Monday, December 24, 2012

Peace Be With You

A very Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and a Happy New Year to all.  In appreciation for the pleasure of your company this past year, I’m offering my eBook collection of essays from this blog, “Classic Films and the American Conscience”here from Amazon for free Christmas Day through the 27th.  This will be the last time this book is offered free; in the new year it will be available not only through Amazon but also through Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Apple, Sony, Diesel, Kobo, and Smashwords.
I’m going to take a couple weeks off to tend to some other business, but I’ll be back in late January for another year of exploring and otherwise obsessively picking apart the carcasses of old movies.  I hope you can join me.
This is going to be a difficult Christmas for many who have suffered tragedy and loss this year; and for the people of Newtown, Connecticut, December will never ever be the same. 
A few weeks ago I blogged about “Cry Havoc” a movie which takes place in the Philippines during World War II.  I was reminded by many images through that film of my father. 
My father entered the Army in December 1942 and missed Christmas at home that year.  He had a wife and a new baby.  He was sent to the Pacific Theater of operations and island-hopped with all the rest of the gang, and Christmas of 1943 passed by, and then Christmas 1944.
There were no telephone calls home, no emails, only letters and tiny “V-Mail” notes that took weeks to get home.  He sent Christmas messages home in early November, hoping they would make it in time.
In the summer of 1945 he was in the Philippines, and endured horrific experiences he did not like to talk much about.  He also got malaria, which stayed in his bloodstream so that he continued to suffer a bout of it after he got home.  There were other injuries and wounds, but good news came when the Japanese surrendered, which was totally unexpected for regular GIs like my dad, who were convinced they’d be spending 1946, 1947, and 1948 still fighting the war. 
Now that peace was declared, his only enemy was time.  He wanted to get back home for Christmas 1945.
He had earned enough points to be rotated home.  Several weeks on a troop ship.  He passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which was the last thing he saw of the US when he left.  Now that he saw it again, he really believed he was home.
A few days being processed, and more days on the train because he lived on the other side of the continent.  After being in the jungle for three years, winter in the US was a shock, and his first telegram home contains the line, “COLD COUNTRY.” 
Leave it to a New Englander to squeeze in a comment about the weather in his first telegram to his wife.
Finally he arrived at Ft. Devens in the eastern part of Massachusetts, and a few more days of the mustering out process.  Medical exam, paperwork, ribbons and commendations, a clean uniform to home in, and finally a “ruptured duck” lapel pin to wear. 
But he lived in the western part of the state, so it was another train ride.  He sat in the station in Boston, waiting for his connecting train, and ate at a lunch counter.  The man behind the counter gestured to his ribbons and said, “You’re money’s no good here, son.  You’ve done enough,” and wouldn’t let him pay.
Decades later, my father still felt grateful, humbled, and embarrassed by the moment.
When the train pulled into the station, his wife and daughter were there on the platform.  His daughter wasn’t a baby anymore, but a little kid running around.  She had been told many times that the man in the portrait photo at home in the uniform was Daddy.  She got mixed up and thought anybody in uniform was Daddy and had to be told over and over again that, no, that’s not Daddy.
Finally her mother points to a tall, handsome guy stepping off the train and says, “There’s your Daddy.”  I’m thinking my sister, with all the wisdom of a small child thought, “Yeah, right.  Tell me another one.  I’m not falling for that again.”
It was January 1946.  He failed to get home for Christmas. 
In his last telegram he wrote “SORRY ABOUT THE HOLIDAYS.”  A real man sometimes apologizes for what isn’t even his fault.
My father was in his early 20s when he left.  He had fired weapons in war, but the experience did not make a man of him.  He was man because he had a family and took responsibility for them.  Responsibility is what made him a man, and he knew it.  He was good marksman, but he looked down on people who needed guns to make them feel manly, or make them feel safe.  It was a crutch for cowards, he thought.
I was tempted to use as a graphic an ad here published by an assault weapons manufacturer that inferred that manhood would be achieved by ownership of their product.  However, I refuse to print any words or images on this blog that are obscene.  That image and the message behind it are obscene.
My parents lost four Christmases, and the years ahead would not be easy.  As anybody knows, happy endings are only for movies.  But they accepted what they could not change, and tried to be resilient, and change what they could.
The people of Newtown must accept what they cannot change.
The rest of us must change what we can. 
Peace be with you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lady in the Lake - 1947

“Lady in the Lake” (1947) uses playful images of Christmas in that clever brand of sarcasm used by only the best private eyes.  And Robert Montgomery.
This is our second installment of A Very Gumshoe Christmas, and we take up where “Alias Boston Blackie” on Monday left off…from B-movie to classic noir.  The loner detective grows up, and grows cynical.  Christmas throws us off the trail from the start, but never Philip Marlowe.
There will be no plot spoilers, just a few impressions of an unusual and daring film. 
“Lady in the Lake” is famous foremost for its unique first-person camera view, and for discussions back and forth by fans for decades on how effective it is or isn’t.  Obviously, the camera has some limitations—for one, it does not accurately imitate the peripheral vision of the human eye.  Some scenes may seem slow or unintentionally comical to the modern viewer as the actors play directly to the camera.  But this wild experimentation is exactly what deserves our respect in an industry where “copycat” is the usual art form and risks are rare. 

Robert Montgomery, who we last saw here in “Night Must Fall”(1937) makes his official directorial debut with this movie, and also stars.  However, as he is playing the lead, detective Philip Marlowe, we see all the action from his viewpoint, but only see him a few times in the course of the film when he happens to look in a mirror. 


On another occasion, his shadow on a wall as he is talking with Audrey Totter is his stand-in.
This may make the film frustrating for Robert Montgomery fans who want to see him (the film was not a box office hit in part for this reason), but true fans of Mr. Montgomery should appreciate his ingenuity in crafting this film.


Audrey Totter, who we last saw here in “Tension” (1949), plays a complex role of a magazine editor who hires Montgomery to find the missing wife of her publisher boss, played by Leon Ames.  Miss Totter should have gotten some kind of prize for playing probably 99 percent of her work in this movie directly to the camera.  That is a workout, and she is a lot of fun to watch; at turns scowling, flirting, pleading, and seducing.  (Today is Miss Totter's 94th or 95th birthday - not sure of the year of birth.  According to IMDb website she is residing at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in California.  A very happy birthday to a terrific and fondly remembered actress.)


Lloyd Nolan is excellent as a tough cop.  He’s great in whatever he does, and I actually would have loved to have seen him take the lead and play Marlowe in this movie.  His down-and-dirty growl of a voice.
Tom Tully is the world-weary police chief.  Jayne Meadows is a standout as a mercurial, almost manic, woman who knows a lot more than she lets on. 
Dick Simmons is a smooth and deceptively friendly gigolo.  You can tell he's a gigolo by the striped jersey.
There are some lines tossed around that would make for a great movie no matter how it was filmed.  Audrey Totter, whose magazines are of the sensationalist pulp variety, complains to an underling that a new magazine cover design needs more gore. "Not enough gore."
Montgomery, recovering from being slugged by the Southern “gentleman” Dick Simmons remarks, “At least he had the decency to hit me above the Mason-Dixon line.”
And Lloyd Nolan’s remark, “How does it feel dying in the middle of someone else’s dirty love affair?”  I love that line.
Despite the restriction of actors playing directly to the camera, there are flashes of remarkable electricity to their performances, moments akin to a stage actor’s reactions.  Some of their responses and facial actions look almost improvisational. 
Because we are the camera’s eye, we see everything Montgomery sees.  Some of this gimmick is playful and funny, as when Montgomery’s leering glance follows Totter’s curvaceous secretary around the room, and with a sharp, somewhat jealous interjection by Totter, our attention is swiftly brought back to the mollified Miss Totter behind her desk.
Sometimes the gimmick is quite eerie, as when we discover bullet holes in a glass shower door, we approach and open the door, and our gaze rests upon bullet-gouged porcelain tiles in the shower stall, falling down upon the naked corpse crumpled on the floor.
Or when Montgomery, injured after a car wreck, crawls (and so do we), hand over hand, across a road to a phone booth that seems a mile away.
We are stared at.  We are flirted with.  We are punched in the face. We kiss Audrey Totter.  She serves us a highball. We notice a hundred different clues, and sometimes, as when Montgomery lifts a phone receiver to his mouth and talks, we look at nothing, like at the corner of a table, just as we would absently look at nothing while we are concentrating on a voice in our ear.
All this would be enough to make a fun and very different movie, but set during Christmastime, the director uses images of Christmas in a very cavalier and smart aleck way. 
We begin with the opening credits, which are title cards designed to look like Christmas cards.  Images of Wise Men, and holly, Santa, poinsettia, all the iconic graphics and over them, a medley of Christmas carols in uplifting choral arrangements that may make us think we are about to watch a heartwarming tale of love and repentance.  In a way, maybe, but it’s a crooked road to repentance.
As the credits finish and the Christmas carols end, the last title card reveals a handgun.  We were had.  Trust nobody.
We start three days before Christmas.  Robert Montgomery takes on a missing person job, that soon turns into a murder investigation.  All along the journey, though he is a man without family and evidently has no Christmas plans, the yuletide follows close on his heels, a shadow of irony.
We knock on doors and are faced with Christmas wreaths.  He remarks to the gigolo Simmons, “I like your tan.  It’s very Christmassy.”
We intrude upon an office Christmas party, where a reserved and gentlemanly Leon Ames hands out gifts to his employees. 


In a scene with Audrey Totter, Montgomery confronts her with conflicting evidence.  He demands she own up to secrets, and when he has found a gun that was used to murder, he hands it to her gift-wrapped as a gruesome present.  She plays the scene framed close to a desktop Christmas tree.  Christmas stays in the tense scene like a mocking clown.


Leon Ames takes him aside and want to hire him, too.  He nervously picks at the tinsel on the branch of a Christmas tree that juts out from the side of the frame.  Christmas is pushy, demands attention and will not be left out.
When we are arrested and interrogated by Tom Tully, Mr. Tully is interrupted by a phone call from home.  It is his little daughter, who wants Daddy to come home and help her put up her stocking.  With quick, wary glances to us, he indulgently listens to his daughter’s prattle, even helping her through her recitation of “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”  It is offbeat, funny, and very surreal.
I like the scene where, trying to escape Lloyd Nolan hovering in the police station hall, we duck into the press room and find a “journalist” lying on the table, speaking “pillow talk” into the phone to his lady friend, a Racing Form by his head. 
After a beating, a car wreck, and a belly full of people lying to him, Montgomery is saved by Audrey Totter, who responds to his emergency call and brings him, unconscious, to her apartment.   She gives him a Christmas present: a robe she had bought for another man.  Like earlier false clues that went nowhere, even the gift to him is not a gift to him.  Marlowe’s world is made up of lies.
On Christmas Day, they listen to “A Christmas Carol” on the radio, which was an annual event back in the day, though it doesn’t sound like Lionel Barrymore, and we blow streams of cigarette smoke as we regard Audrey Totter lying contentedly on the living room couch, her eyes drinking us in, across from where we are sitting. 

When the program ends, she snaps off the radio and resumes, as if picking up in mid-sentence, the tale of her hardscrabble life.  Only Scrooge could have interrupted her.  She asks Montgomery what he did last Christmas Eve.  He spent it in a bar.  She spent it in a nightclub.  This Christmas is an improvement, or should be if they weren't so depressed.  Christmas offers redemption, but you have to trust it.  These two lonely people have some serious trust issues.
I was a bit surprised at the can of pork and beans on the kitchen counter.  I would have thought Audrey Totter was decidedly not a pork and beans person.
Montgomery has one task left, and, spying his quarry window-shopping at a Christmas-decorated window, we have a final, very dramatic scene leading to the conclusion of the case.  The movie, like detective Philip Marlowe, is flawed, but has guts.  Teasing us with Christmas images in an otherwise grim movie is an irresistibly smartass thing to do.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Alias Boston Blackie - 1942

“Alias Boston Blackie” (1942) is the third in this series of 14 B-movies starring Chester Morris.  This one adds a yuletide flavor to the fast-paced action, though there is no peace on earth until the bad guys are rounded up.
This week we look at A Very Gumshoe Christmas.  Thursday we’ll discuss “Lady in the Lake” (1947).  Because both films are mysteries, there’ll be no plot spoilers.  That’s my Christmas present to you.  Instead, we’ll have a look at how both movies use symbols of Christmas.
Boston Blackie originated as a popular pulp novel series, then to silents, and then to this long series of B-movies begun in the 1940s starring Mr. Morris, who got his start on stage, had some success on Broadway, and later on did lots and lots of TV guest roles.  His film career started off well in features, but then he slipped into the B-movie morass and never quite got out of it.  He is a lively, rugged, and glib Boston Blackie, a former jewel thief and safecracker who is now on the side of good.
George E. Stone plays The Runt, his right-hand man and valet, also a former crook.  You may recognize him from his role as Andy, Warner Baxter’s right-hand man in “42nd Street” (1933).
It’s Christmas.  We come upon Blackie in a cozy scene, first spied through the windows, trimming his very large tree.  You have to have a shot of a tree through the window.  Sometimes I go outside at night to look at my lighted tree through the window.  In Hollywoodland, all rooms are about 20 feet high, and so of course, Christmas trees are always 20 feet high.
You see him here delicately flopping handfuls of what some of my relatives would call “the really good tinsel, with lead in it, so it hung right.”
First, a few presents.  Then the story.
Boston Blackie and The Runt are off to prison tonight, but only as a good deed.  They are taking a vaudeville troupe to perform for the convicts on Christmas Eve. 
One of chorus girls, played by Adele Mara, has a brother in the Big House, and she’s worried about him.  He keeps threatening to break out and go after the two mugs who sold him out.  He claims he was framed and is innocent. 
Her brother, played by Larry Parks, who you may remember from his much more famous later role in “The Al Jolson Story” (1946) used to be a vaudeville acrobat.   This comes in handy when he jumps a clown, puts on his clown suit and makeup, performs some really neat acrobatics for the audience of mugs, and sneaks out of prison on the same bus as the vaudeville troupe.  It’s not easy, because the dogged Inspector is along, played by Richard Lane.  The inspector is always hounding Blackie, though their relationship is equally friendly as it is adversarial. 
Blackie tells him, “Every morning when I shave I expect to find you in my tube of soap.  And when I come to something hard in the turkey stuffing tomorrow, I’ll look for your head.”
Keep an eye out for a young Lloyd Bridges, who is the bus driver.
Blackie suspects something’s up.  Hmm, there’s something familiar about that clown.  He knows for sure when Larry Parks, after a very sloppy fight, steals his clothes.  Blackie is left in his unmentionables.  You know Christmas is starting out badly when a very angry clown takes your suit.
A fun movie, with clever shell games and with lots of twists and turns.  Literally, when the final chase sequence begins in the hunt to find the two mugs Larry Parks wants to kill for framing him.  Boston Blackie, the Runt, and Adele Mara steal a motorcycle and sidecar, and eventually a black and funereal-looking ambulance, crash through some obligatory fruit stands and nearly drive over a sidewalk Santa. 
Santa is a reminder-on-the-run that it’s Christmas Day.  We also have a neat little tree in the lobby of Adele Mara’s hotel, and a cozy little tabletop tree in the police station.  Just warms your heart, doesn’t it?
But none can compare to the magnificent evergreen towering over the furniture and the party guests, which include the Inspector (good will toward men, after all), at Boston Blackie’s party.
Even tough guys celebrate Christmas.  We’ll see more of that in the innovative manner Christmas images are used in the unusual “Lady in the Lake” on Thursday. 


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Never Wave at a WAC - 1953

“Never Wave at a WAC” (1953) is an improbable confection, more slapstick than sentiment, but in its way shows a military haven for women that is more promising and more egalitarian than the civilian world.  This message is a happy by-product, for most of the film is really just a fun comedy with no pretensions, except those espoused by a delightfully over-the-top Rosalind Russell.
This is our fourth and final film in our series on women in the military.  Have a look here for “KeepYour Powder Dry” (1945), “Cry Havoc” (1943), and “Skirts Ahoy” (1952) which we covered Monday.
Miss Russell plays a glittering Washington society hostess, hobnobbing with the hoi polloi and dropping more names per second than there are in the phone book.  Charles Dingle, who I always associate with his splendid role in “The Little Foxes” (1941), plays her father, who is a Senator. 
We begin at a party in their home.  Roz descends the staircase like Auntie Mame, and the movie could be subtitled “Auntie Mame Gets Drafted”.  She’s fluttery and fabulous, impervious to any standards but her own.  She’s stunning in her gown, with her tall, willowy figure, one of the few grand ladies of Hollywood’s heyday to be equally comfortable in messy physical comedy, which comes later in the movie.
The funniest parts of the film come at the beginning, when we see her in a brisk montage of scenes where she is called upon to fulfill her typical Washington hostess duties, donating an ambulance to the Red Cross, dedicating a water fountain on the Mall.  She glances up at the White House, and sees President Harry Truman in the window, waving at her.  She tilts her head becomingly and blows him a kiss.  She knows everybody.
By the way, the shots of D.C. in 1953 are pretty neat.  Look at the White House without a fence.  The filmmakers must have gotten permission to shoot at the national monuments, denied the crew of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) which we discussed here.
Everybody is “Darling” and everybody is air-kissed, and she is breezy, effective, able to juggle a million things at once, including pausing mid-conversation to pose for a photo, which she does with comic regularity.  Her world is shallow, and she is perfectly at home here.
But our Roz is not without her discontent. Her new beau, an Army officer played by William Ching, is being sent to Paris, along with her rival for his affections played by Hillary Brooke.  Miss Brooke arrives at the party in a WAC uniform, crowing that she, too, has been assigned to Paris.
The party becomes a bust when Roz’s ex-husband, the affable, but too down to earth to be worthy of her chic, Paul Douglas, arrives to retrieve some of his belongings.  Somewhere amid the shouting and the breaking of glass, we learn that they had an impetuous honeymoon camping on an island.  The Robinson Crusoe setting, and their love, made her think he was dashing, instead of just a sloppy scientist, and made him think she was a spirited, can-do girl and not a phony, shallow social climber.
They were both right and both wrong, and it takes a battle over basic training to make them see that.
Papa Charles Dingle thinks Roz should be brought down a peg, and tricks his daughter into joining the WAC, saying he will arrange a commission for her so she can be with her fiancĂ© in Paris.  The idea of captain’s bars from Tiffany’s and a Hattie Carnegie-designed tailored uniform is what appeals to her.  She joins, unwittingly, as a private and finds herself among women who have no idea how important she is, nor do they seem to care.
Except for one, a very sweet ex-model and stripper from New York, played by Marie Wilson.  I inevitably see her as Irma in the radio show “My Friend Irma”, with that distinctive cute voice.  She has escaped from her seedy world, as she really is a nice girl, and wearing not much but fruit in strategic places on her body was upsetting to her.  She seeks the safety of the WAC, where unfortunately she continues to be pursued by a most persistent wolf, a happy-go-lucky sergeant played by Leif Erikson.
I really like Norma Busse in a small role as the sergeant interviewing Marie Wilson.  She is patient, and diligent, soft-spoken, and awkwardly ferrets out Marie’s talents and interests to find a spot for her in the WAC that will match her abilities.  Marie wants to be a spy.  Sgt. Busse is quite comically delicate, both in her surprise, and in her doggedly trying to find a job for this square peg.
Louise Beavers has a very small role as part of Rosalind Russell’s household staff, Regis Toomey shows up briefly as a guest, and Bess Flowers is at the party somewhere, probably dumping hors d'oeuvres into her purse.  You can’t take her anywhere, even if she’s everywhere.
The most auspicious cameo goes to General of the Army Omar Bradley.  I don’t know how he was persuaded into appearing in this film.  The movie was produced by Rosalind Russell’s husband, Frederick Brisson.  Maybe he had the General on speed dial.
Paul Douglas, the ever-reliable everyman of the 1950s, is also actually in the Army, as a scientist working on perfecting protective clothing.  Jealous over Roz’s plans with her new beau, he arranges for her to be one of his “volunteers” for his special arctic gear tests. 

We find Roz in a deep freeze chamber marching halfway across an imaginary Alaska, and enduring the rigors of obstacle courses until the very funny, blithe and whimsical, la-de-dah demeanor she entered the Army with becomes sullen, sour, and suspicious.  The transformation is understandable, but it’s as if we’re watching two people and we’ve lost track of who they are.
Though this film is really along the lines of screwball comedy, it actually shows Rosalind Russell engaging in physical challenges, even weapons firing — activities which were absent from the other films we’ve seen in this series.
We follow Roz as she begins with a physical examination, including a funny bit where she sits on the exam table, smoking, while the doctor tells her to inhale and exhale.
However, reminiscent of “Keep Your Power Dry”, we follow Roz as she silently drives by panties drying on a wash line outside the ladies’ barracks.  Apparently eight years later, there is still some curiosity about WAC unmentionables.
The ladies undergo swimming classes, like in “Skirts Ahoy”.  Like Esther Williams, Roz denounces the suits in preference to her own, saying, “I’m allergic to Army wool.”  It’s cute that she shows up at the pool with an armful of magazines, thinking she is going to lounge.
We also have a dance party scene, where Marie Wilson gets engaged to her favorite wolf, and Roz serves refreshments.
Unlike the physical training for the ladies in the other movies, which was challenging but ultimately character-building, Roz’s extreme training under the sadistic eye of her jealous ex-husband is only demoralizing.  It is not until the end of the film she realizes she had made good here, and that Paul Douglas is the man for her.  We also, as in “Keep Your Powder Dry” and “Skirts Ahoy”, have a board of inquiry scene, but Roz, despite a gallant defense by a contrite Paul Douglas is booted out of the WAC. 
Improbably, but with a charming nod to screwball comedy, she escapes from her beau’s car and leaps into a passing truck with new WAC recruits in it.  She wants to join again, and hopes that, since Paul Douglas is going to be sent to Korea to work on his experiments, that she might be sent there, too.
Unlike “Skirts Ahoy” we acknowledge the existence of a conflict in Korea and that it might pose some danger to Paul Douglas.  Also unlike “Skirts Ahoy”, we see a parade of female military personnel marching in desegregated units.
In this series we’ve seen what amounts to “message films”, even the comedies, because women in the military were new and a conservative public usually eschews the new.  The message of military experience, even a career, being beneficial both to women and society is filtered through some stereotypes of women’s abilities that serving in the military was supposed to smash.  It’s a vicious circle, but one that women, for the most part, have been able to climb out of through decades of service to our country.
I think one of the most inspiring screen messages promoting society’s acceptance of women in the military comes not through these movies, but from a different, perhaps unlikely, source.  This is the movie “Since You Went Away” (1944), covered here, which dramatizes the American home front.
Claudette Colbert is flattered when Joseph Cotten paints a picture of her dressed in a WAVES uniform for a Navy Department recruiting poster.  Well, she’s flattered until she realizes it’s a cheesecake pose.
Her teenage daughter, played by Jennifer Jones, strolls with her boyfriend, played by Robert Walker, and puts his overseas cap on her head.  She says thoughtfully, “If I were three or four years older I could be a WAVE.”
Walker displays no sense of shock or disapproval, bemusement or condescension, only nods, “Yeah, or a WAC.”
These are supposed to be nice, Middle Class Americans, church-going and righteously avoiding the black market, and do not hoard SPAM.  If they act as though women in the military are no big deal, then it must be a swell thing.
But my favorite moment is when, in the crowded train station, we observe a little girl making friendly conversation with an Army MP.
“My mommy’s a sergeant!”
That, as they say, makes it official.
Thanks for joining me on this quick-march through women in the military in World War II and the Korean War-era films. 

At ease.
Come back next week when we get ready for A Very Gumshoe Christmas.


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