Monday, July 26, 2010


I'll be back next week.  Somebody water the plants. (Don't forget to scroll down to mute the music first before playing the video.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer Stock - 1950

Summertime will always carry for many of us the intangible essence of freedom, the pursuit of dreams, and a sense of suspended work for play. There are plenty of tangibles that go along with this: the hot weather mainly. But if the livin’ is not always easy, the vague promise of a better life even in just a lawn chair or hammock for a handful of weekends seems like Shangri-la compared to rat race we’ve chosen for ourselves the rest of the time. I don’t know if we can really catch the idyll of summers of our childhood, but the memory of them, perhaps romanticized, is what probably pushes us to think we can.

“Summer Stock” (1950) seems to evoke a lot of what is possible about achieving dreams, or just being left alone to dream them, in the summer. I doubt this was intentional by MGM, for which this was just another (hopefully) blockbuster musical with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in a post-War era where movie musicals were just about to launch into a decade which would prove both their Golden Age and their swan song. Clearly, in the backwash of World War II, at the dawn of the Korean War, we were dreaming of the easy life, but squirming with a restless foreboding of the summer’s end.

Judy and Gene are grown ups, but this is the old “let’s put on a show” formula Judy had been playing since she was in pigtails. Her next musical four years later, “A Star is Born” would be much more grown up, if still from well-worn material.

Here, Judy runs the family farm in Connecticut, with reliable Marjorie Main in her patented role as a daffy housekeeper. Gloria DeHaven plays Judy’s spoiled kid sister, whom Judy has supported through various colleges and aborted creative endeavors.

The farm is struggling. Judy’s two ancient farmhands are leaving her to go down to “Hartford way” in their Sunday suits to get jobs in factories. But, all is not lost, because kid sister is finally coming home to help on the farm. And Judy has a new tractor to help with the harvest.

Judy’s beau, played by sickly, and very funny, Eddie Bracken, is plagued with allergies and a lack of confidence. The latter we can attribute to his overbearing father, the dependable Ray Collins in a delightfully skewered version of his usual authoratative figures. He runs the general store, in which his milksop son is the clerk. Father wants the two to be married to unite the two oldest families in the community. Judy seems sympathetic to Eddie Bracken, but in no special rush to tie the knot.

The plot thickens. Spoiled kid sister brings home her boyfriend, Gene Kelly, and Mr. Kelly’s crew of actors and stagehands. He is a hopeful young director, and spoiled kid sister has promised him the use of Judy’s barn to put on his show.

We mentioned in this recent post about “A Stolen Life” (1946) how old movies depicting rural New England frequently demonstrate our apparent love of square dancing. But, as we see here, barns in New England (uh, that’s b-a-a-h-n-s), have another use. No, not for housing cows. That other use, summer stock, which is often called The Barn Circuit.

Here we get a two-fer deal, as Judy’s barn is the setting for both a square dance and a summer stock theater. According to Ray Collins, “Square dancing is part of our tradition.” The scene begins with a very proper Portland Fancy (which is an old-time contra dance very popular in New England once upon a time and can still be found in the odd place or two of a summer evening). In this post in my New England Travels blog about the scrapbook of a young girl, you see a dance card from the early 1920s, on the back of which lists the dances to be performed. One is the Portland Fancy.

Before too long, however, this b-a-a-h-n dance turns to be-bop, as the rowdy acting company takes over, and this is only a small bit of havoc they wreak on the farm. Ray Collins is mostly incensed at their presence just because they are, well, actors. You know what theater people are like.

Mr. Collins reminds Judy that her ancestors were part of the community in 1694 that banned “theatrical entertainment of any kind.” This sounds bombastic, funny, and ridiculous, but it’s not. It’s historically true. Puritan, and then Victorian, New England had such a hard time accepting theatre that some early theaters, like the Boston Museum, called themselves…well, museums. Author of “Little Women” Louisa May Alcott loved to attend plays at the Boston Museum. She and her sisters even play acted stories at home in Concord. In the b-a-a-h-n.

At some point in the 20th century, old prejudices died out enough for rural New England communities to take visiting actors as guests in their homes when they played at the local summer stock theater. There weren’t a whole lot of Ramada Inns or quaint B&Bs back in the day, so the theatre folk relied on a spare room where it was offered.

In “Summer Stock”, we have the wonderfully boorish Hans Conried as the lead actor, a peacock who smoothly turns everyone into his servant. He rates his own bedroom in Judy’s farmhouse, while the rest of the cast bunk out in the b-a-a-h-n.

The women are separated from the men, of course, in the dormitory hay loft, with ever-vigilant Marjorie Main guarding their virtue with a double barreled shotgun. Yes, sir, all the comforts of home.

Back to Judy’s troubles. Wanting to support spoiled kid sister, she allows the show to go on, provided the actors help with the farm chores. Never ask Phil Silvers, who plays Gene Kelly’s inept and brutally annoying sidekick, to do anything for you.

We see the rehearsals which, because they are performed regular clothes, with a box and an old cart for sets, look silly and amateurish. We cannot imagine what the show is really supposed to look like, but they can because it’s their show. Like children, it is real to them. They are living their summer fantasy.

And Judy and Gene fall for each other. Nobody wants to hurt anybody, but this is a musical, and everybody gets hurt.

Judy must have been hurting pretty badly in real life about this time. “Summer Stock” has come down to us as the third and final time she was paired with Gene Kelly, the last time she ever worked for MGM, and the movie that was filmed during one of her worst periods of rocky health due to drug addiction. There are backstage stories with this as with just about every film, but what’s remarkable is you’d never know it by what you see on screen.

Judy Garland was what many called a triple threat: she could sing, she could dance, and she could act. Anything she turned her hand to on stage, she did well, and often brilliantly. Here we see her precise comedic timing. She could do more with a look or a gesture than the other comics could do with pages of the best material.

She displays swift and sudden sadness, brittle disappointment, and her eyes tear as she speaks. She makes you believe her. Then she does the “Get Happy” number, filmed after the rest of the movie was in the can, having lost some extra pounds and looking fabulous. How many times had she pulled a rabbit out of the hat?

She certainly pulls a hat trick in this movie, in real life, and reel life. Spoiled kid sister takes off with Hans Conried and Judy must save the day. Gene coaches her, and she does a Ruby Keeler act, learning all the songs and dances in a couple days so they can have still have opening night in the b-a-a-h-n when all the big producers from Broadway will be there.

The acting company names itself “Falbury Farm Players” and their show is called “Fall in Love.” About the second most vague title in play-within-a-movie history, losing out to “Playing Around”, which was the show Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye produced in “White Christmas” (1954). Which was put on up the road in Vermont. In a b-a-a-h-n.

We see numbers from the big show, and we know that Judy and Gene are sweethearts now as well as co-stars. What we don’t know is if she can give up her family farm to become his leading lady in New York. We don’t know what the judgment of the big time Broadway producers is, because the show ends at the final song. There is no one running up from the audience with a contract. The song ends, a playful parody of barnyard hijinks with garish colors and arms thrown upward as if to send that last high note on its way. Roll credits.

It’s a summertime moment, where the adults are kids putting on a show, and act out their dreams, and don’t worry too much if they are practical or even possible. It is a suspended moment. We don’t hang around for harvest time.

This film was made in 1950. For more on Hollywood actors appearing in real New England summer stock in the summer of 1950, have a look at yesterday’s post in my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog.

Below, have a look at the trailer for “Summer Stock”, and also for Judy’s “Get Happy” number.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Movie Locations - Long Beach Airport

The Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, California, specifically its Art Deco style terminal building, has been used in a number of movies over the decades. Among the films with scenes shot here are “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947), “Executive Suite” (1954), which we’ll discuss in more depth down the road, and “Key to the City” (1950). I believe some modern TV shows have also used this location.

I stumbled on this airport film history accidentally while watching “A Stolen Life” (1946), discussed in this recent post. When Bette Davis was striding through an airport terminal, I suddenly noticed markings on the floor that looked familiar. They turned out to be that map of the world with lines drawn connecting airline destinations we see in the opening scenes of “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), when Dana Andrews lugs his overstuffed suitcase across the terminal, looking for a flight home.  Aha, same airport terminal, confirmed by our friends at the IMDb website.

I don’t suppose that shot is discussed that often as a “message image” in this landmark film on the homecoming of three servicemen after World War II, but for me this view of Dana Andrews walking, encumbered with his bag, across the map of the earth in his weary journey home is iconic.

I don’t know if director William Wyler thought of the image that way, but Dana walking across the map seems to set up the stories of these three men arriving from all corners of the earth to get home, and getting stuck, for the moment, at a modern civilian airport that can’t get them where they want to go. It will service the businessman with his golf clubs, but Fred, Homer, and Al must trudge to the Air Transport Command in a ramshackle hangar across the field.

In “A Stolen Life” there is no such greater meaning to the airport terminal, except that Bette Davis is meeting her cousin here while she is pretending to be her twin sister. It is a place of meeting and greeting and new beginnings overshadowed with foreboding.

In “Executive Suite” there is also intrigue in the form of a corporate takeover and executive businessmen jockeying for position in a faltering company. We see Paul Douglas being tailed by Fredric March here, and William Holden and Walter Pidgeon conferring on strategy. All their comings and goings center on business trips. Here the airport backdrop is a place of hustle and urgency. We don’t get to see a shot of the floor in this one, and I’d love to know if that old map is still there.

The Long Beach Airport was built in the late 20s, and commercial aviation began at least by the mid-1930s. The Art Deco style terminal building was constructed in 1941.

For more on the Long Beach Airport, have a look at this website. For more on the history of filming in Long Beach, have a look here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Movie Victory Gardens

There is a scene in “Since You Went Away” (1944) (see previous blog post here) where teenaged Shirley Temple and lodger Monty Woolley are working in the backyard victory garden, where Mr. Woolley declares, “There are enough carrots here to feed a regiment, men and horses.”

The idea of World War II-era “victory gardens” was not to feed regiments so much as to feed the civilian population and relieve farm production already overtaxed by having to feed millions of military personnel, as well as coping with fewer men on the farms.

This scene in “Since You Went Away”, which attempts to cover as many home front aspects of the war as possible, is really one of the few movies I can think of made that time that actually show a victory garden. I wonder that there weren’t more. Maybe you can think of others. Perhaps being promoted in newsreels and government-sponsored short films was considered enough and Hollywood perhaps not wanting to bludgeon the public with the message.

“Andy Panda’s Victory Garden” (1943) covered the topic for cartoons, and victory gardens also received a brief mention in this Private Snafu cartoon, “Homefront” (1942). Private Snafu was shown only to military personnel as part informational, part entertainment for troops. The general public of the time did not usually get to see these cartoons.

If you can think of a scene in a World War II-era film that featured a victory garden, let us know.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Stolen Life (1946)

“A Stolen Life” (1946) is one of those movies that does not seem to equal the sum total of its parts, but its parts are interesting. Break up the separate themes of this film and I suppose you could have at least three separate movies, so adventurous is the life of the unadventurous character Katie Bosworth, played by Bette Davis. She also plays Katie’s identical twin sister, Pat. Herein lies the main plot device that links the episodes in this film.

While I believe I can be objective and unprejudiced about most issues, I have to state right off that I detest “evil twin” stories. They are mind numbingly trite. I also find them insulting, preferring, like most twins, not to regard myself as a freak of nature.

It’s common to compare twins, to search out something that makes them different from the other. At best, it becomes a benign parlor game of visiting relatives marveling at different interests of the twins.

At worst, it becomes an onslaught of labeling each twin as the one who has better grades in school, which twin is more gifted athletically, which twin is actually better looking or at least has fewer flaws than the other twin. God help the twins if one, or even both of them, is handicapped. What God has put together, the world insidiously tries to pick apart.

In movies, there is a cruel assumption that one twin must have all the positive attributes and the other all the negative. I doubt writers and producers have any idea of the angst this causes in many twins who, if they are lucky, can laugh at the ridiculousness of such a theme, or if unlucky enough to be hit with insensitive comparisons, and self doubt, in real life, must be reminded yet again of the burden of being the “different” one in a society where movies tell them they are freaks automatically.

“A Stolen Life”, however, gives us a slightly more acceptable situation in that Pat is not really evil. She’s self-centered and shallow, but she’s not maniacal. Katie, too, is not exactly perfect. She is quite capable of wheedling her way into what she wants; it’s just that her wants are more simple and wholesome than Pat’s. Their relationship is not completely adversarial, and they seem to mostly live their lives apart. It could have been a film with more depth if it explored this more, as well as issues of co-dependency, instead of just hinging everything that happens to Katie based on her being the “good” twin.

What this film does have going for it is a whole lot of atmosphere, which I suspect is a draw for a lot of its fans. Taking place on an unnamed island off the Massachusetts coast, we get lots of majestic seascape, crashing waves on the rocky New England coastline, a lighthouse that figures prominently in the story, sailboats, a ship in a bottle, and a cozy cottage. Lobstah traps on the wh-a-a-a-h-f, ayuh.

The changeable sea can be dark and threatening at one moment, or gloriously beautiful and serene the next. It’s a great place to set a movie with moods and undercurrents. The isolation of the island can be a haven, or it can be a trap.

The other draw for this film is the remarkable technical achievement of filming Bette Davis as two people in the same scene. It’s done pretty well, and not overdone to the point of milking it. Most scenes have the two women separately, so we get used to thinking of them as different people. In the scenes where they are together, it is like electricity, a tantalizing achievement by the technical crew as well as Miss Davis.

The film starts with a map of New England, zeroing in on New Bedford, on Buzzard’s Bay. The Bay State has a lot of bays. I like movies with maps as much as I like movies with trains. Does it seem like Warner Bros. films have map graphics in them more than the other studios?

Bette Davis as Katie enters rushing from a taxi to meet the last steamer of the day leaving for “the island,” swinging her suitcases with the stickers on them. Not only are there lots of bays, there are lots of islands, but I guess since even a fictional name is not applied, we might infer she’s heading for Martha’s Vineyard. She’s supposed to reach there in two hours, so I don’t think it’s supposed to be Nantucket, which would be a bit longer journey.

Martha’s Vineyard is usually referred to by New Englanders as “The Vineyard.” It’s not a vineyard, it’s an island, but with so many islands, nobody would know what you mean if you said you were going to “the island”. I suspect Hollywood neither knew nor cared about this. And although there is a shot of her sailboat against some bluffs that look like a reasonable facsimile of the western part of Martha’s Vineyard called Gay Head or Aquinnah, the lighthouse in the movie (which is off a point called Dragon’s Head), does not resemble the real Gay Head/Aquinnah lighthouse). See my post on this lighthouse in my New England Travels blog for the real one.

So, right off we’re heading into a mix of fantasy and reality the way Bette heads right into the mysterious fogbank. I would love to know where some scenes in this film were shot. Some of the quaint New England seaport village stuff is obviously back lot, but there’s enough real coastline that teases us.

By the way, the airport scene was filmed at the actual Long Beach, California airport. Other movies were, too, and we’ll have more on that next week.

The lighthouse is particularly intriguing. Close-ups of its front door may be a partial replica built anywhere. Distant shots against a backdrop of glistening ocean could be a miniature model on a scaled down set. However, there are mid-range shots of Bette actually hopping off a boat, trotting up the dock up to the lighthouse, which makes me think at least some of this is an actual location. I’ve read somewhere that Laguna Beach, California was one filming location, but I’d love to know more detail on that. One of the other interesting aspects of this movie is how well they splice visuals together.

Katie, missing the ferry steamer, hitches a ride to “the island” from Glenn Ford, who is the lighthouse keeper’s assistant just about to leave the wharf with a motor launch full of supplies. On the way she sketches him, and we learn she is an artist, a woman who is sensitive and playful, yet down to earth.

Mr. Ford is handsome as can be here, a rugged but gentle and introspective chap who has forsaken a promising career as an engineer to work as Walter Brennan’s assistant at the lighthouse because of the simple life and freedom it offers. Mr. Brennan in his usual role of the comically crusty old codger doesn’t really have too much to do in this film, but he adds as much atmosphere as the lighthouse and the fog. His natural born eastern Mass. accent fits nicely with his role, no phony Yankee here.

For that matter, our Miss Davis hails from Lowell, Mass., so she seems to fit naturally among the all the pseudo New Englanders populating this faux community. We see her striding about in her casual trousers and flats, the wind tussling her hair carelessly, or in jeans and sneakers, and sweater, doing away with Hollywood glamour in this role. She seems pleasantly authentic, a woman/actress on her own turf.

With the lighthouse scenes, we might also muse on the film’s efforts to recapture a romantic past, or at least to ignore the realities of the present. We see painted above the door of Walter Brennan’s lighthouse “U.S. Lighthouse Service”. When this film was made in 1946, there was no U.S. Lighthouse Service. This government bureau was ended in 1939, capping an era throughout the 1920s and 1930s when more and more lighthouses were being automated, discontinuing the need for lighthouse keepers. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the management of lighthouses. This post-war movie continues the romantic fantasy of the lonely intrepid lighthouse keeper, ignoring the possibility that Walter Brennan would have been downsized.

We are not given much back story on Katie and Pat, except that Charlie Ruggles is their cousin and their guardian. They are visiting him in a cottage on “the island” which he has rented for the summer. Mr. Ruggles is ever the delight in his films, with that finely drawn mixture of kindly bumbler and sharp-as-a-tack gentleman of the old school.

Katie relates that this is her first time to “the island”. However, she’s learned to sail somewhere, and she wastes no time taking out her sailboat to visit Walter Brennan at the lighthouse. She wants to paint his portrait and bribes him with a ship’s model he covets to do so, but it is a ploy so she can spend more time with Glenn Ford, with whom she has fallen in love.

(Small point here, but I like the way she handles the paintbrush, deftly rolling it in her fingers, changing her grip on it as she concentrates on the detail of her portrait of Mr. Brennan. It looks like she knows what she’s doing.)

We see that, far from being the perfect “good” twin, Katie can be cunning, duplicitous, and secretive, but we can also see that she has a very understanding heart. She earns our sympathy from the beginning with her confessions of loneliness and her quiet charm.

The movie pulls a nice trick on us by not revealing Katie has a twin until she enters her bedroom at the cottage after a date with Glenn Ford, to find her sister Pat lazily lounging in a chair. Pat peeks her head around to notice Katie in the foreground of the shot, still in the half shadow. Her voice is familiar. They chat companionably, and in another moment, Bette Davis walks over to the chair where her sister sits, turns on the lamp. GASP! There are two of her! Then she hands her twin a match so the sister can smoke a cigarette. One senses this shot was most gleefully done by everybody involved.

Notice however, that Katie does not light Pat’s cigarette, but reaches down to put the match in Pat’s hand, which rests on the arm of the chair. They are cleverly covering the joined exposures here. In another moment, Katie is in bed, and Pat flops on the other side to chat a bit more, seeming to pick at Katie’s sleeve as she speaks. Another good matching of exposures here. There’s not too much of this in the film, it would detract from the story, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Pat, we discover, is more worldly than Katie, more sophisticated, bored with “the island” and her wealthy friends in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Perhaps it is her boredom which leads her to make a play for Glenn Ford, tricking him into thinking she is Katie.

Mr. Ford is a good sport at first when he realizes he’s been fooled. Then decides it is Pat he really loves. Considering we are set up to believe he and Katie are meant for each other, and we are also set up to accept Pat as a self-centered man trap, it seems a bit of a stretch that his swell guy would fall for what seems so obviously artificial to us. But, fall he does, preferring as he says “the frosting” rather than the cake, as he also says most men will.

“Must you always let that sister of yours get ahead of you?” Charlie Ruggles demands of Katie, wanting her to fight for what she wants. She avoids being competitive with her twin (more could be made of this), but she determinedly side steps the bridal bouquet Pat later merrily tosses to her. We see Katie has a recalcitrant side.

Pat’s conquest of Mr. Ford happens rather swiftly at the local barn dance. New Englanders, you see, love square dancing. You can tell by how many Hollywood movies have New England square (sq-way-uh) dances in barns or at the town hall. We see it in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) (where we also see our penchant for riding in sleighs, see this previous blog post) and “Summer Stock” (1950), and so we have to have one here. A good old b-a-a-h-n dance. The other thing we do with b-a-a-h-ns is turn them into playhouses for the local summer stock company. Like in “Summer Stock”. Summer stock in New England is sometimes referred to as The Barn Circuit (or The Straw Hat Circuit).

In fact, our Bette Davis in real life got her start in such a barn at the Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod, where she was an usher before graduating to bit parts. Have a look here in my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog. (Come to think of her, her hometown of Lowell now has a first-rate professional regional theatre, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. She’d be pleased. Except it’s not in a barn. Uh, that’s b-a-a-h-n.)

By the way, Mr. Lippincott, who owns the b-a-a-h-n, is played by silent screen actor Monte Blue, according to the IMDb website. Other silent screen stars have uncredited roles as well, including Snub Pollard, who also shows up at the b-a-a-h-n dance. He appeared in eight movies in 1946, all in bit parts that must have kept him eating. Creighton Hale is also listed as an extra.

Pat sweeps Glenn Ford off his feet at the b-a-a-h-n dance, and they get married. Katie heads back to the family mansion in New York to brood and paint. She is not alone. Dane Clark shows up to brood and paint, and bully her with insults, which Kate takes with astonishing serenity.

Here is where we have a branching off of plot that could make a separate movie. Dane Clark is a starving artist of, we are told by him, great talent. His role is similar to John Garfield, the dismissive pianist in “Four Daughters” (1938), see this previous post, who was also poor and talented, with a really lousy attitude.

Mr. Clark, however, does not seem to have the same knack John Garfield had for drawing our sympathy. Clark’s character is without any humor about others or himself. His arrogant proletariat rudeness toward Katie makes her seem far more a doormat than she ever was when Pat stole her boyfriend. A person living in the shadow of a more glamorous or accomplished sibling is a common story, in the movies and in real life, but here we wobble uncertainly as to what is the cause of Katie’s malaise.

Dane Clark’s explanation is simple and cruel, “You two disliked each other from the time you were born. It’s a perfectly natural antagonism.” This presumptuous and ignorant conclusion is what drives most “evil twin” stories and is perhaps one of the other reasons I dislike them so much.

Mr. Clark, who seems to thrive on antagonism himself, criticizes her painting, making a further accusation, “I bet you’re not even a woman.”

When she asks him for clarification, he sneers like a little boy who has thrown a rock at a bird and delights in having hit it. “That always gets ‘em,” he says.

From the time Pat is said to have “frosting” to the time Mr. Clark indicates Katie is not a “ball of fire”, we are seemingly meant to infer that Katie’s reticence is more than just a meek acceptance of stolen boyfriends and angry artists. She may not be sexually experienced, which may explain Clark’s ridicule. She is hardly shy; it is she who pursues Glenn Ford, but she is not sexually aggressive in the way Pat is, and perhaps we are being told this is one of her flaws.

According to the Hollywood on Twins Playbook, if being oversexed is Pat’s character trait, then Katie must be afraid of sex, for as we seem to be told, tiresomely and yet again, that twins, individually, are not whole people, that only together they have all the attributes of a human being. Individually, they are only fragments of a person. When the egg in the womb splits their chances at ever being a complete person evaporates.

There’s probably a lot more dime store Freud in here that I’m missing, but you get the idea.

But, Katie, passive or not, seems to impart a kind of courage, a stoic survivor’s attitude, bearing up under Pat’s callousness, under Walter Brennan’s blustering, under Dane Clark’s insults, and even under Glenn Ford’s hideously thoughtless request that she help him pick out intimate apparel for Pat’s present on their birthday.

The older men in this film are more interesting than the younger men. Ford and Clark act like pinheads hijacked by their own insensitivity, who are either manipulating or being manipulated.

Katie seems to get some of her moxie back when she efficiently rebuffs Dane Clark’s rough advances. He actually looks crushed and his scowl departs for about two seconds. Unfortunately, she also declares herself a third-rate artist in comparison to his talent, and we must wonder if she is giving up her art because she cannot be the best.

Katie heads back to “the island”, unexpectedly finds Pat there also seeking refuge, and the twins companionably head to the wharf to go sailing, striding through town in their jeans like a Doublemint commercial. This is a long shot with Bette and a double. The split-screen close-up was done in the studio with rear-screen projection.

Pat has become outdoorsy like her sister, perhaps feels more than she actually expresses of her regret in marrying Glenn Ford, and they get caught in a storm. I realize this entire post has been a spoiler, as all my posts are, but if you don’t want to know what happens next, you’d better go down to the corner for a newspaper. Bring me back a candy bar, any kind.

Did they leave? I thought I heard the screen door slam. Okay. For those of you who have remained, I’m going to assume you know I’m going to tell you that one of them drowns. It’s Pat. Here’s where the plot splits again and could be the story for another entirely separate movie.

The scenes of the twins sailing in the storm are skillfully done, with Bette and a double alternately blocked by the swinging boom. She, and the double, had to film this scene separately as Pat, and as Katie, being battered by wind and soaked by waves. It’s all stitched together quite well, even more impressive when you realize it was filmed on a set.

Katie, who though distressed at the loss of her sister does not express anywhere near enough the realistic anguish of the situation, impulsively decides to say nothing when she is mistaken for Pat. Her rescuers think it was Katie who drowned. Katie plays along, thinking this is her chance for happiness being the wife of Glenn Ford.

(The scene with the beleaguered sailboat smashing against the rocks of the lighthouse ledge reminds me of “Portrait of Jennie” (1949). You wonder for a moment if Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones are going to scramble over the rocks.)

Assuming the identify of a deceased person is also not a new plot idea to film, but using identical twins makes an interesting twist because Katie now moves about incognito, disguised in plain sight. As such, she is comforted by Walter Brennan and others who tell her that her sister Katie was such a wonderful person. It’s like being at her own wake. Very eerie and emotional, and more could have been done with this.

Even Dane Clark displays his own belligerent sense of grief when he shows her that he has painted a portrait of Katie from memory.

Now, Katie must run an obstacle course of fitting into Pat’s life. The easiest part is making Pat’s dog, Mike, accept her even though Katie doesn’t smell like Pat. Mike is not fooled. Mike is the smartest character in this movie.

But, she gets around him with treats. Even Mike, it seems, can be bought.

However, Katie’s game of pretend comes crashing down on her head when irony akin to an O. Henry story slams her in the chops. Glenn Ford wants to divorce her because Pat has had affairs with other men. Katie runs back to safety of “the island”, where Charlie Ruggles figures out her secret, because he’s almost as smart as Mike. We are given one of those slapped-on happy endings because somebody must have noticed they were running out of film and it was time to end the movie.

It’s still a fun movie, for all the tangled plot threads, but especially for the technical achievements, and the atmosphere. It makes an attempt to carve out an old stock melodrama using film technology and good old film theatrics. But there’s a story missing in all this contrivance. It’s the twinship that never gets told, that Hollywood never seems to get a handle on.

And I’m not even going to mention the Carol Burnett parody.

For a look at the striking scene where Bette Davis meets up with herself, have a look below. (Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page and pause the music.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Slow Burn

Whatever happened to the “slow burn”? That look Moe gave to Curly just before he was going to sock him with a sledgehammer. That peeling mask of disgust and chagrin on Alfalfa’s face when he realized that he’d messed up on “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms”. Again.

Raspberries! Why, I oughta...

You know that look. It was more likely to crop up on a disgruntled sidekick or character actor like Ward Bond or Henry Travers than a star, but every so often you’d see it on James Cagney, on James Stewart, on Ann Sheridan, and Gary Cooper.

It was Acting 101, once upon a time.

Below, here is a scene from “Duck Soup” (1933) with Chico and Harpo Marx, and Edgar Kennedy, who was called “The Master of the Slow Burn.” (Don't forget to scroll to the bottom of the page to pause the music.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Off Topic - "Interfacing"

A brief plug for “Interfacing”, my short story, previously published in print and online magazines, is now available in e-book format from Smashwords.

It’s humor. It’s about communication. It’s about 2,000 words. It’s about 99 cents. If you don’t own an e-reader like Kindle or Nook, etc., you can still download it here and read it right off your computer. Here’s the blurb…

Susan, saved by her Heimlich maneuver-performing dog from death by choking, must remain silent until her infected throat heals. Shutting up has never been easy for her. Her job as a customer service supervisor, and her already strained marriage are on the line. Susan must learn to communicate before she goes crazy, or kills somebody, or both.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Howards of Virginia (1940)

“The Howards of Virginia” (1940) is one of not-very-many movies Hollywood made about the American Revolution. It’s a good effort in some respects, and fails dismally in others, but that may be not just to acting or direction. Sometimes our failure in being able to interpret a particular era in the past may be our own tenuous grasp on what it really was like. We’re not really as good at turning back the clock as we think we are. It’s just not that easy.

The story is one of those span-of-years tales, in this case from the boyhood of lead character Matt Howard, played by Cary Grant, when his father was killed fighting Indians when Virginia was under British rule during the French and Indian War, to Matt’s adulthood as a solider of the young Continental Army fighting to end British rule during the Revolutionary War.

The costumes mostly are pretty good (except for the wedding dress, too modern), and so are the hairstyles, the sets, and furniture. Some care went into the making of this film, and it is impressive that part of the filming was actually done in Williamsburg, Virginia. So far, so good.

But I wonder if sometimes planting a story against an historical backdrop, and using that backdrop only as kind of puppet show stage scenery and not as an organic element to drive the story is kind of like having a canvas with a beautiful landscape on it and then painting stick figures in the foreground. They stand out badly and it’s hard to appreciate the pretty background anymore because all your eye can focus on is those stupid stick figures.

Our chief stick figure here is Cary Grant. Some have called him miscast in this movie, and maybe he was, but I have to wonder if half the problem is just the way the character was written. Grant seems to be pretty one-dimensional, buffoonish and Always! Seems! To! Talk! In! Exclamation! Points!

Cary Grant spends the entire movie shouting, not in anger or with passion, but just normal every day speech. Hello becomes HELLO!!!! His hyperkinetic overacting is a distraction, and rather fatiguing to watch after a while.

Martha Scott plays the well-born lady this frontier fool pines for, and though it would seem her sedateness and dignity might soften Mr. Grant’s explosive personality, it doesn’t really. Sometimes she seems a bit remote with little warmth.

The best performer here for my money is Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays her elder brother, the snobbish family patriarch who looks down on Grant. When the Revolution begins, he is a Tory, or would be if there were any profit in it, and he provides a fascinating contrast to Cary Grant. Mr. Hardwicke’s scenes are absorbing, and we discover many layers to this character in a way we never do with Mr. Grant’s character. Hardwicke is noble, self centered, disdainful, and ultimately tragic. So is Grant’s character, but we may find ourselves understanding Grant less and disliking him more.

Cary Grant takes Martha Scott out to the western lands of Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley to carve out a home in the wilderness, but a home similar to the mansion she left behind in elegant Williamsburg. Their new mansion goes up with remarkable speed. It’s nice to see Anne Revere in a brief role as a frontier neighbor lady. Nobody could pull the job off better than she.

These scenes are reminiscent to “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939) which we discussed last year, but the leap Martha Scott has to take to make a life here with the rustic folk is much greater than the adjustment Claudette Colbert had to make. For one, we may understand that Miss Colbert’s character is likewise from a background more genteel than frontier husband Henry Fonda’s. But her genteel heritage is likely based on commerce. Colbert’s family from the northern colony of New York and New England derived their social superiority from trade.

Martha Scott isn’t just rich. She’s aristocratic. The caste system of Olde England transplanted itself in Virginia and the southern states in a way it never much did in New England, which was the repository of outcast Pilgrims and Puritans bent not on copying life in England but forging a new society where they would be top dog…a level of superiority they would have never achieved back in the old country.

However, aristocratic Scott stands by her man in buckskins and may look horrified at smelly backwoodsmen, but her very acquiescence to this life seems more democratic than someone in her position would actually be. It is the first indication that we are leading to a message of how wonderfully democratic this country is, and was. It’s a nice sentiment, but largely a fairy tale.

Also, the affable Thomas Jefferson, played by Richard Carlson, who is Matt Howard’s lifelong friend was not so affable and hail-fellow-well-met in real life. This shy, reclusive man, though he wrote one of the most noble documents ever penned - The Declaration of Independence - was also an aristocrat who disdained the company of lower-born folk he saw mainly in terms of rabble. This is certainly no crime and is not unusual in anyone well born and well educated. But, we may conclude he is re-drawn here to suit our World War II -era sensibilities.

Then we come to the first disgruntled rumblings of American discontent during all the repressive taxes the Crown placed on the colonies, and we see that Cary Grant has won a seat in the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s lower legislative house, where we are treated to snippets of speeches by Thomas Paine, played by Richard Gaines. Again, just as we discussed a few weeks ago about historical symbols in “Gone with the Wind” (1939), we have a schoolroom quick survey of American taglines as history through Paine’s words. Give me liberty or give me death. You remember that one.

This kind of use of slogans to represent eras does nothing to increase our understanding of an era, but only serves to confirm what we already think we know.

We might note here, however, a difference, though a subtle difference, in the treatment of the colonial African-American experience to what we observed in “Gone with the Wind”. The servants in the grand homes of course are all slaves, and one female slave goes with Martha Scott when the newlyweds strike out for the frontier. She is even more appalled at the rough backwoods people than Miss Scott is, and looks down on them as not being “quality”.

We don’t see too much of Dicey through the movie, she’s not Scott’s constant companion in life the way Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” was with Scarlett O’Hara, but we observe she deports herself with every bit as much high-born dignity as does Miss Scott. None of the slaves depicted in this film come off as caricature.

Still, it might be argued by some that the few dismissive glimpses we are given of the slaves indicate this is another example of Hollywood’s racism. I don’t think so, not entirely in this case, and for two reasons. First, the movie isn’t about the slave experience, it’s about the blustering Matt Howard. (Though for my money, a little less shouting Cary Grant and little more soft spoken Dicey might have made it a more interesting movie.)

Second, there is an interesting dramatic dynamic we can see here if we look for it. We learn about the slaves’ place in the world even by their diminished film presence. Just by viewing them in the background, we see how marginalized their lives are, how controlled their lives are, how little credence they were given by both Colonial America and by 1940s Hollywood.

I believe this effect here was unintended, the by-product of an era in Hollywood filmmaking. However, it was used on purpose with great success, if you remember, in the British television series “Upstairs/Downstairs.” We get to know the servants best when they have their scenes “below stairs” in the kitchen or servants’ dining hall. Here they are animated and effusive.

Then, when the bell rings and the butler Hudson, played by Gordon Jackson, goes upstairs to the morning room to answer the summons, the camera, the story, and mood shifts to the upper class family by whom the servants are employed. We are now treated to a scene of what is going on in the masters’ lives, and Gordon Jackson, grog tray in hand, stands in the background and blends in with the wall. Suddenly, the man we thought we knew so much about, with such a strong personality downstairs, becomes a stranger, an enigma to us. It tells us all we need to know about his place in society.

So it is with Dicey and her fellow servants. We get a brief look into her feelings and sensibilities, and then the door slams shut when the focus is back on her owners. It may not be satisfying to the audience who want to know more about her, but it is dramatically effective and historically accurate.

(I wish American television could turn out a product as good as “Upstairs/Downstairs” with similar subject matter. We have a lot of history to dabble in, if only we weren’t so lazy about depicting it in more than just convenient slogans and taglines, and not being willing to spend more money than it would take to put on a “reality” or talent contest shows, or fear being too historically accurate, thereby “losing” an uninformed general audience, or otherwise fear of offending modern sensibilities by being too accurate.)

Besides, a better evidence of Hollywood’s racism is that Libby Taylor, who played Dicey, spent a couple of decades playing maids and ladies’ room attendants.

Another subplot to the film is Cary Grant’s relationships with his sons. The younger, James, played as a young man by Tom Drake, is the apple of his eye. He ignores the older one, Peyton, because Peyton was born with a foot deformity, much like his brother-in-law, Cedric Hardwicke, whom Grant despises. When the child is born and Mr. Grant first sees his baby’s deformity, he suddenly refuses to name him after his father, but adamantly insists he be given her maiden name instead, branding him as an issue from her side of the family. Grant finally bonds with his son Peyton, played by Phil Taylor, when the lad performs a heroic act as a soldier during the Revolution.

The films ends, or we should say, tries to wrap itself up, with the astonished Grant recognizing a quality in his son even more important than his heroism. He observes that young Peyton, though ignored and dismissed his whole life as less worthy, is a kind and gentle person with no hatred in his heart. Grant declares to Martha Scott that their boy represents a new kind of person for the new nation they are founding, the best of both their worlds.

It’s a nice sentiment, and a wonderful goal to reach for, the idea that this republic may ever keep itself righted by the presence of kind, heroic people with no hatred in their hearts and the ability to forgive. It was an important message to send during the early years of World War II when the United States was not yet involved, but surely feared it probably would be before too long. We never quite seem to reach that placid plateau of good fellowship.

Williamsburg, where parts of this movie was filmed, was the capitol of Virginia until about 1780, when the capitol was moved to Richmond, in part at the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson. The town which had contributed so much to the political and cultural heritage of Colonial Virginia sort of became a quaint, gentle, and ignored (like young Peyton Howard), hamlet until about the 1920s, when Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin of the Bruton Parish Church got together with philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to restore some of the historic buildings. We owe those two gentlemen a lot.

This project grew through the years, and now takes up nearly 85 percent of the original town, a beautifully restored living history museum, called Colonial Williamsburg. It is well worth a visit, and should be on the list of anybody with an interest in American history.

For more on Colonial Williamsburg, have a look at this website.

Happy Independence Day. Pace yourself eating those burgers and dogs.

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