Thursday, January 31, 2008

May Robson

May Robson was another one of those remarkable character actresses whose work in film increased as they grew older, and when they eventually died, they died with their boots on.

Miss Robson was from a different world. Born n 1858 in Melbourne, Australia long before the separate Australian colonies became the Commonwealth, she married young, and when widowed young, took up any work she could find to support her three children. The job that stuck was acting. She had never intended to become an actress, but that was the road that life presented her, and she took it.

She appeared in stock and Broadway, and came to Hollywood for silent films, but it was the sound era of the 1930s where her career flourished. In 1933 she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for Frank Capra’s “Lady for a Day”, the earliest-born person ever to be nominated for an Oscar. She lost out to Katharine Hepburn.

As noted in the previous post, playing Aunt Etta she had some of the best lines in “Four Daughters” and the other succeeding Lemp family films, which she delivered with wry humor and charming spirit. She was the quintessential old lady, with the cameo broach pinned at the throat of the high-necked ruffled blouse. Hollywood had a curious habit of depicting elderly women as if they had never left the Victorian era of their girlhood. From Maria Ouspenskaya to the character of Granny in the Tweety Bird cartoons, these old girls eschewed modern dress for the look of the 19th century. Since most elderly women of the late 1930s dressed in the manner of the late 1930s and not the 1890s, we could take this as further evidence of the studios’ reliance on the convenience of stereotyped caricature to establish minor characters. It was done so often with race, ethnicity, with physical impairment. Giving an elderly woman the look of another time and place somehow sets her apart from the other actors, as if she is from another world.

May Robson handled the modern world with smart-mouthed panache as Aunt Etta in the “Four Daughters” series. But she really was from another world different to the one of the young actresses playing her nieces. She was 83 years old when the final film in the series, “Four Mothers” was released in 1941. She died the following year.

For a bit more on May Robson, have a look at this website.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Four Daughters" (1938) and Sequels

“Four Daughters” (1938) and the sequels which followed, “Four Wives” (1939) and “Four Mothers” (1941) was a brief but successful series featuring three actual sisters, the Lanes, who through their individual stage work and musical careers with big bands brought them separately to Hollywood.

Priscilla, Lola, and Rosemary Lane worked separately before and after this series of films, but along with Gale Page, who played the fourth sister, were ever afterward identified with the Lemp family portrayed in these films.

The first film in the series, “Four Daughters” is the best, and was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s mix of supporting actors, from the always terrific Claude Rains as their father, to the handsome young Jeffrey Lynn, to the ever dependable Frank McHugh, Dick Foran, and especially May Robson (who will be the topic of Thursday’s blog), lends a lot to the film. Most striking, however, is the debut of John Garfield, who was nominated for his role.

The dialogue is fast and funny. Rains plays the father, the director of a local music academy. The girls are all musicians. Aunt Etta, their father’s sister, lives with them, runs the house, and acts as surrogate mother. The film starts out being a wholesome Andy Hardy type outing, light and funny, particularly when the girls’ beaus are brought home for the first time to meet father, subjected to the usual discomfort of trying to impress and fit into this army of females. As anyone from a big family, or marrying into a big family will tell you, it’s difficult for outsiders to join in to what appears to be an impregnable wall of familial affection, inside jokes, and a tight-knit past that has nothing to do with the newcomer. These scenes are done well, first with Frank McHugh running the gauntlet as the new boyfriend. His discomfort is acute and sweet.

Dick Foran plays the shy, stumbling neighbor they’ve known forever, and Jeffrey Lynn charges into the scene as a happy-go-lucky young musician, bouncy as a puppy, who all the girls immediately fall in love with, but when he eventually chooses Priscilla Lane for his love, there is a rollercoaster dip in the tenor of the film. When the two announce their engagement, the quick close-ups on the other girls showing disappointment is quietly intense.

The real fireworks begins when John Garfield enters the picture as a self-pitying, bitter musician at first sarcastic towards this close family, and then sadly desperate to join it. When Priscilla leaves Jeffrey Lynn at the altar for Garfield, it is meant as a sacrifice to release Lynn to marry her sister. The light and funny outing is over for this family, and the film increasingly becomes more serious and somewhat sinister, with delicate romantic triangles and unrequited love. Though she has agreed to marry Garfield, Priscilla still loves Jeffrey Lynn, and there is an intense scene at a Christmas reunion where all are stiff and mannerly, but anguished in each other’s company. Priscilla gets Jeffrey’s coat for him when he leaves, and takes a moment to gently run her hands on the shoulders and back of the coat and hold it a moment before bringing it to him.

The film then turns tragic as Garfield performs what he must regard as the ultimate sacrifice for his unhappy wife. There is a simple but evocative foreshadowing shot of his wet shoe on the accelerator of the car he is driving, and an unusual shot of his stony face from the floor of the car through the steering column, and we know he is going to kill himself in that car. When he speeds up and turns off the windshield wipers, letting the windshield fill with snow, it’s almost sickening.

Director Michael Curtiz does some interesting things with pacing in this film, and his repetition of themes, like the squeaky swinging front gate and several establishing shots of items in the house and the flowering tree outside. The final shot is of the gossipy neighbor lady, intrigued with the young lovers swinging on the gate, finally stealing a moment to try it herself. Her astonished expression of bliss is a quirky and delightful way to end the film.

Most remarkable I think is the use of music in this film. It’s not strictly a musical, but there is a great deal of classical music played and sung by this family, from pieces of “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner, to Brahms, Mendelssohn, and a long, lazy rendition of “Serenade” by Franz Schubert that opens the film and is reprised in the sequels. Rosemary Lane, the aloof sister with the dry humor, does the singing, and she appears to be the only Lemp sister who plans a professional career as a performer. To have classical pieces and German lieder given such space in a film made about four attractive, modern sisters in the height of the era of Big Band music, and not have them portrayed as glasses-wearing intellectual freaks, is unusual. They handle these classical pieces with natural ease and with evident pleasure, even if they occasionally madden their father by teasing him with swing renditions of his revered Beethoven.

This film was followed by “Daughter’s Courageous” reunited all the cast, but was not about the same Lemp family as in “Four Daughters”. An unusual move and evidently the studio felt it was more profitable to go back to the well and do more movies about the original family, so “Four Wives” and “Four Mothers” were released carrying the further adventures of the girls into marriage and motherhood. The second film, “Four Wives” is more maudlin, and third had more to do with the family’s financial ruin than with motherhood. We are afforded only brief glimpses of the baby daughters, another generation of girls.

The second film “Four Wives” has an even longer musical segue as a so-called “Symphonie Moderne” is staged. This piece was actually composed by Max Steiner. The camera slowly pans the orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Lynn, to the hospital bed of Priscilla and her new baby, the child of her deceased husband John Garfield who appears through flashback, and to her family listening to the radio at home. Such a lot of time spent on the piece might make those not interested in classical music fidget a bit, but director Curtiz’s use of it remains intriguing. I like the slow pace in this part of the film, and the tour of the emotions on which the camera takes us.

Also, the manner in which all the sisters and their separate stories are shown through the course of the three films is one of brief scenes and using small nuances to symbolize larger themes. There is no single star of the films, though Priscilla Lane’s and Jeffrey Lynn’s characters change the most, from silly and carefree, to deeply hurt and sorrowful. It can’t have been an easy job either for the writers or the director to use such a large cast in equal proportions, which is pretty much what happens.

“Four Daughters” was remade as “Young at Heart” (1954), and both films were coincidently shown on TCM last night. The original series probably could have been extended, with the war and a new set of tribulations facing the sisters as a backdrop, but perhaps neither the Lanes nor Gale Page wanted to be stuck with playing the Lemp sisters for too long. Only Gale Page would continue her acting career in later decades; none of the Lane girls ever made a film beyond the 1940s.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fred and Ginger - Four Dances

Fred and Ginger. Not Astaire and Rogers or Rogers and Astaire for that matter, but always Fred and Ginger, as if we know them. Ironically, the romance that occurs between their characters in the dance, the thing that draws these two rather aloof characters together and draws us to them, does not really make Fred and Ginger more approachable. They are still a world apart from us, their own world, perhaps.

“Top Hat” (1935) gives us the quintessential Fred and Ginger routine, Fred in white tie and tails, and Ginger in a flowing gown, in this case the famous ostrich feather number. Her blonde hair is tightly pinned up, and sophisticated seduction is the order of the day as the song they dance to is, of course “Cheek to Cheek.”

They begin first as only another pair of dancers on a crowded floor, and she is at first cold to him because of the customary plot device of mistaken identity, but soon they ascend stairs, and then a garden terrace and they are alone, dancing slowly, closely, with gentle swirls and twirls, a slight ruffling of the ostrich feathers. They are filmed in a full body shot always, never close-ups, because their expression of attraction is in their body movements and we’re not supposed to miss it with a distracting quick shot to the eyes.

The sweeping dips, the light-as-air steps, and the dance finally finishing as they lean upon the garden wall, calm and quiet as a lake on a summer evening.

“Cheek to Cheek” is so ethereal it is practically a dream sequence, but it is delightfully contrasted by another dance number earlier in the film, when Fred and Ginger dance in a gazebo taking refuge from a thunderstorm. The song, “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain,” and this time Ginger is in riding jodhpurs and tweed coat, and Fred in a suit. This has more taps to it. The customary aloofness is ratcheted up a notch in this dance, as they barely touch each other. They face off, a challenge, a dare. She puts her hands in her pockets and mimics his movements. This part of the dance was ad-libbed by Ginger Rogers. As she notes in her autobiography, “Ginger, My Story” (Harper Collins, 1991), and as also noted elsewhere by director Mark Sandrich, Ginger contributed a great deal to the choreography of their dances together. Fred would work out the basics with choreographer Hermes Pan, and then Ginger would come in and put in a few finishing touches.

As Miss Rogers notes in her autobiography, “I had more fun rehearsing than in actually performing. Inspiration comes during the preparation as you seek a better turn, step, or jump. In performance, you do it once and that’s it. The time for improving is over.”

The two would rehearse their dance numbers for eight hours a day, for six weeks, prior to filming. You had to love it.

According to Miss Rogers, it was her suggestion that they do the “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” number in “Shall We Dance” (1937) on roller skates. This is a remarkable dance routine. The scene it set in New York’s Central Park (obviously a set), and they enter the scene with somewhat weary attitudes on roller skates. Again, they are not quite a couple, and the strain of avoiding publicity hounds who think they are a couple is getting to them. They stumble to a bench, sit, and begin to sing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

At first we might think they will spend the whole number on the bench, but without warning they stand, with a long glide into a dance that is quite amazing. The roller skates, incidentally, are the kind you used to clamp onto your shoes, so there’s no supportive safety boot here. Arm in arm at first, they stroll, and tap a little, and fake a stumble, and recover with panache. Then in unison, then in tandem, there are Olympic ice dancers who aren’t this good. The dance ends with a kind of Roller Derby bit where Ginger skates behind Fred who leads them around in a circle, picking up speed, when finally they end by stumbling off the walk and throwing themselves onto a grassy embankment.

All Ginger remarks in her book is, “The roller skating number was a ball to do.” In his autobiography, “Steps in Time” (Harper and Brothers, 1959) Mr. Astaire says even less. Neither describes in detail about the rigors of their dance choreography, and yet their dances were all about detail. Astaire was known in particular for being a perfectionist. Perhaps like some artists who shy away from analyzing their work too much, they feel it loses some of its magic if you pick it apart.

Finally, we have the “Bouncing the Blues” number from “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949), Fred and Ginger’s last film together after not having made a film together for a decade. As Miss Rogers notes, “to get back into your dancing shoes after ten years is not the simplest thing to do.” And yet, she remarks, “Once Fred and I began rehearsing in earnest, the ten years melted away.”

In this number, Ginger is wearing black slacks, a white blouse, and appears to be a copy of Fred, who wears grey slacks and a pink shirt; both are wearing scarves around their waists and at their necks.

In the weeks when they used to rehearse their numbers, Ginger would wear pants for their ease of movement in the rehearsal stage, and switch to the dress and shoes she would wear for the film only at the end. This number, “Bouncing the Blues” gives us a look at how Fred and Ginger might have appeared while rehearsing, not only by their casual clothes, but by their casual attitudes. There is no aloofness here. Nor is there especially romance. There is a sweet camaraderie, a perfect timing between two people who have a long history of knowing each other moves.

The jazz piece begins with rippling cymbals and then gushes into a flood of taps and twirls, all in unison. They are smiling, and we are allowed for once, or perhaps just finally noticing, their expressions. They are grinning like fools. Her loose hair bounces on her shoulders as they throw themselves into a high-stepping trot, their arms about each other’s waists. They really look like they are having a ball, in their own little world.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Betty Boop and the Production Code

Betty Boop suffered the indignity of lewd and lascivious employers groping her and threatening her for sexual favors. Then the hapless creature suffered the indignity being called naughty by the Code.

The cartoon heroine with the giant head with its coy rolling eyes burst from the Fleischer studio in the early 1930s and made full use of what the new sound technology had to offer. Mae Questel, who voiced Betty, did a Helen Kane impersonation, and “boop-oop-a-doop” became a catch phrase.

An interesting evolution of Betty and the Fleischer manner of production is noted in “Serious Business” by Stefan Kanfer (Scribner, 1997), which notes that unlike the Disney studio which recorded the dialogue before creating the cartoon, a method which continues today, Fleischer did it the other way around. Max Fleischer had the cartoon created first, a kind of stream-of-consciousness storytelling on the part of the cartoonist (which led to some pretty weird dream-like scenarios for Betty and her crew), and then the sound came afterwards.

Mae Questel was reportedly very good at ad libbing, as this is what she was required to do in the recording session after the cartoon was filmed. The actors watched the cartoon and then invented lines to go with what was happening on the screen. (A technique which led to Popeye, another Fleischer production, noted for its humorous extemporaneous patter of dialogue.)

Some of Betty’s earliest outings have been called by some critics, including Leonard Maltin, as a kind of “cartoon noir” because of the menacing shadows and looming backgrounds, and the inanimate objects that spring to life in threatening manner. Betty started as a guest in “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931). Bimbo and Ko-Ko, a clown, were the Fleischer stars through the 1920s. By the time Fleischer’s “Snow White” was released in 1931 (not a bit like the Disney’s version), Betty was established as the star of Fleischer Studios.

From “Stopping the Show”, “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle” both from 1932 we get Betty singing, stripping, and pouring her heart out. Naiveté was never so suggestive. The cartoons always had at least one song, and the scenarios were usually risqué.

Cab Calloway’s dance steps were Rotoscoped on the body of Ko-Ko, and he wailed “St. James Infirmary.” Betty imitated Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier. It was raucous, and riotous, and freewheeling.

Then the Code, and Betty had to clean up her act, or rather, the Fleischers did. Glimpses of her underwear were no longer allowed. Her dress was lowered to cover the garter, and the neckline was raised. Pals Bimbo and Ko-Ko were pushed aside for a cute puppy, a cute nephew, and Grampy, who never leered at Betty.

The run-down houses and apartments were Betty struggled to keep up like everybody else did the Depression became cozy cottages and swanky digs. Betty was doing well. But her saucy underdog persona suffered.

She became matronly, where she no longer appeared as a race car driver or circus performer, but sang songs about housecleaning. Finally, Betty no longer starred, but was the supporting player to the new cast. Though Betty had always been a black and white cartoon, now she was truly colorless.

A new cast member in a minor role, a guy named Popeye, broke free from the mundane polite menagerie and became a star on his own. “Boop-a-doop” may have been outlawed by the Code, but bashing somebody’s skull in, as Popeye and Bluto repeatedly did to each other, was good clean all-American fun. Fortunately for Miss Questel, she took on the job of Olive Oyl’s voice, and continued to ad lib while watching a cartoon, and doing a splendid job.

Decades later we see Betty again in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) in the nightclub scene where she is a lowly and somewhat forlorn cigarette girl making small talk with Bob Hoskins. But nobody is pinching Betty, or even noticing her, despite that she is portrayed in black and white in a room packed with cartoon characters in full color. There is something poignant in her down and out manner of telling Mr. Hoskins that work for her has been, “kinda slow since cartoons went to color.” But it wasn’t color that got our Betty. It was the Code, as omnipotent a master as one of her old lecherous employers.

“I still got it,” Betty pitifully jokes, boop-a-dooping once more. Mr. Hoskins gently agrees that she does, but his response is only an act of kindness to a worn out dame who’s seen better days.

But she does still have it, or she must, or we wouldn’t see her on mugs, T-shirts, novelty clocks and radios, depicted as a biker chick on the backs of leather jackets, still coy, still innocent, still suggestive, but less a victim of sexual harassment than an assertive modern woman. Yeah, I got your Code right here, buddy. Betty lives, in full color, in the world of merchandizing. Max Fleischer might well be amazed.

Perhaps Betty’s plight is best assessed by the sexy Jessica, voiced by Kathleen Turner in “Roger Rabbit.” Protesting her own innocence she remarks, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Double Indemnity (1944)

In “Double Indemnity” (1944), Barbara Stanwyck takes a chance in her career by playing a character without any redeeming values. She had played her share of fallen women before, but Phyllis Dietrichson was cold, and manipulative. Stanwyck, being Stanwyck, plays her not with the one-dimensional evil person who must and will get hers in the end, but adds that irresistible layering of complexity so that her Phyllis is compelling, and she seduces her audience as much as she does Fred MacMurray.

Fred MacMurray is masterful in his role as the insurance agent who gets sucked into planning an insurance scam involving murder. He is the epitome of the average Joe, a regular guy in a regular job, but not so upstanding that he’s above flirting with a married woman. It would be easy to play him simply as a hapless stooge ensnared in the web spun by Miss Stanwyck. Instead, he also, like Stanwyck, adds dimension to his character. His insurance agent is not just a patsy, or even merely complicit. He gets to be the mastermind of the plot. He weighs his conscience, and comes up wanting.

Mr. MacMurray had the ability to play nice guys, and louses, but he was also able to do something a lot of Hollywood actors in this period either never thought to do or were not allowed to do, and that is to play a guy so convincingly on the fence that he makes integrity seem not like a moral quality, but like a chance game one can pick up or decline, depending on the player’s next move. (He does this equally well in “The Caine Mutiny”, but that’s for another time.)

His father/son relationship with his boss, played by Edward G. Robinson, one of the greats, is fascinating and a very important linchpin to the story. Like many film noir movies, this one has a flashback. The entire film, in fact, is a flashback. It begins with MacMurray recounting the events to follow in his Dictaphone. The movies ends with Robinson, and police, putting two and two together without MacMurray’s taped confession. Robinson is MacMurray’s confessor, the one he turns to for chastisement and for forgiveness. He could have easily run after the crime, but instead he heads to his office to leave a confession to the man he respects most.

Directed by Billy Wilder, the script is by Mr. Wilder and Raymond Chandler. It is lean and muscular, not lyric. The cinematography provides the poetry, the murky Los Angeles night which opens the film, and the shots of the city streets.

The insurance company Fred MacMurray works for has its name printed on the office door, “Pacific All Risk Insurance.” The name is like a morbid joke, All Risk. We see how that rings true for MacMurray’s character.

The film was made during World War II, but is set in 1938, so we need no wartime influences to distract us from the story, which is all toughness, ruthlessness, and remorse at the same time. The only anachronism, which is perhaps forgivable, is Stanwyck’s sweater-wearing scene. The sweater girls of the 1940s (again, a topic for another time) was a provocative fad that became a fashion statement, but was not around in 1938).

MacMurray drives to Miss Stanwyck’s Los Feliz Drive Spanish-style home which he ruminates, “must have cost about $30,000, that is if he ever finished paying for it.” He is there to renew a car insurance policy for Stanwyck’s husband. Miss Stanwyck makes her first entrance wrapped in a towel, and after a bit of sexy banter, we sense that Fred is in some kind of danger the minute he leers in the direction of her anklet. He is there to reinsure the LaSalle and the Plymouth, but she drops a hint that he could make a bigger sale. Her, not just the commission on the accident insurance policy she wants to buy for her husband.

At first this regular guy with the regular job hightails it away from the vixen, as he suspects she wants to murder her husband for the insurance. “How could I know that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.” What a great line.

We think, like Fred, that we know what Miss Stanwyck is all about, that we have her number. What surprises us, and Fred, is him. After only his first meeting with her, he cannot stop thinking about her, and especially about the idea of possibly knocking off her husband for the insurance. Though he is appalled and disgusted by the very thought, he cannot make himself stop thinking about it. He broods over it, and to his discomfort, finds himself compelled to wonder how such a thing could be accomplished.

When she arrives at his apartment later on, to clear up any misunderstanding on his part so she says, we see that she has him hooked. The scene in MacMurray’s apartment is intriguing. At first they skirt the uncomfortable subject, but soon, without speaking of it directly, they are encircling the problem and encircling each other. Studying each other. Studying the problem, making it not her problem of the overbearing husband from whom she wishes she could be free, but their problem.

We are informed that her husband is occasionally abusive. This sets up a little sympathy for Miss Stanwyck’s character, and how she makes herself vulnerable to him and to us, and keeping it genuine, is nothing short of marvelous.

Mr. MacMurray is not only seduced by her, he is seduced by her problem, and finds it tragically irresistible, a puzzle to master. Like a Rubik’s Cube. Perhaps like some detectives who might themselves, in some recreational mind game, think how to plan the perfect crime, so MacMurray, an insurance salesman, has already begun to plan how to pull off the perfect insurance scam. The double indemnity clause of the title is his idea. It is a $50,000 policy they mean to sell to her husband, and if he dies in a freak accident, the benefit automatically doubles to $100,000.

Committed to the plan, they meet infrequently thereafter, most famously at the Los Feliz grocery, which must have been one of the first self-service markets in the country. He smokes a cigarette in the store as they discuss their plot in whispers behind the canned goods. Unfortunately, it is at this point in the film I am always reminded of Steve Martin in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982). Dang, that was funny. It forever ruined the seriousness of the grocery store scene for me, but Martin in the sweater and the wig was funny.

All right, back to work. As MacMurray later puts together his alibi, we are taken along to see his intricate preparations, and we’re in the back seat with him when he tags along behind Stanwyck driving her husband to the train station. The murder, as MacMurray emerges from the back seat to strangle her husband, is done off camera. We only see Miss Stanwyck’s eyes, and her layers of emotion, as she stares right at us, not at the act of murder going on in the passenger’s seat next to her. She is sickened, and triumphant, and even possibly aroused by this violence which she has hoped for, but has not committed and has not even orchestrated. MacMurray, regular guy with a regular job, has done it all. When she tells Mr. MacMurray meekly that she will leave everything in his hands, she wasn’t kidding.

After the crime, MacMurray is no longer the man of action, senses heightened, alive with decision. He is sickened, perhaps not so much by what he has done, as being found out.

“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

His voice over narration throughout the film lets us know what Mr. MacMurray is thinking, so the film flows intimately, confidential, and personal. MacMurray is not really the stooge of an evil woman, but a decent guy who has succumbed not just to her charms, but to his own pride and greed. He makes it feel that it could happen to anybody. Barbara Stanwyck is, rather like MacMurray, an opportunist more than an evil mastermind. She sees a chance, she takes it. So does he. They are foiled, not just by the Code which demands evil be punished, but because if they were successful it wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing. They really would be evil masterminds. They wouldn’t be human. The doom of the Greek tragedy, that’s what makes the film great.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Abbott and Costello

These two photos of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame illustrate two interesting things about the comedy team of Abbott and Costello: they each have a separate star instead of a single star as a team, and one star was for work in radio, and the other for TV.

We may know the duo mainly from their many films together, but radio was where they made their splash. But they began in burlesque, that orphan child of the only slightly more respectable vaudeville.

They teamed together in 1936 with stage routines that clearly worked just as well on radio, where their verbal mayhem formed the mainstay of their act. By 1939, they had signed on with Universal and began their film careers. Television followed next in the 1950s, and though they split amicably in 1957, the boys became an American comedy institution, and were the first non-baseball players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where you can still watch their famous routine, “Who’s on First?”

The day I was there, a small crowd wandering around the exhibits suddenly swarmed to watch a video display screen when they heard the familiar banter. Kids were shushed, but they didn’t need to be after a few moments as they noticed how the grownups reacted in with rapt attention and chuckles.

For more on Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, have a look at this website.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Safety Last (1923)

“Safety Last” (1923) is the one with Harold Lloyd hanging onto a clock, dangling from a building several stories high. You know the one.

Much has been written about Mr. Lloyd’s comic genius (including from time to time on this blog), and about his remarkable ability to still perform some stunts through the 1920s even though he had lost his right thumb and forefinger in an accident.

What is especially interesting about this film, like many of his other films of this period, is the legacy of an unintentional documentary slice of the 1920s. Mr. Lloyd and his gang are out to set up gags, thrill sequences, and climactic endings, but inadvertently document for us the era in a way later films shot primarily on studio lots, did not. There is a gloss to 1930s films, even the Warner Bros. gangster films, where illusion and façade permeate the story. The Dead End Kids are a big stagey, and even Bogart and Cagney get a bit talky at times. But in the films of Harold Lloyd where he plays his “glasses character,” there is a whole world going on in the background that no longer exists. It comes through the film in a genuine and unselfconscious sort of realism.

The story of this film has Harold, a.k.a. The Boy, leaving his sweetheart in the small town to go to the big city to Make Something of Himself. The line in the caption is “make good.” Making good used to be important in our society, and it had nothing to do with getting rich quick with fail-proof techniques learned from TV infomercials. It had nothing to do with skill through steroids, and not an ounce of bling was required or even tasteful.

“Making good” was a leftover Victorian principal, just beginning to be made fun of in the breezy 1920s, but not so much that it wasn’t still accepted as proper. It had to do with accomplishment, self-reliance, and respectability.

The film opens with a clever sight gag, where Lloyd is seen through bars, a noose hanging in the background, and a minister standing by. His girl, played by Lloyd regular and future wife, Mildred Davis, is teary-eyed. We think he is on death row, but when the camera shows us he is leaving the train station and the bars are just gates, the noose is a mail catch device for the train, and the minister, and his girl are just seeing him off on his adventure, we know we are in for a ride. Already we have been fooled.

As he is about to board his train, he mistakes a baby carrier for his luggage, and nearly walks off with an infant. Notably, the baby and mother are African-American, but this is not a racial joke. The two could be played by white actors, so it is heartening to see someone get a day’s pay for film work who might otherwise not have a lot of opportunity for that. Also, the mother is dressed for travel, with a suit typical to the period and an enormous hat, looking every bit the middle class lady. It’s unfortunate that later in the film we are shown a Jewish jeweler in an unflattering stereotype.

What is most fascinating about the film are the scenes shot in the big city department store where Lloyd has found a job. He rooms with a pal, and the two have a clever gag where, hiding from the landlady, they crawl into their overcoats and hang themselves by pegs on the wall. Some of the funniest gags are the most simple.

He has a meager job as a sales clerk, but boasts to his girlfriend that he is a big success, and that his position at the store “grows in respectability every day.” We see again that respectability is a very important component in making good.

His supervisor is a self-important floorwalker with a pince-nez and a morning suit. Lloyd is nearly pummeled by a flock of women shopping for the bolts of cloth at his counter. We see that many of them, women looking to be about in their 40s and 50s, actually have their hair bobbed. This was not just a fad for the young flappers. They are not dressed as flappers, obviously, but though the post-World War I world is not the one in which they grew up, and they mean to adapt. There are women clerks in the store, too.

Saturday is a half-day, and this means payday. We see that these were still the days when one’s pay envelope contained cash, not a company check. Harold is paid $15 for the week. Incidentally, there was no withholding for taxes at this time, and Social Security had not yet been created. Harold spends his hard-earned cash for a lavaliere and chain for his girlfriend, to create the illusion for her that he is “making good.”

But the climb up the corporate ladder is not easy for The Boy. In one scene, Harold is reprimanded by his supervisor for having taken off his suit coat while working behind the notions counter. He is called before the general manager for working in public in his shirt sleeves. In front of respectable ladies. No dress-down Fridays in Harold’s world.

Unexpectedly, his sweetie comes to the big city to visit him, and there is a sequence of scenes in the store where Harold must try to continue to fake his importance, bossing around his co-workers and taking over the general manager’s office, without being caught.

The thrills really come when, in an attempt to win $1,000 from his employer by creating a publicity stunt to bring business to the department store, he ends up climbing the building. His pal is supposed to be the one performing the stunt, but being chased by a cop throughout the rest of the film prevents him from taking over for Harold, who tries the climb himself. A rather literal way to climb the corporate ladder.

The building is 12 floors, and was filmed at the Brockman Building on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles. This climb is part amazing stunt work, and part amazing trick photography. The way the camera angles move from the first-floor viewpoint, to the upper floors, to finally the top of the building is dizzying and must have created quite a thrilling spectacle for the audiences who saw it in 1923, because it’s still terrific today.

Crowds gather below, and a number of obstacles nearly topple Harold’s nerve-wracking climb, including pigeons, a mouse, office workers hanging out the windows, and a clock face that might not hold his weight.

We see actual traffic below, actual advertisements on the other buildings, and an array of casual observers, important despite their anonymity, to create a visual documentary of the mores, the attitudes, the humor, and the pace of the times in the early 1920s. Tellingly, Lloyd’s having made good has nothing to do with doing well at his job, but because of a get-rich-quick publicity stunt. Lloyd was not just a man of his time, but a man before his time.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Now Playing - 1954

This is a full-page ad from “Look,” March 23, 1954. The movie “Saskatchewan” was released the following week.

It’s a gushing full-color spread for the kind of swashbuckling adventure films they made in this period, boasting about the use of Technicolor and location filming. As movies go, this epic-wanna be about Mounties “standing alone against the fury of the Custer-massacring Sioux and the savage Cree nation” was not really historically accurate (big surprise), and not really geographically accurate, either. (Magnificent mountains, wrong province.)

What is especially interesting about this ad is it actually extends to three pages, and the 2nd and 3rd pages list by name the theaters that will be showing “Saskatchewan” in the coming month. This movie was made after the breakup of the studios’ monopolies on owning the theaters that showed their films. For instance, at one time, you could see an MGM movie only at an MGM theater. (First-run theaters, of course. Second-run theaters showed any film from any studio.) So, if you wanted to see an MGM film (Clark Gable), you could to go the Loew’s Poli in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Or, if you wanted to see a Warner Bros. film (Bette Davis), you could go to the Warner in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you wanted to see a Paramount movie (Bing Crosby), you could go to the Paramount in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

However, by the time this movie was made, that studio monopoly was over, as was the whole “studio system.” This film was made by Universal, but shown in the Paramount Theater of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and in the Fox Theater of Leadville, Colorado, the Loew’s Poli in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Paramount Theater of Syracuse, New York.

Probably many of these theaters no longer exist today; possibly most. Can anyone out there tell us if some of these other theaters where “Saskatchewan” played still exist: the Dixie in Haleyville, Alabama?

The State in Modesto, California?

The Chief in Pocatello, Idaho?

The Orpheum in Marion, Illinois?

The Gila in Silver City, New Mexico?

The Ritz in Clarksburg, West Virginia?

The Cherokee in La Follette, Tennessee?

The Rialto in Casper, Wyoming?

The Astor in Reading, Pennsylvania?

The Regent in Cedar Falls, Iowa?

The Grand in Rutland, Vermont?

The Aztec in Albany, Texas?

The Star in Jamestown, North Dakota?

The Tivoli in Ardmore, Oklahoma?

The Empire in Lewiston, Maine?

The Liberty in Benton Harbor, Michigan?

Or the American on Roanoke, Virginia?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

“Portrait of Jennie” (1948) has become a fantasy classic, but it did poorly at the box office in an era when more realistic films with grittier themes brought new style and energy to Hollywood filmmaking.

It is inevitably unfair to compare a movie with the novel on which it was based because films and novels are apples and oranges. They require different dynamics of storytelling. That being said, it is unfortunate that the depth and gentleness of author Robert Nathan’s prose was not captured in the screenplay for this film. It is also perhaps understandable why it could not.

The film has many attributes that recommend it, including an interesting use of color tinting at the climatic storm scene where with a sudden bolt of lightning, the night sky and the churning surf turn an eerie green and we are jolted from a black and white film to a surrealistic monochromatic color world. This loses some of its powerful effect when we see close-ups of Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, their faces also tinted green, and the dramatic eeriness merely becomes grotesque and bizarre. At the very end of the film, we see the finished painting of Jennie in full Technicolor.

The location shooting in New York City with its many scenes set on city streets and in Central Park, and the overhead shots of Manhattan and the skyline are impressive, as well as the use of Graves End Light in Boston Harbor to stand in for the lighthouse where Eben and Jennie struggle against the tidal wave.

The cast of the film are superb, with the luminescent Jennifer Jones seemingly re-creating the unselfconscious innocence which won her the Academy Award in “Song of Bernadette” (1943) as she plays Jennie, who ages from a girl at the beginning of the film (with some costuming and trick photography), to a young woman by the end of the film. Joseph Cotten plays what is probably one of his last roles as a romantic lead, the down and out artist struggling to find his muse. The wonderful Ethel Barrymore has a pivotal role as Miss Spinney, the crusty art dealer who spurs Eben’s genius and changes his fortunes, and displays unaccustomed sympathy to a young artist who is clearly lost and heartsick.

Lillian Gish plays a small role as Jennie’s teacher, Mother Mary of Mercy with that famous silent movie expressive face. It is a shame that Miss Barrymore and Miss Gish have no scenes together. That would be something. It’s interesting that these two grand dames of theatre and the early days of film had so much history and experience behind them, and yet were nowhere near done with their working years. Miss Gish, in particular, kept working practically until she died at close to 100 years of age. It’s always great to see the very old partnered on screen with the very young.

David Wayne as Gus makes a strong film debut in this film, and at the very final scene we see three teenaged girls who all went on to careers in film, television, and the White House. They are Anne Francis, Nancy Olson, and Nancy Davis, who we last saw (see entry December 27, 2007) in “The Next Voice You Hear” (1950).

The film presents another rare example in Maude Simmons, playing an African-American character which is not stereotyped or demeaned. This was the second of only three film roles ever played by Miss Simmons, who is Clara, a former theatre wardrobe mistress who knew Jennie as a child, “She used to sit on my lap. I used to give her rock candy.” She helps Eben uncover clues about Jennie’s life. She is a stately, well-spoken, gentlewoman. Eben, and we ourselves, are led to her by former theatre backstage figure Pete played by Felix Bressart who directs Eben to Clara and remarks sympathetically, “Those colored people. Very wise people …They know what trouble is.” It is an unusual comment, out of context and having nothing to do with the story, and shows us, perhaps a bit self consciously, that Hollywood is starting to slide out of the era of ridiculous and insulting caricature.

The character of Gus, the taxi driver who befriends Eben and helps in his quest for Jennie, is however changed to a very stereotyped Irishman, with a brogue (who actually plays the harp in one scene) and a comic ethic chauvinism which gets Eben a job painting a mural in a local bar, of the Irish patriot Michael Collins. In the book, the mural is a pastoral scene enlivened by nude maidens in repose. Eben is urged by the skittish bar owner, and jokingly by Gus, to “keep it clean.”

Perhaps the shift to a fully clothed subject is for the benefit of film. However in the novel Gus is not Irish. He is Gus Meyer, a good natured working stiff who mentions his Jewish background, and with his own simple religious philosophizing, provides a springboard to Eben’s spiritual awakening. This spiritual awakening is where the film really differs from the novel.

As Eben considers how Jennie, who ages each time he meets her, could possibly be from another time and who is gradually catching up to him and his time, where she hopes they will eventually be the same age, he spends a great deal of effort rejecting, and then learning to accept the impossible. Author Robert Nathan writes lyrical passages on Eben’s stream-of-consciousness brooding on the unreality presented by Jennie’s existence in his life, and how time could possibly move not in a straight line, but in elliptical patterns. There is a great deal of ruminating on God’s place in this mystery of Jennie.

Mr. Nathan writes, “We think of God, we think of the mystery of the universe, but we do not think about it very much, and we do not really believe that it is a mystery, or that we could not understand it if it were explained to us. Perhaps that is because when all is said and done, we do not really believe in God. In our hearts, we are convinced that it is our world, not His.”

As Eben struggles with rationalizing Jennie’s existence in some sort of time warp, “One must sometimes believe what one cannot understand. That is the method of the scientist as well as the mystic; faced with a universe which must be endless and infinite, he accepts it, although he cannot really imagine it.”

And as Eben finally lets go of his doubt and simply believes for the sake of believing, he grows more confident in the frightening modern world around him and feels safer in it. “Once upon a time, not so very long ago, men thought that the earth was flat, and that where the earth and heaven met, the world ended. Yet when they finally set sail for that tremendous place, they sailed right through it, and found themselves back again where they had started from. It taught them only that the earth was round.

“It might have taught them more.”

Such passages made “Portrait of Jennie” an intriguing and beautifully written novel, and far more spiritual and philosophical than the film, but these are Eben’s thoughts and it is difficult to film first person narrative without clogging the story with a lot of voice over narration. A film cannot be passive; it must have action. This is where the film and the novel differ most. In the novel, Jennie is both Eben’s muse and a real person with whom he begins to fall in love, and she with him. In the movie, it is more of a mystery with Eben’s seeking to prove Jennie’s existence. Not how she could possibly come to him over the mists of time, but is she actually real, or just his imagination?

In the book, Gus actually meets Jennie, as does Eben’s unpleasant landlady, and Miss Spinney reads evidence of her existence from a newspaper report on her being a steamship passenger who was lost at sea. In the movie, nobody sees Jennie but Eben, and the other characters disbelieve him. In the book we also have the colorful character of Arne, Eben’s friend and fellow artist, but unfortunately he is not included in the film.

The great storm in the novel is likely inspired by the unusual Hurricane of 1938, which seemingly came out of nowhere and pummeled a New England unused to tropical storms. With no warning, it left several hundred dead. In the film, the storm is a fictional 1920s event that Eben tries to circumvent and prevent Jennie’s tragic death by putting himself at the place it happened on the date it happened. In the novel, the storm is not foreseen by anything other than a vague premonition by Jennie, because it is not yet part of history. At the end of the novel, both Jennie and Eben are finally together in the present.

This is too ethereal even for a fantasy film, so the film must have more action than the novel and becomes a last minute race to save Jennie and change the course of history.

The film gives us good performances, if a somewhat cumbersome production. Jennifer Jones’ actual portrait was painted for the film by artist Robert Brackman, and producer David O. Selznick, who was also Miss Jones' future husband, reportedly displayed the painting in his home afterwards. Jennifer Jones’ fey qualities and soft voice, and that slight speech impediment all helped to instill a childlike quality to her younger Jennie, who as she ages never loses that clean look of innocence. Mr. Matthews, Miss Spinney’s partner in the art dealership, comments that, “There ought to be something timeless about a woman.” There surely seems to be about Jennifer Jones.

“Portrait of Jennie” was her fourth and final pairing with Joseph Cotten. She was just about to enter her 30s and he was in his mid-40s, and time would not really stand still for either of them, nor their careers.

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