Sunday, November 21, 2010

24 Hours (1931): A Full Day with Hopkins & Francis

Talented but temperamental actress Miriam Hopkins had the reputation of stealing scenes and chewing scenery throughout her prominent career. Her earliest days onscreen were no exception and as a bright and shiny new star at Paramount in the early 1930’s, she did not hide her light under a bushel. Making her film debut in 1930 in Fast and Loose with fellow Paramount pretty Carole Lombard ( Lombard had been in films for over half a decade by then), she had a hit in her second feature The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) co-starring movie novice Claudette Colbert. By her third film, she was the sure fire star of the show, even though Clive Brook and Kay Francis were billed above her. The film was called 24 Hours, and it was a prime example of pre-Code Paramount, with a great line-up of actors to boot.

Jim and Fanny Towner (Brook and Francis) are a wealthy yet bored couple who are each involved in an extramarital affair. Jim’s alcoholism doesn’t help the problem and he finds solace with his paramour Rosie Duggan (Hopkins), a brassy speak easy singer, who is married to a weak and neurotic small time hoodlum named Tony (Regis Toomey, whose 40 year screen career began the year before this film was made). Tony is on the skids after his wife has the bouncer at the club where she works, toss him out on his keyster. Later that evening, she carries the falling down drunk Jim home with her to see that he sleeps off his buzz. When Tony comes aknockin’ in the middle of the night, crazed look in his eyes, he accidentally kills the two-timing torch singer, while her sugar daddy is passed out in the other room. He beats it when he realizes what he’s done, as does Jim when he awakes the next morning and realizes he could be blamed for the chanteuse’s demise.

As much as a dramatic showcase 24 Hours is for Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis has the tougher job of giving a more subtle yet still effective performance. To an extent she succeeds, but her character is written so that she has little more to do than look forlorn about the lack of love in both her marriage as well as her affair. Her dramatic glory days would come with her tenure at Warner Brothers a few years later, a working relationship that was both extremely profitable as well as turbulent for the raven haired star. British born Clive Brook worked in silent films for years and made the transition to sound successfully. He looks rather bored in the first half of this film, but I suppose that is his job, as he is bored with his life AND his wife. (Brook made a telling statement about his profession in America when he said: "Hollywood is a chain gang and we lose the will to escape. The links of the chain are not forged with cruelties but with luxuries."). Although given a small role, veteran stage actress Lucille LaVerne gives the audience a visual once-over as Tony’s slovenly and tough-as-nails landlady. I recognized immediately her voice as that of the old hag in Walt Disney’s animated masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was the last performance of her very lengthy career, and the one for which she is most associated, as the animators actually used the actress as a visual model for the crone.

Based on the novel Twenty-Four Hours by Louis Bromfield, the film is a lost gem, a part of Paramount’s film library, owned by Universal/MCA, most of which are unreleased to the general public. Copies aren’t easy to find and when they are, the quality sometimes has much to be desired, but if you do get a chance to gander the charms of the young Mesdames Hopkins and Francis, I’d jump at it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Am I Watching?: Well, I’ll Tell You

Classic movies are obviously one of my favorite things (hence this venue for my passion), and although I write about various films and classic stars, there are so many other personal viewings whose good or bad aspects, as the case may be, don’t get recorded on this blog. There just isn’t enough time to write about them all as in depth as I might like. Having said that, I’d like to pass along a few films, recently viewed, but not shared.

The Great Man's Lady (1942)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, with second lead going to Brian Donlevy, The Great Man’s Lady has a cast who can always deliver the cinematic goods. McCrea is the Great Man, Stanwyck, his lady. Babs ages from 16 to over 100 (pictured above), and lives a lot of life in between. Director William Wellman leaves his signature masculine touch, with plenty of rough and tumble historics mixed with emotional histrionics.

Stanwyck was made for this kind of role. She is part Stella Dallas, part Victoria Barkley. Some may wonder why she sacrifices so much for her “great man”, but that’s the nature of old Hollywood. Catch it if you can.

Le Corbeau (The Raven; 1943)
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was known as “the French Hitchcock” and with good reason. Most famous for 1955’s Les Diaboliques, Clouzot shot Le Corbeau during the war and its somber mood and very adult themes reflect the conditions of his nation at the time. More a mystery than a suspense, the latter characteristic is always present.

Le Corbeau or The Raven is the signature used by a poison pen letter writer in a small French burg, whose main aggression is directed at a local doctor (Pierre Fresnay). The letters accuse, among many other things, the doctor of being an abortionist. Pretty frank topic during World War II, or anytime before the new millennium for that fact. The entire film is frank and extremely well made. Even if you aren’t into sub-titles, if you like film noir at all, I suggest you give this foreign flick a try, as it is very noirish in feel.

Four Frightened People (1934)
I don’t usually write about films that I didn’t really enjoy, but with this particular post, one takes the good with the bad. It’s not that Four Frightened People is particularly bad, it’s just not all that good. Directed by the gargantuan filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, it did not even make back its cost and DeMille counted it one of his box office turkeys.

The story tells of four completely different types from the western world, who evacuate a ship off the Malayan coast, which has been striken with bubonic plague. They make their way to land only to be lost in the deepest jungle, to be hunted by nasty natives and even nastier attitudes among themselves. Think Survivor 1934.

Starring Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall, with support by William Gargan and Mary Boland, and made at Paramount, the film looks more like one of the studios attempts at a low grade B flick than a Cecil B. DeMille mega-production. But the thing that really got this blogger, was Claudette Colbert, who never disappoints. As a mousy, high strung old maid teacher (can you imagine!), she is anything but classic Colbert. Then she blossoms into a jungle maiden, wearing a sarong of giant banana leaves or leopard print, in full make-up and coiffure. We are talking Fredrick's of Hollywood in the middle of a jungle folks. But the classic Colbert would appear directly after this film was released, because it was then that she played her career changing Oscar winning role in It Happened One Night. One bright spot is Mary Boland. Looking like Paula Deen’s grandmother, Boland is a comic relief of sorts, a toned down version of her Countess DeLave from The Women (1939). I wouldn’t say “Don’t watch this”, as it is watchable but don’t expect a lot either.

There you have it. Rupert’s recent roster of raves and rants. Which leads me to ask, have YOU seen anything delightful or deplorable of late?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Silver Cord (1933): Come to Mama

Ah, motherhood. From Madame X to Stella Dallas, Marmee March to Mrs. Judge Hardy (her movie husband, Lewis Stone, even called her “Mother”), the institution of motherhood in Hollywood during the golden age could verge on the sanctimonious and saccharine. That, however, was just one end of the maternal meter. If one goes to the other extreme, they find silly, self serving women, Mommies Dearest to the nth degree. The cinematic grandmaMA to these characters (or even great-grandmaMA, as our subject is an early talkie) would have to be Mother Phelps in RKO’s The Silver Cord (1933).

Based on a play which had a successful run on Broadway in 1926, The Silver Cord is the story of a woman who, by all outward appearances, adores her two grown sons (Joel McCrea and Eric Linden). But as we begin to realize, barely before Mrs. Phelps (her first name is never mentioned) gets her coat off in her first scene, this woman is a manipulative, conniving, self centered barracuda, who, upon meeting her new daughter-in-law (Irene Dunne) for the first time, marks her line in the sand as to where her son’s loyalties should lie! Also present is her younger son’s fiancee (Frances Dee). Matriarch Phelps is ready to devour Dunne, limbs and all, as the main course and finish off Dee, as the lighter, easier to digest dessert, albeit under the guise of sugar-laden maternal concern for her ”big young things.” Dunne’s character, Christina, is a scientist; bright, modern and intelligent and has no intention of giving up her new husband (McCrea) to “another woman” as she calls his mother.

The Silver Cord is a Freudian film fantasy. There is no end to Mrs. Phelps’ mouth kissing both her sons, cleaving them to her ample bosom and having them lay their heads in her always waiting lap. She even admits romantic attachment for them (though verbally falling short of declaring lust) after she discovered her marriage to their father was a loveless one. No woman will ever be good enough for them because no woman is her.

The entire cast is spot on in their portrayal of various members or potential members of this very dysfunctional tribe, headed by Mama Smother Me Not performed with great relish by stage veteran Laura Hope Crews. Crews played the role in the stage version and was a natural when the story came to the screen. Best known as the fluttery spinster Aunt Pittypat Hamilton in the epic Gone with the Wind, Crews channels the same fidgety anxiousness displayed in her Pittypat for Mrs. Phelps, only tempering her flamboyance with a steely resolve to have her own way regarding her offspring.

The apples of her eye, David and Robert, are played by handsome up and comer Joel McCrea and Eric Linden, respectively. The major lack of continuity in character seems to lie with McCrea, whose David makes light of his mother’s fussy cuddling and (wo)man-handling him in the film’s first half, yet defends her against his bride (unfounded, of course) in the second. Linden’s Robert is a spineless “effete” rounder who has no problem being tied tightly with his mothers apron strings. These mama’s boys are whooped! The lovely Frances Dee is splendid as his fiancee, Hester, whose defiance of her would-be viper-in-law brings cheers from the audience. She has one of the best lines in the picture. When asked what she will do by Robert after they have broken their engagement, Dee replies: “Marry an orphan.“ She and McCrea (pictured together below) would become romantically involved off screen during the making of the film, marry and remain so for 57 years until McCrea’s death in 1990.

Star billing went to the sublime Irene Dunne. As Christina, she gives as good as she gets, better in most cases, when going rounds with the monstrous dowager. The role was considered for both Katharine Hepburn and Ann Harding before RKO cast Dunne. Not the mega star she would be later in the decade, Dunne’s grace and sophistication shone through in this pre-code soaper. She would have several collaborations with the film’s director John Cromwell including 1946’s Anna and the King of Siam.

The Silver Cord is very much a filmed play, with lengthy stretches of dialogue by both Hope Crews and Dunne, but it packs quite a wallop in its 74 minute time frame. It would make a great double feature with Craig’s Wife.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Claude Rains: A Man for All Seasons

London born and stage trained, Claude Rains was an exceptional actor equally adept at whimsical roles as he was in heavy drama. He made his mark in his very first Hollywood film, The Invisible Man (1933), his unmistakable voice doing most of the work. He signed on with Warner Brothers studio where his performances graced many of Hollywood’s greatest and best known classics. Warners cast him with its biggest stars at the peak of their careers and in many of their definitive films; The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Now, Voyager (1942) with Bette Davis and Casablanca (1943) with Humphrey Bogart.

Although rarely the lead, his characters were pivotal and always unforgettable. As Prince John in Flynn’s Robin Hood, he created one of the screen’s great villains. Wearing a heavily banged page boy bob, Rains preening prince planned and plotted only to be foiled in the end by the Prince of Thieves. Along with his role as the wise and knowing Dr. Jackwith in Now, Voyager, he also starred with Davis in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Deception (1946). The two actors complemented one another perfectly and Rains was one of the actress’ favorite co-stars. The grande dame of the Warners’ lot even went as far to say he was “He was a pip! The best!”

The actor gave a powerful performance as a corrupt senator opposite James Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and yet another as a sinister Fascist leader in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), although it’s debatable whether he or his characters mother is more evil in the latter.

He continued working into the 1960’s and also continued his stage work, winning a Tony Award in 1951. Well respected by his peers, Rains was nominated for the Academy Award four times, though never winning the coveted prize.


Related Posts with Thumbnails