Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nice Way To Start My Day......

What a lovely way to start my day. I got a message from Maggie at Silver Screen Dream saying that she had awarded me the "You're going places, Baby" blog award.

I will now pass this worthy honor on to five very worthy bloggers to whom I think are defintely going places, and they must choose and bestow this pleasant treat to those five they follow and enjoy! They also must link back to those who honored them with the award! Hey, that's me!

Here are my picks for the "You're going places, Baby" blog award:

Classicfilmboy at Classicfilmboy's Movie Paradise

R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector

Lolita at Lolita's Classics

Cliff at

Tristan at Enchanted Revelry

These are creative and informative bloggers all! Congrats to me, Maggie and all who have been recognized today!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dragonwyck (1946): Gothic Suspense, Fox Style

According to actress Gene Tierney, in her autobiography, Self Portrait, the thing most remembered by her during the filming of Dragonwyck, was her initial meeting of young John F. Kennedy, just home from his service in the South Pacific. “I turned and found myself staring into what I thought were the most perfect blue eyes I had ever seen on a man. He was standing near the camera, wearing a navy lieutenant’s uniform. He smiled at me.” It was the beginning of what would become a heartbreaking romance for the star. But there was certainly much more to remember about the actual film than the off-screen pairing of two very attractive young celebrities. Dragonwyck is a wonderful example of the Gothic suspense genre of films, written and produced in the tradition of Rebecca and Jane Eyre.

Based on Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, Dragonwyck is the name of an enormous estate in the Hudson Valley of New York state in the mid-nineteenth century, owned by patroon Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). Under the Dutch patroon system, a landholder held rights to large tracts of land in the seventeenth century colony of New Netherland (later New York), which were worked by small farmers for a portion of what they produced (think early sharecropping). Van Ryn invites his “cousin” Miranda Wells, a young country lass from Connecticut, to be governess to his young daughter. When she arrives at Dragonwyck, she senses strange goings on and when Van Ryn’s wife mysteriously dies, he asks Miranda to marry him. All is fine until their firstborn, a male child so desperately wanted by its father, dies shortly after his birth.

Tierney is breathtaking as always. One of the biggest non musical stars at 20th Century-Fox during the mid 40’s, her cool glamour is apparent as it is in so many roles she played during the period. She had just reached a career high the previous year with her Oscar nomination for her starring role in Leave Her to Heaven, and the plum dramatic roles on the Fox lot were being offered to her. Co-star Vincent Price, though not billed above the title, garnered one of his rare starring parts during his tenure at Fox, though the role of Nicholas Van Ryn was first slated for newcomer Gregory Peck, but Peck bowed out and eventually, Price was cast. His creepy, eerily manipulative Van Ryn is a foreshadowing of the definitive characters for which he would become famous in later life.

One important note about the movie is that it marks the directorial debut of intelligent screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would go on to win Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve , both also at 20th Century-Fox. Already writing the script for Dragonwyck, he was called on to direct when scheduled director Ernst Lubitsch became ill. Atmospheric and rich in historic texture, it is a respectable first effort and a memorable film. Excellent support comes in the form of Glenn Langan, as a handsome doctor who falls in love with Gene, Walter Huston and Anne Revere as Tierney’s God-fearing parents, Spring Byington as the wise but giddy housekeeper of Dragonwyck and in a small and early role, Jessica Tandy as an Irish maid.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cheers! Happy Anniversary, Classic Movies Digest!

On March 25, 2009, cyberspace and the blogosphere were hit with yet another tiny speck of writing by yet another excited wordsmith. That speck was Classic Movies Digest and that excited wordsmith was me. It seems like it was only a couple of months ago but indeed, the calender has come full circle. And speaking of coming full circle, the very first post on CMD was a discussion of The Devil and Daniel Webster, based on the literary classic by Stephen Vincent Benet, while the most recent, released last week, was a discussion of the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, based on the literary classic by Lewis Carroll. However, in the annum between the two posts, all kinds of genres have been touched on, from melodrama to westerns. I hope readers of Classic Movies Digest have enjoyed and interacted in the discussion, and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (1933): Box Office Down the Rabbit Hole

Curiouser and curiouser! ~ Alice
Long before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp filmed Alice in Wonderland in 2010, a big budget, all star version of the children's classic was produced at Paramount Studios in 1933. Based on both the Lewis Carroll tales Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (written in 1865) and Through the Looking Glass (in 1870), the 1933 version of Alice, unlike it's modern counterpart (or the 1951 animated version by Walt Disney), made this trip through the looking glass a major flop. I must agree with moviegoers from the Depression era. With all the money and big name draw that went into the film, it indeed was a big fizzle.

But it had potential. Half of the Paramount lot was cast in the film in all the supporting roles. The big problem was that they were either barely recognizable or not at all in extremely heavy make-up or costumes that completely covered both their face and body. The tedious garb was based on John Tenniel's famed illustrations for the original book, and painstaking detail was taken to create the right look for each character, but they look wooden, unnatural and toyish. Cary Grant (pictured below with his overwhelming costume), not yet the superstar he would become, played the Mock Turtle and was even required to sing! Another Paramount star, whom one would never recognize if not for his name on the credits, is Gary Cooper. As the White Knight, constantly falling off his horse, Cooper is disguised as an old man, and there is none of the virility and dash of early Cooper to be found here, which is fine, just another example of bad casting to fill the marquee with big names. Some notable performances, and ones which were examples of good casting were W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen and Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter. Horton's version of the Hatter is particularly suited to his fussy, madcap humor and the actor actually favors his character.

Many reviews of the film call it a faithful adaption of Carroll's classic, but this blogger begs to differ. First of all, it combines elements and characters of both Wonderland and Looking Glass to form one story, sort of Alice's Odyssey to Crazy Land. Secondly, from the very beginning, the film is nothing like the story. Unlike Carroll's tale, where Alice is outside in the country with her sister, the film begins with the little girl holed up in her home on a snowy day with what appears to be her governess. She then goes "through the looking glass" BEFORE she gets to the rabbit hole, which is in a completely different story.

Then we come to Alice herself. Paramount was said to have brought Ida Lupino, then only 18 years old and a complete novice to the screen, from England to play the part, but instead, cast Charlotte Henry, an 18 year old American with only a couple of years on-screen experience, though physically, she fit the role nicely. Lupino stayed on with Paramount and became a star in the next decade with Warner Brothers. The film had been considered a vehicle for silent star Mary Pickford, and would pair her with the animation of the Walt Disney studios, but the idea didn't gel before Paramount retained the rights.

Although not a barnburner at the box office nor with critics, this version of Alice in Wonderland in still an interesting novelty, if only to see early Grant and Cooper in bizarre getups. It's also fun for Fields fans and though the backdrops are quite amateurish, there is still some inventive use of special effects for some of the fantasy scenes. Worth a look just to say you did.

Note: After nearly seventy years this version of the Wonderland tale was released on DVD in early March 2010 to coincide with the theatrical release of the new Burton/Depp film.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Suspicion (1941): Cary Grant a Killer?

Although not usually one for spoilers when discussing classic films, the topic of this post has many of the films final elements revealed as they are key to the information examined here. Be warned.

There was so much going on behind the scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 suspenser, Suspicion, it's a wonder it ever got produced. Actually, it had been floating around for years before Hitchcock finally made it at RKO studios. Based on a novel by Francis Iles called "Before the Fact", the film version starred Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, and would be one of the first American made Hitchcock films that focused on the psychological aspects of its characters, much more so than his previous year's blockbuster, Rebecca.

At the time Suspicion was made, Alfred Hitchcock was under exclusive contract to producer David O. Selznick, the mastermind behind Gone with the Wind (1939). Together, they formed an unholy union that created Rebecca, Hitchcock's first American film, but Selznick was so unyielding to the British director on creative issues, Hitchcock was more than grateful to be loaned out to make Suspicion (Selznick was notorious for loaning out his talented contractees, making enormous profits off their services, instead of using them for his own films, except on occasion). Another of the Selznick group loaned to make Suspicion was the film's female lead, Joan Fontaine. She too, had been part of the success of Rebecca, being nominated for an Academy Award as the meek second Mrs. deWinter. Hitchcock had been keen on casting her in that role, even though publicity mad Selznick had hoped to recreate the hub bub he had enjoyed with his search for Scarlett while casting Gone with the Wind. The producer cast a wide net to entice established actresses to test for the part. In the end, Fontaine got the role and when it came time to shoot Suspicion, the shy, awkwardness she displayed in Rebecca held her in good enough stead with Hitchcock that he cast her again.

Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, a reserved young Englishwoman, who comes from a well-to-do country family but is well on her way to spinsterhood, a fact brought to the forefront by none other than her parents. Also a fact noted and filed away by handsome and roguish playboy Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Johnnie knows a good thing when he sees it (a skill that doesn't always shine through with his regular trips to the racetrack). The good looking ne'er do well woos and eventually charms the awkward lass into marriage, assuming the would be heiress will eventually net a fortune. As the weeks go by, Lina begins to see Johnnie for the scheming, charmingly manipulative man he is, yet still loves him. When his old friend , the lovable but slow witted Beaky (terrifically played by Nigil Bruce) arrives, Lina's suspicions grow even stronger. Johnnie persuades the trusting Beaky to go into a real estate venture with him only to see the friendly fellow die a questionable death shortly afterward. Finally, the shrinking wife, realizes her affable husband has inquired into her life insurance policy and sees his actions from that point in a sinister light.

Studio brass at RKO, didn't think the public would accept Grant as a cold blooded killer and wanted the film's ending to reflect that assumption. According to Alfred Hitchcock, in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut, he wanted the film to end with Fontaine's character realizing that her husband was a murderer, but so in love with him that she couldn't leave him. Instead, she writes a letter to her mother exposing her husband and proclaiming her wish to die. When Grant's Johnnie brings her the "poisonous" milk, she asks him to mail the letter, drinks the milk and drifts off. The final fade out, according to the director, would show Cary, whistling a chipper tune as he slips the letter into the mailbox. The weaker conciliatory ending didn't curtail box office returns and Suspicion was a bonafide hit over the 1941 holidays.

Hitchcock's signature use of creative lighting and camera angles, along with with an atmospheric score by famed composer Franz Waxman, garnered the film a nomination at the next years Oscars. (As to the directors creative genius, he also confessed to Truffaut that a small light was actually placed in the glass of milk carried by Grant up the dark stairwell to make it luminous. He wanted it to be the complete focus of the scene). The big winner at Oscar time was actually Joan Fontaine. The young actress, unhappily married at the time to actor Brian Aherne, felt she wasn't getting the guidance she needed from the formidable director and her sense of loss both on the set and off, brought to her performance the sense of fragility and paranoia, needed to convey Lina's neurosis. It won her the Best Actress Oscar, beating out her sister Olivia DeHavilland and fueling an infamous rivalry between the siblings which was never resolved. Many thought the win was a consolation prize for not winning with her Rebecca role, but as it turned out it was the only Hitchcock directed role to ever win an Academy Award.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Most Dangerous Game (1932): Second Cousin to King Kong...Once Removed

When I was in the 8th grade, our class read the short story The Most Dangerous Game (also known as The Hounds of Zaroff) by Richard Connell, and I thought it a thrilling read, as stories read in school were not always that glamorous at that age. I discovered years later that several film versions had been made of the classic 1924 story and was particularly interested in the first and most famous one made in 1932. It wasn't until recently that I had the opportunity to finally see this oft filmed tale in its original screen incarnation and found it was worth the wait.

Although the RKO golden boy of the early 1930's, Joel McCrea, was top billed, the films villain, British stage actor, Leslie Banks, was the true shining force. As the sinister Zaroff, Banks is in melodramatic overdrive, overplaying his role like so many bad guys in the early sound era did. But this zeal only added to the eerie atmosphere of an eerily atmospheric picture.

McCrea plays big game hunter Bob Rainsford, who, as the lone survivor of a shipwreck, swims to the safely of a nearby island. On the island he finds the creepy mansion of creepy Count Zaroff (Banks), complete with creepy servants. Amongst all this creepiness, he finds the lovely Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her drunken brother Martin (Robert Armstrong), also guests in the Zaroff household due to a shipwreck near the island. It doesn't take long before our hero finds out that Zaroff, a self proclaimed fellow hunter, is a madman, who, bored with hunting mere animals, steers ships toward the rocky cove near his island in order to find a new and more dangerous prey...humans.

The Most Dangerous Game packs a wallop in its 63 minute time frame. Made for approximately $200,000, it was a success at the box office. If it looks and feels familiar, that may be because it gives the distinct impression of being King Kong~esque. That, in fact, is not by happenstance, as the two were being made simultaneously at RKO studio, by the same filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. Kong stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong even gave a two for one by playing in both. 26 year-old McCrea gives a performance of smooth self assurance in this, one of his early beefcake roles. Master musician Max Steiner adds the perfect musical complement to all the mayhem. But Leslie Banks steals each scene in which he appears. Stroking the scar on his head, and staring off in the distance, one can only imagine the twisted atrocities running through his deranged mind as Zaroff. And what does the striking Miss Wray do? Why, cast look after look of sheer terror and scream, of course.

The Most Dangerous Game is part adventure film, part horror (Portions of the "trophy room" scene were cut when preview audiences started leaving the theater in horror/disgust). The principles make an engaging group, and the overall flick is like And Then There Were None without the mystery. If King Kong is the more ambitious and better known of these pieces of Siamese celluloid, Dangerous Game at least needs to be acknowledged in its own right as a classic example of early adventure, Hollywood style.

Want to know more?Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:

The Most Dangerous Game(1932) DVD

The RKO Features: A Complete Filmography of the Feature Films Released or Produced by RKO Radio by James L. Neibaur

If you are interested in these or any other merchandise, please help support this blog by purchasing them through the Amazon portal at the top of this page. By accessing Amazon through this site, you help me maintain resource material and continue to share my love of classic film. Thank you very much.


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