Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review: History Is Made At Night (1937)

Having heard of History Is Made At Night (1937) for years, I was always under the impression that it was a screwball comedy. After all it starred one of the screwball queens, Jean Arthur during the height of the genres popularity. From things read in passing, I knew it had some comic elements and romance was involved. Come to find out after finally seeing it, History Is Made At Night is not a screwball comedy at all and in fact, hard to categorize. It's a romantic drama, with comedic flourishes, a truly sinister villain and a disaster movie, with a touch of noir, all rolled into one. That's alot to chew on I know, but with leads Charles Boyer, the always charming Arthur and skilled director Frank Borzage at the helm, the final product is seamless.

Bruce Vail (Colin Clive) is an uber-wealthy shipping magnate who also happens to be an uber-possessive control freak over his wife, Irene (Arthur). His constant harassment about a would be "other man" in her life, drives her to the breaking point and she files for divorce. On the eve of the final decree, having found no evidence of infidelity on her part (since there was absolutely none to find), Vail contrives a scheme to plant his chauffeur in her apartment then bust in on them with a detective in tow, in order to nullify the proceedings. When the chauffeur tries to enact the sordid plan in Irene's swank Paris digs, the scene is witnessed by Paul Dumond (Boyer) on the neighboring balcony. He realizes what is happening and enters through the balcony door and pops the chauffeur across the kisser, knocking him cold, just as the bewildered husband and company charge into the darkened room. Acting as an intruder, so as not to trade one divorce correspondent for another, Paul takes Irene's jewels and then Irene herself as hostage.

Once the twosome are safely away, Paul explains himself and tells Irene he only "kidnapped" her to return her jewels. He then takes her to a fine Parisian restaurant, where he is the head waiter. There he wines and dines her and generally sweeps her off her feet. When she arrives back at her apartment, she is met by her husband and the police. You see, ever the suspicious cuss, husband Bruce believed the intruder was indeed the "other man" in his wife's life, so he killed the chauffeur in order to blackmail his wife into going back to America with him. Lunatic! In exchange, he would let her "lover" escape a murder charge. To save her newly found love from Vail's diabolical plan, she agrees. Paul, the head waiter supreme, then reads in the newspaper that the high profile couple is sailing for New York and follows his lady love across the Atlantic. Vail instigates more shenanigans in an attempt to keep his wife under his thumb and the whole film leads to a thrilling climax aboard the Princess Irene, a luxury liner owned by the demented shipping tycoon. Many shades of the Titanic come through in the latter portion of the film and it is truly an edge of your seat spectacle.

The director, Frank Borzage, was a master at the kind of romance displayed in History Is Made At Night. His sensitive, delicate direction shows a powerful love between his lead characters and the evil they face against the unbalanced Clive. When classic movie lovers think of Colin Clive, they immediately think of his turn in the two classic Universal horror flicks, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The role of the obsessed Dr. F made him immortal in the horror genre of film history but outside that genre, he is much less celebrated. He did, however, make several films outside the horror box before he died of pneumonia, exacerbated by acute alcoholism, in 1937 at the age of 37. History Is Made At Night, released three months before his death, was one of his very last roles and he pulls out all the creepy stops. Leo Carrillo is also notable as Chef Cesare, Boyer's friend and companion to America.

As for Boyer and Arthur, both were almost at their career peak when History was filmed. Arthur, whose repartee is not as snappy and defiant as it is in some of her Frank Capra collaborations, is still effervescent in her lighter scenes with Boyer. Not particularly alluring or glamorous, she emotes with that pixie-like personality and unforgettable husky voice. Never a huge fan of Charles Boyer, I can certainly appreciate his fine performance in this picture as well as others made later in his career, like Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and Gaslight (1944). His demeanor is as suave as his voice is silky smooth. Not the traditional romantic movie pairing, he and Arthur are superb together. Romance. Drama. Comedy. Suspense. Disaster. All are incorporated and tempered with great direction and performances to make History Is Made At Night a must see.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Many Faces of Those Glorious Character Actors

No matter how big the star in your favorite classic film, no man (or woman) is an island. In other words, where would Humphrey Bogart be in The Maltese Falcon without Sydney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre? How would Shearer, Crawford, Russell and Goddard fare in The Women without Butterfly McQueen and Marjorie Main? Sure, they would still be terrific, but the nuanced performances that these and other character actors and supporting players add to great old films make all the difference in the world. I'd like to spotlight five of these tremendous talents and/or on-screen personas, whose lines we have repeated multiple times and whose faces we could never forget.

Florence Bates
"Wretched stuff! Give me a chocolate quick!" That was the response given by the silly, vain, wealthy dowager, Edythe Van Hopper in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), upon taking some foul tasting medicine. The self absorbed widow was played by the delightful Florence Bates (pictured above with S.K. Sakall in Lullaby of Broadway). The Hitchcock classic was her first major film role and one with which she is always associated. In the next 13 years after Rebecca, she would appear in over 60 films, some in uncredited roles, some of which her scenes would be deleted. On the other end of the decade, she would triumph with a similar grande dame role in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). As Mrs. Manleigh, radio advertising mogul supreme, she is sheer perfection. In between the two films, she was notable in Love Crazy (1941) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) among others. She died of a heart attack in 1954.

S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall
If only for his role as Uncle Felix in the perennial Yuletide favorite Christmas in Connecticut (1945), S.Z. Sakall would be remembered as a great supporting player ("Everything is hunky dunky!"), but this chubby cherub with the thick as goulash Hungarian accent hit the comedic mark in other classics of the 1940's including That Night in Rio (1941), The Dolly Sisters (1945) and Romance on the High Seas (1948). Even if you couldn't understand what he was saying, his facial reactions to the situation going on around him could crack you up, especially when unnerved or befuddled.

Gladys Cooper
Originally a British stage actress, Gladys Cooper embarked on a film career in Hollywood beginning, like Florence Bates, in 1940's Rebecca. She quickly made a name for herself playing stodgy upper crust aristocrats. In Rebecca, she shared her American film debut with master director Alfred Hitchcock. She played Maxim de Winter's tweedy, outdoorsy sister, Beatrice. No nonsense and direct, her Beatrice befriends her nervous new sister-in-law (Joan Fontaine) and tries to make her at ease in her new home. She was thrice nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, lastly as the mother of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964). Her first two nominated roles were superb and were richly deserved. The first as Bette Davis overbearing, extremely domineering mother in the classic Now Voyager (1942). Based on the strength of this performance alone, Mother's Day could be recalled as a national holiday. Her second Oscar nod came the following year in The Song of Bernadette, where she played a bitter, disbelieving nun. Finally, one of my personal favorite characters by the great Dame Gladys was that of the snobby control freak, Mrs. Hamilton in The Bishop's Wife (1947). Her hard as nails, cold as ice exterior is completely melted by the suave charms of angel Dudley (Cary Grant).

Joyce Compton
With her blond good looks and sweet-as-sugah southern accent, Joyce Compton could charm her ditzy characters out of the most insane situations. Like Florence Bates, she was uncredited for some of the films she contributed to but two of her best roles, she given credit for, on screen and off. In The Awful Truth (1937), she played Dixie Bell Lee, date to Cary Grant and dancer to ribald tunes. Her hilarious nightclub act to the tune of "My Dreams Were Gone with the Wind" is unforgettable. As a fellow co-star with "Cuddles" Sakall, she was one of the may bright spots in Christmas in Connecticut. As Nurse Mary Lee, she is the impetus for sailor Dennis Morgan ("Jeffy Boy") spending the Christmas holiday with writer Barbara Stanwyck. A treat to behold.

Beulah Bondi
Best known as Ma Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Beulah Bondi had a very long and varied career in Hollywood. I first saw Bondi, not in Wonderful Life, but as the kind adoption agent in Penny Serenade (1941) with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. She was fine as Walter Huston's prim and prudish ministers wife in Rain (1932) ~ is it no wonder that Huston's Reverend Davidson was tempted by the smouldering Joan Crawford? In The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) she was a soft hearted hillbilly and in The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) she was a black hearted one. Bondi was nominated for Oscars twice, first for The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) then Of Human Hearts (1938) and played James Stewart's mother four times. She actually made a career out of playing mothers and grandmothers, though she herself never married or had children in real life.

The five players listed above are merely a tiny smattering of the army of character actors whose presence enhanced the many films enjoyed for generations. They aren't necessarily my favorite ones, rather a representative example of the numerous talents that graced the screen throughout the years. Alan Hale, Sr., Franklin Pangborn, Eve Arden, Ward Bond, Hattie McDaniel, the list could go on endlessly. These classic personalities should be greatly appreciated for their contributions and the great enjoyment they brought to past audiences and continue to bring to audiences today.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: The Light That Failed (1939)

As another example of a film that seems to slip through the cracks among so many produced in the mega movie year of 1939, The Light That Failed is a dramatic gem. Made at Paramount, it featured distinguished actor Ronald Colman, whose appearance in the film continued his recent string of historical costume dramas which included The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and If I Were King (1938).
The failing light of the title was caused by blindness and the blindness caused by a blow to the head of the films' main character Dick Heldar (Colman) during a military skirmish in the Sudan in the late 19th century. The Light That Failed tells of painter/soldier Heldar whose battle wound blindness doesn't show itself until several years later, after the artist has established his reputation and gained creative fame in London. Riding the laurels of his first successful works, Heldar begins to paint popular prettified pictures depicting his time in the Sudan, regal, bloodless paintings for British periodicals. His faithful friend and fellow fighter on the foreign battlefield, Torpenhow (Walter Huston), insists that he stop wasting his talent and get back into the painting game with some serious work. Torpenhow soon introduces Heldar to callous cockney streetwalker Bessie (Ida Lupino) whom he finds faint from starvation out in the gutter. The painter sees in her gaunt, dark desperation, the inspiration he needs to paint his masterpiece, "Melancholia." It is during this process that he realizes he is going blind. Can he finish the work which could immortalize him in time?

Based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling, it was one of several Kipling inspired films made in the late 1930's including Wee Willie Winkie and Captains Courageous (both 1937) and Gunga Din, also made in 1939. Kipling's works were male driven and full of adventure. Accordingly, The Light That Failed was produced and directed by the macho man's man William Wellman, who excelled at male dominated films. But be not fooled, the films strong female was no shrinking violet. Ida Lupino, like Ronald Colman, was British born. She came to Hollywood in 1934, but it wasn't until this film that she burst upon the scene and the following year, she would begin her long tenure at Warner Brothers, where she would make her cinematic mark. Not a glamorous role by any means, Ida's Bessie chews up the scenery and steal every scene she's in. By contrast, the other female lead, Muriel Angelus, who plays Heldar's childhood love as an adult, is both bland and forgettable.

A true professional, Walter Huston consistently gave excellent performances throughout his career. As Torpenhow, his sense of compassion and camaraderie toward his friend is touching and thoroughly believable. As he thrusts his foot through a newly finished painting for which his artistic friend will receive a pretty penny but is creatively beneath him, we know we are witnessing "tough love." Finally, the always debonair Ronald Colman is suave as the doomed artist. Colman played his affliction with much panache, not pity, no Dark Victory here!

The Light That Failed is not Ronald Colman's best film nor his most memorable, but when taking motion picture inventory of 1939, it needs to be on the honorable mention list. In comparison, it holds up just as well if not better than some of the better known, more easily accessible movies of that illustrious year.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kitty Foyle (1940): Ginger Proves She Can

They started out "flying down to rio" and ended up telling the story of the famous dancing Castles with nine movie hits by 1939. They were Fred and Ginger. Yep, Astaire and Rogers, and they were the most famous movie dance team in film history. In 1939, after six years of hoofing, waltzing and generally making movie magic, they shot their last film together (until Ginger took over for an ailing Judy Garland opposite Fred in 1949's The Barkley's of Broadway). They made major money for not so major studio RKO, but each wanted to branch out in his or her own career path. Rogers had been making strides in a solo starring career for a few years by the time they parted company, in fact she had been a supporting player and minor lead for years. More recently she had made a splash in Stage Door (1937), Having Wonderful Time (1938) and Bachelor Mother (1939). Next she wanted to break out in dramatic roles.

Kitty Foyle was a bestselling novel by Christopher Morley about a career working girl from humble beginnings in Philadelphia, who gets involved with two men, a rich playboy with an upper crust pedigree Wynward "Wyn" Strafford VI (Dennis Morgan) and a poor but idealistic doctor Mark Eisen (James Craig). Wyn is her first and true love, but their differences in social standing create problems. Despite protests from her blustering but loving Irish father, Kitty falls head over heels for the loaded pretty boy and takes a job as his personal secretary at the struggling magazine he owns (his money is not his own but a trust fund from the Main Line family he refuses to break from). When the rag folds and she realizes Wyn will never buck up against his family, she takes a job in New York. There she meets Mark, who woos her much differently than Wyn had, choosing to play cards in the tiny apartment she shares with two other girls. When the Philadelphia freewheeler, whom she'd never gotten out of her system, shows up in New York, Kitty throws over her solid steady and marries Wyn. When the couple returns, with wedding bands in tow, to Philadelphia, Kitty's fears about the social gap between them proves legitimate and they split as quickly as they had joined. More turmoil, more heartache for the heroine and by the end of the picture she has a big decision to make.

The film is a grand showcase for Rogers, who traded her honey blond hair for a brunette coif to push the drama a little farther away from the comedy. Although a well produced film, if not for Ginger and the RKO build it would have been a standard soaper in its day. Instead it was the studio's biggest financial success of the year (#10 of top grossing films for 1940) and nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture of the year. Also nominated was none other than former Astaire dancing partner, Ginger Rogers for Best Actress. Her competition was fierce, going up against Bette Davis in The Letter, Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, Martha Scott in Our Town and her old RKO rival Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. When the winner was announced in 1941 it was the lovely Miss Rogers. She had broken away from her lightweight image and won the highest honor the industry could bestow.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Adventures of Robin Hood(1938): In Like Flynn

In the classic age of Hollywood, no film was more colorful (both literally and figuratively) and fun than Warner Brother's The Adventures of Robin Hood, and though Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. could buckle the best swash during the silent era, Errol Flynn was the master of such films in the 30's and 40's. The legend, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, has been portrayed by many actors for many decades but above them all, Flynn is the definitive Robin Hood. (Daffy Duck did give a great animated rendition in the 1958 cartoon short, Robin Hood Daffy).

Along with the charismatic leading man, Olivia de Havilland jumps to mind as his lady fair, Maid Marian, Hood's own personal "Norman conquest." In all, Flynn and de Havilland made eight films together with their romp in Sherwood Forest being their third and most famous. But even as these iconic images are ingrained into the national psyche for this film, alas, like so many other infamous roles in Hollywood, they were not the original choices. Hood was first slated for James Cagney as a sort of follow up to his whimsical role as Bottom in the studio's version of Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935. When Cagney and Warners butted heads, the project was postponed until a later date. When Flynn proved himself a magnetic adventure lead in Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) the film was put back into production. Blond beauty Anita Louise, also a veteran of A Midsummer Night's Dream (as Titania), was first considered for the role of Lady Marian but with so much riding on the picture financially (it was Warner's biggest production to that date and the final cost was $2 million), the studio wanted to ensure a proven film team with Flynn and de Havilland. Other parts were recast for one reason or another. First choice for Friar Tuck, Guy Kibee was replaced by the gravel voiced and corpulent Eugene Pallette and Robin's sidekick, Will Scarlett, though originally slated for David Niven, eventually went to handsome contract player, Patric Knowles.

The Robin Hood legend has been oft-told, but never so colorfully full of pomp and pageantry. Flynn plays Robin, Earl of Locksley, a Saxon noble in 12th century England, who, along with his band of "merry men", protects the poor Saxons from the villainous and utterly corrupt Norman nobles, who have taken power in the nation during the absence of the king, Richard the Lionhearted (Ian Hunter). Worst of these are Richard's brother, the treacherous Prince John (Claude Rains) who, with the help of the equally despicable Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) plans to take over England's throne permanently, while King Richard is away fighting in the Crusades. The film is a great romantic adventure and that aspect is provided by Lady Marian Fitzwater, aka Maid Marian (de Havilland), Norman noblewoman and orphaned ward of King Richard. At first disdainful to the pompous Robin, she falls in love with him when he reveals his true intentions of helping his suffering countrymen.

Warners brought in their top adventure director Michael Curtiz to replace initial director William Keighley, when more punch was required in the action scenes. The final product was superb, from the archery tournament to the final duel between Robin and Sir Guy, the one-two punch of excitement never lets up. As the evil duo of Prince John and Sir Guy, Rains and Rathbone cannot be beat. Rains, sly and cunning and Rathbone vicious and sadistic in his attack of the hero, both verbally and physically. An excellent swordsman off-screen, Rathbone is marvelous fencing against a very agile and able Flynn. Equally magnificent is the film's opulent musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The talented Korngold did not want to undertake the task, claiming he was "not a musical illustrator for a 90% action picture," but was persuaded by the studio brass to take on the challenge and his brilliant score won an Academy Award. Also winning Oscars for the film were Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.

The movie, shot in the richest Technicolor, cemented Errol Flynn's status as an action superstar. What he began with Captain Blood, three years earlier, he capped with Hood. More successful than Fairbank's popular version, The Adventures of Robin Hood was Warner Brothers' biggest moneymaker of the year and would continue to be one of its most remembered classics.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

REVIEW: Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

Much ado has been made through the years about The King and I (1956), Rodgers and Hammerstein's massively popular musical starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, and rightfully so. It's a classic in the genre and made a star of Brynner. It's appeal, however, has overshadowed what some consider (this blogger included) its superior dramatic precursor, Anna and the King of Siam.

The story is the same in both. It is based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel about a widowed Englishwoman (Irene Dunne) who, along with her young son, goes to Siam (now Thailand) in 1862 to teach the children of the country's king (Brit Rex Harrison). Initially, a clash of wills causes sparks between the independent minded teacher and the iron-fisted monarch, but as they begin to see the fine qualities in one another, they form a deep bond that lasts until the final credits.

Many fine performances are given in a cast that is headed by the incomparable Irene Dunne. As Anna, she is flawless. With her usual confidence and charisma, she creates a character, like several in her illustrious career, which was redone by another actress, not once but twice on film (and once on television in a short lived series). Her Anna is more than a match for the irascible king and turns his way of thinking around to hers in most cases. As King Mongkut, Harrison made his American film debut. He is more convincing as the Asian ruler compared to Brynner, who comes off as some Mongolian warrior. Third billed is Linda Darnell as Tuptim, new arrival to the king's sorority, aka his harem. She is exotically beautiful but doesn't have much else to do, until being burned at the stake for being unfaithful to his majesty. Ironically, Darnell was actually killed in a fire in 1965 at the age of 41.

Providing a more substantial and touching performance is veteran Gale Sondergaard as Lady Thiang, first wife of the Mongkut and mother to his heir. She has been replaced regularly for younger wives and has been relegated to tasting her husband's food in case of poisoning. Sondergaard is always a treat and her gentle portrayal of a loving mother who wants Anna to guide her son to success as a ruler is a highlight in the film. Also giving a memorable turn is Lee J. Cobb, bare-chested and bronzed skin, as the Prime Minister of Siam. Like the king, he has reservations about the strong willed English lady at first but shows great respect for her strength and intellect as he grows to know and understand her.

Cinematographer Arthur Miller worked his magic and the visually stunning black and white film received two Oscars for Cinematography and Art Direction. Anna's splendid European hoop skirts are a great contrast to the spare and exotic, though opulent, attire of everyone at the Siamese court. Bernard Herrmann offers an outstanding score which elicits a perfect musical backdrop with Oriental flair. On every level Anna and the King of Siam is a quality production that deserves to be remembered at least equally with its musical counterpart.


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