Thursday, June 28, 2012

Holiday Inn - 1942 - Leon Belasco

It’s such a small part, but the flower shop proprietor in “Holiday Inn” (1942) is one of those classic film characters that stands out for no other reason than perhaps the eloquence of the moment.

In this case, the eloquence is purely physical communication. He has no lines. Marjorie Reynolds, trying to show off and impress Walter Abel, treats her boss -- Mr. Belasco -- like an underling, directing him to fill a last-minute order.

Leon Belasco is the silent shopkeeper, at first appalled at her nerve, then anxious that she might blow it and lose a customer, then pleased that she has succeeded in making a sale, and then hustles to do what she has condescendingly commanded. It’s a pantomime lasting a few seconds, but it is indelible. I can’t go into a flower shop today without thinking of him.

You may have seen Leon Belasco in dozens of film or TV shows, usually bit parts as a waiter or cab driver. He was a dealer in Rick’s gambling parlor in “Casablanca” (1943). He usually had few or no lines. Like so many bit players, he was just there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

And Then There Were None - 1945

“And Then There Were None” (1945) is an almost perfect blend of solid direction, crisp black and white photography, and somewhat cheeky ensemble acting -- by mostly veteran character actors. It’s also a great example of how well Dame Agatha Christie’s novels translate to the screen.

We should note at the start, however, that this film adaptation is from the successful stage play, also written by Christie, and not an adaption of her novel, Ten Little Indians. The most glaring difference between the novel and the play/screenplay is what happens in the last few minutes. However, since this is a mystery, I won’t go into that.

It’s one of those movies where the atmosphere created is so much a part of the storytelling. We have the remote mansion on the isolated island, the constant bashing of the waves on the rocks, and curtains of sea spray flying before our eyes, and the sound of the wind behind the dialogue.

Except for Walter Huston, much of Hollywood’s English Colony was emptied to make this film. Part of its charm is the ensemble acting with no big stars to take leads.

The story, well known, is of ten visitors to this remote mansion at the request of its absent owner. Two are hired servants, played by delightfully adenoidal Richard Haydn, with Queenie Leonard as his wife.

The guests include Huston’s country doctor, a retired judge played by Barry Fitzgerald, a dissolute self-described “professional houseguest” played by the wonderful Mischa Auer (who, as in “My Man Godfrey” -- where he plays another professional houseguest, bangs a few strains of “Dark Eyes” or Ochi Chornya on the piano).

Judith Anderson is the sublimely puritanical Emily Brent, who wears her almost sinister self-superiority like a protective cloak. Roland Young is a bumbling detective, and C. Aubrey Smith as the forlorn but dignified retired general. June Duprez and Louis Hayward round out the cast as the hired secretary and the bold adventurer. They are younger, and prettier than everybody else.

On their first night together, they all dress for dinner (of course), where upon retiring to the parlor for bridge and cocktails, a spoken record on the gramophone accuses of them of various crimes. One has killed his wife’s lover. One has killed pedestrians by reckless driving, events from their past nobody knows but themselves. They are barraged with examples of the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians”, which begins:

Ten little Indian boys going out to dine,
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

During the evening, one of their party appears to choke, and dies. The camera pans back from the shocked guests in the parlor, back through the open double doors to the dining room where a china centerpiece of ten little Indians had earlier caught their attention. One of the Indian figurines has toppled over and broken.

Now there are nine.

And so this continues through the rest of the poem, one by one as a guest suffers a fatality based on a verse. Each time someone dies, another Indian figurine goes missing.

The action is a mixture of eerie and comic, but neither tension nor comedy are overt or over the top. It’s a smooth balance. A charming moment at the beginning when Mr. Huston and Mr. Fitzgerald, two aging professional men, share an adjoining bathroom and Huston helps Fitzgerald with his detachable starched collar and tie.

At one point later on, Huston describes his doctor’s work as mostly handholding to nervous patients and Fitzgerald teases him, “Don’t you believe in medicine, Doctor?” To which Huston replies, “Do you believe in justice, Judge?”

This becomes the paramount question. What is justice? Can we ever escape it? Who has the right to mete it out?

It becomes apparent that one of them is a murderer and all who die are being punished for crimes they’ve done but for which the law has not caught up with them. The doctor, for instance, lost a patient on the operating table. The doctor had been drunk when he attempted to perform the operation. Butler Richard Haydn and his wife were accused of bumping off a former elderly employer. All are here for their comeuppance.

They grow suspicious of one another, and afraid to be alone with only one other person in a room. A scene as funny as it is tense occurs when Huston and Fitzgerald, companionably enjoying a game of pool, suddenly find themselves alone in the room and panic, wielding their pool cues like defensive weapons.

The mystery -- not only who is the murderer, but who is next to die?

Director René Clair sets up some inventive shots, such as when one guest spies on another through a keyhole. The camera pans back, and we see that guest in turn being spied on through another keyhole.

I’d like to know where the location shooting was done, it’s spectacular.

Richard Haydn is comically pitiful as the beleaguered butler, who after his wife has been murdered, must still keep up with his duties, apologizing for serving cold meat for supper. When he is suspected of being the murderer, he drinks a little too much in resentment and sloppily serves or fails to serve from a silver platter. When he is told to open a door he has locked to accept a key, he replies testily, “Shove it!…under the door, Sir.”

I watched this movie recently after not having seen it since I was a child, and was amazed to discover how much I remembered, how vivid the images were to have stayed with me so many years. It’s a simple story, simply staged, but I think this is probably the best of all versions. Even the character parts that are smaller are neatly delineated so each actor has his moment to create in indelible image. We don’t know much about these people, and yet we know them very well.

Addendum:  Thanks to Casey at Noir Girl for asking where to see this movie.  I should have added this: it's currently on YouTube in it's entirety here:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gone Fishin'

No blog posts this week, I've got other fish to fry.  Come back next week for a visit to mysterious Indian Island in "And Then There Were None" (1945).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stars and Stripes Forever - 1952

“Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952) strikes a resonant chord with the spirited marches of composer and conductor John Philip Sousa. Clifton Webb plays The March King, and he’s great as always. The movie, like most Hollywood biopics, strays from fact here and there, but captures spot-on the era when Sousa was -- to use a modern term -- a rock star.

We celebrate Flag Day in the US today, those “stars and stripes” with a movie not about flags, or even flag waving, but of patriotism expressed by that once-upon-a-time staple of American popular entertainment -- the marching band.

It’s the 1890s when John Philip Sousa is a Sergeant Major in the Marines and the leader of the Marine Corps Band. In real life, he was a renaissance man -- composer of scores of songs, operettas, even wrote novels and articles. In the movie, he is bummed because he wants to showcase his romantic ballads, but the public likes his marches.

Ruth Hussey is his warmly supportive wife with the wry sense of humor. One of their most charming scenes together is when Mr. Webb, with Miss Hussey accompanying him on piano, sings his latest syrupy love ballad. His bass voice languidly belches the plodding love song, while she giggles at the effect and urges him to pick up the tempo and turn the melody into a march. He will -- later on in the movie -- during another cute scene at a White House reception for President Benjamin Harrison. We recognize his love ballad has become “Semper Fidelis”, the march dedicated to the United States Marine Corps.

We may forget that Clifton Webb had a long career on stage in musical comedy, and as a professional ballroom dancer. The movies gave him a second career as an acerbic fussbudget, and the early 1950s was a busy time for him. In the same year as “Stars and Stripes Forever”, he also did the wonderful parody “Dreamboat” discussed in this previous post. We last saw him in one of his very best performances in “Titanic” (1953), discussed here.

Robert Wagner and Debra Paget are the second leads, and their characters are fictional. Wagner is another member of the Marine Corps Band who follows Mr. Webb into private life after Webb retires from the Marines to form his own celebrated band. Wagner invents the “Sousaphone”, a kind of tuba for a marching unit. Actually, it was a couple of other fellows who came up with Sousaphone, following ideas contributed by Mr. Sousa.

Debra Paget is a feisty music hall singer and dancer who marries the smart aleck Wagner and becomes the girl singer and specialty dancer for Sousa’s band.

We first see her in a scene at a run-down vaudeville house where she is one of the “Living Picture” tableau act. I like this scene for accurately showing what was a kind of risqué exhibition of bodies positioned in dramatic configurations that, for the stage censors’ benefit pretended to be culture -- but for the audience was a most benign source of titillation.

Another scene I like, not because it evokes the era so knowingly, but because it shows an early 1950s consciousness overlapping it in a natural and benevolent way. This is the scene where Webb takes his band on tour in the South. Ever the showman, he cannily marches his band down a street to the United Confederate Veterans reunion which has dubiously hired him to perform -- and he chooses the rousing “Dixie” to make his entrance. He finds a receptive audience to this favorite tune of the South, and then he recounts the story of when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Whether it is meant to placate the (fictional) United Confederate Veterans or to placate the 1952 Southern moviegoers, but Webb delicately refers to the surrender as Lee’s “visit” to Grant. At the time of the surrender, the Marine Corps Band serenaded President Abraham Lincoln, who in the spirit of “with malice toward none, with charity to all” requested they play “Dixie”.

Webb declares that in return for this magnanimous gesture a generation ago, his band, with the help of the choir of the Stone Mountain Church of Atlanta (who play themselves), will perform the song most associated with Lincoln -- “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It is an African-American choir, who step forward among this all-white Confederate picnic and sings the battle cry of their former enemy. They are a mixed choir of men and women, children and elderly, and most strikingly -- lovely young women and handsome young men, serious singers with dignity and grace. They are dressed not in cartoonish slave garb, but in stylish modern (1890s) dress. Their voices are powerful, their diction is precise. They are impressive.

I doubt they would have been welcome at such a wingding in the 1890s (catch the enigmatic expression of the white gentleman in the white linen suit and string tie -- is he moved or merely uncomfortable), but the 1950s was just starting to wake up to certain things and get a little gutsy.

This movie effortlessly evokes the 1890s, but this scene is more about what we wish was, and not what was. However, it works even in its illusionary manner.

In the courting scene at the park between Mr. Wagner and Miss Paget, we hear the old movie background music favorite, “Sweet Marie” and I always think of the William Powell and Irene Dunne duet in “Life with Father” (1947), discussed here.

Another scene that endeavors to revel in the era, but is recalled with a modern twist, is when Clifton Webb receives a note in the middle of conducting in the pit during an operetta. Debra Paget is the lead. He stops the show and faces the audience. He reads the dispatch that the battleship USS Maine has exploded in San Juan Harbor, Cuba. It is the start of the Spanish-American War. The scene cleverly makes use of the audience’s memories of when they first heard the news of the start of World War II, but our brief war with Spain, with its politically murky beginning, has slipped away from modern consciousness though it cost many lives.

What this event in the movie leads to is a touching finale. Robert Wagner, the once and future Marine, happy-go-lucky scamp or not, enlists to fight in Cuba, is wounded in a round of “friendly fire” (more irony) and suffers a leg amputation. Clifton Webb brings his band to the rehabilitation hospital to entertain the wounded troops. His appearance is a surprise to Robert Wagner, and an even bigger surprise when Webb calls him up on stage to play his old Sousaphone. Wagner hobbles on crutches to the place in the band that has been saved for him. A nice gesture when he pats the Sousaphone draped over his shoulder as if it was his trusty steed.

We don’t remember the Spanish-American War, but we know about wounded veterans who need to be welcomed and given a place in the band.

The movie jubilantly reminds us how important music is to define an era. The music performed in this movie is given center stage. We end with Sousa’s march, now the National March of the United States of America -- “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. We are treated to long and leisurely close-ups on the musicians and their instruments.

It is played against a montage of military bands striding across the Mall in Washington, D.C., marching into future bands in future wars.

Listen below at the US Marine Corps Band playing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Happy Flag Day.

Monday, June 11, 2012


We interrupt this blog for this commercial...uh, I mean, announcement: My novel of New Zealand misadventure, The Current Rate of Exchange will soon be re-issued in paperback.

I’d like to invite the first five people with a blog to receive a free copy of either the paperback or a free download of the eBook (or both if you’d like), in exchange for a review. Here’s what you have to do:

1. Email me at to let me know if you’d like a paperback or eBook or both. If you choose an eBook, I’ll email you back a coupon code for a free download from the online retailer Smashwords (which provides a variety of formats). If you’d like a paperback, I’ll need you to put in your email the address where you’d like me to send it. I’d be happy to sign the book so that it will be worth a million times more when you sell it on eBay. (Bawhahahahah!!! -- Sorry. Sometimes I crack myself up.)

2. When you contact me by email, include the name and link to your blog in case I don’t know you from a hole in the ground. I will pick the first five bloggers who request a book. Unless your blog is called “Why Hitler Was a Swell Guy”. I reserve the right to display righteous indignation.

3. Please write an honest review. If you think it’s lousy, say so. I have a thick skin, like a rhinoceros. (Well, not really. I use a sunscreen that’s SPF 5,000.) I will not improve as a novelist if I don’t get honest feedback. I’ll never learn if you don’t whap me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. But if you like the book, then I want a cookie.

4. Feel free to take up to the next six months to read the book and write your review. I understand we all have lots to do, and you won’t be able to dash this off like a book report written on the bus on the way to school. Unless that’s how you write your book reviews. It’s none of my business.

But Wait! There’s More!

Later this summer the second book in my “cozy” mystery series set in the early 1950s, a book called Speak Out Before You Die, will be published both in eBook form and also as a paperback. The same deal goes for this book. First five people who want a copy of either eBook or paperback or both, just send me an email with the above details.

If you want to review both books on your blog, that’s fine, too. Just say the word.

Speak Out Before You Die continues the partnership of the young and wealthy socialite and the ex-con as they ferret out a murderer during a snowbound house party on New Year’s Eve, 1950. More on that story in weeks to come.

For now, here’s the product info on The Current Rate of Exchange:

Humorous, heartwarming, and poignant, The Current Rate of Exchange follows Rose, an easygoing but somewhat bumbling American woman, on her travel through New Zealand to re-establish ties with her late mother’s family. Her ill-planned adventure turns her life around, and that of Nora, her New Zealand cousin, whose family problems immediately begin to involve Rose. Nora’s elderly mother, who broke off ties with Rose’s family; Nora’s unemployed husband, who confides his dreams to Rose instead of to his wife; and Nora’s brother, whose emotional meltdown from losing the family farm -- all challenge Rose to bring her family’s past full circle. A sudden romance with the farm manager with the mysterious past, was certainly not her original agenda. She is anxious about continuing it lest she repeat mistakes made by her American father and New Zealand mother. Armed with old family letters, Rose retraces her mother’s footsteps as a World War II government agricultural worker, or Land Girl. The information Rose learns from the letters is key to preventing a tragedy in Nora’s family.

The eBook is currently available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and retails for $3.99.   The paperback will be available through CreateSpace, this blog and my website --, and eventually through Amazon as well.  The paperback will retail for $12, plus postage.

Come back Thursday when we celebrate Flag Day with Clifton Webb in “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Errol Flynn's Lady Friend

“Women make better friends than men: good, really honest friends.” -- Errol Flynn in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (Cooper Square Press, 2003 p. 398).

In her first of four films with Errol Flynn, “Dive Bomber” (1941), discussed in this previous post, Alexis Smith refused to kiss him -- for artistic reasons, she said. Even before that, contention occurred in her first important movie close-up in a major film -- when he stole the scene.

“Alexis was distraught. She ran to her dressing room, tears welling in her eyes and convinced her opportunity had been lost forever…When she returned the next morning…she walked into her dressing room and saw a note in front of her make-up mirror…on his own personal stationery, Errol had written a note of apology so sincere in appearance that if she wanted to be angry she could be so no longer. ‘It was that Errol Flynn charm,” she explained. (The Two Lives of Errol Flynn by Michael Freedland, article syndicated in The Lakeland (Florida) Ledger, August 14, 1979, p. C1)

“…there is no true friendship like that between a man and a woman, especially if platonic.” -- Errol Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (p. 359.)

“Errol was a movie idol of my teens,” Miss Smith says, “And when I was playing opposite him I was intimidated. I came to like him genuinely.” Films in Review article by Lennard DeCarl, (June-July 1970, pp. 360-361.)

It is often repeated on Internet sites that Errol Flynn was the best man at Alexis Smith’s wedding to Craig Stevens in 1944. This is an error. Stevens's best man was Major John E. Horton, Stevens’s friend. Flynn was only one of some 300 guests at the Church of the Recessional, Forest Lawn. (St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press, June 1944, p. 2.)

He did, however, take it upon himself to perform a special duty. After the ceremony, he “…took Craig aside, as though he were my father, and told Craig that if he didn’t treat me right he’d have to answer to him.” Alexis Smith, DeCarl article, (p. 361).

“On “San Antonio”…he cared for Alexis’s welfare. If he thought director David Butler was demanding too much of her, he made it very plain he was on her side. ‘Steady, old sport,’ he would tell Butler, ‘the lady’s only human.’ She, for her part, did her best to cover up the excesses of his drinking, which was anything but easy.” Freedland, (p. 161).

On Flynn’s being diagnosed with a mild heart attack during “Gentleman Jim” (1942): “She pulled him aside and said kindly but firmly: ‘It’s so silly, working all day and then playing all night and dissipating yourself. Don’t you want to live a long life?’ Errol was his usual apparently unconcerned self: ‘I’m only interested in this half,’ he told her, ‘I don’t care for the future.’” Freedland, (p.108).

“…a woman friend is the best friend you can have. In my early days I was brought up to hear it said that you can never have a real woman friend, that male friendship is deeper, like Damien and Pythias. That is not true -- not in my book. I have had two great friends: I still have them. They are so far superior to male friends, so much more understanding, so much more generous in feelings.” Errol Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (p. 398.)

“Although Flynn was renowned for having affairs with many of his leading ladies, his relationship with Alexis was strictly platonic. ‘He had feelings for her, but he also had great respect for her,’ Stevens said, ‘He treated her with dignity, respect and humor. He never made a pass at her.’"  A few months before his death, Flynn finally confessed his true feelings to Alexis. ‘When he was making ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ he called one day,’ Stevens said. ‘I answered the phone and he said, ‘Hey Old Boy, is your lady there?’ When Alexis got on the phone he asked if she would meet him at Warners for lunch. She said, ‘Of course.’ The next day when she came home from that lunch there were tears in her eyes…He told her that he knew he didn’t have much longer to live…‘He wanted to tell me how much he enjoyed working with me and also that he loved me.’ She never forgot it.'” Interview with Craig Stevens, The Women of Warner Brothers by Daniel Bubbeo (McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2002, p. 215).

Alexis Smith, Ida Lupino -- another very close platonic woman friend of Errol Flynn’s, and many Hollywood figures attended Flynn’s funeral in October 1959. The ceremony was conducted at the Church of the Recessional, Forest Lawn, where Alexis and Craig Stevens had been married.

“Errol Flynn was an extremely bright man,” she says reflectively, “He had a great zest for living, of course, and a great sense of humor about himself as well as the world. But he was very intelligent and sensitive, and as anyone who worked with him will tell you, a very good actor. I think he was underrated.” Interview with Alexis Smith, article by Jamie Portman, (The Montreal Gazette, September 21, 1981, p. 49)

Below, a rare opportunity for them both to sing -- their real voices -- in “Montana” (1950), the last film they made together.

“Women make better friends than men: good, really honest friends. When the going gets tough, give me a woman for a friend. If they happen to care for you they will go farther than any man.” Errol Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (p. 398)

Flynn never actually names those two great women friends in that amazingly gentle paragraph in his otherwise rolicking, hedonistic autobiography -- to protect them from the taint of a cad's reputation, perhaps?

Note: Both "Dive Bomber" and "Montana" will be shown on TCM tomorrow.

Special thanks to Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings for the heads up several months ago on Daniel Bubbeo's book The Women of Warner Brothers.

Monday, June 4, 2012

And the Mystery Photographer Is...

You ladies are too smart for me.  I couldn't fool you.  You guessed that last Thursday's mystery photographer is:

Cyd Charisse from "Tension" (1949) which we discussed here.  I've hopped a fence or two in my day to take a picture, but her death-defying balancing act is one for the books.  Love the camera.

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