Thursday, February 14, 2019

John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns (1933-35)

Director: Robert N. Bradbury                         Writers: Robert N. Bradbury & Lindsley Parsons
Film Score: William Barber (1985)                 Cinematography: Archie Stout
Starring: John Wayne, Gabby Hayes, Yakima Canutt and Eleanor Hunt

The Lone Star series of westerns that John Wayne made for producer Paul Malvern are an incredible piece of cinematic history. As films they are poor at best, distributed by poverty row studio Monogram and made with no other objective than to fill the bottom half of the newly devised double features that many theater chains were showing. They were cheaply made, with existing sets, minimal budgets, shot in less than a week, and using many of the same actors. They don’t even run an hour, so they can hardly be called features, but they’re twice as long as a serial chapter. And also unlike serials, which were made the same way and served the same function, this was more like a stock company that would make different stories with different characters every time while using the same actors. For fans of John Wayne, it’s an absolutely fascinating look at a young actor who wanted to work and kept at it until the industry caught up to him and made him a star. The screenplays are minimal affairs and sometimes make little sense, though some really shine, but that is hardly the point. It’s watching Wayne’s growth that is the real draw, and despite so many detractors of the films--including Wayne himself--the actor has a certain magic at times that is undeniable. With a few exceptions, the films were written and directed by Robert N. Bradbury and, in almost all of the plots, in order to manufacture suspense, crucial elements of the story would simply be left out and not revealed until later, especially when it comes to Wayne’s true identity.

The first in the series is Riders of Destiny from October 1933, with Wayne playing Singin’ Sandy Saunders, Malvern’s attempt to capitalize on the singing cowboy craze of the time. Since the actor couldn’t sing or play guitar, he was shot from slightly behind, lip synching the words and barely pretending to play the instrument. Wayne helps a woman, Cecilia Parker, and her father, Gabby Hayes, to fight the machinations of wealthy landowner Forrest Taylor who wants to gouge all of the farmers for the water that comes from his land. Two months later the crew released Sagebrush Trail, directed by Armand Schaefer. In this one Wayne plays an escaped murderer who is saved by Lane Chandler and goes to work for his outlaw boss, Yakima Canutt. But it turns out that Chandler is the real murderer and Wayne doesn’t know it. Wayne looks a lot more comfortable acting in this one, though the story isn’t nearly as interesting as the previous film, especially concerning love interest Nancy Shubert. The third film in the series is The Luck Texan, released at the end of January 1934. Wayne rides into the ranch of Gabby Hayes, only to find his old mentor has lost his cattle. So they set up a blacksmith shop and when they take a chunk of gold out of a horse’s hoof, begin mining the creek where it was found. But soon greedy Lloyd Whitlock and his partner Yakima Canutt try to steal everything from Hayes and his daughter, Barbara Sheldon, unless Wayne can stop them. Canutt’s bit with the mule is funnier than most of the attempts at manufactured humor in the series.

West of the Divide was released in February, this time with Virginia Browne Faire as the love interest. Wayne and Gabby Hayes are trying to track down the man who killed Wayne’s father and left Wayne for dead. The only one who escaped was his kid brother, but he’s disappeared, so Wayne poses as a killer in order to expose the plot by Lloyd Whitlock and Yakima Canutt to take over the ranch owned by Faire and her father, Lafe McKee. It would be three months before the low-budget cowboy hit the screens again, this time in Blue Steel. Wayne discovers a hotel safe that has been broken into by Yakima Canutt, and sheriff Gabby Hayes thinks that he’s the thief. But Canutt is really part of a gang that has Edward Peil and Earl Dwire sending them inside information about what to rob from inside the town. Eleanor Hunt is back as the girl Wayne helps out and falls for. The exteriors of the snow-topped Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California are particularly striking, the farthest afield the company had travelled yet and no doubt the reason for the delayed release date. Filmed in the same location and released the same month, Man from Utah begins with Wayne singing again, as he had in the first film. Gabby Hayes is the sheriff, and Wayne helps him stop a bank robbery. Lindsley Parsons’ screenplay mixes things up this time, by including a femme fatale in Anita Campillo. She’s part of Edward Peil and Yakima Canutt’s gang who kill cowboys so they can win rodeo purses. Hayes wants Wayne to win the rodeo so he can put an end to their murdering ways. And he wins the hand of Polly Ann Young in the bargain. This is one of the weakest films in the series because it relies so heavily on documentary footage from an actual rodeo.

For Randy Rides Alone the gang is back home filming in Santa Clarita. Wayne walks into a saloon where everyone is dead, and when sheriff Earl Dwire and mute witness Gabby Hayes arrive he’s arrested. But this time Hayes turns out to be the leader of the gang, and Yakima Canutt and the boys were trying to get a pile of money from Alberta Vaughn’s uncle when they killed him. The Star Packer, which was released in July of 1934, contains the first Native American character in the series and it turns out to be Yakima Canutt. He and Wayne have something of a Lone Ranger and Tonto relationship, with “Yak” gathering information and Wayne capturing the criminals. Verna Hillie is the niece of cattleman Gabby Hayes, and when she arrives the sheriff is shot in broad daylight in town by a killer known only as The Shadow. Wayne takes the job. But after what happened in the previous film, it’s not too difficult to figure out who The Shadow really is. The only question is what he is trying to achieve by his subterfuge. The Trail Beyond didn’t appear in theaters until three months later in October. It’s the first of Malvern’s films to be based on an existing work, James Oliver Curwood’s novel The Wolf Hunters from 1908. But where that story was set in the Canadian tundra, Wayne and company are in Kings Canyon National Monument and Rainbow Falls at Mammoth Lakes. Verna Hillie is back as the love interest, but this film is notable not only for the presence of Noah Beery and his son Noah Beery Jr., but the absence of Gabby Hayes. Wayne is hired to find the orphaned niece of a cattle rancher, and the story and setting are a nice change of pace, though Wayne looks distinctly out of place tromping around the Canadian woods in his cowboy duds.

The regular gang is back together shooing out at Kernville for The Lawless Frontier, released in late November. Half-breed Indian Earl Dwire, posing as a Mexican bandit, kills Wayne’s parents and the Duke finally runs into him while helping out Gabby Hayes and his granddaughter Sheila Terry to escape from his clutches. While this is one of the lesser films in the series--and that’s saying something--it nevertheless contains an impressive sequence in which Wayne chases Dwire on foot through the desert, with Dwire exhausted but frantic to get away and Wayne marching slowly but steadily forward after him. ’Neath the Arizona Skies followed a month later with the same cast. Wayne is trying to find the father of a half-breed Indian girl so that she can claim the money she’s owed from the oil leasing on tribal land. The only problem is Yakima Canutt and his gang want the money for themselves. Harry Fraser directs this one, with Dwire playing a good guy for once and Gabby Hayes going uncredited for some reason. The first of the series to be released in 1935, in early February, is Texas Terror. Wayne is the sheriff in town and when his friend Dan Matthews is killed by holdup men, and they make it look like he was killed by Wayne, the sheriff quits and gives the job to Gabby Hayes. The presence of John Ince in the film, as well as some more realistic Native Americans raises the quality considerably.

In the next film, released in March of 1935, Wayne rides to Rainbow Valley and spots mailman Gabby Hayes--his last appearance in the series--looking for water for his car. When LeRoy Mason’s gang start chasing him, Duke comes to the rescue, but it turns out the bandits are harassing the entire valley because there’s no road for the marshal to get there from the other side of the mountain. Hayes’ niece, Lucile Brown, doesn’t like Wayne at first, but after he saves the town she changes her tune. The Desert Trail, released a month later with Lewis Collins directing, is a very different film from the rest: a comedy. Duke is a rodeo cowboy traveling with confidence man Eddy Chandler. When the prize money is robbed from the rodeo office, the criminals blame Wayne and Chandler, who play their relationship for laughs. Former Our Gang member Mary Kornman is the love interest as Wayne is on the hunt for Al Ferguson and his partner, the great Paul Fix of The Rifleman fame, in order to get his prize money back. Two more months would elapse before The Dawn Rider hit the screens in June, with Yakima Canutt returning as a saloonkeeper and Bradbury in the director’s chair. Wayne rides into town to visit his father, Joseph De Grasse, and gets into a fight with Reed Howes but the two become friends. Meanwhile Dennis Moore is the head of a gang who robs the Express office with help from Canutt. When De Grasse is killed, Wayne makes it his only mission to find the killer, but also gets caught up in a misunderstanding with Howes over Marion Burns. The screenplay, by Lloyd Nosler, has one of the better plots in the series.

Paradise Canyon uses most of the cast from the previous film, this time with Carl Pierson directing, and was released in late July 1935. Wayne plays a U.S. Marshal who goes undercover to capture counterfeiters working near the Mexican border in a medicine show run by Earle Hodgins and his daughter Marion Burns. Reed Howes plays the bad guy this time, working for head man Yakima Canutt. Unfortunately, also along for comedy relief are Perry Murdoch and Gordon Clifford as Ike and Mike, who offer neither comedy nor relief. Paradise Canyon was the last of Paul Malvern’s Lone Star Westerns, released through Monogram, when that company merged with Consolidated film processing, and later Mascot, to become Republic Pictures. Both Malvern and John Wayne would continue make pictures for Republic for the remainder of 1935. Their next production, Westward Ho, was released in August and is slightly longer than the Lone Star’s at just over an hour. Yakima Canutt has been demoted to a henchman by now, and Sheila Bromley was the love interest. The New Frontier followed in October with Carl Pierson in the director’s chair. Finally, Duke’s last film in 1935 was The Lawless Range released in December. The old gang is back with Bradbury directing, Parsons handling the screenplay, and Canutt back as the villain. Wayne would go on to make five more westerns for Republic before finally moving to Universal in late 1936. The biggest difference in the Republic pictures is that they have marginally better actors, much higher production values, and most of them survive in beautiful prints that are far more enjoyable to watch.

Of course the acting is wooden in all the Lone Star productions, especially when comparing Wayne to his later films, and the D-list supporting cast doesn’t make things any better. There isn’t nearly as much racial stereotyping as one might expect, but then there are no black cast members. The one black actor in Rainbow Valley is never commented on, and the Mexicans in Paradise Canyon are actually impressive. Yakama Cannut’s lone portrayal of an Indian isn’t too bad, but when Earl Dwire tries to speak with a French accent in The Trail Beyond or, even worse, a Spanish accent in The Lawless Frontier, it’s incredibly bad. Exteriors for the films were mostly shot at a couple of locations, Kernville, California, on the north short of Isabella Lake, about forty miles northeast of Bakersfield on the southern end of the Sequoia National Park, and at a couple of ranches around Newhall California just north of the San Fernando Valley. Other locations north of Los Angeles were used for specific films as well. They are all beautiful areas and Malvern’s crew make the most of the locations in each film, especially in the chase scenes. The stunt work is pretty good, if repetitive, and Wayne does a nice job of jumping on his horse in a variety of ways. The majority of the stunts were probably performed by Yakima Canutt, who had been an expert stunt man since the silent era and specialized in many of the high-risk stunts seen in this series.

One of the effects that director Robert Bradbury likes to use is the quick pan, which not only avoided the need for cuts in medium shots, but also provided transitional devices that work well when the actors are traveling from one location to another. The tracking shots of the riders on horseback are also well done, probably from train tracks beside the road. One of the oddities of the series is the twentieth century anachronisms that are built into the plots, automobiles and telephones, and especially the telephone poles that dot the roadways. There are no film scores for the pictures, as Malvern couldn’t afford them, and barely any sound effects. In 1985 musician and composer William Barber added music to some of the films. Mercifully, only The Man from Utah and Randy Rides Alone have the new music on this set. The synthesized score doesn’t really add much, and most of the time it’s an unnecessary distraction as it obviously isn’t from the same time period and simply feels intrusive rather than supportive. John Wayne would return to Republic Pictures after his contract with Universal was up, and eventually made thirty-three movies for the company. His Monogram Pictures certainly pale in comparison, and in the absence of Wayne it’s doubtful anyone would watch them today. Whatever charm the Lone Star westerns have is due to their star, and while in no way essential, their historical window on the career of John Wayne is rewarding for adventurous souls.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gorgon (1964)

Director: Terence Fisher                                 Writer: John Gilling
Film Score: James Bernard                            Cinematography: Michael Reed
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Richard Pasco and Barbara Shelley

There’s almost no complaint whenever Hammer Studios put Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together. Almost. The Gorgon is one of those rare films in which the teaming of the duo can do nothing to overcome a weak screenplay and an even weaker monster. The two horror legends have only one brief scene together and somehow both of them come off as completely miscast. What’s so bizarre is how many of the people involved in the film thought it was great. Sure, the first half of the film is fairly atmospheric, but it never really delivers on its promise. The original story, by J. Llewellyn Devine, went back to Greek mythology in reviving a sister of Medusa who could inhabit the body of a human with her spirit and turn those who looked upon her into stone. The story was adapted for the screen by John Gilling, but while the film is touted as presenting the first female monster in Hammer’s horror films the result is so underwhelming, from the makeup to the practical effects, that it’s difficult to understand why anyone would think the film was good. The tag line for the film is “Terror Beyond Belief,” but the only thing beyond belief is that the monster isn’t terrifying at all. In the end, Christopher Lee had the best summation of the film: “The only thing wrong with The Gorgon, is the gorgon.”

The credits roll over a beautiful painting of an abandoned castle somewhere in Eastern Europe. In a nearby village painter Jeremy Longhurst is sketching a nude portrait of his girlfriend, Toni Gilpin. When she tells him she’s pregnant, he storms off to see her father. The old man already hates him, but now Longhurst knows he has to consent to their marriage. As Gilpin chases Longhurst through the woods, she suddenly sees something that makes her scream in terror, and the next day the constable brings her dead body in to be examined by Peter Cushing. Like a series of murders during the last few years, the body has turned to stone. After finding Longhurst’s body hanging from a tree, Longhurst’s father, Michael Goodliffe, comes to the village to attend the coroner’s inquest. But his son is not only blamed for the murder of Gilpin, he’s made the scapegoat for the other murders as well. This is something Goodliffe will not stand for, and he stays in the village to clear his son’s name, despite the villagers trying to run him out. That night he hears a voice coming from the castle and is compelled to investigate. But when he looks upon the Gorgon he is able to tear his eyes away soon enough to make it back to the house. He’s gradually turning to stone but has enough time to write a letter to his other son, Richard Pasco, telling him what happened. When same thing happens to Pasco, he’s fortunate enough only to have seen the Gorgon’s reflection in the water and it doesn’t kill him. Because he is in the hospital for several days, however, his mentor, Christopher Lee, comes to look for him and together they vow to uncover the truth about the Gorgon.

The film begins promisingly enough, as Terence Fisher makes some interesting directorial choices, specifically the murder and its aftermath. As always, Peter Cushing plays the cool, rational doctor, only this time with mutton chops, and is quiet intensity is effective. Michael Goodliffe is every bit his equal in his determination to clear his son’s name. Christopher Lee doesn’t fare as well as the professor with a full beard who is absorbed in his work. The main problem is with Prudence Hyman as the Gorgon. She just isn’t menacing enough. Sure, she has the power to turn mortals into stone, but she’s stuck haunting the nearby castle and the woods, and her victims pretty much have to stumble on her by accident in order to die. And the phony snakes in her hair are pretty laughable. The other issue that seems to undermine the film is with Cushing’s character. As Frankenstein he certainly acted in an immoral manner, but it was always in the quest for the truth. Here, he seems to be deliberately concealing the truth, lying to the family members of the victims as if he’s part of the conspiracy of silence, just as fearful as the villagers, and that seems a betrayal of the kind of character he usually played. Lee doesn’t come into the picture until late, and the film might have been better had he exchanged roles with Cushing. Even James Bernard’s score is fairly subdued for a Hammer film. The whole thing bogs down in the middle and never recovers, and the ending is so devoid of fear and artistry that it winds up being incredibly anticlimactic. The Gorgon is enjoyable to a point, but definitely falls well short of Hammer’s late fifties masterpieces.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard                           Writer: William Anthony McGuire
Film Score: Arthur Lange                               Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan and Myrna Loy

Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. had only been dead three years before MGM decided to film this celebration of his life. The Great Ziegfeld was not only a box office success, but went on to win the Academy Award for best picture of 1936. The film was nominated for seven Oscars winning three, not only for best picture but Luise Rainer for best actress and Semour Felix for best dance direction. Like a lot of Oscar winning films from the nineteen thirties, it hasn’t aged well over the years. At just over three hours long, much of what was seen as lavish during the middle of the Depression now seems a bit self indulgent and slow. The story primarily revolves around Ziegfeld’s difficulties with money. He was always behind, borrowing money in the present to pay for shows that had long since closed. In fact, the film actually began as a way for Billie Burke to pay off Ziegfeld’s debts after his death. She sold the rights to his story to Universal in 1933, and William McGuire’s screenplay went into production the following year with William Powell playing the great producer. But financial problems at Universal forced them to sell the property to MGM, including the sets that had been built for the production numbers. There was no attempt, however, to be accurate with Ziegfeld’s story, and McGuire’s screenplay was considered more of a fantasy version of his life.

The film begins with fireworks announcing the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld and Frank Morgan are competing sideshow barkers, and Powell’s strong man is losing out badly to Morgan’s hoochie coochie girls. In desperation, Powell turns his strong man into a sex idol and brings in women in the same numbers as the men who came to see Morgan’s dancers. He also manages to attract Morgan’s girlfriend, Suzanne Kaaren, away from him. From the fair the scene then shifts to Ziegfeld’s father, Joseph Cawthorn, as a teacher at a music conservatory where Powell argues with him that he doesn’t want to go into music, but instead continue producing spectacles, after which he takes the strong man on the road. When that fizzles out, he follows Morgan to Europe looking for talent--actually, looking for Morgan’s talent: Luise Rainer as the French actress and singer Anna Held. Powell’s honesty wins her over and she decides to go with him to New York. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t like her. But he stays loyal to Rainer and makes her a star, while continuing to spend money he doesn’t have. His next big idea is the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s these review shows, full of beautiful girls beautifully dressed surrounded by elaborate settings, that made the producer a household name.

While the performances at the Follies are interesting enough, they suffer from the same defect that most showbiz biopics suffer from, lesser actors attempting to replicate stars. Buddy Doyle tries to play Eddie Cantor with disappointing results. A.A. Trimble does a passable Will Rogers, but little more. There are a few original actors that help, Ray Bolger and Fannie Brice, for instance, but it’s not enough to capture the genuine excitement of a show like Ziegfeld was famous for. What is impressive, however, is the giant movable sets on the stage--though one has the feeling that the lack of color also diminishes the effect. They are so huge and opulent, often times moving out beyond the proscenium or climbing to the sky in a way that Busby Berkeley never thought of using space. The music, too, is from a generation gone by and, while interesting, doesn’t have the same effect as it no doubt had in the day. And the same goes with much of the static posing onstage that seems more for effect that true entertainment. The supporting cast is solid, with Virginia Bruce playing one of Ziegfeld’s stars who has a drinking problem. Reginald Owen is his uptight accountant, William Demarest one of his writers, and Ernest Cossart as his valet. Finally, Myrna Loy, Powell’s screen partner in the Thin Man films, makes an appearance as Billie Burke who becomes the second Mrs. Ziegfeld.

William Powell considered this one of his best performances, and was pleased when he saw the final cut of the film. He is good, but he’s still just playing William Powell. What’s different really, is the part itself. In this fantasy version of Ziegfeld the producer is something of a saint, first devoted to Anna Held even though they were never officially married, and then after marrying Billie Burke becoming a loving husband and father to the end of his life. The film was also the first of two Oscar wins in a row for Luise Rainer, the first actor to accomplish that feat, going on the following year to win the Academy Award for her role in The Good Earth. Burke initially wanted to play herself in the film, even though she was much older by then, and wisely producer Hunt Stromberg said no. Frank Morgan does an adequate job as Powell’s competitor and friend, and the running gag throughout the film is that Powell winds up stealing away from Morgan every girl he tries to date. Myrna Loy, on the other hand, doesn’t really get enough screen time to do much with the part of Billie Burke. Of course, two years later Morgan, Bolger and the real Billie Burke would appear in The Wizard of Oz for MGM. The Great Ziegfeld probably won the Oscar because Academy members wanted to honor the memory of the producer. It’s not a great film by today’s standards, but certainly worth seeing at some point.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

Director: Rowland V. Lee                              Writers: Philip Dunne & Dan Totheroh
Film Score: Alfred Newman                          Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Starring: Robert Donat, Elissa Landi, Louis Calhern and Sidney Blackmer

This is one of the early versions of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Several versions of the novel had been filmed during the silent era, the most famous with John Gilbert in 1922. This independent production by Edward Small for his company Reliant Pictures was the first sound version made of the story. Fredric March was Small’s original choice for the title role, but it turned out Robert Donat’s services were easier to acquire. Interestingly, March would go on to appear in another 19th century French story, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the very next year. Robert Donat did not enjoy making films--especially in Hollywood--and thus appeared in only twenty throughout his career. His most famous picture was produced the following year, The 39 Steps for Alfred Hitchcock, though he later won his Academy Award for Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1940. While Dan Totheroh had worked on the original treatment with director Rowland V. Lee, he had to leave California and Philip Dunne was hired to write the dialogue. In the end the novel was severely truncated in order to fit into the allotted running time for the film, and some major changes were made to the plot in order to make it more viewer friendly for American audiences. These changes to the story, especially the happy ending that Lee tacked on, were responsible for making the film a major success when it was released.

The story begins in France, after the exile of Napoleon. The Emperor sends out a secret letter from Elba but a storm threatens to sink the ship it’s on. First mate Robert Donat is then given the letter by the dying captain, and told to deliver it to a man in Marseilles, but he doesn’t know anything about the contents. Raymond Walburn, however, hears everything. In Marseilles soldiers are busy rounding up men loyal to Napoleon to be executed. As the ship comes into port two people are anxious for its arrival, Lawrence Grant, the man who is to receive the letter, and Elissa Landi, the fiancée of Donat. But Landi’s mother, Georgia Cane, wants the relationship ended and goes to Sidney Blackmer, who is in love with Landi, to get his help in stopping it. Then Donat is given command of the ship and meets with Landi to declare his love. Blackmer tries to reason with her, but fails. When he receives word from Walburn about the letter he takes it to the head of the police, Louis Calhern. So not only are Grant’s men following Donat, but the police are as well. Donat, however, has no idea of the danger the letter poses to him. When he gives the letter to Grant, both of them are arrested immediately. The first twist comes when the viewer learns that Calhern is Grant’s son. Calhern naturally can’t let it be know where his father’s loyalties lie, so he is then forced to imprison the innocent Donat for the crime, in the worst prison imaginable, the Château d’If.

When Napoleon escapes from Elba, Blackmer goes quickly to the Château d’If to have Donat declared dead so that no matter what happens politically no one will look for him, including Landi. Meanwhile, Landi honors her mother’s dying request and marries Blackmer. For eight years Donat is kept in solitary confinement in the island prison with no hope of parole, and even less of escape. Then he hears tapping from the other side of the wall and digs out one of the stones only to meet O.P. Heggie on the other side. Heggie is rich, and offers Donat half his fortune when they escape. Meanwhile, Landi is living the life of luxury, though less than passionate about being married to Blackmer. It’s not until Heggie dies, and Donat hides in the body bag, that he is taken out of the prison and thrown into the sea. And thus begins his long awaited, carefully planned revenge against Calhern, Walburn, and especially Blackmer, by posing as the Count of Monte Cristo. Director Rowland V. Lee is probably best know by horror fans for helming the third of Universal’s Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein, as well as Tower of London, while O.P. Heggie is equally famous for his role as the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein. The horror connection to the film would also continue much later, when Sidney Backmer appeared in Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. The story is a classic one, and well done for the time period, spawning a much less popular sequel, Son of Monte Cristo six years later. The original Count of Monte Cristo, however, remains a classic tale of adventure and revenge that has delighted audiences for nearly two centuries.

Bird (1988)

Director: Clint Eastwood                              Writer: Joel Oliansky
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                        Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker and Samuel E. Wright

My initial viewing of Clint Eastwood’s film Bird, about the life of Charlie Parker, was a lot like being introduced to bebop for the first time--while I couldn’t say I fully enjoyed it, I knew it was good. It just took me a while to understand why. For many people the flashbacks within flashbacks of Joel Oliansky’s screenplay can be a little confusing, like a narrative full of Russian nesting dolls. But in the thirty years since it first appeared, the film has taken on the same level of profound greatness for me that bebop eventually did. Oliansky had wanted to make the film as early as 1970, but it wouldn’t be until Eastwood came onboard that the project could gain enough traction to actually get made. He does a magnificent job of conveying the essence of Parker’s life without resorting to a chronologic telling, circling around and around in time like a great jazz solo. The film is dark, literally and figuratively, a challenge successfully taken up by cinematographer Jack Green, reflecting the milieu of the jazz world and also the tragedy that was Parker’s life. As a musician he was one of America’s musical geniuses, dying at the age of thirty-four, almost the same age as Mozart when the great composer died. Fortunately it was Clint Eastwood who finally put that life on film in a way that is as much an homage to the music as it is the man.

Like a novel, the film opens with the famous quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Then Charlie Parker is seen as young boy playing a wooden flute while riding on the back of a small pony being led to the shack where he lives with his family. The flute continues over the opening credits until a saxophone takes over, and now Parker is a teenager, Forest Whitaker’s younger brother Damon, playing on the porch of the same shack. During the rest of the credits Parker is heard playing “Lester Leaps In” with a jazz combo for an enthusiastic audience. And suddenly the camera pans right and the audience is in the club with Forest Whitaker onstage, as Parker in his prime. The group is Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet, with Samuel E. Wright as the trumpeter. And then suddenly a flying cymbal fades in and takes over the scene, and as it crashes to the floor the scene changes to Whitaker coming home a decade later to the apartment where he lives with his common law wife Chan, played by Diane Venora, and their two children. It’s an awkward scene, with Venora low key and resolute, while Whitaker is in a manic phase--having just walked out on his latest job. Of course she winds up crying, which seems to be Venora’s specialty as an actress. And Whitaker ends the night by drinking iodine and going to the hospital in an ambulance.

Lying in bed the next day, Whitaker flashes back to when he was a teenager, with Bill Cobbs as a doctor showing him a man who died from a drug overdose, saying that’s him if he doesn’t quit. Later his agent, Michael McGuire, pays a visit, and Whitaker has another flashback, this time of a jam session hosted by swing saxophonist Keith David, and again the cymbal flies through the air. When the doctor wants to give Whitaker electro shock, it’s Venora who flashes back to meeting Whitaker for the first time. Production designer Edward C. Carfagno does an excellent job re-creating 52nd Street in New York City circa 1945. When Keith David shows up he talks to Hamilton Camp about Whitaker, then David has a flashback about the jam session, where Damon Whitaker tried out his new stuff and the drummer wound up throwing the cymbal to the floor and humiliating him. When David returns from the flashback he goes inside to see Whitaker finishing “Lester Leaps In” from the opening of the film and his jaw drops because Whitaker is so far and away better than he’ll ever be. David eventually winds up on a bridge, despondent that the music has seemingly left him behind, and throws his saxophone in the water in disgust. Then Venora comes back from her flashback, tells the doctor no, and takes Whitaker home. And it’s still not even a half hour into the film.

Far from being confusing, the flashbacks are actually brilliantly conceived and executed. Forest Whitaker is not entirely convincing pretending to play the saxophone, but his slightly more animated version of Parker is incredibly enjoyable to watch. Diane Venora is an acquired taste, though Eastwood seems to love her, but then all of the actors, with the exception of Wright, probably played their characters a little broader than they really were. Despite the deficiencies of their individual performances, Whitaker and Venora work really well together, especially in bringing to life the slightly strange relationship between Parker and Chan. Samuel E. Wright does a nice job as Gillespie, and one of the set pieces of the film is the extended trip Whitaker takes to California as part of Dizzy’s group. The haunting series of telegrams that he sends back home to Venora after hearing of his daughter’s death is incredibly well done. But in terms of Parker’s front line partners it is Michael Zelniker as trumpet player Red Rodney who excels in a lengthy section of the film from a little later in Parker’s career, and their trip through the Deep South is particularly memorable. When all is said and done, Whitaker does finally deliver a solid performance as Charlie Parker, playing a man, in Stanley Crouch’s words, who couldn’t outrun his appetites.

The supporting cast is also great. In addition to Cobbs and David, are Jason Bernard as an expatriate trumpet player living in Paris, James Handy as the narcotics officer who is obsessed with putting Parker behind bars, Diane Salinger as the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a patron of sorts for the saxophonist, and Lou Cutell as an Hasidic Jewish father at a wedding reception. The screenplay by Oliansky, in addition to having a unique structure, is also incredibly well written. There are great lines throughout and the dialogue replicating the musician’s argot is believable. And one of the absolute delights about the screenplay for me personally is that Oliansky completely ignored the Miles Davis period altogether. Eastwood is masterful behind the camera, in his subtle way, letting the story tell itself rather than trying to be “artistic.” The director also made an important decision to use Parker’s real solos in the film, getting Lennie Niehaus to pull his music off the original records electronically and re-recording them with the best jazz musicians of the day--many of whom, like Ray Brown and Red Rodney, had actually played with Parker. As a result, the crew who did the sound design won the only Oscar awarded the film. Eastwood did take home the Golden Globe for best director, but then it’s no surprise that the foreign press certainly understands jazz and the kind of film Eastwood was making better than Americans. In the end, Charlie Parker will always be my favorite saxophonist, and Bird my favorite jazz film.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Of Mice and Men (1992)

Director: Gary Sinise                                   Writer: John Steinbeck
Film Score: Mark Isham                              Cinematography: Kenneth MacMillan
Starring: Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Ray Walston and Sherilyn Fenn

After an admirable attempt at filming John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice And Men with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid in 1981, it was at first a curiosity why Gary Sinise decided to remake Of Mice and Men again just a decade later. In retrospect, however, it was a brilliant move by an actor who was only beginning to make a name for himself at the time--he hadn’t even done Forest Gump or Apollo 13 yet. The problem with the earlier film is that it was made for television, and while that doesn’t necessarily make a film inherently bad, in certain respects it did in this case. The TV version simply strayed too far from Steinbeck’s original story in places when it didn’t need to, and diluting the overall impact of the tale in the process. The tremendous irony in all of this is that Sinise’s adaptation was done by Horton Foote, who had absolutely destroyed Harper Lee’s novel when he adapted To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. Because of that it was a pleasant surprise that he made the absolutely right move in translating Steinbeck’s dialogue and settings to the screen almost completely intact. The film was not hugely successful at the box office when it was released, no doubt do to the familiarity of the story and the disappointing nature of the previous version, but it was a critical success and has come to be recognized over the last twenty-five years as the masterpiece it is.

The film opens in a darkened boxcar, as the camera pans slowly over to the face of Gary Sinise, chin in his hands, and haunted look in his eyes. Then the camera cuts to a shot of a woman in a torn red dress running across a field--Sinise’s wife Moira--the only sound Mark Isham’s subdued score to accompany it. Running in the opposite direction after another cut is Gary Sinise as George Milton and John Malkovich as Lennie Small. They escape by hiding in the river under the overgrowth, and eventually make their way south to another ranch and another job. Sinise decides to spend the night near a small creek so that Malkovich can remember the place in case he gets in trouble again. The boss, played by Noble Willingham, is suspicious at first because he thinks Sinise is taking Malkovich’s money, but he sends the two to the bunkhouse anyway. There they meet an old man, Ray Walson, who lost his hand at the ranch and works cleaning the place up. When the boss’s son, Casey Siemaszko, shows up he takes an instant dislike to Malkovich--which he will pay for later. Part of Siemaszko’s belligerence comes from his small stature, the other is his raging jealousy over his wife, Sherilyn Fenn, who he thinks is cheating on him with one of the other farm hands. The one man who takes a genuine interest in the pair is a kindly muleskinner played by John Terry.

Things get tricky for Sinise as he tries to keep Malkovich out of harm’s way. Siemaszko is looking for any reason to take a swing at either of them, while at the same time Malkovich is oblivious to the inherent danger in talking to the lovely Fenn. The ultimate goal for both of them is to save enough money to get their own place someday, where Sinise can keep Lennie out of trouble and the two can be their own boss. Things look up when Walston wants to join them, and has enough money saved already that they can put the wheels in motion. But the best laid plans, as Robert Burns poem goes, are not enough to avert tragedy in the end. Sinise had been obsessed with the story ever since he had first seen it performed on stage while in high school, and that reverence certainly paid off. In the end it is Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film that gets right to the heart of what made Sinise’s achievement so great. “The most sincere compliment I can pay them is to say that all of them--writer and actors--have taken every unnecessary gesture, every possible gratuitous note, out of these characters. The story is as pure and lean as the original fable which formed in Steinbeck’s mind. And because they don’t try to do anything fancy—don’t try to make it anything other than exactly what it is--they have a quiet triumph.”

Sinise has a subtle touch as a director and is a perfectly introspective George, which makes far more credible the devotion he demonstrates toward Lennie throughout the film. Malkovich’s Lennie is ultra realistic and the slower unfolding of the story makes the viewer’s empathy for him that much greater. It’s a brilliant performance, but in a very different way than Lon Chaney Jr.’s in the 1939 Of Mice and Men. The great Ray Walston plays the cripple Candy and adds the kind of extreme confidence that Roman Bohnen can’t even approach in the classic version. Casey Siemaszko, as Curly the ranch owner’s son, is primarily a television actor but has done quite a few small roles in features in between. The muleskinner Slim, played by John Terry, is much more appropriate for the role than Charles Bickford in the original. But it’s Sherilyn Fenn who transforms the role of Curly’s wife from the nagging trailer trash blonde of the original to a dark-haired woman-child who is so lonely that she doesn’t realize the kind of danger she is putting the men, and herself, in just by talking to them. Finally, the great Joe Morton puts in an appearance as Crooks, the stable hand. The pages of Steinbeck’s novel come alive in the hands of Sinise and company, and make this Of Mice and Men not only a treasure to match Steinbeck’s novel, but the only film version of the story one ever need watch.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

North by Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                Writer: Ernest Lehman
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                       Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau

North by Northwest is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. Personally, I feel it’s really a tossup between this and Rear Window, and for me the Jimmy Stewart film gets the edge. But there’s really little to choose from between them. They’re both classics. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman had originally planned on making a film called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, which never made it past the planning stages. Michael Anderson was then handed the project, which starred Gary Cooper, and it was released the same year. Lehman’s eventual screenplay is a rare one in Hitchcock’s cannon, a story made up completely from scratch. Hitch had always imagined some kind of chase across Mt. Rushmore, and after bouncing ideas off each other the story gradually coalesced. But there’s also an argument to be made that the story originated with Otis C. Guernsey who had sold Hitchcock something similar nine years earlier. Regardless, it’s really the ultimate Hitchcock thriller. A case of mistaken identity robs a man of his own and sends him racing across the country, simultaneously chasing the villains and being chased himself by the police. The blonde in this film is one of the most dangerous in all of Hitchcock’s films, and underpinning the entire story is the sort of muted patriotism that Hitch liked as well.

The opening titles are quite unique, a green screen gradually filled in with a series of lines that turns into the windows of a New York skyscraper. Hitch gets his cameo out of the way early by missing a bus, and then Cary Grant comes out of the building with his secretary, Doreen Lang. They take a cab to the Oak Room where Grant, an advertising executive, is meeting with clients. When he realizes he forgot to tell his secretary something, he decides to send her a telegram. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman creates a wonderful bit of business here when two suspicious men, Robert Ellenstein and Adam Williams, looking for a man named George Kaplan, send a boy into the bar saying he has a telegram for him. Grant, oblivious to this, turns around and calls the boy over. The men think Grant is Kaplan and promptly kidnap him, taking him out to Glen Cove where he meets James Mason and his right hand man Martin Landau. When Grant figures out what has happened he tries to tell them that he’s not Kaplan, but Mason simply assumes he’s lying. When he refuses to tell them what he doesn’t know, Landau gets him drunk and the two henchmen put him in a car and send it toward the ocean cliff. But Grant marshals all his senses and avoids the cliff, taking the men on a chase until Grant runs into a police car. Of course, when the police go with him to the house the next day, nothing is as it was, and the only thing Grant is left with is the name of the owner of the estate.

Grant pays his fine, which should have been the end of things, but he can’t let it go. First he goes to Kaplan’s hotel room in the city, and before long figures out no one has ever seen this Kaplan. Then he goes to look for Mason, who is supposedly addressing the United Nations. But the owner of the estate turns out to be someone completely different, and to make matters worse he is killed by Williams who throws a knife in his back making it look like Grant has killed him. Now Grant is on the run from the police as well as the killers . . . and still has absolutely no idea why. After managing to elude the police getting out of the U.N., Grant heads for the train station and hops a train for Chicago, the next stop on Kaplan’s itinerary. There he meets Eva Marie Saint, who helps him out by stowing him in her room, but she only makes things more confusing by the way she seems to be throwing herself at him. Hitchcock has lots of great character actors populating the film. Edward Platt plays Grant’s lawyer, Edward Bins one of the county detectives, and Les Tremayne the art auctioneer. Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor, is the CIA head of operations and finally tells the audience what’s going on: there is no George Kaplan. Also on Carroll’s CIA team are Lawrence Dobkin and the wonderful Madge Kennedy. Unfortunately for Grant, he nearly gets killed a couple more times before he finally learns the truth.

The film is almost too brimming with excellence to be able to describe in a just a few paragraphs. The story itself is incredibly complex, and yet the way it plays out it is very easy to follow. Cary Grant, in his fourth film for Hitch, seems as bold and confident as the director himself, while James Mason and Martin Landau are unforgettable. The picture is filled with iconic scenes, from the United Nations building, to the train ride to Chicago, to the meeting in the woods. But the two most memorable scenes are, first, Cary Grant’s cat and mouse game in a cornfield with a crop duster that’s trying to kill him. The second is the race across the faces of Mr. Rushmore. The dialogue is full of the kind of wit that Hitchcock enjoyed. There’s even a nice allusion to the Whittaker Chambers / Alger Hiss trials when Grant asks Saint, “Have you got the pumpkin?” In broad terms the story is a Cold War spy thriller, but the reality is it’s much more intimate than that sounds. The quintessential fifties color saturation of the print is beautiful, and it was one of the few features the director filmed in widescreen. Finally, one of the most important pieces of the film is the truly inspired score by Bernard Herrmann. Along with the frenetic main theme that returns repeatedly, is also a memorable love theme. North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock at the peak of his powers, at a time in his career when he could seemingly do no wrong. Is it his greatest film? Perhaps not, but it’s close.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston                                     Writer: John Huston
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre

This was the third attempt by Warner Brothers to film Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. The first attempt came the year after the book was published, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and was definitely a successful rendering of the story but, coming as it did so early in the sound era with all of its pre-code elements, that version of The Maltese Falcon really didn’t stand a chance of becoming a classic. The next attempt was made five years later with Warren William and Bette Davis and titled Satan Met a Lady. This time the screenwriters attempted to turn the story into a screwball comedy and apparently no one on the production, from the director to the actors, were happy with it and so it remains a fairly uninspired film. In 1940 screenwriter John Huston, eager to make the move to director that Warners had promised him, simply gave a copy of the novel to his secretary and told her to type it up as a screenplay. Meanwhile, Huston had forgotten that everything the secretaries did was also forwarded to Jack Warner’s office. In a comic turn of events, Jack Warner though it was one of the best screenplays he’d seen in some time and immediately gave a green light to the project. Once Huston had assembled his top-flight cast and crew, he was able to turn his “brilliant” screenplay of The Maltese Falcon into an equally successful film.

After the credit sequence with the falcon in the background, a scrolling text tells the story of a golden falcon statue encrusted with jewels from the middle ages that had long ago disappeared. The story proper begins in San Francisco at the office of Spade and Archer, private detectives, with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade rolling a cigarette. The beautiful Mary Astor is ushered in, desperate to find her sister who’s in the clutches of a man named Thursby. When Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer enters the office he immediately takes over the case, and an amused Bogart lets him. Unfortunately, Cowan is killed that evening tailing a suspect, and detective Ward Bond--a little more street wise than he would be in It’s A Wonderful Life--has Bogart come down to look at the crime scene. Bogart goes back to his apartment, but Bond and his partner, Barton MacLane, show up a minute later because they think Bogart is the one who shot Thursby, dead with four bullets in his back in front of his hotel. Bogart doesn’t them about Astor, though. The next day Cowan’s widow, Gladys George, is waiting at the office, and she and Bogart kiss. They’ve been having an affair, which explains Bogart’s lack of emotion about his partner’s death. Bogart’s secretary, the gorgeous Lee Patrick, thinks George killed Cowan to get him out of the way. Bogart doesn’t think so.

Next, Astor has Bogart come over to her hotel, and tells him she lied about her sister. But Bogart knows that, too. She tells him a new story, and despite his doubts he decides to help her--after taking all her money. Peter Lorre shows up that night at Bogart’s office-nattily dressed and smelling of gardenias. He offers Bogart $5,000 from his employer if he’ll help find the Maltese Falcon, then pulls a gun on him. It doesn’t take Bogart long to disarm him and smack him around a little for good measure. When Bogart goes back to see Astor he’s tailed by Elisha Cook, Jr., but Bogart gets wise and loses him. Soon not only Astor and Lorre wind up in Bogart’s apartment, but the cops as well. The whole thing is incredibly funny, and Bogart enjoys every bit of it. That is, until the fat man shows up: Sydney Greenstreet. One of the main problems with detective films made in the thirties is how much the original novels had to be changed before they hit the screen. Huston’s instincts were right to let Hammett’s characters speak for themselves. The film crackles with nervous energy, but the audience is safely in the hands of Bogart as he sits in the eye of the storm laughing all the way.

The part of Sam Spade was a breakout role for Bogart, who had spent his time at Warners playing hoods and strong men ever since he arrived at the studio. High Sierra--which was also written by Huston--from the year before was the start of this transition, but he was still playing a gangster in that film. Then Casablanca the following year solidified his new status as a superstar leading man. Astor is good, but does nothing that a half-dozen other actresses at the studio couldn’t have done. The real standouts are Sydney Greenstreet in his first film, while Peter Lorre has one of his best Hollywood roles as the curly-haired dandy, Joel Cairo. Huston does a solid job in his first film as a director, letting the story do most of the work. He does come up with some unique camera set ups, however, like shooting Greenstreet from below and letting his considerable bulk fill the entire bottom of the screen. Arthur Edeson’s camera work and lighting are rock solid, as usual, and the film also has the benefit of a memorable score by Adolph Deutsch.

Regrettably, Richard T. Jameson’s essay in The A List indulges in some speculation right off the bat about the opening text, that perhaps it was hurriedly tacked on because half the film elapses before the Falcon is even mentioned. So what? Guessing is never good, but there’s more to come. “It’s tantalizing to contemplate how easily the brass ring might have been missed--how close the picture might have come to being just another detective thriller.” Sigh. Again, so what? After a brief recap of the plot, Jameson rightly praises Huston for his straight-forward adaptation and inspired casting. He likens the film to any number of caper films that bring together a disparate--and often desperate--group of strangers, but Hammett’s story is really a different animal altogether with the presence of the private detective. And though the film is heavy on dialogue, “Hammett’s talk is tensile and exotic, and the way Huston films it, talk is dynamic action." The Maltese Falcon is sometimes cited as the first film noir, but it’s not, not even close. Other than the first two murders, no one is ever really in any danger. It’s a straight mystery story, and a good one, too, well deserving of all the praise heaped on it since it was first released.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sealed Cargo (1951)

Director: Alfred L. Werker                               Writers: Dale Van Every & Oliver Garrett
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Starring: Dana Andrews, Carla Balenda, Claude Rains and Philip Dorn

Set in 1943 during World War Two, Sealed Cargo is something of a throwback to the war films of the previous decade. But it still works, primarily because the motivations of both the protagonists and antagonists are taken as a given, an assumption that allows the film to dispense with having to explain them to the audience. Thus the film spends all of its time concentrating on how the hero is going to defeat the villain rather than why. In one of those instances that makes one groan, the screenplay was based on a novel by Edmund Gilligan called . . . wait for it . . . The Gaunt Woman. That’s right, not The Thin Man but apparently something similar. In truth, the story does wind up being more of a detective yarn than a strict war film. Director Alfred Werker was no stranger to mysteries, either, having helmed the first Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film for Fox in 1939. Also on hand are noir veterans Dana Andres and Claude Rains, relative newcomer Carla Balenda, and Dutch character actor Philip Dorn. The photography by George Diskant is excellent, and the miniatures and rear projection are extremely well done, which is no surprise since RKO was the studio that made King Kong. The film also benefits from the presence of studio’s best composer, Roy Webb, adding a score that is not so much memorable as it is effective.

The film begins with superimposed text extolling the virtues of small victories during wartime rather than grand heroic acts, and then the story opens in Gloucester, Mass. in 1943 with Dana Andrews ending his workday on the docks unloading his fishing boat. The great Whit Bissell puts in a brief appearance early on as a union boss. With the war on there are just no available men to go out on Andrews’ boat. Andrews then makes a visit to Arthur Shields. His sons are in the war, and with so much less competition Andrews is set to make a pile of money--if he can get some deck hands. Carla Balenda shows up looking to pay for a ride to Newfoundland, and finally Philip Dorn walks in. Andrews hires Dorn, but with Nazi subs trolling the Grand Banks, he refuses Balenda. The next morning Andrews finds Balenda waiting on his boat. She wants to visit her father, and so the captain finally gives in. The first sign of trouble is when Dorn is talking to another Danish crewmember, Eric Feldary, and Dorn seems to know a little too much about Nazi activity in Denmark. After making it through a storm the next day, the ship winds up in a fogbank that evening. Soon they hear gunfire, but they can’t see anything. Then Feldary tells Andrews that someone has sabotaged the radio, pouring acid on the tubes and wires. Feldary also tells him his suspicions about Dorn, and Andrews believes him. But before he can get any real information out of him, the boat comes in earshot of a German submarine firing its guns.

Andrews believes the sub has sunk a fishing boat and that there are probably survivors in dories being shelled. In looking for them, however, they run across an apparently abandoned schooner. Andrews takes the two Danes to investigate, along with first mate Morgan Farley. The ship is Danish, and its name means “The Gaunt Woman.” After boarding and conducting a search, the only man they find alive is the captain, Claude Rains. The ship’s manifest, it turns out, is the key to the title of the film. Andrews decides to tow the ship back to Newfoundland, but he also has a bad feeling that it’s exactly what the Nazis want. In the end it’s a taut little thriller that works well. The suspicion about Dorn infuses the first half of the story and keeps the tension up, and the anxiety ratchets further when the suspicion shifts to Balenda. But before long it seems as if everyone is a suspect. Andrews is essentially playing the part of a detective--and Rains even says as much to him at one point, with Balenda as the love interest. Also in the cast is Onslow Stevens as Balenda’s father, a wounded ship commander, also known to horror fans as the mad doctor from House of Dracula. The last third of the picture is fairly conventional, though it’s not entirely predictable, and manages to be suspenseful right up to the end. The film naturally brings to mind comparisons with Edge of Darkness, but while Sealed Cargo is definitely a lower budget affair it has a certain appeal all its own and is definitely worth watching.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Champagne (1928)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                               Writers: Alfred Hitchcock & Walter Mycroft
Art Direction: Wilfred Arnold                           Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Starring: Betty Balfour, Jean Bradin, Ferdinand Von Alten and Gordon Harker

In a fascinating interview with Anthony Perkins, the actor once said that Hitchcock’s Psycho was really a comedy. After watching initial showings Hitch even wanted to go back and punch up the dialogue in places because audiences were laughing over the top of it. While the director had already experimented with the form in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1941, and generally mixed a little humor in with even his most serious films, his comedy roots go back to the silent era in England. Champagne, from 1928, is moderately entertaining riches-to-rags story starring Betty Balfour, the most popular actress in Britain at the time. Film critic Walter Mycroft’s original story concerned a woman who worked in a wine cellar in Reims and wondered where all of the bottles of Champagne wound up. She travels to Paris and is horrified by what the overconsumption of alcohol causes people to do and just manages to make it back home safely. But Balfour didn’t like the story and so Hitchcock quickly wrote another about a rich flapper who goes to Paris on a lark. In this version the girl’s father makes and sells Champagne for a living, but that and the frequent recurrence of the beverage in the film seems more like a gimmick than anything meaningful to do with the plot.

The film opens with Gordon Harker as the father, angrily looking through newspapers. Turns out he’s a Wall Street magnate whose daughter, Betty Balfour, has flown a seaplane to the middle of the Atlantic to meet her lover onboard an ocean liner. But after that standard setup, suddenly Hitchcock’s mastery of visuals leaps to the fore. A close up of a Champagne cork exploding and a glass being filled and drunk, reveals an energetic pair of dancers through the bottom of the empty glass. The glass belongs to Ferdinand Von Alten. Angry? Jealous? It’s difficult to tell at this point. Then everyone rushes out of the ballroom and up the stairs, and Von Alten joins them. They are all there to watch the sailors who have just been sent out on a launch to pick up Betty Balfour from the plane. Once onboard, Balfour spies her lover, Jean Bradin, in the crowd, but is curiously circumspect and refuses to openly acknowledge him. Von Alten is there as well, glowering, and follows her down to her room where he sees Bradin go in a minute later. Back in Harker’s office he is still fuming, and reporters don’t make things better, but on the ship Balfour is the celebrity of the moment, and is formerly introduced to both Von Alten and Bradin, feigning ignorance with the latter.

Bradin gives her an engagement ring, which doesn’t fit, and Balfour sticks it on her thumb. Hitchcock tilts the camera back and forth to indicate rough seas during lunch, where Von Alten joins her. Then a seasick Bradin gets jealous but the sight of food makes him sicker and he retreats to his room. The rocking boat gag continues and Hitchcock does some nice moving triple exposure to replicate Bradin’s point of view. The two have a spat over wedding plans specifically, but Balfour’s extroverted personality in general. After docking they take the train to Paris where Balfour embraces the wild life, much to Bradin’s disappointment, especially after one of her new friends turns out to be Von Alten. That’s nothing, however, compared to the discomfiture when Balfour’s father shows up. What he’s come to tell her, however, has nothing to do with her escapades, but instead that the stock market crash has wiped them out. And that’s where the real plot begins. The two are forced to move to a one-room flat in Paris, but all is not as it first seems. While Hitchcock had been successful with his previous comedy, The Farmer’s Wife, critics were not impressed with this film. Hitchcock himself called it the lowest ebb of his career and never liked it because of the lack of any real story.

As in most silent films, the acting is conspicuously broad, but Betty Balfour takes it to an uncomfortable extreme. Unlike the confident but subdued style of someone like Clara Bow, Balfour practically chews the scenery and one wishes Hitchcock had reined her in a little more. But since she was so well known and beloved, there was probably little he felt he could do about it. The same goes for Gordon Harker and the exaggerated twitch of his mouth that was probably supposed to be funny at the time but doesn’t have quite the same effect nearly a century later. Though Hitchcock does steal a few bits from other silent comedians, there are some nice sight gags that made me laugh out loud. But they are few and far between. And again, while there is some nice camera work it’s not enough on its own to overcome a ponderous plot and some equally unsavory acting. Viewers today seem to be mixed, with some critics praising Hitchcock’s visual style and camera work--much as contemporary critics did in his day--while others can’t get past the lack of story and failure to entertain. But Champagne has its charms and, while arguably the worst of Hitchcock’s silent films . . . it’s still Hitchcock.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Good Dame (1934)

Director: Marion Gering                                 Writers: William Lipman & Vincent Lawrence
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                         Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Jack LaRue and Noel Francis

Paramount’s Good Dame did not fare well in terms of reviews. The story of a carnival huckster redeemed by the love of a good woman was fairly trite even in 1934. Sylvia Sidney, who is the only reason for watching the film, is glorious as always, but Fredric March is decidedly weak in the picture. The review in the New York Times blamed the screenplay for this, but for March it was just too much of a stretch to ask him to carry a picture he wasn’t equipped to handle. He just doesn’t have the kind of authenticity that any number of actors over at Warners would have brought to the part. The screenplay is credited to four writers, and that’s probably one of the reasons it never gels. But while the plot isn’t much, the carney slang is pretty fascinating. In the end, March and Sidney are a nice paring and enjoyable to watch, but it’s definitely no It Happened One Night. Director Marion Gering began his career in Russia as a theater director, and this was one of only seventeen films he directed in his career in Hollywood, none of them really noteworthy. Nevertheless, there are some moving camera touches that are arresting, but too isolated to form a cohesive directorial vision the way that someone like Lewis Milestone was able to achieve during the same period.

The film opens with a nice credit sequence, a train passing by a series of billboards containing the cast and crew in art deco lettering. The train, it turns out, is transporting a carnival, and after a montage showing the various games of chance, Fredric March is seen running a three-card Monte with Sylvia Sidney looking on. March is about to lose fifty bucks, but then Sidney has her purse stolen and March gets away in the commotion. The thief takes her money and tears up her train ticket, and it turns out it was March’s partner, Russell Hopton, who stole the purse. Sidney is a legitimate chorus girl with a traveling show but now she is forced to take a job as an exotic dancer with the carnival in order to get to Chicago. March is a ladies’ man who tries to pick up Sidney, but she’s having none of it--that is, until he offers to buy her dinner--but she chases him off before he can close the deal. When March gets wise to the fact that she’s a chorus girl, he follows her back to the train to collect on his dinner investment, but it turns out she really isn’t the kind of dancer he thought she was and takes pity on her. Then the two of them wind up accidentally locked in the animal car and have to spend the night together. The title comes from March’s line, “A car full of animals and a good dame. Nuts!”

The next morning March wakes to find Sidney already gone. That night the cops shut down the show and arrest Sidney along with the rest of the dancers. March has Hopton steal the money from LaRue to pay her fine and she’s released, on condition she leave town with the carnival. When LaRue catches her on the train, however, he kicks her off. Then LaRue threatens to kill March unless he gets the money back, and March makes his own getaway. The two naturally wind up in the hotel March told her about earlier in the picture. March takes the room next door because he believes she’s the beauty from New York that the desk clerk told him about, while Sidney has to run off a guy who wants to take advantage of her. So when March knocks on the door he gets a jug full of water in the face, intended for the creep, for his troubles. Fortunately, one of March’s fun time girls, Noel Francis, is staying just across the hall, and so he makes it his mission to get Sidney’s money back and put her on a bus before she makes his life any more miserable--and before he falls for her so much he can’t let her go. Though the film was made at the very end of the pre-code days, it’s difficult to tell. The implications of easy sex, social drinking, scantily clad dancers, and the brazen law breaking by carnival owner Jack LaRue seem to place it squarely in the middle of the era. It’s not a great film by any stretch, and maybe not even be a good one. But there’s definitely enough perverse charm to Good Dame to warrant a viewing.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Now, Voyager (1942)

Director: Irving Rapper                                   Writer: Casey Robinson
Film Score: Max Steiner                                 Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Gladys Cooper

In the opening episode of the sixth season of House the writers decided to do a riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Hugh Laurie playing the part of Jack Nicholson, trying to rile up the rest of the inmates at the mental hospital to rebel. The big test is over being denied ping-pong paddles. After Laurie gets them chanting in unison the head psychiatrist Andre Braugher defies expectations by emerging from the office and acceding to their demands. It seems impossible to know precisely what the expectations were about psychiatry in the early nineteen-forties, but in a post Cuckoo’s Nest world the actions of Braugher have the same effect on the viewer as those of Claude Rains in the opening of Now, Voyager. The fact is, novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, on whose work the film was based, set out to demystify the idea of psychiatry, especially when it came to the character played by Rains--a doctor similar to the one who had helped her with psychological difficulties earlier in her life. But while Rains was the first choice for his role, Bette Davis came to the film late, after neither Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, nor Ginger Rogers had worked out. Rains and Paul Henreid apparently never got along well with each other, but they only had a couple of scenes together in the film. It wouldn’t be until Deception, four years later, that Rains and Henreid would be able to have it out with each other dramatically onscreen.

This film opens on a rainy day in Boston, in front of a grand mansion. Inside, the staff scurries to avoid the wrath of the wealthy widow Gladys Cooper. Soon her daughter-in-law, Ilka Chase, shows up with psychiatrist Claude Rains in tow. He’s there to meet with Bette Davis, the youngest child of Cooper, who has been completely dominated by her mother her entire life and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It doesn’t take Rains long to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Cooper, and when Chase’s daughter, Bonita Granville, teases Davis mercilessly, it finally sends her up to her room in tears. Rains suggests a stay at his sanitarium, and that’s were Davis goes. After a few weeks in the country--and a major makeover--Rains sends Davis on a South American cruise under an assumed name. Of course she meets Paul Henreid onboard. He’s very attentive, impervious to her cynical self-deprecation, and very married. And naturally she falls for him. Fortunately, Henreid’s marriage is on the rocks, and one of Henried’s friends onboard, Lee Patrick, is not shy about telling Davis how unhappy he is. But the trip eventually ends, Henreid goes home to his wife, and Davis to her mother. This time, however, Davis learns how to tame her mother, and her transformation into a popular single woman in Boston is just the beginning of a new life. Then come a series of fascinating twist that defy expectations all the way to the end.

It’s a strong film, but the romantic-melodramatic nature of the story is such that it really didn’t stand much of a chance at Oscar time. Davis and Cooper were both nominated for their performances, but it was Max Steiner’s evocative score that won the film’s only Academy Award. Rains is his usual, dependable self and delivers a strong supporting performance, and the other real standout in the cast is Janis Wilson, as Henreid’s teenage daughter. Paul Henreid, however, was never going to be a legitimate romantic lead in Hollywood because of his accent, even though that’s how he always saw himself--his autobiography was titled Ladies’ Man. Of course this was the film in which he had the memorable business of lighting two cigarettes and giving one of them to Davis. Though he was a good actor, and rather charming in his way, he could never rise beyond the second tier in films to become a real star. In the end, the film belongs to Bette Davis. The way she manages to walk the tightrope with Gladys Cooper after her transformation, maintaining her independence without getting herself kicked out of the house or cut out of the will, is one of the joys of the film. The ending is also rather impressive, unexpected in ways, disappointing in others, but part and parcel of making movies under the control of the production code and satisfying in its own perverse way. Now, Voyager isn’t the best Bette Davis film, but it’s definitely enjoyable and well worth seeking out.