Monday, March 31, 2008

Florence Bates

Florence Bates played small, though sometimes memorable roles, as a character actress in films and on television until her death in the mid-1950s. She was the bullying, vainglorious and vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper in “Rebecca” (1940). A career portraying unpleasant society women with sharp tongues was probably not what she intended when she became the first female lawyer in the state of Texas in 1914 at the age of 26.

Miss Bates practiced law at least until the middle 1930s, when something induced her to become involved with the Pasadena Playhouse. Her first film role came in 1937, a brief, non-credited part. However, she zoomed to fame as Mrs. Van Hopper in her second film, and from then on perhaps law looked a little dull.

Not all her roles were as pivotal to the story of the film; she played a lot of walk-on parts as shoppers in various movies that took place in stores, like “Kitty Foyle” (1940) and “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941). She reprises her nastiness as the sour landlady Mrs. Jekes in “Portrait of Jennie” (1949), and plays a kinder, gentler society dame in “I Remember Mama” (1948) as the famous writer Irene Dunne approaches on behalf of her daughter to ask advice on writing. Miss Dunne, judging by Miss Bates’ girth, surmises that this famous writer is also a famous eater, and bribes her with a Norwegian delicacy.

Apparently, Miss Bates did not mind portraying stereotyped heavy eaters anymore than she minded playing bossy women, as she has a very brief scene on the train in “Since You Went Away” (1944) complaining about not getting enough to eat on trains these days while gobbling corn on the cob.

You’ll know her when you see her, in this and many other films even though her role may be small. She had a big screen personality.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

“Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) gives us a squeaky clean District Attorney/Governor, a best pal on the other side of the law, and Myrna Loy, best gal to both of them. In these days of New York Governors a little low on integrity in a really public way, this film captures an era equally guilty of graft and self interest, yet presented through the story of one good guy who feels guilty despite his integrity, and one bad guy who seems not so bad. It also gives us some interesting history of that era.

We are taken back to the characters’ boyhoods, and a traumatic event on the steamer General Slocum. A fun thing about this film is instead of creating an entirely fictitious scenario, we have a fictional story played on a background among real events. The General Slocum burned in 1904, with over 1,000 deaths. The only New York tragedy to claim more lives was 9/11. Few today may even know about the tragedy, but at the time it was an horrific event. We are also shown newsreel shots of 1920s Times Square with a Squibb’s advertisement, trolley cards, and marquees for the Palace and Loew’s. The characters attend the Cotton Club in Harlem, and there is a brief scene showing an actual hockey game (played without helmets or protective gear) at Madison Square Garden.

But for all the realistic shots, all it takes is the inevitable few bars of “Sidewalks of New York” to set the scene of long-ago Old New York and two boys playing on the decks of the General Slocum. One boy is studious, reading even on this outing, and the other is a rogue, played by Mickey Rooney, who plays tricks and cons other kids out of their pennies.

But the boys are pals, and come to the aid of another pal, a boy named Morris, when Morris is picked on. We are shown the immigrant hyphenated Americans on their one day off from the factory, Irish, Italians, Russian Jews. A fire breaks out and there is panic. Many die, including the two pals’ parents, and their friend Morris. They are rescued by a priest whose thick Italian accent tells us he is also an immigrant. Morris’ father, mourning his son, tearfully asks the boys, “How would you like to come and live with me and be my sons?”

“But I’m not a Jew and neither is Jim.” Mickey Rooney replies.

“Catholic, Protestant, Jew. What does it matter now?”

It is a lovely lesson in brotherly love that is sometimes true even if it is not universal, and our inclination to smile or roll our eyes at such innocence is condescending. The boys become the sons of “Poppa” Rosen, but he is later killed in a riot when he challenges the anti-American speech of a Bolshevik soapbox speaker. We move from a lesson in religious tolerance to Bolshevism is bad no matter if the speaker has a right to say what he thinks.

Years pass, Mickey Rooney grows up to be Clark Gable, and William Powell plays his bookish friend, now a New York City District Attorney. Myrna Loy is Gable’s girl, a world-weary and streetwise sort of moll who yearns for a different life. Gable, called “Blackie” is a gangster. A charming, handsome gangster, but still a gangster.

When she meets Powell, she is impressed with his gentlemanliness absent in the roguish Gable. This is Powell’s and Loy’s first film pairing, and their chemistry led to “The Thin Man” series. At the Cotton Club a singer played by Shirley Ross (who, minus the darker skinned makeup was Bob Hope’s partner in the famous “Thanks for the Memories” song in “The Big Broadcast of 1938”) sings “The Bad in Every Man”, the anthem for this movie, a Rogers and Hart tune which we know more commonly as “Blue Moon.” Apparently the original lyrics weren’t catchy enough, so Lorenz Hart was asked to come up with some new words.

Miss Loy leaves Gable for Powell, becoming his wife. But there are no hard feelings, and Mr. Gable is astoundingly cheerful not only at loosing his girlfriend to his best pal, but pleased almost to the point of giddiness when Powell’s investigations into racketeering threaten Gable’s business deals. He is immensely proud of Powell’s career climb. He is happy for their marriage. Clark Gable is one of the few actors who could pull off the sincerity he is supposed to feel, and even say lines like, “Everything is hotsy-totsy.”

However, trouble looms when Powell is threatened by a bad egg in his administration, and Gable kills the bad egg to help Powell’s bid for Governor. Clark Gable has some interesting scenes with Myrna Loy after she is Powell’s wife. His attention to her is solicitous, and intimate, but not sexually predatory. He exudes genuine affection for her, much more than when she was his ever-waiting girlfriend, almost as if his esteem for her rose only after she left him. The warmth he displays for her when they sit together at the races is among the sexiest scenes he has ever played.

“Do you ever lose?” she kids him when he has won the horse race.

“Yeah, every once in a while.” He charmingly replies, referring to having lost her. He says it without self pity or rancor, and that is adorable.

But the wheels are in motion, and Gable is caught for the murder he committed in a cold-blood by shooting another bad guy in the men’s room at Madison Square Garden. Powell must prosecute him, and while Gable enjoys the courtroom drama, proud of his pal’s integrity, “Class, it’s written all over him,” Powell suffers agonies. In his summation, Powell mentions the long-ago General Slocum tragedy, and he tearfully groans, “I made a boyish effort to save Blackie Gallagher’s life. Today I demand from you his death.”

Gable is given the death sentence, Mr. Powell wins the governorship, dons a wing collar and swallowtail coat, and Loy leaves Powell for what she sees as his fanatic obsession with the law and his lack of loyalty to Gable. He visits Gable in the death house, and the love the two men feel for each other, especially when joined by the Italian priest from their boyhood days, gives us a powerful scene. Powell weakens, and offers Gable a commutation of his death sentence, which Mr. Gable refuses.

“If I can’t live the way I want, at least let me die when I want.”

If such bravado is difficult to believe, then Powell’s remorse that drives him to resign the governorship is even more difficult to believe. He resigns because, as he makes a public confession to the Assembly, his feelings for Gable made him offer the commutation, against the wishes of the public who voted him in office for his very prosecution of his friend. Such scruples, more than a gangster and murder’s admiration for a man with integrity, more than Myrna Loy turning from gun moll to First Lady of New York, more than Clark Gable saying things like “hotsy totsy” stretches our belief. Scruples in public office? Integrity? A social conscience? Yeah, right. Maybe if the former Governor of New York and the present Governor had pencil-thin mustaches, then maybe we could trust them.

Another bit of trivia, well-known by now, is that the real-life gangster John Dillinger had just emerged from Chicago’s Biograph Theater, having seen this film, when he was shot and killed by the FBI.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cats as Fashion Accessories

Eve Arden lounges in the parlor of the rooming house for aspiring actresses in “Stage Door” (1937) while a cat lounges on her, draped around her neck like a scarf. He is named Henry, long and lazy and makes an obliging fur piece. He barely flexes as Eve strolls about casting wisecracks like a flower girl casting petals. He doesn’t move a muscle. He may not have any. He clearly has no bones, as floppy as a child’s old stuffed animal.

“Bell, Book and Candle” (1958) stars Kim Novak and another feline which doubles as part friend, part security blanket, all fashion statement. Pyewacket the cat consents to being pulled from hiding places and draped across Kim Novak’s shoulders or sliding seductively down her body, the two of them like an ice dancing pair. He is her partner in crime, but also a fashion accessory.

Cat, the unimaginatively named feline in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) isn’t used as a scarf or a stole or a furry boa. He’s too tough for that. He might pounce on George Peppard from boredom, but he’s nobody’s fashion accessory. But unlike Pyewacket and Henry, he takes center stage in the pivotal climatic scene when the lovers reunite in the rain, with the rain-soaked cat nestled between them, trying to stay dry under their chins.

Perhaps it is their stillness, even more than their flexibility that makes them such good props.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Alice Faye in Wet Cement

On March 20, 1935, 73 years ago today, Alice Faye put her hands and high heels in fresh cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. “George White’s 1935 Scandals” would open in another week, only her fifth film.

It would be another few years before her staring roles of the 1940s in glorious Technicolor, before Betty Grable, at this time still doing bit parts, would become her replacement and the new darling of 20th Century-Fox, before Alice, tired of studio machinations, quit the business, chucked her dressing room key out of her car window at the studio gate and never looked back.

For now, it was a rising star and fresh cement.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Two Views of Ireland

Director John Ford came up with two representations of the Irish in film, and they show both ends of the spectrum between the violent circle of vengeance that has plagued that culture for hundreds of years, and the sentimental portrait of a witty caricature. “The Informer” (1935) and “The Quiet Man” (1952) give us not necessarily opposing views of Ireland, both show repressive aspects to their society, but between them give a fuller picture so much so that they should probably be shown together.

Both are excellent films, and despite being the products of Hollywood, because both are directed by a man whose family came from Ireland, who spoke Irish Gaelic himself, they carry an authenticity that most Hollywood films do not have when depicting a foreign land. “The Informer” is gritty, stark, and reflective of the German expressionist school of film. Victor McLaglen, who won the Academy Award for his performance, is a bumbling, flawed, irascible man, a man of little intelligence, whose betrayal to the police of a friend turns him into a haunted, and hunted, man. He turned in the fellow for the reward money, to finance immigration for himself and his prostitute girlfriend to America. He squanders the money instead, his guilt chasing him through the foggy night. In the end, confessing his crime to the betrayed man’s mother, played by Una O’Connor, the IRA catches up with McLaglen and shoots him like a dog. His arms held out in rapture for being forgiven by the Madonna-like sorrowing O’Connor, this lowly, lying, desperate ape of a man becomes Christ-like, and dies for his own sins.

Mr. McLaglen returns in “The Quiet Man” as a boasting, selfish, brawler, the bossy brother of Maureen O’Hara, without whose permission she cannot marry John Wayne. McLaglen, despite similar attributes to his bedeviled character in “The Informer” is here a comic figure, and actually likable despite his irascibility. Maureen O’Hara is a spitfire, able to hold her own with her bullying brother, and John Wayne is the American who has returned to the land of his birth to settle down. This time it is Wayne who is the haunted character, an ex-boxer who caused the death of a competitor in the ring, and who runs from his guilt, and all violence, to this peaceful Irish countryside.

Though we have dependable Ward Bond along as the parish priest, the rest of the cast are Irish, members of the distinguished Abbey Players. They, more than the color picture postcard scenery, give this film its charm. The stereotype of the hard-drinking, brawling Irish is more than winked at. Particularly in the famous scene where Mr. Wayne drags Miss O’Hara across the hills and fields, as townspeople swarm to watch, and the sweet village lady graciously offers Mr. Wayne a stick, “to beat the lovely lady,” we know we are being gloriously kidded by a culture that delights especially in laughing at itself.

Soon Mr. Wayne trades Maureen O’Hara for Victor McLaglen in a cross-country boxing match that wildly entertains the locals and ironically squares things between him and his brother-in-law. Barry Fitzgerald as the village matchmaker and bookie is a gem in this film. His coy smile at Maureen O’Hara as she sings at the spinet and suddenly bursts into what must have been genuine laughter at him, is delightful. The kindly act of brotherly love when the Catholics of the neighborhood pretend to be Protestants so that the visiting Church of Ireland bishop won’t remove the local vicar, played by Fitzgerald’s real-life brother Arthur Shields, and cheer him as he drives by, is a reminder that enmity and vengeance are not part of everyday life for everyone on this island.

“The Informer” is bleak; “The Quiet Man” is romantic confection, and both films together illustrate a more complete picture of a culture of fierce nationalism, religious passion, humor, oppression and human flaws than they would taken separately. Ford and his vision of his ancestral homeland is the glue. It is through his skeptical, and romantic, eye that we see this culture which has come to personify this feast day of a Christian saint.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Not off Topic, Just off Blog

A fantastic discussion of the style of movie opening and end credits is going on over at The Siren's place. Do please have a look at this great blog, and this really interesting post and comments.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Shirley Temple - Grauman's Handprints

On March 14, 1935, some 73 years ago tomorrow, Shirley Temple put her small hands and bare feet in wet cement.

The box office champ for 1936, 1937 and 1938, three years in a row, and the savior of Fox studios, had not even hit her stride when she did the Grauman’s Chinese Theater sidewalk treatment.

Her film, “The Little Colonel” had just been released the previous month, with Lionel Barrymore, Hattie McDaniel, and that famous tap dancing up the stairs routine devised by the remarkable Bill Robinson.

Shirley Temple, not quite 7 years old at the time she got her hands in cement, would make three other pictures that year, one of the hardest working kids in Hollywood. The only thing more pleasing than reflecting on her early success is knowing that the rest of her life, beyond the soundstage, was varied, and full, and evidently a great pleasure to her. Hollywood film history is filled so many tragic stories of lives ruined. Miss Box Office Champ had a long way to fall even before she reached her 10th birthday. How nice that she didn’t, but just skipped along safely to other levels, like the little kid holding Mr. Robinson’s hand, bouncing up and down those stairs.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter (1945) is a fascinating movie for what it shows and what it does not show, what is says, and what it does not say. It is unselfconsciously intimate, yet in the most cordial manner.

While this blog is mainly concerned with Hollywood films, taking a look at this British film gives a look at the English culture without the gingerbread of a typical Hollywood view of English culture.

The story, originally from a Noel Coward play, is of a love affair between a man and a woman who meet in a railway station tearoom. Both are married to other people, and though their romance is chaste, they nevertheless feel immense guilt when they acknowledge their attraction for each other, and a painful sense of hopelessness over their love. Divorce is not an option for either because each remains loyal to his/her spouse and children. Continuing as they are in an emotional limbo as bleak as the train station is also unthinkable.

The trains that roar past them alternately assume the inevitability of their fate, or their conscience. They have to catch their separate trains. They dare not miss the train.

The film begins at the ending, as they are about to part forever. The rest of the film is told in flashback with a voice over narration by Celia Johnson, who plays the female lead. She speaks as if reciting the story to her kindly but dull husband, of whom she acknowledges to herself, “You’re the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand. If only it was somebody else’s story and not mine. As it is, you’re the only one in the world I can never tell…even if I waited until we were old, old people and told you then, you’d be bound to look back over the years and be hurt.”

Her soliloquy explains the conflict of the story, that although the character played by Celia Johnson and her lover, played by Trevor Howard, never get more physical in their illicit relationship than kissing, they battle, along with the great temptation to take their romance further, an enormous guilt simply for enjoying each other’s company. Infidelity, it seems, is a matter of the heart and mind for them.

It is a film where very small details are made large, as told through the psyche of Miss Johnson’s narration, they way we enlarge insignificant moments in our minds when we are very emotional. The annoying chatter of other people when we want to be alone with our thoughts. The light that plays from streetlamps, the rain, his hand briefly on her shoulder when he says goodbye. Director David Lean turns these into monumental moments.

The score, with its strains of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto” is at turns gossamer, and at other moments leaden with sadness.

As for the real English culture versus the Hollywood ersatz version of that era, we see no huge, airy rooms with roaring fires in enormous stone fireplaces, no quaint and not-too-bright servants, and no heroic stiff upper lips. The rooms are small, dark, with feeble heat and only the suggestion of a cook downstairs. There is a sense of clutter, not of heritage or noblesse oblige. However, Miss Johnson does wander in her stream-of-consciousness narration to give us a self-portrait of the English with the remark, “I believe we should all behave quite differently in a warm, sunny climate all the time. We shouldn’t be so withdrawn and shy and difficult.”

It’s an interesting remark. One shouldn’t take old movies, from whatever culture, as gospel to define that culture. Most Americans at one time or another have laughed, or blanched, at the thought of our films being used as an example of who we are. To do the same to the British with this lovely film would be unfair. Still, we see that while there are the same Hollywood-style comic cockney underclasses represented by the tearoom staff and the railroad official played wonderfully by Stanley Holloway, nevertheless there is no forelock pulling. They do not behave subserviently to the middle class, educated and well-spoken Johnson and Howard. If anything, they are inclined to bully when they are inconvenienced.

However, they show quite a contrasting dignity. Though Holloway’s jokester character does all he can to flirt with the standoffish tearoom lady, even enrages her by slapping her on the bum, he redeems himself in her eyes by coming to her rescue. Two cheeky soldiers speak to rudely to her, and Mr. Holloway, with immense sternness and dignity, sends them packing. At a table nearby, a defeated Johnson and Howard wallow in the misery of their own weaker moral compasses. Things are not black and white with them.

Interestingly, though this film was made in 1945, these two naughty soldiers are the only evidence we have of it’s being wartime. There are no other uniforms, no posters or signs, no discussion of current events. The severe wartime privation of the English, which lasted for some years after the war, is not seen here. It’s as if the very train station is an island away from the real world and leaves the lovers, and us, quite insolated.

Interesting, too, how the culture of the United States, its film culture that is, makes a brief appearance in the film, when the lovers go to the movies and laugh over a Donald Duck cartoon. When he is sent away, one of the soldiers hollers derisively at the tearoom lady, “…if them sandwiches were made this morning, you’re Shirley Temple!” Apparently, like it or not, to the rest of the world we really are the personification our films.

The most bleak moment of the film comes when, after an outing the in country, Howard must return the keys of the borrowed car to a friend. He goes to the friend’s flat, while Miss Johnson, in an agony of indecision, decides at last to join him there to have a little more time together before she heads home. The friend comes home early and she ducks out the back, humiliated at how it must look. The friend sees the scarf she left behind, and Mr. Howard, despite the innocence of the situation, is made to feel the full brunt of the appearance of sordidness in his friend’s arch assumptions.

Miss Johnson, in the meantime, runs in a panic through the rain and wanders through unfamiliar streets at night, as if her guilt and shame are chasing her. There are some great visuals of her rain-matted hair, of the condensation of their breath as they speak, and of the camera tilting at a frightening angle when, at the climax of her emotional crisis, she nearly rushes into an oncoming train to kill herself.

She does not kill herself, and instead offers the amazed if blunt confession that is was not due to thoughts of her husband or children that made her stop. Her obsession has made her forget them, made her lie, has made her hide and deceive, and she is appalled at herself and at the ease with which she does these things. We see the power of her obsession, and how the shock of that acknowledged obsession parts the lovers as much as does their guilt.

When she does return home, her husband watches her carefully over his crossword puzzle, sees that her mind has been miles away, in some sort of private torment. Rather than ask questions, he merely kneels before her chair when she rouses herself and remarks, “Thank you for coming back to me.”

It’s a great closing line, and makes us wonder was it merely a rhetorical question? How much did he know? Just how understanding is he?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Now Playing - 1944

This magazine ad from 1944 assures us that “Cover Girl” will be pretty spectacular without going into too many details. Rita Hayworth stars, that evidently says it all. What is not said is that her singing is dubbed by Martha Mears. Gene Kelly contributed a lot to the polish of this film. Dependably wry Eve Arden has the wonderful name of “Cornelia ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.” Gotta love that.

Much has been written about poster art from the old movies, but some of the print advertisements were quite artistic as well.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

1st Anniversary - Thank You

This is just a brief thank you to all of you who have read, and sometimes commented on, this blog in the past year. I began Another Old Movie Blog one year ago today. Some 189 posts later it’s still a joy, if sometimes a challenge, to write about old films in the context of the times in which they were made.

It’s been a wonderful sentimental journey. Thank you for the pleasure of your company. See you tomorrow.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

The Strawberry Blonde (1941) is a parody of The Olden Days with James Cagney in the unusual role of a stiff-necked and somewhat moralistic loser who becomes the butt of his huckster pal’s schemes. That he finds happiness with Olivia de Havilland is only because he has finally woken up and stopped being a slow-witted fool. Not the usual Cagney outing. 
Jack Carson plays Cagney’s pal in his typical fast-talking smart aleck role. Mr. Carson is dependably funny, and has an interesting way of being able to play a creep or a poor soul even though his delivery remains the same no matter in what film he appears. The other characters around him seem to make him sympathetic or arrogant. Mr. Cagney is a hapless dental student, equally busy with keeping his drunken skirt-chasing rogue of a Da, played with his usual nothing-up-my-sleeve finesse by Alan Hale, as he is with pursing the girl of his dreams. 

The girl of his dreams is played by Rita Hayworth, the strawberry blonde of the piece, as elegant appearing as a wedding cake on the outside, but inside as common as a mug of beer. Olivia de Havilland is her friend, a nurse, seen as an unromantic profession of serious and single-minded ladies soon to be spinsters. To make matters worse in Cagney’s eyes, she is also a suffragette who smokes. Not very expertly. But she does. 

On their first date, a fix-up when Cagney thought he was going to get Hayworth but gets stuck with Miss de Havilland instead, there is much bickering and posturing about modern women, to which Mr. Cagney scoffs with one of his many platitudes, “An empty barrel makes the most noise.” 

We get an eyeful of straw boaters and leg-o’mutton sleeves, and lots of choruses of “The Band Played On.” When Carson steals Hayworth from him and marries her, Cagney dejectedly tries to make do with de Havilland, never really appreciating her until time passes and he sees what a brassy gal his ideal Miss Hayworth really is, how unhappy their marriage is, and what a swell gal the suffragette turns out to be. Carson gets rich as a shady contractor. 

When Cagney and de Havilland come to dinner, Carson and Hayworth show off their new electric lighting. “I just can’t get over that electric light,” an awed Miss de Havilland remarks, “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Not if you pay the bills,” is Carson’s line, delivered in a cute way of trying too hard to be funny. Even when he’s a braggart and a blowhard, it’s hard to dislike him. They have a new dish for dinner, something called “spaghetti” which none of them knows how to eat. 

Carson throws his down and out old buddy a bone by giving him a job in his company, but makes Cagney the fall guy when because of inferior materials being used, a building Carson’s firm is constructing collapses. Cagney’s father also happens to be fatally injured in the collapse. Cagney goes to jail for several years, and so the plot turns from one of smirking over high button shoes to a tragedy. 

But wait, no, it’s not a tragedy, because there are more comic scenes of Cagney keeping up with his dental studies in prison. When he gets out of jail, he removes Carson’s sore tooth without anesthetic, just for spite. Cagney, who would never even whistle at Hayworth out of respect for her, abandons his idealistic obsession and instead finds happiness with the down-to-earth de Havilland. The film ends, charmingly, with another round of “The Band Played On” in sing-along style with the words printed out on title cards as they might have been in the early days of silent films, with the final card in elegant script declaring, “Thank You, Come Again.”

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