Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Innocents (1961): Spectres of Complexity

From a solid black screen, the sound of a child, eerily singing an echoing lullaby is the first indication that the film that follows is one of a creepy and spine chilling nature. The screen remains blank for a full 44 seconds before the 20th Century-Fox studio logo slowly presents itself, the sing-song voice continuing in the background. Thus begins The Innocents (1961), a ghost story of high artistic quality. A work of psychological horror as opposed to physical. There is no gore, nor are there monsters. The principals involved are actually quite attractive; beautiful, charming children, the lovely albeit prim governess, even the ghost seen in close up is ruggedly handsome. All of which allows the imagination of the viewer to expand even further than if physical ugliness were laid before them.

When I first saw The Innocents, many years ago, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about it. I certainly didn't dislike it and I appreciated its paranormal themes, but its vagueness about some of these themes was something I wasn't used to as a teenager. However, upon later viewings with a more mature and discriminating eye, these ambiguities showed themselves as examples of masterful creativity on the part of producer/ director Jack Clayton. Clayton had been nominated for an Oscar two years prior for Room at the Top and was establishing himself as a quality director.

Based on Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film opens to an interview between a wealthy Victorian Englishman and Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), candidate for governess to his very young niece and nephew, who live away from him in his country estate. A self proclaimed "very selfish fellow," The Uncle, as he is billed, asks that the inexperienced caregiver take complete charge of the youngsters, as he wants no part in their upbringing. The former nanny, Miss Jessel, died and Miss Giddens would replace her as sole guardian. Upon her acceptance of the job, the attractive spinster is taken to the beautiful but solitary estate where she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the female half of her enchanting charge. Miles (Martin Stephens), Flora's brother is away at boarding school. Almost immediately, the governess receives word from the boy's school that he is expelled for corrupting the minds of the other lads. Mrs. Grose finds this impossible to believe, as she knows him as a spirited but innocent and loving boy. Upon his arrival home, the new governess finds Miles to be just as Mrs. Grose described; charming, outgoing and affectionate. They form a cheerful, caring bond, with Miss Giddens doting on the youthful pair.

The blissful existence discovered by the nanny is interrupted when strange occurrences take place in and around the manor house. The children become sly and secretive and Giddens starts to see a man around the place that she recognizes from a photo to be the former valet, Peter Quint. But as Mrs. Grose tells her, "It can't be, you see he's dead. Quint is dead." More eerie shenanigans and the vision of Miss Jessel looking very much alive lead to more questioning of Mrs. Grose, who reveals that the former governess and valet Quint were lovers. "Rooms, used by daylight as though they were dark woods." Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the two spirits are possessing the bodies of the children for their own evil purposes, but how can she eradicate them and save her precious wards?

The creepy nuances of The Innocents is well paced, moderately at first then building the suspense to a crescendo of rapid pace encounters of a dark nature. The music box melody from the films' introduction is sporadically scattered about for a most chilling effect. Another spooky scene is the eerie game of hide and seek between Miss Giddens, Flora and Miles. As the governess goes in search of the hidden tykes, she encounters in the decrepit, dusty attic, a toy clown jack in the box, the head of which is mysteriously bobbing about. The Gothic feel of the film is achieved with outstanding lighting and camera work. There are hints of Jane Eyre and even The Uninvited (1944), just as there are hints of this film in the 2001 Nicole Kidman yarn, The Others.

Deborah Kerr gives a memorable performance as Miss Giddens. The actress touches ever so slightly on her characters repressed sexuality and the scenes of the governess and young Miles in a mouth on mouth kiss are still considered racy even today. The Innocents was not the first nor the last time Kerr would play a governess. Five years earlier, she immortalized the role of Anna, governess to the royal children of Siam in The King and I and in 1964, she would again play caregiver to the young in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden. The child actors, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, were not allowed to see the entire script due to its adult nature. Their portrayals were eerily sublime and Franklin would go on to a fairly prosperous career. A role I found particularly favorable was that of young Flora's pet tortoise. His name is Rupert.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Boris Karloff: Did You Know?

His Frankenstein's Monster character is arguably the most recognizable horror icon in movie history. He appeared in well over 100 films and was a household name. Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in London in 1887. He made his way to America by way of Canada and was cast in dozens of films (mostly silent) before becoming infamous as The Monster in James Whale's 1931 classic Frankenstein. He and the movie were a smash hit and Karloff (as he was simply billed at times) was a star in the horror genre of film. He reprised his role twice in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) which co-starred Basil Rathbone.

Although his lengthy career included so much more both inside and outside the horror realm, even those roles are overshadowed by his signature character. The evil Oriental in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). An executed man back from the grave in The Walking Dead (1936; an excellent underrated thriller). Mord the Executioner in Tower of London (1939). James Lee Wong in the Mr. Wong mystery series. So many wonderful performances by a commanding and versatile actor.

To commemorate the life and career of this talented thespian, I wanted to point out a few interesting tidbits about Karloff that you may or may not know. What better time to honor the work of the original Monster than late October.
  • Karloff was married six times (talk about the Bride of Frankenstein!)

  • He is a great nephew of Anna Leonowens, whose life inspired the drama Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and the musical The King and I (1956)

  • He was an inspiration for the original illustrations of the Incredible Hulk

  • While filming Son of Frankenstein, the actor's daughter, Sara Karloff, was born on his 51st birthday

  • Despite his menacing screen persona, Karloff, a relatively mild mannered man, would often dress as Santa Claus for children's hospitals and parties for disabled tykes

  • He was a charter member of the Screen Actor's Guild

  • Due to his appearance in the stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace, he was unable to appear in the 1944 film version with Cary Grant and the part of Jonathon Brewster went to Raymond Massey

  • He was the narrator for the animated Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). When the tale was put to vinyl, Karloff won a Grammy in the Spoken Word category

Boris Karloff died in 1969 at the age of 81. His popularity with movie goers has only increased with passing time. His rich life and career centered around the ghouls that he created on film and that legacy continues as we enjoy his large body of work, both at this festive time as well as all year long.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Cat and the Canary (1939): Chills + Laughs = Hit!

When I was a senior in high school, I lobbied for our drama group to put on The Cat and the Canary for our annual production. We did and I was fortunate enough to win the part played by Bob Hope in the 1939 film version. It was alot of fun, though at the time, I'd never had the opportunity to see any of the film versions of this classic mystery. When I did finally see the movie, co-starring Paulette Goddard, it was just as much fun as I remembered my high school hijinks to be.

Released by Paramount in November 1939, The Cat and the Canary is one of the lesser remembered gems from that big movie year that ushered in Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and the like. It brought both its leads, Hope and Goddard, to the forefront of stardom and raked in a pretty nice profit for Paramount. Originally filmed as a silent in 1927, then again with sound as The Cat Creeps in 1930, The Cat and the Canary was based on a stage play by John Willard and was a take on the "old dark house" formula, which threw several people together in a spooky mansion of sorts with no means of escape and creepy shenanigans aplenty (Think And Then There Were None with laughs). The 1939 installment offered a winning combination of murder, mayhem and the madcap comedy of young Bob Hope, who plays Wally Campbell, one of a motley crew gathered at the eerie New Orleans estate of a dead relative for the reading of the old man's will. Paulette Goddard, stunning as usual, stars as Joyce Norman, the lucky stiff (did I say that?) who inherits the old boy's dough. The catch is if she is found to be insane, a second, separately named heir will get the loot. The codicil puts the beautiful heroine in a dangerous predicament.

Bob Hope had already been under contract to Paramount for a couple of years but hadn't found his niche. The studio wanted to take advantage of his huge popularity on radio. With the character of Wally Campbell, the bumbling, charming, comic coward, he hit the jackpot. It would be his signature film persona for the rest of his career, culminating in the "Road" pictures he made with fellow Paramount players, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Gorgeous Paulette Goddard had just finished filming the extremely popular The Women at MGM, after losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind and was under personal contract to producer David O. Selznick. Embroiled in his Civil War epic, Selznick sold Paulette's contract to Paramount when the studio offered the comely actress a seven year option. The Cat and the Canary was Goddard's first film under her new contract and was the turning point in her career. Paulette was married to comic icon Charlie Chaplin at the time Canary was made. Chaplin had been the childhood idol of her co-star Hope and during the same time the film was being shot, Bob saw Paulette and Chaplin at the Santa Anita racetrack. He went over to speak to Goddard and she introduced the two men. The awestruck Hope told his idol how he had enjoyed Modern Times (Chaplin's last silent film, released a few years prior), as well as working with Paulette. Chaplin in turn complimented the young comedian saying, "I've been watching the rushes of The Cat and the Canary every night. I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen." He was right. Hope's gags and one liners set him apart. In a scene between Wally Campbell and Cicily, another potential heir, Cicily asks: "Don't big, empty houses scare you?" to which Hope's Wally answers, "Not me, I used to be in vaudeville."

The film also featured John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Elizabeth Patterson and Gale Sondergaard, who is always a treat. The Cat and the Canary proved so popular with moviegoers that a follow up, The Ghost Breakers was rushed into production by Paramount to re-team Hope and Goddard. It met with equal success.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Laura (1944): Sophisticated Murder

Gene Tierney was "undeniably the most beautiful actress in movie history" according to her boss at 20th Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck. Indeed, she was one of the screen's most gorgeous stars, with a persona of elegance and cool sophistication. It was this graceful elegance which lent itself perfectly to Laura (1944), the stylish and sophisticated murder mystery that made her a star and is the movie with which she is most readily associated. Unusual in one respect, compared to most films of its time, the main character, Laura, doesn't appear on screen at all for the first quarter of the movie, except in the representation of a portrait above her fireplace, and for the next quarter, only in flashback.

The film begins in the plush New York City apartment of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an acid tongued, poison-penned columnist and radio personality who is being questioned by detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) while typing his newest column in his ornate bathtub (Thank goodness its not an electric typewriter....say, what's a typewriter). Detective McPherson is investigating the murder of beautiful Laura Hunt (Tierney), successful ad executive and protegee of Lydecker. McPherson's investigation finds a menagerie of decadent, amoral Manhattenites with various relationships to Laura. As the case progresses, the tough talking, hard boiled detective becomes infatuated with the portrait of the victim and obsessed with her via personal interviews and the dead woman's private papers. Falling asleep one night in Laura's apartment, under her mezmorizing portrait, he is awakened by none other than the object of his obsession. Laura is alive and it turns out that the dead woman, whose face was obliterated by the gunshot, is a model at the ad agency who was using Laura's apartment the night of the murder. So who tried to kill Laura and is she now safe?

The film was wrought with problems and delays from the outset. According to Tierney's autobiography, Jennifer Jones was originally offered the title role but refused (as did Hedy Lamarr). Stylistic director Rouben Mamoulian was originally assigned to oversee the picture but fired well into production. Producer Otto Preminger was then allowed to produce and direct the film, a job that was first denied him by boss Darryl Zanuck, due to an old grudge between the two. It turned out to be, what some call, Preminger's finest work, and the bald headed Austrian was nominated for an Academy Award.

Prissy and effete stage actor Clifton Webb was Preminger's choice for the prissy and effete character of Waldo Lydecker. Zanuck, however, didn't care for Webb, a known homosexual. After a test revealed that Webb's mannerisms were perfect for the character, Zanuck relented and the actor won both an Oscar nomination for the role as well as a long term contract with the studio. It is hard to believe that Webb's aging dandy would actually lust after the young and nubile Tierney~and even harder to believe that she would have any physical attraction to him. His interest would be seen as having more of a controlling rather than romantic nature, despite what the script might try to imply. It is also hard to imagine Laura's romantic involvement with her fiancee, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a weak, sponging Southern gigolo, who plays pattycake with Laura's wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Her vitality and vivaciousness is much more suited to the virile detective McPherson and an immediate attraction can be felt between these two. Both Tierney and Andrews had rather mediocre careers before they made the noir classic, but the films popularity made instant stars of both.

Besides the Oscar nomination for Preminger and Webb, the movie also raked in nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (B&W) and Best Cinematography (B&W). The latter won the coveted prize for Joseph LaShelle. Composer David Raksin's score was also very notable including the haunting title tune which became a beloved standard. On the strength of her performance in Laura, Tierney was cast in the plum role of Ellen in the dark Leave Her to Heaven, the following year and received her own nomination from the Academy.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): Hyde and Hopkins at Halloween

As Halloween approaches, the blogosphere will be filled with words and images devoted to the celebration of this much lauded holiday. As far as film blogs go, there is much fodder for this fun filled fright fest. Although I enjoy the Universal horror set as much as the next guy and one couldn't get more delightfully creepy than Vincent Price, I wanted to spotlight a film from a studio that was the least likely to have a reputation for scary flicks.

Paramount in 1931 was home to stars such as Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. European elegance and sophistication displayed by directors like Ernst Lubitsch became the studio's trademark. So it was unlikely that one of their top productions that year would be an installment of the scary supernatural genre. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, premiering on December 31, 1931 but generally released after the New Year, was based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story of a Victorian physician who discovers a formula which releases the dark, uninhibited side of his human nature. The sinister side, known as Hyde, is attracted to a sluttish dancehall singer while the refined and genteel Dr. Jekyll (pronounced in this version as Jee'kyll) is engaged to a mild mannered young society lady.

Arguably the best of the three famous film versions of the tale (a 1920 silent with John Barrymore and an opulent 1941 version from MGM starring Spencer Tracy), it stars Fredric March as Jekyll/Hyde, a role which garnered the actor his first Academy Award (for which he tied with Wallace Beery in The Champ). By way of early but impressive special effects and the artistry of make-up whiz Perc Westmore, the handsome March was transformed into the hideous Mr. Hyde, the carnal, brutal, decadent essence of the human dark side. This image, along with that of Lon Chaney's Phantom, Karloff's Frankenstein's monster and Lugosi's Dracula, shape the iconic image of Hollywood monsters from the early film era.

As much as Jekyll launched Fredric March into full fledged stardom, it pushed female lead Miriam Hopkins one step closer. Originally interested in the refined fiancee of Jekyll ( a role which was played by Rose Hobart), she was convinced by director Rouben Mamoulian to take the risque role of prostitute Ivy Pearson, object of Hyde's desire. With the enforcement of Hollywood's Production Code still a few years away, Hopkins' performance was quite raw and erotic and her stock in films increased considerably after her role in the film. Later the same year she would star in one of the decades most sophisticated comedies, Trouble in Paradise.

Mamoulian was an intelligent, innovative and creative director and these traits were very evident in Jekyll/Hyde. His is a very stylized production, with elaborately detailed Victorian sets, effective use of black and white as colors and several elements of the creepy kind: the camera taking in the view from Dr. Jekyll's eyes at the beginning of the film, straight on close ups of the actors faces in various forms of emotion and enthusiastic organ music, such as not heard since the Phantom of the Opera. Fine performances are given by all the principal actors and Karl Struss' excellent cinematography was nominated for an Oscar as was the writing of Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, who adapted the Stevenson classic. The mix of horror and eroticism make Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a unique and intriguing alternative to the standard spooky fare offered the classic movie lover this All Hallows Eve. Enjoy.

Monday, October 5, 2009

That Face!: More Fabulous Character Actors

A popular post on Classic Movies Digest was The Many Faces of Those Glorious Character Actors and I must say readers of the blog have good taste in their affection for the subject matter. Character actors are much loved (even the villains we love to hate) because they add so much to the films they're in. Get two or more of the real pros in a movie and you know its a good time to be had. Character roles also offer great range, covering a broad spectrum from angelic to sinister with everything in between, allowing the actor the opportunity to really sink their teeth into the part. Featured below are five further examples of superb talent whose contributions during Hollywood's golden age should never go unacknowledged.

Louise Beavers
Like her contemporary Hattie McDaniel, African-American actress Louise Beavers (pictured above) made a career of playing maids and housekeepers. She had actually been a maid before her acting career, for silent screen actress Leatrice Joy. But among the many actresses, black or white, who played such roles, she stood out from the pack, most notably in her role as Delilah Johnson in the original version of Imitation of Life (1934) with Claudette Colbert. Although still playing a maid, her Delilah, who becomes a famous pancake queen, ala Aunt Jemima, has the depth and range very rarely offered black characters of the day. Always fun and quite notable on screen, she also livened up Made for Each Other (1939), Holiday Inn (1942) and numerous other movies during the 1930's and 1940's.

Thomas Mitchell
One of the most talented and award winning supporting players of his day, Thomas Mitchell is most closely identified with two of Hollywood's most endearing and enduring classics, Gone with the Wind (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). In Frank Capra's Wonderful Life, he plays the bumbling drunken Uncle Billy and in Gone with the Wind, the versatile actor was Scarlett's pappy, Gerald O'Hara. The latter was one of five classic movies in which Mitchell appeared in 1939, the others being Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Stagecoach, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Other top tier films featuring the Jersey born thespian of Irish roots are Lost Horizon (1937), The Hurricane (1937, his first Oscar nomination) and The Black Swan (1942) co-starring Tyrone Power.

Lynn Bari
I was first taken with the sultry Lynn Bari in a midnight showing of Sun Valley Serenade (1941) several years ago. Up until that time, my limited exposure to her consisted of a small role in Margie (1946), starring Jeanne Crain, and a few film book references. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, she began her lengthy career in the early 30's as a chorus girl and extra, first at MGM, then 20th Century-Fox, which would become her home studio. She was at her best playing alluring sirens and "other woman" roles and became known as Queen of the B's on the Fox lot though she gave solid support in numerous A pictures including Serenade and its follow-up Orchestra Wives (1942), in which she plays a band singer out to break up the marriage of a fellow band member. Her shining starring moment was as co-star to Henry Fonda and Don Ameche in the Fox comedy The Magnificent Dope (1942). Always glamorous and dependable, Bari was a favorite on the movie set.

Dan Duryea
Slimy, sleazy, slick, smarmy. No these aren't demented dwarfs in an off-beat version of Snow White, they describe the kind of roles Dan Duryea was famous for in his acting career. He was great as an instigating weasel, either stirring up trouble or landing smack dab in the middle of it or both. In William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941) he reprised his stage role of smart aleck buffoon Leo, pawn to his uncle's financial shenanigans. Two film noir classics, Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) show Duryea in some of his best roles, as blackmailer and low-life pimp respectively. Other standouts for Duryea include Ministry of Fear (1944) and Winchester '73 (1950). The 1950's saw a shift in parts for the actor, primarily in the crime drama and western genres.

Ward Bond
As a supporting player in well over 100 films Ward Bond was one of Hollywood's busiest and most popular actors. He looked like a proverbial high school football coach and in fact was playing football at the University of Southern California, along side fellow teammate John Wayne when director John Ford cast them as extras in a film in 1929. The trio would make numerous films together over the next 30 years, including The Long Voyage Home (1940), Three Godfathers (1948) and The Quiet Man (1952). Like Thomas Mitchell, Bond was also featured in two of Hollywood's most popular, most viewed films, Gone with the Wind and It's a Wonderful Life, the latter as Burt, the gruff yet affable cop. During the 1950's, along with his continued film work, Bond also starred in the popular western TV series Wagon Train.

Although only a smattering of wonderful players are included in this and the previous post, there are so many more who merit whole volumes dedicated to their contributions. Thelma Ritter to name one. The two Unas, Merkel and O'Connor, Lee J. Cobb, Donald Crisp. They offer never ending entertainment and joy for all who love classic movies.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Happy Birthday George "Spanky" McFarland

Sure we all loved Spanky, the chubby cherub of the "Our Gang" series with the most pinchable cheeks in the land, but this lovable tyke was also in some great non-Gang features including two of my favorites. In The Trail of the Lonsome Pine (1936) he plays little Buddie, youngest of the feuding Tolliver family and for you noir fans, you may remember an older McFarland was the Boy Scout who found a dead body in the woods in Woman in the Window (1944).

McFarland died in 1993 at the age of 64, but will always be remembered for the joy and fun he brought to millions. Happy Birthday Spanky!


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