Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941): The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Sam Spade. An iconic figure in both American cinema as well as American literary fiction. Dashiell Hammett's famed detective cemented stardom for screen legend Humphrey Bogart and Hammett's famed story, The Maltese Falcon, offered a solid directorial debut for legendary filmmaker John Huston. Considered by some the first film noir, The Maltese Falcon was an early 1940's crime drama produced at Warner Brothers, master of this film genre, with an eclectic array of tough talking, fast moving oddball characters who come together with one common goal....possession of a priceless black falcon statue.

Moving at a lightning pace, the film is a masterpiece of mystery, crime, tough dialogue and suspense. Warners had made two less successful versions in the 1930's, one under the original title in 1931, then as Satan Met a Lady in 1936 with young Bette Davis (Davis counted this version among her worst films). The 1941 Huston version is a tight, sophisticated and complicated film, well received by critics and audiences alike and faithful to Hammett's book.

The story revolves around a small statue of a falcon, whose history dates back centuries and whose value certain parties place higher than human life. Bogart plays detective Sam Spade, who is drawn into the intrigue regarding the recovery of the sculpture by the beautiful and lethal Brigid O'Shaunessey (Mary Astor). Brigid's false tale of a missing sister gets private dick Slade on the trail of the valuable bird, only to meet others also in hot pursuit of the object, including notably iconic Hammett characters weaselly and effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); youthful killer Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.); and menacing "Fatman" Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

Like many other screenwriters cum directors of the day, Huston, as screenwriter, tired of others directing ~ and rewriting~ his work, sought and was granted by the powers that be (aka Jack Warner), the task of bringing the third version of the famed crime thriller to the screen. Bogart, for the second time in less than a year lucked out thanks to the poor judgement of star George Raft. Months earlier Raft refused the role of Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in Warner's High Sierra. Bogart's casting in the Earle role was the impetus for his starring career and when Raft refused the role of Spade in Falcon, Bogart was again given his cast-off, made it his own and became a star. The role of femme fatale Brigid O'Shaunessey was originally set to be played by Warner contract player Geraldine Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald went east to take a job on the stage and Mary Astor was delighted to take the juicy part of deceptive O'Shaunessey. Along with her Oscar winning role later the same year in The Great Lie, her part in The Maltese Falcon would be her most famous (on screen anyway, as she had a very colorful offscreen life).

Everyone else in the cast is simply superb. Greenstreet, over sixty and roughly 300 lbs., made an unforgettable film debut as the baleful and bloated Kasper Gutman, code name "The Fat Man". In Falcon, he skillfully perfected the portly prototype of villain that he would portray throughout his film career. Cook truly looks like he's about to lose it, as gunsel Wilmer, with crazed look in his eyes and cold blooded murder in his heart. He and fellow Falcon co-star Lee Patrick (who plays Bogart's trusted secretary Effie) appeared in a 1970's spoof of the film called The Black Bird. Actor Walter Huston, father of the film's director, made an unbilled (and unpaid) cameo, as a victim of the statues lethal value.

The Maltese Falcon has been copied, spoofed and parodied, but the style and success of the Huston film cannot be duplicated. The parts of his masterpiece fit too perfectly together. Bogart became as synonymous with Sam Spade as he would with Casablanca's Rick a year later, and the professional and personal bond forged between he and director Huston would remain strong until Bogart's death in 1957.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Barbary Coast (1935): The Gangs of San Francisco?

In Edward G. Robinson's autobiography, he relates his on-set relationship with his co-star Miriam Hopkins, during the filming of their joint venture, Barbary Coast (1935). According to Robinson (and many others through the years), Hopkins was a diva extraordinaire, snobby, impossible to deal with and constantly late to the set, making cast and crew wait to prove she was the true star of the film. When Robinson finally called her on her behavior, she egged him on to give it all he had in an upcoming scene were he was supposed to slap her. When the time came, he did just that and received a roaring burst of applause from the entire crew. So was the backstage atmosphere for Barbary Coast.

The film was inspired by a book called The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underground by Herbert Asbury, who also authored The Gangs of New York. The latter story was a gritty period piece which was famously filmed in 2001 by director Martin Scorsese and starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo diCaprio and Cameron Diaz. While the story lines of the movies do not mirror one another, there are similarities; older, darker bad guy (Edward G. Robinson/Day-Lewis), younger romantic guy (Joel McCrea/diCaprio) and blonde cutie (Miriam Hopkins/Diaz), all gathered within a lusty, boisterous male driven setting almost two centuries ago. But this is not a comparison of the two films, merely an acknowledgement that they are based on work by the same author.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn had read the Barbary Coast story and wanted to film it as early as 1933. At one point the film was thought to be a comeback film for silent star Gloria Swanson and Goldwyn also contemplated it as a vehicle for his European "discovery" Anna Sten (his answer to Garbo) and Gary Cooper, but when the first few pictures Sten did for the producer flopped, he backed off. The final verdict was Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, Goldwyn regulars in the mid 1930's. Robinson, borrowed from Warner Brothers, rounded out the starring cast. Noted director Howard Hawks was set to oversee the film, while the renowned writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur handled the script.

The story isn't an extremely complicated one. Mary "Swan" Rutledge comes to old San Francisco during the famed Gold Rush of the 1840's, with its muddy streets and rugged, dangerous atmosphere, as a mail order bride for a wealthy saloon owner. She finds instead that her "beloved" has been murdered and his fortune overtaken by rival Luis Chamalis (Robinson). Intent on getting her share of the dead man's money, she cozies up to the loud and barbaric Chamalis, who puts her in his place, the Bella Donna, running a crooked roulette wheel. She is content to make money and be the belle of the ball (one of the few white women in Frisco at the time) when she accidentally meets up with a poety readin', deep thinkin', nice lookin' prospector named Jim (McCrea). Drawn to Jim but not daring to hope they could be together due to what kind of gal she is/has become, she goes back to her roulette wheel, Jim none the wiser. On his way out of town, Jim stops in at the Bella Donna to find Swan in her Jezebel garb and men aplenty. She gets embarrassed, he loses his gold and Chamalis gets suspicious. Enough for now, no spoilers here.

Miriam Hopkins may have been a prima donna both on-screen and off but her career was in high gear during the filming of Barbary Coast. She had just finished making Becky Sharp, based on Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which was notable in film history as the first feature ever filmed in full Technicolor. For her efforts in Sharp, she would be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and begin her rich association with Goldwyn. Joel McCrea, always a favorite in Hollywood, didn't have much to do in the film except look attractive and let Robinson chase him around. Still his good guy persona stood him well and his career continued to flourish. Also cast was Walter Brennan, an extra and bit player for years. According to the Howard Hawks biography, "The Grey Fox of Hollywood", Brennan went to his audition and asked "With or without", to which he was asked, with or without what. He was talking about his dentures and did the test without his falsies. He not only gained the role but the part was gradually expanded until he ended up with fourth billing! As another example of his continued success, Brennan was awarded the very first Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year for his role in Come and Get It. Brian Donlevy is another up and coming wannabe who gained great success after appearing in Coast as Robinson's henchman, Knuckles (boy was he a chipper chap).

With the production values afforded a Goldwyn picture, the tight direction of Hawks and the fiery performances of Hopkins and Robinson, Barbary Coast is a very worthwhile flick. Catch it if for no other reason than to see Edward G. with muttonchop sideburns, fluffy, puffy shirts and a single dangling earring. A long way he is from the milquetoast in Scarlet Street for sure.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Well, I Saw Them All......Almost

Last summer, I wrote a piece on 13 classic movies I'd never seen, but wanted to. After watching about a third of the films listed, I wrote an update on the list, giving my opinion on my first viewing of these films. After several months of searching and watching, this blogger is happy to say that he has successfully watched all but two of the original 13 movies with one of the remaining two in my possession, waiting to be watched. Alas, one film continues to elude me. Hotel for Women (1939). Neither hide nor hair have I seen of this movie my many years on this planet. However, of the rest I wish to offer my take, humble as it may be.

The first four films were covered in the first update. If you haven't read that post, you can catch it here. For some of the movies listed I have written full blown posts and their links are listed below. Here goes.

Citizen Kane (1941) When I let it be known that this screen classic had eluded me the response was overwhelming. So I bit the bullet, snagged a copy and proceeded to watch.

Meet John Doe (1941) I've always enjoyed both Cooper and Stanwyck and Capra's no slouch either. Put them all together and you've got a winning film. Read Full Article

Trade Winds (1938) More than lived up to my expectations, not one of the greatest films ever made, but fluffy entertainment and it indeed entertained. Read Full Article

House Across the Bay (1940) George Raft, Joan Bennett, Walter Pidgeon. A standard yarn of glamorous Bennett waiting for imprisoned Raft, who is in Alcatraz. Pidgeon comes along and, well, you get the picture.
Initial appeal for me: Joan Bennett! One of my favorite female stars of the silver screen, so any opportunity to see her in an obscure film (which this is) is a welcome one.
My opinion: Not the first candidate to win the Oscar for Best Picture for sure, but more than held my interest, especially since it had three good stars leading the cast.

They Won't Forget (1937) Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Lana Turner. Based on a novel called Murder in the Deep South, They Won't Forget is the tale of the murder of a young girl in a small southern town and the susequent trial of her accused attacker.
Initial appeal for me: Always a fan of the great Claude Rains, everything I'd read about this film was positive. Also it was an interesting novelty as the first substantial role for future superstar Lana Turner, as the murdered girl.
My opinion: Powerful drama, with Rains first rate as usual and as expected. Turner's not bad either, Southern accent and all.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene. Although several film versions of the infamous sleuth Sherlock Holmes were made both before and after this 1939 classic, Rathbone's Holmes is by far the definitive one. This was the first Rathbone/Bruce pairing in the roles of Holmes and his trusty companion Dr. Watson, and spurred an entire series based on the characters.
Initial appeal for me: I've always been a fan of the series but had never been able to see this first film until recently. Holmes will always be the best Holmes in my opinion and 20th Century-Fox gave this the full A picture treatment.
My opinion: Wonderful film with great atmosphere and superb performances from all involved, particularly Basil Rathbone. A follow-up, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was produced later the same year!

The Sign of the Cross (1932) Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton. Cecil B. DeMille's epic tale of Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero. A pre-Code spectacle as only DeMille could pull off.
Initial appeal for me: What's not to be intrigued about? Christians being eaten by lions, lesbian dances, baths in asses milk (yes, Miss Colbert is bathing in a gigantic pool of asses milk), orgies, lust, all set to a pace by master showman Cecil.
My opinion: It was quite a show for the eyes, but a little disappointing in script and performance. High camp at times, particularly Charles Laughton as Nero, I'm not sorry I watched The Sign of the Cross, but I expected more.

The final film, aside from Hotel for Women is All Through the Night (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart. I have Night and plan to catch it soon. So there you have it. Pretty good work after six months or so, to collect and watch several movies that I haven't had a chance to see over the years. As stated in the earlier, original post, these aren't the only films I haven't seen that intrigued me just a good example. In the future, I think I'll share a few films that I haven't seen that might surprise you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Three on a Match (1932): Everything a Pre-Code Should Be

Before Hollywood decided to censor itself in the mid 1930's with the Production code out of the Will Hayes office, vice ran rampant on the silver screen. Sex, violence, drugs, alcohol (even during Prohibition in the early 30's and before); all things tawdry and unseemly were displayed for the world to gawk at and enjoy with their popcorn. Of all studios, nobody showed the seedier side of pre-code films better than Warner Brothers. Paramount and MGM may have made sex and the post Jazz Age sparkle but Warners threw in grit and grime, and one of the best examples of their pre-code sizzle was Three on a Match (1932). The intriguing title is attributed to the notion during World War I that a single match lit long enough to light three soldiers' cigarettes could cause attack from enemy gunfire and the last to light up would be killed. However, it was later claimed that a match company started the superstition to increase its sales.

The three on a match are Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis, who play school girl acquaintances who meet up in adulthood having gone down very different paths. Mary (Blondell) was the girl who cut class to smoke with boys, went to reform school and is now a feisty showgirl (what else for the feisty Blondell). Vivien (Dvorak) was a stuck up priss who ended up in a swank boarding school and is now married to a wealthy attorney, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Lastly is Ruth (Davis), the studious one of the three who completes business college and is a career girl. There's alot of Valley of the Dolls in this story. The focus of the film remains on Vivien, a bored and spoiled wife of a rich man. When she rebuffs his amorous advances, he suggests she take a trip by herself (WHAT?). Instead she takes their young son Junior along and the two proceed on a European cruise. En route Vivien begins an affair with a slick and virile gambler, to whom she was introduced by school chum Mary. Viv leaves the ship with the thug, Junior in tow, at a European port. Frantic, Robert searches high and low for his family with no success until Mary gives him the information he needs to find them.

Third billed is 24 year-old Bette Davis, but don't be fooled, this is not a BD movie. Her diminutive role doesn't even rate the billing she receives. It's not her fault mind you, she does what she can with the weak material her character is given. Any accolades for acting must go to Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell. Dvorak is rather lackluster in the first half of the film, as the spoiled, wandering wife of wealthy William, but as she descends into a pit of carnality and eventually drug addiction, she is splendid to watch. When she has hit rock bottom, with her illicit lothario, she is shown in the dingiest of flats, repeatedly wiping her cocaine addicted nose. Warren William plays the urbane, smooth character he did so well in films of the period. Forgotten by many today, both he and Dvorak offered interesting and dynamic characterizations in many pre and post code films.

In a small but forceful part is Humphrey Bogart. As one of the dozens of sinister hoodlums he portrayed before finally achieving stardom, Bogie doesn't disappoint. He leers and sneers and is just nasty through and through. Great stuff. Also in an early "heavy" role (pardon the pun) is the terrific Edward Arnold. Directed by the talented Mervyn LeRoy (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, The Wizard of Oz), one of the films greatest assets is its quick pacing and compactness. With a total running time of only 63 minutes, its short even for a picture of its period. But so much is packed into the 63 minutes that there is not time for a dull moment. Like other dramas of the pre-code era, the message is short but sweet ~ at least figuratively. A story could be told by cutting to the chase. The film's climax is powerful and chilling, a tour de force by Dvorak. There is nothing watered down here. No, I'm not going to spoil it for you , its something you must see for yourself.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Trade Winds (1938): A Tale of Two Blondes

As the title of this article references, Trade Winds, released by United Artist in 1938, owes much of its success to two attractive blondes, Joan Bennett and Ann Sothern. However, Bennett and Sothern arguably owe much more to the film for the career boosting turn it gave each of them respectively. This light mystery-comedy-suspense yarn is fun on more than one level and both of its female stars made the most of what it offered them.

San Francisco, 1938. Kay Kerrigan (Bennett), a beautiful, blonde socialite, confronts and shoots her dead sister's lover when he proves to be a cad supreme, by admitting he practically put her sis in the morgue. Realizing what a pickle she's in, the blonde cutie dyes her hair black, changes her name and takes it on the lam across southeast Asia. Close on her heels is detective Sam Wye (Fredric March), a skirt chasing gumshoe who's out to collect the $100K reward for Kerrigan's capture. Also in tow is Wye's fast talking, wise cracking dame of a secretary Jean (Sothern), who is out to collect a wedding ring from her boss. Along for the crazy ride is police detective Ben Blodgett (Ralph Bellamy), a long legged, dull witted flat foot who likes to flash his badge at the drop of a hat. As Wye pursues and catches up with his beautiful prey incognito, he falls hard for her and she for him, which makes their pickle a double The globe trotting continues and Wye is faced with a choice, turn his lady love in or face a life on the run with her.

Joan Bennett had been a popular blonde about Hollywood for years when she made Trade Winds. The script called for her to darken her hair in order to skirt the law and change her appearance. The film's producer and Bennett's future husband, Walter Wanger, was taken with the striking resemblance his muse had to new hot property Hedy Lamarr, in her scenes as a brunette. As a result, Joan kept the look, both personally and professionally and began to get better parts. The change was so noticeable that it even elicited a musical response from none other than Cole Porter, who penned this line in his song, "Let's Not Talk About Love": "Let's speak of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair; why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair?" ( In a side note, Bennett divorced husband Gene Markey in 1937, the year before Trade Winds was released and eventually married Wanger. Wanger had produced Lamarr's American film debut Algiers earlier in 1938. Lamarr then married Markey the next year, 1939....oh the Golden Age of Hollywood!) The change made Joan appear more sultry and combined with the exotic locales presented in Trade Winds ~ via back screen projection ~ her days as a sweet blonde ingenue were numbered and the femme fatale Bennett of 40's film noir was soon to emerge.

Ann Sothern had also suffered a rather lackluster career, leaving a none too promising stint at Columbia Pictures and RKO respectively. When independent producer Wanger offered her the second female part in Trade Winds, she showed promise as a comedic gem. Meanwhile, over at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a script originally intended for blonde bombshell Jean Harlow had been shelved due to Harlow's untimely death in 1937. When Metro producer J. Walter Rubin saw Sothern in Wanger's film, he thought she'd fit the Harlow role well and she was subsequently cast. The film was titled Maisie and it not only made Sothern a star in her own right, but won her a long term contract with prestigious MGM. She graced all ten films in the popular Maisie series, with her showgirl charm and wise-cracking wit.

The film's leading man, Fredric March on the other hand was riding a career high. The previous year March had great successes with the David O. Selznick productions Nothing Sacred and the original A Star is Born, the latter for which the actor received an Oscar nomination. Though better in heavy drama, March handled himself well in the light comedy. Still it must be noted that he seemed more at ease during the dramatic moments of Trade Winds. Rounding out the frantic foursome, Ralph Bellamy had also just come out of 1937 quite successfully with his unforgettable appearance as the wealthy rube in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, for which he too was Oscar nominated. The perennial second lead, Bellamy doesn't come off nearly as good in this film as he did in Truth, but gave a worthy performance nonetheless. A quick mention must be made for a quick appearance by the terrific Joyce Compton, blink and you might miss her. Though she doesn't use her comic skills in this film, just knowing what great personality she has bottled up as evidence of her other great film bits, is a pleasure.

No heavy drama here, but it is fun to watch the ultra chic Bennett gadding about the remote islands and isolated areas of pre-war Asia in elegant garb created for her by designer Irene, while speaking in her most polished finishing school way. One would think she just stepped out of a Manhattan salon instead of a native hut. Lucky she was having the smart and savvy Wanger guiding her career and luckier still donning that dark wig.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Margie (1946): The Roaring 20's, High School Style

When studio heads at 20th Century-Fox cast Jeanne Crain in State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven in 1945, they were continuing a two year process of grooming the actress for stardom. At 20 years-old, the former beauty queen was making a big splash at Fox and early in 1946 she began production of the first film she would carry on her name alone, Margie. It was enough to garner her, and the film, a Life magazine cover later that year (above).

Margie is an utterly charming period piece which pays homage to the Roaring Twenties in small town America. References are made to flag pole sitting, gold fish eating and raccoon skin coats, all set to background music via Rudy Vallee, who according to an older Margie, relaying stories of her youth to her teenaged daughter, "was the Frank Sinatra of his day." Margie MacDuff is a naive, socially awkward, painfully shy (and quite pretty, though strangely unaware of it) Ohio teen, coming of age in the 1920's. Shot in glorious crayon coated Technicolor, the story chronicles Margie's angst regarding high school, boys and the senior prom. Although not technically a musical, the film is scattered with great songs of the era, used as background or sung in a way to set the mood, not as mere performance.

Crain is lovely as the title character. The Cinderella story projects her for more than three quarters of the movie in pigtails and/or a knit stocking hat, wearing sailor suits only to blossom in the final scenes as the flower that classic film lovers know as Jeanne Crain. The actress' youth and lack of long term screen experience are evident but work in her favor as the bashful youngster. Filmed in and around Reno, director Henry King is said to have dismissed the University of Nevada co-eds hired as extras because next to Crain they looked too old to be students at Central High. He replaced them with Reno High School kids.

Rich in character and visual detail, Margie is filled with solid performances and touching vignettes, both tender and sweet as well as funny and familiar. Jeanne is supported by a host of marvelous actors, including the grumpy and frumpy Esther Dale as her no-nonsense, independent minded grandmother, a former suffragette who encourages Margie to become the first woman president of the United States. Blonde and leggy Barbara Lawrence is pretty and svelte as high school vamp Marybelle Tenner, one of "those girls" who rouges her knees and according to Margie's grandmother, uses "too much lip goo." As the high school's dime store Romeo and Marybelle's boyfriend, Johnny "Johnnykins" Green, is Conrad Janis. Slim and with a full head of hair, Janis is many years away from his role as Pam Dawber's father on the 70's sitcom "Mork and Mindy." Also an actor with a future in television, Alan Young makes his film debut as Roy Hornsdale, Margie's nerdy, poetry reading suitor. Young would become famous as the ever suffering Wilbur on T.V.'s "Mister Ed." Rounding out the particulars are Glenn Langan and Lynn Bari. Langan, as the new French teacher oogled by all the female students, was being groomed by Fox as a new heartthrob, but his career never really jelled. Bari on the other hand, had been a staple on the Fox lot for over a decade and was actually in the last stage of her career at that studio when the film was produced. As Miss Palmer, the school librarian, she offers just the right mix of glamour and sultry (wish my librarian had looked like her).

As stated earlier, music plays an important role in Margie. Lawrence gives an enthusiastic rendition of "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You" while spooning with Johnnykins on her front porch. In a wonderful bit of direction, King cuts the scene to Margie's dimly lit attic bedroom next door, where the music can be heard drifting in through the open window (these people were constantly opening their windows with snow on the ground). As our heroine is studying, she hums the tune and the scene is allowed to take its time to unfold at a slow, leisurely pace, so the viewer is able to savor the color and comely Crain in soft, low key lighting and silhouettes.

A definite box office winner for Fox, Margie advanced Jeanne Crain's career even further. The sentimental nostalgia evoked by the film was a boon to the studio with immediate post war audiences ready for the warm fuzzies it relayed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


As the new year begins, it is not only a time to start new diet and exercise plans (good luck on those), new regimens that make one feel better mentally, spiritually and emotionally, but also a time to enjoy even more great classic films. With the winter solstice barely passed, there is a two and a half month span before the spring equinox, a perfect time to stay in and enjoy a great old movie.

Thanks to wonderfully generous and thoughtful friends and family members, the film collection from which I draw my inspiration for the material written on Classic Movies Digest has grown substantially this past year. With that said, I hope to share even more great film information, observations and discussion with the readers of this blog regarding both our well known favorites as well as many of the more obscure, but just as wonderful gems, yet to be discovered by many.

One special event that I'm excited about is a Classic Movies Digest Readers Choice post which will be detailed later in the month. I hope everyone will take part as I look forward to your input. Some other topics coming in the next few weeks are a final update on the 13 Classic Movies I've Never Seen...But Really Want To and posts discussing two of my personal favorite films.

I'd like to again thank all the loyal readers of Classic Movies Digest for their support and participation in 2009 and look forward to even more classic movie fellowship in 2010. Drop me a line at and let me know if there is something you see that might improve this blog or its contents or just say Hi. Also, follow me on Facebook if you are so inclined. I always enjoy meeting other classic movie lovers. Happy New Year!


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