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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Yellow Ticket (1931)

Director: Raoul Walsh
Writers: Guy Bolton and Jules Furthman, from the play by Michael Morton
Stars: Elissa Landi, Lionel Barrymore and Laurence Olivier
This review is part of the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. This is my Lionel Barrymore review after Ethel on Monday and John yesterday.
Welcome to day three of the second annual Barrymore Trilogy blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I enjoyed my three picks, selected not just to cover each of Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore but to follow a further theme: that of writers. On Monday, I explored Deadline - USA, in which Ethel and her screen daughters sell a newspaper while a very determined Humphrey Bogart fights to keep it alive. Yesterday, I watched John the consummate scene-stealer chew up as much scenery as he could find in True Confession, in which a fanciful Carole Lombard attempts to write novels, while other invented stories change her life. Here, I’ll wrap up with Lionel in The Yellow Ticket, an unabashed melodrama with Laurence Olivier as a newspaper reporter on assignment in Russia, where he meets one young lady who shakes up everything he thought he knew. It’s a fascinating picture but one that was clearly made much too late. It must have felt almost as out of date in 1931 as it does today.

Really it’s a propaganda piece to warn us that the people who run the Russian Empire really aren’t very nice, but it was released in 1931, when the Russian Empire was long gone and those paying attention were worrying more about a new leader finding his way to power a little further to the west. In 1914, when Michael Morton wrote a play called The Yellow Ticket, it was topical. Europe was about to stumble into war and this play was set only a year earlier. It ran for 183 performances between January and June, starring Florence Reed and John Barrymore, Lionel’s younger brother. In 1916, when Edwin August adapted it to film, initially as The Yellow Passport and, later in re-release, The Badge of Shame, it remained topical because the scuffle that people suggested would be over by Christmas was raging through its third year and Tsar Nicholas II was still in power in Russia. Even in 1918, when filmmakers made two further adaptations, The Yellow Ticket in America and Der gelbe Schein in Germany, the Russian Revolution was still resonating.
But 1931? It was a different world. The heavy-handed anti-imperialist propaganda misses its target because that target, the Tsar, had been in the grave for fourteen years. In fact, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks who had ousted and executed him, was himself seven years dead, with Joseph Stalin consolidating his positions of power and getting ready to begin the Great Purge later in the decade which saw at least half a million and maybe over a million people murdered by the Soviet government. Maybe Raoul Walsh, who had played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation and built quite a career as a director, with films such as The Thief of Bagdad, What Price Glory and The Big Trail to his name, should have taken on Stalin instead, but no, this was to be one last pot shot at the empire of the long dead Tsar Nicholas with Lionel Barrymore personifying it through the role of Baron Igor Andreeff, a severe man with fingers in many pies but presumably including running the police force, perhaps also the secret one.

Before we get to him, though, we need to experience his Russia from a different perspective, that of Marya Kalish, a teacher and a Jew, which religion is being persecuted by the Cossacks. It’s 1913 and martial law is declared, with all Jews confined to ghettos. No love can be found for those Cossacks in her classroom! After casually mentioning to her children that Russia is so big that it houses 200 million Russians, so many that every time you take a breath one of them dies, little Milva starts breathing quickly just to speed up the process. Her brother arrives home from St. Petersburg, where he was imprisoned for six months for non-payment of unjust taxes, and he brings news of their father, Abraham, who’s seriously ill there. Marya must go to him, but the authorities won’t allow a Jew a passport. Fortunately, by observation of other Jews being allowed onto trains, she discovers another way: the yellow ticket of the title, effectively a license for prostitutes. ‘You can go anywhere with it,’ says Fania Rubinstein. ‘Anywhere there’s men.’
There’s much worthy of note here, both good and bad. A local madam in Kiev signs one for her for 50 roubles with a very pre-code line of, ‘Take that to the police. I’m well known there.’ That reminds that we’re in 1931, a time of freedom from American censors, something that becomes very apparent when some actual nudity shows up, in a St. Petersburg prison, after Marya is locked up for fifteen days for failing to register with the local police, having forgotten about the yellow ticket once it had served its purpose; it’s apparently not as easy to get rid of one as it is to acquire one to begin with. It’s also very melodramatic in the way that many early sound films were, their stories sourced from stage plays. However, if the melodrama fit the time, the action doesn’t. Most of those adaptations of plays were static affairs, focused around wherever the studio could hide the large microphones of the time. This, on the other hand, is a surprisingly dynamic affair, which refuses to sit still for long, leaping around Russia with abandon.

Surely much of the credit here goes to James Wong Howe, the cinematographer, who was still freelancing at the time. He’d started in film as far back as 1923 and wouldn’t john MGM until a decade later. He would be notable for much of his work for them, but the Academy didn’t acknowledge him until 1939 when he shot Algiers and received an Oscar nomination for doing so. He didn’t win for that film, indeed not until The Rose Tattoo in 1956, but he ended up with two wins from nine nominations, his last being Funny Lady as late as 1975. He uses some interesting filmmaking technique to highlight how lively it is at Madam Petrova’s brothel and there’s more when Marya gets to wherever her father is. Presumably it’s a prison, but it looks more like a cross between a deep mine and one of Dante’s circles of Hell. It gets more traditional as it runs on, but it’s never stagebound, never boring and never remotely like the usual adaptations of stage plays to Hollywood screens in 1931. This is a textbook of how it was possible to move the camera.
Of course, the leads have to cross paths sooner or later. ‘Isn’t there someone I could go to?’ Marya asks a fellow prisoner, who tells her that the yellow ticket will follow her to the grave. ‘Someone who’s at the head of all this?’ We cut immediately to the name of Baron Andreeff, to whom we’re about to be introduced. Soon he rides off to a Moscow park with his nephew, Count Nikolai, so he can abuse Boris Karloff, three films away from Frankenstein and escape from bit parts like this. IMDb calls him a ‘drunken orderly’, but he’s really a soldier tasked with taking care of the horses of his betters. He’s no orderly, but he’s certainly drunk. After picking himself back up off the ground, he tries it on with Marya on a park bench. Count Nikolai promptly rescues her so he can try it on with her instead, merely with panache. ‘Not only your hands,’ he suggests, ‘but your lips are shaking.’ The Baron then rescues her in turn, so he can try it on with her as well, but the Count retrieves her purse and very prominently returns her yellow ticket.

So, no chance of salvation there! She’s stuck with her yellow ticket, even if it’s brought her nothing but misery. It didn’t get her to her father, as he was dead when she got to St. Petersburg, but it did get her into jail and now it’s got her into acute embarrassment in front of the most important person she’s ever met in her life, ruining her chances of escaping her brand of a ‘crooked woman’ in the process. So she takes the train back to St. Petersburg and finds herself sharing a carriage with British journalist Julian Rolfe. We’re almost half an hour of set-up into the story, but we’re about to really get moving in a number of directions. For one, she’s a revelation for him, someone who has read his work and appreciates it, if only he would reveal the Russia that she knows. ‘I’m sure there’s a lot you haven’t seen,’ she tells him, so he hires her as his secretary. For another, she’s a beautiful young lady with whom he quickly falls in love, proposing marriage within a couple of weeks, not that she’s ready to accept given her circumstances!
Rolfe is played by no less a name than Laurence Olivier, in only his second American film. He’d taken a two picture deal with RKO for $1,000 a week, against the advice of Noël Coward, who had become a mentor to the young actor after putting him to successful work in Private Lives. First up was Friends and Lovers and then Westward Passage, but in between the two they loaned him out to Fox for this picture. He plays Rolfe like many of his early stage notices: dynamic but light. While Elissa Landi, playing Marya, allows the plot to weigh down on her like an albatross, Olivier as Rolfe naïvely shrugs it off as nothing that could possibly affect him. Cultural historian Jeffrey Richards suggests in Visions of Yesterday that he really played Ronald Colman playing Julian Rolfe, right down to a mimicked moustache. On one hand, this is a problem, because the material is heavy and pretending otherwise doesn’t change it in the slightest. On the other hand, the material is heavy so Olivier’s light touch works as a breath of fresh air, a welcome break.

At least Olivier was playing a character of his own nationality. Fox did go to some trouble to make this feel authentic, painting the various signs in Cyrillic. However, Elissa Landi was an Italian actor with a cultured accent who comes across more as Scandinavian than Russian. She’s too erudite to work as a common woman, even if she’s educated and taught for a living. Lionel Barrymore isn’t as interested in playing a Russian police chief as he is a movie villain, so his voice, which sounds just as it usually was when playing Americans, isn’t as important as it might otherwise have been. What matters is that he’s a bad man, a ruthless man and an entitled man, even if he’s also a punctual man. The first thing he does in the film is to receive a prison warden who has brought him a set of cases recommended for mercy. These men are up for execution the next day but Andreeff growls, ‘I haven’t time to wade through all this,’ and promptly tears them all in half. Rumour has it that he wears a steel corset and we can understand why.
It’s hard to describe The Yellow Ticket today. At times, it’s contemporary social comment, but at others period historical drama and, of course, fluffy romance masquerading as adventure. When the Baron introduces the cabinet full of the tools used in assassination attempts against him, we wonder if it’ll become a Eurospy flick. Whatever else it’s doing, it’s melodramatic, often outrageously so. We didn’t need Landi screaming, ‘You’ll pay!’ at the people who sent her to see her father without telling her that he was a corpse. We didn’t need Barrymore’s suggestion that, ‘Russia really needs a new Herod! We need to slaughter the innocents!’ We certainly didn’t need Olivier punching out the Greek who wants to pay Marya for services in her carriage. We understood these archetypal roles immediately. How overtly Walsh hammers his points home underlines how this is really a propaganda film, merely one that loses most of its power for being delivered at least a decade too late. Down with the Tsar who’s already six feet under! Down, I say!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

True Confession (1937)

Director: Wesley Ruggles
Writer: Charles Binyon, from the play, Mon Crime, by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr
Stars: Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray and John Barrymore
This review is part of the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. This is my John Barrymore review after Ethel yesterday; watch out for Lionel tomorrow.
In 1934, Howard Hawks directed John Barrymore in a pioneering screwball comedy called Twentieth Century. The star played Oscar Jaffe, a notorious Broadway producer who had created a legendary star, Lily Garland, out of an underwear model, Mildred Plotka, only to lose her to Hollywood; the picture recounts his shenanigans to win her back while they both travel on the train of the title. Barrymore was a massive name at the time, a stage legend who had become a screen legend. His leading lady (and Hawks’s second cousin) was less known, hoping that the ‘61st time’s the charm’ after a long and relatively undistinguished career thus far; she had progressed to leads but hadn’t found that perfect role in which to shine. She was Carole Lombard, who had appeared in an earlier film with Barrymore, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, but both as extras: Barrymore was a chariot race spectator (with his elder brother and many other recognisable stars); Lombard was a slave girl (alongside Myrna Loy, Janet Gaynor and maybe Fay Wray).

I mention all this for two reasons. One is that life imitated art, given that the fictional star created a new fictional star and the film in which it happened did likewise. The other is that during the brief span between the two titles, only three years, the world had turned upside down. This time out, Lombard was the star and Barrymore the wild character actor in support; as her career grew, his shrank to the point where life imitated art once more by placing him so frequently into a bar to get sloshed. In only five years, he’d be dead of cirrhosis of the liver; a lifetime of heavy drinking had already rendered him old before his time, but it wouldn’t be long before it would do him in. Of course, Lombard would beat him to the grave by four months, but not through her own doing, her untimely end the result of a plane crash as she returned from a war bond drive. While Barrymore had descended to B-movies and guest slots, Lombard had been choosing her own leading roles, including My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred.
And she chose this one too, which suits her to a tee. If Barrymore was playing true to life as a drunk, Lombard was playing close to it too, as a wild and wacky creature called Helen Bartlett. She had built something of a reputation for practical jokes and it’s easy to see that side of her in Helen, but Helen inhabits her own reality as a compulsive liar, albeit in entertaining fashion, somewhat like a suburban housewife version of Baron Munchausen. She’s an aspiring writer, appropriately channelling her wild imagination into fiction, but her books aren’t published and her typewriter nearly gets repossessed. Fortunately her husband, Kenneth, is a lawyer, but unfortunately he’s an honest one, which means that he keeps refusing clients that they need to survive. Of course, a screwball comedy like this plays into that wonderfully; Helen sends her husband a new client, Tony Krauch, accused of stealing a carload of hams. Kenneth accepts his innocence until Krauch explains that he can’t pay him until he sells the hams.

Carole Lombard is magnificently alive here. She’s very dynamic but, for the most part, entirely natural. She makes great faces and she has a whole repertoire of little motions that add nuance to her many flights of fancy. Her best friend, Daisy McClure, is played by Una Merkel, and the two bounce off each other with panache. Sadly, the script by Claude Binyon, based in turn on the play by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr, doesn’t understand what to do with her, so Merkel’s vast comedic talents are restricted to being an odd combination of long suffering sidekick and human prop, mostly for Barrymore to use in a highly successful demonstration of the art of scene-stealing. At least she gets some time to strut her stuff before he shows up fashionably late and steals the picture out from under her and everyone else. It’s almost the forty minute mark when we first see him and this is a short feature that runs just under eighty-five minutes. To be brutally honest, though, once he’s here, we quickly forget that he took so long to arrive.
I found the first half of the picture, which constitutes the set-up, particularly fascinating. Lombard plays natural and Merkel does likewise but the leading man, who is Fred MacMurray not John Barrymore, is an odd character indeed: an underplayed caricature. I didn’t grow up watching MacMurray on My Three Sons, but I have seen and appreciated him in a variety of film roles, from Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny to The Apartment and The Shaggy Dog, not to mention his previous screen partnerships with Carole Lombard: this was the fourth and last of their films together, after Hands Across the Table, The Princess Comes Across and Swing High, Swing Low. I don’t remember disliking him in anything, but I didn’t like him here. He’s tall and thin and young and he has the sort of moustache that doesn’t suit him at all. He’s also overtly acting, which renders some scenes uncomfortable. ‘I can’t stand a liar,’ he tells Helen, after she spins a web of lies around the attempted typewriter repossession, but she’s real and he’s playing a part.

My better half found Helen’s continual flights of fancy annoying but I adored them, perhaps because I’m a writer too, if not one of fiction. I found Kenneth annoying instead, as he clearly hasn’t figured out his wife, even though he’s bombarded with incentives to do so. There’s none so blind as won’t see, I guess, but I felt that his character was horribly wrong, beyond understanding why he’s so honest; it’s both neatly ironic for his profession and crucial to keep his wife at least partially grounded. Now, if I was married to Helen and had to deal with all this, I might find her infuriating like, say, Darsey the cop, soon does, but, from the other side of the screen, I found it all both endearing and hilarious. She’s a pixie and a fantasist and a contrary soul and I only wish I could do it all as well as she does. I’m jealous! Kenneth, on the other hand, offers little positive to the story, instead serving mostly as an anchor to prevent Helen’s ripping yarns from soaring too far away from reality when I wanted her to fly like a dragon and him to help.
Case in point: he’s a male chauvinist who equates her earning a salary with him being unable to provide for his wife, so he forbids her from taking a ‘theoretical’ job as a private secretary to a broker. Of course, she goes to see Otto Krayler, who may really be an old friend of the family, to interview, even though she knows full well that she can’t do anything remotely secretarial. Needless to say, Krayler doesn’t care, because he just wants a sweet young thing to bounce on his knee, and after a quick chase round his large rooms, she escapes. She goes back with Daisy to retrieve her hat, coat and purse, only to be caught up in the police investigation as Krayler was murdered right after she left and the cops are sniffing around. It’s old time comedian Edgar Kennedy who does what I wanted Kenneth to do: as Darsey, he tries to trap her into confessions, only to find her conjuring up scenarios alongside him, just as mental exercise, oblivious of the fact that she’ll be arrested for whichever one rings truest, charged with premeditated murder.

At least, Kenneth finally gets some opportunity to shine because, naturally, he defends his wife, believing her to have killed in self-defence, but he’s immediately hamstrung by a pair of hilarious performances by others. One is by Porter Hall as Mr. Hartman, the emphatic prosecutor who wants to put Helen in the chair; he knew all his co-stars, having starred in The Princess Comes Across with Lombard and MacMurray and Bulldog Drummond Escapes with Barrymore and he plays to their strengths. The other is Barrymore, a player in the game at last who steals scenes immediately and with abandon and relish. He squeezes in next to Daisy in court and distracts everyone with balloons. While Helen is disconnected from reality, as ably highlighted by her line when Hartman begins to attack her in court (‘Why don’t you pop him?’ she asks her husband), Barrymore, as Charley Jasper, the self-proclaimed ‘utmost in criminologists’, is orbiting a completely different planet, rather like Claude Rains playing Hamlet playing Charlie Chaplin.
At this point, I was still jarred by the fact that we had one overtly natural lead and one overtly stylised one, with a natural actor in support utterly overwhelmed by a grotesque but frankly hilarious caricature. What tone was this film going for? Twentieth Century did some of this, but it was consistent in tone and everyone played into the wild situation comedy of the piece. Here, it’s like these actors were appearing in different pictures that belong to different genres. Lombard plays yet another of her screwball heroines, MacMurray feels like he’s appearing in a drama in college, Kennedy is back at Keystone working slapstick, Barrymore channels his stage background to chew up the scenery like an army of termites and Merkel struggles to find something to do after he shows up. And the plot still has to work its way through the court case, then its unexpected aftermath and eventually to the weird romance between a talented teller of tall tales and an honest lawyer who hates liars, all surrounded by blackmail, perjury and layers of lies.

Eventually it trips itself up and drowns in Lake Martha, with an oddly misogynistic ending that doesn’t feel right at all. If I adored the first half, I found that I despised the sweep of the second, even if I got a real kick out of some of its performances. Perhaps the original play, Mon Crime, flowed better; it was French, after all, so could get away with much that American equivalents couldn’t. I wonder if the inevitable remake does a more consistent job; it was retitled Cross My Heart and was released by Paramount in 1946 with Betty Hutton in the lead as Peggy Harper. I’d have to watch this movie afresh to see if I had problems with the editing of Paul Weatherwax, but I think he did fine and the problems all stem from either Claude Binyon’s script or his source material. Certainly Ted Tetzlaff, Lombard’s regular cinematographer, does as capable a job as always and it’s all professional enough otherwise. I put the fault mostly with the script with a little reserved for Fred MacMurray’s approach to Kenneth Bartlett.
Ironically, it would be MacMurray who went on to success while Barrymore faded quickly away and Lombard was ripped from us in one destructive night. She only had seven films left in her, but they included excellent titles like In Name Only, Vigil in the Night and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with the fantastic To Be or Not to Be wrapping up her career posthumously in 1942. Conversely, Barrymore’s best films were in his past, often a distant one. He had already appeared in two Bulldog Drummond movies and he had a third to go, but the most notable films left in his career were sad ones like The Great Man Votes and The Great Profile, which served primarily as reminders of what he once was, both those films (and their titles) riffing on his former stature and nicknames. I mostly know him as a silent or early sound star and I shocked myself by realising that this is the latest I’ve seen him. I should continue on to see how his career ended, but I’m firmly aware that Twentieth Century may well have been his last great picture and this his last hurrah.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Deadline - USA (1952)

Director: Richard Brooks
Writer: Richard Brooks
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore and Kim Hunter
This review is part of the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. This is my Ethel Barrymore review; watch out for John tomorrow and Lionel on Wednesday.
Ah yes, the Barrymores. I’m a fan of all three siblings, who had very different careers in film. Lionel was most prolific, finding his way to the big screen early and staying there for a long time. John was most prominent, the Great Profile commanding attention, but he waned quickly in the sound era. Ethel was most reluctant, but she made it to film and did amazing work. For this three day blogathon, I chose a film from each of them which I hadn’t seen before, that filled other filmography gaps for me beyond just the Barrymores and which are connected not merely by their presence but by another theme: that of writing, appropriate given that I’m doing my duty as a writer in reporting on them. So pay attention over the next three days for Ethel Barrymore in one of my few Humphrey Bogart gaps, a fifties drama called Deadline - USA, John Barrymore in a Carole Lombard comedy I’ve somehow not seen called True Confession and Lionel Barrymore in The Yellow Ticket, a pre-code melodrama with a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff.

I was pleased with that plan, but it almost came a cropper immediately. It turns out that Ethel Barrymore isn’t actually in Deadline - USA much, even though she’s prominently placed on the poster and on the screen, right after the title card, alongside Kim Hunter. It’s testament to her reputation that she be so highly billed, given that lead actor Humphrey Bogart came to this from The African Queen and Hunter to it from A Streetcar Named Desire. By comparison, Barrymore came to it from a trio of 1951 movies that I hadn’t even heard of, though I have every intention now of tracking down Kind Lady and The Secret of Convict Lake, if not perhaps It’s a Big Country: An American Anthology. She does get a few scenes of power, as the widow of a newspaperman. ‘Girls these days have stuff,’ she tells Bogart, ‘but they’re brittle, break more easily.’ That’s a telling line from a stage actress who could easily be described as a gentle battle-axe. Bogart’s character jokingly proposes to her. ‘You’re too old,’ she replies.
She’s Margaret Garrison, the widow of John Garrison, the founder of a serious newspaper called The Day. It’s about to be sold to its competitor, Lawrence White, who will close it down. Garrison’s daughters just want the money from the sale because they have no interest in running a paper. Margaret is too old to do so and she initially agrees to the sale too, but she’s a wildcard as she knows it has importance and she remembers her husband’s passion for it. Ed Hutcheson, the current managing editor, has that passion too, and Bogart sells it magnificently. We see his tone quickly, in his treatment of what the town’s other papers see as sensational front page news: the discovery of ‘a nude in a fur coat’ who has been drowned in the river. They plaster photos on page one; he chooses to run a more sedate story inside and without imagery. That’s an important decision, partly for demonstrating what sort of a man he is and partly because it becomes a plot point later in the film, as the story becomes important for reasons nobody knows yet.

It’s clearly Bogie’s film quickly and effectively, even if we start with Martin Gabel as a local mafioso called Tomas Rienzi, dismissing whatever questions a senate subcommittee throws at him. When a Day journalist, George Burrows, asks Hutcheson if he can stay on Rienzi, he tells him that ‘we’re not detectives and we’re not in the crusading business.’ However, they soon become both, once Rienzi’s thugs send Burrows to the hospital and Hutcheson discovers the fate of the paper upstairs from the heirs and lawyers. He prowls that room, polite but demonstrative, quoting the front page of the first edition from memory. He dominates effortlessly and Ethel Barrymore lets him. Margaret clearly feels guilty at this point, knowing that he’s a good man and a good reporter who runs a good paper. Her spine will return later in the film, but his never left. As he goes back downstairs to sweep into his office, a colleague tells him that the mayor is on the phone. ‘I’m busy,’ is his response, because he has bigger things on his mind.
He’s far from the only actor to impress early on. Jim Backus gets a great scene in the bar, as The Day’s journalists all go to get drunk and mourn the loss of the paper; his monologue is characterful and memorable. Audrey Christie was already impressive before we got to this point, but she gets another great scene in the bar. She was my big discovery here, as I’d forgotten her dark journalistic wit in Keeper of the Flame, released a decade earlier in 1942 but still her previous film. She was primarily a stage actress with plays on TV a prominent sideline and features a distant third in her priorities. She only made ten over three and a half decades, even if they did include Carousel, Splendor in the Grass and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. There’s also Ed Begley (Senior not Junior), who was always reliable and both the featured ladies, Barrymore and Hunter, get moments. The latter is Hutcheson’s ex-wife; she does still love him but knows he’s married to his paper. To quote Margaret about John, he loved her ‘passionately, but between editions’.

Technically, the crew back up the cast superbly, with only a few obvious rear projection shots detracting from the film’s power. It has a decent, if conventionally dramatic, fifties score from Cyril Mockridge, sharp editing from William B. Murphy and a suitably restless camera, courtesy of Milton Krasner, who had been Oscar-nominated the previous year for All About Eve, his second of six nominations; he would win in 1955 for Three Coins in the Fountain. The most obvious name to call out, though, perhaps after Bogart but perhaps not, is that of Richard Brooks, who wrote and directed; he’d go on to direct Bogie’s next picture too, Battle Circus. Of all his screenplays, which include Key Largo, Blackboard Jungle and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, along with adaptations of The Killers, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and In Cold Blood, this may be one of the closest to his heart, as he used to be a reporter in New York with Samuel Fuller and we know what that was like from the latter’s magnificent Park Row. They took the news business very seriously.
This often felt like Fuller to me, but that’s presumably because Brooks brought something very similar to it. Clearly the philosophy uttered from the screen by Hutcheson as managing editor of The Day could have been uttered by Brooks or Fuller off screen, just in private conversation. ‘It may not be the oldest profession,’ Hutcheson tells one wannabe journalist, ‘but it’s the best.’ And he’s just told us what a profession is: it’s ‘a performance for public good’. Some of the dialogue is more conspicuously written for Bogart. In one scene, a Day photographer bemoans putting himself at risk for a paper that’s about to close and Hutcheson promptly fires him. ‘Everyone knows we’re washed up,’ he suggests. ‘That’s your mistake,’ replies the editor. ‘But I worked here four years!’ complains the photog. ‘That’s my mistake,’ quips Hutcheson. That’s surely dialogue tailored to Bogart, as much as the hilarious back and forth in Rienzi’s car. ‘Not a drinking man?’ the kingpin asks him, when he refuses refreshment. ‘Not in an armoured car,’ he replies.

This may be Bogart’s most traditional scene because, frankly, was there anyone in Hollywood better equipped to stand up against a bully of a crime boss in the latter’s own vehicle? The only actor I could think of who could have played this scene better than the Bogart of the fifties is perhaps the Bogart of the forties; he’s as utterly at ease being threatened as Rick in Casablanca and his lines are just as snappy. ‘I think I like you,’ says Rienzi. Hutcheson simply fires back, ‘Why?’. ‘I’d like you to be my friend,’ offers Rienzi. ‘I’ve got a friend,’ he replies. Martin Gabel does a great job as the mafioso but, while he’s neither a Cagney nor a Robinson, Bogart is still Bogart. ‘Never beat up a reporter,’ he tells the crook. ‘It’s like killing a cop on duty.’ He blisters into him, with infuriatingly simple lines that bite, all while watching him like a hawk. When Rienzi finally realises that he can’t dominate this newspaperman and slaps him with a copy of his own paper, Hutcheson finally grins. He’s got him. This is quintessential Brooks and Bogart.
this film partly on location at the New York Daily News, using both their newsroom and their printing plant, with many real employees fleshing out the backgrounds, so it looks and feels authentic. They did reproduce the newsroom on set, but the difference isn’t noticeable. It wasn’t based on that paper, of course, The Day apparently being an amalgam of a pair of other New York papers, The Sun and the New York World. The former was a serious broadsheet that had been founded by Benjamin Day in 1833, but it had just printed its last edition under its own name in 1950. It was a city editor at The Sun who famously said that, ‘If a man bites a dog, that is news’; ironically, his name was John B. Bogart. The latter paper had been gone longer and was less serious, having pioneered yellow journalism under no less a publisher than Joseph Pulitzer. However, when it ceased publication in 1931, his heirs went to court to sell it to a competitor, Roy W. Howard, who promptly closed it down and laid off its 3,000 employees.

So this tells quite a lot of newspaper history, wrapped up in a fictionalised setting, and that discovery perhaps weakens the ending, which is left open, the future of The Day left to the minds of readers. History tells us precisely what happened and it wasn’t good. It also spins a good story itself, with Bogart magnetic as an editor who finds himself crusading against a bad man in order to keep his paper alive and the twists and turns of that crusade fascinating to watch. There’s also an odd romantic angle, which is woven into the wider story superbly. Hutcheson is a very capable juggler, able to keep many balls in the air at once; he frequently skips from one strand of dialogue to another like lightning. However, he’s dropped what Hollywood would usually see as the most important ball of them all, his marriage, and when he tries to pick it up, it’s too late. What’s telling is how little this really affects his drive, as he’s a newspaperman not a husband. As Margaret suggests, ‘You wouldn’t have had a wife if that newspaper had beautiful legs.’
That brings us neatly back to Ethel Barrymore, who I know mostly from the 1940s, when she was in her sixties. We remember that she resisted the call of Hollywood for a long time, unlike her brothers who became as important on the big screen as on the stage, but she actually made a string of thirteen silent movies in only six years, starting in 1914. But then she left again and returned only rarely, making just two features over almost a quarter of a century. The twenties saw only Camille and the thirties Rasputin and the Empress, albeit a major event with all three Barrymores acting together for the first time. It was only with None But the Lonely Heart in 1943, which won her an Oscar, and The Spiral Staircase, which won her a further nomination, that she really became an actress of film. I’ve seen a few of her pictures from the forties, in which she hasn’t yet disappointed, but this was my first experience of her a decade later. As brief as her appearance here was, it highlights how she was just as powerful in her seventies.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Letty Lynton (1932)

Director: Clarence Brown
Writers: Wanda Tuchock, from a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes with dialogue and continuity by John Meehan
Stars: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, May Robson and Lewis Stone
This review is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
I had a blast taking part in the 1932 blogathon earlier this month, so had no intention of saying no when I got asked to take part in another one. This is to commemorate the work of Joan Crawford, so I wandered through her filmography looking to see where my gaps are. When I realised that Letty Lynton is the only film of hers from 1932 and 1933 that I hadn’t seen, synchronicity nodded its head at me. When I read up on it and realised why I hadn’t seen it, it became a must. For the Joan Crawford blogathon, hosted by the blog ‘In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’, I’ll happily watch the Crawford movie that I’m not supposed to watch. Hey, what can I say? I’m a rebel. The reason I’m not supposed to watch it is because MGM, who made it in 1932, were taken to court for plaguarism and lost. The film hasn’t been released since so, like any other potential viewer, I was forced to trawl through the grey market and suffer through a digital rip from a bootleg VHS tape with poor quality visuals and notably crackly sound.

Here are the details as to why. Letty Lynton was written by Wanda Tuchock, a charter member of the Screen Writers Guild and one of maybe only two women to earn a directorial credit on a Hollywood film in the thirties: Finishing School, billed alongside George Nichols Jr. She based it on a recent novel by the prolific English novelist, Marie Belloc Lowndes, sister to Hilaire Belloc and author of The Lodger, which has been adapted to the screen many times, including by Alfred Hitchcock. In turn, Mrs Lowndes based it on the real murder case of Madeleine Smith, a Glaswegian socialite who is generally believed to have poisoned her secret lover with arsenic in 1857. He was Pierre Emile L’Angelier and the letters she wrote to him were found in his lodgings and caused her to be arrested and charged. There was much circumstantial evidence to point to Smith being the killer, but not enough to prove it, so the jury returned a verdict of ‘not proven’, a middle ground in Scotland between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’.
Such a prominent murder was bound to resonate and Mrs Lowndes wasn’t the only author to base a work on it. Two playwrights brought the case to the stage under the title Dishonored Lady. One was Edward Sheldon, whose highly successful work was often adapted to film in the teens and twenties; he had a huge hit with Romance in 1913, a play which ran for over a thousand nights in the West End and was adapted twice onto film: in 1920 with Doris Keane and again in 1930 with Greta Garbo. Perhaps because he was going blind because of crippling rheumatoid arthritis as of 1929, he started to collaborate with Margaret Ayer Barnes, a lady who took up writing to bide her time while recovering from a traffic accident which broke her back. She did pretty well at it; she won the Pulitzer Prize for her debut novel, Years of Grace. That was in 1931, after Sheldon had retired. Dishonored Lady was his last hurrah but just a beginning for her. It was also directly adapted to film, but much later, in 1947 with Hedy Lamarr.

Sheldon and Barnes took MGM to court because they claimed that the film stole from their play. I’m no lawyer, so much of what I read of the case law history makes little sense to me, but I believe that what sunk the studio was the dialogue, which presumably matched that in the play but not the novel. Tuchock wrote the script, but there’s a further credit for John Meehan’s ‘dialogue and continuity’. He was hardly a minor name either, having being Oscar-nominated for writing The Divorcee in 1930, but he may have been the main reason why this film got stuck in litigation. The playwrights demanded all the profits from the film, but they got a 20% cut of the net, given that movie stars contribute to profits too; this is notable because it marks the first time that a copyright infringement claim was settled like a patent infringement claim and MGM fought that all the way to the Supreme Court. However, they chose not to hear the case and that was that. It also locked in an injunction against the film, hence why we can’t see it.
And that’s rather frustrating today, whatever the quality of this particular film, which I was now even more eager to see. Just look at the people involved! It was directed by Clarence Brown, the pre-eminent director of women at MGM; he directed Greta Garbo in seven films and Joan Crawford in six, including this one. She was never a minor leading lady; she’d risen during the silents to play opposite actors of the calibre of Lon Chaney and successfully made the transition to sound. Her pre-codes had variable success but her infamous ‘box office poison’ era wouldn’t show up until the end of the decade; it surely can’t have hurt that she’d also married into Hollywood royalty in the form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Robert Montgomery was her co-star in 1929’s Untamed, his first picture as a leading man and her first sound film; this could be seen as a thematic sequel in some ways, given that the pair meet and fall in love on an ocean liner travelling to New York in both films. Add in Nils Asther, Lewis Stone and May Robson and it’s a must see.

I found that it actually is a must see, though it didn’t appear that way for quite a while. I was annoyed by it for perhaps almost half an hour, as nobody in the story appeared to have any substance at all. Crawford plays the title character, a carefree socialite rather like the flappers she played in so many late silents. The Lyntons are rich, but Letty has escaped them to fritter away her time down in Montevideo in the arms of a quintessential Latin lover by the name of Emile Renaul. He’s played by the capable Nils Asther, who had frittered away time with Joan Crawford in a number of those late silents, such as Our Dancing Daughters. He’s a sleazy character with a sleazy accent and a sleazy choice of poetic phrasing: ‘When I hold you in my arms, even the memory of everything is gone,’ is but one example of many. He’s also creepy because he won’t take no for an answer. ‘This is the finish!’ she tells him in her hotel room. ‘You will never leave me, Letty!’ is his blind response. Next day, she’s on her way to the cruise liner heading north.
To highlight how insubstantial Letty is, let’s look at how long it takes her to move on from mad and passionate Emile. Miranda, her maid, does float the idea that there might be someone interesting on board and Letty does say, ‘I hope not,’ but, before the door to her stateroom is even closed, she spies Robert Montgomery just across the hall and we’re off and running with the usual romantic shipboard entanglements. There’s a nice scene as both Miranda and Jerry Darrow, Montgomery’s character, pay the steward to sit the pair together at dinner. They seem to be a perfect match, the pair as insubstantial as each other. She’s from Long Island, while he’s from Boston. ‘Mayflower?’ she asks. ‘Sure,’ he replies. His father is a rubber company; hers is a chemical works. He makes up wild tales about his adventures in Africa, as if he’s Baron Munchausen, while she hangs on every word. I liked the improvisational feel of the dialogue, but felt nothing for either of them. At this point, I was hoping they were on the Titanic with an iceberg ahead.

Fortunately, things settle down and the pair of them start to exhibit signs of being real human beings. There’s a interesting scene where they try to find deckchairs that aren’t on decks being swabbed down with hoses, as they’re the beautiful people and things like this aren’t supposed to happen to people like them. It’s at Christmas, though, that we start to feel for Letty, as while everyone else is enjoying the organised on board celebrations, she’s out on the balcony with tears ready to flow. Maybe her story about her father being shot at Christmas was true but, whatever the cause, it’s the first time she’s been truly honest and the first time that we actually see the real Letty Lynton who’s been hiding behind her fabulous wardrobe until now. Her gowns, and she has a large collection of them, were designed by Adrian and they’re impressive, even for someone as far from a fashion plate as I am. Macy’s reproduced ‘the Letty Lynton dress’, selling fifty thousand copies of it, and that isn’t even the best one she wears on board ship.
When the real Letty Lynton emerges from her carefully fashioned facade, it shows just what Joan Crawford could do. Never mind the first twenty minutes, in which she’s insubstantial fluff, the 1932 equivalent of Kim Kardashian, it’s the last hour that shows her talent and it begins out there on the balcony fighting away the tears at Christmas. Reality firmly introduces itself here, first with a proposal from Darrow who has known her all of two weeks and then with the appearance of sleazy Emile Renaul (remember him?) at the New York dock waiting for her to arrive. ‘I’ve got to keep those two men from meeting,’ she tells Miranda, but this is a long way from a screwball comedy; this has just turned from a romance into a psychological thriller. I don’t know what depression era slang called a stalker, but she’s got one of those right in her face and Louise Closser Hale memorably sticking out her tongue when he turns the other way isn’t going to be enough to get rid of him. Now we can see how the source material is going to apply!

The film’s structure becomes a little awkward, as we’re introduced to people, like May Robson as Letty’s grounded mother and the new faces to me of Walter Walker and Emma Dunn as Jerry’s jovial parents, while Emile starts to threaten. Nils Asther comes close to stealing the second half, immensely surprising to me given that he was as insubstantial and annoying as Letty in Montevideo. It has to be said that he’s a very believable ladykiller, impressive given that he was ‘unabashedly gay’ in real life, as Wikipedia would have it. Then again, he’d played a similar part before in Our Dancing Daughters, in which he becomes a jealous and angry husband to a flapper who chooses her party animal friends over him, friends like Joan Crawford in the picture which really made her a star. It gets hard in this film to remember the suave and jovial Montgomery when Asther slaps a huge kiss on her and she slaps a big slap on him. ‘There’s no love for you but mine,’ he insists and our memories deliver every movie ever made for the Lifetime Channel.
It’s hard not to spoil a film when the bits that constitute spoilers are the ones taken from real life and I’ve already introduced that case as an explanation of why we officially can’t see this film and why I had to see it anyway. However, I can emphasise that there is some serious power to the final scenes, which are reliant on more actors than merely Crawford and Montgomery. I can also say that this is a quintessential pre-code, that brief era of black and white Hollywood which exhibited freedom in a way shocking to us today, used as we are to the golden age under the hefty restrictions of the Production Code. Let’s just say that this story could not have been told in the code era, at least not like this, and when Hollywood tried it, with Hedy Lamarr in that adaptation of Sheldon and Barnes’s Dishonored Lady, the Hays Office required serious cuts which excised characters and cities, a ‘night of sordid passion’ and every suggestion that the leading lady had even thought about murder. Letty Lynton it sure ain’t.

And with that comment, I should add that I’d really like to see Letty Lynton in a nice, restored, official release, as unlikely as that is, given the federal injunction still in effect. Perhaps MGM could look the other way while someone records the 35mm print digitally and leaks it to YouTube. Fans of Crawford and Montgomery deserve to be able to see this film, as does anyone who remembers Nils Asther. I’ve read people citing the scene surrounding Emile’s death as the finest piece of acting Crawford ever gave. Given that she won a deserved Oscar for Mildred Pierce, that’s high praise, but it’s understandable because she blisters through it with attitude and it’s not the only scene of power that she has. Nowadays, however, it’s Adrian’s costume design that is remembered most. Many of the great MGM names worked on this, like Cedric Gibbons and Douglas Shearer, but their work isn’t recognisable in a bootleg with horrible sound while Adrian’s dresses are. But how much better would they look in a restoration? Sadly, we’ll have to imagine.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Night of the Grizzly (1966)

Director: Joseph Pevney
Writer: Warren Douglas
Stars: Clint Walker, Martha Hyer, Keenan Wynn and Nancy Kulp
‘Big Jim Cole had come to the rim of Hell and nobody but nobody was going to push him over!’ screams the tagline on the poster. It sure doesn’t look that way as his wagon travels through gorgeous countryside into a town called Hope to claim his inheritance of a ranch. 150 miles cross-country in a wagon seat isn’t remotely as comfortable as they make it look, but hey, welcome to Hollywood, erm, Hope. Jim is played by a television legend, Clint Walker, who had played the title character on Cheyenne for seven seasons. He is perfect for this role: he’s tall, strong and softly spoken, he looks believably tough with his shirt off (which it often is) and he can backhand Ron Ely with style. Ely, famous for playing both Tarzan and Doc Savage, was 6’ 4½” tall, but Walker still had an inch and a half on him. Walker had his work cut out for him here, with a host of actors of all ages ready to steal the film out from under him, but he holds on to it with a quiet authority that backs up his character’s background as a former United States marshal.

Many of those scene-stealing members of the supporting cast were also best known for television. Nancy Kulp runs the local store, which also includes a café, a pool hall and almost anything else that might be needed in Hope; she’s easily best known as Miss Jane Hathaway, Milburn Drysdale’s secretary in The Beverly Hillbillies. Her name in this story is Wilhelmina but Big Jim’s right hand man calls her Bill. The one thing she doesn’t stock is, well, stock, so Cole has to go to Hazel Squires for his cows and pigs; she’s played by Ellen Corby, another actress who’s fundamentally known for one role, of Grandma Walton in The Waltons. Both of them play pretty much the same parts here, even if the characters have different names. Only Ron Ely gets to do anything different: he was known as much for The Aquanauts as Tarzan on TV, but his role here as the spoiled brat of a son of the local villain isn’t remotely similar to either. It’s odd watching him not be in charge, but he has fun as Tad Curry, a pain in the ass hoodlum who’s always in trouble.
The story isn’t particularly original. In fact, it bears many similarities to Terror in a Texas Town, which I covered in March in honour of Sterling Hayden, though there’s no political undercurrent to be found here. Cole has come to Hope to claim a ranch that his dad Charlie won from Jed Curry in a card game; he’s brought his family along to work it with him and he’s keen to get on with it. When he discovers that there’s a $500 loan against the property, with another $175 in interest, he pays it without hesitation, though it’s most of his money and he hasn’t even seen the place yet. ‘I don’t need to see it,’ he says. It turns out to be not much to look at but it’s 640 acres of prime land and there’s another man in town who wants it badly: Jed Curry, its former owner, who wants it for his sons, Tad and Cal, the local troublemakers. He’s little different except that he has common sense, grit and control to go with their greed, and he’s played to gloriously barking effect by Keenan Wynn, who would have been a hundred years old today: 27th July.

Now, given that this is a time honoured framework for a western, you might wonder why it’s called The Night of the Grizzly. Well, in and amongst the usual subplots of honest man against the odds, redemption through young love and the retired lawman’s old life catching up with him, not to mention that old faithful of a little girl discovering what a skunk is the hard way, we have a new one: Old Satan. Regis Toomey gets to talk up this critter as Cotton Benson, the town’s banker, and he does it well. ‘1,500 odd pounds of the meanest, wickedest animal this side of Hades,’ is just introduction. ‘If that beast ain’t Lucifer in person, he sure is first cousin,’ he suggests. And just in case Big Jim thinks that it’s just another grizzly bear, he focuses in. ‘He’s got the heart of a cougar and he can out-think any man ever born,’ he explains. ‘He kills just for the wicked fun of it.’ Now, that’s the sort of build-up we expect to get for a movie called The Night of the Grizzly! Old Satan has terrorised Hope for years and Big Jim’s place is next on his list.
I enjoyed this film from the outset because of the simplicity inherent in the town of Hope. Every character’s motivation is written across his face and with his very first actions. Big Jim is a good man with a good family, even if his son Charlie is a handful and his young daughter Gypsy is a character and a half. His compadre and former deputy, Sam Potts, is the standard western sidekick but he’s immediately set upon by the fact that Hope is in a dry county. He finds that out at Bill’s general store, just as we find out that she’s fallen for him at first sight. We meet Tad and Cal there, all ready to steal Sam’s money on the pretext of supplying him with a bottle of illicit liquor. Their dad Jed is a bad man but one that’s good at being bad; everyone in town knows that he owns it, even if they’d like to forget. The banker is a decent sort, who would help anyone in need, but he knows who the principal shareholder is. There’s even a local odd job man, played by Jack Elam, who’s happiest sleeping on a bench outside Bill’s store.

We know who each of these folk are and what they’re like just by looking at them. The script by Warren Douglas, who gets a brief appearance as a minister, isn’t keen on surprising us and it wouldn’t be as effective as it is without the right folk in these parts. An impressive amount of kudos needs to go to the casting director here, rather than the writer. This is late for Douglas, who appeared on the big screen for the last time after a minor acting career that went back to 1938; he had one TV movie left in him, 1973’s The Red Pony. In the fifties, he gradually switched over to writing, moving from features to television by the end of the decade. He was best known for western shows, having written episodes for most of the big ones: Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The High Chaparral, not to mention ten episodes of Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker. This feels like it could easily have been a couple of those TV episodes, one about the cold war between Big Jim and Jed Curry over the ranch and another about the search for a killer grizzly bear.
I didn’t enjoy this for the story; I watched it for the characters and for how far into their skins the actors got. I felt like I’d arrived in Hope along with the Coles and so I had a stake in what was going on. It didn’t hurt that I watched in Phoenix, AZ, where lines of dialogue like Hazel Squires’s, ‘It’s gonna be a long, mean summer,’ ring very true indeed. Of course, that’s a harbinger of doom if ever I’ve heard one and, sure enough, Satan comes visiting that very night, breaking into Big Jim’s barn and right back out again, after Cole shoots at him. The brief attack leaves Duncan, the ranch’s prize bull, dead. He’s only the first victim, however, as more promptly add up and gradually move the story towards a quest to rid the town of this 1,500 pound menace. The reward put up by Jed Curry plays nicely into the rest of the story, prompting Big Jim to join the hunt to earn that cash and save his ranch, but mostly it’s about a battle between the retired marshal and a man who figured strongly within that career, Cass Dowdy.

I chose The Night of the Grizzly as a celebration of Keenan Wynn’s career and he does a stellar job as Jed Curry, clearly the villain of the piece and not a man to cross in Hope, but also one who gains a little sympathy from us because of how much trouble Tad and Cal keep getting into, all of which he ends up responsible for cleaning up. I wanted more Jed Curry, because Wynn made sure that he played him differently to every other actor in the film, speaking quietly but with menace until barking out a line for emphasis. Unfortunately, he’s the villain in a movie where Satan the grizzly bear outweighs him by over a ton and doesn’t care what screen time he ends up with. It would have been easier to remove that grizzly from the script than any other component and, without it, Jed Curry’s part would have bulked up considerably. It’s fair to say that while Cole and Dowdy are out in the mountains tracking a killer bear, I was still thinking of what Curry might have been getting up to back in town.
Wynn had a long and interesting career, but not one with a quintessential role because he was so relentlessly versatile. I know him best from his role as Col Bat Guano in Dr Strangelove, but have previously reviewed him as memorable characters in films as diverse as Shack Out on 101, Bikini Beach and Battle Circus; others might remember him best for titles like The Great Race, Annie Get Your Gun or Son of Flubber. He was a third generation actor, with many family members in entertainment. His grandfather, Frank Keenan, was a New York stage actor and theatre manager who found his way to Hollywood, debuting in The Coward in 1915 and making over forty pictures. His daughter Hilda was a minor actress, but her husband, Ed Wynn, was a vaudeville clown who had his own TV show. He encouraged his son’s career and both Ed and Keenan Wynn appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. Keenan’s son was a screenwriter, Tracy Keenan Wynn, who wrote The Longest Yard, and his granddaughter, Jessica Keenan Wynn, is a stage actress.

But I can only review what actually happens, not what plays out in my mind while the movie is going on, and what happens is the rekindling of old grudges between Cole, who needs the reward money, and Dowdy, whom Curry hires to make sure he doesn’t get it. Nothing that happens in the last third of the film carries any surprises, with each little plot twist either telegraphed or obvious. However Walker is as solid in the mountains as he was on the plains and Leo Gordon is suitably imposing as his opponent. Just like Walker was the epitome of the tall and quietly spoken western hero, Gordon is the epitome of the tall and quietly spoken western villain. He didn’t have the quirky performance tricks of a Jack Palance or, in this picture, a Keenan Wynn, but he had the look and the feel and what he himself called ‘a craggy-ass face.’ He exuded menace just by standing up, even if his stocky 6’ 2” frame was a full four inches short of Walker’s, and his deep voice just added to that tone. You simply knew he wasn’t anyone to mess with.

Of course, Victoria Paige Meyerink didn’t seem like anyone to mess with either, but in a rather different way, given that she was a six year old girl, the Coles’ youngest. Kevin Brodie, as her screen brother Charlie, was a more seasoned actor, with four features to his name already, even though he was only fourteen. Candy Moore certainly caught the eye more as cousin Meg, but she had little to do except turn green in a bizarre effects shot when Tad Curry suckers her into drinking a glass of moonshine instead of punch. Meyerink got all the best scenes, including a bunch with Jack Elam, after she decides to just lie down on the next bench over. She’s Rosebud and he’s Champeen and they’re an unlikely pair who genuinely seemed to hit it off. Little girls tend to either fade into the background or steal every scene they’re in; my guess, from the amount of them that Meyerink ended up with, is that the director, Joseph Pevney, was in no doubt about her falling into the latter category. She comes closest to stealing the show from Walker.
One prominent member of the cast I haven’t mentioned yet is Don Haggerty, who plays Big Jim’s sidekick, Sam Potts. In the time-honoured tradition of westerns, he’s as blustery as his boss is calm, but he gets quite a bit of opportunity here, including a superbly awkward romantic angle to work with Bill. I couldn’t help but see a huge amount of irony in his performance in this film, though it isn’t actually warranted. I’d read that Don Haggerty was the father of Dan Haggerty, who went on to great fame as Grizzly Adams, a connection underlined by the latter accidentally receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that had been intended for the former. The family connection seems obvious, especially when Don interacts with Satan, and extends far beyond their respective bushy beards. However, I checked with Arizona’s official western film historian, Charlie LeSueur, who confirms that they weren’t actually related! Dan Haggerty’s father really was a Don Haggerty, but he wasn’t this Don Haggerty, so the irony is coincidental.

I tried to find out who played the bear too, but the information doesn’t seem to be findable online. I don’t even know if it was male or female, so I’ll use ‘he’ and hope for accuracy. Whoever he was did a decent job, but not up to the level that we would soon come to expect from various TV shows and films starring the non-related Dan Haggerty. I didn’t buy into the hype Cotton Benson spins up for him, perhaps because he looks like a demonic teddy bear on the poster. He does turn out to be a big bear, but he really isn’t put to the sort of use that we might expect a big bear in a movie called The Night of the Grizzly to be put. The closest Joseph Pevney got to the horror genre was The Strange Door a decade and a half earlier, starring Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. He did direct genre material, such as a fifth of Star Trek’s episodes, but the grizzly side of this story needed horror treatment and he didn’t have a clue. Title aside, the grizzly is merely a distraction from a well cast and well acted but routine western drama. Goodnight, Satan!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Dark Horse (1932)

Director: Alfred E Green
Writer: Meville Crossman
Stars: Warren William, Bette Davis and Guy Kibbee
This review is part of the Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch.

Posts for 9th July can be found at this page at Once Upon a Screen and posts for 10th July are at this page at Essays from the Couch.
I’ve taken part in blogathons before, but it’s been a while. The idea is simple: someone sets a theme, a bevy of bloggers pick a title that fits and each writes a new review to be posted, all in a flurry on the same day. I simply couldn’t resist Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932, though, when I saw it mentioned in CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, because it’s about my favourite year in American film. I’m not saying that there aren’t better years (hello, 1939, you ‘golden year of Hollywood’, you), but 1932 was surely the most honest. It marks the point where the studios had firmly figured out how to use sound, which had come in back in the twenties but not killed the silent movie until Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights wrapped up that era only a year earlier. It also marks the point where a whole new era really kicked into gear: the pre-code. I’ve talked about this a lot at Apocalypse Later but, for new eyes, it’s a brief point in time between the silent era and the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 which stopped all the fun on screen.

I love pre-codes because their stories feel so alive and so edgy for black and white film that my brain often rebels and believes I’m in a parallel universe where Americans actually acknowledge sex as well as violence. To over-generalise, pre-code heroes were all gangsters and pre-code heroines were all prostitutes; women had power, the races mixed and criminals tended to get away with things (or, at least, the tacked on Hollywood endings were so absurdly tacked on that you could often blink and miss them). It was the time of unjustly forgotten stars like Richard Barthelmess, Joan Blondell and Lee Tracy. It marked the arrivals on screen of stars we know such as Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Bette Davis. And it was the playground of my favourite actor, the unparalleled Warren William, little remembered today but the quintessential pre-code actor. He made two films in the twenties and two more in 1931, then took over in 1932 with no less than eight, including gems like The Mouthpiece, Skyscraper Souls and The Match King.
I chose The Dark Horse from these eight because I haven’t seen it in a decade, it’s a Warren William picture that I haven’t reviewed at Apocalypse Later before and it plays into the current political climate perfectly. We find ourselves in an unnamed state in a US where the Conservatives battle the Progressives and a governor’s seat is up for grabs. The Progressive Convention is deadlocked for a fourth day because White and Wilson are tied and neither can seem to get an edge. So, the Wilson camp tries the well oiled political move of shenanigans, nominating the dark horse of the title to split the opposition’s vote. How about Zachary Hicks? That seems like a great political name! Nobody’s heard of him, but he’ll do! The catch is that the White camp backs the play just to avoid Wilson getting in, so Hicks wins the primary and both sides try to figure out who he is. Well, he’s Guy Kibbee and he’s asleep in the audience, having taken up his neighbour’s sarcastic advice to cut off his own shoes to let his aching feet breathe.

Kibbee was born to play this role, of a jolly fool who has slid through the halls of power without really understanding them. Hicks was a county coroner, but he resigned because he didn’t like his rest being constantly interrupted. Kibbee specialised in this sort of part, inept but good natured support for the leads, and Hollywood was happy to put him to work; never mind William’s eight, Guy Kibbee made eighteen pictures in 1932 alone, though he was rarely the lead himself. When he was, in films like 1934’s Merry Wives of Reno, the results were hilarious; RKO eventually gave him his own series and he made six Scattergood Baines movies in the early forties. Most people remember him from big pictures like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which he also played a governor, but for me it’s a whole slew of pre-codes: musicals like 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade and other films as varied as Two Seconds, Crooner and Lady for a Day. And, of course, this one, in which he plays the title character if not the lead role.
The lead is Warren William, playing Hal S Blake (‘the S is for Samson’), because when the Progressive backroom boys realise what a mess they’ve created for themselves, their secretary, Kay Russell, tells them that they need to hire him to get them out of it. She’s a very young Bette Davis, who, like William and Kibbee (excluding the odd silent supporting role in both instances), had kicked off her career in 1931 and stepped into high gear in 1932: she made four in the former and nine in the latter, including Hell’s House, So Big! and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, not to mention Three on a Match, with its dream cast for a pre-code that included William, Blondell and Humphrey Bogart, among others. She’s still learning her trade here, not apparently as comfortable as her co-stars (she hated her early output for Warner Brothers) but still with an obvious promise that, of course, she more than delivered on. She manages to steal some scenes too and it wasn’t easy to steal scenes from Warren William in a pre-code!

She plays Blake up sensationally as the ‘greatest campaign manager in the world’, ‘the greatest manipulator of public opinion this country has ever produced’ and ‘the fastest worker in the world’. The latter is quickly apparent because when the committee get to his jail cell (as he’s been locked up for non-payment of alimony), he already has the whole block eating out of his hand and even singing a campaign song for Zachary Hicks that he’s written on the fly! Of course, he doesn’t know who Hicks is either so, after he arrives at Progressive headquarters and inadvertently puts the candidate to work putting up his own campaign sign, he’s in for a shock. But, hey, this is Warren William. His assistant, Joe, played by Warners regular Frank McHugh, describes Hicks to his face as the ‘champion seacow of this planet’ and is promptly lost for words when he discovers who he really is; Blake, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat after a similar mistake, charms Hicks in a moment and has him volunteer to go right back and fix that sign.
What William did better than anyone else in the pre-code era and, frankly, in the entirety of American film, is to keep our support even when he’s the bad guy. And he played real bad guys, not just what we might call anti-heroes today. He specialised in ruthless businessmen, who don’t get more ruthless than he does in The Match King; cunning lawyers, even before he brought Perry Mason to life on the big screen for four movies in the mid-thirties; and outright conmen, such as the outrageous fake psychic he plays in The Mind Reader. In my review of that picture, I wrote that imposing the Production Code on William was ‘like declawing a wildcat’ and I stand by that. His career went on, but it wasn’t the same and couldn’t have been: most of the tools in his toolbox had become illegal and the parts he played best were no longer written. The pre-codes were made during the height of the depression and he played the roles ‘you love to hate’. However, he had such charisma and fearless optimism that they’re roles ‘you hate to love’ too.

A quintessential William moment here arrives during the first public debate between Zachary Hicks and his competitor, the Hon William A Underwood. Because Hicks has as much political savvy as the shoes he cut up, Blake has him memorise one of Lincoln’s speeches that paints him as a man of the people, dumb but honest, in keeping with his campaign slogan of ‘Hicks from the Sticks’. Unfortunately, Underwood beats him to the punch by launching into precisely the same speech, so Blake, as sharp as ever, takes the stage to expose Underwood as an unashamed plaguarist, accusing him of ‘the vilest of crimes, filching thoughts from a dead man’s grave’. We ought to be horrified, watching a campaign manager destroy the opposing candidate for doing exactly what he had trained his own candidate to do, but we’re with him all the way. Of course, this is merely the 1930s version of the attack ad, a polite creature indeed to what we see during prominent American election campaigns today.
So much of this feels familiar as we move steadily towards the political conventions that will soon provide America with the best opportunity to vote ‘none of the above’ that history has perhaps ever seen. The script was written by Courtney Terrett and Darryl F Zanuck, the future head of Twentieth Century Fox, under the pseudonym of Melville Crossman, and, for all the trappings of the 1930s, it feels remarkably timeless. If they had a time machine to hand, they could have based Hal S Blake on Corey Lewandowski, who ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign until last month. Early in his career, he worked for Congressman Bob Ney, known today for a thirty month sentence he received for corruption. Lewandowski was arrested too, for apparently smuggling a gun and ammo inside a laundry bag into a Congress office building. He ran a senate reelection campaign that smeared the opposition as a terrorist. He was a controversial lobbyist for years and used violence to handle press and protestors when working for Trump.

All of these things would be believable actions for Hal S Blake, who goes to incredible lengths towards the end of the film to block his candidate from being arrested in the final days of the campaign in a sting set up by the floundering Underwood camp. Even in more personal actions outside the campaign itself, he stoops to some serious depths. Maybelle is his ex-wife, the one who had him locked up at the beginning of the film for non-payment of alimony. He’s been slipping on that again, so she shows up at campaign headquarters to collect and he actually goes to his girlfriend to get the cash, ostensibly for ‘a little bill I overlooked’. As you might expect for a character played by Bette Davis, she’s sharp and sees through much of what he does, to the degree that she continues to rebuff his proposals of marriage because she knows that he’s all about the chase rather than the catch; she’s more than happy to be chased but not willing to be caught in matrimony, as Blake would move on once she was conquered, as if she were a mountain.
Maybelle is played by Vivienne Osborne, yet another star to shine with the advent of sound. She’d made a number of silent films in the early twenties, but had effectively retired as of 1922 until she returned in 1931; almost half of her filmography was made in the pre-code era, including such textbook pre-codes as Husband’s Holiday, Two Seconds or Week-End Marriage, stories that revolve around infidelity, the death penalty and working women (no, not that kind, for a change). What’s notable here is that Maybelle is no more ruthless than her ex-husband but she comes off emphatically as the villain of the piece while he spins his way into the hero’s role. If you examine the story, they’re really no different. Blake does what he does to get Hicks elected, however unethical those actions might be; Maybelle does what she does for no better reason, just the old one of money. Our judgements are based on performance alone: William was best as the used car salesman who charms our socks off, but Osborne as the scheming ‘other woman’.

William dominated every pre-code he was in but in very different ways to contemporaries like Cagney, Bogart or Robinson. Take a look at an early post-code, The Case of the Lucky Legs, the third of his Perry Mason movies, to see the perfect example of that. He’s a whirlwind of energy and it’s often difficult to acknowledge that anyone else is even in the film. He’s somewhat restrained here, by his standards at least, and he leads a strong cast indeed. Bette Davis, second billed, could have been given a much more substantial role, given that Kay Russell is clearly a very capable young lady, but she does what she can with it before it falls into mush. It’s not fair to dismiss all her roles before, say, Of Human Bondage in 1934, but they certainly tended towards less substance. Guy Kibbee was perfect as Zachary Hicks and it’s surprising how well he enforces his presence here, given that he’s inherently playing a character easy to overlook. Frank McHugh is the capable support he always was; I often watch early Warners just for him and Allen Jenkins.
Pre-codes are a rabbit hole. They’re entirely unknown to most of the film-going public and even firm fans of classic Hollywood are much more likely to watch pictures from the later thirties or forties. However, once discovered, they have a tendency to suck us in because they’re a door to a different world, one that entices all the more because it doesn’t feel like it fits. Hollywood’s golden age did a great job of hiding reality, spinning stories that took us away from the everyday. Pre-codes show us that reality, often wildly. I frequently say that pre-codes contain things that we don’t expect to see in black and white and that applies to more than just the outrageous titles like Freaks, Kongo and Island of Lost Souls or Baby Face, Female and Red-Headed Woman. It also applies to social stories like Wild Boys of the Road, Gabriel Over the White House and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; comedies like Duck Soup, I’m No Angel and Peach-O-Reno; and musicals like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. Add to that list anything with Warren William.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Lady in a Cage (1964)

Director: Walter Grauman
Writer: Luther Davis
Stars: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan, Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern
I’ve been working my centennial project for half a year now and it’s been fascinating to pluck interesting films from the careers of important cinematic names to celebrate what would have been their hundredth birthdays. Today, for the first time, I get to pluck an interesting film from the career of an important cinematic name to celebrate what actually is her hundredth birthday. Olivia de Havilland turns one hundred today and the world of film has wished her all the very best. Born in Japan of British parents, she was a major name in the thirties, not only for Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Adventures of Robin Hood, but of the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster of the era, Gone with the Wind. In the forties, the blockbusters gave way to more focused dramas, like To Each Their Own, The Snake Pit and The Heiress; she received an Academy Award nomination for each of those three and won for two of them, losing the middle one to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda.

It’s easy to argue that the longer her career ran, the more interesting her film choices became. Never mind all those sweet young things she played in her early films, there are so many fascinating roles later on that I had to debate myself over which of a bunch of them I should select to review. I dismissed Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte as too well known, but could easily have picked That Lady, in which she wears an eyepatch; the Oscar-nominated Not as a Stranger; or especially The Dark Mirror, a crime thriller in which she plays twins. In the end I plumped for Lady in a Cage, a surprisingly forward looking thriller from 1964 that feels like a commentary on the present and future state of Hollywood. It’s very much a product of its time but its approach to story often feels like it could reach cinemas this year, even as it’s set in a location that seems like a throwback to the old days. Put together, that makes for a schizophrenic tone that fascinates me and makes me want to read more into it than perhaps is actually there.
As it begins, there’s no mistaking the movie for anything but the product of sixties Hollywood. The opening credits sequence shifts between Saul Bass style animation and striking black and white photography, accompanied by a staccato jazz score. The imagery is deliberately dark. A couple make out in a car to the radio accompaniment of an overblown evangelical preacher lady, eager to tap into the cold war fear of the nation. ‘Have we an anti-Satan missile?’ she screeches. A young coloured girl drags her rollerskate up and down the leg of a passed out bum. A keg is thrown off the roof of a building celebrating the 4th of July. Most notably, there’s a dead dog in the street with what seems like everyone in the world driving past bumper to bumper but not a one of them stopping. Everything screams heat and disinterest. We’re very clearly shown an amoral modern world before we pop up a driveway into the old fashioned house of Mrs Cornelia Hilyard, a house that could have been in a Hollywood movie of three decades earlier.

Cornelia is a fascinating character from the outset, played by de Havilland, of course. She’s set up superbly by scriptwriter Luther Davis in textbook style. We’re introduced to her through the apparent suicide note of her grown up son, prompting us to expect a domineering tyrant rather than the sweet old lady who wouldn’t say boo to a goose that we then meet. She walks with the aid of a cane, because she broke her hip the previous year; she gets up and down stairs through the use of a personal elevator, which also highlights her financial well-being. She seems to be an incessantly cheerful sort, even while pondering on the morality of buying into armament stocks because of all the war talk on the news. So she’s a character of rare substance: tough but frail, someone used to power who has been relegated to the ranks of the powerless. That’s only emphasised when her son leaves for the weekend and accidentally bumps a ladder into an electric cable and sparks (pun not intended) a power outage to her house alone.
The title has two meanings. The first is literal, as Cornelia finds herself stranded inside her lift cage, stuck between floors with her son gone for the weekend and only a book, a portable radio and a vase of flowers for company. The second is metaphorical, as her attempts to communicate with the outside world by ringing an alarm only attracts unwelcome attention, suggesting that her nice house is as much of a cage as her elevator, the world outside not the helpful one she imagines but a dangerous one that only wants to rage. Initially, the alarm she triggers, which rings outside above a sign reading, ‘Elevator emergency: please notify police,’ finds only an alcoholic thief with mental health issues to break in and see what he can find. He’s George L Brady Jr, better known to one and all as ‘Repent’. After one run to sell Cornelia’s toaster to the local junkyard, he comes back for more with Sade, a faded whore he owed money to. They’re played by Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern, character actors to de Havilland’s old Hollywood star.

If the film at this point was highlighting how method actors such as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were playing lead roles in the sixties like they were character parts instead, we’re about to meet the future in the form of a trio of thugs led by James Caan in his first credited role (he had made a brief appearance as a soldier in Irma la Douce the previous year). While Repent and Sade are morally repellent, their actions do make sense. He’s an alcoholic who has clearly suffered for his addiction and she’s a prostitute in a cheap apartment. Both of them have dug their own holes but see a way to climb out of them in the stuff that’s all over Cornelia’s house free for the taking given that she’s stuck in a cage and can’t do anything to stop them. When Randall, Essie and Elaine arrive, having followed Repent from the junkyard, they have no such explainable logic to guide their actions. They’re the epitome of the famous dialogue from The Wild One: ‘What are you rebelling against,’ someone asks Brando. ‘Whaddya got?’ he replies.
In fact, that would actually be more depth than this violent trio get. Given how carefully all three major characters thus far have been introduced, Luther Davis clearly crafted these young thugs without any background at all. We don’t know where they come from and we don’t know what drives them, though, frankly, neither do they. They don’t feel like they belong in the picture we’re watching, more like characters who travelled back in time from the exploitation cinema of the seventies or even from something as recent as The Purge. Their connection to 1964 is only through their style: Caan is clearly trying to be Brando with all the fibre of his being and Jennifer Billingsley, who plays Elaine, tapped into the same wildness as Ann-Margret did the same year in Kitten with a Whip. Oddly, it’s the much younger looking Rafael Campos, playing Essie, who was most experienced at the time: Billingsley was brand new and Caan was earning credit one but Campos had been acting in film and on television since 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.

You can write the rest of the script if you have a background in three distinct eras of Hollywood film: the golden age of the thirties, epitomised by the polite de Havilland and her elegant time capsule of a house; the character-based drama of the fifties and sixties, highlighted by Corey, Sothern and their grounded characters from the bad side of the tracks; and the darker but emphatically less substantial future hinted at by Caan and his thugs. Their future is echoed most strongly in the amoral exploitation flicks of the seventies, from A Clockwork Orange to The Hills Have Eyes, but there are pointers as far away as the dystopian sci-fi and torture porn of today, let alone more nuanced thrillers like The Strangers. It’s hard not to see the Manson family murders of 1969 in this picture, made five years earlier, as if Luther Davis was foretelling the future. Perhaps he was looking at the present too, phrasing his world through the eyes of Kitty Genovese, who famously died three months before this film was released.
There are points where this is underlined in bold ink. Randall eventually engages in dialogue with Cornelia, after she hurls polite abuse at him. ‘What sort of creatures are you?’ she asks, because she cannot understand their motivation. He burps at her and the radio cries, ‘Here, before us, stands the man of tomorrow!’ Talk about a pessimistic social commentary! When Cornelia describes herself as ‘a human being! I’m a thinking, feeling machine!’ it merely prompts Randall to refer to her throughout as ‘the human being’, usage that suggests that he doesn’t see himself as one. He’s an animal, instead, he thinks, a thought backed up by their lack of background, substance or thought. They’re not the iconic juvenile delinquents that Brando or Dean played, they’re just thugs, inept and inane. Yet, time and again, they’re seen as the future. When Cornelia tries to stab Randall with makeshift knives, they bend and he looks at her as if stunned at her lack of acknowledgement that he’s the future and it’s impossible for her to stop him.

The ending is brutal, but again looking both backwards and forwards at once. I don’t want to spoil it so will attempt to be notably vague here, but there’s explicit violence that feels out of place in black and white and there’s a nod as far back as the star-making performance of Lon Chaney in The Miracle Man, made when Olivia de Havilland, one of the last links we still have to that era, was three years old. I’ve met Chaney’s great-grandson, who didn’t know him but runs a company dedicated to his and his son’s work. Yet Olivia de Havilland, alive and vibrant today and celebrating her centennial by talking with People magazine about her career, was alive way back in 1919 when Chaney changed the face of American film. She’s not the only famous star to reach a centennial this year, as Kirk Douglas is set to join her in December, but, while his career ran for longer, it didn’t begin until almost a decade later. I’m happy that we still have both of them but I’m happier still that they had such interesting careers.
Many are also happy that de Havilland took a stand, way back in 1943, against the Hollywood studio system, that resonates today. Having been Oscar nominated as Best Actress for Hold Back the Dawn in 1941, two years after a Best Supporting Actress nod for Gone with the Wind, she asked her employer, Warner Bros, to give her more substantial roles. Their response was to suspend her for six months and, once her contract was up, they suggested that she still owed them six months, as the suspension didn’t count. At this point, industry lawyers stopped the clock whenever an actor wasn’t working, thereby extending seven year contracts into much longer periods of time. De Havilland sued Warner Bros and, in 1944, she won, not merely escaping her own contract, signed back in 1936, but defining California Labor Code Section 2855 to mean seven calendar years. Well into the 21st century, Jared Leto of Thirty Seconds of Mars visited de Havilland in Paris to thank her for the De Havilland Law, as important a legacy as her films.