Thanks so much for those who wracked their brains to come up with some answers for our look at running boards last Thursday, and well done.
Yes, the publicity photo is Joan Crawford back in the early days of her career.
A - “Conflict” with Alexis Smith and Charles Drake (I can never fool Caftan Woman). This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, only because they are both sitting on opposite running boards. Yes, I am that easily pleased. Have a look here for our previous post on “Conflict.”
B - The Three Stooges in “How High is Up” (1940). This was one of my favorites in childhood because they lived under their car. Yes, I am that easily pleased. They are tinkers by trade, but find themselves accidentally hired to work as riveters on a construction site. Only if you are a fan of the Stooges will this make any sense.
C - This one wasn’t quite fair of me. I don’t know the actor sitting in frustration on the running board, but it’s from the Laurel and Hardy short “Highway Havoc”. The unknown gentleman and his companions are only a few of many motorists in a highway traffic jam made worse by the boys. If anyone had actually been able to answer this one, I would have turned over the keys to this blog.
D -Fred MacMurray in “Remember the Night” (1940). Must have been a good year for running boards. Have a look at our previous post here.
Monday, January 30, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Oh, running boards, how wonderful they were. How stylish, and yet functional. The above photo is not from a movie, but is a publicity shot. Can you name the actress?
And while we're at it, name the following actors and actresses, and films, in which these famous running boards appear. There are so many things you can do on a running board....
Proposing marriage on dual running boards. Is there anything in the world so romantic?
You can have your pals help you take off your sweater while you are sitting on a running board.
You can express consternation and your profound disillusionment with life while sitting on a running board.
Or, you can just milk a cow.
Truly, the possibilities are endless.
Monday, January 23, 2012
“More Than a Secretary” (1936) is like a time travel adventure. It is impossible to watch this movie about the editor of a fitness magazine without being reminded of the all-pervasive diet industry and social consciousness about health today. The setting is1930s screwball patter, and man-crazy dumb blondes who connive to marry (or be kept by) their bosses. We travel back and forth through time in every scene, reevaluating our perspective, old and new.
Today’s post is part of the Comedy Classics Blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Have a look here for a schedule of the other participating blogs.
January, typically a month for resolutions about changing one’s life, and being deluged with diet and fitness ads and infomercials, is an especially fitting time to watch Jean Arthur try to change herself. She runs up against the extremely high standards of George Brent.
In fact, considering how much I type and have typed through the decades since, that one semester of Typing 101 in high school was probably the most beneficial and practical class I ever took.
And working for so many years (ago) on a manual typewriter, I have fingers like Hercules. I continually wear out flimsy plastic computer keyboards. I run through them like Kleenex. I could crush you like a bug.
But Jean’s and Ruth’s students, or at least some of them, do not envision decades of typing, or any career at all. They are there to learn the skills that will get them jobs as executive secretaries to rich businessmen, and then marry them. Or be kept as mistresses.
Dorothea Kent comes pretty close to stealing this movie.
She had a less than stellar career in B-movies as the dumb friend, but here her “Maisie” character, despite the high-pitched whine and clueless attitude, is really quite street-smart and self-sufficient. She knows what she wants, and she goes out and gets it. Also, coloring her dumb blonde act is a biting nastiness that makes her fascinating, even as you want to club her for her blatant rudeness to Jean. Her supposedly obtuse double entendres are perfectly executed. She blithely but with a spin of sophistication talks of the corporate head to whom she finally becomes…indispensible. “You’ll never know how he leans on me.”
For Jean Arthur, 1936 was a busy year. In this one year she did five movies. Along with this one there was “The Plainsman” (see our previous post here), “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford”, “Adventure in Manhattan” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”. Each role was different, and we see that though the studio system could be something like a conveyor belt of sameness in roles for many actors and actresses, Jean refused to cooperate with studio head Harry Cohn enough times to forge her own mark on her career.
It is as if she is still working through the transition of so many earlier roles where she played the sad but forthright heroine seeking love (“Danger Signals” 1930) or justice (“Party Wire” - 1935) to the working girl whose delightful sense of irony is her self-preservation (“Public Hero #1” - 1935) and (“If You Could Only Cook” - 1935).
The further along in her career she got, the more of the world’s troubles she took on her shoulders and she became the moral compass of screwball comedies. “Mr. Deeds” and “Mr. Smith” were ahead of her, but by then she would be ready for them.
Here she has George Brent, who might not seem like the answer to this frustrated businesswoman’s prayers. We last saw Mr. Brent here in "My Reputation". I think I really prefer him in light comedy to drama. He has nice touch with slightly absurd characters. Here, his delightfully serious naiveté, despite the science of his health beliefs, both maddens and appeals to her.
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. George. Jean. He mistakes her for another applicant, and brusquely runs her through a quick job interview. Intrigued, she decides to play along and take the job, and see what this weirdo is all about.
Much to the consternation of her business partner, Ruth Donnelly, who wonders why she would leave her business to take a lousy $25 a week job.
We see, before Ruth does, before Jean does, that she is smitten with George Brent.
He treats to her a lunch of a bran muffin, and a vegetarian supper. I think my favorite line is when, half-starved she buys groceries on the way home and, tired about hearing how her regular diet is bad for her, plucks an enormous raw steak out of her shopping bag. Just before dropping it in the frying pan, gives it an enthusiastic kiss,
“Steak, come kill mama!”
Much of George Brent’s health regimen is used for comic effect, too ridiculous in 1936 to be taken seriously. Today, in a US where obesity has become common, many people watching this film now probably are on diet restrictions for various medical concerns. What was once freakish became fad, and now has become a matter of life or death for a lot of people.
Another facet of George Brent’s rigid outlook is his refusal to use images in his magazine that are sexual. He is a proponent of bodily grace and physical perfection, but the idea of using cheesecake to illustrate his articles is abhorrent to him. Jean has to turn him around on this one and convince him that a little glamour will sell more magazines.
Today, our magazines images (as well as articles) are examples as to how sex sells. Poor George would be aghast.
But George’s modern ideas on health and Victorian ideas on how to sell it are only the least of Jean’s problems. Dorothea Kent comes back into her life with a vengeance.
Her boss, whose wife is returning from Europe, must get rid of her for a while, and palms her off on the unwitting George Brent. Mr. Brent hasn’t the sophistication to deal with so avid a man-chaser and so inept a secretary as our Dorothea. He is overwhelmed by her, and hasn’t the mettle to send her packing.
He succumbs to her…charms.
He makes Jean his assistant editor to keep both ladies happy, and Jean makes good at this new challenge, but is crushed that he now spends his days, and nights, with Dorothea. Dorothea has another good scene where she insults Jean through the sheerest gauze of innocence, “And you actually thinking you had a chance with him,” she laughs. You want to sock her.
Jean is more angry at herself for not being able to compete with such fluff. In her way, she is very much like George Brent, a lover of order and routine, a hard worker, and a social misfit. She quits, and there are layers to her disgusted remark to Brent, “You’re such a fool.”
Here George finally figures out he loves her and wants her back. He pushes the ambitious Dorothea Kent onto the big boss, Charles Halton.
A couple of fun period items in this movie - Brent’s Art Deco office furniture, and the trailer or “land yacht” Jean and Ruth buy to travel and start over.
Ruth exclaims, “If I’d known how much fun it was to quick work, I wouldn’t have slaved the last 18 years without a vacation.”
Jean shows us how not to park a car with a land yacht attached to the back of it.
I love George Brent’s look when Dorothea Kent returns unexpectedly just as Jean is about to come back into his life. It is a priceless expression of horror and dread. All he needs is one of Curly’s “Nyah, Nyah, Nyah” groans of anxiety to complete it.
The scene where, brooking no more nonsense, Jean (“The time has come.”) spanks Dorothea like the naughty child she is, and tells her that, “I can’t bear looking at you!” -- is a resounding moment of screwball retribution.
A cute ending, and one in which Jean finally gets to shed her somber mood, is when she’s about to explode and cut into Brent, but the morning calisthenics interrupt her. Like the other office automatons, when given the order by Lionel Stander to inhale and begin the stretching exercises, she unthinkingly extends her arms. Brent grabs her in a cuddle, and her “exhale” position is to wrap her arms around him.
See? Exercise is good for you. It makes you feel better.
Don’t forget to check out the other great posts in the Comedy Classics Blogathon.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
MYTHS OF THE MODERN MAN will be FREE exclusively on Amazon.com. This is an ebook, which can be downloaded to your Kindle or your computer via Kindle PC software (which is also free from Amazon). Read a couple reviews here at the Library Thing website.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
This is to announce next week's "comedy classics" blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association.
On Monday, we're going to take on "More Than a Secretary" (1936) with Jean Arthur, George Brent, Ruth Donnelly, Dorothea Kent, and Lionel Stander. Jean plays the owner of a secretarial school who becomes the secretary of the editor of a health magazine. It's typical 1930s screwball, and yet curiously far-seeing when we get a load of editor George Brent's healthy lifestyle.
Visit the Classic Movie Blog Association website here for a list of the other participating blogs.
Monday, January 16, 2012
“Two-Gun Man from Harlem” (1938) creates a world for us that is both strange and familiar, an image placed over another image. We see a separate world, but it is our world and we are at home here, even if we are not cowboys, even if we are not black, even if we are not white.
This movie is one of a handful of B-westerns starring Herb Jeffries, and the first of a series of three featuring him playing the cowboy called Bob Blake. We discussed Mr. Jeffries in this previous post, how his stature as The Bronze Buckaroo, the Singing Cowboy of the Black Cinema in the 1930s put him on par with the likes of Gene Autry and a posse of others who were all white and all more famous.
The Bronze Buckaroo traveled in somewhat different circles. He rode the range in movie houses that played to African-American audiences. General audiences, i.e. theaters where patrons were either mostly white, or, as in the South, all white, were not shown these films.
They missed out on something big, those white patrons. A simple message a lot of them would have to wait another 20 or 30 years to hear, and under much more turbulent circumstances. If they had only seen Herb Jeffries riding into town on his white horse to save the day, heard him sing “I’m a Happy Cowboy”, one wonders if the battles for social justice fought in the streets and on the back of the bus, and at the lunch counter would have been necessary.
Not that “Two-Gun Man from Harlem” was the greatest movie in the world. It wasn’t even the greatest movie in the small neighborhood movie houses where it played. It was typical B-western.
That is its charm, and the very magic of its power.
Miss Whitten is the guardian of her younger brother, Matthew “Stymie” Beard, who you’ll recognize as one of the Little Rascals. Here, he’s a funny, talkative, know-it-all kid who hero-worships Herb Jeffries.
And who wouldn’t?
That’s all pretty standard for a B-western. The writing is stilted and corny. The acting isn’t the best. The production values are distinctly low budget. Even the fight scenes are funny because they lack proper choreography, and the sound effect of the punching sounds a lot somebody slapping a tennis ball against a garage wall.
previous post with a clip of his “Let My People Go” in “Sullivan’s Travels”), plays the sheriff.
He is a man of authority, no-nonsense, steely-eyed, but fair. You can put your life in his hands. He always gets his man.
Films exhibited for “general” audiences did not show dark-skinned sheriffs. Nor dark-skinned rapacious landowners paying off henchmen. Nor dark-skinned cowboy heroes.
Which is why when offered a chance to “pass” in the movies, light-skinned Herb Jeffries, who was of mixed African and European heritage on his father’s side, and Irish on his mother’s side, refused. He did one better and wore darker makeup on screen. Mr. Jeffries reasoning was:
White audiences, however, missed out on a revelation. The hero, the villain, the pretty girl, the hero-worshiping little boy were all people they knew very well. They saw them all the time at the movies. The only difference -- the only difference -- was skin color.
About ten minutes into the movie, one sees that is no difference at all.
Powerful stuff, and not what some people wanted to hear.
For more on Herb Jeffries, have a look at his website.
Wishing you a meaningful Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
“California Conquest” (1952) features Teresa Wright as a pants-wearing, deadeye shot in the days before California’s annexation to the U.S. This may be the movie’s chief delight as the delicately feminine heroine of 1940s Hollywood took that precarious turn into 1950s longsuffering wife/neurotic spinster roles. Here, as an interlude between those eras in her career, she rides, shoots, and saves Cornel Wilde from whipping by shooting dead the bad guy.
This is nothing if not refreshing.
Most of the movie, however, belongs to Cornel Wilde as the dashing nobleman of Mexican heritage who runs guns and organizes a movement for California to become part of the U.S. The people of Mexican ancestry are all called Californians here, to distinguish them from Mexicans who live below the Rio Grande, the part of Mexico we didn’t snatch in the Mexican War. Teresa Wright is called an American here. She is not a Californian, though she lives here with her gunsmith father, who sells guns to Cornel Wilde’s political movement.
The “good” Californians want to be Americans. The “bad” ones want to stay part of Mexico, or, failing that, to become part of the territorial designs of Imperial Russia, which also has settlements here. Got that, class?
John Dehner plays the head bad guy, a bad Californian who wants his brother to be Governor. Graft is so much easier when you’ve got a relative in power.
The two lead “Californians” then are played by Wilde and Dehner, neither of which in real life are of Spanish/Mexican heritage. A large cast of Spanish-speaking actors play minor, mostly nameless characters, with the exception of Alfonso Bedoya, who plays Jose Martinez, the head goon of John Dehner.
Hollywood casted movies by its own caste system. We’ve seen it before. In one scene, Teresa Wright watches a street fight, standing behind two stoic Indians, also watching. Were they Modocs or Washoes? Shoshonis or Yokuts? Who knows, they are not considered Californians, either.
The movie attempts to be a lot of things: a swashbuckling adventure, an historical picture, and to be sure, gets off on the right foot with the title exposed by a man’s hand swiping a glittering blanket of gold coins off the table. A vivid storybook-ish image. In parts, the movie has all the panache of a Saturday kiddie matinee adventure flick.
But we’ve got a lead actress of Teresa Wright’s caliber, so she can’t just sit around twisting a hanky in her hands. This film, to its credit, give her lots of action, too. When her gunsmith father is murdered, she joins Wilde to go after the killer. Wilde is distressed at her men’s attire, which he calls “horrible”, but seems to be unruffled by her gun fighting skills, which seem to be better than his.
The villains are one-dimensional, and the interesting story of the rivalry of three powers - US, Russian, and Mexican all converging in this rich land is pretty much lost in characters spitting out simplistic facts as plot exposition at convenient moments. Maybe the movie attempts too much, or maybe not enough.
Teresa Wright says to Wilde, “I wonder if we Americans will ever understand you people.” To which Wilde replies, “You don’t have to. It’s more important that we understand you.”
Placards of official dogma make for an easy, and lazy, explanation of why the characters are going from point A to point B, but they do nothing to flesh out even the characters’ motivations, let alone the complexities of political reality.
It is easier to focus on the beautiful rugged terrain, which we see much of behind swarms of hard-riding Californians chasing each other on horseback. We see the elaborate Spanish dress of the nobles at the ball, where a specialty act performs a beautiful, passionate dance.
Mantillas and ruffled shirts, and sword fighting out on the red-tiled patio among the potted yucca plants. The guy in tight burgundy pants slays the guy in tight purple pants. No blood. Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn did it better.
The ball brings Mr. Wilde and Miss Wright together again, and he marvels with relief that she looks more like a girl in her virginal white ball dress. There’s no romance yet; that doesn’t happen until they’ve been on the trail a few days, looking for the bad guys, and stop to rest in a hayloft. She’s back to a skirt for this scene, and well, there’s just something about haylofts. Instantly they are in love and planning a future life together.
But first, they trick the gang of bandits into leading them to the stolen guns, and John Dehner, and a Russian Count and Princess who are agents of the Czar. When the Princess balks at this pants-wearing female pointing a gun at her, Miss Wright, with absolutely no vestige of Peggy Stephenson left in her, remarks: “Lady, this gun will shoot anybody. It’s not particular.”
I love that line and her world-weary delivery.
Wilde is an almost too-cheerful hero, as if he is Robin Hood instead of a revolutionary, but since this movie drifts along on the mood of a kiddie matinee, his happy bravado is suitable, and the stereotype villains are serviceable, and the action is all we need to kill time.
It’s Teresa Wright who doesn’t quite fit, and not because she wears pants and a gun holster (which was probably a selling point for her to take this role). She’s too troubled for these shallow types around her, on a higher plane (and not the hayloft), where the deeper issues of California’s annexation await her consideration, figuring out what all this really means for her. She’s far too intelligent an actress to be stuck in this pop-up book.
Explorer John Fremont, the only real historical figure, shows up at the ball, despite the bandits that overturn his stagecoach, and tells the “good” Californians that the US will not annex California because Mexico is a neighbor and friend.
The Mexican War, from which we snagged a good chunk of Mexico, including California, would seem to contradict his assertion. Did anybody at the kiddie matinee catch that? Or did the kids in their red felt cowboy hats just knock back another handful of jujubes and cheer for the hard riding “good” Californians who, like they in school, pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and dreamed of cementing their heroism by pointing a gun in a haughty Russian’s face? Ah, 1952. Gotta love it.
Monday, January 9, 2012
The Chicago Theatre, so grand and magnificent a building it was dubbed “the Wonder Theatre of the World” at its opening in 1921. The first of its kind, it became a prototype for a generation of “movie palace” theater construction. It stands today as a reminder of that era of remarkably beautiful buildings.
French Baroque, the theater features murals, a replica of the Arc de Triomphe sculpted on its State Street side. The grand lobby, five stories high, is modeled after the Royal Chapel at Versailles. The grand staircase is reminiscent of the Paris Opera House. One wonders if anything on stage could be half so diverting as the venue?
Movies were the order of the day, and “The Sign on the Door” was the debut flicker with Norma Talmadge on October 26, 1921, accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra in the pit, and a thundering Wurlitzer pipe organ.
A showcase not just for movies, live entertainment shared the auditorium with bands such as Duke Ellington’s and Benny Goodman’s.
Then, as we have noted with so many of these theater histories, the 1970s came. Then the 1980s. They brought disuse, decay, but this theater managed to escape the third D - demolition. The Chicago Theatre was restored and reopened in 1986. Frank Sinatra performed at the gala reopening, and the future for this theater finally seemed as bright as its past.
For more on the Chicago Theatre, including detail and photos on its spectacular interior, have a look at this website.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) is a fun and frothy pastiche uniting the two themes upon which the reputation of that town is built: gambling, and nightclub acts. We get a little of the first, and a lot of the second.
Today we wrap up a two-post trip to Las Vegas. Have a look here at Monday’s post on Las Vegas Story (1952). From that black and white crime story we move on to color, lots and lots of colors.
Dan Dailey is a happy-go-lucky rancher who drives his coral convertible, with the matching horse trailer, to visit the casinos. Where he is not lucky at all. He is well known and well liked for being a good loser, and only a loser. But a swell guy.
But what sets Mr. Dailey apart is not his dancing; it’s his screen personality. Astaire and Kelly were both famous for playing confident wise guys who turned out to be nice underneath the wisecracking. Dan Dailey always seemed more sensitive, even troubled, a guy who really wasn’t that confident, but whose tenderness was never hidden. He is never a card sharp or gamester on the make in this movie. He’s a frequently obtuse stumblebum, something Astaire and Kelly never played.
Cyd Charisse is a ballerina appearing at the casino where Mr. Dailey is losing his money. She’s a fish out of water here, just trying to make some dough herself in a world about which she knows nothing. She has several opportunities to dance in this movie, ballet, a jazzy “Frankie and Johnny” routine (narrated and sung by Sammy Davis, Jr.), and a very funny impromptu venture into burlesque. Having had too much to drink, she invades a parade of lady hoofers dressed in gaudy costumes representing “lucky charms”.
The plot is about as simple as they get. Dan Dailey, who believes in luck even though he doesn’t have any, grabs the hands of passing ladies, in lieu of a rabbit’s foot, while the roulette wheel spins. The only time it works is when he lunges for the hand of a passing Cyd Charisse. He insists she is his lucky charm.
She thinks he’s loony and angrily tries to discourage him, but when she relents to give the experiment a try, they discover that, yes, every time at any game he plays, if he’s holding her hand, he wins.
They start winning all over the place, up and down The Strip. Miss Charisse, at first attracted by the money, is secondly attracted by this new world she’s discovering outside the rehearsal hall. Her life thus far has been very disciplined, with no time for play. Now she sees how the other half lives, and she likes it. I like her line when, seated in a restaurant with him, a couple of huge steaks in front of them, she’s too excited to eat, even though as a dancer on a perpetual diet, she marvels, “I’ve been hungry for ten years.”
She is thirdly attracted by Dan Dailey, and it is to get his attention that she joins the burlesque kick line. His drooling over Cara Williams makes her jealous. Miss Williams belts out “I Refuse to Rock and Roll” (which was just beginning to beat down the drawbridge of popular music and storm the castle).
Sultry Lena Horne also sings, as does Frankie Laine. One of the fun things about the movie is the shameless name dropping. The Four Aces start the movie. We have cameos by Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone, Peter Lorre, Tony Martin (Cyd Charisse’s husband).
The marquees on the casinos -- many of the same ones we mentioned in Monday’s post on Las Vegas Story, give us a snapshot of the big names of the 1950s: Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Marge and Gower Champion, Danny Thomas, The Mills Brothers, Johnnie Ray, Donald O’Connor.
Dan Dailey finally notices more than just Cyd’s hand, particularly after a brief ballet (which features a game of volleyball in the middle of it), “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
He takes her home to his ranch to meet Mother, who is played by Agnes Moorehead. It’s always good see her in any movie, though there’s not much for her to do here. She’s feisty, opinionated, and likes the cut of Cyd’s jib because Cyd is a career woman with no intention of giving up her career.
I found myself distracted by Miss Moorehead’s hair color, a cross between tomato soup and the fires of hell. I guess when you use Technicolor, you have to shoot the works. Might explain the coral-colored convertible, too. Most of the film is painted in a rainbow of soft, lush colors.
The lucky couple’s luck continues at the ranch, where as they stroll around holding hands, the barren chickens lay eggs, and the cow gives birth, and a new oil well gushes forth black gold.
But we know the old axiom “lucky at cards, unlucky at love.” So, too here. When they fall in love, their luck at gambling leaves them. Will they stay together anyway? You can probably figure that out yourself. It’s refreshing that they compromise to spend six months in her world of dance and six months on the ranch.
Except for a couple of numbers, most of the songs performed in this movie are staged as nightclub acts, so there isn’t that jolting of reality for people who dislike musicals for that reason.
But I’ve never quite understood that. “People don’t burst into song in real life,” the movie musical curmudgeon might complain.
Sure they do. They’re called entertainers.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.