Monday, March 30, 2009

Confessions On Tape

There must be something eternal about a guilty conscience, something that the guilty need to make eternal by recording their confessions for posterity.

In the recently discussed “Make Haste to Live” (1954) (see post here), Dorothy McGuire leads us to the flashback by setting herself down in her darkened office after hours, yanks a microphone to her mouth and starts blabbing the details of her sordid past to a reel-to reel tape recorder.

Fred MacMurray famously unburdened his guilty conscience with a Dictaphone machine in his darkened office after hours in “Double Indemnity” (1944) as he slowly bled from gunshot wounds. At the end of the film, we see several cylinders beside the machine he has used up. These old Dictaphones were like making records in wax, where the voice delivered an electrical impulse that was scratched onto the cylinders. (For more on "Double Indemnity" have a look at this post from January 2008.)

In “The Blue Gardenia” (1953), Richard Conte tries to trap Anne Baxter into a confession, and has a phone recorder and a transcriptionist standing by. He takes no chances, but gets no confession.

For that, Anne Baxter would have to be in a darkened office, all alone, talking to herself.

Would they have tapped out a text message on a Blackberry today? Speak into a mic to record their voice in digital files on their computer with Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ladies of the Noir - Pt 3 - Make Haste to Live (1954)

“Make Haste to Live” (1954) is our last entry in our look at a few film noir female protagonists. What makes this film interesting is it is more of a character study than just an action piece, unusual for film noir. However, this movie has a weak thread running through it partly because it never takes full advantage of exploring characterization, and partly because in those moments when action should take over, the plot wavers and pulls punches. This may be just another case of not knowing how far to push the envelope when the protagonist is a female. The 1950s is too early for Lifetime television.

The script seems to be the culprit. The direction gives us our moody shadows, our eerie setting of a lonely, windswept, isolated Southwestern town, and a man on the prowl who has just been released from prison.

Dorothy McGuire plays Crystal Benson, a woman who runs the local newspaper. She has a daughter on the verge of graduating high school, and a devoted boyfriend with a fascinating job superintending a local archeological dig in an ancient pueblo. He wants to marry her, but Miss McGuire keeps holding him off from marriage. McGuire has a deep, dark secret, and the day of reckoning has come.

This past coming back to haunt is classic film noir, where the protagonist is caught in a web of fate, but partly at fault through mistakes made. There is also a flashback sequence here, typical of noir, where we see how she got to the mess she is in today.

Before we get to the flashback, we see a nervous Miss McGuire on edge, walking through her house at night, listening anxiously for sounds of intrusion. We see her ask her friend the local sheriff, played with familiar Old West hombre charm by Edgar Buchanan, to borrow a handgun.

We see her give a sealed envelope full of money to her daughter’s boyfriend to keep in a safe and give to her daughter in case something happens to her. She gives no one reasons for what she is doing, and brushes off questions.

Then we see her sit before her reel-to-reel tape recorder and give us the answers as to why she’s done all this.

It’s an intriguing beginning to the film. The flashback is also handled well, as McGuire recounts to the tape recorder how, as a girl in Chicago, only a little older than her daughter is now and going by her real name then, which wasn’t Crystal Benson, she fell for a handsome rogue who she soon discovers is a hit man for a mob gang. Married, pregnant, and with no other family since the death of her mother, she suffers his possessiveness and physical abuse, until she finds her opportunity to escape.

She takes off on a cross-country bus ride to nowhere in particular, when she reads in the newspapers that her husband has been arrested for her murder. It seems a girlfriend he had on the side died in an accidental explosion from some stored weaponry in his house, and the authorities assumed it was McGuire who died because she knew too much. He is likely to be given the death sentence.

If this were a 1990s Lifetime TV-movie, she’d just thank her lucky stars and keep going. But it’s the 1950s, and moral ambiguity is a dicey thing for a female protagonist. Miss McGuire would love to see her husband sent to prison, but not to the electric chair for something he didn’t do. So, with the help of her pal, played by Carolyn Jones, she gets word back to the authorities that she’s alive. The death of the other woman is ruled as an accident, his charge is reduced to manslaughter, and he gets 20 years.

Now it’s 20 years later, and handsome Stephen McNally, who plays her vengeful husband, is on the loose and looking for her. McNally could have played heroes but Hollywood seemed to prefer to place him as the bad guy, at which he was equally adept. Villainy with a charming surface is sometimes more dangerous than a mere thug.

When he finds McGuire, rather than snuff her out, he takes the more subtle route by planting himself in her life, her home, and her community, telling everyone he is her long-lost brother. His method of terrorizing her is to keep right at her side, extort money from her, and ingratiate himself to her daughter, also his daughter. In effect, to take all the trappings of her life away from her and leave her without any semblance, any feeling of security. He cleverly asserts his old possessiveness.

In a way the movie is way ahead of its time as a film noir piece, using psychological terror as an expression of villainy rather than just the same old blackjack on the back of the skull.

Mr. McNally has, in his search for his runaway wife, done meticulous research on her. He has perceived correctly that she has told no one, not her daughter, nor her beau, about her past. Before his arrival on the scene, her excuse for this secretiveness would be of course to keep herself and her daughter safe. But now that the game is up and he’s found them, why not tell her boyfriend, her daughter, her pal the sheriff? Why not scream to the rooftops that this smooth-talking man who calls himself her brother is really her ex-con husband who keeps threatening to kill her?

Here is where the film, after an orderly start, seems to unravel. There is more that could be explored about Miss McGuire’s character that could keep the suspense in this story, that could provide logical impetus for her behavior. Instead, the film does not reach far enough into characterization, and seems to shy away from too much terrorizing of Dorothy McGuire.

There is a line in the flashback sequence that is simple but very evocative. McGuire returns to her deceased mother’s rented room to claim her mother’s things after the funeral, and her pal Carolyn Jones suggests McGuire leave the sad job to her.

McGuire refuses help, wanting instead to handle the disposition of her mother’s few belongings herself. She replies regretfully, “She had six kids, and I’m the only one of them that lived.”

It’s a line that does nothing to advance the plot, but it’s a great little trigger as to the kind of hard life McGuire has led, and the kind of person she is, with a sense of honor and a sense of perspective. Later on in the film we could use more of this kind of exploration, these kinds of hints as to what is happening with the character.

For instance, McGuire adopts the name “Crystal Benson” when she arrives in this remote Southwestern town to begin her life over. Why Crystal? Why not something less glamorous like Mary Jones or Jane Smith? How did she, a girl with barely a high school diploma and no work experience, come to become editor and publisher of a small town newspaper? How did she earn enough money in this depressed little town to own a two-story Victorian house? Where did the furnishings come from? Those antique portraits on the walls we see in the background as McGuire steps cautiously through her house at night, fearful of sounds -- who are they? Did she make up fake ancestors with fake names for her daughter’s benefit?

Her daughter, about to graduate from high school is played by Mary Murphy. She is a pleasant, restless, somewhat self-absorbed and empty-headed young woman just drifting along with a nice boyfriend who bores her. When she is told this visiting Stephen McNally is her uncle, she never questions this. Most teens would be annoyed that a secret had been kept from them. They would at least express surprise.

The daughter’s boyfriend, a likeable lug played by Ron Hagerthy, has a warm relationship with McGuire. How interesting that McGuire would trust this young man with her life savings in an envelope and not her own boyfriend, a man with greater sense and maturity, and resources at his disposal to help her.

Her boyfriend, played by John Howard, who you might remember as the stuffy George Kittredge in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), is also a likable chap, clearly devoted to McGuire. His role is like the typical supportive girlfriend/spouse in film noir where he doesn’t have much to do; he just rounds out the life of the protagonist.

The cat-and-mouse game she plays with McNally, which also involves a local murder pinned on an innocent man, comes to head when she tricks him into following her into the nearby pueblo ruins, where there is a bottomless pit.

There just aren’t enough movies with bottomless pits in them. I really like bottomless pits and sidewalk elevators. (See this post from last April.)

The ending, however, falls flat as the writers and producers resort to a kind of accident removing McGuire’s problem once and for all. She has an opportunity to kill her husband in self defense, but this is 1950s film noir with a female protagonist. Killing in self defense is still killing, still a repugnant act, at least if the protagonist is female. Though there may be perceived justice in the act, it still stains the virtue of the heroine. If McGuire’s role were being played by Gary Cooper, he would have killed seven or eight people by now and not lost his hero status.

Sinless, she runs back to the arms of her boyfriend, whom she is now presumably free to marry, and to her daughter. We may wonder if she ever tells them the truth about her past. We may wonder if she ever plays for them, or destroys, the tape recording she made telling of her past. It would have been a stronger movie if she had to confess or at least unburden herself to somebody other than us. Dorothy McGuire plays the role with her customary sensitivity and intelligence, and with her talent could have taken the character to a more edgy level, if only the script had not pulled punches.

McGuire never has to face her mistakes, not really. She just has to outrun them until the movie is over.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ladies of the Noir - Pt 2 - Shadow on the Wall (1950)

Shadow on the Wall (1950) is one of the more unusual examples of film noir in that the hero, the villain, and the victim are all played by females in an era and a genre when a gritty story of intrigue and adventure was mostly told through a male protagonist.

The male protagonist in this story is played by Zachary Scott in a lesser role, but at the same time a very pivotal role. Though he spends a good part of the movie in jail waiting for judgment, he is not relegated to being inconsequential. He is very much a key player, but his fate depends upon the actions of the females.

Scott is married for the second time to a two-timing woman we get rid of early in the film. Or, I should say, Ann Sothern gets rid of her. Miss Sothern’s role here is a bit different than her role we saw here in this post on The Blue Gardenia. There she was typically wisecracking, but here she is more subdued and goes through an interesting transformation. Ann Sothern, with affable if brutal honesty, never thought of herself as a good actress and said as much, but this film gives her a bit more to do than be flippant. She makes a convincing baddie.

Here Miss Sothern is the less glamorous sister of Zachary Scott’s two-timing wife. She begins the film as a likable sister-in-law, and a bit anxious to keep her suave fiancé’s attention. Too late. Her fiancé is having an affair with Mr. Scott’s two-timing wife. Miss Sothern is crushed, once again the victim of her more beautiful sister’s popularity and lack of integrity.

Zachary Scott has just returned home from a trip, and he discovers his wife’s infidelity. Initially stunned, he decides to hold off confronting her until all the guilty parties and injured parties can be together in the same room. In the meantime, he listens to his wife’s lies about where she was all afternoon, and maintains self control even while steam is coming from his ears. He has some souvenirs from the war given to him by a friend he visited. There is a gun among them, which clues us into a future scene of violence.

Barbara Billingsley, The Beaver’s mom, has a brief role as Olga, their maid. I don’t really see her as an “Olga,” but it’s always nice to have the ever-chipper Miss Billingsley drop by.

Young Gigi Perreau plays Scott’s little girl by his first marriage. We see that he has an affectionate relationship with the engaging child. There is a cute scene where she brings in the neighbor boy to watch her father shave, because her pal doesn’t have a daddy and being a boy, he needs to know how to shave. Mr. Scott agreeably conducts a shaving demonstration for the kids.

Because we see that Scott is a nice guy, likes kids, takes over the chore of bathing his daughter, keeps his cool about his two-timing wife, and looks good in a sleeveless undershirt, we form a strong impression of his decency, his intelligence, and his virility early in the film. This is important, because he soon gets hauled off to prison and we could easily forget about him if he were a more dishwater character. But when the action gets going with the trio of females, we never forget about Scott.

It’s kind of like when we watch an old melodrama where the hero and the villain are slugging it out, and somewhere there’s a girl tied up to railroad tracks and the train is coming. We may be watching the fistfight, but in the back of our minds is the girl. And the train. So it is with Mr. Scott. And the electric chair.

There is a confrontation between husband and wife about the infidelity. There is some pushing, the gun gets used, and the husband gets clunked on the head. When he comes to, his wife had been shot dead. He believes he did it, though he does not remember.

The child enters the room as this happens, and when her father is taken to jail, she is remanded to a hospital to treat her psychological trauma. The child has emotionally closed down, and it is up to the doctor, played by Nancy Davis, to help her face the terror she has experienced.

Nancy Davis, the future First Lady as the wife of Ronald Regan, plays her role with an attitude of unemotional professionalism that seems appropriate and rather refreshing. It was, of course, typical for Hollywood heroines to be self-sacrificing and emotional, but here she plays a heroine who really is neither. She is passionate only for the detail of science, and helps the little girl because that is her job, and not for her a particularly womanly crusade. In her play therapy with the child, she is kindly and gentle, but not really motherly. There is always a professional objectivity which is realistic.

Her purpose is only to unlock the girl’s reticence to face her trauma, and to help her to heal emotionally. It is only by accident well on into the film that Miss Davis begins to suspect there is more to the child’s trauma than just witnessing a tragic killing. It occurs to Davis that what the child saw was not her father kill her stepmother, but that somebody else did it. Now Davis must ferret out the truth, not only to help heal the girl, but to save Zachary Scott from the electric chair.

The audience has already been in on the facts of the murder long before Miss Davis figures it out, so we get to watch with anticipation the murky evidence being untangled. We also get to watch the irresistibly fiendish transformation of Ann Sothern.

She begins as the frustrated, bitter younger sister, deeply hurt by her fiancé’s infidelity. We learn, through flashbacks as is typical in film noir, that she burst in on her sister while Scott was still out cold from being clunked on the head, and she shot her sister. It was done all in an unplanned, frantic moment during an argument, and Sothern immediately regrets the deed. Overwhelmed with guilt, she writes a confession.

But she can’t bring herself to go through with confessing. The vision of herself in the electric chair is too strong for her to save the innocent Zachary Scott. She saves her own skin instead. She just walks away and says nothing.

This action changes the course of the film and changes the course of her life. Lying and deception start to come easier to her now, now that it is a matter of her personal survival. Murder starts to come easier, too.

When she gets wind of Dr. Nancy Davis working with little Gigi Perreau to restore her memory of the murder, Miss Sothern panics. She makes two rather dramatic and spine-tingling attempts on the child’s life, both unsuccessful.

One of these involves manipulating a contraption in the hospital where the girl is put to bed in a water bath to relax her, and she is tied into it. Step-auntie Sothern attempts to drown her. The scene where the code red is called and all the medical staff rush to revive the unconscious child is one of those instances we often see in old movies about medical practices that bludgeons our belief. Nurses run from everywhere, and hot water bottles are produced. Hot water bottles? Remember to keep a hot water bottle in your first aid kits. Good for everything from reviving a drowning victim, to heart attack, stroke, snake bite, and iron deficiency.

The key to reviving the child’s memory lies in a doll, a figure of an Indian which reminds Gigi of a shadow she saw on the wall at the moment of her stepmother’s murder. We see, at the very last moment of the film, that the shadow is Ann Sothern in her feathered hat and trench coat, which is duplicated for us in the film’s final moments. This occurs just as Gigi is about to be turned over to evil Step-Auntie’s guardianship, when she will, no doubt, be murdered. We ache to see the little girl turn around and see it and be reminded, and when at last she does, and her emotional logjam is cleared, and we cheer in utter relief. Ann Sothern falls apart. It’s a scene chock full of movie-watching goodness.

When the newly freed Zachary Scott picks up his child from the custody of Nancy Davis, we see that there is none of the typical succumbing by the writers to have Davis and Scott fall in love. This, too, is refreshing, if only because it is logical. Scott looks at Davis with obvious gratitude and respect, but if there is to be an eventual romance between them, we do not suffer it being pasted as an afterthought to the end of the film.

That Davis is the hero of the film is really only due to her meticulous scientist’s review of data. She never turns into crime-solving Nancy Drew. She is as surprised as anybody that her office notes might reveal a mystery.

Gigi Perreau is the victim, but in a very strong role that she plays well. She is at turns rigid, terrified, thoughtful, and introspective and plays the victim of emotional trauma as well as any adult.

Ann Sothern is the villain, but she slides into that role gradually by turns and subterfuge, and shows that almost anybody could be capable of doing the most heinous deeds in order to survive.

It’s also fun that since film noir is a genre of shadows, here we have a film where a particular shadow is the solution to the crime.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ladies of the Noir - Pt 1 - The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Today we begin a three-part series on film noir females, particularly examining three films where the females represented are unique. Not the usual dames, nor even “the usual suspects”, and not the usual supportive girlfriends. They are protagonists, caught in the grimy, shadowy world of film noir, usually a man’s world. But being women, they are not subjected to the same kinds of justice, or fate, or simply recrimination suffered by their male counterparts.

The films we’ll discuss are “The Blue Gardenia” (1953), “The Shadow on the Wall” (1950), and “Make Haste to Live” (1954).

To illustrate what I mean about a woman protagonist’s fate in film noir, we can look at a kind of template noir film. Here is a link to “Detour” (1945) a classic film noir example now in public domain and available for viewing at this website. Tom Neal drives across country to be with his girlfriend, and through bad luck, and a few errors in judgment, finds himself a wanted man once he gets to California, with a shrewish babe blackmailing him into deeper trouble with the law. When the film ends, we see him wandering down a lonely road at night, in an attempt to escape, when the police catch up with him and he placidly succumbs to a seat in their squad car, and we imagine, an eventual appointment in the electric chair. The poor guy’s tale is like a Kafka nightmare.

Most women in film noir flicks are like the two important women in his life, his girlfriend of whom we see very little, and the vicious dame who brings him down. Lots of the best film noir movies have great roles for women, but usually either as vixen or victim, or lesser roles as long-suffering girlfriend, not as the hero protagonist. The three movies on our list for this series feature women who are, however, just like the Tom Neal character. They are the protagonists, the ones who find themselves locked in the grasp of fate and suffering the consequences of their own bad decisions.

None of them, however, ends up sharing Tom Neal’s end, because to be a female protagonist in this era is to be likeable, and likeable girls did not go the electric chair. Bad girls, yes. But according to the standards of the day, good girls had to be saved at the 11th hour.

The first of these films, “The Blue Gardenia” follows this trend, but the other two films deviate in interesting ways. In “Make Haste to Live”, the female protagonist must solve her own problem without help, playing cat and mouse with her persecutor, and in “The Shadow on the Wall”, we have a very unusual scenario where the victim, the villain, and the hero are all played by women.

“The Blue Gardenia” starts out, and ends, with shots of the Los Angles freeway. I don’t know why. There’s nothing about the freeway in the plot, but I suppose it establishes that we’re in Los Angeles.

Anne Baxter, a nice girl, shares an apartment with two nice girlfriends. Ann Sothern plays her typical sassy wisecracking role, and Miss Jeff Donnell plays the sweet naïve baby of the trio who, demonstrating the screenwriter’s sense of humor, reads trashy pulp detective novels.

Miss Baxter’s fiancé is serving in Korea, one of many topical references in this movie, like the freeways. On her birthday, she prepares a candlelight dinner for herself and her beau’s photograph, and opens his latest letter, only to discover he is jilting her for an Army nurse.

Devastated, she takes her pain out to a nightclub called “The Blue Gardenia” where cad Raymond Burr, gets her drunk and takes her to his bachelor pad. We are treated to the Nat King Cole hit “Blue Gardenia” with Mr. Cole himself at the piano. As discussed on this previous blog post from August 2008, the 1950s gave us a lot of movie themes that could turn even a film noir into a musical.

When Raymond Burr gets too physical, the very drunk but still feisty Anne Baxter clunks him on the head. The next morning, very hung over in her own apartment and remembering very little about the night before, she slowly comes to realize through a series of clues and newspaper headlines that Burr has been murdered and that she probably did it. This is her nightmare, and it trails her until the very end of the movie.

It’s too bad we lose Mr. Burr so early on, because his suave, self-absorbed predatory charm is quite good. He has a very compelling screen presence, something the hero of the piece, a newspaper columnist played by Richard Conte, unfortunately does not seem to have. Mr. Conte’s eventual romantic overtures to Miss Baxter even seem to clutter an already flawed ending to the film.

Sometimes a romance in a crime story works to develop the characters more fully, and does not detract from the plot, but it seldom helps the plot. In a movie like “The Big Sleep” (1946), which is notorious for having a quite confusing plot, Humphrey Bogart’s and Lauren Bacall’s romance is so absorbing to the audience that nobody cares about the plot. This isn’t the case with “The Blue Gardenia”. Richard Conte and Anne Baxter, neither separately nor together, are strong enough to make us forget the story is spinning its wheels at the end.

Ann Sothern provides the down to earth advice, with each line coyly delivered as if it should be followed by a snare drum rim shot. She is divorced, but continues to date her ex-husband because though he had a “husband’s faults,” he now has “a boyfriend’s virtues.” She returns from a date with him with a comic indictment of the 1950s LA car culture: “Drive-in diner, drive-in movie, then afterwards you go for a drive.”

Richard Conte’s sharp and sarcastic newspaperman is also a ladies man, like the cad Raymond Burr. We know because he thumbs through his little black book. In Conte’s case, he is reformed from his womanizing ways by his sympathy for one helpless female. We don’t know exactly why he falls in love with Anne Baxter, he just does. Nor does he completely solve the case himself, but has the help of Superman George Reeves in a good role as a police inspector. The ending is slapped together, and sun shines on the innocent, and on the maze of California freeways. Life goes on, at 50mph.

Baxter’s daffy roommate, Miss Donnell, pours over her lurid drugstore novel and exclaims over the tribulations of the book’s femme fatale, “lucky girl, living a life of passion and violence.” Miss Baxter, who starts the film as a wholesome and somewhat dull girl assiduously avoiding any type of excitement, learns firsthand that living a life of passion and violence is not all it’s cracked up to be. She has an interesting position of being a sort of victim, but possibly also a murderer escaping justice as she destroys evidence (the dress she was wearing when she clunked Raymond Burr).

Her guilt and her paranoia are intriguing and carry the story a long way, but Miss Baxter is caught in more than the web of fate; she’s trapped in the 1950s web of being a good girl in a film noir movie, and she’s stuck there.

One of the fascinating aspects of film noir is that it changed 1940s sassy ingénues into world-weary dames and babes, but that, in turn, created a problem. In the moral ambiguity of the film noir world, there is no complete evil in the characters, just as there is no complete virtue. But the shift was not so easily made for women. The sensibilities of the era seemed to indicate that in this film noir world a woman could be more comfortably a victim, or a villain, or a girlfriend little seen. Make her the protagonist and she must follow the film noir precept of being neither completely bad nor completely virtuous. A fine line to walk for an actress, but an even more difficult line to walk for the film producers, apparently.

In a film like “The Blue Gardenia”, the choice is made that this female protagonist ends up with a crusading boyfriend who will look after her. Unlike poor Tom Neal in “Detour”, who is a nice guy in the wrong place and made bad mistakes, she would not be allowed to go down the road to perdition unless she is truly a bad girl. Good girls get rewarded with good men. This is the lesson of 1950s film, even film noir. It’s not so much the Code, as it is a deft interpretation by the studio executives of what the general audience feeling was in those days, and what it would stomach.

Though Anne Baxter’s acting style is a bit melodramatic, just being the lead in the male-dominated film noir genre is unusual enough to make this film worth a look.

“The Blue Gardenia” is being shown on TCM this coming Tuesday, the 24th, if you’d like to have a look yourself. Let us know what you think.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wearing of the Grin (1951)

“The Wearing of the Grin” (1951) serves as our nod to St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, and gives us not only a funny, and a bit scary, vehicle for Porky Pig, but treats us to a riotous parody of “The Red Shoes”, both the Hans Christian Andersen story and most especially the 1948 movie with Moira Shearer. I can’t help wondering if director Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese were aiming for Moira more than Hans Christian. I think they were going after Moira.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Dream of Jeanie (1953)

“I Dream of Jeanie” (1953) is a weak movie about a weak man, but there is great strength and passion in the music.

It is the third film biography done of 19th Century American songwriter Stephen C. Foster. Like most movie treatments in those days of famous songwriters, it is not terribly accurate. A Republic feature, now in public domain, even the print you see may not have held up all that well, but watch it for the songs, which are Stephen Foster’s talent and legacy to American popular music.

A simple plot revolves around how Foster, a kindly but not very bright stumblebum bookkeeper who has a side talent of writing songs, loves the glamorous and snooty older sister Inez, but eventually realizes the girl for him is the sassy younger sister Jeanie. With the light brown hair.

His early encounter with a young African-American boy who gets severely injured by a wagon running over him is meant to demonstrate to us how Foster is well-loved in the black community. Foster gives up the $22 he was saving to buy the snooty older sister an engagement ring to instead buy the boy, called Chitlins, an operation. Running over a little boy is an odd way to begin a movie. Chitlins’ mother is called, of course, Mammy, and is played by Louise Beavers for all of about five minutes. The rest of the movie leaves the black community and we never do find out how Chitlins fares. Soon the film reverts to white minstrel performers in blackface, and Hollywood’s bumbling of not only the truth of Foster’s life story, as well as its customary condescending treatment of African-Americans, but clouds the true nature of Foster’s intent in portraying in song the Negroes of his day.

When the film shifts to a re-creation of a Christy Minstrel program, modern audiences may feel only the cringeworthy aspect of whites with faces painted in an exaggerated mockery of black people. This is understandable and the racism is obviously impossible to dismiss, but there is still more going on here. There are two things of importance that should not be overlooked in this more than 10-minute sequence. First, it seems a fairly accurate representation of what a 19th Century minstrel show would look like, and one can see its origins in the modern musical variety show. Crude beginnings to be sure, but one can see the future amid the comic patter and the blockbuster numbers.

Secondly, we may easily miss, due to this film’s clumsy interpretation, that Foster was a pioneer in the evolution of white America’s depiction of black people. When he wrote the lament “Nellie Was a Lady”, a song describing the love of a black man for his wife who has died, it was likely the first time the tribute “lady” was used to describe a black woman by a white man in print. Sojourner Truth lamented “Ain’t I a Woman” in her famous 1851 speech, but Foster carried it further and called a black woman a lady. This was a revolution, begun in music. (Sojourner Truth’s landmark speech follows below if you’ve not read it.)

Foster also was adamant about instructing minstrel performers that they should not mock the slaves, but rather perform to elicit compassion for African-Americans. He wanted to clean up what he felt were the crude and distasteful minstrel shows of the day.

As for the film’s depiction of Foster as a helpless innocent when it came to financial matters, that was not entirely the truth, either. He had been accustomed to making business arrangements with publishers, but the deck was stacked against him. He lived in an era where there was virtually no copyright protection for the songwriter. This, the film handles well, and rather comically, as one song publisher after another berates poor befuddled Foster for having the arrogance to assume he should earn money for a song he wrote.

It is interesting that changes, rebellions and revolutions if you will, in our society often seem to begin with music. Each era on our timeline is identified by its style of music. Today we live in another age where music leads change in our society, and that is with the MP3 shared digital files controversy. It has altered the way the music industry operates with regard to ownership and royalties, and may be the template for an enormous future change in the sale of books.

The film’s real strength is Foster’s music, songs which defined an era and were the birth of American popular music as an industry, and as a cultural force. We hear plenty of Foster’s songs in this movie, and by some wonderful voices. Bill Shirley plays Stephen Foster, and you may recognize his fulsome tenor also as the prince in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), and as the singing voice for Jeremy Brett in “My Fair Lady” (1964).

A standout in this film is Ray Middleton, who plays the comically bombastic Edwin P. Christy, leader of the Christy Minstrels. His majestic baritone does justice to these songs, and his booming speaking voice, always pitched at half gale, is a delight. All the principle players have stage voices (Middleton played several Broadway roles), and were clearly not studio singers, so they bring an appropriate sound and diction to these tunes.

That Stephen Foster’s songs still have the ability to reach us so many generations later, is evident in the CD “Beautiful Dreamer - The Songs of Stephen Foster” which won a Grammy Award in 2005. Among the artists performing these songs are Alison Kraus, Suzy Bogguss, John Prine, and Yo-Yo Ma. Alvin Youngblood Hart’s rendition of “Nellie Was a Lady” is especially poignant. You’ll find it here at Amazon.

The movie tells us nothing of Foster’s thwarted career and tragic end, but it gives us a kindly, if flawed, version of a giant in the American music industry.

by Sojourner Truth

Delivered 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say

Monday, March 9, 2009

Update - "Twentieth Century"

Today a brief update on our post from January (see here) about “Twentieth Century” (1934) and the train called “The 20th Century Limited”, and our lovable ne’r do well, John Barrymore.

Author John Kobler writes in his biography of John Barrymore, Damned in Paradise - The Life of John Barrymore (Athenaeum, NY 1977) of the eastbound trip on The 20th Century Limited Barrymore took for the re-opening of "Hamlet" on Broadway, around 1924, I think. Barrymore, of course was noted for his portrayal of Hamlet, but evidently never so cocky that he neglected to rehearse.

In a scene that might be straight out of “Twentieth Century”, author Kolber writes, “Ensconced in his stateroom aboard the eastbound Twentieth Century, John sent for two Pullman porters, old friends from previous trips. Handing one of them a book, he explained, ‘Now, this is really the skull of Yorick and you are the grave digger.’ And to the other, ‘You are Polonius.’ Fed his cues in this fashion, he rehearsed himself all the way across the continent.”

Actually, that would have been halfway across the continent, only from Chicago to New York, but the story proves both John Barrymore’s whimsical approach to his art, and the indispensability of the noble Pullman porter.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

2nd Anniversary

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog. Thank you for the pleasure of your company.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What a Slide Rule is For

Sam Cooke’s 1960 hit “Wonderful World” opens with the confessional line, “Don’t know much about history,” and leads us to today’s post a couple of stanzas later with the line, “Don’t know what a slide rule is for.”

How very prescient was Mr. Cooke. I think I might have been the last generation to have been taught how to use a slide rule. When pocket calculators swept through the land, these simple instruments of mechanical mathematical calculation, which some boys dashingly (more or less) wore attached to their belts, were left by the wayside and totally forgotten. I have no idea what happened to mine, and I think I’ve forgotten now how to use it anyway.

Mostly forgotten, I should say, as there seems to be a remarkable number of collectors of slide rules out there keeping eBay sellers busy. There are websites for dealers in slide rules.

Above we have Dana Andrews working figures from his slide rule in “I Want You” (1950). Here we have Ruth Roman playfully fingering Van Johnson’s slide rule in “Invitation” (1951). I make no comments about subtext.

Here’s a link to the Foghorn Leghorn vehicle “Little Boy Boo” (1954). When Foghorn attempts to court the Widow Prissy, he must become pals with her intellectual and really quiet son. In one scene, when Foghorn attempts to teach the boy to play hide and seek, little Egghead, Jr. figures out where Foghorn is by using a slide rule.

Tell me where you’ve noticed slide rules in the old movies, or where you think yours might have gone. For now, have a listen below to Sam Cooke.

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