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?


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