Adolph Menjou does best. Plays a self absorbed, serio-comic cynic with hard boiled wise cracks aplenty. Stanwyck plays Lorna, Menjou's tough cookie girlfriend who gets taken for granted more than she'd like.

Although I like much of Holden's later work (Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17) he just seems too green and inexperienced for the role. And as earlier stated, Barbara Stanwyck already had so many great performances under her belt, I expected her Lorna to be close to perfection. But I just couldn't believe that her hard edged moll could fall for a little hot head like Joe Bonaparte. Still, behind the scenes, Stanwyck took Holden under her wing, helped his career and they became lifelong friends.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cary Grant: Master of His Own Destiny

The studio system of signing stars to exclusive contracts and grooming them to fit the mold it had created for them was at its most powerful in the mid to late Thirties. And what star in their right mind wouldn't want the protection, money and promotion these entities had to offer? Cary Grant, that's who.

By the mid 1930's Grant had been under contract to Paramount Pictures for half the decade and by 1935 they were casting him in one mediocre film after another. That same year, when his contract with Paramount expired, he made the unheard of at the time decision to become a freelance actor and be paid on a per film basis, allowing him to control his own career and script choice. It was a gamble that paid off big time.

By 1937 he had found his niche in the sophisticated screwball comedies Topper and The Awful Truth (the latter with the wonderful Irene Dunne) and from there the hits just continued to roll for Grant. He became and remained one of Hollywood's top box office draws for the next 25 years.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fiddle Dee Dee, I'll Just Star in The Women

I remember watching a TV movie many years ago called The Scarlett O'Hara Wars. It starred Tony Curtis as David O. Selznick and a bevy of not very well known actresses from the 1970's playing a bevy of extremely well known actresses from the 1930's, and as the title indicates, these actresses were all vying for the most coveted role of the decade (some might argue ever!), that of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind.

The teleplay told the legendary story with a comedic, almost campy twist but the segment of the movie that always stuck out in my mind was each Scarlett candidate going to George Cukor during a Hollywood party to lobby for the role of the southern vixen only to be told by the director that he had a perfect part for her in a new project he was starting called The Women. Now whether or not this was the way the classic 1939 film was actually cast, I don't know, but almost every major role in The Women starred an ex-Scarlett wannabe.

Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine were all in consideration (with varying degrees of seriousness) for the part of Scarlett and Paulette Goddard was the front runner until serious questions about the validity of her marriage to Charlie Chaplin surfaced. Each of these stars (along with Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Marjorie Main and others) came together to create one of the cleverest, snappiest, funniest films of its kind. They may not have been perfect as Scarlett but they sure were great as The Women.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hey Bing! What's a rotogravure?

With Easter just around the corner, I am reminded of one of the great musical standards to stand the test of time. I'm talking about Irving Berlin's Easter Parade, specifically the version sung by Bing Crosby in 1941's Holiday Inn.

In it Bing sings the classic line, "and you'll find that you're in the roto gravure" to love interest Marjorie Reynolds in reference to her Easter bonnet. I've always wondered....what the heck is "the rotogravure"?

Well after doing a little research this is what I found. The rotogravure as mentioned in the song is a newspaper supplement usually in the Sunday edition, which is produced by a process of the same name, where a photographic image is used to produce a plate for printing. Now the words of the song in the context in which they're sung make much more sense.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Classic Movies Digest Premiere Post

With the thousands of classic movies to chose from for discussion for this, the debut of Classic Movies Digest, I wanted to shed a little light on one that is lesser known than say Gone with the Wind or any number of Bette Davis' movies. I'm talking about The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

Although I had heard of this movie, I had never had the opportunity to see it until recently. From the basic information I had, it sounded like an entertaining way to pass 107 minutes. What I found instead was a solid gem of movie making magic! So many elements were perfectly in sinc to come together as a well oiled machine. Made at RKO, The Devil and Daniel Webster wasn't a blockbuster film with huge superstars or big name value. The principal players and most of the supporting cast were veteran movie actors. Even Anne Shirley, as the young farmers wife, had made her claim to fame as Anne of Green Gables nearly a decade before.

Originally released as All That Money Can Buy, Stephen Vincent Benet's story centers on young New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone, who sells his soul to the Devil, ala Faust, in return for seven years of prosperity. When things take a dark turn, he beseeches the formidable attorney and statesman Daniel Webster to act on his behalf in an effort to reclaim his damned spirit.

From beginning to end the film is sumptuously striking, an enchanted visualization with expert cinematography (Joseph August) special effects (Vernon L. Walker) and lighting. Too many masterful uses of these cinematic tools to list here, but a few that stand out are worthy of note. The silhouetted shadow of the Devil cast eerily behind Daniel Webster as he writes his speech. Mr. Snatch's (the Devil) first appearance to Jabez Stone back lit as he comes forth from a hazy, smoky backdrop. The use of smoke and a firelight background is also used when we first meet seductress Belle (played by French actress Simone Simon) kneeling by the kitchen hearth.

One of the most effective scenes to relay the message of the organized chaos about to befall farmer Stone is at the harvest dance when rapid camera shots pan at lightning speed between Jabez, standing in the center of the crowd of frantic dancers, Belle laughing and dancing around the mesmerized young farmer and the wicked Mr. Snatch, playing his fiddle with reckless abandon. All this devilish intrigue is set to an Oscar winning musical score by Bernard Herrmann, which perfectly accentuates the mood of the film scene for scene.

Not to go unmentioned is the fine performances given by the entire cast. James Craig's Jabez Stone raised him from the ranks of B-movie player and helped garner him a contract with the prestigious MGM. A solid actor during the war years, Craig takes Jabez from down on his luck farmer to wealthy yet corrupt landowner to dark lost soul with all the gusto of a performer ready to break out of his shell. French actress Simone Simon is mysteriously seductive as the agent from Hades sent to tempt a very willing farmer Stone. As Daniel Webster, Edward Arnold makes the role his own (although he replaced an ailing Thomas Mitchell). Finally, Walter Huston is outstanding as the impish Mr. Scratch, the Devil incarnate. Nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Huston's Scratch is mischievously menacing, amiable and gleeful in his sinister task, as opposed to monstrously evil.

For anyone who has yet to see this superb fantasy, I highly recommend that you take the opportunity. You're in for a real treat.


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