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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 cafĂ©, 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.