Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mark of Zorro (1940): Robin Hood, Spanish Style

Picking up where Warner Brothers left off in the swashbuckling department with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), 20th Century-Fox produced the extremely popular The Mark of Zorro in 1940, casting its biggest male star at the time, Tyrone Power in the lead. The top rate production was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, a visual and stylistic master of his craft. His images of Old California, though sparse are still romantic and visually decadent. The story, originally published in 1919, as The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, had been filmed to much fanfare in 1920 with the infamous silent film adventurer, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Power, although not as naturally athletic in the role of the masked avenger, was much younger than Fairbanks and with his matinee idol looks, made a more romantic lead.

Taking a page from the Robin Hood legend and even mixing in a dash of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the film begins in Madrid, Spain, where the daring and physically accomplished Don Diego Vega, a young aristocrat who is skilled with both a horse and a sword, is called home to California by his father, Alcalde (Governor) Don Alejandro Vega. The elder Vega has been replaced as leader of the region by a fat, conniving new Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), and his sinister henchman, Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Also in the new Alcalde’s household is his shallow and vain wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) and his beautiful and innocent niece, Lolita (Linda Darnell).

When young Vega arrives home, he is confused at the frightened way he is greeted, being the son of the Alcalde, and when he realizes the tyranny and cruelty going on with the new regime, he hides behind the fa├žade of a pompous fop, so as to do the real work that needs to be done in order to clean up the corruption. For this he takes on the persona of Zorro, the masked avenger, who rides through the shadows, dressed in black, robbing from the rich and callous to dispense to the poor and oppressed.

Fox head Darryl Zanuck began developing the Zorro film in the late 1930’s. According to Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox by Rudy Behlmer, instead of having just the standard love interest, which he felt was too static, he reworked the romance angle to have two females interested in Power’s character(s). Lolita, played by Darnell, would be the Alcalde’s niece and the new story addition would be his daughter (in the end, the flirtatious character would be the Alcalde’s wife, played by Gale Sondergaard).

In a December 1940 edition of “Hollywood” magazine, it was reported that over $7,000 was spent to create in Darnell, a Spanish senorita for the film, with 38 tests for hairstyle, make up and wardrobe combined. This also included Spanish lessons, to ensure correct pronunciation of the Spanish words, which cost $400 alone. Also included in the cost was $1,200 for her Spanish dances with Power. Darnell had many gorgeous close up shots and her fresh, virginal beauty was taken at its full advantage. Being a part of such an extravagant film directed by the prestigious Mamoulian only enhanced the starlet’s standing both at Fox and in Hollywood The pretty youngster, only sixteen at the time of filming, had made her film debut the previous year, as well as the first of her many movies with Ty Power. In his biography of Darnell, Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, Ronald L. Davis relates Linda’s feelings on being so young, even still attending school classes on the Fox lot while filming romantic scenes. “I would be kissing Tyrone Power and the school teacher would come and tell me it was time for my history lesson. I never before or since have been so embarrassed”

Apparently, Tyrone Power could buckle the swash as adroitly as his cinematic rival over at Warners, Errol Flynn. According to the incomparable Basil Rathbone, who was a skilled swordsman in his own right, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before the camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.” Fred Cavens, master fencer supreme, choreographed the sword fighting segments to a tee, and with such specimens as Power and Rathbone to bring the action to life, his work was a pleasure to watch. However, it could be argued that as appealing as Power was onscreen, he was no match for Flynn’s devil may care personality in such a similar role. Flynn wore his sarcasm and mischievous grin as a second skin, on Power it looked slightly smug.

Composer Alfred Newman’s zealous score was nominated for an Academy Award, and Arthur Miller’s black and white cinematography was fantastic. It is also worthy to note the performance of Gale Sondergaard. Always fun to watch, Sondergaard, never a raving beauty, has striking and interesting features and as she usually does, slinks and slithers in a most glamorously sinister way. Eugene Pallette basically reprises his Friar Tuck role from Robin Hood, as Frey Filipe, the padre with the pot belly.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Shirley Temple!

“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” ~ Shirley Temple Black

That’s how famous this little girl was in 1934, and her fame and popularity would only grow over the next few years during the Great Depression. By 1935, she was Hollywood’s top box office draw, beating out film stalwarts Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford, and her perch on top of the Hollywood heap would continue for the following three years.

Born in California in 1928, the tiny tot signed on at 20th Century-Fox in early 1934 at the ripe old age of five. Fame and accolades soon followed, with Temple receiving a special Oscar in 1935 for her contribution to film the previous year (pictured above with fellow Oscar recipient Claudette Colbert). But as her pre-teen years approached, her popularity waned and Fox dropped her like a hot potato.

She made a comeback of sorts under contract to famed producer David O. Selznick in the mid-1940’s, appearing in the well received Since You Went Away (1944), I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947, pictured below), but a string of lukewarm showings did nothing to excite the public and Temple never retained a shred of her former glory.

Married and divorced from actor John Agar, Temple married businessman Charles Black in 1950 raised a family and eventually became a United States ambassador. Quite a ride on the Good Ship Lollipop.
If you'd like to see more of the curly top cutie, click the link below.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Unconquered (1947): Colorful DeMille Hokum

Cecil B. DeMille had been making movies for decades by the mid 1940‘s. Silent spectacles, Biblical epics, sweeping historical sagas and more often in the 40’s, films dealing with the history of the United States. In 1945, he began pre-production of a picture about Colonial America based on a novel by Neil H. Swanson, called Unconquered. The master showman pulled out all the stops for this Technicolor bonanza of adventure and romance, but all was not smooth sailing for the 65 year old director.

Abigail “Abby” Hale (Paulette Goddard) is an English indentured servant, sent to the North American colonies in lieu of the hangman‘s noose in Merry Olde England. En route she encounters two men, Captain Chris Holden (Gary Cooper) and Martin Garth (Howard daSilva), Cooper the good guy, daSilva the evil heel. They strike a bidding war for the comely Paulette aboard the ship bound for America. When Chris wins he sets Abby free upon landing. Garth, unflinchingly makes the pretty wench believe that Chris never actually paid his pledged amount for her bond and takes her for himself. Turns out Garth is an illegal arms runner for warring Indians west of the Alleghenies and Chris gets involved again when he seeks out Garth both as a government emissary to stave off an Indian war and to recover Abby.

Never one to spare expense when making a picture, DeMille spent nearly $5 million making Unconquered, and went over budget by nearly $400,000 (this was in 1947!). Made at Paramount, he cast many of his regular actors in the film including leads Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, both of whom the director had used several times before. According to Cooper biographer Jeffrey Meyers, it was the actor’s most lucrative film to date, reaping him 5% of the gross to $6 million, 10% above $6 million, with a minimum guarantee of $300,000. Co-star Goddard made $112,000. The thing about Unconquered is its very hokey, improbable and at times downright campy, but its loads of fun. Boris Karloff is a hoot as Guyasuta, Indian chief of the Senecas, lisp and all. The actor had just had back surgery before he began filming and his brace was camouflaged by the Indian garb he donned.

Although both Cooper and Goddard were still highly attractive, at 46 and 37 respectively, the bloom of youth was gone from both and two time Oscar winning cinematographer, Ray Rennahan, conferred with deMille that he was working hard to mask the circles under Paulette’s eyes as a result of her late nights. One can imagine what the movie might have been if filmed by DeMille ten years earlier with both Cooper and Goddard in their physical prime. They also would have been more in line with the ages of the characters they were playing.

The storyline presents Goddard’s character with one torrid and dangerous adventure after another, including being stripped and beaten in public, stripped and tied to an Indian torture stake and going hurtling over a treacherous waterfall among other things. The actress is also involved in one of deMille’s famous bathtub scenes, this time in a wooden barrel, cleavage and all parts concealed by soap suds non existent in pre-Revolutionary times, but the censors would not be silenced. All this brouhaha caused the film to be known as “The Perils of Paulette” around the Paramount lot where at the time another film under production was the Betty Hutton vehicle The Perils of Pauline.

But the big stink regarding Goddard was her refusal to appear in the big “Siege on Fort Pitt” scene where real firebombs were being hurled about the set. DeMille, who demanded bravery and complete cooperation from his actors, under any circumstances, was livid at the actress, berating her in front of the entire cast and crew, but to no avail. Paulette’s stand-in did the scenes instead, and in an ironic twist, suffered minor burns, to which Goddard felt all the more vindicated. It was the last time the actress was in a Cecil B. DeMille production, being discounted by the director for the role eventually given to Gloria Grahame in his extravaganza, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a film she let DeMille know in no uncertain terms that she greatly wanted to be involved with. Driving home the point of Goddard’s “cowardice” during filming, are comments made by the filmmaker in his 1959 autobiography, where he states that his two heroes of the film were the ultra professional C. Aubrey Smith, who always knew his lines to a tee and a young man, Robert Baughman, who played a drummer boy during the siege on Fort Pitt. When a fireball hit his drum, he continued to play even suffering burns on his hands. The shot can be seen in the final picture.

Other notable performers in the cast of thousands were Ward Bond, Cecil Kellaway, deMille regular Henry Wilcoxon, Virginia Grey, Mike Mazurki and the director’s daughter Katherine deMille (also Mrs. Anthony Quinn).There’s a lot of unintentional humor in Unconquered but a lot of true adventure fun as well. DeMille never disappoints with all the color and excitement and despite their age, Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard do a fine job.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In This Our Life (1942): She's Got Bette Davis Eyes

Nobody could chew up some scenery like Bette Davis. Sure, she occasionally played it low key (check out All This and Heaven Too or The Great Lie, where she was virtually obliterated onscreen by the wonderfully raving Mary Astor!), but when it came to hamming it up to full dramatic effect, none of her pre- Baby Jane performances can touch her turn as Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life (1942). Those infamous eyes, bulging their fullest, voice when soft, at it’s silkiest (especially while using her “southern” accent), voice when upset at it’s shrillest. But all this being said, In This Our Life is a hoot to watch and never disappoints for a melodramatic funfest.

The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning 1941 novel by Ellen Glasgow, and it is cast full tilt with some of Warner Brothers top players. Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, Olivia deHavilland, her sister Roy. It’s one of the oddest naming of characters, which puzzles most viewers, and is never explained or addressed in the film. However, names aside, Stanley is a spoiled, loose living mantrap in Richmond, Virginia, who steals Roy’s husband, Peter (Dennis Morgan), and dumps her attorney fiancee, Craig (George Brent). When Stanley and Peter run away and get married (after the final divorce decree of his union with Roy comes through of course), Peter finds that living with this self centered, fun seeking harridan is no slice of Heaven. When he can take the stress of living with her no more, he commits suicide, sending Stanley ~ never one to be very self sufficient ~ back to Richmond and the family home. Meanwhile, Roy and Craig have developed a special if not slow-moving romance of sorts, and you can only imagine how me-me-me Stanley reacts to this current turn of events.

The film also weaves African-Americans into the mix in a dramatic and respectable way, in contrast to so many films of the day, which go to the opposite extreme of stereotype. Black actor Ernest Anderson plays Parry, a young man who wants to become an attorney and is encouraged and mentored by deHavilland’s Roy. A less noble and downright strange angle on the film, presents Stanley and Roy’s wealthy uncle, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) as a greedy, conniving old man, who has an obviously incestuous attraction to Stanley, and equally as twisted is Stanley’s apparent realization of this fact and flirting with him to take full material advantage of it! She is a piece of work.

Davis reportedly wanted to play the role of Roy. When cast instead in the meatier part, newbie director John Huston, let her have her way in playing it. Huston had made only one picture prior to In This Our Life ~ The Maltese Falcon . DeHavilland plays Roy in an understated, dignified performance, which makes Bette’s histrionics stand out all the more (it’s as if Olivia is standing back to let Davis make a ninny of herself). Another strike against poor Bette….has anyone ever said “poor Bette”?….was the fact that preview audiences noted a distinct dislike for her uncharacteristic beestung lips and her hairstyle, which included oddly cut bangs. The actress herself never cared much for the movie and moved on from it later the same year to create one of her signature roles, as “Aunt” Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager.

Dennis Morgan plays a darker role as Peter than his usual devil may care good guy on the Warner lot, but George Brent as Craig is George Brent through and through. Solid, stable and non threatening to his female counterparts. The terrific cast includes Billie Burke, also in an uncharacteristic role. As Lavinia Timberlake, the tempestuous Stanley’s mother, Burke frets and worries through the whole film in a dowdy shawl, almost in a shrewish way, a far cry from the featherbrained society ladies she is so accustomed to playing. Hattie McDaniel as the Timberlake’s maid and Parry’s mother, Minerva, gives pathos and dignity to her part and in a showy portrayal, Lee Patrick is fun as Stanley’s gaudy and obnoxious friend Betty. The whole thing is gaudy and obnoxious in a 1940’s Warner Brothers melodrama kind of way, but that’s what makes it so fun. Perhaps Davis’ 1962 film should have been called “Whatever Happened to Stanley and Roy?”


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