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Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Iroquois Trail (1950)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writer: Richard Schayer, loosely based on the Leatherstocking Tales novels by James Fenimore Cooper
Stars: George Montgomery and Brenda Marshall
Wikipedia may say that George Montgomery was born on 29th August, 1916, but his gravestone says the 27th, so I’ll go by that. I’ve too few Montgomerys under my belt, but I wrote in my review of Masterson of Kansas that he was known not only for westerns, but also for playing iconic characters in them. In that film, directed by William Castle before his gimmick days, he was Bat Masterson, a legendary Sheriff of Dodge City. He also played Pat Garrett, one of the Ringo Gang and even the Lone Ranger in a serial made long before the TV show in 1938 (well, sort of). I focused instead on the year of 1950, in which he played a couple of famous trappers: he was the title character in Davy Crockett, Indian Scout, and here he played Hawkeye, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s pentalogy generally known as the Leatherstocking Tales. While this film does follow the general sweep of the most famous of them, The Last of the Mohicans, it’s far from an adaptation, not least because it changes most of the names and leaves out the title character entirely.

The novel was a historical romance, written in 1826 but set in 1757 during what North Americans call the ‘French and Indian War’ but Europeans the ‘Seven Years’ War’. Most of it is spent in the wilderness of upper New York. The French, under the command of General Montcalm, are besieging the British garrison of Fort William Henry on Lake George, but the daughters of Colonel George Munro, the fort’s commander, are on their way to him, accompanied by a relief column led by Major Duncan Heywood. Both sides in this conflict are reliant on Native American allies but Magua, the guide for those reinforcements, is a traitor who’s working for the French and he tries to lead the British into danger. Luckily they meet up with the frontiersman, Natty Bumppo; his travelling companion, Chingachgook; and the latter’s son, Uncas, the titular last of the Mohicans. From there, the novel involves deception and disguise, intrigue and action, battle and massacre. It’s one of the most popular and enduring works of American fiction.
The film retains little but the sweep of it all. We’re still in the Seven Years’ War and Britain is still battling France. Montcalm is still in charge of the French but while he is planning to attack Fort Williams, he hasn’t done so yet and the focus is initially on another fort at Crown Point. Renaming Fort William Henry to Fort Williams isn’t the only namechange on offer. It’s Colonel Eric Thorne in charge there now and he only has one daughter travelling with the men, Marion rather than Cora or Alice. Major Heywood is now Captain Jonathan West, who has loved her for years; Magua is now Ogane, but is otherwise just as treacherous; and Natty Bumppo, the hero of the story, becomes Nat Cutler, even if he’s still regarded by the Native Americans as Hawkeye. His companions shrink down from two to one, Uncas vanishing entirely and Chingachgook now the presumably easier to pronounce Sagamore; he’s also now a Delaware rather than a Mohican. The film’s title, at least, is fair because the consistent road north is the Iroquois Trail.

Those familiar with the source material will see it changed so much that it’s almost a different story, while those who haven’t read it probably won’t care, as it will play just like any other historical adventure they’ve seen from Hollywood. We often laugh today at the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood, as epitomised by Peter Traquair’s famous line about Mel Gibson’s William Wallace being a ‘wild and hairy highlander painted with woad (1,000 years too late) running amok in a tartan kilt (500 years too early)’, but this is a time honoured problem. Only eight years before this film, George M. Cohan attended the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic of his life and is reported to have said, ‘Good picture. Who’s it about?’ I’m sure many who saw The Iroquois Trail in theatres had read The Last of the Mohicans in school but I wonder how many connected it to the film, especially as the credits cite Leatherstocking Tales as the source rather than any particular one of the five novels that that title includes.
I found it an odd mixture of ambition and laziness. The canvas is painted much more broadly than the Hollywood norm, perhaps as a consequence of Hawkeye not being a traditional hero. Natty Bumppo in the books was usually in the thick of it but rarely as a real lead. The critic Georg Lukacs compared him to ‘the middling characters of Sir Walter Scott’ in that he’s a mechanism for Cooper to explore history without actually writing it. Modern audiences might think instead of R2D2, who is there for everything important in the Star Wars universe, even though he’s hardly a romantic lead to drive the traditional action. George Lucas famously borrowed that approach from Kurosawa and The Hidden Fortress, but I’m sure someone has written a thesis on how far back it goes, perhaps to Shakespeare. What it means here is that we see the war from the macro scale (disconnected generals sending dispatches that take days to arrive) and the micro scale (as seen through Nat Cutler being a personification of the common man) but not in between.

If that approach suggests a worthy story that we can get our teeth into, I have to disappoint. While we do feel like we’re caught up in the sweep of history during a time in which characters feel that history is being made around them, it’s mostly just a backdrop for the usual Hollywood shenanigans: a traditionally iconic leading man and the inevitable love triangle. I liked Montgomery a lot here, but he’s going for that. He’s only half playing the character of Hawkeye and half playing a matinee idol playing Hawkeye. His boyish good looks and easy going charm reminded me of Elvis Presley enough that I half expected him to break out into song, but a number of other names came easily to mind too. His Hawkeye is a swashbuckling hero who’s too laid back to buckle any swashes, somewhat like Charlie Sheen playing Errol Flynn, but there is a serious undercurrent that shows up occasionally that reminds of a young Lawrence Tierney and that sense of danger that he so ably carried with him.
From the beginning, he’s a man apart. Nat Cutler is a frontiersman who’s been adopted by the Delaware tribe, though he still has a periodic hankering to come home to see mama in her cabin in the woods. By sheer coincidence, his younger brother, Tom Cutler, who had signed up with the British army since he saw Nat last, is the recruit chosen to carry an important dispatch north. General Johnson back in Albany wants Colonel Thorne at Fort Williams to reinforce Crown Point because it’s a clear target for the French. By sheer coincidence, this ride takes Tom right by his mother’s cabin and he’s just popping over the field to see her when one of his companions shoots him in the back and retrieves the dispatch. By, you’ve guessed it, sheer conicidence, Nat finds Tom’s body and brings him home to the cabin, where he lives just long enough to set the spark of the story in motion. The British think Tom’s a traitor, his own killer setting him up for that fall, so it’s up to Nat to both seek revenge and save the day for the good guys.

Given that he’s a talented frontiersman, he soon tracks Tom’s killer and he presses him for information but is forced to kill him and escape the scene on a stolen British officer’s horse. Now the British have a thousand dollars on his head, dead or alive, and he has to sign up with them to follow Ogane, the only lead he has left. He and Sagamore seize an opportunity to ride north alongside Captain West and Marion Thorne, not to help out the British or fight in their war but to see what Ogane is up to. The fact that the two goals end up in alignment is mere coincidence from his perspective. Of course, he ends up saving the lives of the other leads. Of course, he scuppers Ogane’s plans on more than one occasion. Of course, his disobeying of orders prompts the British to listen to the trusted Ogane over him. As we head towards the famous massacre, the script becomes even more predictable and it’s both easy to see where we’re going and easy to follow Hawkeye into such predictability with relish.
Brenda Marshall plays Marion Thorne in her final film role, only a decade after her career began. She started out in 1939 with an uncredited role as a secretary in Blackwell’s Island, moved up to the female lead slot for Espionage Agent and The Man Who Talked Too Much, then firmly established herself as a romantic lead in The Sea Hawk, playing opposite Errol Flynn in one of the all time greats of the historical adventure genre. This would have seemed like familiar territory, even separated by so many degrees of latitude, and she’s able to do more than I expected her to get away with. While she is absolutely a damsel in distress, literally being fought over by two strong men (‘Mine!’ proclaims Ogane, pounding his chest in front of four Huron warriors), she does try to avoid the stereotype by fighting back when attacked and even reloading for Hawkeye during one gun battle, because he’s busy rowing a kayak at the time. I appreciated Marshall’s attempts to give Marion actual value but this role is still beneath her.

If Marshall couldn’t do much with Marion because she’s a weak character, Glenn Langan does less as Capt. Jonathan West because he’s just another British officer and he just does what a thousand other actors would have done in his shoes. He isn’t bad, but he’s unable to do anything memorable. That’s really left for the Native American roles, because this is 1950 and Hollywood was still as racist in its casting decisions as the British are to the ‘colonials’ for the majority of this film. There were Native American actors in classic Hollywood, just as there were Asian actors and actors of colour, but that didn’t stop the studios from relegating their talent to the lower characters on the credits list and giving white actors the bigger parts. Filmgoers are usually horrified nowadays by the idea of white actors in blackface, but seem surprised by similar concepts like yellowface and redface, which is personified here by a horrendous showing by Sheldon Leonard as Ogane. Monte Blue, on the other hand, is surprisingly decent as Sagamore.
I’ve seen Leonard in other pictures and enjoyed his work, but then the parts I’ve seen him in were more suited to his middle class New York Jewish upbringing. He played a lot of thugs and heavies in forties crime series, including the Thin Man, Falcon and Joe Palooka series, but he also got odd parts in classics like To Have and Have Not and It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t remember that he ever played a role as inappropriate as this one, but he was cast in it and he certainly gave it a shot. I don’t even blame him because he’s memorable in his portrayal, but he should never have been cast as a Native American. Ironically, Jay Silverheels had just begun to break the mould in popular culture as the first real Native American star, even if it was through playing Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s stereotypical sidekick. It doesn’t help that whenever Ogane goes back to his tribe, we watch him talk to them but, after he’s fired them up into a frenzy, we cut to overt stock footage of whoopin’ and hollerin’. This and poor rear projection shots hurt the film.

Monte Blue does better as Sagamore but that’s mostly because he was more appropriate for the role. He started in Hollywood back in the teens and worked as an extra or stuntman in early films as important as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. He grew to play romantic leads opposite many of the leading ladies of the day, like Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow. He was memorable in Orphans of the Storm and White Shadows in the South Seas, amongst a long list of credits. By this point in his career, he’d made over two hundred and fifty movies, which span the map of genres and include titles as prominent as Dodge City, The Mask of Dimitrios and Key Largo, but he was increasingly cast in westerns. All that I knew, but what I didn’t realise until now was that Monte Blue was really Gerard Montgomery Bluefeather, at least a quarter Native American, given that his father was half French and half Cherokee or Osage. Monte Blue brought a grounding, patience and tolerance to this picture that was sorely needed.
The film begins with routine setup, characters and actions slotting together like jigsaw pieces, but when Nat Cutler joins the story by discovering his brother, Sergeant Tom Cutler, shot by traitors, it gains some power and depth. There’s action and intrigue and betrayal, all the things that we might expect from an adaptation, however loose, of James Fenimore Cooper. Hawkeye has to play along with the war to wreak revenge on the unknown man behind his brother’s death and, as poorly as he takes orders, I enjoyed that process as much as I did the performance of George Montgomery. If the war is the background and Blue the grounding, then Montgomery is the heart of the picture. He’s both part of the story and apart from it, hanging around only as long as his story and ours coincide but doing so with a charm that is difficult to ignore. He’s a quintessential Hollywood movie star cast for his matinee idol looks, but even if he’s performing rather than acting, he’s still well worth watching. Happy birthday, George!

Hellzapoppin' (1941)

Director: H. C. Potter
Writers: Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson, based on an original story by Nat Perrin, suggested by the stage play, Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin
Stars: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye

I knew that Hellzapoppin’ had a reputation for being, shall we say, off the wall, but I wasn’t prepared for how off the wall it actually was. I wonder how well prepared audiences of 1941 were, because this is so far ahead of its time that it took everyone else decades to catch up. Sure, we can see some progression from the Marx Brothers, Busby Berkeley and vaudeville, not to mention the wacky world of cartoons, but this goes beyond them to remind of The Goon Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Blazing Saddles, to pick on just three insanely influential titles from future eras that clearly owe a major debt of gratitude to Olsen and Johnson, who I’m now realising were more than just another double act from the thirties, a lesser Abbott and Costello. I’ve seen a little of their work, like Ghost Catchers, and been impressed, but nothing so far had suggested the sheer insanity of Hellzapoppin’. This is because their brand of madness was hindered by film and best performed on stage, where they could imaginatively interact with the audience.

Indeed, this was sourced from a stage revue, which, by all accounts, was more outrageous still than this film adaptation. It began in 1938 and was a huge hit; its 1,404 performances over three years made it the longest-running Broadway musical at the time and it went on the road too, initially during the original run, but again after it: twice in 1942 and again in 1949. Olson and Johnson wrote the show, or as much of it as wasn’t improvised on the spot, and led the cast for much of its original run and for the Hellzapoppin of 1949 tour. The cast of each version was fleshed out by a wild variety of vaudeville performers and the material was updated often in order to remain topical. Its irreverent nature is ably highlighted by the opening newsreel clips of a Yiddish Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini in blackface and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt reciting gibberish. It continued on with what Celia Wren called a ‘smörgåsbord of explode-the-fourth-wall nuttiness’. Given what’s in this picture, especially as it begins, I can buy that absolutely.
What I got from this film is that Olsen and Johnson, the only cast members who transferred over from the stage revue to the film adaptation, never found a rule that they didn’t want to break. The revue had clotheslines strung above the audience, which had a variety of stooges carefully placed to interact with the show, which often left the stage; chorus girls danced with members of the audience or even sat in their laps. Some signature gags made it into the film: a woman wanders around shouting, ‘Oscar!’ while a man does likewise trying to deliver a plant to ‘Mrs. Jones!’, a plant that keeps growing throughout the show. In the revue, it even continued on after the show had ended, as he was found stuck in a full sized tree in the lobby as audience members left the venue. Obviously, that end couldn’t be realistically transferred to film; neither could the buzzers that were fitted to random seats in what sounds suspiciously like what William Castle would call ‘Percepto’ when exhibiting The Tingler two decades later in 1959.

Universal did impose a little structure onto the picture, at least once we get into the main thrust of it which starts around thirteen minutes in. So much happens in the prior time that I gave up taking notes, even though I type at 160 wpm, and tried to absorb the insanity instead. I replayed those thirteen minutes to my son, who wouldn’t dream of watching a 1941 musical even if he got paid to do it, and saw him grin his way through and suggest that he wouldn’t mind actually seeing the picture. That’s how ahead of its time this stuff is. In fact, anyone who enjoyed the honest digs that Deadpool hurled at its own genre would recognise the approach here, 75 years earlier. ‘It’s a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin,’ the director explains. ‘It’s a great script. Feel how much it weighs.’ The stars aren’t impressed. ‘Listen, buddy. For three years we did Hellzapoppin on Broadway and that’s the way we want it on the screen.’ The director disagrees: ‘This is Hollywood. We change everything here. We got to.’ The simple reply is, ‘Why?’
The layers aren’t merely deep, they’re Escher-esque. The entire film starts with Shemp Howard as a projectionist called Louie who kicks off the film from his booth. We watch him watch a traditional, glamorous musical number on his screen, before the staircase they’re descending folds in on itself and tumbles them straight down to Hell behind the opening credits. Now we’re watching the surreal musical number of the title, with its telling lyrics: ‘Hellzapoppin’! Old Satan’s on a tear. Hellzapoppin’! They’re screaming eveywhere. See the inferno of vaudeville; anything can happen and it probably will!’ Into a landscape of acrobatic dancing devils tormenting elegantly attired ladies and gentlemen who look like they might have wandered over from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picture to be jabbed with pitchforks, turned on spits or canned for future consumption, ‘our prize guests’ show up by taxi. ‘That’s the first taxi driver who went straight where I told him to!’ Ole Olsen mutters.

After burning up the taxi in a special effect, they ask Louie to rewind the picture so they can see that part again. ‘Don’t you know you can’t talk to me and the audience,’ he tells them, but rewinds it anyway so they can redo the effect and transform the cab into a horse instead, with a tic-tac-toe board on its butt. Does anything here make sense? Well, they then promptly walk off the set and argue with the director. ‘You’ve got to have a love story,’ he insists. Why? ‘Because every picture has one!’ He wants the studio’s writer, Elisha Cook Jr., to write one in and, after walking through a variety of sets with instant costume changes but a consistent running conversation, they sit down to watch what the studio wants in a photograph that turns into a interactive video, eventually adding Olsen and Johnson into the frame. They’ve been talking to characters in the photo, then overdubbing them with dialogue as if they’re robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now they’re in the picture within a picture and we can finally maximise.
I adored those thirteen minutes of sheer cinematic genius and still have trouble believing that I’m watching something from 1941. It isn’t just the age, but the Production Code. We’ve spent most of the time in Hell, with an army of devils torturing the young and beautiful, and we’ve experienced at least one casual murder, one casual suicide and one casual animal killing. Sure, they’re all off-screen, but that’s not the point. Now we’re about to move onto mass theft, destruction of museum property and, eventually, rape, even if it’s a woman ravishing a man. That still counts and it was rather subversive in the Production Code era. I’m shocked at how much Olsen and Johnson got into this movie, all while showing us how Universal wouldn’t let them do what they want. It’s hard to quantify how surreal it was watching this introductory sequence and, to only a slightly lesser degree, the rest of the picture, but I had an absolute blast doing it, again not something I tend to have watching classic era musicals.

Of course, there are jokes, which come thick and fast, thicker and faster even than Mel Brooks delivered in Blazing Saddles. It’s fair to say that a decent amount are obviously set up gags that we can see coming: the balloons, the cactus, the kitchen sink. Others are just plain awful, like the coat of arms. Some are neatly topical, like the sled they pass walking through an eskimo set with the word ‘Rosebud’ painted on it. ‘I thought they burned that,’ comments Chic Johnson. Many are neatly self-deprecating. The man with the ever-growing plant interrupts the stars as he searches for Mrs. Jones. ‘We’re making a movie!’ they protest at him. ‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ he replies. The lady shouting for ‘Oscar!’ first appears asking for Olsen and Johnson’s autographs, but rudely snatches her autograph book back when she realises who they are. That suicide was of a cameraman trying to avoid the torment of making this very picture. The edgier the humour, the more important it is to be aimed as much inward as outward.
Now, this hasn’t sounded too much like a musical yet, the opening number really just a theme tune, but we do get there in the end. The romantic plot that Universal are so keen on introducing revolves around a simple love triangle, but it unfolds at a mansion in Long Island that’s packed full of people for a Red Cross benefit. It’s the Rand estate and the ‘disgustingly rich’ and beautiful young Kitty Rand is at the heart of that love triangle. One of her beaus is Jeff Hunter, a playwright who’s staging a revue called Broadway Bound in her spacious backyard, with its stage the size of a Busby Berkeley set; she loves him and he loves her, but he won’t marry for money. ‘That’s crazy,’ suggest our stars. ‘That’s movies,’ insists the director. The other is Woody Taylor, Jeff’s best friend, who has the eye of Kitty’s parents, perhaps because he’s also disgustingly rich. I can’t argue that this nod to convention doesn’t hurt to ground the outrageous humour but it also aids it in ways I didn’t expect and that impressed me.

The actors in this love triangle are well cast. Jane Frazee is a delightful young lady whose work here appears to be effortless. She’d previously appeared in a number of musicals, occasionally with her sister Ruth with whom she’d been performing for many years. She had a busy 1941, beginning it as the leading lady in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates and ending it here as the leading lady in an Olsen and Johnson movie. In between were Sing Another Chorus, Angels with Broken Wings and Moonlight in Hawaii, all musicals, as was San Antonio Rose with its odd comedic double act of Shemp Howard and Lon Chaney Jr. Lewis Howard plays Woody Taylor like an honest but dumb waste of space, which is appropriate for the story but unfortunate for his chances to do much. It’s no surprise that Kitty ends up with Jeff Hunter, as Robert Paige is the epitome of the bland romantic hero musicals adored. He’s just like Allan Jones in the Marx Brothers films, a good looking prop with a good voice who couldn’t steal a scene from the stars if he tried.
If only all those other films did what this one does with these beautiful people. As Kitty and Jeff share a suitably soporific number on the empty backyard stage, a note is plastered up on the screen over them: ‘If Stinky Miller is in the audience, go home now!’ it reads and I howled with laughter. After another message is ignored, they interrupt the song to reinforce it themselves, imploring the kid directly, as does Hugh Herbert, who pops around a theatre curtain. And, sure enough, Stinky Miller stands up in silhouette and walks out. I have enough trouble with classic musicals anyway, but I’m going to ache for a recurrence of this scene in all that I see from now on. Further comedic manipulation of musical numbers ensues, but they’re livened up generally through most being sung by Martha Raye, who would have been a hundred years old today, 27th August. I haven’t seen many of her pictures, but I did enjoy her performance here because she provided a bridge between the comedy and the songs.

Raye was a real character, born to vaudevillian parents who started her out in their act at the age of three. She sang for orchestras and on radio, eventually finding her way to film in 1934. Her debut feature two years later was alongside Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range and, like Frazee, she came to this from a 1941 Abbott and Costello movie, this time Keep ’em Flying. She was so well known that Warner Brothers caricatured her as a jazz singing donkey in a 1937 cartoon, The Woods are Full of Cuckoos. Her prominence was something that stayed throughout her career, helped by her relentless work for the U.S.O., which saw her described as the female Bob Hope. My better half knew her best playing up her ‘Big Mouth’ nickname in a set of annoyingly omnipresent commercials for Polident denture cleanser. In her private life, she was a conservative Republican and devout Methodist who taught Sunday School classes, but still managed to marry seven different people, divorcing six of them within just over two decades.
She seems to have had a lot of fun here and the most memorable musical numbers are hers, especially Watch the Birdie, which sees her pausing the picture at key moments during the song. Oddly, given that Jeff’s words to her screen brother, Chic Johnson, when he sees her are, ‘Don’t tell me you brought her?’ she gets a good proportion of the singing time in his backyard revue. Given that the wild situation comedy leads Olsen and Johnson to sabotage Jeff’s show under good intentions, that involves Raye singing while inhaling sneezing powder, being stuck to flypaper and even being chased by a man trying to read a pulp in her spotlight. I have no idea how these apparently disconnected performances were supposed to gel together, but I enjoyed the sabotage, not only the bit where they nail the antebellum skirts of a bevy of beauties to the stage and they walk right out of them. Raye is even thrown into the audience, after the introduction of tacks, only to be thrown back on by the Frankenstein’s monster!

At the risk of letting this review keep going forever, there’s much more here that’s worthy of comment. As befits a show rooted in a vaudeville revue, there are a collection of talented folk doing impressive things. Some are actors, as you might expect for a film; I’ve mentioned Shemp Howard and Elisha Cook Jr., but Mischa Auer and Hugh Herbert get plenty of screen time too. The former is a real nobleman pretending to be a fake one for effect and he’s the character who’s surely raped by Martha Raye’s. The latter plays a private detective for no reason I could ascertain, except to give him a vague excuse to wear more disguises than can comfortably be imagined. Others are performers, such as the Olive Hatch Water Ballet, who put on a Busby Berkeley style show in the pool, and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, credited as the Harlem Congeroo Dancers, who perform what appears to be an insanely dangerous dance routine to the accompaniment of Slim and Slam, both musicians and dancers sadly having to pretend to be exuberant servants.
What I have to come back to most, however, is just how much Olsen and Johnson play with the traditional filmgoing experience. At one point, Shemp Howard’s projectionist is trying to get it on with an usherette, only for her to bump the projector. Suddenly, the stars are separated on screen by the projector showing half of consecutive frames in a device I’ve only ever seen done in cartoons before; they even fix the problem themselves by reaching up and pulling the frame down, a move I might expect of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck rather than a pair of comedians in a 1941 musical. Then they’re upside down. Then the cavalry rides through as they’re in a completely different picture, which magically interacts with them. ‘The big dope!’ Olsen says of a native American with a rifle, who promptly changes his aim to shoot the star. I have to call out the visual effects of John P. Fulton for special praise, as many of them are seamless, including the zany extension of concepts that he had first explored in The Invisible Man.

To suggest that this film surprised me is an understatement. While I’ve seen many of these actors before, this was easily the most I’ve seen our birthday girl, Martha Raye, and I’m eager to explore how versatile she was in pictures as varied as Never Say Die, The Phynx and Pufnstuf. I’m also now highly aware that I’ve overlooked Olsen and Johnson’s contributions to thirties comedy. The gags aren’t all as original as they sound, not only because of a host of cartoons but because of silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton too; Sherlock Jr. especially came to mind while watching. However, I’ve never seen the lunacy of the Marx Brothers ratcheted up this high before and I’m intrigued as to how much this double act managed to get this across on the more inherently restrictive medium of film, as compared to the stage. I want to revisit Ghost Catchers and especially find Crazy House. IMDb credits might suggest that Olsen did little except co-write You’re in the Army Now, but this film proves otherwise. Now let’s watch it again!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)

Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: Nigel Balchin, from the novel The Nursemaid Who Disappeared aka Warrant for X by Philip MacDonald
Stars: Van Johnson and Vera Miles
I’ll be posting a flurry of centennial reviews at Apocalypse Later this week, with three due in three days. I’ll be celebrating Martha Raye and George Montgomery on Saturday, while today marks a hundred years since the birth of Van Johnson, who shared a wife with my last subject, Keenan Wynn. In fact, Johnson married Eve Abbott, a stage actress, the day after her divorce from Wynn was finalised. To be fair, she later explained that the whole thing was conjured up by MGM, as Louis B Mayer wanted a big star like Van Johnson to have a wife to hide the fact that he was gay, so ordered what was known in Hollywood as a lavender marriage. The star remained a big name, even in 1956 after he had been dropped by MGM. He’s still justly remembered for movies like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Caine Mutiny, but I chose this little gem from 20th Century Fox that gifts him with the opportunity to portray a blind playwright, who overhears a conversation that leads him into a race to save a kidnapped child. Its a dream of a role.

He’s Phillip Hannon, an American living in self-imposed exile in London, where he writes by dictation, capturing his work on a reel to reel tape recorder for Bob, his assistant, to type up. His first words are rather telling, partly because they’re minor revisions to a hit play he’s bringing from Broadway to the West End rather than anything new and partly because they reflect the bitterness that has eaten him since he became blind. ‘Sorry?,’ he barks into his mike. ‘What have you been to be sorry about? You didn’t make the world and neither did I!’ When Jean Lennox promptly arrives from New York, he pours bitterness all over her too. She’s clearly an ex from her first appearance even though she just as clearly doesn’t want to be, although 1950s Hollywood weakened what should have been a relationship between a boss and his secretary by making them actually engaged. ‘And then it happened,’ she tells Bob. ‘He didn’t like having me around. So I was fired.’ And so Hannon is even more of an ass than he should have been.
Jean is played by Vera Miles, who is a soft spoken delight in this picture, which arrived at a crucial point in her career. Only a year earlier, she was a Miss Kansas playing the love interest in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle, but then she gave a great performance in Revenge, the pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show. That prompted Hitchcock to cast her opposite Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, later in 1956, then Vertigo (though she was replaced because of pregnancy by Kim Novak), and, of course, Psycho. She’d starred with John Wayne in The Searchers immediately before this picture and John Ford would later cast her between Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. She lives up to that promise immediately. When Bob asks if she’s a friend of Mr Hannon’s, she replies simply, ‘Well, I think of myself as one,’ a line that superbly explains their relationship at this time. When her former fiancé takes her onto the balcony to point out to her the sights of London, she deliberately looks only at him instead.

Of course, the script has to find some way for Hannon’s bitterness to be somewhat abated, because we don’t want to watch him for ninety minutes like this, and the next scene sets that up beautifully. He heads over the road for a double scotch at the Eagle and to listen to the world. Initially it’s just a gentleman playing a pinball machine, but then it’s a pair of enticing voices within the Ladies Bar right behind him. A lady pleads not to be forced into a crime by her companion, who sounds rather like Peter Lorre trying to be the Godfather. His hearing enhanced by his loss of vision, Hannon nonetheless strains to hear this conversation and remember the dialogue, so that he can promptly record it after returning to his apartment, in turn so he can replay it later to the police. He believes that the woman was a nursemaid to nobility and she is being forced to get something from Mary to give to Evans on the upcoming 10th of the month. A robbery? The kidnapping of a child? ‘It’s something,’ he says. ‘Something very wrong.’
I’m going to pause for a moment to return to that concept of lavender marriage. The unnamed barmaid who serves Hannan is the wonderful Estelle Winwood, a stage actress who made few films over her long life (she was the oldest actress in the Screen Actors Guild when she died in 1984 at 101). She was married four times and at least one was a lavender marriage, to gay theatre director Guthrie McClintic, whose further lavender marriage of forty years to the lesbian stage actress Katharine Cornell is often cited as a prime example of the practice; theirs is the photo which illustrates the Wikipedia article on the subject. I tend to think of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, he being gay and she bisexual, though that may have returned to mind as I remember Winwood as Lanchester’s nurse in Murder by Death. Winwood was one of the Four Riders of the Algonquin, with Eva Le Gallienne, Blyth Daly and Tallulah Bankhead, her best friend for decades. All were lesbian or bisexual and some considered or joined lavender marriages.

Even though gay marriage has only recently been made legal in the United States by the Supreme Court, most of us are aware that gay people exist, probably because we know them and may even be related to them. It’s hard to believe that people didn’t actually know that Liberace was gay, for example, but that’s because it was an underground concept at the time. Back in the early years of the twentieth century, public opinion made it nigh on impossible to be both gay and have a prominent career in Hollywood, which was notably awkward for the many people who were both. Most maintained the latter by hiding the former and there was never a better way to hide homosexuality than getting married. Most outrageously, this was often not by choice but because some studios placed morality clauses in contracts, which prompted the downfall of some and the impetus for others to be forced into lavender marriages. Times have certainly changed; we don’t even have separate rooms in which ladies must drink in pubs any more!
Back to the film at hand, both the characters and the story have just leapt into motion. The police listen politely to Hannon’s story but dismiss his interpretation of the conversation entirely, albeit more because he’s a dramatist than because of his blindness, as it could be argued that his very job description tasks him with imagining things. ‘Is that all there was, Mr Hannon?’ they ask. And so, as tends to happen in such tales, he must become an amateur sleuth and solve the mystery himself. Crime fiction is full of unlikely detectives but what makes Hannon special is that his blindness doesn’t merely hinder his ability to investigate, the very case itself provides the spark he’s needed to come to terms with it. It also brings Jean back into his life, because he connects the perfume the lady was wearing with what she used to wear when they were together. She soon becomes his right hand again and explains to the police why it’s important. ‘You see,’ she tells them, ‘this is the first real thing that’s brought him to life in a long time.’

In other words, this mystery provides him with both a constant reminder of his disability and a number of reasons to live his life as best he can anyway. There are points where he simply forgets to be bitter, wrapped up as he is in the hunt, and Johnson does well at suggesting that without ever making it obvious. In many ways, he’s playing a character who’s playing a part but gradually losing connection to that part and becoming himself again. He even finds benefits to being blind, which he would never have considered even so recently at the beginning of the film. ‘Oh, you people with eyes!’ he tells Jean when she fails to hear or smell what he does. ‘You’re so busy looking, you never notice anything!’ Clearly, this script takes Hannon’s blindness seriously, not only as a gimmick but also as a means of deepening both his character and the mystery that he’s driven to solve. That’s very Hitchcockian and it’s yet another reminder of Rear Window, made two years earlier, to which this often warrants comparison.
The screenplay was written by Nigel Balchin, a novelist before he ever became a screenwriter. At this point, two of his novels had been adapted to the screen and a third for the stage. One of them, The Small Back Room, which had popularised the term ‘back room boys’, was filmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. He didn’t write the source for this picture though, adapting one by Philip MacDonald, another novelist whose work had been frequently adapted to film, hardly surprising given that his father was a writer and his mother an actress. In fact, two of his novels had been filmed by Michael Powell, underlining a connection between MacDonald and Balchin. This was the fourteenth adaptation of a MacDonald work and the second of his novel, The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, also known as Warrant for X. This was the looser adaptation, given that it removes the detective who investigates the crime, Anthony Gethryn, and renders the playwright blind, so this story would seem to be as much Balchin’s as MacDonald’s.

Beyond the script, the film adds other worthy elements. It was shot in Cinemascope, so it’s big and wide from the opening shots of the Thames, and it was shot by someone who knew how to put that format to good use. He’s Milton R Krasner, who had, two years prior, shot Three Coins in a Fountain, which won him the first Oscar awarded for cinematography in a widescreen film. It was shot in London, so the opening panoramas of the Thames were original location footage rather than spliced in material borrowed from a stock vault. MacDonald was well known for writing visually, but Krasner and director Henry Hathaway set up a number of highly impressive shots, including one where the blind playwright has been suckered into a partially demolished building and is about to walk off the edge of a room into nowhere. There’s also clever use of the London fog, both visually and within the story, given that the very title comes from directions Hannan can give to someone with sight who’s rendered just as blind as he is by the fog.
Generally, this is a solid thriller from an era of solid thrillers. It bears strong comparisons to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, not only Rear Window, which also centered around a crime only believed by one man with a disability, but others too. The downside is that it needed Hitch to ground it better. Balchin’s script is capable and includes much that’s praiseworthy but it relies on two things. One is the twist, which I saw through immediately, partly because I’d seen a more famous film that features the same twist (admittedly it didn’t arrive for another year but was based on a hit play from 1953, in turn based on a famous short story from 1925). The other is the progression of discoveries, because we have to rely entirely on Hannon for these as they’re not the sort we can figure out in advance. This isn’t a mystery for us to solve along with the protagonists; it’s a procedural where we watch the protagonists solve it and thrill to the cleverness of it all. As long as we’re OK with those caveats, it works well, but if we’re not, they’ll hurt the film.

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.