Monday, January 28, 2013

Uncle Silas (1947): Gothic Thriller, British Style

Filmmaking in England during the 1940's, in many cases, was an adventure in visual design. Whether strong crayon coated Technicolor or chiroscuro laden black and white, the photography was exquisite and historical dramas were draped with period costumes and interiors that displayed the most intricate detail. Uncle Silas (1947), known in the United States as The Inheritance, is a perfect example of how these creative elements came together, along with atmospheric music and distinctive acting to fashion a stylized installment of 40's British cinema. It is an English Gothic thriller in the most traditional "Gothic" sense, with a dark, mysterious castle, hidden passages, and danger lurking around every musty, candle lit corner for its young and unsuspecting herione.

The film's star, Jean Simmons, was in the bloom of youthful beauty in 1947. She had played young Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations the previous year, appeared in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus the same year as this picture and would star as Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet the following year, quite a resume for an 18 year old young lady. In Uncle Silas Simmons plays Caroline Ruthyn, a teenaged heiress who goes to live with her mysterious uncle upon her beloved father's death. Silas (Derrick De Marney) is a creepy degenerate, shady past and all, who is after his niece's sizable fortune, unbeknownst to her. The damsel only sees a loving and exciting uncle until the veneer starts to crumble and her existence becomes one of a prisoner, her jailor the weird and rambuncteous Madame de la Rougierre (Katina Paxinou). Throw in Silas' amoral son and you have our fair maiden facing danger at every turn, with only Lord Richard Ilbury (Derek Bond) and a boy hero to come to her aid.

Uncle Silas is based on a novel of the same name by writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish author of eerie ghost stories. Directed by Charles Frank, who also directed the Simmons Victorian suspenser So Long at the Fair (1950), it features the moody cinematography of Robert Krasker (an Oscar winner in 1949 for The Third Man), whose lighting and camera shots produce pieces of Gothic art. Sharing the front of the camera with Simmons were scenery chewers Derrick De Marney and Katina Paxinou. A madwoman on speed, Paxinou is a Greek fireball letting it all hang out, literally eating every scene she is in with over the top face mugging and gesturing. These two make a ham dinner look like an after school snack. Seriously, De Marney's performance is more irritating than menacing. His character is supposed to reek of evil, but instead comes off silly and annoying. The pair are cut some slack merely because the story itself is a melodrama of the old order, so that their pantomime performances seem to fit right in with all the shenanigans.

There are times when the movie's pacing is a bit slow, others where the suspense is high. With high marks on the visual and creative elements, mediocre ratings for De Marney and Paxinou's cartoon caricatures and fair to low scores for overall pacing, the film is still very watchable. As previously stated, it is a great example of the British playbill in the mid to late 40's and early 50's.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hold Back the Dawn (1941): Boyer, De Havilland and the Cockroach You Never Saw

Like so many classic films, Hold Back the Dawn is one of those that played on late night television back in the day but has an obscure status among younger fans of golden age movies.  Not as well known as higher profile pictures of its era, it is a solid classic nonetheless and deserves its rightful place as a bonefide gem.  Produced by Paramount in 1941, it is a unique and intriguing film with a backstory which is just as interesting, if not more so.

As the picture begins, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) is making his way across the lot of Paramount Pictures, obvious by his gait and expression, a man on a mission.  He is searching for, and eventually finds, director Mitchell Leisen, to whom he wants to sell his story, hoping for some fast money.  As his tale unfolds we discover the reason for his need of a quick buck.

Iscovescu is a Rumanian ballroom dancer cum gigolo, who finds himself in Tijuana, Mexico, trying, like so many others in the town, to get into the U.S.  He bumps into his ex-dancing partner, sexy vixen Anita Dixon (played by sexy vixen Paulette Goddard).  She explains that, as a girl of mixed international heritage (she is half Australian, half French), she got her American citizenship via quick marriage (and subsequent quick divorce) to an unsuspecting native.  Her tale gets Iscovescu's sordid wheels turning and he roams the streets of the Mexican border town in search of marital prey from the USA.  Enter Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a young, spinster-ish American schoolteacher.  The suave heel uses all his European charms, along with his thickest accent, to woo the wide eyed innocent into a whirlwind wedding.  What he doesn't realize is that U.S. immigration agent (Walter Abel) is in town, sniffing out fraud and his radar is on Georges in full force.

Hold Back the Dawn
was directed by Leisen, a former set and art director, whose peak years at Paramount these were.  Like George Cukor, his directing style favored the leading ladies in his films and his design background added an elegant visual element to his pictures.  With Dawn, the setting is a dusty, hot border town in Mexico, not exactly the Ritz.  Yet Leisen conveyed a certain sophistication in both character development and camera work, which was matched by the writing of master team Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.  There was, however, no love lost between Leisen and Wilder.  Their feuds over script changes are well documented and, like Preston Sturges before him, were the impetus for Wilder becoming a director in his own right.  One of the more explosive incidents during filming involved a scene where Boyer had to talk to a cockroach in his depressing, isolated hotel room.  The scene was a commentary on Iscovescu's immigration status, with the bitter emigre asking to see the roach's "papers."  Boyer thought the scene was degrading and refused to play it.  Leisen sided with the star, infuriating Wilder.  With the scene cut, Wilder and Brackett exacted their revenge on Boyer by rewriting the remaining scenes of the movie in favor of his leading lady de Havilland.  With the attention devoted to the actress by Leisen, the last portion of the script tipped in her direction and her own talent allowed to blossom in a quality production, de Havilland ended up with her first Best Actress Oscar nomination (she had been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind).

Olivia de Havilland's casting in the film was an ironic aspect to the production.  Screenwriter Charles Brackett had the actress in mind when penning the script, though her home studio, Warner Brothers, rarely loaned its stars and never without a hefty price tag.  The studio, however, was interested in Paramount star Fred MacMurray for a film called Dive Bomber that it was planning.  When negotiations began for MacMurray's services, Warners offered a list of its contractees as a trade off.  Olivia's name was on the list.  Paramount half heartedly accepted the actress in a swap with MacMurray, getting exactly what they wanted at no extra expense.  De Havilland's ironic inclusion in Hold Back the Dawn didn't end there.  Her Oscar nominated status was shared that year by her equally famous sister, Joan Fontaine.  Fontaine was nominated for Suspicion, a romantic suspense thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Their sibling rivalry in Tinsel Town was exacerbated by this competition and the personal rift was only widened when Fontaine was proclaimed the winner on Oscar night (pictured above).

The film is a reflection on the community of American citizen wannabes in Tijuana during the 1930's and 1940's as much as it is on the plight of the main characters.  Rosemary de Camp gives a poignant portrayal as a pregnant European who, along with her husband, is awaiting her final entry papers, desperate that her baby be born on United States soil.  It is also interesting to see the interaction of American citizens making day trips across the border.  These lighthearted visits by tourists are a proverbial slap in the face to those pining to cross the ever taunting border.  Not to pass over the always lovely Paulette Goddard, her Anita is a fiery contrast to the more wholesome charms of de Havilland's Emmy.  In fact, there is a certain irony that Emmy comes across so hum-drum at first, as Olivia de Havilland is so physically appealing, a fact not lost on Anita during their face to face meeting.

Hold Back the Dawn
was also nominated by the Academy as Best Picture, a deserved recognition.   An absolute perfect cast, good direction and writing, make it a film which should be viewed and remembered in the annals of classic movie history.  Catch it if you can.

*Note:  The film being shot by Mitchell Leisen at the beginning of Hold Back the Dawn is I Wanted Wings starring Veronica Lake, and actually Paramount release in 1941.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Paid (1930): Joan Goes to Jail

One of the first names that comes to mind when thinking of classic Hollywood is Joan Crawford.  Her amazing career spanned six decades and the longer she made films, the more iconic she became.  As an icon, she sometimes morphed into a caricature of her own screen image.  The eyes bulging under uber heavy, arched brows and lips painted deep crimson, twisted into a melodramatic snarl.  But long before she was Mildred Pierce, Harriet Craig or even Crystal Allen, displaying her learned screen affectations and perfect diction, she was a burgeoning MGM starlet, a movie queen in training.  Her pre-code shop girl was a box office bonanza.  In 1930, after years of being everyone's favorite flapper, Joan made the film Paid, her first real dramatic attempt and it was both a personal and professional success, ranking her in the top tier at Metro.

In Paid, Crawford plays Mary Turner, a young shop clerk who is falsely accused of theft by her department store boss.  As she is literally dragged off to prison, she dramatically declares vengeance against her heartless oppressor.  While in the pokey, she studies law books and meets up with a tough talkin' toots named Agnes Lynch (Marie Prevost).  Upon her release she joins up with "Aggie", who introduces her to Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong), a longtime crook with a smart mouth.  With these two seedy characters, Mary uses what she learned in jail and plans a scam called the "heart balm" racket, where unsuspecting older men are sued for breach of promise, a legal form of blackmail.  The bitter lass carries her revenge even further and closer to home by marrying the son of her former boss, who was responsible for her imprisonment.

Directed by Sam Wood, who had joined MGM just a few years earlier, the movie was based on the play Within the Law by Bayard Veiller.  It was originally slated to star Norma Shearer, the queen of the Metro lot, but when she became pregnant, the role was open.  Crawford pleaded with her bosses to give her the part and Irving Thalberg (Shearer's husband and second in command at the studio) gave her the chance she needed to put her "Dancing Daughter" days behind her.

Paid was a hit and to show his gratitude, head honcho Louis B. Mayer gave Joan a financial boost.  She received a $10,000 bonus with a note that read:  "In appreciation of the co-operation and excellent services rendered by you, we take great pleasure in handing you your check made payable to your order in the amount of $10,000...this does not affect the terms of your contract dated November 2, 1928."  Not bad for a shopgirl.

The film also marked the debut of Douglass Montgomery, billed here as Kent Douglass, who played Bob, the innocent who Mary Turner weds to get her ultimate revenge.  It's fun to watch Crawford here, honing her craft and giving a good performance before she would ultimately become JOAN CRAWFORD.  She and co-star Marie Prevost would become friends during the filming of Paid and remain so until Prevost's untimely death in 1937 of acute alcoholism.  Among a collection of empty liquor bottles detectives found a promisory note of $110 to Crawford and it was reported that it was Joan who paid for the funeral.

Friday, January 4, 2013

These Three (1936): It's a Lie! (or Is It?)

In many cases films of 1930's American cinema are very stylized, by that I mean they fall very squarely into a specific genre. Astaire/Rogers musicals follow a formula of boy meets girl meets dancing (charming boy, lovely girl, amazing dancing mind you). Shirley Temple movies were just that, perky Temple plunked down in the middle of a sweet and sentimental situation. Gangster thrillers were tough guys with tough talk and a lot of bullots in between. Much of the acting was over the top (wonderfully so in most cases) and many of the characters even more animated.

The collaboration of producer Samuel Goldwyn with director William Wyler created films during this period that, unlike the mainstream themed picture, were independent in spirit, exceptional in technical expertise. The first of the Goldwyn/Wyler successes was a very sophisticated adult drama called These Three (1936). Both powerful and compelling, the film was based on Lillian Hellman's debut play, The Children's Hour, a gripping look at the consequences surrounding a child's lie that her two schoolmistresses are lesbian lovers. Goldwyn bought the film rights to the play aware that the Hays board of Hollywood censors would never allow him to use either its title or its sapphic storyline. However, he hedged his bets by also hiring Hellman to write the screenplay. The lesbian angle was changed from sexual relations between the two female teachers to a heterosexual love triangle with one teacher allegedly committing an indescretion with the other's intended, a local doctor.

Hellman's play was partially based on a court case in 19th century Scotland and on Broadway it ran for 691 performances. It was a real heavy hitter and even with a somewhat "sanitized" version set for movie audiences, it packed a wallop as Hellman successfully tried to illustrate that the power of the story came from the damage a lie can create rather than the nature of the lie. The cast was headed by screen stars who would become Goldwyn regulars. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the slandered teaching duo were played by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins respectively, while Joel McCrea was cast as the third leg of the titular triangle. All three gave fine performances, Hopkins and Oberon arguably the best of their careers. The physical and personality differances between "these two" complemented the picture. If Oberon had been paired with Kay Francis or Hopkins with Carole Lombard, there might have been an imbalance of sorts. Saying this however, it seems less likely that Oberon's elegant, soft spoken Karen and Hopkins earthy and somber Martha would become bosom chums as undergrads.

The supporting cast is outstanding. Catherine Doucet as Martha's worthless leech of an aunt. Marcia Mae Jones as a timid pupil, terrorized into complicity of the lie. Margaret Hamilton, whose small but notable role as a maid won't be forgotten. Alma Kruger as wealthy matron, Mrs. Tilford, whose influence in the community causes the downfall of the reputation of those involved and juvenille actress Bonita Granville. As the prepubescent monster Mary Tilford, Granville was as evil a villain as 30's audiences had experienced, giving Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill or Conrad Veidt a run for their sinister money. Her natural blond hair was darkened to convey a more threatening persona, but her strong performance required no such physical pretense and she was nominated at age 13 for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first year the Academy offered the award (Gale Sondergaard won the prize that year).

The movie met critical acclaim including Britain's Graham Green who wrote: "I have seldom been so moved by any fictional film as by These Three. After 10 minutes or so of the usual screen sentiment, quaintness and exaggeration, one began to watch with incredulous pleasure nothing less than life." William Wyler remade the film 25 years later under its original title and with the original lesbian theme intact (and with Miriam Hopkins in the supporting role of Aunt Lily). It was a pale comparison to the '36 version, Wyler's direction and Hopkins' presence notwithstanding.


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