Sunday, February 28, 2010

Can You Guess Who This Is?

Can you guess who am I? Surely you know me. No hints, just check out the gleam in my eye.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Whisperers (1967): Are You There?

Few, if any, films present the loneliness of old age as starkly as Bryan Forbes' The Whisperers (1967), and few actresses have shown the depth of character for such a topic as Dame Edith Evans does in this film. The Whisperers is Evans' tour de force. Nominated for an American Academy Award, she lost out to Katherine Hepburn (as so many before and after her), but her performance in the film was so effective and absorbing that she was not only nominated but won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, the National Board of Review Award, the Golden Globe and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award (BAFTA), all as Best Actress.

Evans' is best known as a haughty, aristocrat in films like The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Tom Jones (1963) and The Chalk Garden (1964), even displaying a lofty indifference as the Ghost of Christmas Past in 1970's Scrooge. But her character in The Whisperers is the exact opposite. Mrs. Margaret Ross is an elderly, mentally fragile, poverty stricken woman, living on the dole in a dingy flat in Manchester, England. Friendless and with no family of any help to her, she finds a lone friend in a compassionate social worker (Gerald Sim). Her onset of senility has her imagining voices coming from her ancient radio or the pipes of her decrepit plumbing. Her daily routine consists of singing hymns with a host of fellow unfortunates at a local soup kitchen and trying to warm her feet on a heating duct at the free library. Her quiet, lonely existence is sent into upheaval when her worthless son shows up ~ possibly the first time in years ~ with a parcel, which unbeknownst to Mrs. Ross, contains stolen loot, which he hopes to hide in her shabby hovel. When she discovers the ill-gotten gains, her feeble mind believes it is the inheritance she has long waited for. Her troubles only truly begin when she meets a shady lady out to steal the money, lands in hospital with pneumonia and has her long lost, no good husband cast upon her as caregiver.

If indeed Dame Edith is the whole show ~ and she is ~ the support offered her by a plethora of wonderful British actors is just as substantial. As her deadbeat husband, Archie Ross, veteran actor Eric Portman gives one of his final performances. His Archie is a vagabond mooch, who is coerced by the authorities to see to his deserted wife after her bout with pneumonia. Another winning performance is by Gerald Sim. As Mr. Conrad, the social worker who takes a personal interest in the desolate and destitute Mrs. Ross, Sim offers a sympathetic portrayal of what could have been another standard part swept under the cinematic rug. Ronald Frasier and Avis Bunnage also do a fine job as Ross' worthless son and a degenerate con woman respectively. The only complaint is for Nanette Newman. As the director's wife, Ms. Newman received third billing for less than half dozen or so lines in a part that could have easily been edited. Although very attractive, Ms. Newman, aka Mrs. Forbes, appeared in the film in a beefed up part, apparently the recipient of good nepotism.

The moody and very atmospheric score is by multi award winning composer John Barry and the low-key cinematography by Gerry Turpin, both turning in winning elements to the emotionally draining story. Not for the faint of heart, The Whisperers has very mature and thought provoking themes. It even touches on the subjects of elderly sexual relations, interracial cohabitation, and even the briefest hint of incest (when Evans' would be assailant, father and daughter, give one another knowing smirks). But the overwhelming commentary is on aging and poverty, and that commentary is brought to the screen both thoughtfully and sensitively. It's message is one that is as important and prevalent today in the United States as it was in Great Britain, circa 1967.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

100 Blog Posts: How About 101?

When I started writing Classic Movies Digest last spring, I had no idea I would eventually write 100 posts. I had no idea how many posts I would write, I just wanted to share my love of classic movies with anyone who wanted to read what I had to say and share that love with me. Well, I am happy to say the response has been tremendous and I have enjoyed meeting a wide variety of fellow classic movie enthusiasts. To celebrate the milestone, I requested your input, what readers wanted to see for the 100th article, and based on comments, e-mails and various messages and requests, the following is the response of the masses. Thanks to everyone who participated and to all readers of CMD.

Silent Transition: Can You Hear Me Now?

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" Those were the first words spoken in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first "talkie" movie, partially anyway. It was the first feature film that bridged the gap from silents, the only films the world had known, to the sound era of filmmaking. Released by Warner Brothers in fall of 1927, the studio would release Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature film, the following year and with that, there was no turning back. Audiences flocked to the new kind of movie and box office takes were too profitable to ignore, even by those who at first called the concept a "fad". It was a transition famously ~ and creatively ~ lampooned in the classic musical Singin' in the Rain (1952), but the conversion to sound didn't come without its casualties. Talent went to the wayside in droves, some, superstars of their time.

Many of the most celebrated stars of the silent era were of foreign birth and thick accents were given as the major reason for their fall from box office grace. Pola Negri, notable paramour of Chaplin and Valentino, was one such case. Her Polish accent apparently so thick it was deemed practically inaudible. Poor sound technology didn't help these situations surely, nonetheless, Paramount declined to renew her contract. Swedish icon Greta Garbo, on the other hand, not only made the transition successfully but thrived in sound films. Her Anna Christie (1930) actually heralded her sound debut with banner headers screaming "GARBO TALKS!" to movie-goers. Her reign at MGM was only strengthened, and her famed low profile only caused audiences and fans to want to hear her talk all the more.

As for paramours, Garbo's lover and would be husband, John Gilbert, was one of the sound era's most beleaguered victims. Once rivaled only by Rudolph Valentino as the ultimate male sex symbol of the silent period, the problems with his post silent career went far further than mere sound mechanics. As the story goes, his predicament began with his proposed marriage to the elusive Miss Garbo. In 1926, he and Greta were to take part in a double wedding ceremony with director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman. Garbo was a no show. MGM head honcho and Gilbert and Garbo's boss, Louis B. Mayer, attending the nuptials, made a nasty crack about John's bride-to-be and Gilbert socked him. According to Miss Boardman, Mayer swore to wreck the actor's career. There was no love lost between these two men even before the incident, so the skirmish only brought to a head the tension between them. When Gilbert made his talking debut in This Glorious Night (1929), his voice came across as too high pitched to make him a viable screen lover. Also, his constant use of the phrase "I love you" was sniggered at by audiences and parodied in the afore mentioned Singin' in the Rain. Legend is that Mayer had the sound manipulated in the film to make Gilbert's voice less than suitable. Lack of support from his studio, heartbreak over his failed romance and alcohol all played a part in his demise.

Others who didn't withstand the test of time were superstar Clara Bow (above). The "It" Girl had a Brooklyn accent which supposedly the public didn't readily identify with their beloved sex goddess. Bow's voice actually wasn't much different from any of her contemporaries who also came from the New York borough, Barbara Stanwyck for instance, and time has shown that her career problems stemmed more from her personal demons than public acceptance. Some, like Bow, crossed over but didn't sustain their stardom. Ramon Navarro, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson to name a few (Swanson would gloriously mock her own decline in her classic "comeback", Sunset Boulevard (1950) ). Chaplin didn't even bother until 1940.

Then there were those who, like Garbo, crossed over and blossomed in the age of talkies. Joan Crawford (left), everybody's favorite flapper, not only made the successful transition but reinvented herself numerous times to sustain her career for decades to come. She went from 20's flapper, to 30's working girl, to 40's noir dame to 50's hardcore queen bee to 60's campy horror icon. Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman and Janet Gaynor are great examples of those who excelled on both sides of the celluloid fence. But with the onset of sound, the time was right for change regardless. Stage actors came on the scene, those who had both faces and voices that they knew how to use. Of this crop, those who moved in to stay included Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and a slew of others. The chase was on and the newbies were ahead of the game.

Whether he knew he was being prophetic or not in The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson was right, we hadn't heard nothin' yet. Paging Lina Lamont.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Red Dust (1932): Sex in the Tropics

Sex. It permeates almost every frame of the pre-Code classic Red Dust (1932), and why shouldn't it? It starred Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, both at their physical peak and professionally, well, this film shot them to superstardom. It was raw, it was wanton and, if audience attendance was any indicator, it was extremely entertaining. In the world of pre-Code Hollywood (the time before the Hollywood censors would banish any naughty behaviour onscreen), Red Dust fairly reeks of sex with nary a nude scene or onscreen intercourse. Who needed these things with Gable's virile masculinity and Harlow's open sensuality coming together with a charged electricity that crackles in front of the camera (and if rumour is correct, behind it as well).

Set on a rubber plantation in Indochina, Red Dust smells of rugged machismo, Gable and his cronies out in the middle of nowhere, cultivating raw rubber "so some old lady somewhere can take a hot water bottle to bed with her". Enter stage left, Harlow as Vantine, a fun loving harlot on the run from officials in Saigon, who shows plenty of leg, along with everything else. Just as she and Denny (Gable) are getting cosy, enter stage right, Gene Raymond (usually the partner to Ann Sothern in a series of lighthearted romps) and Mary Astor as Gary and Barbara "Babs" Willis, the plantation's new surveyor and his prim, proper and quite pulsating new wife. Gary is immediately stricken with malaria, giving Denny and Babs a chance to ignite a few sparks of their own. Vantine, not the kind of gal who takes a back seat quietly (not alone anyway), lashes out with wisecracks aplenty, making some of the snappiest dialogue this side of the Hays office.

Dialogue was one of the best ~and most brazen~ assets the film had going for it, second to its zesty stars. When Harlow's Vantine first encounters Gable's Denny and his male assistant, she playfully asks them, "What else do you do besides work? Do you play any games?". As her constant chatter irritates a grumpy Denny, he finally shouts, "Do you want me to slap you out of this room?", to which she retorts, "You and what man's army?", and of course this verbal sparring leads to eventual laughter and a seductive fade out. Harlow is ready for Gable. He manhandles her just the way she likes to be manhandled.

The film is not the typical fare produced by MGM at the time. The mega studio had no glamorous backdrop to present its stars and yet, it was immensely popular with the public. The film's director, Victor Fleming, was a "man's man" and a close friend to the macho Gable. Red Dust was the kind of film Fleming thrived on (he also directed Gable in 1939's Gone with the Wind). Gable's role as Denny was originally thought to be filled by silent film star John Gilbert, but studio politics and boss Louis B. Mayer nixed the idea and Gable came away famous.

The movie's tropical setting only adds to the heat already generated by its cast. As Barbara, Mary Astor is even more unwillingly libertine in her adulterous lust for Gable's Denny when one knows the background of the actress' torrid and infamous real life amours. The fireworks are in their scenes together as well. Early on when Astor slaps Gable hard for a verbal offense, he enjoys it, grinning that Gable grin from ear to ear. Then she can barely conceal her growing desire for him as she watches the strong, dark and commanding Denny hold her fair and weak husband, nursing him back to health from the fever. The comparison of the two is indeed notable to the tingly Astor. Then in the scene immediately following, Vantine happily and boldly watches Denny undress for bed, only to be told to go to her own, which she does in disappointment. These two ladies have it bad. The wise-cracking, off color dialogue continues when a disgruntled Harlow proclaims to the parrot, whose cage she is cleaning: "What you been eatin', cement?" The steamy shenanigans culminate in a carnal wrestling match between Denny and Vantine, which ends with our anti-hero being shot in the torso by a jealous Babs.

Jean Harlow was only 21 when Red Dust was released but her erotic, world wise persona is decades older. MGM slated their new cash cow couple into several popular money makers over the next five years. Harlow's last film before her untimely death in 1937 was Saratoga, again with Gable.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I WANT YOU!: Reader's Choice

Ah, time is indeed fleeting and although it seems like just days ago that I introduced CLASSIC MOVIES DIGEST to the ever growing blogosphere, I am rapidly approaching my 100th post on the blog! I have tried to cover many topics and discuss a wide variety of film genres over the course of 90 some odd posts but for the big 1-0-0, I'd like for it to be your choice, as a loyal reader of CMD, as to what the milestone post will cover.

Have a favorite film? Or just one that you don't know as much about as you'd like? Classic star or director? Or maybe you'd like my take on a certain classic film related topic? You tell me.

I'd love to hear from you. I'll be taking suggestions for the next week via comments on this blog, my Facebook account, where I can be found at Rupert Alistair, Twitter, again RupertAlistair or email me at . I'll look at all suggestions and take the majority, or if there is no majority, I will use the highly scientific and most up to date methods in the technical classic movie world.......I will draw from a hat.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kitty (1945): Paulette at Her Peak

In 1944, Kathleen Winsor's novel Forever Amber swept the country. The tale of a lusty British wench who sleeps her way to the court of Charles II both titillated and fascinated readers. It didn't take Hollywood long to start clamouring for the rights to the story. In the end 20th Century-Fox claimed the blockbuster tale, but Paramount, not willing to be left in the dust, started production of its own Amber facsimile, Kitty, which premiered two years before its cinematic rival. Complete credit for the gorgeous period flavor of the film must go to its director Mitchell Leisen. Beginning his career as a set designer, Leisen's work as director always displayed a superb sense of style. His artistic background and eye for detail came together in a visually sumptuous setting.

Based on a novel by Rosamond Marshall, Kitty ~ played by the pert and very pretty Paulette Goddard ~ is an 18th century guttersnipe (i.e. wanton, poverty-stricken petty thief in this case) who tries to steal from famed English painter Thomas Gainsborough (Gainsborough's celebrated work is the figure The Blue Boy). When she is caught, the artist is struck by her good looks under the dirt and rags she wears. Instead of casting her into prison, he hires her to pose for him (in a better set of clothes of course) and when the portrait is exhibited, all of London is enthralled with the mysterious beauty. In on the charade is the attractive but penniless and mercenary fop, Sir Hugh Marcy (Ray Milland), who takes Kitty in as a servant for the household he shares with his aunt, Lady Susan Dowitt (Constance Collier). Seeking revenge on the Duke of Malmunster (Reginald Owen, in rare form), who is fascinated with Kitty's portrait, Sir Hugh tries to pass his ward off as a lady to the Duke, with both humorous and sinister bumps along the way.

For the plum title role, the studio cast its comely and vivacious contract star Paulette Goddard. Always a popular screen figure, Paulette was at her professional peak and most consider Kitty her best role. She goes from guttersnipe to duchess in such a charming manner, that you don't think of how improbable the situation is. Goddard relayed her own legendary charm and charisma with men to the character, with charming and charismatic results. Ray Milland, as Sir Hugh Marcy, pompously primps and preens and his Sir Hugh is one of the weaker elements in the film. There is no redeeming quality to him through the entire movie, other than his initial kindness in letting the waif live with him rather than go back to the hovel she shares with a hag named "Old Meg" and her "girls". Kitty is part Eliza Doolittle, part Amber St. Clair but Milland's Marcy hasn't the charm of Henry Higgins nor the romantic fervor of Amber's Bruce Carleton. Why Kitty falls head over hells for this lout is beyond me. Nevertheless, the story is a fine one and Leisen's handling makes it even finer.

Of course there is strong support in the way of Patrick Knowles as Kitty's aristocratic suitor, Sara Allgood as Old Meg, the snaggle toothed hag and Cecil Kellaway, who charmingly portrays the painter Gainsborough. Not to be forgotten is Constance Collier as Lady Susan. Her husky, gin soaked accent from across the pond was authentic enough that she was hired as Goddard's voice coach. For Paulette's cockney dialect, Connie Emerald, mother of Ida Lupino, was hired.

Kitty was a high point for Goddard. Her vivacity and charm lent itself very well to the distinguished good taste of Mitchell Leisen's production. Though the efforts of all involved were noble ones, it is the combination of star and director that make Kitty memorable.


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