Friday, July 31, 2009

The Mortal Storm (1940): Hollywood Steps on Hitler's Toes

Based on a 1938 novel by British authoress Phyllis Bottom, The Mortal Storm was the first major American film to address Nazism in Germany head on. A powerful film with a top drawer cast, Storm was released in June 1940, a full year and a half before the United States' entry into the war. The story pulls no punches when dealing with the Fuhrer or the wave of political shift in Germany.

The film doesn't name the country of setting except at the very beginning in a short written prelude, which also lets us know that the date is January 1933. The camera pans in on an idyllic Bavarian city, with snow, mountains and warm lighting (think Heidi Goes to Town or Courier & Ives meets Thomas Kinkade). But amidst this beautiful Swiss Miss setting lies the Nazi movement on the verge of eruption. It is here that Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) lives peacefully and comfortably with his wife Amelie (Irene Rich), his college age daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan), his teenaged son Rudi (Gene Reynolds) and his step-sons, Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), young men both. Though the word "jew" is never used, it is made very clear throughout the film that Professor Roth is "non-Aryan", a term and state of being which eventually haunts the kind and popular university scholar.

When Hitler is named Chancellor of the state, the Roth family becomes torn in its loyalties. Otto and Erich, excited and enthusiastic about the new political climate become members of the Hitler Youth. Freya becomes engaged to Fritz (Robert Young), who is also gung-ho for the new order, but as his loyalties become dangerous and unyielding, the fair fraulein begins to see more of longtime friend Martin (James Stewart), a pacifist farmer. Tensions are high all around and political lines are drawn in the sand between family members and friends. Freya and Martin find they have fallen in love just as the world they live in has decided to pull them apart. Martin is forced to take refuge in neighboring Austria after he helps a Nazi battered comrade escape from their homeland. Professor Roth is taken to a concentration camp when he refuses to dispel scientific facts about race and bloodlines that aren't in keeping with the new regime. Mrs. Roth, Freya and young Rudi seek safety in Austria with Martin when Freya is detained at the border when a politically questionable manuscript written by her father is found in her luggage. Martin risks life and limb to go back for Freya and....whew, I'll stop there.

The cast of The Mortal Storm is superb, though Stewart is much too apple pie American to convincingly portray the German farmer, Martin. However, he brings such compassion and dignity to the character, that his lack of nationality can be overlooked. He and real life friend Margaret Sullavan complement each other beautifully, Sullavan actually coming across very effectively as the intelligent and educated Bavarian, Freya. This was the couple's fourth and final film together. In one of his very early parts, Robert Stack does a fine job as the zealous Otto. Future film song and dance man, Dan Dailey (billed here as Dan Dailey, Jr.) makes his movie debut as the nasty, smirking Youth Party leader who wreaks havoc on anyone without a heil in his Hitler! Bonita Granville, Maria Ouspenskaya and Ward Bond all give excellent support in their roles. Finally, in what is arguably his best dramatic role is Frank Morgan as Professor Roth. Best known as The Wizard/Professor Marvel in the previous year's The Wizard of Oz, Morgan gives a poignant and sensitive performance as the good hearted, fair minded educator. His range from cheery optimism in early scenes to careworn concern in his concentration camp episode is marvelous.

Though MGM made the effort by not naming "jews" in its film or not constantly repeating the name of the country in question per se, its status of neutrality was shattered. Angered by the "propaganda" the film put forth, Germany banned all MGM productions from its theaters for the duration. The Mortal Storm is a strong film both artistically and emotionally particularly since its influence came before an official American involvement in World War II.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

UPDATE: 13 Classic Movies I've Never Seen....But Really Want To

Several weeks ago, I posted a list of 13 classic films that had always intrigued me for one reason or another but which had eluded me over time, either by my own fault or merely the lack of access to the film. Thanks to a terrific friend, I am happy to say that I have now had the opportunity to watch some of the elusive movies on my list and thought I might share some of my thoughts pertaining to these swell flicks. This post is dedicated to that super classic film loving pal.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was the first film to be shot outdoors in full Technicolor. It focuses on the centuries old feud between two mountain families and how an outsider from the city, who comes to buy part of their lands for coal mining, affects their feud.

Initial appeal for me: I am attracted to Paramount films (which this is) from this era because unlike MGM and Warner Brothers productions, they are harder to find and the ones I have seen (many years ago on commercial television or AMC back in the day when it was a real "classics" channel) I enjoyed no end. Also, I am a fan of young Fred MacMurray, who I feel is underrated and overlooked in the movie actor market. Lastly, having known the backwoods theme of the film, I assumed it would have similarities to one of my alltime favorite movies, Shepherd of the Hills (1941), another Technicolor drama based on hillbilly lore.

My opinion: I really enjoyed The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The color cinematography is gorgeous and the entire cast did a fine job. Having little knowledge of the films of Sylvia Sidney, the female star, her role as June was enough to ignite an interest in seeing more of her.

Hands Across the Table (1935) Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy.

Queen of the Screwball Comedy, Lombard stars along with MacMurray in this fine example of the genre. Carole plays a gold digging manicurist who latches onto playboy Fred, the hitch is, she doesn't know he's broke.

Initial appeal for me: As with Sylvia Sidney, I have only seen a handful of Lombard's films in my time (through lack of access) and as earlier stated, I like the performances of young Fred MacMurray (Maid of Salem, Remember the Night). From the things I'd heard and read, Hands Across the Table seemed like a solid comedy and a good example of Lombard's work.

My opinion: The film was good. Not as good as other screwball classics but better than adequate for sure. I was glad to see Ralph Bellamy in a more sympathetic role rather than his usual buffoon second lead. MacMurray was charming as expected and Lombard was just great. Some of their comic antics were a little strained but overall a film that I'm glad I was able to see.

Mandalay (1934) Kay Francis, Ricardo Cortez, Lyle Talbot

Mandalay is a Kay Francis film through and through. Lurid melodrama which has Kay suffering and wringing her hands with costume changes galore for it's glamorous star (though Francis' character is anything but glamorous, Kay could be nothing but!). Francis plays a gal abandoned by her low life lover into what is essentially white slavery at a brothel/nightclub in Rangoon, Burma. When she decides to leave said life, it's not as easy as she may think. Just getting into distribution under the wire before the Production Code hit big time in Hollywood, it's a racy and risque bit of Kay Francis fun.

Initial appeal for me: I had heard of Mandalay for years as an excellent showcase for the always interesting Francis.

My opinion: The film was everything I expected and then some. Kay is great as Tanya/Spot White and Mandalay is a great example of what a Warner Brothers melodrama could be before the Production Code watered things down.

Forbidden (1932) Barbara Stanwyck, Adolph Menjou, Ralph Bellamy.

Like Mandalay, Forbidden is a pre-Code gem with one of that periods most solid performers, Barbara Stanwyck (Stanwyck would be a solid performer for decades). She plays a dowdy librarian (can you imagine!) who takes her life savings to go on a cruise and meets a married man whom she falls for....permanently.

Initial appeal for me: Always a big Stanwyck fan, her early 30's roles are some of the most compelling of the era. The film was directed by Frank Capra, who always puts on a good show and whose early pairings with Stanwyck were always interesting to me (Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman). Add these elements to the fabulous pre-Code title of Forbidden and I was hooked.
My opinion: Forbidden, like Mandalay, had the adult subject matter and atmosphere that I assumed it would and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Not as much as some of Stanwyck's sassier early roles in films such as Ladies They Talk About or Baby Face, but very watchable nonetheless. Never a big Adolph Menjou fan, that opinion carries through here. I cannot understand Stanwyck's character's attraction to him, as I cannot understand the public's attraction to him as an actor. However, his casting is what it is and taking that fact with a grain of salt, he doesn't hurt the overall picture.

I still have the remaining 9 movies on my initial posting list to discover but I have high hopes for them as well as the many many other films that I yearn to see but fate has yet to allow me. Perhaps after I see a few more on this list I will post another with hard to find gems I can't wait to get my peepers on.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

I'm No Angel (1933): Ain't It the Truth

"It's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in you men" ~ Mae West

Mae West was already over 40 years old when her massive hit I'm No Angel was released in October 1933. Depression era audiences were mad about the bawdy and bodacious Mae and her innuendo, double entendre laden films of the mid 1930's. Though a late bloomer to stardom, her star shown blazingly bright in her heyday and by 1935, she was the highest paid female entertainer in the United States. Besides the obvious hilarity of her naughty one liners, part of her success comes with the supreme confidence she brings to the screen. Exaggerated in every way from her figure to her flamboyant get-ups to her voice and sauntering swagger, she took complete control of the screen and the situations which were projected on it. She was neither beautiful of face nor elegant of style, but she had full charge of her sexuality on screen, though the audience would be hard pressed to believe the handsome leading men she surrounded herself with would take her seriously as a conquest in the real world.

I'm No Angel was Mae's third film. In her first she had a shining supporting role in the George Raft flick Night After Night (1932). Her second, She Done Him Wrong (1933), was an instant smash. In it she recreated the Diamond Lil character of the Gay '90's, which had made her a hit on Broadway. She D0ne Him Wrong and I'm No Angel are closely tied. Both feature Cary Grant as Mae's leading man, the success of the two films together supposedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy and the raciness of both were instrumental in the strict enforcement of Hollywood's morality production code in 1934. It is part of Hollywood lore that West claimed to have "discovered" Cary Grant, but the actor had been leading man to Marlene Dietrich in Paramount's Blonde Venus the year before either of West's films were produced. Nonetheless, Mae did request the handsome newcomer for her first two starring vehicles, which assuredly gave a boost to Grant's fledgling career, though neither film would showcase an inkling of the comic sophistication the actor would display in his later movies. He was merely West's good looking leading man and when it came down to the comedy, it was Mae all the way.

As for the story behind I'm No Angel, it's practically non-existent if not for West's presence. She is the film and that's OK. She plays Tira, an exotic dancer of sorts in a carnival sideshow, where she sings songs like "They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk", while she shimmies around a stage surrounded by leering, lascivious men. While entertaining one of these horny toads in her hotel room later that night, her slimy ex-beau breaks in on the couple and bops the would-be Romeo over the head getting both himself and Tira in a legal jam. To pay her lawyer the fees required to extricate her from the mess, Tira agrees to the dangerous stunt of putting her head in a lion's mouth as part of the carnival/circus act. The act pays off big and she and the show become a huge success taking her to the big time in New York City. While in New York, the show stopping star meets dandy-in-a-top hat, Kirk (Kent Taylor), who adorns Tira with baubles of the most expensive sort. Kirk is however engaged and when his cousin Jack (Grant) meets with the man eating female to request her emotional release of Kirk, physical fireworks explode between them.

The real fun of I'm No Angel is found in the ribald one liners thrown around like rice at a wedding by West. An avid follower of astrology, Tira goes to the side show's resident fortune teller, Rajah, for her horoscope.

Rajah: "You have a wonderful future. I see a man in your life."
Tira: "What, only one?"

While entertaining the sap in her hotel room, she inquires about his livelihood.

Tira: "What do you do for a living?"
Mr. Brown: "Oh, uh, sort of politician."
Tira: "I don't like work either."

And later he tells her, "I've been places and seen things" to which she replies "Well I've been things and seen places." The film also spawned the famous West quote "Beulah, peel me a grape" which the star, who wrote alot of her own material, used after she noticed her pet monkey, who loved grapes, would always peel them before eating them.

I'm No Angel is Mae West at her devilish best. The dialogue, the wardrobe, the attitude are Mae through and through. Made just before the Hollywoood production code hit with full force, it allowed its star to sashay around the screen as Paramount's risque queen bee and also allowed her to saunter and coo all the way to the proverbial bank.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Glass Key (1942): Lake and Ladd in Hard Boiled Hammett

As one of the 1940's memorable romantic duo's, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were both icy cool blondes, whose passive, almost emotionless acting styles were a perfect match to the other, but their good looks and on-screen chemistry sparked red hot hits at Paramount where both were under contract throughout the decade. In 1942 the two made The Glass Key, a remake of a 1935 crime drama/mystery which starred George Raft. Based on the classic novel by famed mystery author Dashiell Hammett, the film was actually the second pairing of Ladd and Lake, whose first venture, This Gun For Hire, hadn't yet been released when production on Key began. The magnetism they showed in This Gun For Hire was duplicated in The Glass Key not purposely but by chance. Largely forgotten actress Patricia Morison was originally cast as the female lead and actually shot a few scenes when she was deemed too tall as Ladd's paramour. Ladd was a rather diminutive leading man at roughly 5' 6", so petite Lake was cast instead. The studio tried to pair the stars publicly, though they were merely friends and Ladd married actress Sue Carol the same year Key was released. Professionally however, the two fair haired actors went on to make a total of four films together at Paramount, including The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Saigon (1948).

The Glass Key is an early example of film noir, gritty crime drama peppered with romantic liaisons, murder and plenty of hard boiled dialogue. It's a complex crime thriller with moments of genuine edge of your seat excitement. As Ladd and Lake hadn't yet proved themselves the firecracker team they would eventually become, veteran Brian Donlevy was top billed. He plays shady and obnoxious crime boss Paul Madvig, whose attraction to sleek Janet Henry (Lake), causes him to back her father, Ralph Henry, as the reform candidate for governor in their state. Janet tolerates the oafish Madvig to help her ambitious father. Ladd plays Ed Beaumont, Madvigs right hand, who oversees everything pertaining to his boss, including Madvig's younger sister Opal (Bonita Granville), who is secretly seeing the would be governors shiftless playboy son Taylor (Richard Denning). When the no good Taylor is found dead outside the house he shares with his father and sister, Madvig is the number one suspect, since he went to the home to discuss Taylor's involvement with his kid sister Opal (told you it was complex). The story segues with Madvigs enemy, thug Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) trying to pin the murder on him while Varna's beefy and sinister henchman Jeff (William Bendix) gives Ed a beating the likes the silver screen had never seen to that time, when Ed tries to find evidence to clear his boss and comrade Madvig of the crime.

Hulk of a man Bendix had just made his film debut the same year as this film. He also won an Oscar nomination in one of his very first roles in Wake Island also released in 1942. He is more than memorable as the sadistically smiling heavy (literally!) knocking the soup out of Ladd in the grueling and realistic beating scene which ends with Ladd falling several stories from a window and crashing through a skylight onto the dinner table of horrified diners. Former child actress Bonita Granville (These Three, Nancy Drew) is always good but she's not given a chance here to do much more than cry over her murdered lover, but she does it looking lovely. The screenplay is riddled with great dialogue like Bendix fellow goon bragging on his cooking skills: "My first wife was a second cook in a third rate joint on Fourth street."

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake would become iconic figures of the 1940's. Ladd as a stone faced tough talker, Lake as the gal with the peek-a-boo hairstyle that wreaked havoc in war munition factories when girls who copied the look, got their long locks caught in factory machinery. The Glass Key proved a success for Paramount and a launchpad for the two comely personalities who charged the film with their high voltage electricity.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review: In Name Only (1939)

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Hollywood's golden year, 1939, Turner Classic Movies is featuring films made in that illustrious year. One 1939 hit that doesn't get its due in the time capsule of film is the love triangle driven weepie, In Name Only. For sure it's a "women's picture," the kind that thrived at the box office during the 30's and 40's, but unlike many such flicks that filled the cinematic landscape with strong females like Davis, Crawford or Stanwyck, In Name Only has not only TWO strong women but also a very strong male lead. The gals are played by Carole Lombard and Kay Francis, the fellow in the middle, Cary Grant, making for a very powerful as well as photogenic trio.

The story is one that is often told. Wealthy but unhappily married Alec (Grant) meets and is attracted to intelligent widow Julie (Lombard), while his bitchy and manipulative wife Maida (Francis) makes life miserable for all involved. That's the general gist, though there are more detailed aspects that director John Cromwell uses to bump it up from a standard soaper. Julie is not only an independent widow but also mother to a precocious little girl and sister to a bitter divorcee who thinks all men are scum and ostracizes Julie when she refuses to stop seeing Alec (Ironically, later in the film when the sister has found love again herself, she is suddenly forgiving and once again loving to Julie. The need for a man to validate her happiness, or even more her general life outlook is unsettling). Maida is not simply a shrewish social climbing wife to Alec, that would make things too easy. She has the rest of the world, including Alec's well-to-do parents believing she is the ultimate perfect and loving wife, though it is made clear that she only married Alec for wealth and position and refuses to let those things go.

The star threesome make In Name Only rousing entertainment. Lombard, who had just married superstar Clark Gable before shooting the film, was at the peak of her career, making $150,000 per picture. Both she and Grant had just come off a string of hit screwball comedies, in which the public had become accustomed to see them excel. Kay Francis on the other hand was no stranger to movie histrionics, and felt right at home in the melodramatic brouhaha. She had just ended her contract with Warner Brothers studio on a very sour note and was cast in the film at the insistence of the star and her good friend Lombard. She steals the film in most of the scenes in which she participates. As stated earlier, Cary Grant stands his ground in the emotional back and forth and lends his sense of the debonair to all the heavy doings.

The movie, made at RKO studio, was originally intended as a vehicle to reunite Grant and Katherine Hepburn after their recent comedy Bringing Up Baby. But Baby bombed at the box office and Hepburn was declared "box office poison" by a poll in The Hollywood Reporter (Kay Francis was also on this list). Hence, the more popular Lombard took the role. The blond, free spirited Carole makes a striking contrast physically to the dark and impeccably groomed Kay, which only enhances the two legs they make up in the torrid triangle. All three leads are handsomely costumed and Lombard and Grant are a very becoming couple. The sheer star power and stylish production values afforded In Name Only make it a should see among fans of the golden year as well as of the golden age.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Springtime in the Rockies: Grable's Glam Gams & a Brazilian Bombshell

"There are two reasons why I'm in show business, and I'm standing on both of them" ~ Betty Grable

Betty Grable was the biggest asset 20th Century-Fox studios had going for them during World War II. Her famous legs were insured and impressed into the cement at Graumans Chinese Theater. In 1943, she would become the #1 box office star according to the Motion Picture Herald and she would remain in that spot until 1951. She had kicked around Hollywood for a decade before getting her big break at Fox in 1940. Signed as a potential rival for the studio's then current singing star, Alice Faye, Grable ended up replacing a pregnant Faye in 1942's Springtime in the Rockies. It is one of the quintessential Fox musicals from the 1940's. Big, splashy and filmed in all its Technicolor glory. The Crayola creations had both fun and catchy tunes and lush romantic melodies alike. The studio could play mix and match with Grable, Faye, John Payne, Don Ameche, George Montgomery and Carmen Miranda along with an exotic locale to bring merry musical mayhem to war weary audiences.

Springtime in the Rockies was the first film where Betty was billed in the top spot. It's mindless fluff that's tons of fun. Grable plays Vicki Lane, leading lady both on stage and off to Dan Christy (Payne, this time). However, when Vicki discovers Dan's latest indiscretion, she hits both the roof and the road. Reuniting with her old dance partner (Cesar Romero), they book an engagement (of both the entertainment and marital variety) in picturesque Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Like Fox' other 40's musical romps to Havana, Rio, Miami or Beunos Aires, they never actually left the studio back lot. Anyway, a depressed and inebriated Payne follows, prodded by producers, who hope to get the estranged twosome back together for a potential Broadway show. En route he picks up a valet (Edward Everett Horton) and a dishy secretary (Carmen Miranda) who only add to the romantic and comedic chaos bound to ensue.

Everyone is a doozy. Miranda, Fox' answer to the Latin "good neighbor policy" of the 1940's, is her brash and colorful best as Rosita Murphy (mother was Brazilian, father was Irish). She mangles the English language in the most hilarious way ("tootspaste") and her lines are some of the films funniest. Horton: "You shouldn't call him Christy without the Mister." Miranda: "He calls me Murphy without the Miss." Gotta love it. She also does some knockout musical numbers including a rousing version of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in her native Portuguese (the Brazilian Bombshell was actually born to Portuguese parents). Horton is also a comedic gem. He danced the "Let's K-nock K-nees" routine from the Astaire-Rogers hit The Gay Divorcee with Grable before she was a star. Long limbed Charlotte Greenwood is also in on the hijinks. Although a good comedienne, I've never understood the appeal of her novelty high kick dance numbers (same with MGM's deadpan singing of Virginia O'Brien). As Grables friend/companion, Phoebe, she tossed out a few good lines, as well as those nimble appendages. Young Jackie Gleason is also on hand in a small uncredited role as Paynes agent.

And let's not forget about the songs. After all it IS a musical. The score is contributed by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon and boy they wrote some humdingers, including the cutesy "Run Little Raindrop, Run" sung by Betty and John, the all star finale "Pan American Jubilee" and "I Had The Craziest Dream." The latter was played by Harry James and his band, who were featured in the film along with his vocalist Helen Forrest, who made the song a hit standard. James and Grable actually cuddled during the shooting of the film and married the year after its release. The leggy blonde named her first born Victoria after her character in this film.

Sure, Springtime in the Rockies is lightweight, but its also lighthearted and that was the point in these movies in 1942. Grable is the star and her peaches and cream sensuality and glamour does what its supposed to, but with Miranda not missing a beat, Payne looking his most handsome, Romero suave as usual and Greenwood and Horton pulling in great support, this Fox cavalcade is one of the best of its genre.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Dead End (1937)

Dead End (1937) is hard core. If you didn't know it was produced by master film man Samuel Goldwyn, you would swear it was a Warner Brothers crime melodrama, in the manner of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and They Made Me a Criminal (1939). Why? Because all the elements are there, the dirty, gritty New York tenement neighborhood, the criminal element, both petty and professional, the struggle for survival under the harshest circumstances. Heck, it even has Humphrey Bogart as a sinister thug (always in his earlier days) and a gang of smart aleck young punks (the Dead End Kids, who were also featured in the afore mentioned films). However, as a few clues that it belongs to Goldwyn, it features Joel McCrea, a favorite in several Goldwyn films of the 1930's, in his regular good guy role. It also has William Wyler, Goldwyn's director of choice, at the helm.

Based on the successful play by Sidney Kingsley, Dead End is a story of abject poverty and the battle to survive in a decaying and filthy New York slum. The struggle is reflected even more vividly in the fact that the tenement is smack dab beside a luxurious high rise apartment on the Hudson River, the back entrance of which enters onto the back alley of the dead end poverty stricken street. There is nothing pretty or glamorous about the film, except actress Wendy Barrie, but even her story is ugly. Bogie is a wanted murderer, a nationally known criminal of the most dangerous order. He is back in his old neighborhood, the stomping ground of his hard and lawless youth, to see both his mother and his long ago paramour, neither of whom he's seen in over a decade. As the parable goes, he reaps what he has sown in this endeavour, as the mother (Marjorie Main, in a powerful early role), pitiful and careworn, wants absolutely nothing to do with him and tells him she wishes he were dead. His reunion with his old flame is no better. Though she is glad to see him, she is barely fit to be seen herself. Poverty and desperation have driven her into prostitution and she is in the final stages of syphilis, warning the gangster against even a lip kiss. She is played by Claire Trevor, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, in what was an earlier and surprisingly short role (she only has one scene). Bogart's "Baby Face" Martin is a somewhat deeper character than most that he played at Warners during the same era. Still innately evil, there's a glimmer of another dimension in his affection for his mother and ex-lover.

Also on hand is Sylvia Sydney as poor working girl Drina. She is barely able to keep the heads of both she and her delinquent kid brother, Tommy (Billy Halop) above water. Drina is in love with Dave (McCrea) an educated native of the neighborhood, who can't find work as an architect so instead gets by on odd jobs. He in turn has become infatuated with Kay (Barrie), the mistress of one of the wealthy inhabitants of the luxury high rise. But romance is not the agenda of Dead End. It is merely one of the avenues which leads to dispair and the unfulfilled dreams of its characters. The setting of the film feels rather stagy, as the entire drama takes place in and around the decaying dead end street. Don't misunderstand, art director Richard Day did an outstanding job with the extremely realistic set, and instead of the claustrophobia of filth being a detriment, the single set lends to the enclosed and trapped feeling experienced on a daily basis by the inhabitants of the street.

Although Dead End finishes on a slightly higher note compared to the body of the film, the ending doesn't diminish the grimness of the overall theme. The power of both the story and of the performances by all involved shines through and endures long after its original release.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lost Horizon: Frank Capra's Shangri-La

When director Frank Capra read James Hilton's best-selling fantasy adventure novel Lost Horizon, about a Utopian valley high in the Himalayas, he took it to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as a potential vehicle for the studio. On Cohn's approval production began and the roles started to be cast. Capra wanted sophisticated and urbane actor Ronald Colman to play the lead role. From the beginning, the director felt Colman was born to play the intelligent and deep thinking Robert Conway. Indeed, just as many felt Clark Gable was the perfect fit for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Colman wore the role of Conway like a glove.

Lost Horizon (1937) is an enchanting and mesmerizing film. Even if you have no idea what the film is about, the beginning sucks you in with a scene of total chaos somewhere in the Orient. Turns out all the hub bub is a revolution in the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul and the British diplomat to the area, Robert Conway is trying to evacuate all people of western origin by airplane. He and his brother, George (John Howard), board the last plane out with the remaining three refugees; a stuffy paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), a crooked industrialist who's running from the law (Thomas Mitchell) and a tuberculosis plagued American prostitute (Isabel Jewel) who's living on borrowed time.

Little do they know they are being kidnapped until they are well on their way. They are taken higher into the Himalayas and it is there that their plane crashes, their pilot/kidnapper killed. Before they have a chance to devise a plan for survival in the snowy, frozen mountain range, a small party approaches the plane, led by an Asian fellow named Chang. He announces that he is from a valley, not too far, but a very arduous journey away. The group makes the treacherous trek and is stunned when they finally reach their destination. They literally go from the bitter, blinding wind and snow, through a chasm in the mountain, into a gorgeous valley where the sun is shining, birds fly in droves and beautiful bodies of water abound. In total amazement, they are led to a grand white building, its architecture of large scale and clean design, which they find later to be a lamasery, a place of spiritual enlightenment.

With Chang acting as their host, they are offered rich comforts in the form of exquisite foods, comfortable oriental style clothing and luxurious lodgings within the lamasery. As their mysterious circumstances for being there have yet to be revealed, all but the elder Conway, who is intrigued by the adventure, get antsy to get back to "civilization." The distinguished diplomat is then taken to see the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), the kind and aged spiritualist who oversees everything Shangri-La. Conway learns that he has been brought to the mountain Eden to take over for the ancient Lama. He also learns the Lama is more ancient than he realized being 200 years old! It seems lack of stress and the overall purity of the paradise is conducive to extremely long life there, a virtual fountain of youth.

As Robert Conway, Colman gives an elegant and poetic portrayal, one of the many highlights of his career. Young actress Jane Wyatt, best known for her role as Margaret Anderson in the popular TV series Father Knows Best (sadly, fewer and fewer know her from this show as more years go by) is cast as the enlightened young woman who is the impetus for Conway's presence in Shangri-La and his love interest once he arrives there. As one of the film's (and book's) more compelling though lesser characters is Mexican actress Margo (Mrs. Eddie Albert). She plays Maria, who by all outward appearances is a young Russian woman, no more than 20 years old, who falls for the younger Conway, George. Hers is a pivotal role in the history of the Utopian community and she does well with her part.

Lost Horizon was one of the most expensive films "poverty row" Columbia Studios had produced up to that time. But along with other Frank Capra/Columbia collaborations, it would help that organization rise above its lowly status. Alot was riding on its success, including Capra's reputation. Its anti-war sentiment got some flack by certain political view points and some of its footage hit the editing room floor upon its re-release but after all was said and done and a semi-complete restoration in more recent years, Lost Horizon has stood the test of time to become a bonafide classic in Hollywood annals.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Christmas in July: Sturges' Forgotten Gem

Not nearly as revered or even remembered as Sullivan's Travels or The Lady Eve (both 1941), Christmas in July was nonetheless a classic Preston Sturges comedy. Only his second film as writer/director (The Great McGinty (1940) was his first), it sparkles with charm and wit just as his other films but unlike them has been lost to the viewing public over time.

Dick Powell stars as Jimmy MacDonald, a small time office clerk who has big dreams in winning a $25,000 slogan contest for a national coffee company. His contest contribution ~ "If you can't sleep at night, It isn't the coffee, It's the bunk" ~ makes its way around the film often. As a gag, some of his none too bright co-workers send him a fake telegram stating that he has won the much coveted prize. Based on this misinformation, Jimmy announces to the whole office that he has won and takes his best girl, Betty (Ellen Drew) out for a shopping spree like the town's never seen, including a diamond ring and fur for Betty and a brand new dream davenport (ie sofa) that unfolds into a double bed for his unsuspecting mother. Also, gifts for every man, woman and child who lives on his tenement block (25K went ALOT farther in 1940 than it does today!). His boss even gives him a large promotion to the company's advertising department based on the false document! Hmm, hmm, hmm.

Jimmy and Betty take the telegram to the coffee contest company and the befuddled curmudgeon of a company president (Raymond Walburn) coughs up the 25 thousand simoleans. Jimmy is treated like a king everywhere he goes, including his poor neighborhood, where based on his new found fortune (so he thinks), everything is a free for all, food, fun, dancing in the streets. Then the mistake is realized by those in the know at the "Maxford House Coffee Company" and chaos ensues. As with so many films of Preston Sturges, his theme in Christmas in July is based on the common man. Like Frank Capra, he extols the values and virtues of those honest men and women who are trying to pull themselves up and retain their dignity under less than perfect circumstances. However, Christmas in July isn't sappy or saccharine, it's a very genuine film.

Powell is very likeable as Jimmy MacDonald, as he was in most of his pre- Murder, My Sweet (1944) roles. This was one of his first films under a new contract he had signed with Paramount, after leaving Warner Brothers, where he had spent years playing juvenile leads in that studio's "backstage musicals" 42nd Street, Dames, et al. The supporting cast is spot on as well, with William Demarest particularly notable, especially in the films humorous and ironic ending.

I wouldn't say Sturges' classic is underrated because I don't believe enough people have seen it to have an opinion. Like many films that make their way around the Yuletide schedule, Christmas in July, though not set in December, offers all the charm and warm feelings of human kindness as any other. Better than that, it can be viewed January thru December.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wyman vs Reagan or Johnny Belinda vs the SAG

As most Americans over 50 know, before he was the 40th United States president, Ronald Reagan was a mostly B, sometimes A-grade Hollywood actor. They also know that before his wife Nancy was first lady of the land (and the state of California before that), he was married to Oscar winning legend Jane Wyman. The gossip rags and movie magazines in the 1940's treated Reagan and Wyman as the darlings of Tinsel Town, calling them the perfect Hollywood twosome. But in 1948, the dream couple had separated and the next year their divorce would become final. Many have claimed that the couple's problems stemmed from Reagan's film career decline while his wife's was rapidly on the rise, but this issue only exacerbated the already festering ones in the union.

Reagan and Wyman met when they were both young, new contract players at Warner Brothers studios. In 1938, they were both cast in the military cadet film Brother Rat. Although they were very much attracted to one another, they were very different in personality. Reagan was a midwestern boy next door, affable, handsome and outdoorsy. Wyman was in the process of divorcing her second husband at the age of 21. She was pert, bubbly' had a cute button nose and loved to nightclub. They wed in 1940 and began their marital life in romantic bliss. Both popular and outgoing, their careers were thriving but on different levels. Reagan's star looked the brightest. He was a second lead in A pictures like Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis and had a key role as "the Gipper" in the successful football flick Knute Rockne, All American (1940). While Wyman worked steadily at Warners, it was usually as the blonde girlfriend of the film's heroine or a wisecracking chorus girl. In 1941, they had a daughter, Maureen, and in 1945 they adopted a son Michael. The perfect Hollywood couple had become the perfect Hollywood family and it wasn't just for the cameras, they were a sincerely stable family unit.

Ronald Reagan's interest in politics went way back. He became involved with the Screen Actor's Guild, or SAG, in the late 1930's. SAG was, and continues to be, a Hollywood labor union. His friendly personality and natural inclination to the political workings of the union gained him a place on its Board of Directors in the early 1940's. During World War II, he did his stint in the Army Air Force, working state side due to nearsightedness. After the war, differences between the Reagans began to accelerate. As Reagan's film career went, he never really reclaimed the momentum he started to gain before the war with his dramatic role in the 1942 classic Kings Row. Pre-war stars were returning to their studios to join new ones who had established themselves during those years. With no definitive roles lined up for him at Warners, Reagan had to wait it out. He became even more involved in SAG activities and was home less and less. When he was home, he would talk non-stop to Wyman about the political goings on at the Guild. On the phone with SAG concerns, at SAG meetings, discussing SAG business. Wyman, besides being bored out of her gourd, felt neglected. Her career on the other hand had seen a tremendous boost in the years immediately after the war. She was loaned out to Paramount to make The Lost Weekend (1945) in a very dramatic role opposite Ray Milland, who won an Oscar as a hopeless alcoholic. She followed it up with another loan out as the mother in MGM's The Yearling (1946), a part which she could better sink her teeth into and one that gained her a first of several Best Actress Oscar nominations.

In 1947, the marital spiral continued downward. In June, while shooting what Reagan called one of his least favorite films, That Hagen Girl, with an adult Shirley Temple, he developed acute viral pneumonia. Wyman was several months pregnant at the time. His malady became so severe he had to be hospitalized and was literally fighting for his life. Jane went into premature labor and was rushed to another Los Angeles area hospital. On June 26, she gave birth 3 months prematurely to a daughter, who she named Christine. The child died the next day. With Reagan gravely ill in another hospital, Wyman had to face the tragedy and trauma alone and as well had to return home alone. She became deeply despondent and withdrawn. Reagan recovered and upon his convalescence resumed shooting of That Hagen Girl. Between completing the film and his increased activities with the Screen Actors Guild (he had been voted in as president of SAG earlier that year), he was away from home even more.
A depressed and reserved Wyman threw herself into her latest role, and what a role. Johnny Belinda told the story of a poor deaf mute girl in Nova Scotia. It was a compelling part, in which the actress immersed herself. Filming was shot on location in Northen California and Reagan would visit the set regularly but as Wyman was growing as a performer, she was growing away from her husband and his obsession with the SAG and politics in general. There was talk of an intimate relationship between Mrs. Reagan and her Johnny Belinda co-star, Lew Ayres. Wyman denied the allegation but at the very least the two had become very close friends. After filming wrapped on Belinda, she went to New York alone to think and when she returned to California, she and Reagan separated, much to his dismay. There were attempts at reconciliation but by summer 1948, she had filed for divorce. Reagan continued to carry a torch for his wife even as she grew farther away from him. Her performance in Johnny Belinda was nominated for an Oscar while his career was in further decline. He quipped about her success to columnist Hedda Hopper: "If it comes to a divorce, I think I'll name Johnny Belinda as the correspondent." The comment was vague, leaving one to wonder if he meant the film itself or his wife's co-star Lew Ayres.

In March of 1949, Wyman did indeed win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Belinda and in July received her final divorce decree from Ronald Reagan. She was awarded custody of Maureen and Michael and child support in the amount of $500 per month. Reagan took the divorce very hard. He continued as the president of the Screen Actors Guild until 1952 at which time he had already met and married small time actress/ big time Reagan supporter, Nancy Davis. Wyman went on to more Oscar nominations and parts in polished Douglas Sirk melodramas. Both actors reached high levels of success, just not with each other.


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