Thursday, February 16, 2017

For the Defense - 1930

For the Defense (1930) presents a gritty Depression-era drama, but very much on the cusp of the 1920s “era of wonderful nonsense” and a semi-biographical take on one of its outrageous characters.  It is grim, fatalistic, but with that cheeky spark of chip-on-the-shoulder humor that marked the character needed to survive the Great Depression, and which we see abundantly in films of this era.

William Powell stars as a clever, charming, hard-drinking New York attorney whose tactics sometimes actually skirt legality.  He is immaculately dressed and performs in court with Shakespearean flourish, never loses a case, but he is flawed, and eventually must suffer the consequences.  Despite his eventual downfall, he is not, however, a tragic figure in the sense that he is the master of his own destiny.  He gambles with his clients’ lives, with his own, and refuses to take life on anything but his own terms.  No hero, but we can’t help but smile at his success, particularly during a long-played out courtroom scene where he takes a vial of nitroglycerin that is a piece of evidence and smashes it on the floor to the horror of everyone.  He knows it is not really nitroglycerin (and so do we, as the scene telegraphs that to us beforehand).  His greatest courtroom trick, however, is his bribing of juries.

Far more shocking than the nitro scene, at least to modern sensibilities, perhaps, is Powell’s self-destructive drunkenness.  It is not played for comic effect, despite his wisecracks.  The real  ugliness of the drunkenness is its treatment as being normal, being necessary to fuel the engine of a driven man.

The character is based on real-life New York champion lawyer and marathon inebriate William Fallon, who is said to be the inspiration as well for the rogue lawyer Billy Flynn in the stage and screen musical Chicago, as well as other films.  His life of hard drinking left him dead in 1927 at only forty-one years of age.

More tragic, perhaps, is the character played by Kay Francis, who loves Powell and wants to marry him, but his uncomfortable, gentle response is, “After all these months, don't you think that would be rather silly?”  He clearly loves her, but it’s a slap in the face, and we feel her humiliation. 

Kay Francis, who would go on the make six films with Mr. Powell in all, plays an actress, and her flapper’s severely short bob make her look more devil-may-care than Powell in his conservative three-piece-suits, though she is far more traditional, at least as regards her feelings about marriage.  She really looks startlingly modern compared to Powell and stands out in appearance from the Depression-bedraggled cast, as if she hasn’t gotten the memo that the 1920s are over.

Obviously, noting their relationship, the drinking, and Powell’s clever flouting of the law, we are distinctly in Pre-Code era, unrepentant and blasé about rules.  It’s also a marvel to note that Mr. Powell’s screen presence is magnetic and, unlike his cast mates, really quite natural.  Even Kay Francis, who had a strong screen presence, comes off as extremely mannered in performance compared to the smooth William Powell, who never plays to the camera, and seems not to know there’s a camera in the room.

The plot takes us from Powell’s many victories in the courtroom getting criminals off, to a tragedy when one of Kay’s admirers, played by Scott Kolk, tries to lure her away from Powell by proposing marriage.  Kay and Kolk get into a car accident which kills a pedestrian, and Kolk goes on trial, though Kay was driving.  He tries to protect her, and Kay tries to keep her involvement with him a secret from Powell, knowing he will never forgive her for being out with his rival.  Powell refers to Kolk as her raccoon coat, because that is what he wears—more shades of the previous decade.  Their scenes in a speakeasy also flout the law, and remind us that Prohibition was not repealed until 1933.

Powell will lose his first case, and find himself shipped to Sing-Sing for his chicanery , but the sordid tale ends on a note of hope when Kay promises to wait for him.  He promises to marry her, if she does.

Director John Cromwell gives us a lean and strong, quickly shot story.  Look for him also in a bit part as a reporter.  The dogged district attorney is played by William B. Davidson.  Also popping up in the cast is George “Gabby” Hayes as a waiter.

There is a sense—I wonder if it was perceived even when this film played in theaters—that we were stuck treading water in a period of time where one era was finished, but the new one had not yet acquired a personality of its own.  We were waiting warily to be introduced.  Rather than a sense of foreboding, there was a only a weak smile and a shrug of the shoulders.  We hadn’t touched bottom yet as a society; we were still in the freefall, waiting to land. 


Come back next Thursday when we shift gears to an era of another kind of anxiety but a greater message of comfort – the gentle wartime home front story of Happy Time (1943) starring Don Ameche.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Easy Living - 1937

Easy Living (1937), despite the surface of innocent goofiness, is a remarkably sophisticated reflection of Depression-era attitudes and coping.  We should expect nothing less from the marvelous Jean Arthur.

The tale is deftly told, both in term of script, direction, and the precise timing of the actors; and yet the premise is ridiculously simple: Jean Arthur, a struggling working girl rides in an open-top bus and an expensive fur coat lands on her head.  That triggers a series of events involving mistaken impressions, taking us and Jean on a riotous adventure.  Along the way fools are exposed, suffer consequences of their own making, and are ultimately redeemed.  There are no real villains or heroes—though Jean is an Everywoman who rides the waves with dogged determination to just get by.

Edward Arnold plays a blustering millionaire banker with his usual aplomb, but this is no bad guy such as he played in Meet John Doe (1941).  We really have to admire his ability to use basically the same techniques and equipment to play sinister as well as he does silly.  One of Hollywood’s most talented and solid character actors, Mr. Arnold could do both with ease.  Part of the film's sophistication lies in the very presentation of Edward Arnold’s character, though rich and supporting an indolent wife and son living in wasteful fashion, his not being an evil rich man.  He’s really just a regular guy—not overly nice, but not overly terrible, either.  Just a guy; and we may even feel sorry for him when his spendthrift son, played by Ray Milland, spends $11,000 for a foreign sports car, and his wife (played by Mary Nash) spends $58,000 on yet another fur coat (she has a closet full of them.)  Fed up, Mr. Arnold throws the new fur coat off the roof of their townhouse.

Though the cook’s charge to him, “Go fry yourself in lard, you dirty capitalist,” is pretty funny, it's a lightweight comment on Arnold's extreme wealth; he’s just mad he was told to use lard in his cooking.

The fur coat lands on Jean’s head, and though she attempts to return it when she meets up with Arnold, he insists she keep it because he’s furious with his wife.  She does not know it’s mink; he has told her (because his wife has told him, in a lie) that it is a Kolinsky, which is a species of weasel from which inexpensive coats were made (as well as artist’s sable brushes).

She is also blissfully unaware that those who have observed her with Edward Arnold and wearing his gift of a mink coat—believe that she is his mistress.  The fawning florist, played by the wonderful Franklin Pangborn, who can take disdain and disgust to levels of high art, and Mr. Louis Louis, played by Luis Alberni, who runs a downtown hotel and is in debt to Banker Arnold are two such gossipers.  He offers Jean a resplendent suite in the hotel to appease Mr. Arnold, curry his favor, and get him to extend his loan.  Soon, the whole town is talking about Banker Arnold and his mistress, but he has no idea of the gossip, and neither does Jean.  But her newfound reputation as a kept woman has left her jobless—her publisher at The Boy’s Constant Companion fires her for the rumors over her questionable lifestyle—and has left her homeless, as she is  behind in her rent already, and being without a job will put her on the streets.

Two indelible scenes are the result: when Jean smashes her piggy bank for food money and comes up with only a couple coins, and when she takes the coins to the Automat.  We covered the old movies’ love affair with New York’s Automat in this previous post.

The piggy bank is a master class in comedy.  Jean puts a Kleenex blindfold on the pig before she tries to hit him with her shoe.  Her first swipe misses completely—no one does comedy like this better.  We are all prepared for the smashing of the ceramic pig, and she bangs the dresser top with the heel of her shoe instead, just missing the pig.  We are fooled, and it’s hysterical.

The Automat is more of a traditional set-up to a food fight.  Ray Milland, son of the millionaire banker, is, unexpectedly, working there as a busboy.  He and his father have split over differences and Ray has no income beyond his father’s largesse.  He feels sorry for Jean, tries to slip her some food from the Automat’s little cubbies, but the boss catches him and a furious melee ensues with street crowds coming in to take advantage of the chaos and eat free food.

It’s the Great Depression.  Nobody in the audience blames them for trying to sneak a meal, but no one is sorry, either, when some of them get the worst of the food fight.  Ray Milland’s not the hero, and the boss who catches him isn’t the bad guy, but nobody blames anybody for doing what they have to, to survive, and to maybe make life a little happier.

But even though everybody’s side is understandable, there is a brilliant put-down to everybody not to take themselves so seriously.  The stuffy and officious publisher of the boy’s magazine (just the name “The Boy’s Constant Companion” is a suggestion of unrelenting bludgeoning piety), is told off by Jean, “You don’t have to get mad just because you’re so stupid.”

Ray, of course, loses his job after the Automat food riot, and Jean, feeling sorry for him, invites him to stay at her palatial suite at Luis Alberni’s hotel.  We tease the Production Code in several scenes, most notably when they both lie in different directions, but head-to-head on a divan close together and engage in sleepy pillow talk.  He seals a quick kiss, and she rouses, but instead of shock or insult, smiles at him with delightful cheeky knowing, and it’s the ol’ Fade to Black.

Of course, in the next scene, she wakes up alone in her large bedroom, and we are told Ray just went out that earlier that morning, so we really don’t know where he spent the night and, with what is true sophistication—it isn’t dwelled on.  We can connect whatever dots we want to ourselves.

Just a note as well on the phone conversations: Jean speaks into two phones at once at her bedside when she is roused by other people wanting to curry the banker’s favor to offer her stuff.  She has no idea what’s happening, she’s harried, a little panicked, and she speaks as if she’s really trying to have two phone conversations at once.  (“I just want to brush my teeth!”)  She never leaves the audience with the impression that she’s faking it; we can easily believe there are people talking to her and badgering her with their salesmanship.

Though her hotel flat is opulent, to say the least, it is not presented—either by Mr. Alberni’s grand tour of the place or in Jean’s reaction to it—as something we should envy.  It all seems less awesome than it is comical, including the large shell-like bathtub that leaves everyone who examines it stupefied as to what it is.  The scene where Ray and Jean inspect it, and accidently get caught in a sudden spray of multi-water jets, is another cheeky jab at the censors as the couple innocently and fully clothed share a bath together in bacchanalian setting.

Another proof of Edward Arnold’s being just a guy is his insistence when he takes a room at this hotel, that he wants “a room with a bath.”  Alberni tries to—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—get him a joining suite with Jean, but Mr. Arnold insists grumpily he wants a room with a bath, as if he’s at the YMCA.

By the way, some of the best exchanges are the rapport between blustering boss and his secretary played by the wonderful Esther Dale.

Ray and Jean are falling for each other, and even though he doesn’t seem like a hero worthy of our Jean, if not the sharpest tool in the shed, he’s a nice guy.  She proves to be the biggest mensch of the lot: when a series of daffy circumstances brings her $18,000 from a stock tip, she gleefully shares half of it with Milland, as if they are teenagers going Dutch at the malt shop.

It is only at the end of the story that she finally understands that Alberni thinks she’s Edward Arnold’s mistress.  Her indignation is smashing: “And you thought I took a sable coat from him?!” She slaps him twice.  We’ve been waiting for that.

To juggle all these characters with their separation motivations, foibles, and failings and make them all gloriously ridiculous but likeable, and to keep Jean the moral compass of all is a splendid coping mechanism with the social, psychological, and emotional ills of the day.  The wolf might not have been at the door in Hollywood where stars made fabulous salaries and moguls owned them, but the movie industry had canny knowledge of what the public wanted, what it needed, and what it was willing to take.  Classic films, like popular music of the day, were a barometer of hard times, good times, scary times.  Despite splashy musical fantasies, there was more that was real in old Hollywood than there is today.  There was a fearlessness, as if, along with Jean, we dare to survive and even to be happy, because there is nothing left to lose. There is something quintessentially American in such good-hearted sensible…nonsense.


Come back next Thursday when we sit in court with William Powell in For the Defense (1930).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Singin' in the Rain on the big screen

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) recently received a national limited release in cinemas around the country.  It’s a movie that revives that old-time enthusiasm and appreciation for the entertainer.  We have a lot of celebrities nowadays, but fewer multi-talented and trained-by-experience entertainers.

It’s often called one of the best movie movies ever made, and this may be only in part because  of its clever parody of the crisis in Hollywood when silent movies shifted to sound; in large measure it is because of the musical numbers which serve a dual purpose.  They certainly move the plot along, as is the function of a musical number, but each number is also a stand-alone piece that can be lifted from the movie and appreciated as a pure moment of vaudevillian showmanship.  Many of them are “big” numbers, like “Make “Em Laugh”, “Good Morning”, the “Gotta Dance” sequence, and the iconic title song number with Gene Kelly splashing in the studio soundstage streets.

The cinema audience with whom I watched the movie reacted to the big numbers with murmured, almost awed, “Wow, that was good.”

This, despite the audience not being what I would easily identify as a crowd of old movie buffs.  Indeed, though I do believe most were at least familiar with the movie—I judged that the majority of them were middle aged or senior citizens, with only a few younger parents with children—the overall impression I got was that most had perhaps not seen the movie in a very long time.  They seemed surprised by the plot turns. 

Of course, in any group of movie goers, some people will laugh in places we do not expect them to, and remain silent in other spots that we might think are uproariously funny. 

“Haven’t you seen that movie before?  Don’t you have it?” I was asked before I headed out to the warehouse-cum-gulag-styled-construction cinema, as I am in infrequent visitor there.  As any classic film fan can tell you, when it comes to seeing an old favorite on the big screen, as it’s meant to be seen—no, we really haven’t seen it before.  The colors are captivating.  I never noticed before the movie poster in the background during the scene where Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor are standing outside the theater—one of them featured William Haines.  Few non-classic film fans today will know who he was.  Did the public remember his film career in 1952 when this film was originally released?  Was this a tribute by the industry he abandoned because he refused to hide his homosexuality?

I noticed wrinkles in Cyd Charisse’s stockings when she drapes one beautiful gam over Kelly’s shoulder.

The most fascinating effect for me were the scenes set inside a theater, where the camera pulls back and we see row upon row of audience.  Watching this scene in a modern cinema that has stadium seating, it looked as if the last row of the movie “audience” was the first row in our cinema audience.  I felt as if were in the same theater as the movie characters, that I was in one of the back rows of the same theater.

I enjoyed the intro and outro by Ben Mankiewicz—which I think are very helpful for general public audiences not as familiar with classic films—and marveled along with the audience, his mention of Donald O’Connor requiring hospitalization after his frenetic “Make ‘Em Laugh” number, O’Connor’s being a four-pack a day smoker at the time.  (The recent passing of Debbie Reynolds also brought soft exclamations of appreciation when her name appeared on screen.)

The information served to underscore the effect the audience had of this being a celebration of the entertainer – someone whose work on screen is not necessarily only a product of special effects or any movie magic we have become accustomed to, i.e. a packaged performance in a modern movie that tries to impress us with “reality.” 

For this film, and this showing, the audience readily marveled at the talent and the exhausting work of the entertainer, not just as part of a splashy show, but as an individual who for that golden, ethereal moment, stands out from the piece.  A show stopper.

“Wow…that was good.”


Come back next Thursday when we trail the marvelous Jean Arthur in a silly romp through Depression-era Easy Living (1935).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.