Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hard Way (1943): Forgotten Gem

The Hard Way could be a description of actress Ida Lupino’s career. Called by some a “poor man’s Bette Davis (a moniker shared by Susan Hayward), Lupino was a star in her own right, possessing a very distinctive style and consistently giving top notch performances. However, attaining her major success at Warner Brothers in the early and mid 1940’s, she was sometimes required to take some of Davis’ cast off roles, Bette being the queen of the Warner’s lot during this period. One such Davis hand-me-down was the meaty lead character of Helen Chernen in The Hard Way (1943), which Lupino deftly handled. She gave a tour de force portrayal and gained much acclaim including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress of 1943.

Helen Chernen is a woman living in near poverty in a lifeless, stifling, dirty coal mining town. Trapped in a loveless marriage to boot, her only ray of hope is her teen-aged sister, Katie (Joan Leslie). Helen sees an opportunity for the moderately talented Katie, when the youngster catches the eye of a traveling vaudevillian, Albert Runkel (Jack Carson), who is passing through the shabby little burg with his show biz partner, Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan). The elder sister pushes for their marriage, then slowly integrates Katie into the Runkel/Collins act until bigger fish come along to fry. Katie becomes a huge success leaving the lovelorn Albert behind, but success via her sister Helen, she finds, isn’t so sweet when you go about it the hard way, or should I say the wrong way.

The film, written by famed playwright and author Irving Shaw, is reportedly based loosely on the early life of actress Ginger Rogers, specifically her relationships with her stage mother Lela and her first husband, vaudeville performer Jack Pepper. The movie even makes reference to Rogers by name and when the character of Katie makes big in her first Broadway show, the production is called “Boy Crazy” (as opposed to Ginger’s first successful foray, “Girl Crazy”).

Ida Lupino is superb as Helen. Underrated and often overlooked in the annals of Hollywood history, the actress displays in The Hard Way, as well as other films, an inner toughness and resolve, to get her way, whatever the cost. She is not alone in contributing a fine performance however, with the entire cast turning in solid work. Jack Carson gives perhaps his finest dramatic display as the good hearted but ill-treated Albert. He and Dennis Morgan would co-star in several other Warners features, but none so artistically successful as this. Not to say this is high art. It is basically what was known at the time as a “woman’s picture” with hints of film noir, very similar in many ways to Mildred Pierce, also produced at Warner Brothers two years later. In fact, producer Jerry Wald used the opening sequence of Ida Lupino dressed to the nines and jumping into the bay as the basis for the opening in Pierce.

Aside from Miss Lupino, the two second lady roles went to the afore mentioned Miss Leslie and veteran actress Gladys George, who was a staple at Warners and other studios in bedraggled dame roles or the moll with the heart of gold. Gladys’ characters had lived a lot of life and seen a lot of sadness. Her role here, as a has-been stage actress who drowns her sorrows in a bottle of whatever is at hand, is no different. Joan Leslie is the only proverbial fly in the ointment in The Hard Way. Not that she doesn’t do an adequate job, but one finds it extremely hard to believe that, as Katherine Blaine, she is a great shining beacon on the New York stage. Her Katherine can be downright lackluster at times, especially beside the scenery chewing Lupino! However, with the help of make up guru Perc Westmore and gowns and get-ups by designer Orry-Kelly, she goes from small town gum chewer to sophisticated stage star quite smoothly, and considering her youth (Leslie was only seventeen at the time of filming), she keeps her head above water with the stalwart Warner Brothers stock company. The entire ensemble is really good, but Ida Lupino is the one you can’t take your eyes off, and shouldn’t, as you might find a knife in your back.

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Beauty and the Beast (1946): Enter Cocteau's Dream

To put it simply, director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) is sheer genius. The film is a masterpiece of celluloid and no other fairy tale put to film is as artistically stunning (The Wizard of Oz may be an exception, but Cocteau’s French chef d'oeuvre has an ethereal quality that even Oz can’t touch). It is exquisite in every detail, visually sumptuous with an equally impressive and lavish musical score by composer Georges Auric. Cocteau, a highly intelligent and creative individual, who cavorted with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Edith Piaf, pulled out all the stops to actualize the famed fairy tale. His dreamlike classic would inspire the Walt Disney animated version of the same name 45 years later.

The story revolves around the characters of Belle, a beautiful, kind and humble French girl and The Beast, a magical, physically hideous creature. When Belle’s father gets lost in the forest while on a journey, he happens upon an other worldly like estate, a chateau of mystical essence. After partaking of the hospitality of an invisible host, the man wakes the next morning to wander the grounds looking for his horse and continue homeward. In the garden of the estate, he finds a magnificent rose and plucks said flower for his daughter. This gesture of affection awakens the rage of his host, now making his presence known as the Beast. For this infraction, the Beast commands that he shall have to pay with his life, unless one of his daughters come in his stead. Of his four children, the old man has a shiftless, irresponsible son named Ludevic and two vain and abrasive daughters, Felicie and Adelaide. His third daughter is the lovely and selfless Belle, for whom he picked the rose. The last of the characters in Cocteau’s version is the handsome but erratic Avenant, who is in love with Belle.

When the father arrives back home, fatigued and ill, he tells his tale to his amazed family. Belle, wishing to save her father from any potential harm, sneaks out and rides the magic horse which was provided by the Beast, as the means for return to his world. Once she has reached her strange destination, Belle is both frightened and astonished at the fantastical residence. When she meets the beast face to face, she is horrified by his countenance. The Beast on the other hand is enchanted by Belle’s beauty and asks her to marry him. Initially repelled by the offer, as her time in the Beast’s company progresses, she befriends him and persuades him to allow her to return to her father, who she discovers is deathly ill. The Beast reluctantly agrees, on the terms that his beloved return within a week, on her honor. He informs her that should she fail to come back, he will die of grief.

As both the film's director and writer, Cocteau’s vision is brought vividly to life onscreen long before high tech special effects were even considered in film making. The gallery of living candelabras, Belle’s diamond tears, her enchanted mirror and the fireplace mantle carved with faces whose eyes watch every movement around them are just a few of the fascinating examples of the director’s creativity come to life. His use of quick cutting between scenes, abruptly ending one scene and immediate entrance into the next, as opposed to a slow fade out, enhances the surreal effect of the picture. As an American watching the film, the French language, fluid and alien to me except for a few scattered words, also lends to the hypnotic production. Famed French designer Christian Bérard, was in charge of production design and acclaimed cinematographer Henri Alekan the gorgeous black and white photography.

As both the Beast and Avenant, French matinee idol Jean Marais does a wonderful job projecting the pathos of the Beast, as well as the pompous virility of Avenant. Marais met director Jean Cocteau in 1937. The two became lovers and Marais, Cocteau’s protegee. The director guided the young actor to become one of France’s most popular stars in the 1940’s and 50’s, with their best collaborations, being this film, as well as Orpheus (1949). French actress Josette Day is luminous as Belle. Each of her shots accentuate her beauty and elegance on film and she displays the grace of a ballet dancer, whether in her scenes at the family’s provincial homestead or the Beast’s palace. Unfortunately for the French movie industry, Day retired from films only 4 years after La Belle et la Bête at the age of 36. As for the supporting cast, mention must be made for the performances of Mila Parély and Nane Germon as Belle’s viperous and hateful sisters. These two nasty wenches could give Cinderella’s step siblings a major run for their money.

Beauty and the Beast is a masterwork indeed. But be warned, there is no Ma and Pa Kettle Go to the Fair here. It is a work of supremely skilled artistry with both style and substance, and excellence from all involved. For a foreign film novice, it’s a perfect foray into the genre and a delight to all who make the leap.

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Beauty and the Beast ~ The Criterion Collection (DVD)

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck: You've Got the Cutest Little "Baby Face"

Raw, gutsy and independent, Barbara Stanwyck was a “brawd” in the truest sense of the word and one of the best examples that Hollywood had to offer. This tough dame persona, which ran rampant in classics like Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and a variety of westerns in the 1950’s, found its roots in the actress’ pre-code movies of the early 1930’s. While many of her contemporaries tried to speak with a pseudo-British accent, a common trait as part of actor's film diction training by various studios (MGM was the worst), Stanwyck not only spoke in her native Brooklyn-ese, but wore it as a badge of honor. Among other things it made her stand out from the pack of young actresses who seemed bound for stardom in the early days of talkies.

In the period of Hollywood history known as the pre-code era (the time in the early 1930’s before the Production Censorship Code was put into strict enforcement), Stanwyck’s roles stood out as some of the most notable and brazen. Along with Mae West’s early cinematic romps, Stanwyck’s racy Baby Face (1933), helped pave the way for a tighter hold by Hollywood censors later in the decade. Her husky, knowing voice not only betrayed her Brooklyn roots, but revealed in her roles of this period, an earthy, wanton past. Her characters had been around the block, and if they hadn’t, they wanted to.

Her screen image in the Thirties was that of a self-sacrificing mother or a tramp, either with a heart of gold or cold and hard, with the capacity of redemption. Some of her film’s plots during this interval were contrived and hard to swallow, such as The Purchase Price (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), but Stanwyck’s performance always shined and made otherwise unbelievable situations extremely entertaining. She possessed similar screen traits to one of her screen peers at MGM during the same time, Joan Crawford. Like Crawford, she was often cast as a lower class young woman scraping her way in a man’s world. Just as Joan was the eternal shopworn shopgirl in her pre-code films, Barbara actually starred in a film titled Shopworn (1932). But unlike Crawford, Stanwyck was more hard boiled. She could play not only a gangster’s moll but the gangster, and she had no qualms when it came to revenge. Also unlike Crawford, who was, and wanted to be, iron clad contracted with her studio, Stanwyck had non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia AND Warner Brothers during a time when the studio ruled. Talk about gutsy.

Barbara Stanwyck’s real life past lent a certain credence to her onscreen performances. Born in Brooklyn in 1907 as Ruby Stevens, she was orphaned at a very young age and was cast about in several foster homes until eventually hitting the stage as a teen and becoming a chorus girl. Mind you, a chorus girl in the 1920’s was not exactly a Little Bo Peep existence. She met and married Frank Fay, a popular vaudeville star and followed him to Hollywood, where she got a less than auspicious start in movies. Her first two features were duds, and discouraged and distraught, she went, on recommendation of Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn, to see director Frank Capra about a picture he was casting called Ladies of Leisure (1930). Capra thought Stanwyck “sullen” and she left the interview prematurely. But after viewing a test she had made for another film, the director wanted her in his picture and the two became great friends with Capra saying of the actress in his autobiography, “In a Hollywood popularity contest, she would win first prize hands down.” A notion shared my many in the film community for years to come.

In Ladies of Leisure, the actress plays a “party girl”. In her next film, Illicit (1930), as if the title wasn’t titillating enough, she plays a girl who wants to live with her lover outside of marriage (this is 1930 we’re talking here). Forbidden (1932), shows her as a sexually repressed librarian who throws caution to the wind and becomes the mistress of a married man, even having his child out of wedlock. Ladies They Talk About (1933), she winds up in a women’s prison. These kinds of roles and ones similar to them, were a prevailing theme in Stanwyck’s early work. Bouncing back and forth between Columbia with roles in early Capra films and Warner Brothers, the actress made great career strides eventually gaining full fledged stardom. The culmination of this bad girl image arguably came in the form of Baby Face, the deliciously decadent diatribe which helped push Hollywood censors over the edge.

Baby Face features Stanwyck as Lily Powers, product of a grimy factory town where her bootlegging father has been pimping her out since she was 14. When he is killed she heads for the big city to make her mark. Starting from the ground floor, she literally sleeps her way to the top in a large metro bank, where she eventually becomes the mistress of the vice president then marries the banks newly elected president (George Brent). The film’s imagery of Stanwyck’s ascent to material wealth is priceless. With each corporate conquest (one of which is played by young pre-stardom John Wayne, pictured above), the camera pans further upward the exterior of a New York skyscraper, which represents the bank in which she intends to prevail, all to the sound of St. Louis Blues on the saxophone. How pre-code is that.
Even in her more tame film efforts after the enforcement of the censorship code, Barbara Stanwyck’s tenacity and vitality shined through. She went on to make better known and glossier pictures, but the seed had been planted in her early days. In these pre-code offerings of sin, seduction and self-sacrifice, Stanwyck showed she not only had what it took, but knew exactly how to use it.
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.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935): Hitchcock Breaks Through

“If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” ~ Alfred Hitchcock

This statement by Hitchcock sums up perfectly his attitude about directing the film that really made the public sit up and take notice of his talent, both in England and the United States. It is the inspiration for his creative, yet very straightforward direction of The 39 Steps (1935), a movie still revered today for its masterful style and pacing. It’s been remade more than once, but none have begun to touch the Hitchcock bravura.

As the film begins, in an English music hall, the mood is very raucous and lighthearted, and one wonders where the trademark Alfred Hitchcock suspense will enter in. That alone makes it exciting, because you know it will, just not where and how. But enter it does and with both a vengeance and the director’s panache. The featured act at the theater is a novelty called “Mr. Memory”, a fellow who is a walking encyclopedia and as he is spouting his wisdom to the jeering crowd a shot is heard, leading to mass hysteria. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian visiting London, who gets caught up in the frantic hustle bustle to find an exit. In all the pandemonium, he meets a mysterious foreign lady who nervously persuades him to take her back to his lodging. Turns out Miss Mata Hari is a secret agent, being sought out by a couple of nasties who are scoping out Hannay’s building. Our hero Hannay thinks she’s not exactly on the up and up at first, but quickly sees which way the wind is blowing when the spy falls upon him in the night with a knife in her back. With a dead body in his place and knowledge passed on to him by the mysterious mademoiselle, he takes it on the lamb with both the police and foreign agents on his tail.

He goes from one scrape to another, and eventually meets up with a blonde maiden fair (Madeleine Carroll), who, thinking him the murdering monster he has been painted by the newspapers, holds only contempt for him, and when they become handcuffed by “the bad guys”, Hannay has a hard time, keeping one step away from capture while trying to keep the wild beauty from surrendering him.

The success of Hitchcock’s previous release, his original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) allowed him more freedom in his next cinematic venture. The 39 Steps was based on a spy yarn from 1915 by Scotsman John Buchan, though the director made the story his own. For film buffs and historians, the picture marks the first of a few oft used Hitchcockian themes, the most relevant being that of the “innocent man on the run” which was duplicated again in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959), among others. Another is his casting of Madeleine Carroll, a beautiful and cool blonde leading lady, and a precursor to icy fair hairs Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in several of his 50’s and 60’s films. Carroll’s character, Pamela, wasn’t actually in the original novel and both the character and the potential romantic element she brings to the story were successfully added by the formidable director.

The film offers Hitch a chance to display his mastery of his craft, as well as the creative use of the camera. He claimed that with The 39 Steps, he wanted each scene to be like a short film unto itself and indeed he achieved quite the effect to culminate the whole as a quick and smoothly paced film. Upon finding the body of the initial female spy in Hannay’s flat, an elderly charwoman screams in close-up, her scream not from her own vocal chords, but the sound of a train whistle which is segued into the next scene of a railway. It is a three second spot, but very chilling and effective.

A well known episode from the film is that of Hannay making his way to a remote farm while on the run and asking the farmer to put him up for the night. The farmer, a strict and extremely pious old coot has a much younger wife, who finds the handsome and urbane Hannay attractive, and helps him escape when the police track him to the farm. This is yet another scene which was absent from the original book but developed for the screen. The vignette, although pertinent to the rest of the movie, is a short story in itself.

Carroll’s casting as Pamela is perfectly complemented by Robert Donat’s Hannay. The actor had just hit it big the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo and had become fondly known as “the Monte Cristo man”. The 39 Steps added to his growing repertoire of quality films, and led him to MGM in the States to make The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), the latter for which he won an Academy Award. The suave Brit exudes just the right amount of energy, humor and intelligence to make him a very worthy Hitchcockian hero. With fine support by Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle and Peggy Ashcroft, the film is superbly cast.

Atmospheric, humorous and exciting, The 39 Steps is definitely a must-see. There is a lot to transpire in the movies 86 minutes, with suspense and fun aplenty, which is the least to be expected from an Alfred Hitchcock feature. Oh, and if you get a chance to view this classic, see if you can spy the director in his trademark cameo….cheers!

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
The 39 Steps (1935) Criterion Collection
Hitchcock By Truffaut. The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock By Francois Truffaut
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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy 94th, Olivia de Havilland!

Born during the first World War, the legendary Olivia de Havilland turned 94 on July 1, 2010. One of the last stars of the golden age, de Havilland has one of the most incredible careers in film history.

Independent Woman published a wonderful interview with O de H last year. I'd like to share it to help celebrate her special day. Check it out by way of the link below.
Happy Birthday Olivia!


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