Monday, March 29, 2010

Peter Cottontail -1950-51

Here’s a jazzy Peter Cottontail cartoon from 1950 or 1951, directed by Bobie Cannon, from UPA.

(Don't forget to scroll down to the bottom of the blog page and pause the usual soundtrack first.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Visit from Robert Frost's Banjo

Last week, I enjoyed a lovely visit in person from your friend and mine, John Hayes, who mans the controls over at Robert Frost’s Banjo.

Blogging has become a rather important part of our lives, those of us who routinely pop in on each other’s blogs. I’m not sure I realized how important until John announced his trans-continental trek and I looked forward to it as well, hoping we would have an opportunity to meet.

It meant a lot to me that he went out of his way to visit me. In the course of our conversation, where we discussed everything from our blogs, to shoes and ships and ceiling wax (finish the line yourself), I saw firsthand that the driving force of his unique and gentle blog is his own kindly and intelligent self, and that I am richer not only for reading Robert Frost’s Banjo, but being lucky enough to meet him.

I may never get to meet most of you, whose blogs I visit and who visit this blog and leave your comments. But I really enjoy the chats. I just wanted you to know.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rich Girls - Part 2 - With this Ring, I Thee Kill


“Dial M for Murder” (1954) and “A Perfect Murder” (1998) provide a contrast between supposedly what was and supposedly what is in terms of film techniques, acting techniques, and women of means. They are the same story, told 44 years apart, and demonstrate not only what has happened to the movie rich girl, but what has happened to the telling of whodunits.

“Dial M”, like “The Heiress” mentioned here in our last post, was adapted from a stage play, and so the action is centered mainly on one interior set, the lines delivered crisply, measured as if paced for the stage, and in an orderly, logical manner to tell the story. In stage plays, the dialogue moves the plot along, whereas sometimes in films, we almost get the feeling that the dialogue is what gets in the way of the plot.

Ex-playboy tennis star Ray Milland is the husband of rich girl Grace Kelly. She has just terminated an adulterous affair with visiting American Robert Cummings. Milland plots to kill her, but not out of any Othello-like rage of jealousy. It has occurred to him that if she takes to falling in love with other men, she might divorce him. And there would go his Easy Street life. He doesn’t mind losing her, just her fortune.

It’s not Easy Street, but actually the Maida Vale section of London where they reside, in a garden apartment Edwardian building that, except for the affluent address, really doesn’t seem to indicate extreme wealth. With what appears to be one bedroom and a kitchen both off a central living room, there’s not much here of which to be covetous. Makes you wonder why they need a daily charwoman to come and clean. Makes you wonder what Miss Kelly does with her time, when she’s not having an affair with Bob Cummings.

It’s somewhat unusual for a sympathetic female character to have some flaw like adultery as part of her baggage, with the Code usually so strict about heroines being unbesmirched. It’s also mighty unusual for a female lead at this time to beat up a guy in hand-to-hand combat.

Ray Milland enlists the aid of a former acquaintance, a two-bit ne’r do well with a record, to kill his wife. It’s an intriguing scene where they visit companionably with drinks in hand and Mr. Milland, in his oily, suave way, blackmails the man into doing his dirty work, which is to kill his wife. Trapped, and considerably greedy, the would-be-killer goes over the plot with Milland step-by-step until he, and especially the audience, is well-trained on what is supposed to happen that fateful night when Grace goes to answer the telephone in the dark. When the plot unravels, we then get plan B and a whole new movie..

We mentioned last time how director William Wyler took what seems to be a light touch in the camera work for “The Heiress”, letting most of the action appear as natural as it would on stage. But “Dial M” is a Hitchcock film, and so Mr. Hitchcock, master self-brander that he was, took this stage play and viewed it through his own unique perspective and never lets us forget this is a Hitchcock film. His trademark cameo appearance in this one is in the photo Milland shows the killer of an old college reunion dinner. Hitchcock is seated at the table in the photo with a Milland and a group of gents, all looking at the camera.

There are many table-level shots as in film noir, and when Milland starts to choreograph the murder for the killer, we jump to a shot looking down on them from the ceiling. This shot is reprised later when we see the police scurrying about the apartment inspecting the crime scene.

When Grace is shown in a dream-like sequence summarizing her trial, she stares directly into the camera, similar to James Stewart’s dream trance in “Vertigo” (1957).

Mr. Milland is charming as her duplicitous husband, who couches his considerable ego and greed in a remarkably likeable demeanor. This is the fun thing about his character, and makes his quite long explanation of the murder plot fascinating. Even his occasional bursts of petulance are somehow cute. Grace, despite straying from her marriage when she feels abandoned and neglected by him, never really falls out of love with Milland’s character, and that makes her shock at the end of the film upon discovering his plans to murder her all the greater.

Grace Kelly, in her first of a few memorable Hitchcock films, is believable as the troubled woman looking for balance between her guilt for having an affair, and her desire to have the kind of romantic and trusting relationship with her husband that she apparently has enjoyed with Bob Cummings.

One scene I get a kick out of is toward the end of the film when Mr. Cummings and the police inspector are hashing out the plan to catch Milland at his own game. They are both standing behind Grace Kelly, who sits on a chair. They are speaking, the focus is on them, but in the foreground we have Grace hunched over so that her hair keeps falling messily in her face despite attempts to push it away, crying and blowing her noise in Cumming’s handkerchief. Any other female star would have dabbed at the corner of her eyes delicately so as not to smudge the makeup, and eked out a few strictly for the camera boo-hoos.

Grace, as if intentionally interrupting what the men folk are discussing, keeps heartily, and thoroughly, blowing her nose, unfolding the handkerchief, turning it over in her hands and looking for a clean spot to blow some more. It is so natural and human, that I am never sure if she was actually deep into her character’s misery, or if she was just a great scene stealer. Or if she had sinus infection.

But the most amazing aspect of this film is how she stabs her would-be-killer to death.

Since this script, minus a few changes, was taken from the stage play, it would be hard not to have Miss Kelly kill the killer, since this is how it was done on stage, but such a graphic scene was not the norm for Hollywood, even if what was judged acceptable for film was changing a bit in the early 1950s.

The killer attacks Grace Kelly in the dark as she answers the phone, which her husband called right at that time purposely to get her out of bed. She is strangled in a brief tussle which despite a discreet keeping the violence to a minimum, evocatively shows her bare legs dangling over the desk in what many critics have judged to be Hitchcock’s substitute image for rape.

She reaches for her scissors, stabs him, at a rather unrealistic angle, but we’ll let that go. Then, of course, the killer may be judged to have caused his own death because he falls on his back, driving in the scissors and killing him. Brief, but ghastly.

Milland, who has enjoyed plotting the murder almost as if it was a hobby, kind of like Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn in Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), quickly switches gears and sees that he still has a chance at killing his wife by framing her for the murder of this man, thereby sending her to the gallows.

It nearly happens, but an 11th hour bit of dogged detective work by the veddy British Scotland Yard inspector saves the day. He is played by the ever reliable John Williams, whose comic dignity is such a pleasure in roles like these. The mystery of the switched house keys is solved, and the louse Milland gets caught, still as suave as ever.

It’s interesting that Grace Kelly’s character, like Dorothy McGuire’s character in “Invitation” (1951) which we mentioned in our last post, is a woman with inherited wealth, but no seeming place in society except as a rather young matron, the supportive wife of a man with no pedigree and few talents, men who have mainly their charm to recommend them.

We might assume that as wealthy women of leisure, who have servants to clean their homes, they might fill their time with other pursuits, perhaps charity work, but the films do not show us this. It is perhaps not thought necessary to round out their characters in order to tell the complicated plots of these films. They are like types, and we do not see as much into their characters as we do Olivia de Havilland in “The Heiress.”

“A Perfect Murder” (1998), which is a remake of “Dial M” gives us the old chestnut plot about the house keys, and the phone signal, and the husband plotting to murder his adulterous wife, with a new coat of paint that reflects much about how filmmaking has changed and what we expect as a society from our rich girls.

It also shows the difference between filming a stage play and filming a script meant for film, just as we saw differences in style between “The Heiress” and “Invitation”, one which showed action in a confined space, and the latter which relied on several sets and locations (even if they were all soundstage “locations”).

“A Perfect Murder” takes the murder plot out of the Maida Vale flat and runs all over New York City with it. There are shots of the couple’s spectacular apartment, Central Park, subways, a Brooklyn industrial loft, offices, the United Nations, bars and restaurants. We are freer, there are many places to run, so we do a lot of running.

The couple is played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas. In this case, Douglas is not the washed up sports hero that Milland was, relying on his wife’s money to give him the good life. Mr. Douglas is a Wall Street investor, a man of considerable drive and power. He is a self-made man, and his marriage is weakened not by neglecting his wife, but being overly controlling. She is less his meal ticket and more his trophy wife.

Viggo Mortensen is his wife’s lover, who, in this drastic change in the plot, is also the one Douglas blackmails into killing his wife. No bland if trustworthy Bob Cummings will do for the 1990s. Mortensen is sexy, mysterious, rather grubby-looking, and has that regrettable habit of most film actors today who speak in choked syllables from the back of the throat that makes it difficult to hear everything they’re saying. The old style of stage speech for film has long been regarded as artificial sounding, but I prefer it to guttural mumbling. I know stage speech is not always realistic, but I also know the movie is not real. It’s only a movie, so making it “realistic” is sometimes irrelevant.

Which is probably why most car chase scenes bore me to tears. I know it’s not real. The director yelled cut and everybody went to have lunch. Big deal. Show me some acting.

The biggest change comes in the character of the wife. Gwyneth Paltrow is excessively wealthy, but we see no malaise, like Dorothy McGuire and Grace Kelly, on her part because of it. She is educated, multi-lingual, works for the U.N., though we easily understand she does not need to work for a living at all. But she needs to work for the movie because it would more difficult for us to be interested in her character, these days, if she did nothing with her life. It’s hard to have sympathy with someone who does not work as hard as we do.

The kicker is, like any modern superwoman, she actually solves the crime rather than letting the police inspector, played by the terrific David Suchet, do it. There is the attack scene as well, where instead of using scissors from her sewing basket (how un-1990s), she jabs the killer in the neck with a meat thermometer.

Which is why I never cross through darkened parking lots and inner city back alleys without my trusty meat thermometer. It’s like a hat pin for the modern woman. And it tells you when the roast is done. Try doing that with a hat pin or scissors.

The attack scene is a bit more prolonged, violent and bloody. Another major difference is that by the end of the film, we rack up three dead bodies, among them her husband. As in most modern films, he does not have to face the wrath of society and the courts of justice. Too tedious. Just blow him away with a gun we had no idea she even had in her pocket. Problem solved.

Though Mr. Douglas’ main motive for attempting to have his wife killed is for her money, just as it was for Milland, we sense there is a bit more of Othello’s rage in Douglas. This may indeed be a crime of passion for him as well as for income, or at least a crime of ego. With Milland, we sense it is almost for the fun of seeing if it will work.

But the modern world is complicated, and instead of dial phones and clicking mechanical phone exchanges, we have cell phones and computers, a tangled world in which “the perfect murder” or rather we should say, “the perfect movie murder story”may be impossible because we cannot easily follow the twists and turns anymore. We may understand about greed and lust, but most of us are a little overwhelmed by automatic computer stock programs and how that could have made David Suchet no longer suspect Michael Douglas. We saw him toss his disposable cell phone out the car window. We may wonder why Suchet did not think of that.

And in a world where keys come in clusters on lanyards and chains, why would the killer carry a single key in his pocket? What makes sense in 1954 is harder to justify in 1998, and the problem is us. We tend to try to justify the complicated machinations of modern films which are more interested in being “realistic” than being entertaining. Those of us who watch old movies tend to accept a lot of what we see without justifying too much of it. Like accepting a convicted Grace Kelly, scheduled to be executed in a few hours, can be released on the hunch of a police inspector.

“A Perfect Murder” also tends to drift a bit when the focus on the action falls on the cat and mouse tactics of Mortensen and Douglas and we wonder not if they are going to kill Paltrow but each other.

I like the exchange in Arabic between Paltrow and Suchet, and their brief camaraderie. It’s a shame she has to be a modern woman who can do it all and therefore not have him do his own police work. I’d like to see more of him.

Another brief scene I like is when Mortensen makes his getaway on the subway with his $400,000 in a shoebox, and he glances furtively around at strangers who he hopes do not know he is carrying that much money. We always see him, looking like a hip slob and slipping in and out of shadows, a man capable of surviving anywhere. Suddenly a shoebox full of money makes him vulnerable in a way even pointing a weapon in his face does not.

In all of these films, “The Heiress”, “Invitation”, “Dial M for Murder” and “A Perfect Murder”, the wealthy heiress is shown as someone vulnerable, unhappy, and reaching for contentment, mainly through romance which seems to have nothing to do with her wealth. She seems curiously indifferent to her money, and remarkably innocent about the attraction it has for the men in her life.

No “madcap heiresses” here, unlike the ‘30s comedy films we mentioned in our intro last week. Clearly, money is no longer a joke. It’s a bit of a burden.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rich Girls - Part 1 - The Trouble with Father

In “The Heiress” (1949) and “Invitation” (1951), we have two motherless young women whose wealthy fathers betray them emotionally. Each is romantically pursued for her fortune. Each must come of age under extreme duress and pass through a kind of trial by fire to reach a sense of empowerment. For one, even that final achievement is sad because she does not find what the other has been serendipitously gifted: a husband who loves her.

Before we entwine these two films together, we need to yank them apart. “The Heiress” (and I must make mention, once again, of the wicked Carol Burnett parody which always comes to mind when I watch this film, alluded to in this post) was originally a stage play, which was originally from the Henry James novel “Washington Square”. Our view of the setting of this Gilded Age story is fairly authentic, in sets, costumes, and hairstyles because of this, and since this is a post-World War II film, we may marvel at the similarities from one century to another in depiction of an otherwise undesirable woman’s chances for marriage (her highest hope for success as a woman) being based on her wealth.

Olivia de Havilland is superb as the intelligent and sensible, but shy and awkward daughter of a sarcastic and self-superior father, played by Sir Ralph Richardson. (Though Wendy Hiller played Olivia’s part on stage, and I would have loved to have seen her, too.) Richardson dominates her in a subtle swordplay of mind games couched in deferential Victorian manners so much that, like his daughter, we may not catch on until well into the film the depth of his dislike of her.

Montgomery Clift plays her suitor, just as coyly manipulative and so earnest and charming in his manner to her, we likewise may not realize his insincerity until well into his plot to marry her for her money. Father has suspected from the beginning, though, but rather than run the blackguard off straight away, he plays cat and mouse with Clift, with his daughter, and in a skillful interrogation scene with Clift’s sister, to demonstrate that anyone in his right mind would not want his loser daughter for a wife. Any man wanting to marry his daughter must be marrying her for her money, because in her father’s mind she is totally worthless in all other respects.

This arrogant father cannot simply forbid his daughter to marry a man of whom he does not approve; he must humiliate her as well, for her own good.

Like most films adapted from stage plays, the setting, mainly confined to rooms in their Washington Square townhouse in New York City, is intimate. There is nowhere to run, so conflict must be faced within a confined space. Characters are crisply drawn, with a precise orderliness to the plot. I love that about film scripts from stage plays.

Miriam Hopkins plays Miss de Havilland’s fluttery, superficial aunt with her trademark irresistibly self-serving coyness. Montgomery Clift could charm the birds from the trees in his humorous, affable romantic approach to the painfully socially backward de Havilland. He does not strike us first as a scoundrel, but rather as the answer to her needs, and we may take Mr. Richardson for an ogre in his disapproval, until the seismic shift in plot occurs and we see that he is proved right about Clift.

Some fun scenes include the athletic polka Miss de Havilland suffers through with an energetic older gentleman, and another when Montgomery Clift deposits himself at her spinet and sings “Plasir d’amour”. It’s a bit rocky, but we have to give him high marks for performing it himself.

When Mr. Clift leaves his gloves behind, de Havilland places her hand atop his glove, in what must be a more socially safe expression of her desire for him.

William Wyler is the director, and here as in many of his films where he is often called a director without a particular trademark style, lets the story tell itself in its own milieu, which is stagecraft. Only rarely do we see the camera butting in to tell its version of the story, such as a great shot of de Havilland climbing the steep, seemingly endless staircase towards us, stunned and utterly miserable, after she realizes Clift has abandoned her. The scene is repeated at the end of the film when she trudges up the stairs after having refused him, older, wiser, wealthier after the death of her father, in a white Paris gown, looking resolute if not exactly triumphant.

There indeed is no triumph for Miss de Havilland, who spends much of film being treated with so little sensitivity that it could not be more cruel if she had been beaten with a stick. Her neediness and its being rebuffed is heartbreaking. When she anxiously asks her father to be nice to her suitor and pleads, “It will not be immodest in you to praise me a little,” his harsh pragmatism responds to Hopkins, “How is it possible to protect such a willing victim?”

She is a willing victim, and grows more willing and more desperate when she at last realizes her father’s disgust with her. It takes more than his usual finesse at sarcasm to make it clear to her that Clift is the wrong boy for her. Losing patience with her devotion to Clift, he impresses bluntly upon de Havilland her unworthiness, and that her only attraction is her inheritance.

Humiliated, she at last learns a hard lesson in her father’s disdain for her, but does not yet understand he was right about Clift. Agreeing to elope with him, she ecstatically murmurs the wondrous phrase, “My husband!” and seems to melt into his neck in a stolen moment in the rain-splashed mews, never sensing Clift’s newfound hesitation to be married now that she has told him Father is disinheriting her.

It is left to Aunt Miriam Hopkins to splash a little more ice cold water in her face with the remonstrance, mourning the news that de Havilland told Mr. Clift about the disinheritance.

“Why were you not more clever?” Humiliated, once again, by the knowledge that everyone holds the same opinion of her unworthiness to be married, including her favorite aunt.

Spending a long night by the door with her luggage, waiting for him to elope with her, Miss de Havilland miserably realizes Clift has abandoned her, now that Father’s money does not come with her.

But, Father dies suddenly, and she inherits after all. In their final face-off, she throws his contempt back in his face, “Since you couldn’t love me, you should have let someone else try.”

She is immune to flattery or persuasion for the rest of her life, and when Clift finally returns, she coldly dismisses him with a trick played on his vanity.

“Can you be so cruel?” Aunt Miriam Hopkins, who always had a soft spot for the ne’er do well, asks her now uber-empowered niece.

In one of the best lines, de Havilland explains the meaning of life to us, “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”

It is interesting that the film “Invitation” (1952), reflecting American society one hundred years after the period depicted in “The Heiress” has so similar an attitude towards the failure of a woman to be marriageable and the ability of her father’s fortune to make up for that.

Two hundred years previously, the always money-conscious Jane Austen in her novel “Emma”, gives us a wealthy heroine with no intention to wed, because she does not need to in order to keep her elevated place in society. As she merrily philosophizes to her friend, “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing!”

“But still, you will be an old maid! and that’s so dreadful!”

Emma counters, “…it is only poverty that makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable.”

A comic and sardonic stance, but one that would have struck horror in the hearts of Victorians, and perhaps in the post-World War II era when certain affectations of Victorianism remained, like the ignominy of being unmarriageable.

The rich girl in “Invitation” is Dorothy McGuire, who shares de Havilland’s mild demeanor, and her social reticence if not her actual awkwardness. Her father, the much more loving and doting Louis Calhern, also, however betrays his daughter in an unusual twist in this lush movie soap opera.

Miss McGuire, though not without friends among her breezy social set, is somewhat distanced from them by a mysterious heart condition she has suffered since childhood. They run around her father’s lawn party in tennis shorts, while she reads with a blankie over her lap. Mr. Calhern’s anguish over her loneliness is a sharp contrast to Ralph Richardson’s callous attitude in “The Heiress”, yet Calhern manages to be just as devious, and just as hurtful, when he uses his wealth to attract a suitor for her.

Another aspect the two films share is the presence of the ever-reliable Ray Collins, who plays de Havilland’s uncle, and the family friend and doctor of Calhern and McGuire. Like most old movie doctors, he diagnoses an incurable disease for McGuire and will not tell her what it is, but does a lot of hand holding and smiling.

Miss McGuire, it has been determined, has one year to live. Among her friends is Van Johnson, on whom she has an unspoken crush. Van is a pleasant, kindly, but unsuccessful young man, perhaps not too dissimilar from Montgomery Clift in his charm, his lack of prospects for wealth, but Van is far less clever and far more lazy to do anything about it. In steps Mr. Calhern, who buys Van Johnson for his daughter. One wonders what kind of story would play out if Ralph Richardson had bought the ambitious Montgomery Clift for Olivia de Havilland.

Interestingly, Calhern is just as disapproving of Johnson as Richardson is of Clift. He tells Van bluntly that he is not the person he would pick for a son-in-law. But instead of withholding his wealth, like Richardson does, to make Van go away, he dangles it in front of him as bait to marry his dying daughter.

The story is told through overlapping flashbacks common to the film noir of the era, and probably would make a good murder mystery, except nobody is murdered. Ruth Roman, however, who plays McGuire’s former friend and now rival for Van, is deliciously vindictive, with such glossy venom one expects a murder any minute, but that’s not Ruth’s style. She’s like a spider spinning her web, and her long-range plans are predicated with the knowledge that McGuire will die anyway. We referred to Miss Roman’s scene fingering Van’s slide rule in this previous post.

McGuire, acknowledging to her father her unmarriagability, like Jane Austen’s Emma, seems to come to comfortable terms with it.

“I don’t mind the fact that I’m going to be a spinster at all…I’m going to be a spinster, Father, all my life, but there’s an awful lot to be said for it.” Her outlook is admirable; it is her father who is bothered by it because above all, he perceives her loneliness.

But when Van Johnson proposes, she is humbly dumbfounded at what he could possibly see in her. She gushes with near hysterical emotion to her rattled father, “That means I’m not so -- that means I can be a woman and have a home! Father, somebody loves me!”

Putting aside whatever feminist cringeworthiness we may have for this outburst, it’s a genuinely affecting moment, made real by her humility and her until now unspoken desire to be loved. After the marriage, in a quiet conversation with her father, she acknowledges “the excitement of knowing from a lifetime of having been sort of pitied and left out of things, this morning I poured a second cup of coffee for a husband of my own.”

But her unknown enemy now is time, and how little she has left. Will somebody, like the evil Ruth Roman spill the beans and ruin her happiness by telling her that not only is she going to drop dead one of these days, but her husband does not really love her; he was only purchased, leased if you will, for her remaining year of life?

Yes, as a matter of fact, that is what happens. McGuire finds out over the span of one awful afternoon which sends her rushing to the encyclopedia to read about her condition, and putting two-and-two together to finally realize than Van Johnson, who is the love of her life, came with the fur coats, the house, and the other presents her father gave her.

Dorothy McGuire goes off the wall for a little while in some good scenes where she blasts both her father and her husband, and then, almost catatonic, retreats into herself while she watches Van Johnson with something colder than hatred in her expressive eyes as he tries to explain himself. It’s a great range of emotion, and she plays it well, reaching into the depths of this deceived woman’s psyche without chewing the scenery of their faux-New England renovated farmhouse. At times her words are thick with tears, at other times, steel enters her trademark well-modulated voice and it goes flat and hard.

“Is Dan on a weekly salary, or did you get him for a fat fee?” she asks Pop, skewering poor Louis Calhern over the phone.

Speaking of film noir techniques, there’s an interesting shot where she goes to the picture window, and looks out at an image of herself kissing her husband goodbye as he drives off to work. Not sure if it’s rear-screen projection, but it’s a nice touch, and she makes it go away by drawing the curtains.

Barbara Billingsley Alert: The Beaver’s mom plays Louis Calhern’s secretary.

One weakness of the film seems to be Van Johnson’s weakness. We are told, and are prepared to believe, that he is a nice guy, but flighty and without much backbone. The trouble is, when it comes time for us to believe he loves her, as the film wants us to do, we can only accept it as a fact because he’s Van Johnson, and Van Johnson is such a swell guy. But neither the script, nor Mr. Johnson, ever gives us the reason to believe he has inadvertently fallen in love with his wife; we must accept it on faith.

So must she, at this point, with little proof otherwise. It would have been a stronger film if we could see him grow to love her, need her, desire her, not just be on solicitous tenterhooks over her health because he knows she is going to die.

A happy ending gets tacked onto the film when we are treated with a brief scene reprising her kissing him off to work in the springtime which infers that the mystery movie operation she had to cure her heart ailment worked, and she will live for many years with a husband who loves her, in this faux-New England junior executive house with the odd wooden bridge over the pond that must be a real pain to clear snow off of in the winter. Nobody in Hollywood thinks of things like that.

Although, I must say, I do like the way their gardener asks McGuire if he can mulch their autumn leaves and not burn them. Good for the garden, he says. Very eco-friendly, this movie.

Come back next Monday when we see that sometimes the girls who are married for their money are also murdered for their money.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's a Rich Girl to Do? - prelude

For the next couple of posts, beginning on Thursday and concluding next Monday, we’ll be discussing a peculiar predicament of wealthy women in the movies. They are either married for their money, or murdered for the same.

Since most of us don’t have to worry about these extra burdens of extreme inherited wealth, this scenario is one of fantasy, as fanciful as the “madcap heiresses” whose lives were also impossible to identify with, but who we might accept more affably as equals simply because they were so fun and so goofy.

What happened to those other rich girls, the freewheeling spoiled brats who charmed us with their irresponsibility? The wonderful Carole Lombard in “My Man Godfrey” (1936) or Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night” (1934), those two madcap heiresses with moxie whose silliness got us through the hard knock life of the Great Depression, they are gone.

They grew up, and grew serious, or perhaps we shrugged them off when we finally learned the value of money ourselves, now that we had a little, in the post-War years. The films we’ll use to examine the plight of the rich girl who is pursued for her fortune are “The Heiress” (1949) and “Invitation” (1952), and both give us an interesting twist on the empowerment of women, both economically and emotionally, who are otherwise vulnerable in mirror reflections of society one hundred years apart.

Then we’ll examine the rich wives whom their husbands intend to murder with the films “Dial M for Murder” (1954) and its remake “A Perfect Murder” (1998). Though usually for purposes of this blog, anything that happened after 1960 didn’t happen, a brief foray into the 1990s will make an interesting contrast to show what has changed in film audiences' expectations for rich girls in the decades between then and now.

Some things, clearly, have not changed much for the rich girl. In the post-war tradition of the movies, she’s still a meal ticket, dead or alive.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fox Theater, Springfield, Mass.


Here is the Fox Theatre of Springfield, Massachusetts, from a postcard taken in the late 1920s. Recently on my other blog about theatre in New England, “Tragedy and Comedy in New England”, we took a look at the old vaudeville house in Springfield called the Nelson Theatre. In the waning days of vaudeville, the Nelson became the Fox.

This postcard of the same scene, taken probably 20 years after the Nelson Theatre postcard on my theatre blog shows more than just a marquee with a different name. Some of the buildings in the old scene are replaced with newer ones, and the horses and carriages are replaced by a lot of Model A Fords. The trolley cars are more modern as well. Life moves on, but at a faster pace.  Even for second-run neighborhood movie theaters.

The evolution continued.  Later the Fox became the Art. Then in the late 1950s, the Art was demolished. There were a lot of small neighborhood theaters in downtown Springfield, Mass. back in the day. There are none now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Meanwhile, back at the blog....

Here are some recent posts on other blogs you should read if you’ve not yet seem them:

Siren’s post on uncool movies and actors. Great comments from her readers, as well.

Classic Film and TV Café - two-part interview here and here with Edna May Wonacott, the wonderful know-it-all little girl from Alfred Hitchcock’s splendid “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943).

Most especially, Siren and Ferdy’s movie preservation blogathon wrap-up.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This Just In....

TCM alert! Tonight, the films "Zero Hour!" and "Airplane!" are being shown back to back. We discussed these films in this post, so here's your chance to compare them yourself. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Third Anniversary

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog. Thank you for the pleasure of your company.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Herb Jeffries - the Bronze Buckaroo



This is Herb Jeffries singing “Flamingo”, in his silky baritone as only he can do it.

Mr. Jeffries, still with us at 98 years of age, holds a unique place in film history. He is considered the first black singing cowboy. He rode fences on a most curious range, an industry sitting on the fence about a nation divided by race.

Born Herbert Jeffrey of mixed-race African and European ancestry, he was a band vocalist with Duke Ellington in the 1940s. In “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams - the Story of Black Hollywood” by Donald Bogle (One World-Ballantine Books, NY, c. 2005), he is described as a bit of a nightclub heartthrob who headed to Gower Gulch like so many others looking for a back door into Hollywood (see this previous post on Gower Gulch), and the B-westerns.

His “Harlem on the Prairie”, shot in ten days, was touted by Variety as having much “box office promise… as a novelty, for the colored theaters, it’s surefire.” It was called the first Negro musical western, and that would launch a new genre. Below, we have Herb Jeffries from “Harlem Rides the Range”.



A strange, surreal prairie it was for a light-skinned mixed race man, the forerunner of a new genre that was meant to play only to what Variety called “colored theaters”. Black audiences were given a singing cowboy hero at last. He sang better than Gene Autry, but would not reach Autry’s iconic and financial stature.

There were few blacks in the other B-westerns that played to mainstream (non-segregated theaters), though as mentioned in this previous post on Autry’s “The Singing Cowboy”, the blacks in his movies were usually not demeaned by stereotype. However, seeing few African-Americans in westerns may have left audiences of the day, and for a generation afterward, with the impression that the Old West was a homogenous place, as segregated a place as the schools in Little Rock before the showdown of 1957.

In her memoir “To See the Dream” (Harcourt, Brace and Company, NY, 1957) by Jessamyn West on the filming of “Friendly Persuasion” (which was discussed in this previous post on books on movies), the author ponders the reaction of a little white girl about black cowboys. When two teenaged boys, one white and one black, visit Miss West and excitedly discuss their future dreams, the black teen declares he wants to be a cowboy.

Miss West is especially interested in the reaction of the little girl, who is her neighbor. The child dismisses this young man’s goal in life as silly because, as she declares with authority, there are no Negro cowboys. Jessamyn West gently plays devil’s advocate and ruminates that cows do not care about the color of the skin of whoever rides herd. But, the little girl is adamant. It makes no sense to her. There just are no Negro cowboys.

Will Rogers, famed “Ziegfeld Follies” self-styled cowboy comedian and folk hero, and movie star in his own set of B-films, was taught how to be a ranch hand by a former slave. The little girl, and much of America, probably didn’t know that.

At that time, tales of African-American pioneers in the west, and the Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. Cavalry got little play in the history books, and not a much of even a footnote in the movies.

But, Herb Jeffries, called The Bronze Buckaroo after the title of one of his films, represented the possibility of there being such a thing as a black hero in the wild west, if only to segregated audiences.

When he was in his 80s, Mr. Jeffries recorded an album of cowboy songs in Nashville, called “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again)”, and continued to perform live even into his 90s at jazz festivals, and at benefits to raise money for autism research. That surely makes him a hero.

In 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Below, we have the Bronze Buckaroo singing “Payday Blues” from “The Bronze Buckaroo” (1939). For more on Herb Jeffries, have a look here at his website.