Monday, July 30, 2012

Speak Out Before You Die

We interrupt this blog for another in our continuing series of annoying announcements: the second book in my new “cozy” mystery series is available now as an ebook, and will be published in paperback in August.

For those who write book reviews on their blogs and would be interested, I’ll provide the first five people who email me, a free copy of the ebook (through a coupon on Smashwords to be read on any ereader device or on your computer) or a paperback book, or both if you prefer. My email is Please don’t leave your email or mailing address in the comments section. All emails and mailing addresses will remain private.

The cover is done by that extraordinary talent, Casey Koester, whom you might know better as Noir Girl from her blog.  The vector graphic style used here is the same style she applied on the first book in the series, Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red, and I hope her participation on these covers will continue for several more books. She’s terrific, as you can see. I like the whimsical nature of the illustrations, the feel of being both from the era of the stories (late 1940s, early 1950s), and yet still seeming clean and modern.

And now (drum roll) the blurb: Speak Out Before You Die, the second in the “Double V Mysteries” series reunites wealthy Juliet Van Allen and ex-con Elmer Vartanian on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Guests are gathered in snowbound mansion for the wedding of Juliet’s widowed father to an elegant younger woman just after the clock strikes midnight. When Juliet finds what appears to be a threatening note directed at her father, she calls Elmer to pose as a hired servant to help ferret out the danger…but midnight is approaching and time is running out. There may be murder as the old year dies.

What interests me about these characters of Juliet and Elmer, who began their partnership for mutual survival in the first book Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red -- is that neither is a mastermind sleuth. I’ve always been a bit annoyed at the great literary detectives who possess so much knowledge on bullet wounds and African poison darts, and who also seem to solve the crime in the last few pages of the book by producing evidence which the writer has withheld from the reader. (“I had my assistant wire these documents from the War Office last night which PROOVES that the colonel was a VEGETARIAN!”)

There’s a scene at the end of the movie “Murder by Death” (1976), the Neil Simon parody of great detectives where Truman Capote berates the famous sleuths for withholding clues from the reader until the last minute. When I first saw that scene as a teenager I agreed with his complaint, erupting in righteous indignation.

“Hey...yeah!” I said.

That was pretty much all I said at the time. I never claimed to be articulate, just indigant.

Fast forward to now and my two characters who are not geniuses. Juliet and Elmer are ill-equipped to find murderers. She is the daughter of a wealthy financier and museum administrator, and he is an ex-con, who had made more use of his opportunities to read literature in prison that she did at finishing school. They are intelligent enough, but not more than anybody else. They have no superior gifts. With their back stories, including the pain over the outcomes of their previous marriages, they carry a lot more emotional baggage than most.

The edge they have going for them is their growing relationship. Their trust in each other and their reliance on each other’s opinions and perspectives is what guides them through the sticky mess of who done it. Their relationship, with its ups and downs, will be the engine that drives the series, and takes them through the brave new world of the 1950s.

Speak Out Before You Die (the title, though appropriately lurid, is actually from a line in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson) ebook version will be on sale for the next month at 99 cents, then will be ruthlessly jacked up to $2.99. The paperback will be sold for $12, plus postage. You’ll be able to buy the paperback directly from me, or in the coming weeks from CreateSpace or Amazon. Currently, the ebook is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog. Come back this Thursday for another look at Olympic hijinks with the Little Rascals in “Olympic Games” (1927).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tarzan at the Olympics

With the Olympic Games starting tomorrow in London, we turn our attention to a couple of teammates from the 1928 Amsterdam Games who made it big in the movies -- Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.

It is perhaps no coincidence that since swimmers have the best bodies, these two fellows being swimmers would both end up playing Tarzan.

Weissmuller had the greater record both as an Olympic swimmer and as Tarzan. He competed in the 1924 Paris Games and the 1928 Amsterdam Games. In Paris he won 3 gold medals, and a bronze in water polo. In Amsterdam he won two more gold. He set several world records and never lost a race. In 1932, after creating a splash as a spokesman/model for BVD swimwear, he was beckoned to Hollywood and the back lot jungle to play Tarzan in “Tarzan the Ape Man.” He played him in 12 movies, and then went on to the “Jungle Jim” series.

Weissmuller's teammate in the 1928 Amsterdam Games was Buster Crabbe.  Crabbe won the bronze medal for the 1500 metres freestyle swimming event. A two-time Olympian like Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe then went to the 1932 Los Angeles Games and won the gold for the 400 metres freestyle. Like Weissmuller, it was only a short hop for Crabbe from the bathing suit with US team emblem to the loin cloth, and Buster became Tarzan in “Tarzan the Fearless” (1933).

It was Mr. Crabbe’s only stint as the ape man, however. He went on to a number of other jungle movies and then famously to his series as Flash Gordon.

Have a look here at this link for a photo of the two teammates and the two Tarzans together in the pool. No crocodiles appear to be lurking about for them to battle.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Swamp Water - 1941

“Swamp Water” (1941) was what did it for Dana Andrews. After a few years in Hollywood bouncing between bit parts, an apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse, and working as a gas station attendant, it took a trip to the Okefenokee to really launch his film career as a leading man.

This is part of the Dana Andrews Blogathon over at Classic Move Man, with links to other blogs posted this Saturday, July 28th.

Dana Andrews knew himself that ''Swamp Water" would be important to his career. In June 1941 he took “a fast cross country airliner,” to Waycross, Georgia to film on location according to the Waycross Journal-Herald of June 25, 1941. “‘It’s my big chance,’ laughed young Andrews a bit groggy after his first plane trip but fascinated by it all to such a degree he hadn’t been able to sleep.”

Thirty-three years later, in his mid-60s, in another phase of his career when performing dinner theatre in “Best of Friends” at the Alhambra Theatre, Jacksonville, Florida, Andrews took his wife on a side trip to the Okefenokee. He wanted to show her where he had filmed some scenes for “Swamp Water”. He was recognized in a Waycross diner. (Waycross Journal-Herald, February 13, 1974).

Dana Andrews had been the only principal actor to film in the Okefenokee, not counting his hound dog in the film, “Trouble.” According the Journal-Herald, Trouble also arrived on the same plane with Mr. Andrews, “‘sick as a dog’ from flying so high” in these days before jet planes with pressurized cabins.

Director Jean Renoir, in his first American film, and his assistant Irving Pinchel arrived as well, with Mr. Pinchel taking over the location shooting when Renoir went back to Hollywood, where of course most of the film was shot on sets.

It’s an unusual film, a precursor perhaps to Renoir’s “The Southerner” (1945) about Texas sharecroppers, which we’ll probably get around to sometime or other. In both, this esteemed French director, with an impressive body of work in French cinema behind him, and who was also the son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, tackles a brooding American landscape. The swamp, with its gothic imagery, is a place of escape and freedom, but also a claustrophobic prison, a place of gruesome death.

Dana Andrews plays a backcountry youth who loses his hound dog, Trouble, in the Okefenokee swamp. He goes after him and meets Walter Brennan, who has been hiding in the swamp for five years, a fugitive from justice. Brennan had been wrongly accused of murdering a man, and he escaped before hanging.

His ragamuffin daughter, played by Anne Baxter, is taken in by storekeeper Russell Simpson as a hired girl. She is no-account by virtue of her father being no-account. She and Dana brave the community’s censure when he buys her a dress and takes her to the square dance.

Mr. Andrews has his own problems with run-ins with his domineering father, played by Walter Huston. There are a few subplots to round out this poor, isolated community -- Mary Howard plays Walter Huston’s young second wife, who is being romantically pursued by a smarmy John Carradine, who is given protection by the bullying brothers Ward Bond and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who are actually the ones who committed the murder of which Walter Brennan is wrongly accused.

Did I mention there would be spoilers? No? Sorry.

It’s an interesting film both for Renoir’s perspective on American gothic, complete with the imagery of a skull atop a cross as a warning sign, and for it being Dana Andrews’ first leading role.

Andrews’s voice is what fascinates me most. He speaks his lines with his chin sunk into his chest, pushing the dialogue out of his body with a sound somewhere between growling and weeping. I know he was supposed to have a fine bass singing voice, but I never heard it. I can believe it listening to the fullness of his speech in this performance.

He doesn’t hunker down too much in a southern accent, though as a native southerner he could -- but that would make him stand out from everyone else in the community who do not speak with southern accents. Most especially the Massachusetts-bred Walter Brennan in his alligator skin clothing and his New England long vowels.

Andrews's emotions are raw and on the surface in this movie. In later roles he displayed that skillful knack of showing great depth of emotion under a surface of cool reserve, a man already burdened with too much baggage and afraid to acknowledge it. Here he conceals nothing. He is all joyful shout and angry bluster, yet it is not overacting. He is a young man of considerable pride who perhaps represents for Renoir the sunshine contrast to the dark swamp. His hair curling on his neck, his first bashful, then exuberant discovery of love for Anne Baxter, his physical energy in this film give us no foreshadowing of the haunted war vet, the gloomy private eye, the troubled police detective of future years.

Some of the scenes look straight out of a John Ford copybook -- the fiddle playing of “Red River Valley” at the square dance, and of course, the use of so many Ford regulars like Ward Bond, John Carradine and Russell Simpson.

Eugene Pallette is also along as the sheriff, whose otherwise jolly demeanor is a puzzle against the scene where he allows Ward Bond and “Big Boy” Williams to half drown Dana Andrews to force him to confess Walter Brennan’s whereabouts. It’s a bit of backcountry interrogation. Perhaps if he floats he will be declared a witch.

He and Walter Huston have a father-son reunion when Mr. Huston saves him.

Virginia Gilmore plays Mr. Andrews’s best girl, until she dumps him. Then her jealously over his attention to Anne Baxter drives her to accusing him of hiding the fugitive. She is smug, self-centered, manipulative, and dangerous.

The scenes at the dance are touching for the very way these folk observe courtly rules in contrast to their ragged best clothes and the rotting walls of the local meeting hall. I’ve been in swanky places where the manners were far worse.

They are proud people. It is pride that divides Dana Andrews from his Pa; pride that divides Walter Huston from his young wife, whom he thinks is seeing a man behind his back; pride which makes Dana shun his ratfink girlfriend; pride which makes him refuse to knuckle under Ward Bond. When his pal and surrogate father figure Walter Brennan accuses him of selling him out, it is his pride that makes Dana Andrews stand on purpose to take a bullet from Ward Bond to prove his innocence. More trial by ordeal.

And then back to gothic. There is a scene where “Big Boy” meets his demise in the swamp, slowly sucked up into a bog hole. It’s quite horrifying, and despite my fascination for bottomless pits in movies (see “Make Haste to Live” - 1954, here), I was amazed that the studio allowed Renoir’s fixed camera gaze on Williams screaming in terror as his disembodied head sinks into the mud. It’s something out of monster movie -- which would have been less terrifying because we do not believe in monsters -- than in a movie that has so far kept rigidly to unblinking reality.

Brennan lets a stunned Ward Bond live, to face the same hell he did as fugitive in the swamp. Their justice is crude, and final.

Another less horrifying, but cinematically striking scene is when John Carradine attempts to seduce Mary Howard, declaring his love for her while both are fairly tattooed with the mottled shadows of leaves that mask their expressions.

It’s an unusual film where character actors tell the tale. There are no stars, really, in this movie though certainly Walter Huston had a big name in film and theatre. The only star was the one yet to be -- Dana Andrews.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Upcoming Blog Events

This is to announce two upcoming blog events. First, David at Film Classics is conducting the annual Classic Hollywood Writing Contest. Deadline is July 27th, with judging to be done by a panel of anonymous judges and the winner to be announced in August. Four categories are offered: biography, essay, film review, and poetry. Prizes to the winners. Have a look at the Film Classics website for more information.

Second, Stephen Reginald at Classic Movie Man is hosting the Dana Andrews Blogathon, with links of the participants to be posted on his site July 28th. My entry is “Swamp Water” (1941), and will be up here at Another Old Movie Blog on this coming Monday the 23rd. See you then.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Answers to Theatre Box

Here we have the answers to last week’s foray into the box at the theatre.

I liked Caftan Woman’s answers for “C”.

Hang onto your opera gloves and top hats, here’s the official scorecard:

A - Bette Davis in “Deception” (1946).

B - Errol Flynn and Greer Garson in “That Forsyte Woman” (1949).

C - Errol Flynn, William Frawley, and Jack Carson in “Gentleman Jim” (1942).

D - Cary Grant, Edward Arnold, and Jack Oakie in “The Toast of New York” (1937).

E - Among this distinguished group we have Charles Boyer (standing), Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty, and Charles Coburn in “The Constant Nymph” (1943). The distance made this a toughie.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Would you, could you, in a box?

There's nothing that says class like sitting in a box at the theater.  How many of your fellow patrons of the arts can you name, and the films?  Answers Monday.






Monday, July 9, 2012

Mildred Pierce - 1945

“Mildred Pierce” (1945) is film that should be shown to people who say they don’t like to watch black and white movies. The cinematography here is so good that it is a living thing quite apart from the story and the acting performances, and yet the black and white photography here enhances both story and performances.

I wonder who first came up with the idea to “noir-up” James M. Cain’s novel “Mildred Pierce”? It wasn’t written that way. To be sure, Mr. Cain’s other novels that were later made into the films “Double Indemnity” 1944 (see this former post), and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) -- are noir stories even on the page. But “Mildred Pierce” was not written as such. It’s more a character study of a woman who indomitably struggles against privation, and whose Achilles’ heel is her greatest passion, her daughter. In the hands of the Warner Bros. studio, this story, rather than a weepy so-called “woman’s picture” becomes first class Noir.

Largely, this is due to the cinematography.

I’m not going to do a play by play on the plot of this movie, but there are going to plenty of spoilers anyway, so turn back now if you want. Go outside and water my garden. But close the storm door good because the air conditioning’s on.

Now then.

As to those poor souls who won’t watch a black and white movie, I can only say that is something akin to not wanting to view Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” because it was painted in oils and not drawn with a Sharpie on a lined pad. Black and white, the uneducated need to learn, was merely a medium, like acrylic or clay. Some cinematographers were masters at the art, and “Mildred Pierce” (1945) is a great example of what style can do to add, or even substitute at times, for substance.

The novel begins with Mildred’s ineffectual husband tending the garden. It is a slow start to slow-paced book. Those of us who are familiar with the plot know their marriage fails, Mildred supports herself and two daughters by becoming a waitress, and then owning a chain of restaurants. Another marriage to a playboy, a lot about her business ventures, but overall the prevailing motive in Mildred’s life is to make her older daughter love her. Her daughter is a spoiled brat, and turns into a nasty young woman. Mildred’s brand of mother love is like a mental illness.

The novel was made into a TV miniseries last year, and done very well. The performances were great, and the story followed very closely Cain’s novel. Some might say the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford, which strays from the novel here and there, was re-shaped to make Joan Crawford a heroine, which in movies of that era, for a woman of a certain age, meant depicting her as long-suffering and self-sacrificing.

That may be a valid observation, but should not be used to dismiss this movie as merely a vehicle for Joan Crawford and her dramatically padded shoulders. The real star here is Ernest Haller, who was director of photography on this movie. Michael Curtiz directed. The writers were a team of eight, including William Faulkner and Margaret Buell Wilder. How they managed to craft something so sharp and cohesive with too many cooks amazes me. Who decided on noir?

The movie starts quite shockingly with a murder that did not happen in the book. We see Zachary Scott, one of the best charmers and villains of the day, facing us with a stunned expression as he is mowed down by gunshots seemingly coming from us.

He topples directly into the camera. As he flops on the floor of his beach house, a gun is tossed from our direction onto the body, and we hear a door slam. He groans, “Mildred.” What could have been a weeper has started off the blocks as a murder mystery.

So, this is what film noir looks like on a big budget. Purists may feel that noir is best in a low-budget environment just as revenge is best served cold, but in this movie it is sublime for its meticulous homage to the beauty of black and white photography.

The beach house, Art Deco-cum-Post Moderne, its interior half lit by flickering firelight in the dark night. Joan Crawford, who plays Mildred, wandering a damp pier with perhaps the intention of throwing herself off to commit suicide. She brings Jack Carson, who plays her business associate and would-be romantic pursuer back to the beach house. He displays that savvy, slimy, good-hearted charm as only Jack Carson can. She locks him in with the corpse and leaves him there.

Shots of his panic when he can’t get out, and discovers the body. His shadow on the wall as he runs from room to room. Like a fun-house nightmare.

 Look at the typical noir shots that are taken from either the floor or table-level and look up to the ceiling. I think it was film noir that gave us ceilings.
Eventually, of course, we get to the inevitable flashback, also a film noir staple, where we are taken back to the premise of the novel and see Mildred’s story from the beginning. Her husband, played by Bruce Bennett, is unable to support his family, and is seeing another woman on the sly. He seems like a weak character, except that he tells Mildred straight off she’s ruining older daughter Veda, played with venial relish by Ann Blyth, with all her spoiling. Bruce Bennett may be a failure in business, but he’s no dope. He’s clearheaded and has seen what Joan Crawford fails to see through this entire movie, that she’s creating a monster.

If the movie were just about that, I don’t think it would hold my interest. Both Mildred and her daughter seem stuck in their faults, do not change, and are almost one-dimensional for it. However, as tiresome as these qualities are, I cannot say that the two characters are not realistic. They are. Many of us have known parents who make their children feel as if they are the center of the universe and then the children become nasty young adults and peculiarly unable to cope with life without their parents financial or emotional support.

Many of us have known people like the Ann Blyth character who are solidly self-absorbed and quite histrionic about it. The characters of Mildred and Veda may be tiresome, but they are real enough.

What really makes this movie is not the story -- but the telling of it. It’s just a lot of fun to watch. Scenes are introduced through a close up on a small item, such as the shot of Jack Carson’s hand manipulating a soda dispenser as he makes drinks for the scene where he first comes on to Joan Crawford.

The shot of Miss Crawford as they converse as a restaurant table through wafting cigarette smoke. Unusual in that neither of them are smoking in this scene; it comes from another table.

The shot of Crawford rummaging through keepsakes in a desk drawer and finding the inevitable loaded handgun. Ever notice how many handguns are in desk drawers in the old movies? There’s nothing interesting like that in my desk drawer. Just some dried up Wite-Out and some highlighters, and erasures. There’s a letter opener, I suppose I could kill somebody with that.

We move to a variety of lush scenes, from Mildred’s ever-expanding restaurant empire, to the fabulous homes. Some enterprising old movie buff should open a chain of restaurants called Mildred’s. I’d eat there every night.

We catch a glimpse of a carhop taking an order over the tray mounted on the car door. Have a look here at our previous post about movie carhops.

The movie isn’t all shadows. Here’s a well-torsoed Zachary Scott peeling off his sweater to go swimming with Joan. Oh, those form-fitting, high-waisted men’s bathing suits of days gone by. They made every man with a halfway decent body look like Johnny Weissmuller. The baggy knee-length clown pants men wear today sagging too low off their hips are enough to make a woman weep with disappointment.

Eve Arden, a graduate of the Ruth Donnelly School of Wisecracking Sidekicks is on hand to be a sounding board for Joan, and to provide occasional comic relief, such as when she teases the fuddy-duddy accountant who barks at her for interrupting their meeting.

“It’s only because I want to be alone with you. Come here and let me bite you, you darling boy.” Then she woofs at him like Curly in The Three Stooges.

I also like the way she refers to Zachary Scott, whose oily charm doesn’t fool her a bit -- she knows a bad egg when she sees one -- as “laughing boy”. Bugs Bunny, famous for using the term, was also a stalwart member of the Warner Bros. stable, though I’m sure the studio did not have a copyright on the term.

But I think the funniest moment goes to young Jo Ann Marlowe, who plays Joan’s younger daughter. She does a Carmen Miranda imitation that’s a hoot, though all Miss Crawford can do is smirk and then grow irritable, telling her to wash the makeup off her face. Jo Ann had a brief career, but cut an impression as the young Josie in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) and as young Louise in “Roughly Speaking” (1945) discussed here.

Butterfly McQueen’s on hand as Joan’s maid. It’s a less flashy role than her famed “Prissy” in GWTW, but even her lack of guile here does not keep her from seeing what a tyrant Ann Blyth has become. Only Joan is blind.

Bess Flowers shows up as a restaurant patron, but really, that is to be expected.  She's a walk-on in everything.  I noticed her in one of my old vacation videos.  She played Loud Woman Who Sat Behind Me on Train.

One of the most luxurious shots is when Joan discovers Mr. Scott and her daughter kissing. Joan enters unobserved, and we see Scott holding Miss Blyth, her back arched over their home bar. Her long formal skirt is luminous in the foreground light, while their upper bodies are darkened in silhouette. Sometimes I feel like installing a bank of Fresnels on my living room ceiling just to make me look good when I enter the room.

When they see they are not alone, Ann Blyth steps out of the embrace and a pin spot reveals her smirking expression. In another moment, Zachary, who is Joan’s second husband, leans forward and his face becomes lit as well, prolonging of the suspense of discovering who she was with, in case we hadn’t already guessed. It’s a great bit of lighting choreography, like a dance.

I love his wary expressions as he lets Ann Blyth do the talking. You can see the wheels in his mind turn. He is looking for a way out. Scott, who had such depth, is excellent at this. Any other villain would just paste a sneer on his face.

By the way, look at the background. The drapes match the couch. See our previous post here on this movie phenomena.

The novel, as well as the 2011 TV miniseries, shows a different scene. Mildred catches them in bed together, and Mildred’s playboy husband shrieks defensive protests. The 1945 movie may be less titillating, but it is more visually stunning.

Joan Crawford, of course, won her Oscar for this role, but I don’t usually keep score on a movie by Oscars. Her performance is fine, but I think only really great when at the end when she must accept that her daughter is going to prison. The whimper, the sick groan of despair in her voice is heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, Ernest Haller did not take home an Oscar for his cinematography (Ann Blyth and Eve Arden were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

The movie is really his.

And yes, every time I watch this movie I think of the Carol Burnett parody. It even mocks the ocean surf that luridly washes over the opening credits.  But it's not in black and white.

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