Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sullivan's Travels (1941): Preston Sturges' Social Satire

Ants in Your Plants of 1939 is one of the fluffy comedies that fictional director John L. "Sully" Sullivan holds as a claim to fame. Tired of making lightweight albeit highly profitable movies, Sully is determined to make a serious socially conscious film called O Brother, Where Art Thou (yes, the Coen brothers borrowed this title from this film) despite the protests of his studio bosses. As a further irritation to these money mongering moguls, he proclaims his intentions to hit the road, disguised as a hobo, in order to experience poverty and suffering first hand, as these two elements of life have never crossed his path.

This is the basic premise of Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges masterpiece of writing and direction that helped him build his reputation as supreme satirist in Hollywood during the early 1940's. One of the first successful screenwriters to begin directing his own scripts, Sturges had already hit pay dirt with his first three writing/directing efforts, The Great McGinty (for which his screenplay won an Oscar), Christmas in July and his classic The Lady Eve. His features, like other directors who transitioned from writing, emphasized his own witty, literate scripts.

Sullivan's Travels, though a satire on Hollywood and the movie industry, has several multi-genre elements. There's slapstick, farce, heavy drama, qualities of noir and the last segment is as good a prison picture as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Sully (Joel McCrea) and his comely companion (Veronica Lake, credited simply as The Girl) experience a gamut of emotions along the road as they search for suffering. The film glides seamlessly from a glamorous and funny look at Hollywood with its limousines, swimming pools and tennis courts, to a harsh, realistic view of the grungy world of mission community showers and finding a meal out of a trash can. Lake's character physically shows this change in her hobo costume, going from a jaunty, slightly askew chapeau to a more somber straightforward version, as she and Sully find some of the misery they seek. Some parts seem very Capra-esque, though with a sharper bite and less sentimentality. Director Capra (along with director Lubitsch) is even mentioned early in the film.

As John L. Sullivan, Joel McCrea was at the peak of his career, recently completing Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and about to go into another Sturges classic, The Palm Beach Story. Sometimes called a "poor man's Gary Cooper", McCrea has been an underrated performer. Versatile and solid, the actor starred in some of Hollywood's best films and his Sullivan shows his comedic skills sharply honed. Likewise, Veronica Lake was red hot in Tinsel Town after her appearance in this film. From Sullivan's Travels she started her string of cool vamps in Paramount crime dramas along side Alan Ladd, but like McCrea, Travels proves an excellent showcase for her flair for the funny, as well as the more dramatic moments. Her dry, unhurried delivery is perfect, especially as a foil for McCrea's sometimes harried, perturbed tone. She doesn't fear looking unglamorous when the scene calls for it but when she does glam it up, oh boy! Her famous peek-a-boo bang is coiffed in full force and set the trend for her much copied look. Pregnant when cast, she kept her condition a secret in order to get the part. Reportedly, Sturges was very upset with her once the pregnancy was discovered.

Sullivan's Travels is a classic in every way. Preston Sturges would see as rapid a fall in the late 40's as he'd experienced a rise earlier in the decade (the same can be said for Veronica Lake) but his sparkling gem of a film, along with his others of the period, would forever embed him as a master director in Hollywood history.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Citizen Kane (1941): "Rosebud"

Finally. After many years as a self proclaimed classic movie junkie, I finally saw what many consider the finest film ever made, Citizen Kane. When I first admitted I'd never seen the much discussed photoplay, so many who read this blog wanted to know my thoughts once I did see it. So much has been said and volumes written about this classic in the 68 years since its release that anything other than a personal opinion about it would merely be rehash, but for those who may have never seen Citizen Kane, a club of which I was a member until very recently, here goes.

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is a man of extreme wealth and heavy influence. Living his latter years secluded in his palatial estate, Xanadu, he shares his mansion with exotic animals of all variety and priceless works of art. As he draws his final breath he utters the single word ROSEBUD. Through flashbacks and vignettes, his life story is revealed, as a reporter on assignment interviews those closest to the larger than life newspaper tycoon. The reporters ultimate task is to discover the identity of Rosebud. Friends, confidants and an ex-wife tell their stories as reflected on Kane. The basic premise sounds simple enough and it is. The same story could have been told in any formula picture at any studio in Hollywood but Citizen Kane was an exercise in technical and artistic expression by masters in their respective fields.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland was an artisan of the movie camera. His work on high quality Sam Goldwyn productions in the 1930's built his reputation and culminated in an Oscar in 1939 for Wuthering Heights. The next year when production on Citizen Kane began, he willingly jumped on board to offer his services. Toland's use of deep focus and unconventional camera angles created striking imagery and was one of the major assets Kane had going for it. Others were the highly literate script co-authored by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz and the debut film score by master conductor Bernard Herrmann. Although Herrmann's Kane score didn't win the music Oscar (although it was nominated), his other 1941 project, The Devil and Daniel Webster did.

Citizen Kane was a film of many debuts. Besides conductor Herrmann, others making their first movie appearances were Ruth Warrick, Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead. Cotten and Moorehead, along with others in the cast had followed Welles to Hollywood as part of his Mercury Players, an acting troupe which had found critical acclaim on both the stage and radio (including the infamous 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds). Both Cotten and Moorehead went on to long and prosperous careers in both Welles related and non-Welles productions. Not to be forgotten is actress Dorothy Comingore as Kane's mistress-cum-second wife. Well suited for her plum role, Comingore's career never took off and ended with the communist Red Scare of the late 40's and early 50's. Yet with all the talent both behind and in front of the camera, Orson Welles is the name synonymous with Citizen Kane and the major creative force who spearheaded the production. Given complete artistic control by RKO Studios, the "genius" who took Hollywood by storm was only 25.

With all the film had going in its favor, it also had very stiff opposition. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, on whom the story is partially based, fought the movie's release and forbade it being mentioned in any of his numerous publications. Despite Hurst's protests, Kane was finally released in May 1941 to critical praise but was commercially unsuccessful with mainstream American audiences.

Many film scholars and organizations have claimed that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made but others have given that distinction to Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. To thrash about a few cliched but very true phrases, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one man's trash is another man's treasure. While some see the film as the ultimate masterpiece of cinema, others view it as overrated and overhyped. Personally, I think it is a wonderfully constructed picture, filmed with technical precision and creative flourish. All the pieces fit nicely to make an outstanding final product. Greatest film ever made? I'd have to disagree. Although the elements of the film are exquisite, the story itself is rather hum drum. Never boring, mind you, due to its intricate construction, but imagine if a more unique tale had been told with similar expertise. A fine example is the afore mentioned The Devil and Daniel Webster, where equal or at least comparable craftsmanship is applied to a much more exciting storyline. Overrated or underestimated, either way Citizen Kane is a great movie and shouldn't be missed. Finally, a word on the word. Rosebud. If you've seen the film, wink wink and if you haven't, grab a copy and discover for yourself the secret of one of Hollywood's most famous lines.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fury (1936): Fritz Lang Comes to America

Although made at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1936, Fury is a very unlikely production for the highly prestigious studio, famous for its glitz, glamour and witty repartee. It is the kind of project they made over at Warner Brothers, dark and brooding social dramas with an emotional punch and a message to hit home. In turn, Fury's director, Fritz Lang, was very unlike any of MGM's in-house directors at the time (no Clarence Brown or W. S. Van Dyke here). It was Lang's American movie debut, and in it the German film maker injected a stark, pull-no-punches complexity rarely seen by Depression audiences in the United States.

The film stars Spencer Tracy as Joe Wilson, a regular "Joe", hard working, happy go lucky, upstanding citizen, who's head over heels for his girl, Katherine (Sylvia Sidney). In the opening reels, Katherine is leaving to take a better paying job in another city, so that she and Joe can save money faster to be able to marry. Joe pools all his cash and with his two brothers opens a service station. After several months, he has enough shekels saved up to collect and marry his betrothed and live the American dream happily ever after. However, en route to fetch Katherine, our happy hero is stopped by the law in Podunk, USA, and being a stranger in them there parts, is suspected as an infamous local kidnapper who has been on the loose. As word spreads of a suspect in custody for the crime, momentum builds throughout the community, by way of gossip and bias against a "foreigner", that leads to the unfair conclusion in the town's collective mind of Joe's guilt.

Like a snowball down a mountain, the outraged townsfolk swells into an angry mob that stops rolling at the front door of the jail where Joe is being held. They demand the turnover of the prisoner for lynching. When the hick sheriff refuses, the excited throng burns down the jail and Joe in it. So they think. After the fact, the real kidnapper is discovered and the realization hits the community that an innocent man was burned to death. As the populace whispers excuses among themselves to ease their guilt, Joe reappears to his brothers and explains how he escaped the inferno. He also explains that he wants to remain "dead" and through them bring the mob participants to trial for murder according to the law. Now bitter and enraged, he seeks ultimate vengeance and justice for his suffering


Fury is a taut, gripping drama. It's a fascinating study of society under mob rule and also how political ploying can affect society under such conditions. This would be Sylvia Sidney's only film at MGM. At the peak of her career, she gives an extremely moving performance as Katherine. Her face exudes the angst and emotional stress as she does so well in other roles with similar characteristics, such as Trina in Dead End in 1937. Bruce Cabot is fine as the nasty, belligerent instigator of the pack as is Edward Ellis (the actual "thin man" in the series of films by that name) as the gruff small town sheriff. As usual, Walter Abel gives great support as the district attorney. Fury is, however, Spencer Tracy's film. Having just signed on with Metro the previous year, performances like the one he gives in this movie kept him there for 20 years. Through the course of the film, we see Tracy's dramatic metamorphosis from a kind, jovial lover of life, to a callous, embittered shell filled only with overwhelming hatred and vengeance. His emotional, as well as physical transition mark an ominous foreshadowing of his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made five years later.

Never a spoiler this blog, suffice it to say MGM and director Lang had differences about the films ending. Despite that, Lang created a more than memorable film and began an impressive career in the U.S. Arguably one of Tracy's best early films, Fury is solid through and through.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Midnight (1939): Happy Birthday Claudette Colbert

Classic and classy Claudette Colbert would have been 106 today. In her long and impressive career as a Hollywood actress, she gave one quality performance after another, covering multiple genres. She could handle heavy drama or dark suspense just as adroitly as she could high comedy. Midnight is one such comedy that Colbert handled to perfection. Yet another gem from 1939, the Paramount production is handled to perfection by all involved, including its other stars Don Ameche, John Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Colbert plays gold digging American chorine Eve Peabody, who finds herself down and out without a nickel to her name in Paris, wearing only a gold lame evening gown. She meets Parisian cabbie Tibor Czerney (pronounced Chair' ney; Don Ameche) and a mutual attraction is felt almost immediately. Afraid of where her feelings for Czerney might lead and out to follow the scent of money, Eve ditches the good looking taxi driver and crashes a swanky party loaded with well-to-dos. Posing as a Hungarian baroness (called Czerney), Eve meets wealthy Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), his socialite wife Helene (Mary Astor) and Helene's lover Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). When Jacques shows interest in Eve/Baroness Czerney, Georges seizes the opportunity to engage the down on her luck impostor to help him lure the gigolo away from his wife.

Much to Helene's chagrin, her husband invites the "Baroness" to a weekend party at their country estate. Meanwhile, Tibor has set up a dragnet with his fellow cabbies to search the streets of Paris for his lady fair. When one of them spots Eve in the limousine provided for her via Georges Flammarion, lovelorn Tibor discovers that she is at the Flammarion's plush chateau and follows in pursuit, with hilarious results.

Thanks to director Mitchell Leisen, who began his Hollywood career as an art director and costume designer, Midnight has a lush, luxurious feel with gorgeous sets and exquisitely tailored suits and gowns. The aura of old world aristocracy with its extravagant elegance is abundant which makes Colbert's charming freeloader's appearance there all the more delightful. Thanks to master screenwriting team Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the dialogue tossed about in and around that world sparkles and shines with biting wit. One scene has romantic rivals Colbert and Astor in a Parisian hat salon when Claudette quips to Mary: "That hat does something for you...It gives you a chin". It's not just the dialogue itself that works alone, but also the fantastic delivery by the film's stars. Colbert doesn't just spout out the "chin" line as a gag one-liner, but tosses it subtly as in normal conversation to make its sting even more potent.

Originally meant for Barbara Stanwyck, who would have done equally well using her own Stanwyck style in such a part, the role of Eve Peabody was a cinch for Claudette Colbert. One of four roles she played in 1939, her natural fun and sophistication are used to her great advantage in this film. Don Ameche, on a rare loan out from 20th Century-Fox, always seems to enjoy himself in romantic comedy and he and Colbert make a fine duo. As two of the five sides of the glorious comedic menagerie are John Barrymore and Mary Astor. Midnight was filmed late in Barrymore's tumultuous career and it shows on his face but his performance is amazingly funny. Most of his later roles were self-parodying drunks and madcap manics. He looks as if he may be tipsy as Flammarion but it gives the role all the more flair. Astor, who was pregnant during the shooting, isn't as bitchy as Helene as she has proved in other roles that she can be. She is merely catty when the situation calls for it. She is the perfect Hollywood example of the idle European rich at the time. Rounding out the cast are Czech born Francis Lederer, gossip columnist and part-time actress Hedda Hopper and in an early role, brusque and bearded Monty Wooley.

Not as well known as other Colbert comedies (everyone immediately thinks of It Happened One Night, The Palm Beach Story or The Egg and I), Midnight is an excellent film, not to be missed. It is brisk and breezy with a solid plot and tons of great humor. If the opportunity arises, catch it.

The Circle of Friends Award

Late this past week, I turned on my computer to find a very pleasant surprise waiting for me. Tristan, a fellow blogger with a most unique and interesting blog, Enchanted Revelry, an eclectic mix of art, design, theatre and general creativity, had honored Classic Movies Digest with The Circle of Friends Award. I'm very grateful to Tristan, as I genuinely admire his good taste and discriminating eye. To pass on the award, I wanted to share it with a new and upcoming blog, as Classic Movies Digest is not even six months old and I know what it's like to get a blog going and develop a following. It takes alot of work, especially to be consistent with what you hope will be viewed as high quality content. I chose Midnite at Sunset and Vine, another classic film blog written by fellow film lover Beth Madron. Keep up the good work Beth. And Tristan, please continue to inspire with your awesome images.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Woman's Face (1941): A Crawford Classic

The 1941 classic A Woman's Face is not just about any woman's face but Joan Crawford's, and what a face! Crawford was in a career slump when she made the film and would leave her longtime home studio, MGM, within two years of its release, but her role in A Woman's Face proved she could still give a powerhouse performance. The film's title is a near perfect one for a Joan Crawford movie, and in this instance, the cinematography showcases the star's face with various lighting and camera angles, making the most of her features and famous bone structure.

Joan plays Anna Holm, a Swedish woman with a huge chip on her shoulder due to a huge scar on her face (she is actually disfigured on the right side of her face due to burns suffered in her childhood). Anna is the leader of a blackmail ring, and through these shady activities, she meets the shady Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), who shows her the first romantic attention she's ever received but he has ulterior motives for his charms. In the meantime, during a rendezvous between Anna and one of her blackmail victims (Osa Massen), the adulterous woman's husband (Melvyn Douglas) comes home and lo and behold, he's the top plastic surgeon in Sweden! How convenient. After multiple operations, taa daa, he fixes Crawford's face, good as new. Back to darkly suave Torsten Barring. His plans for his newly refurbished partner in crime Crawford include her taking a post as governess to his young nephew, who stands to inherit a large fortune. Should anything happen to the tyke, the entire fortune would revert to the sly Barring. And he wants our Joan to be the boy's governess....hmmm.

First filmed in Sweden in 1938 as En Kvinnas Ansikte with Ingrid Bergman, this version is given the full MGM gloss and offers Joan Crawford one of her best roles. The star's performance is at least equivalent to her Oscar winning turn in Mildred Pierce four years later, if not perhaps a little more subtle, especially in the first half of the movie. Director of A Woman's Face, George Cukor, was also a friend of its star. Always known as a "woman's director," Cukor knew how best to handle Joan and get the most out of her performance, as he had in The Women (1939).

Melvyn Douglas, as Dr. Gustav Segert, the plastic surgeon who literally fixes Crawford's face, has a nice change of pace here in comparison to the string of comedies he'd starred in the few years prior to making A Woman's Face. Famous for making Greta Garbo laugh in 1939's Ninotchka, Douglas gives a very credible performance opposite Crawford. As the suave villain, German born Conrad Veidt is devilishly despicable. Veidt had been involved with another scar film earlier in his career as The Man Who Laughs (1928), in which he played a nobleman's son who has a permanent smile carved into his face (think per-cursor to Batman's Joker). Veidt's over the top performance at the end of the picture doesn't balance with his understated cad in the first portion.

A great cast of supporting players make excellent contributions including Marjorie Main (she's a hoot as usual, but I just don't realistically see her as the Swedish housekeeper of a large estate), Reginald Owen, Connie Gilcrist (Swedish performance via the Bronx) and Donald Meek. As little Lars Eric, moppet nephew of the evil Torsten, child actor Richard Nichols is nothing if not professional. He is so cute you can almost forgive his southern drawl in the middle of Scandinavia ("Grand-daaaddy"). He pulled similar shenanigans with dialect the previous year in the French based Bette Davis vehicle All This and Heaven Too ("Of course, Maam'selle).

So much of Joan Crawford's personal life and later campier movies get the limelight in the modern world, but roles like Anna helped bring credibility to the actress' career. As far as her time at MGM, her efforts in this film may have been too little too late, but as an installment to her filmography, A Woman's Face is grade A.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Charlie Chan: Oland or Toler (or maybe even Winters)?

The Popcorn Flick was a Saturday afternoon film showcase on local television when I was a child. It featured popular series from the golden age of Hollywood like Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, Ma and Pa Kettle with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, the Andy Hardy Series and others. You get the idea. Along with Shock Theater, another local T.V. cornucopia of old films (this one featuring classic Universal horror reels), the Popcorn Flick was one of my first experiences with classic movies and their stars. Once such character driven film set I was introduced to as a 7 year-old, who thoroughly enjoyed these things (what??!) was Charlie Chan. Though I first became aware of the Oriental detective, whose sleuthing skills took him to the Opera, the Circus (both 1936) and even to the Olympics (1937), very young, I didn't actually understand or enjoy these films until the ripe old age of 11 or so.

Three actors portrayed the low-key snoop during his popular run in the 1930's and 1940's, none of which were actually of Asian descent (there were a handful of obscure portrayals other than these well known ones). The first was Warner Oland, a Swedish actor, who played Chan until his death in 1938, when Sidney Toler, who was of Scottish American descent, took over the role. Finally upon Toler's death in 1947, Boston born Roland Winters finished out the final installments in the late 40's.
Although I have my personal favorite Chan actor, I ask, if you have ever seen any of these classic whodunits, who is your favorite?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer Storm (1944): Darnell Becomes a Bad Girl

In the early 1940's, screen beauty Linda Darnell had become stereotyped by her home studio 20th Century-Fox as a virginal young heroine, exotic of look but completely pure of heart. In Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941) and other films, she had lent her exquisite face but no real acting chops. Then in late 1943, Darnell was sent a script by an agent based on Anton Chekov's novel The Shooting Party. According to Darnell, she begged her boss, Darryl F. Zanuck, to be loaned out for the meaty role of Olga, a seductive Russian peasant. With nothing slated for the brunette beauty, Zanuck agreed, and the course of Linda Darnell's career changed forever.

Not your typical Hollywood subject matter in 1944, Summer Storm is set in pre-Revolution Russia and gave Darnell an excellent dramatic opportunity to lift herself up out of the saccharine doldrums she had found herself in the past couple of years. She plays the role of tumultuous peasant girl Olga, full of fiery passion equalled or even surpassed only by her greed and selfishness. She meets and captivates a chain of men whom she uses to first, leave the pigsty where she lived with her drunkard father, and then advance herself, both socially and financially.
As one of Darnell's conquests, Fedor Petroff, is played by George Sanders, as another, Count Volsky, by Edward Everett Horton, but as Olga works her wiles to her advantage, she pushes things to the dangerous emotional edge, pitting man against man, their passion for her causing ruin all around. As the shallow, beautiful mantrap, Darnell, although limited in her range, does quite well in her first sultry role. Her stock at Fox increased dramatically after the release of Summer Storm (through United Artists). Subsequently, the studio cast her in a succession of seductive vixen roles in films like Hangover Square, Fallen Angel (both 1945) and My Darling Clementine (1946). This persona climaxed with the actress copping the plum role of Amber St. Clare (when Brit Peggy Cummins didn't work out) in the Restoration bodice ripper Forever Amber (1947). Actually, Amber is reminiscent of Summer Storm in theme and character, and Linda smolders in both.

The Russian feel of Chekov's story is translated well. There are good examples of both pre- and post-Soviet garb and much talk of vodka. Mazurka's are played in the background, as part of the Oscar nominated score and the script is peppered with "peasant" in the first half of the film and "comrade" in the second. High production values should be no surprise since the movie was directed by Douglas Sirk, who would hit his peak in the mid 1950's with polished soapers in collaboration with producer Ross Hunter (think Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows).

The formidable George Sanders makes one of his occasional turns as the films male lead. Though very British in appearance and demeanor (his parents were English), Sanders was actually born in the same pre-Revolutionary Russia in which Summer Storm was set (the actor was born in St. Petersburg in 1906). Infamous as an on-screen cad (and sometimes off as well), as Fedor Petroff he still holds his cadhood in good stead, but this time Sanders' character shows the capacity for both love, albeit a posessive, superficial love, as opposed to a deep, self sacrificing one, and a certain degree of conscience. Anna Lee also does a fine job as Sanders betrayed fiancee.

Not often seen by modern classic movie lovers, Summer Storm is a fine little film. The showcase for Darnell, Sanders and Horton is great. It allowed each a chance to stretch their dramatic legs in roles other than those which had previously limited their respective creative juices.


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