Thursday, October 28, 2010

The War of the Worlds, 1938 and 1953

The War of the Worlds (1953) is fondly recalled by many sci-fi fans as a classic. The special effects of the day are intriguing, and especially interesting is a look at the famed Northrup Flying Wing, which did not survive the imaginative era in which it was designed and manufactured. Imagination is the root of science fiction, unfettered, freewheeling imagination. For this reason, the movie The War of the Worlds for me, pales in comparison to the radio version.

With the Halloween season in full force (despite the Christmas items the stores are already foisting on us), some movie buffs have favorite scary movies they like to watch on Halloween. My tradition is to pull out Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater radio recording of his very special version of “The War of the Worlds.”

Probably most of us know by now the story had its origins in the H.G. Wells novel published in the 1890s. The famous radio broadcast of October 30, 1938 is often called the “Martian Hoax” broadcast that caused a panic, but it was never a hoax. It was excellent drama, using the new medium of radio at its most imaginative.

The upshot is, the Orson Welles version took the novel and turned it into first-person experience (at least the first half of the show. The second half returns to traditional narrative storytelling). It was drama as intimate as good stagecraft, but the unique properties of radio gave it a reality it would not have had on film or on stage.

From the start, there were the standard announcements inviting listeners to stay tuned for “The War of Worlds," and several normal commercial breaks. The panic came from people who didn’t listen to the Mercury Theater on CBS. They were listening to the Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy over on NBC. When the first commercial came on, they channel surfed over to CBS. By then, the “The War of Worlds” program had already started, with screaming announcers describing what sounded like the end of the world.

One can’t entirely blame Mr. Welles for the channel surfers’ assumptions, nor can the channel surfers be ridiculed for their panic. These were the good old days of the Munich Pact Crisis when madmen were carving up Europe and we had constant bulletins about it on the radio. These were the good old days when one of the worse hurricanes that ever hit the US, hit where it wasn’t supposed to…New England, and killed nearly 700 people who had not the faintest clue it was coming. (More on the Hurricane of 1938 on my New England Travels blog: part 1, part 2, and part 3). Let’s just say, it had been a bad five or six weeks. And then October 30th, and Orson Welles goes, “Boo!”

The movie The War of the Worlds was made in a different era, a bit more sophisticated (as the film points out, we had developed the atom bomb in the meantime), but this film still reeks of a warm innocence.

Instead of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, as in the radio version, the beleaguered community is in California. Except for cameos by the Orson Welles’ script characters of Professor Pearson and reporter Carl Phillips, all the others are new characters.

Gene Barry plays a scientist on vacation near the town where the Martians land. Ann Robinson is a young teacher who at first hero-worships him because of his reputation in his field, and then spends the rest of the movie either in his arms being comforted or just plain running away from the Martians. They bond quickly.

We are shown a lot of good-natured yokel types who investigate the site of what they think is a meteor, and then some of them are evaporated by heat rays from the Martians. The yokels cheerfully hollered, “Welcome to California” moments before, wanting to make peace. These may be square-dancing type folk, but they’ve been around. They know that Martians visit occasionally, “Happens every 18 or 20 years, they say.” Best to stay on their good side.

Before long, the military gets involved trying to stop the invasion. Gene Barry spends a good deal of time at first looking bored and slightly amused by everything, until he’s running for his life. Ann Robinson’s uncle, the Pastor, played by Lewis Martin approaches the Martian capsule reciting the 23rd Psalm (King James Version), but they blast him anyway.

Interestingly, he explains his desire to get closer to them because he considers them “nearer the Creator” because they are a more highly advanced species. One wonders if this sounded at all blasphemous to the more conservative audiences then, but it’s a remarkable take on aliens from outer space.

We get rocket launchers and bazookas, tanks, and that spectacular Flying Wing, but the creatures are immune to shellfire. They are not, however, immune to germs, and so we all know how it ends for our Martian guests.

Just as Orson Welles’ version was set in his time and reflected it by use of the radio, just as author H.G. Wells’ original story reflected London of the 1890s, so too, this film gives us a glimpse of the early 1950s, our innocence and our sophistication, our atom bomb and our Martian eye that is “an electric eye like a television camera.”

Paul Frees, whose voice you may remember from zillions of cartoons, is a radio reporter on the spot for the dropping of the atom bomb on the Martians. He speaks into a reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his hip. If you think that’s corny, take a look at the spectators hiding behind clumps of dirt to avoid the bomb blast and radioactive fallout.

We are in the Cold War, and we snuggle up to the A-bomb to protect us from the strangers. Better the devil you know.

It is also the era where the first UFO sightings were reported. 

One of the fun things about this film is the cars. There are, of course, traffic jams on the new freeways, and all through this movie we get a good look at many cars from the era. It’s a classic car buff’s dream.

Also look for cameos by Ned Glass as a looter, and Alvy Moore as a yokel, who we last saw in a larger role in 5 Against the House (1955) here.

Especially good are the scenes of Gene Barry stumbling through empty city streets, littered with trash and debris, while the battle rages just outside of town. His isolation may give us more discomfort than the death rays, because isolation is real.

It is a very imaginative film, as good science fiction must be, but when you compare the radio version and the film version of this story, you see that the film must bring to life the imagination of the writers and director, and artistic director, and cinematographer. Your imagination doesn’t come into it. And that’s the thing about good science fiction. It needs you to make it real.

Turn out the lights and listen to the CBS Mercury Theater production of “The War of the Worlds.” It’s October 30, 1938. Let your mind, and your imagination, run wild.

And if you see a hideous Martian somewhere in the dark, just cough on him. Spread those germs.

(You can download the program free to your computer from Internet Archive.


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 25, 2010

Night Must Fall - 1937

“Night Must Fall” (1937), a psychological thriller, tingles with unexpected humor and steely glints of horror that unbalance seemingly normal lives. A literate script brought vividly to life by acting intelligent, bold, and skillful, and it seems somehow a shame to merely lump this one into the “creepy old house in a storm” movies, but it has this, too, and more.

Certainly by the opening credits we are already convinced this movie may be something of a standard fright flick: a score that sounds like shrill monster movie music, spidery credits with the suggestion of looming twilight in the background. Surely doom awaits us if we stay to watch.

Rosalind Russell is the dogsbody niece to Dame May Whitty, an irascible old lady in a wheelchair. Roz is financially dependent on her, which makes her the constant victim of the Dame May’s foul moods.

Robert Montgomery is a lower class stumblebum, a hail-fellow-well-met, who takes on the job of Dame May’s new manservant. He uses a surprisingly credible Welsh accent for this film. One of the joys of this movie is just listening to him speak.

The story has its pedigree in a successful Broadway run, and before that in London, with Dame May reprising her role for this film. (In Roz’s role as the niece, a young English actress named Angela Baddeley appeared with Dame May in the London and Broadway productions. Decades later, we came to know and love her as Mrs. Bridges on “Upstairs/Downstairs.”)

We have all the other elements of English country life so beloved by Hollywood: the roses growing by the cottage, the comical servants, the winding country lane. Mrs. Miniver probably lives down the road.

Merle Tottenham is the not-too-bright scullery maid, and Kathleen Harrison is the no-nonsense cook, both are hysterical and break up the gloom of the movie by their exaggerated “type” characterizations.

In one scene, Kathleen Harrison, who has a way with sarcasm, replies to a police inspector when he is informed that the only visitors were the doctor and the district nurse, follows with a flat, “It’s been ever so gay.” She also describes a local woman as a “regular red hot mama.” When asked what that is, she replies, “Don’t you ever go the pictures?”

Roz is the repressed spinster. We know this because she wears glasses. Also, because Robert Montgomery makes a cutting remark that she is obviously repressed, in case we missed that.

Her soft, upper middle class English accent is also credible, but I read somewhere once that some movie mogul decided that New Englanders automatically were given English parts in Hollywood films because moviegoers in the Midwest thought they sounded British anyway and would not know the difference. If that’s true, it’s possible that Roz, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn were taken as authentic automatically when they were placed into these roles. Not much of a challenge.  Sometimes the  moguls treated them less as skilled actors and more like chess pieces.  Nevertheless, Miss Russell appears to have made a genuine effort.

Roz is not completely colorless, as her role might suggest. She has intelligence, an independent spirit that allows her to see through people, including her bullying aunt and the charming new manservant. Her main problem in life as she sees it, apart from her economic dependence on her aunt, is that she secretly yearns for more excitement, for a more passionate experience, and is so desperate for change she may even welcome danger.

This attitude of ignoring the alarm bells going on in her sensible mind puts her in very great danger. It also makes her overlook the handsome, quiet young solicitor who patiently waits for her to love him in return. He is played by Alan Marshal. He looks extremely virile in cricket whites. Roz not seeming to notice this is our first clue that she’s losing her good judgment.

But, it’s hard to blame her when Robert Montgomery enters the room. It’s really his movie. He saunters in every scene, a cigarette dangling from his lips, like he owns the place, sometimes bouncy as a schoolboy, other times sullen, threatening. He commands our attention by the full force of his overwhelming and complex personality.

The mystery of the story centers around a missing woman from the village. We soon begin to realize that she is probably murdered, and we are given broad hints that perhaps Robert Montgomery murdered her. What makes us come to this conclusion, beyond certain coincidental facts, is that we are allowed to see right from the start that he is two-faced.

He is enthusiastically charming with Dame May, and she begins to love him like a son. He is less charming with Roz, because he senses right off that she does not like him. Even more, she sees through him. She does not know he is a murderer, not yet, but she knows he is a phony and for her that is enough of a crime.

But she is fascinated by him. Perhaps it is the aura of danger about him, or perhaps it is just his way of living the fullness of life with a zest and carelessness that she envies that makes her attracted to him, even while she is repulsed.

He notices things. He is so very clever, and so manipulative. He makes a remark about her glasses, and she sneaks a look at herself in the mirror without them. He comments on her appearance, makes bold guesses as to what she is thinking, and we sense she feels undressed. As unaccustomed as she is to being made to feel this way, she is not completely sure she dislikes it. In her way, Roz’s performance is just as many layered as Mr. Montgomery’s, only her character calls for restraint. Her conflict is internal.

Robert Montgomery fusses over Dame May like a playmate, a nanny, and a son. He puts her to bed for her nap. He tickles her and makes jokes. He buys her a shawl and gives it to her, telling her it once belonged to his own deceased mother. Roz sees the store tag on it. Interestingly, rather than rat on him, she seethes in disgust, but snips the tag off for him before the old lady can see it. Slowly, Roz becomes his accomplice, despite her good sense.

Her transformation is delicate. Montgomery never completely forms a bond with her, even to acknowledge she is his accomplice. He usurps her position in the household and lords it over her. Roz hasn’t his charm, his social grace that allows him to leave his station in life so easily. Though we sense he is possibly a murderer, and see that he makes attempts to steal from the old lady, that he lies, we may wonder what is the particular crime he may commit against Roz?

She has nothing he wants, except perhaps the pleasure of penetrating her reserve.  So to speak.  We do not know how far he will go.

Then, the pace of the action increases when the body of the missing woman is found nearby.

Roz begins to suspect him, spurred mainly by her dislike of his vanity and arrogance, and her own jealousy, and searches his room. She discovers a locked hatbox.

Later, when it is revealed the body of the murdered woman was found without a head, Roz thinks she knows what is in the hatbox.

We have another funny scene, where publicity about the body being found in the garden brings a horde of shameless rubberneckers. Dame May is rolled about in her wheelchair by Mr. Montgomery rather like the Queen to guided tours of her garden. She is interviewed, and she likes the attention. I especially like the bored little boy in the sailor suit preoccupied with his cake.

Here the cook, Kathleen Harrison, has another standout spot telling her side of the story to the locals merely by repeating the word “grisly” several times in this scene, getting funnier and funnier. I think it’s my favorite part of the movie.

The comic interlude sets us off balance, but we focus in once more to the underlying tension at hand, when Roz and Montgomery have what begins as showdown and ends as confession. Montgomery, in a moment of panic now that the cops are closing in with their clues, admits his fear and torment. She displays sudden tenderness and sympathy for him.

When the inspector returns to examine his room, finds the hatbox, and asks Montgomery for the key, Roz comes to his rescue. She tells the inspector the hatbox is hers.

Perhaps even she does not know why she does it, but she sticks to the story, and Montgomery is free for a little while more. Keeping the scene off balance, he makes no overtures of friendship or gratitude toward her. He does not want to depend on her. He cannot make himself feel anything but contempt for others.

Dame May has a terrific scene where she goes into hysterics, and we may wonder where she gets the energy at her age. Perhaps it is from the chocolates she’s been eating throughout the movie. But, here is a real stage trooper at work and she grabs the spotlight the way a real trooper can.

That night, the storm. A gloomy old house. Another murder. All face their own mistakes, or are doomed by them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trick or Treating

Here are some trick-or-treaters from 1847, or so "The Man with the Cloak" (1951) would suggest.  I didn't know there were trick-or-treaters in 1847.  I thought they were just hoodlums vandalizing the neighborhood until people started giving them candy in 1950s suburbia.

We covered "The Man with the Cloak" in this prevous post.  It's not really about Halloween, though the Man of the title, an historical figure, knew a lot about terror.

These kids do their trick-or-treating at a tavern in New York City, and get a pile of doughnuts fresh off the broom handle.  I think I'd trade Sweetarts and a Snickers just for the panache of it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cry Wolf - 1947

In “Cry Wolf” (1947), we have another look at a non-swashbuckling Errol Flynn, this time as the master of a gloomy country estate where family secrets are deadly.

We’re dovetailing themes here, concluding a two-part look at Flynn’s non-Errol roles, and beginning a couple of weeks of Halloween-themed offerings. This movie even starts with credits printed in an exaggerated font that wipe mistily away, evoking the melting style of 1930s monster movies. We might even wonder if the title, “Cry Wolf” infers the presence of werewolves on this foggy bit of real estate. However, Maria Ouspenskaya is nowhere to be seen, so you may rest easy. No werewolves. They’re all at casting calls for other movies.

Instead, we have a spirited Barbara Stanwyck as woman on a mission, part Nancy Drew and part commando.

Mr. Flynn is Mark Caldwell, whose nephew and ward has suddenly died. Miss Stanwyck barges in on the preparations for the funeral announcing she is the bride of his nephew. She’s come for the inheritance.

When they first meet, Errol is at his desk in the library. He does not look up at her, but continues working, either because he is very busy or he wants to impress upon her that she is unimportant. He finally glances up, wearing round Harold Lloyd-type reading glasses. It’s an almost comic moment, and we never see them again for the rest of film, but it shows us from the start that Errol is firmly telling his audience he’s someone else they may not be expecting.

Geraldine Brooks makes her film debut as Flynn’s niece, also under his guardianship. She is the sister of the deceased nephew. She is a willful, unhappy girl, chafing under the protection and authoritarian supervision of her Uncle Errol. Miss Brooks, like the rest of the family, is stunned to have Miss Stanwyck plopping herself down at the dinner table as the newest member of the clan, but Geraldine’s isolation on this estate is so acute (Flynn forbids her to see her boyfriend), that she welcomes Stanwyck as a big sister. She needs one.

Jerome Cowan has a small role as Flynn’s brother, a United States Senator, with whom Flynn shares urgent, whispered conferences and hasty plans. Mr. Cowan’s most memorable movie role was probably as the attorney who prosecutes Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), and he also played in a slew of “Blondie” movies, but he has one of those reliable character actor faces that make you think you’ve seen him in just about everything.

I wonder if this is the last time we would see Barbara Stanwyck with light brown, shoulder-length hair? She soon adopted the 1950s shorter cuts and famously let her hair turn gray. Perhaps the longer, darker hair was used in this film purposely to emphasize her youth. She is supposed to be a woman possibly in her late 20s, who has just completed her doctoral studies in Geology.

When Flynn, obviously suspicious of her abrupt presentation, questions her on her supposed secret marriage to his nephew with the enormous trust fund, she replies in quite an open and businesslike way that she and the nephew, who is named Jim Demarest, were not in love. They were good chums, and he asked her to marry him so he could circumvent the rules of his trust fund, which stipulated that he could not get any of his money before the age of 30, unless he were married. Jim promised to give Stanwyck $2,000 to use for her doctoral studies if she helped him out by becoming his bride. They intended to divorce after the check cleared.

I think if any other actress gave this astonishing speech, we might cringe with disgust or laugh with incredulous disbelief. Barbara Stanwyck has that take-no-prisoners glint in her lovely brown eyes that makes you not only believe her wild tale of practical avarice, but admire her for it as well. Rarely does a gold-digger earn such respect.

Or, is she truly after the millions in the trust fund? Is there something else? Miss Stanwyck hints that Jim told her of his scheming Uncle Errol, a control freak who tightly held the reins on the family and the family money, who might stop at nothing to keep what’s his. Is she here really to investigate the suspicious death of her college chum?

Mr. Flynn brooks no nonsense from anyone, but he suffers Stanwyck’s boldness with courtly, if cold, patience. He slings muted accusations back in her face, noting with wry and controlled confrontation that her husband’s death seems quite a convenient thing for her. The two have many scenes in this movie sparring intellectually, and gradually there are moments when the contempt and mistrust they feel for each other lifts ever so slightly, like the cold mist outside, to reveal understanding, and even passion if circumstances were different.

It is, like “That Forsyte Woman” (1949) discussed in our last post, a departure role for Errol Flynn. He is anything but swashbuckling or even energetic in this film. He displays restraint, coolness, and many layers of a mysterious man. It is perhaps as equally challenging a role as the one he played in “That Forsyte Woman” because it is cerebral, but he gets less opportunity here to display his terrific acting range. This is a more muted role.

Because this is a creepy mystery movie, we are more plot-bound and less delving into character here. If the actors open up too much and allow us to think we know them, there is no mystery. We have to be as uncertain about their integrity and motives as we are about what’s going to happen next.

So, Flynn is crisp, occasionally domineering, but always behind a gentlemanly, self-contained demeanor. He calls his new sister-in-law Mrs. Demarest with rigid propriety. He never fails to pull out her chair, or stand when she enters. He watches her like a hawk.

So does young Geraldine Brooks, but in her case it is with fascination and with needy affection, that can be as pitiful as it as manipulative. Big sister Barbara takes her in hand, reassures her anxieties, and listens to her complaints about Uncle Errol. She listens hard. She also asks questions. What, for instance, is that closed-off wing of the house used for?
Why, it’s only Uncle Errol’s LABORATORY, silly.


What’s a gloomy mansion without a laboratory? Look in any real estate ad, you’ll find that listed as one of the perks.

Barbara discovers that Uncle Errol is some kind of scientist, and that he works mainly at night.

Working in a home laboratory mainly at night usually raises eyebrows among the neighbors.

This mansion set, by the way, is a great piece of work. Several levels, grand staircases, dark wood paneling. It must have been used again for another film; it’s too good not to use again.

We are never told the exact location of the estate, but it is mentioned that a nearby town is called Salem, and the family owns a townhouse in Boston, so I’m assuming this is probably the North Shore of Massachusetts. Maybe so. All I can say is Flynn’s Tasmanian accent fits in better here than in Dodge City.

While Barbara mulls over the circumstances of her chum/husband’s death (He supposedly died of pneumonia, which makes her wonder, why the closed casket?), she comforts Miss Brooks’ attack of nerves. The girl claims to hear a man’s tortured screaming in the night. Uncle Errol has told her these spells of hers are only nightmares. Miss Stanwyck might agree, the girl is quite emotional, but then Barbara starts hearing the screams of agony herself.

When Miss Brooks shows her Jim’s bedroom, Barbara notices that his collection of pipes, and his clothes are missing. She begins to wonder if the screaming at night has been coming from a still very much alive Jim. She wonders if he is in the LABORATORY.

Morphing into Nancy Drew, Barbara decides to sneak a look in the second floor LABORATORY. It is locked, so she waits until the dead of night, and hauls herself up in the dumbwaiter.

(Just as a bit of trivia, in the movie “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” (1997), Julia Ormond also gains passage into a secret room by pulling herself up in a dumbwaiter. In “Sabrina” (1954), William Holden suggests to Humphrey Bogart that they sneak Audrey Hepburn into his room via the dumbwaiter. Clearly this is a feminine trait. Can you think of any other movies where women are stuffed into dumbwaiters? Or men? Children? Small pets?)

Now that I’ve thoroughly distracted you, the dumbwaiter scene is quite tense, because she’s timed her entrance wrong, and Flynn is still in his lab. He discovers her presence (with the help of her reflection in a water cooler, and a missing hair comb), but does not let on he knows she is there. He plans to reel her in later.

This is not Miss Stanwyck’s only stunt. Later on she tries to enter the LABORATORY another way: by climbing out onto the wet slate roof in a skirt and heels. Okay, they’re low to medium heels, not high heels, but they’re still heels. She drops herself through a skylight. She lands like an acrobat, not a shoulder pad out of place.

Barbara Stanwyck loved doing her own stunts, and did them right on through her “Big Valley” days when she was in her early 60s. All the fence climbing, falling from a horse, running through a dark mansion in this movie was probably child’s play to Barbara.

Another round of subtle cerebral sparring with Errol over a round of cordials he makes himself according to an old family recipe called “tears of blood”, (yikes) we are confronted with new suspicions about both of them. Who has whose best interest at heart? We may wonder if Errol intends to poison her. But he kisses her.

“Purely research,” he says with a sneer. He wanted to see if his first impression of her was accurate. She slaps his face over his intentionally cryptic comment, but we begin to wonder is she is afraid of him, or only of what may be her feelings for him. He is probably the first man she has ever met who is her match in intellect, self discipline, and courage.

Then Geraldine Brooks is found dead on the terrace outside her bedroom window. Miss Stanwyck believes Mr. Flynn has killed her for her share of the inheritance.

Overhearing a conversation between him and his gamekeeper, she thinks she knows where Jim is being hidden on the estate, and she sets out to find him. When she does, we see her chum/husband is Richard Basehart, so fine at playing sensitive, even emotionally brittle roles, but his part is unfortunately small in this movie. At first he does not remember her, and he tells her he is being drugged.

After a while, he snaps out of it, remembers her, remembers his wrath for Uncle Errol, who is trying to steal his money and trying to kill him.

The movie ends with a bold escape, a recital of hushed-up family scandals involving a history of hereditary insanity (as common a plot device in old movies as creepy mansions and secret laboratories), and a final showdown between Miss Stanwyck, Mr. Basehart, and Uncle Errol.

It’s a movie whose plot is a bit weak in spots, but is enjoyable for excellent work by all the principle actors. Errol Flynn adds another offbeat movie to his resume, and it’s fun to see him in this role, but it’s really Stanwyck’s movie.

She had the ability, probably better than most of her contemporaries, to show deep and passionate emotion with very little histrionics or demonstrative methods. Not that she couldn’t all-out rant or flip out with the best of them, but in roles such as this one, she seethed, smoldered, suspected, and, in turn, was suspected, with effortless transparency. Like falling off a log for this dame. Or a skylight.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"That Forsyte Woman" - 1949

In That Forsyte Woman (1949), Errol Flynn gives a riveting performance as a jerk. He is a man of substantial self-importance, without humor or any self-effacing quality which might be termed human. And yet, he turns this characterization on its axis, and we find ourselves fascinated, and ultimately sympathetic with his very human flaws.

He plays Soames Forsyte in this dramatization of the John Galsworthy classic stories. Greer Garson is a lady of no particular age, whose loveliness in this role is tempered by her wretchedness, and a sordid realization that she has compromised on many levels the integrity we are meant to believe in her, hurting herself and others.

She is a piano teacher, poor and alone in the world, with only her beauty and her finer qualities of character to recommend her, who marries the snobbish Errol Flynn mainly because she is exhausted from refusing him, which she had done a number of times.

But we are told time and again in this movie that what Errol wants, Errol gets, through shear willpower and determination.

It probably does not need to be said, but one is compelled to note again how mind-blowingly handsome this man was.

Right, then. Continuing…

Though he beams with the triumph of ownership when she becomes his bride, Errol soon realizes with bitterness that a woman is not a piece of furniture or an object of art, or any pretty bauble that one buys and owns, because he cannot own all of her. He does not have her heart.

Walter Pidgeon is on board as Errol’s cousin and Greer’s sympathetic friend, and eventual soulmate. This is only right and proper; he is, after all, Walter Pidgeon.

Robert Young is a cheeky young architect engaged to Janet Leigh, who is Walter’s daughter. However (insert ominous chords of music here), Robert and Greer are scandalously attracted to each other, and fall in love. All told, there are three suitors in this film after Greer Garson. Not a bad gig.

Set in London in the 1880s, the film is rich with Victorian set dressing, lush costuming, gaslight, and impenetrable fog. We find ourselves in elegant drawing rooms, art galleries, and cold, stark artists’ studios.

The Forsytes are only a couple generations removed from working class people, but now they are the newly wealthy, and as stuck-up as possible, regarding every privilege as a birthright and every non-family member as an underling.

Harry Davenport plays Walter Pidgeon’s father, the patriarch of this stuffy clan. Walter, however, is banished from their company because he is the black sheep. For one, he is an artist, not a man of business. For another, he eloped with his baby daughter’s nursery governess after the death of his wife and ran off to Paris to paint. He left his daughter, Janet Leigh, in the care of his powerful family, who forbid him to see her.

There is so much to look at in this film, but one is always distracted by the elegant Errol Flynn, who wears his impatient pomposity like a monarch’s robe; something he has been born to, deserves, and never fails to parade. What finally induces Greer to marry him is possibly his enormous self-confidence. For many women, this is as much a lure of security as a healthy bank book.

This quality may be what Mr. Flynn understands most about the character and why he plays it so well. He was himself a man of prodigious self-confidence, a person for whom perhaps everything came easy. Boredom and restlessness result from this trait as much as does success. It can be a double-edged sword. It probably was in Flynn’s case.

What strikes the viewer is the playfulness, even more than the understanding, that he brings to this character. He seems to enjoy wearing a pince-nez. In one scene, he enters the dim hall of Greer’s boarding house, and his top hat smacks against the chandelier. He gives it a glance of longsuffering loathing, refusing to surrender his dignity. It is moment of comedy, and a glimpse into Flynn’s ability to be self-effacing even if Soames Forsyte is not.

His characterization is not parody, however. Mr. Flynn has another good scene over the dinner table with Greer on their wedding anniversary. He is chafing under her polite formality with him, knowing that despite her acquiescence to his every whim, including letting him choose her dresses for her, she cannot love him with the passion he seems to feel he has bought and paid for. We are meant to take it as a slight to his vanity throughout the film, for he never indicates his passion for her. It is only at the end of the movie we see his wounded heart and feel sorry for him.

Until then, he only displays irritability as a mask for his hurt feelings. At one point during the course of his brittle dinner conversation, a scene that shows marvelous restraint, he accuses her of forgetting their anniversary. When at last he discovers under a napkin the gift she has left on his plate, he is contrite and vulnerable. Flynn does excellent work in this tense scene.

Obviously, for purposes of the film, the Galsworthy stories are condensed and somewhat altered, but the movie is a good introduction to the troubled and tragic Forsyte family.

Greer becomes almost instantly attracted to Robert Young, who, open and fun-loving, a man who talks to children as an equal, is by nature the exact opposite of Mr. Flynn. He pursues her, and she refuses him because, more than the threat of scandal, she does not want to betray her beloved “niece,” Janet Leigh, who is like a companion to her. However, they are all tragedy bound.

Greer starts this film visiting a morgue, a haunted expression on her face, her eyes puffy. It is an unglamorous beginning. Though in some scenes she still produces gaiety with that trademark slip of laughter in her voice, she is for the most part an unhappy woman in this film. She is a victim of circumstances, of her own bad choices, and fate.

Walter Pidgeon is also tragic, but he appears as a more romantic figure for all his melancholy perhaps because, unlike Greer and Errol, he is true to his heart and honest about his feelings. He is a gentle, kindly man, humble about his artistic talent, who wants to reunite with his daughter. It is funny to think that in five years this dark-haired 40-ish dashing artist will become the gray-haired worn-out businessman in Executive Suite (1954) - see previous post here.

That is perhaps another fun thing about this movie, the great romantic intrigue, the jealously and passion are all played out by middle-aged characters. By contrast, the young Janet Leigh, groomed by MGM and kept busy in a number of films at this point in her career, seems callow and less interesting.

Here, Mr. Pidgeon is ultimately still Greer’s hero. Perhaps we would be disappointed if he were not. Clem and Kay Miniver are ghosts in every movie in which Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon appeared together after Mrs. Miniver. This was, I think, the sixth of eight total movies. No matter how compelling the magnificent Errol was, even he couldn’t break up the team.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Errol and Greer at Luncheon

(Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page to pause the music so you can hear the video.)

Have a look at this footage from MGM’s silver anniversary luncheon, where “more stars than there are in the heavens” sat down to dine, newsreel cameras rolling. Some of you may remember this clip as part of “That’s Entertainment” (1974).

What especially caught my eye this time was dinner partners Errol Flynn and Greer Garson. I don’t know if the seating was arranged, but may well have been. It could have been about this time that Mr. Flynn and Miss Garson were shooting “That Forsyte Woman” (1949), though I don’t remember her costume from that movie. However, a little ways away at another table we see Walter Pidgeon, also starring in that same movie, and his outfit, and mustache, do resemble the character he played.

We’ll be discussing “That Forsyte Woman” this coming Thursday as the first of two films in which we’ll examine Errol’s success in a couple of non-Errol type roles. The second film will be next Monday, “Cry Wolf” (1947).

Have a look again at Errol and Greer. One notices immediately that they are completely aware they are on camera, but unlike many other stars at this occasion, pretend not to be aware. Notice the casual, but so on-the-mark posing each does, good side to the camera. This is a fascinating look into two people who are at ease, self confident, and knowledgeable about the tools of the trade, their stunning good looks.

For all their stardom and the posing, there is still something quite irresistibly genuine about the great lady and the swashbuckler as the camera passes by them. In “That Forsyte Woman”, they both play less magnificent people, and, just as in this luncheon clip, seem playfully aware of their own superb magnetism.

See you Thursday. And a Happy Thanksgiving today to our chums in Canada.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Off Topic - Meet Me in Nuthatch

This is to announce (STOP BLARING THOSE TRUMPETS!!! I’m trying talk. Thank you.)

I wrote a book.

"Meet Me in Nuthatch", a novel of humor, warmth, Christmas tree farming, dressing up like it was 1904, and selling your small town to a theme park conglomerate is now issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle, and on Smashwords, available in a variety of tasty formats.

Here’s the blurb:

A publicity stunt to attract tourists to a small dying town (population 63), results in the entire community turning the clock back to 1904. It is local Christmas tree farmer Everett Campbell’s idea, after watching the film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” his young daughter’s new favorite movie. What begins as half practical joke and half desperate ploy initiates the rebirth of Nuthatch, Massachusetts. Tourists do come, along with the media. Everett’s resentful teenaged son rebels at living in the pretend past. His wife, a medical transcriptionist who works at home, a self-employed and self-professed loner, has panic attacks when tourists stop to take her picture. The town’s unofficial historian, a genteel septuagenarian, supports Everett’s scheme, but for personal gain.

To Everett’s dismay, his campaign to save their community results in also attracting representatives of a chain of theme parks who want to buy Nuthatch 1904. Everett now stands to lose his town in a way he never imagined, and the community is divided on which alternate future to choose. On the sidelines but ever encroaching toward the center is a local drug dealer, the longtime enemy of Everett and his best friend Bud, who discovers a new opportunity to threaten them and exploit the town, or its new owner.

The novel is mainly humorous, a bit poignant, a little sad, briefly scary, incidentally educational, and so gosh darn entertaining if you like that sort of thing.

You do not need a Kindle or other e-reader device, as both Kindle and Smashwords versions can be downloaded to your computer. Read a sample for free. Take it around the block. Kick the tires. See if you like it. Then if you want to commit, I’ve got a heck of a deal, just for you…I’ll let you take it home for $2.99. Because you’re my friend.

That’s MEET ME IN NUTHATCH on Kindle or MEET ME IN NUTHATCH on Smashwords. Be the first on your block.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Review: Rich Man, Poor Man: The Complete Collection DVD Set

Having conducted the contest over the past two posts for the prize of the newly released DVD of “Rich Man, Poor Man” The Complete Collection by A&E Home Entertainment, here are a few thoughts on the DVD and the miniseries that broke ground, broke records, but whose legacy was seemingly short-lived.

Short-lived mainly because, as the saying goes, they don’t make them like that anymore. The miniseries, a new and exciting form of television, is no longer produced. There are probably practical (money) reasons for this, but there are even more intangible ones, such as television today being vastly changed.

“Rich Man, Poor Man”, which aired on ABC for 12 weeks beginning in February 1976, was based upon the novel by Irwin Shaw published in 1970. It follows the family saga of the Jordache family, principally the fate of two brothers, from 1945 through the late 1960s.

For those of us who caught the series the first time around, we may first marvel that the era in which this saga unfolds was not merely history; at the time, it was memory. We ourselves were who teens or young adults in 1976 did not remember first-hand VE-Day or the political and social upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s, but we were not more than a generation separated from them.

To adults who experienced and were part of this colorful and tumultuous American popular history backdrop of the Jordache brothers, this miniseries was more than a 12-week prime time soap opera; it was a very personal trip down memory lane. Like the collage of memorabilia that decorates the opening titles of the beginning chapters, this show is a souvenir from our own lives.

A younger person today viewing the DVD set of this critically acclaimed and popular program will naturally feel a more remote attitude toward the events, but the pacing of the show may be even more difficult for them to appreciate. This was filmed long before the “attention deficit disorder” shots so common in film and television today, where the view is bombarded with a constantly moving camera. It was also filmed in the days where, though adult subject matter is portrayed, it is portrayed with discretion not employed today when we are bludgeoned with images to make sure we get it.

There is nothing exploitive or dumbed down in this series, and audience is given credit for having intelligence. In a much less cluttered television landscape (four channels), it was a show everybody watched about a book people were reading.

So much scope for intelligent discussion.

Nick Nolte, and Peter Strauss, who play the at-odds, different as night and day brothers, became stars as a result of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and the cast roster is loaded with 1970s television characters, as well as giants from the Hollywood heyday popping in and out of the different episodes. Veterans Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy Malone mix it up with newcomers Talia Shire, Susan Blakely, Dennis Duggan, and Lawrence Pressman.

Ed Asner took an astonishing 180-degree turn from grumpy-but-heart-of-gold Mr. Grant from the weekly series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to scoop up an Emmy award for his bullying, morose, and tragic immigrant father, Axel Jordache.

Robert Reed, Dick Sargent, and Bill Bixby left the safety of nice guy sitcom characters the public had known them for and showed a range that illustrated these men were experienced actors and not really the cardboard cutouts we had taken them for on their other gigs that paid the bills.

And yet, if these years in the middle of the “American Century” and these familiar names of nearly 35 years ago are remote to audiences in 2010, the larger theme of the rise and fall of these flawed human beings is as strong and passionate as ever.

Do we smile, even ruefully, at bombastic Ray Milland, department store mogul for bellowing, “This country’s on the crest of a wave!” as he tried to lure Peter Strauss from a job in academia to join Big Business? We might truly smile at his disgust over his doctors telling him he has some new-fangled illness. What was it? Oh, yes. “High cholesterol.” Did you ever hear of such nonsense? High cholesterol. What will they think of next?

We re-live the fear many smaller store owners had, such as the Jordaches with their bakery in the cellar, of the coming of the “supermarket” era and the urban renewal that destroyed old neighborhoods. (I love the detail of the blotch of flour fingerprints on the light switch plate at the top of the stairs in the Jordache home.)

Much later on in the series, when the brothers are united in a tragic moment, the ne’r do well Nick Nolte, who has found peace with himself, urges Peter Strauss to fight the good fight and go get the bad guys. By this time, the “good” brother, who as excelled in business, politics, and publishing, has fallen short of his early promise of idealism, and he laments, “I don’t know who they are anymore. I think I’m one of them.” The series held a mirror up to an inquiring and introspective America at that time, and this was perhaps chief among its accomplishments.

“Rich Man, Poor Man” still has the power to move, to illuminate, and to entertain. The style of 1970s film work or the big names which are no longer big names should not make this series a museum piece. It needs to be seen again, and now it can be.

This set of 9 discs released by A&E Home Entertainment includes Book I, the original 12-episode series from 1976, as well as Book II, the 1977 sequel in 22 episodes. The transfer of the video to digital is good, however I noted in one episode of Book I, where the diminished quality remaining from the original tape showed a few brief flaws on the DVD.

Peter Strauss does the commentary track in Episode 1 along with television historian David Bianculli. His comments are especially interesting, and run from noting how the style of long acting scenes would not be used today, noting the immediate success of the series, “Monday was ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ night”, and the series’ profound view of America in the postwar years.

He also notes his luck at working with two Hollywood veteran actress in his early career: Teresa Wright in the movie “Hail Hero” (1969) (he confesses having fallen in love with her from watching “The Best Years of Our Lives”), and Dorothy McGuire here, whom he calls a “beautiful, beautiful, elegant, charming woman.” Clearly, Mr. Strauss is a really swell guy.

For more of Peter Strauss’ astute observations and his trip down memory lane in the audio commentary, see episode 1 of this DVD set.

For more details on the “Rich Man, Poor Man”: The Complete Collection DVD set newly released by A&E Home Entertainment, have a look here.

FCC disclaimer: for purposes of review, this DVD set was provided by A&E Home Entertainment.

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