Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Roaring Twenties - 1939

The Roaring Twenties (1939) may have even more resonance today than it did when it was produced. The year it premiered was only ten years after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the world had entered a new era in 1939 with a vengeance. This end of the Depression look back at how-we-got-to-where-we-are is certainly nostalgic, but it was also a critical success and should be regarded as one of the champion movies in that champion movie year of 1939.

The Roaring Twenties, fast-paced and well directed by Raoul Walsh, is remarkable for all the things it attempts to be and succeeds. It is a docu-drama as much as a melodrama. It is a gangster film, but there are so many musical numbers you could as easily call it a musical. It has some outrageously funny lines, but it contains scenes so heartbreakingly pathetic.

Most especially, it looks back on an era still so recent in 1939 and yet from such a remarkably distant perspective, the way we might pack for college and discover with condescending amusement some old souvenir from grammar school. It is a mere ten years from eight years old to adulthood. It also feels like a lifetime.

The film begins with a rolling title prologue that speaks to us today in our present economic crisis: “It may come to pass that, at some distant date, we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photoplay. If that happens, I pray that events as dramatized here, will be remembered.” It is signed Mark Hellinger, the writer of the script, who took the stories of real people and real incidents as a basis for the film.

Then the stern voice of John Deering, the narrator, takes over and through a montage of images, the clock is turned back, year by year, to 1918, the last year of the Great War.

“What’s past is prologue” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, and as such it is appropriate to begin a story that concludes with the Crash at a point in time when the seeds for that event were sewn. Perhaps too often we look at a moment in time as if it really stands apart from other moments, but it does not. It cannot.

James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Jeffrey Lynn are doughboys in France. Cagney is the rough-and-ready average Joe. Jeffrey Lynn is the sensitive college boy who struggles with ideas of right and wrong. Bogart is the thug. It would be one of Humphrey Bogart’s last thug roles before he moved on to being the reluctant hero in 1940s films. He’s looking hale and hearty here, fit and much younger than he did even four years later in Casablanca.

In one scene, his thuggishness borders on the psychotic, when Jeffrey Lynn hesitates to shoot a German soldier because he looks only about 15 years old. Bogart plugs him with relish. He loves his gun.

The war ends, and Cagney straggles back home to New York to try to get his old mechanic’s job back, but his job has been given to someone else in the meantime, and he can’t find another one in the post-war recession. This is rather like a foreshadowing of Dana Andrews’ inability to fit in and find a place for himself after World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). (It was in reaction to such conditions that the government mandated during World War II that returning veterans be guaranteed a job with their former employers.)

One very brief, but funny scene if you catch it, is when Cagney gives his old pal, Frank McHugh, a souvenir from the war. It is a German helmet, and McHugh hides it from would-be thieves by shoving it under his bed. Cagney wordlessly motions McHugh to turn the helmet over, because the way he placed it under his bed looks like a chamber pot.

The narrator comes back with more March of Time stuff about bobbed hair, shorter skirts, and the power that drives the rest of the film, Prohibition. Cagney, working as a cab driver, innocently delivers some bootleg liquor to Gladys George, who plays a gal-who’s-seen-it-all and runs a speakeasy. Cagney gets nabbed, takes the fall for Miss George, who later gets him out of jail and becomes his partner in the bootlegging business.

James Cagney spends the rest of the decade getting richer and richer, and more deeply involved in bootlegging, corruption, and gangland murders. Eventually, Priscilla Lane shows up to expose Cagney’s softer side. She had written him pen-pal letters during the war, but when he returned, he dismissed her as a schoolgirl when he had mistakenly thought she was much older. Reunited when she is a struggling dancer in the chorus, Cagney promotes her career in Gladys George’s speakeasy as a singer.

Priscilla Lane actually shares top billing with James Cagney in this movie, and would continue to have a successful year with Four Daughters where she was reunited in the first of several more films with Jeffrey Lynn. Here, likewise, Lane and Lynn fall for each other. Cagney falls for Lane. Gladys George falls for Cagney. It is an inextricable web of unrequited love.

Jeffrey Lynn, now a lawyer, helps Cagney with the legal aspects of his business empire and rather hypocritically tries to overlook the illegal. Eventually, Humphrey Bogart joins the business, and the intense scenes between Bogart and Cagney trying to assert their power over each other are something terrific.

If you have ever seen the Carol Burnett parody of this film with Carol as Gladys George, Steve Lawrence as Cagney, Harvey Korman as Jeffrey Lynn, and Sally Struthers as Priscilla Lane, then perhaps, like me, you are reminded of it all through watching this movie. Thanks a whole lot, Carol.

Gladys George, who played the world-weary dame with the heart of gold better than anyone (and speaking of The Best Years of Our Lives, pulled off the same magic there in a minor role), has some great lines and delivers them with deadpan humor. She is most effective silently pining after James Cagney. In the scene where Cagney brings Priscilla Lane to audition for Miss George, he fidgets with the excitement of a schoolboy crush, and he absently grips Gladys George’s hand as he listens to Priscilla Lane sing.

Gladys George seems to feel an electric current at Cagney’s touch, and sadly watches his enchantment for another, much younger, much prettier woman. Another actress might have shown a cliché tinge of jealously or resentment in her reaction, but Gladys George plays it inwardly, almost with shyness.

“What a load of ice!” she blurts when he shows her the diamond rings he has bought for Priscilla Lane. We know her heart is breaking, and we know that Cagney’s will, too, when he discovers Priscilla does not love him, despite the fact that he also bought her a new-fangled crystal set radio which she and Cagney listen to on headphones.

Speaking of 1920s paraphernalia, look at the scenes of Cagney and others handling money. The paper bills are much larger and wider than we have today. The government changed to the size bills we use today in July 1929, ostensibly to save paper. As a result, wallet manufacturers had to come up with new, slimmer, models.

We see the crystal sets, the bathtub gin, the rum runners, the Tommy guns, the gangsters, the cops on the make, but the film manages to give us a tour of the Roaring Twenties with only a little feeling of parody. Most of it is a survey class in what can happen when lives are lived to excess, without a thought of tomorrow.

On this 80th anniversary of the Crash of 1929, we may look for parallels between this time and our own. There are inevitably some parallels, but nothing so neat and clear. Time isn’t a blueprint for us to follow. We still have to make up much of it as we go along.

Perhaps at this anniversary, we may watch this movie with something more than just nostalgia. Perhaps we might even be moved to empathy as we understand a bit more about excess and failure with the economy of the last few years.

There are no films of “the Crash.” Newsreel cameras cranked out footage of panicked crowds at Wall Street this day 80 years ago, but that was rather like today when the news media shifts (and wastes) its enormous resources not to cover an event but to cover the public opinion poll about the event. Perhaps filming panicked crowds is more exciting than filming numbers on a chalk board being erased and written over.

This movie covers the Crash by framing it in the context of this whole era, from the end of World War I, through the Noble Experiment, from Main Street to Wall Street, and the resulting Great Depression. In the study of any historic event, it is the months and years preceding the event that really tell us all about the event. We might say our current economic challenges have their roots as far back as the 1980s. We do know, in hindsight, that the 1929 Crash devastated a generation, and forever colored the world of that generation’s children, the ones who would spend their childhoods during the Great Depression and would grow up to fight World War II.

For a long time after this movie, after that generation grew up, the perspective of this 1929 nightmare was growing dim and made somehow quaint by nostalgia crazes. Eighty years on, we might be in perfect position, the first audience for this film in generations, to really identify with the suckers and the straight arrows, the crooks and the gangsters, and the average Joes, and maybe even the omniscient narrator, the whole menagerie that make up The Roaring Twenties.

When this film was released in 1939, though it was a success, the world was moving at breakneck speed into another, even more sinister era. It was as if this film was a last look back at the life they knew before they became engulfed in the complete unknown.

James Cagney loses his shirt in the Crash, and loses much of his business to Bogart. Cagney is on the skids, but he has Gladys George to keep him company, now singing herself (“A Shanty in Old Shantytown” no less) in a cheap saloon. Prohibition is over.

“The days of the rackets are over,” Jeffrey Lynn tells Cagney, but he answers with more truthfulness than even the writer of the script probably knew,
“Don’t kid yourself about that.”

Cagney has one last, very violent, power play with Bogart, and in the memorable final scene on the snow-covered church steps, only Gladys George is left to comfort a dying Cagney. When a cop asks who the bum on the steps is, she replies, “He used to be a big shot.”

It might be a pronouncement upon that whole careless era -- or on any Ponzi schemer, unscrupulous investment manager, or average chump who lost a good chunk of his retirement in ours.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The RMS Berengaria and the Crash

We’re continuing our Halloween fright fest with something truly scary: the economy. This week marks the 80th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash whose repercussions changed this country and a good part of the world. The above famous headline in Variety, devoted to stage and film, put the matter succinctly and with typical panache. Other papers were grappling with 72-point type headlines that attempted to dramatize numbers of shares sold, points in decline, value lost. Variety summed up the whole nightmare in show-biz terms.

What makes this anniversary special is the similarities people, and pundits, may choose to draw between our current economic challenges and those of eight decades ago. It makes the anniversary more dramatic, to be sure, but perhaps it will give us something more than entertaining intrigue. Possibly, it might give us more understanding about the whole grisly matter, and more empathy for a generation that lost everything.

On Thursday we’ll mark the finale of the fiasco, the so-called “Black Tuesday” event (There was, you’ll remember, Black Thursday, Black Friday, Black Monday, and Black Tuesday) with a look at “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), a fascinating and well-made film that attempts to look back on the event with an objective if nostalgic eye. We may have even better perspective now.

Today, let’s have a brief look at one episode of the 1929 stock market crash that says something about the quirkiness of the Roaring Twenties, and maybe the inevitability of paying the piper, or judgment day, or just the party being over.

In the musical “Funny Girl” (1967), Barbra Streisand, playing the popular comedienne Fanny Brice, goes along with her lover, played by Omar Sharif, on a ship to Europe. He is a professional gambler and intends to ply his trade among the well-to-do on the ship. The ship they travel on is the grand Cunard ocean liner, the RMS Berengaria.

“You are going to Europe so you can play cards on the boat?!” Miss Streisand asks incredulously. A little card playing was the least of a life of excess at sea.

The Berengaria began its life a product of Imperial Germany as the Imperator, but was turned over to Great Britain after World War I for reparations, where it was renamed and reborn as a favorite among wealthy travelers taking the trans-Atlantic route between Britain and the U.S.

F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in the final pages of his 1922 novel “The Beautiful and the Damned”, where his dissipated Lost Generation poster children, Anthony and Gloria Patch, newly wealthy but their souls destroyed, wander the decks of the Berengaria, “That exquisite heavenly irony which has tabulated the demise of so many generations of sparrows doubtless records verbal inflections of the passengers of such ships as The Berengaria.”

Other passengers, like Vanderbilt, DuPont, Astor, and J. P. Morgan may not have wandered the decks in dissipation, but certainly had a reason for choosing the Berengaria over other ships. In August of 1929, a couple of months before the Crash, the Berengaria instituted a new service. A salon on the promenade deck would become a stock brokerage linked by wireless to Wall Street. No more would bored millionaires struggle to amuse themselves with shuffleboard on the crossing. Now, they could continue to trade stocks during the voyage.

I suppose it was a 1920s version of people who just cannot put down the cell phone or BlackBerry.

During the week of the Crash, the Berengaria had left Europe and was heading to New York. When news of the stocks falling spread across the ship, the brokerage room was barraged by the passengers, all trying to get more information, all trying to sell. Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics manufacturer, sat in a front row leather armchair to watch the prices continuously chalked on the board, and continuously falling. She lost a million dollars in a couple of hours.

Other millionaires on board that trip docked in New York penniless. A kind of voyage of the damned. They were no less helpless than the people who sweated it out in the nervous crowds gathering in front of the New York Stock Exchange, but they had a better view; if they bothered to leave the brokerage salon and take a stroll on the promenade deck.

It makes a dramatic allegory to the Crash of 1929, including the aftermath. The Berengaria’s fortunes faltered during the Great Depression, was referred to as “Bargain Area” and used for cheap cruises to the Caribbean and Bermuda, but failed to turn a profit. By the end of the 1930s, she was retired and eventually scrapped in the mid-1940s.

A poem parodying the outlandish idea of having a brokerage a ship was published in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, and later the Literary Digest August 31, 1929. It is eerily prescient:

We were crowded in the cabin
Watching figures on the Board;
It was midnight on the ocean
And a tempest loudly roared.

We were watching the quotations
With a certain sad appeal:
Some were short in General Motors,
Some were long on U.S. Steel.

And, timidly a tourist
Took a chance on twenty shares --
"We are lost!" the Captain shouted,
As he staggered down the stairs.

"I've got a tip," he faltered,
"Straight by wireless from the aunt
Of a fellow who's related
To a cousin of Durant."

At these awful words we shuddered,
And the stoutest bull grew sick
While the brokers cried, "More margin!"
And the ticker ceased to tick.

But the captain's little daughter
Said, "I do not understand --
Isn't Morgan on the ocean
Just the same as on the land?"

Even the film industry, which ironically did very well during the Depression and proved to be one of the few recession-proof industries (dimes stores was another), suffered a foreboding incident that frightening autumn.

In September 1929 “His Glorious Night” with John Gilbert was released to not only criticism, but howls. The silent-screen lover lost his macho mystique when the audience heard his high, thin voice for the first time. It was indeed an era of new beginnings, new technological marvels, and disastrous endings.

But Mr. Gilbert’s misfortune was Gene Kelly’s gain when the seed was planted for “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).

By the time that parody was released, the stock market had mostly recovered. It took a couple of decades for those who lost money on their stocks but held onto them to break even. The stock market finally regained its pre-1929 Crash highest level in November 1954 amid a booming economy fueled by consumerism, where the 1929 Crash was starting to fade in memory and fear of it was replaced by either scornful amusement, or total ignorance, for another couple of generations.

“What’s past is prologue” Shakespeare said in “The Tempest.” Come back Thursday for “The Roaring Twenties”. Until then, have a look below at a montage of The Berengaria and the Crash.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bell, Book and Candle - 1958

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) begins its story on Christmas Eve, carries the plot a few months into the spring, and never really mentions Halloween, but since the story is about a witch, Halloween is never far from our minds.

Kim Novak plays the anthropology major-turned-dealer in native art who lives behind her shop in Greenwich Village. She is the witch, and James Stewart is the publisher she bewitches. Elsa Lanchester, as always, is hysterical as her mischievous and somewhat childlike aunt, also a witch. Jack Lemmon is her mischievous and somewhat sophomoric brother, a warlock. They gather occasionally at a seedy local nightclub to enjoy the company of other witches who are all living a kind of underground life, on the fringes of respectable society, never daring expose who they really are.

Another important supporting role goes to Pyewacket, Miss Novak’s cat. Particularly charming is the bond the two seem to have had. She looks quite comfortable handling him. He sprawls and hangs like a limp towel on her shoulder (mentioned in this previous post on other cat actors), and the way he stretches himself against her body, he certainly seems comfortable with her.

Kim Novak may have taken him for a model for her role, with her slow, feline, graceful, deliberate movements, her penetrating gaze, her casual, low, lazy speech. She does not appear emotionally brittle as she does in her previous films mentioned here, Picnic and Strangers When We Meet, or Vertigo, in which she also started with James Stewart. Here, though her character is complicated and mysterious, she comes off as a much stronger, focused person.

But she is not without her troubles. Miss Novak is bored with her life and wistfully wonders what it would be like not to be a witch. We are told that witches cannot blush, or cry, or fall in love, and that if they ever did fall in love, they would lose their powers. Novak wonders what it would be like to be in love.

On Christmas Eve at the local witch dive, she confesses her Christmas depression (which might make her more human after all) and ruminates, “Don’t you ever wish we weren’t what we are -- that you could spend Christmas Eve in a little church listening to carols instead of bongo drums?”

She takes a fancy to upstairs neighbor James Stewart, and when she discovers that his fiancée is her old college nemesis, played razor sharp and elegant by Janice Rule, the kind of girl who led the clique and ostracized the losers, Miss Novak decides all’s fair in love and war. She goes after him.

As part of her plan, she casts a spell on an author that publisher Stewart wants to meet. That author, a charlatan investigating witchcraft, is played by the one-of-a-kind Ernie Kovacs, with his customary dizzy alcoholic logic. She casts a spell on Stewart, and one of the most memorable scenes is their Christmas morning adventure on the top of New York’s Flatiron Building. When he tosses his hat off the roof of the building, we watch is sublimely sail several stories until it slaps into the slush on Fifth Avenue.

Complications ensue when her brother Jack Lemmon decides he’s tired of being poor and starts to feed real information on witchcraft to Ernie Kovacs to cash in on his book that Stewart will publish. Novak nixes this project as too dangerous to their community, and Lemmon gets his revenge when Novak is forced to confess to Stewart that she is a witch and that she had cast a spell on him.

It takes a little convincing, but eventually the light dawns and Jimmy is horrified, angry, and humiliated (his reactions are very funny). He seeks a counter spell from another local witch, played with glorious self importance by Hermione Gingold.

But we have our happy ending when Kim Novak, in spite of herself, really has fallen in love and as a result, blushes, cries, and loses her powers. And her cat. Stewart decides he really is in love too, without the spell.

Taken from John van Druten’s stage play, much of the playful language teases us with the bewitching power of sex. Novak scolds Elsa Lanchester for the pranks she plays and forbids her to use her witchcraft because she cannot be “discreet.”

Jack Lemmon, she tells Stewart, uses his powers to enhance his love life. Elsa Lanchester tells Stewart that witches cannot fall in love, “Love is quite impossible. Not hot blood, though. Hot blood is quite allowed, but of course,” she lowers her eyes, “you know all about that.”

There are other playful remarks that gesture to the history of witchcraft (or rather, suspicion of witchcraft) in America. Elsa Lanchester confides to Stewart that both Novak and Lemmon were witch prodigies as children, “We lived in Massachusetts.”

And, when Stewart, seeing that she has a confession to make and teasing her to just come out with it says, “Have you been engaging in un-American activities or something?”

To which Novak grimly replies, “No, I’d say very American. Early American.”

Obviously, this film was a huge inspiration for the successful television sitcom Bewitched which followed in the 1960s and early ‘70s. (Speaking of which, have a look here at this post on the Samantha statue in Salem, Mass. on my New England Travels blog.)

It’s interesting how many words we have to denote love that come from a mystical lexicon: bewitching, enchantment, magical, casting spells. Perhaps Stewart is right when he says, embracing Novak at last, “Who’s to say what magic is?”


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Boris Karloff

We’re going to start the Halloween celebration this week with a not-so-scary look at a monster and a witch. Next week we’ll get into the scary stuff, which, ironically, has nothing to do with monsters or witches, but with the economy.

Above we have the Hollywood Walk of Fame star for Boris Karloff, one of two which honors the iconic actor. This one, you can see by the little TV below his name, is for his career in television. He did quite a few guest appearances on shows through the 1950s and ‘60s, and hosted the “Thriller” anthology. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame in this period is voicing The Grinch.

The Grinch wasn’t exactly a cuddly person, but he found redemption through being nice and returning the roast beast, cans of Who Hash, etc. Boris Karloff went through several phases in his real life as well, but he was always a much sweeter and gentler man than his monstrous characters.

Karloff’s real name was William Henry Pratt, who left his home in England to tour Canada and the USA in theatrical groups, filling in the lean times with manual labor. He took some minor roles in silent films to make ends meet, and was all of 44 years old before his big break came, “Frankenstein” in 1931.

After that enormous hit, it was hard for some to picture Mr. Karloff as anything else, but some who celebrate his famous horror film appearances may forget he was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway role in “The Lark”, a drama about Joan of Arc, with Julie Harris. Or, they may be unaware entirely that Karloff won a Grammy Award for his spoken record of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. Karloff made other records as well, for children, reading fairy tales with his unique (but not very sinister this time) lisp.

There’s a story about Karloff recounted on the IDMb website where the crew of “Frankenstein” were concerned about the little girl in that famous scene would be terrified of Karloff when she first saw him in full makeup. No worries. She happily ran right up to her new buddy. Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster had something special that elicited our sympathy. Maybe it was something “human” about him.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Old Acquaintance (1943)

Old Acquaintance (1943) is a tour de force for both stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a film could be this good with two terrific actresses and a witty, literate script by John Van Druten. Somehow, though, the movie can still astonish, in large part because much of it seems like a lighthearted romp, even though we get splashed with soap opera elements and Miriam’s personality disorder that hammers us like a hangover.

Perhaps because it flows something like a concerto with different movements. The soap opera quality to the plot involves the complicated relationship between two old friends who face, together and separately, the “passing parade of years” (which should be a movie genre unto itself), but there are also elements of screwball comedy, and social commentary.

The film, something in the manner of the play on which it is based, is presented in three acts. First, we come upon a young and triumphant first-time author, Bette Davis, returning to her hometown. It is 1924, and she arrives as the guest of her girlhood chum, Miriam Hopkins, now a housewife expecting a baby.

Davis breezes into town, spirited, somewhat hoydenish, exuding good-natured self effacing humor, when she is carried away by a flock of serious co-eds who make her their heroine. Davis laughs off their attention, but Miriam Hopkins is furious when her plans to lead the welcoming committee are derailed. Miss Hopkins gets into a minor car accident with a farmer’s truck loaded with cages of chickens. Seems to be a mainstay of old movies, doesn’t it? Car crashes with chicken cages. You don’t hear things like that happening these days, but apparently in the 1930s you couldn’t back out of your own driveway without smashing eggs, or plowing into squawking chickens.

Miss Davis meets Hopkins’ good-natured husband, played by John Loder, and they become fast pals. Look for Roscoe Karns as the annoying local newspaper editor. We saw him as the annoying traveling salesman in It Happened One Night. If only we could all make a living just being annoying, what a wonderful world it would be.

Miss Hopkins returns, furious at her grand welcome being foiled, especially since she is chafing in the mundane life of the housewife. She envies Davis’ fame. She confides to Davis that she herself has literary ambitions and has written a romance novel. We have a few flippant, but spot on, observations on the monetary success of genre fiction as opposed to what is called literary fiction, the kind that Davis writes that gets applause from the critics but that doesn’t sell well. Not much has changed in the publishing world, though it would be interesting to see what the future has in store for “eBooks” and the literary market.

Getting ready for bed, Miss Davis shocks Miss Hopkins by appearing in only the pajama top and not the bottoms, exposing her legs to us as she strolls to her bed. Even before he says goodnight to her, we see that swell guy husband John Loder is charmed by Bette Davis, a hint for what will follow.

This first “act,” so to speak, is screwball comedy, but the tone changes in the next act when we find ourselves in the mid-1930s. Davis, who plods carefully along in her writing, still critically successful but still not rich, is nervously preparing for the opening night of her first play. Meanwhile Hopkins, ever confident and prolific, has by this time dashed off one potboiler after another, making buckets of money.

Miss Hopkins is no longer the homey housewife, but has morphed into a career woman with all the charm of a steamroller. Society columnist Anne Revere has come to interview her in her New York City hotel digs. Anne Revere as a gussied up Manhattan sophisticate is treat, a 180-degree turn from her usual earth mother type roles. Perc Westmore must have slapped the pancake makeup on with a trowel to cover up those peasant freckles of hers.

Miss Revere asks about the progress of Bette Davis’ new novel, to which Davis modestly replies, “Well, I write and re-write, and I still don’t like it.”

Revere encouragingly replies, “Well, at least when you do turn one out it’s a gem. None of this grinding them out like sausage.” Miss Revere suddenly realizes the indirect insult to romance novelist Hopkins and offers, “I suppose I could cut my throat.”

“There’s a knife on the table,” Hopkins replies.

We see by now that Miss Hopkins’ swell guy husband is still full of comic asides, but there is a note of sarcasm now. He drinks a good deal, is neglected by his wife for the sake of her career, just as she neglects their young daughter. He puts up with it gallantly, without seeming jealousy for her success, but becomes angry only when Hopkins flings one too many cruel barbs at her old pal Davis. Hopkins’ irritation has grown with her income. No matter how successful she has become, she is still insecure and jealous over Davis. Davis, perhaps because of her quiet seriousness about her work, appears to have grown more introverted in contrast to her friend’s more explosive personality. Davis also chain smokes through the movie, and I lost count after a while.

John Loder’s fondness for Davis has evolved into infatuation, which Davis will not return, holding him off out of loyalty for Hopkins. She recounts for him her lonely childhood when Hopkins was her only friend. When she was orphaned, Hopkins’ parents took her in. Another actress could take the speech and make it maudlin, but Bette Davis has that quality of hard unblinking honesty that makes it work. This section of the movie has become a soap opera, but the pace is not slowed. There is poignancy to the growing resignation and sadness of the Bette Davis character, after having appeared so resilient and devil-may-care in the preceding act when she was a younger woman.

At the end of this “act,” John Loder gets fed up with walking the tightrope of Miriam Hopkins’ moods, and leaves her.

Act three brings us to the 1940s and the solemn urgency of wartime. Davis, appearing in a Red Cross volunteer’s uniform, makes a plea for support during a radio broadcast rally. We see she has entered middle age by the heavy glasses she wears to read her script, and that artistic streak of gray in her hair that, like driving your car into a chicken-filled truck, was a movie cliché.

Miriam Hopkins’ daughter is now grown up, dating a gigolo, and Bette Davis is dating Gig Young, a man ten years her junior. She is sensitive about this, and hesitant to marry him because of it. Now, nearly twenty years after we first met her, she is bedeviled with insecurities and regrets, but still steadfast in her loyalty to Hopkins, and by extension, to Hopkins’ daughter.

She is also, delightfully, still wearing only pajama tops and still giving us a glimpse of her legs as she strides across her bedroom. We see that despite the gray streak in her hair, despite the fear of aging alone, she still has a tiny bit of that careless young Jazz Age writer in her. It’s a nice bit of continuity.

We have a bit more soap opera with the reappearance of John Loder, a fuming Hopkins who seems to destroy Davis’ one last chance at happiness, and the romantic troubles of the daughter, but here again, the pace never slows. This act contains one of the funniest Bette Davis scenes ever, where she finally gets fed up with Hopkins, shakes her nearly to death, shoves her on the couch, and mutters a perfunctory, “Sorry.” We are back to screwball comedy.

Other nice touches that reflect the war period are the way when Davis, needing time to think, tells the cab driver to just drive around and he replies he is not allowed to because of gas rationing. Also, John Loder, now in uniform, appears to have something of a military haircut, which is realistic detail we don’t often see in Hollywood films of this period, despite their intention to reflect what was happening in the country at this time.

Miriam Hopkins is the engine that drives much of the conflict, and though one might accuse her of overacting, I would guess many of us actually know people like this character she plays, over-sensitive, quick to accuse, where almost any conversation turns into high melodrama.

The film’s final moments with Davis and Hopkins drinking flat champagne in a tribute to their cockeyed friendship, and especially to the passing parade of years, is another astonishing scene, made so by the unexpected sudden camera pan back from behind and above them. It seems they will age together, as their characters did in their previous film The Old Maid (1939). In films of later decades, two women aging without romantic partners might be depicted either as a sad failure, or else not depicted at all. Here, there is almost a note of triumph that they have weathered the years and the ups and downs of their relationship.

Inevitably, one of the guilty pleasures of watching the film is doing so with the knowledge that Hopkins and Davis disliked each other in real life. You don’t see it in this film, where both actresses are deeply engaged in the dynamics of their characters’ relationship, like two old warhorses charging out of the gate.

Well, maybe you see that dislike in one scene. Have a look at the famous shaking scene from Old Acquaintance.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hollywood Steps Out (1941)

“Hollywood Steps Out” (1941), directed by Tex Avery, takes us to Ciro’s and give us one last, highly caricatured glimpse at frivolous Hollywood glamour before the dark war years. How many stars can you name?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

“A Blueprint for Murder” (1953) is a murder mystery that some six months after its release in the theaters was performed as a radio broadcast on the Lux Radio Theater program. This review is the tale of two productions, and what happens to a suspense story in two different worlds.

In the film, Joseph Cotten plays a rather lonely bachelor who travels a good deal in his employment as an engineer. His only family is his late brother’s son and daughter, and their stepmother, the second wife of his late brother. Joseph Cotten is called to their side for a family emergency when his little niece is hospitalized with a mysterious illness. She dies.

Mr. Cotten stays with his sister-in-law, played by Jean Peters, to comfort her and his young nephew. Visiting his old friend and family attorney played by Gary Merrill, they discuss the upsetting tragedy, and Merrill’s mystery novel author wife, played by Catherine McLeod, puzzles over the sick child’s odd symptoms. (Both Merrill and McLeod are strong as supporting players in this film.) It occurs to her, through her writing research, that the little girl may have died of strychnine poisoning.

There is a lot of back and forth about how outlandish this idea is. Eventually, there is enough conjecture about the possibility of poisoning, and his brother’s will in which both Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten stand to inherit his brother’s fortune if both children are dead, and how such a crime could have been committed, all of which lead Mr. Cotten to putting off going back to work. He sticks around to learn more about poisons, about hospital procedures, and about his sister-in-law.

Eventually, Jean Peters becomes the main suspect, and the film becomes a detective story on how to prove she murdered the child. The story, in itself, has some intriguing aspects to it. First, there is obviously the hideous notion of a woman murdering a child in her care. Trailing behind this but complimenting the suspense story is the nuance of the reticent, workaholic bachelor brother always a little bit in love with his brother’s glamorous new wife. He is also, due to the travel required by his work, a man without a home, and suddenly he becomes an important figure to the grieving widowed stepmother and his grieving, fatherless nephew. He suddenly has the family he always wanted.

The character played by Joseph Cotten, despite whatever suspicions his friends are touting about the possibility of Jean Peters being a murderer, wants nothing to do with any kind of talk like that. He refuses to believe she could be guilty. In his eyes, she can do no wrong. Finally, when he begins to himself suspect her, his infatuation for her painfully drains away. Then he becomes determined to know the truth. Yet, at the end of the story, in order to gain her confidence to trick her into confessing, he now has to pretend to love her and to make her love him. That’s a lot going on, but it’s not action. Perhaps for this reason, the film, which requires action, handles it awkwardly.

The film also strays briefly into a police story when we are shown several scenes of the police doing their investigation. This removes the focus off of Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters, and makes the police detectives, which up until now had been secondary characters, into the main characters. The film is weakened when the focus is off the two most important characters.

However, the suspicion and/or sexual tension between the two characters is also weakened by the actors. Joseph Cotten played contemplative characters very well, but his style was usually so low-key that he played better off actresses, and actors, who were not low-key themselves. Consider his four pairings with Jennifer Jones, an actress who could be intensely emotional. Her energy complimented his more reserved acting style and vice versa. Jean Peters in this role, however, is so low-key herself that there is nothing to distinguish Mr. Cotten’s subtleties.

Jean Peters plays the part of a glamorous, cultured second wife of a wealthy man, who is now in sole guardianship of his children. She is cool and refined. She appears friendly with her stepson but there is a dignified reserve, and in brief scenes with her servants, her manner seems somewhat dismissive and haughty. While this all might be appropriate and realistic for a character of her place and position, it does nothing to throw off our suspicions of her guilt. She seems guilty the minute we first see her, despite the reality that a person looking archly is not necessarily guilty of anything, but that is the human nature of the audience, to assign guilt and favoritism. (Cotten also asks Catherine McLeod why she doesn’t like Peters, and that brief remark also adds to our prejudice.) That assumption of her guilt solely by her somewhat femme fatale manner is unfortunate, particularly when we consider the powerful radio version.

The Lux Radio Theater version of this story, broadcast on March 29, 1954, starred Dorothy McGuire and Dan Dailey. Because this is an hour-long show, the script was cut to conform to time constraints, but what is left is essentially word-for-word. Cutting the script actually helps to speed up the story and make it more suspenseful. The police investigation is truncated as well, but yet not diminished in importance. The focus never strays from the drama of the couple.

The very fact of being radio means we must imagine what is happening, so we do not see close-ups of guilty expressions or suspicious smirks. The camera tips us off so many times in the film, but the radio microphone never does. As a result, we don’t really know, for sure, whodunnit until the very last few minutes of the show. It is a far more suspenseful telling of the story.

Most especially, the work of the actors makes a huge difference in this version. Dorothy McGuire, who possessed one of the most natural and pleasant speaking voices in film at the time, was a natural for radio, where she displays in a variety of vocal textures the character’s distress over the death of the child, her weariness over the strain, her gratitude to her brother-in-law for his emotional support, her growing attraction for him, and especially her warmth and affection for her stepson. She never becomes a suspect, not in the story, and not in our minds, until later in the program. Even then, her attitude of graciousness makes it difficult to believe her guilt. We only accept she is a suspect because the facts logically make her one, and that is the punch of a good mystery, our minds not necessarily following our hearts, as the Joseph Cotten/Dan Dailey character must learn for himself. We identify with Dan Dailey more because we are going through the same roller coaster emotions. We are not just passive observers, the way we are when watching the film.

Dan Dailey does very well portraying the lonely, workaholic bachelor, growing closer to his sister-in-law in the aftermath of the tragedy, and then later agonized to admit she is a suspect. In the final moments of the story his character takes an outlandish and dangerous (and criminal, if you think about it) action to force a confession, and he fails in a shocking ending. While Joseph Cotten plays the character as tense and worried, Dan Dailey becomes absolutely unglued with the pressure.

There are a couple of interesting scenes to note in the story: one is another in our collection of Unbelievable Medical Practices when the child is poisoned in the hospital because the hospital pharmacy was closed and so the medical staff actually let an outsider run the errand of filling a prescription at another pharmacy down the street. The medication bottle was tampered with, especially as it was never sealed. Call in the FDA on this one.

The other scene of note in the film (not the radio version) is when Joseph Cotten and his young nephew play “Monopoly”. Usually brand name products were avoided in films at that time so as not to appear to endorse them. “Monopoly” had been around since the early 1930s, so perhaps it was considered venerable enough by 1953 for this not to matter.

Bacardi cocktails seem get a prominent “endorsement” as well.

Follow this link to have a listen to the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “A Blueprint for Murder,” now in public domain from the Internet Archive website. Or you can visit the website for Lux programs of 1954 and download this program to your computer.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Now Playing at Springfield's Broadway Theater, 1916

Above is the program for the lineup at the Broadway Theater in Springfield, Massachusetts, probably about 1916. The theater was located on Bridge Street, and for more details on the theater, please have a look at this page on the Cinema Treasures website.For more on the evolution of Bridge Street, its theaters, businesses and residents, have a look at this essay posted on my New England Travels blog on Bridge Street in Springfield, Mass.

Photos of the old Broadway Theater, built in 1913, torn down in the 1950s are scarce, but we have this program to illustrate the evolution in the presentation of the performing arts. The bill is presented in a manner very similar to a vaudeville program. The Broadway also showed vaudeville acts until its gradual phasing out to all movies.

The first films on the bill are likely one or two-reelers, that is films that lasted ten or 20 minutes. Dorothy Bernard stars in “The Girl and Her Trust” produced at the Biograph studio, and “Breaking the Shackles” was an Edison studio film.

We note the Broadway Concert Orchestra was on hand to accompany these silent films.

“Adventure in the Woods” or “Adventure in the Autumn Woods” with Mae Marsh was from 1913, and the Francis Bushman, billed also as Francis X. Bushman (last seen here in "The Flag" - 1927)in “Blood Will Tell” was from 1914, so this movie house showed films from varying studios and the older films were more or less fillers, like lesser vaudeville acts.

The main features, both new films from 1916, were the two Paramount movies “The Spider” with Pauline Frederick, and “The Ragamuffin” with Blanche Sweet, both billed as “5-Act” films, which would have run about 50 minutes. Films were regarded as photo-plays then and it looks as if we were weaning ourselves off live entertainment by using the familiar vaudeville lineup and the suggestion that the multiple reels of film were “acts” in the drama.

We may sometimes indulge in the mistaken belief that technology changing our popular entertainment almost too fast for us to keep up is a modern phenomenon, but I wonder if anything could have seemed so fantastic and out of this world than the flickers flashed on a screen pulled down to cover the stage, leaving only the orchestra pit exposed (though only for another decade), and the astonished gaze of the downsized vaudevillian wondering how he could get in on the “act.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

3 Bad Men - 1925

“3 Bad Men” (1925) is notable for the lovely union of 1920s filmmaking and present day film scoring. This John Ford directed silent Western was restored, with a new musical soundtrack added in 2007. The modern music composed by Dana Kaproff is extraordinarily evocative of American Western themes, and deeply moving in the way it re-interprets this old silent movie for a new audience.

(We recently discussed modern scoring of silents in the comments section of this post on “The Freshman” - see here.)

There are the traditional feathery piano chord plunking, standard for silent movies, to be sure, but this score soars with the use of guitar and fiddle. One particular musical theme which is repeated throughout the film is used to illustrate the feelings of the main character, Bull Stanley (played with great sensitivity by Tom Santchi.) He is one of the three bad men, and his loneliness, his sadness, and his redemption are all carried to us effortlessly through music.

The film takes us to the 1877 land rush. John Ford sets the scene with proclamations by President Ulysses S. Grant, shots of a three-masted bark carrying immigrants over the ocean to the new country. There are a few ethic slurs throughout this film, which Ford seems to attempt to balance out with a tribute to the diverse ethnic groups that come to settle the Midwest. This is not a pontificating film, however, in the style of perhaps D. W. Griffith. On the contrary, the film is actually very funny, with title cards that convey the same kind of dry wit Ford’s actors will speak in his later films.

We see American Indians also, and though they thankfully are not treated with the same kind of ethnic ribbing the newcomers get, still they are not fleshed out as human beings. They are used here seemingly only as symbols of a presumably dying culture, signposts to show us we are in the West, and the West is still wild but not for long.

Dan O’Malley, played by George O’Brien, is a devil-may-care Irish immigrant who encounters Miss Lee Carleton and her father, former Confederate Major Carleton crossing the prairie in their enormous Conestoga wagon, leading a small heard of thoroughbred racehorses. Miss Lee, played by Olive Borden is a lady by birth, even though the only time we ever see her out of trousers, boots, and cowboy hat is when she takes a bath. She is flashing-eyed beauty, independent, and sassy.

Bull, and his pardners Spade and Mike, played by J. Farrell MacDonald (who, like Santchi, played in over 300 films, last seen here in “My Darling Clementine” - 1946), are desperados, horse thieves, and overall ne’er do wells. But these old no-account saddle tramps have a lovable quality of humor that throws the audience for a loop and makes them reconsider what is “bad”. Bull, it will be slowly revealed throughout the film, has a sorrowful back story, wherein his beloved little sister ran off with a man who “promised” to marry her. Bull is looking for her, and for the man who took her away.

The man is Layne Hunter, a dishonest sheriff in a ramshackle gold mining town. He and his gang attack Lee and her father to steal their horses, just when Bull and his boys wanted to steal them. Bull and his boys counter-attack and chase off the horse thieves, but Lee’s father is killed. When Lee buries her face on Bull’s chest in tears, we see the beginning of a transformation for Bull, who is reminded of his failure to protect his younger sister. He and his boys, become Lee’s guardian angels for the rest of the film.

What is interesting is that Ford never makes these scenes too maudlin. There is a bit of overplaying here and there, as was the acting style in silents, but from the director’s point of view there is occasionally a startling cynicism to the film. The bad sheriff wears a white hat, and one senses this was Ford’s way of twisting our film Western iconic imagery. When Bull first comes up behind Lee, he thinks she is a man and intends to rob her at gunpoint, only lowering his gun in astonishment when she removes her hat and her hair falls to her shoulders. Dan O’Malley, who will eventually be Lee’s romantic interest, at first displays no interest in being her hero. In a muddy gold camp where cutthroats and dandies cross paths with prostitutes, only the new Protestant minister, whom an immigrant clothier with all due respect comically refers to as “Rabbi”, is all good, and the sheriff in the white hat, is all bad. Everybody else is drawn in shades of gray.

There are impressive long shots of a massive expanse of prairie filled with wagon trains and cattle. The scenes of the land rush look so familiar, perhaps because they have been duplicated many times elsewhere. There are shots of charging wagons, toppling over each other, axels breaking, wagon wheels falling off, wagons charging right over the camera, and a shot of a man on a large-wheeled bicycle being towed by a horse. Many of these images you might also recognize in a similar land rush in “Far and Away” (1992) with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Bull, Mike, and Spade drive Lee’s wagon and horses into the gold camp, and when Lee is approached by the flirtatious Sheriff Hunter, Bull gets protective and stands between them. The smarmy sheriff announces the unsavory reputations of Bull and his boys, unmasking them and hoping to shock Lee, who was ignorant that her protectors are desperadoes. What follows is another unusual scene, when Lee shows her tolerance as well as her moxie by cavalierly shrugging this off, “Come my three bad men, it’s time we were making camp.” She is a trooper, and when they agree to work for her for nothing, she asks with wonder, “Then you’ll be my men?”

They remove their hats with hesitant gallantry and nod, consenting to be owned. Seeing her holding another woman’s baby, Bull gets another pang of protectiveness, his slow guitar waltz plays, and we seem to see into his troubled soul.

Deciding she needs a better family than they, her men decide to go husband hunting for her. Spade and Mike, who are the more comic relief of the trio, tackle this, and their thirst, at the saloon, but Dan O’Malley eventually arrives in the gold camp, and resumes his attentions to Lee. He has Bull’s approval, because Bull has seen him punch his way out of the saloon. Therefore, he is a good man.

Conversely, we see here, and in other Ford Westerns, that women are depicted as the civilizing influence over the men and the bringers of civilization to the West. It is a romantic notion, but Ford, for all his macho movie fist-fighting, was really a romantic.

Bull is eventually reunited with his lost younger sister, Millie, who was shunted away by Sheriff Hunter among his prostitutes. Hunter’s gang tries to put down a revolt led by Bull against his abuse of power, and in the melee, Millie is shot. Their reunion is brief, and tragic. When Bull realizes that Sheriff Hunter was the man who led her astray, he punches through several doors trying to get to him.

When the minister, Bull, Mike, and Spade attend Millie’s grave the next morning, the wind whips their clothing, and it dawns on June 25, 1877, the day the land rush will begin at noon with the booming of Army cannon.

Life does not stand still, even for the grieving. Bull, Mike, and Spade, who have no personal interest in the land rush, continue to assist Lee and Dan to their promised land, and score revenge on Hunter, who is after them.

Each of the men, in separate acts of bravery, gives his life for the future of Lee and Dan, and so the three bad men are redeemed. In the final shot, a lump in your throat moment when we see their ghosts on horseback on the dim horizon are forever watching out for “our gal.”

The stunning action sequences are enhanced by a spirited fiddle reel, but the real soul of this film is so beautifully displayed in Bull’s theme of the slow guitar waltz. The classic Western is ironically made more classic with a modern touch. Despite Ford’s imprint and some laudable camera work, I can’t believe this film could have as much emotional impact without this lovely music.

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