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In film, Humor on May 31, 2009 at 9:56 pm


The curtain raiser of this Warners double feature of the war years — shown on the Turner Classic Movies Sky channel — is much like a glossy King of the Zombies (Monogram, 1941): a comedy horror full of mounting (and disappearing) bodies, revolving wall units and sparkling, unexpected wit and fast-paced fun of the kind you never expect in movies these days.

The whole premise is known from the outset as brother John (played hilariously by Milton Parsons) escapes from the lunatic asylum. The two bumbling cops tracking him play the game too, an argument settled by the sergeant with “Yeah, you’re just the guy who’d know where a lunatic would go!”

As adapted by Anthony Coldeway from a Rufus King play, directed by the studio’s B stalwart Ben Stoloff, lines are delivered fast and furious except when more careful timing is required for the special comedy bits. When crazy John Channing of the homicidally-inclined Channings turns up at his almost-as-eccentric sister Lorinda’s (Cecil Cunningham) mansion he approaches her bed full of intent, strangling hands outstretched. All stops in closeup as she opens her eyes, slowly comes to, and without blinking reproves him: “John!… Where have you been?”

He insists to her that he had to act mad in the asylum so he could be locked up “in a padded cell to get peace and quiet” away from the mad people. In escaping he hung a guard up in a tree: “It was fun… until he stopped moving… I suppose I shouldn’t have hung him up by the neck.”

There are no stars in this — Everyone is billed below the title in the opening credits. Top billed, who in their careers never progressed beyond starlets, are Craig Stevens, 24, better known from Fifties and Sixties television (especially as Peter Gunn); Elisabeth Fraser, 22, who peaked this year in the Columbia A-feature The Commandos Strike at Dawn with Paul Muni; and Julie Bishop, 28, who the year following this partnered Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic and Errol Flynn in Northern Pursuit — both superstars, but in rather routine wartime flag-wavers so no breakthrough for her.

It’s the curse of the Channings, bumped off one by one as they await the bad news in the will of Lorinda, who’s faked her own death.

Willie Best in scared mode

Willie Best in scared mode

With Milton Parsons and 54-year-old character actress Cecil Cunningham, comedy honors go too to Willie Best, doing an over-the-top black servant of the period, scared into bulging eyes and body tremors. One gem he delivers about the Japanese houseboy (Kam Tong) — this was released within a year of Pearl Harbor: “Just can’t trust them Japs.” But it’s a stereotyped role, not as satisfying as Mantan Moreland’s lead role as an uppity servant in King of the Zombies the year before this.

Overall, highly entertaining viewing.


This is the kind of medium-budget adventure Warners could slip into its schedule easily, without having to shell out the massive $two million required for the occasional extravaganzas starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland — currently in They Died With Their Boots On, the story of General Custer and how the Mrs won, and lost, him. Still its stars, Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino and John Garfield, were well up the ladder at WB and outlay for their salaries alone would have accounted for a considerable portion of the budget. There is nothing flashy in the special effects or set departments — just enough to be thoroughly convincing without going overboard like so many boring blockbusters do today with ludicrous overkill. And the portrayals are top notch from all concerned.

seawolfPug-ugly Robinson had been among the top flight of Hollywood stars in box-office popularity polls ten years earlier at the height of the gangster movie craze (Little Caesar, WB, 1930), which he ruled ahead of James Cagney long before Humphrey Bogart appeared on the scene, and was still highly paid in 1941 as an inimitable character star. He would leave the studio soon after this. John Garfield was an early method actor and graduate of New York City’s Group Theater — so an important onscreen figure but long before his time and accordingly under-appreciated compared with the smooth matinee idols who came along during World War II to take the places of established superstars who went into active service: if the likes of Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Cornel Wilde, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, etc, could ‘replace’ Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor and so on. Already a nominal star in Warner A-movies for three years and quickly listed in popularity polls, Garfield (Garfinkle) would never quite make the top twenty male draws though a fixture in the top thirty.

Similarly, Lupino, an iconic figure of film noir through the Forties, was never in big-budget movies to earn the superstar label. But she did go on to be one of fewer than a handful of females directing in the studio era. Of an illustrious English family of comedians, now at 27 (same age as Garfield) she was rising rapidly at Warners after arriving at Paramount eight years before as a bleached blonde. Now a hardnosed WB brunette, by High Sierra released early 1941 she was already billed above central character Humphrey Bogart. For Out of the Fog this same year she was paid $40,000 — impressive for a new star. A loanout to Columbia for atmospheric murder mystery Ladies in Retirement also boosted her.

Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) confronted by his crew

Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) confronted by his crew

Lupino called herself the poor man’s Bette Davis, though that was really more applicable to the frequently mournful, over-emoting Susan Hayward at Twentieth Century-Fox a decade later. This was another period piece that was right up her alley — a gritty, dark tale from master storyteller Jack London. But as directed by Michael Curtiz it is fast-paced at the same time as being thoughtful, bearing no relation to the studio’s ponderous Thirties historical biographies such as The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola or Juarez — all of which, though praised in their time, came to weigh heavy on the career of thespian Paul Muni.

Garfield and Lupino are on the run (separately) from the law in fogbound San Francisco and in escaping find themselves in far more desperate straits on Wolf Larsen’s (Robinson) small sailing vessel — in business stealing seal pelts from genuine sealers. Larsen is so universally feared and hated that his own brother has sworn to send him to the bottom of the sea, and almost succeeds by ramming him broadside.

How will the crew, made up of press-ganged innocents and seasoned cutthroats, fare?

The featured cast includes Canadian-born Alexander Knox as cultured writer van Weyden, struggling through to maintain his integrity, and professional Hollywood Irishman Barry Fitzgerald as Cooky, Larsen’s stoolie and betrayed by him to be thrown overboard and lose a leg to a shark. Both are consummate screen performers and go on to fleeting stardom in 1944, via Wilson and Going My Way respectively.

Do young but disillusioned Garfield and Lupino find each other, or are they doomed?

Movie Review: Night Must Fall (MGM, 1937)

In film, morality, psychology/psychiatry on May 29, 2009 at 10:51 pm

It’s been said by at least one film historian that by the end of the Thirties the technique of making talking motion pictures had been mastered and made into a new art form, with virtually all of its salient aspects having been explored and employed to utmost effect within that short period. The achievement encompassed in those first ten years after the demise of Silents absolutely dwarfs the so-called ‘progress’ in film in the further twenty years up to the collapse of the Studio Era, and throws into abject shame the backwards direction taken by the industry in the half-century since then — ever accelerating since George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and their many mini-clones in James Cameron, Peter Jackson and so on.

With special effects alone becoming ever more ‘sophisticated’ but looking all the more unrealistic on screen, we must be just a few short steps from Alfred Hitchcock’s prediction: We enter a private chamber, the logical conclusion moving on from largely deserted, sterile multiplexes. We get wired up, and feel whatever shocks we prefer for the moment to whatever centers of the brain that turn us on, in vain attempts to get what passes for a satisfying entertainment experience today. The bar has risen so high technically, and dropped so low emotionally and artistically — so far below everyday human relations — that staying home for a good wank must surely be the higher human aspiration. All the better if you can get another to participate, never mind a lot cheaper.

Every now and again a true lover of human drama gets to revive his spirit through seeing a film made with some thought and imagination. It’s usually several generations old, and shown on pay television in the dead of night when few are watching. As far as I’m concerned, all the better for this exclusive experience — let the sheep go where they may, with the flow.

Originally a hit London and Broadway play written by and starring Welsh actor Emlyn Williams, this screenplay was adapted by London-born John Van Druten; a year after it was released on screen he was drafted in by David Selznick to improve the script of Gone With the Wind. A movie set and filmed in England under the UK branch of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Night Must Fall was produced by Hollywood staffer Hunt Stromberg and directed by Richard Thorpe. By all accounts Thorpe was no more than an efficient workman, so credit for the fine ‘look’ of this picture must go to veteran cinematographer Ray June and its sound to prolific MGM composer Edward Ward.

Also from the studio’s Hollywood staff came stars Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. Homegrown stars remaining in Britain provided only a weak draw at the box-office, even at home theaters. It was believed that all the screen talent Britain had to offer was already in Hollywood: the likes of matinee idol Ronald Colman (emulated by Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn, David Niven and US Anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr), admired thespian Charles Laughton, elder statesman George Arliss, child star Freddie Bartholomew (Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor to follow in the early Forties), highest-paid Brit femme Madeleine Carroll (and Merle Oberon and Ida Lupino, soon Vivien Leigh), and comic supreme Charlie Chaplin persevering with new silents at the rate of one every five years.

Publicity shot of the star taken for Night Must Fall (1937)

Publicity shot of the star taken for Night Must Fall (1937)

Yet in America, Robert Montgomery was no longer at the peak of popularity as he had been as a youth in 1929-30, and Rosalind Russell was still on the way up. So, with an English setting and including a sterling but very English cast in Dame May Whitty, Kathleen Harrison, Merle Tottenham, Alan Marshal, E. E. Clive and Beryl Mercer, the film was panned by your typical know-nothing film critic of the time (and they still rule the media). Variety had it that the movie was slow and dull. Studio head Louis B. Mayer disowned it. What better compliments can a film hope for? Naturally, over the decades since it has been greatly appreciated as a ‘sleeper’ — a film with a relatively small budget, that was never supposed to be a hit, was largely condemned at release, and has proven all the better quality for that.

The striking aspect of the movie for me, which makes it so much worthier than virtually any modern film in general release, is its basis in ‘pure film’. Techniques in film language commonly used then are used with flair: sustained close-ups, long-distance panning shots, deep-focus group shots to contrast motives. The constant play of light and shadow over all indicates mood, heightens suspense and literally illuminates good and evil subconsciously to the audience. Nowhere is the gratuitous crushed skulls with flying gore and blood-spattering so necessary to get the message across to today’s clueless audiences. And gone, over generations, is the magic of film.

The action opens with a man walking his dog at night on the edge of a forest, and almost stumbling on to another man who whistles a merry tune but seems to be on the ground rustling in the fallen leaves — It later turns out he is covering up a body. In the next scene, morning, all is drenched in sunshine (a motif repeated throughout), suggesting that everyday life goes on regardless of dark undertones in this sleepy village — its inhabitants blissfully unaware, maybe not wanting to know.

A woman is missing in the village, and first to show real insight into her likely fate is the lowly paid, spinster companion (bachelorette is hardly appropriate — she wears hornrim glasses, a dead giveaway in film shorthand) of domineering dowager May Whitty, played by Ros Russell. She is incidentally the old lady’s niece and we learn how resentful she is of her aunt’s manipulative hypochondria, as she pretends wheelchair-bound helplessness. But Ros is seriously emotionally repressed, repeatedly rebuffing the affectionate advances of supportive solicitor (lawyer) Alan Marshal.

He is far too polite, nice to the core. Ros yearns for excitement and danger in her life. This must be why, though she very early suspects a new employee on the scene (Robert Montgomery), an obvious go-getting self-advancer, of being homicidal, that she colludes with him to win the old lady’s favor. She is strongly attracted to him. The mood gradually becomes more sombre as Ros neglects her self-indulgent, spoilt aunt, inviting danger into the home in the person of the suspicious stranger who ingratiates his way to be the lady’s trusted ‘support’.

Ros sums up ‘Danny’: “You have no feelings. You live in a world of your own — of your own imagination.” Thus defining a sociopath, no matter to her. She collaborates with him in winning over her aunt: He spend’s a week’s wages on a shawl and presents it to the old lady as his dear departed mother’s. Just in time, Ros removes the price tag and Danny knows he has her in the palm of his hand too.

Curiosity about her loved one getting the better of her, Ros, the cook (Kathleen Harrison, playing wryly humorous in the kind of role that Thelma Ritter later made her own in Hollywood), and maid, Merle Tottenham, playing dithering and emptyheaded, supposed to be Danny’s intended, search his room thoroughly. They find evidence of a double life but he walks in on them before they can open his suspicious hatbox — just big enough for a severed head, they think.

Despite this, when the police detective calls round and is about to call Danny on the hatbox, Ros claims it as hers — thereby providing his escape route to continue murdering. He has already spied the old lady putting money in her secret hideaway. For the second time Ros goes to seek reassurance from her frustrated suitor and turns back — conveniently away long enough for Danny to strangle Mrs Bransom. She returns, she tells him, to find him out — but has no regrets that her aunt is dead. Suitor and police walk in in time to save the ever-ambivalent Ros.

While this film treatment could be called Hitchcockian in its view of the charming but murderous sociopath and annoying old ladies, it departs from the pattern of blameless beautiful woman as intended victim. Rosalind Russell plays here a woman who cooperates fully in the danger she is enmeshed in, and herself is seemingly oblivious or careless of others’ feelings as she focuses wholly on fulfilling her own fantasies.

Movie Review: Nora Prentiss (WB, 1947)

In film on May 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm

I missed the first 30 minutes of this 100-minute film shown on Turner Classic Movies this afternoon but I doubt if it made any difference. The plot, written by two guys I hadn’t heard of, was a loser in my book but more about that later.

Ann Sheridan: Forties hardnosed glamor at Warners

Ann Sheridan: Forties hardnosed glamor at Warners

The star, Ann Sheridan, was among the sexiest and most popular in Hollywood from the late Thirties (Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938) through Torrid Zone (1940), King’s Row (1942) — she played Ronald “Where’s the other half of me?” Reagan’s devoted fiancee — and the mid Forties. She had been promoted by Warner Brothers as “The Oomph Girl” and by the 1942 Boxoffice magazine poll of movie theater owners across America came in eighth overall among female stars, at her own studio behind only Bette Davis (in first place) and, narrowly, Olivia DeHavilland, and far ahead of the emerging Ida Lupino. She was ahead of MGM’s Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald, Ann Sothern and Joan Crawford; Paramount’s Dorothy Lamour, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Madeleine Carroll and Veronica Lake; Fox’s Sonja Henie, Alice Faye and Gene Tierney; RKO’s Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck and Teresa Wright; Universal’s Irene Dunne and Deanna Durbin; and Columbia’s Jean Arthur and Loretta Young. In real life she was the object of one-sided fisticuffs administered by Errol Flynn to Ann’s husband, Warners stock leading man George Brent (see discussion in Comments) — the result of which was that their marriage lasted one year to the day, and maybe only that long because they wanted to reach a morale-boosting milestone of some kind.

Sexy and capable as she was as a star attraction on screen, Ann didn’t have the overwhelming self-dramatising ability of the studio’s divas, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. She was dropped the year after this film was released — and I hope she didn’t carry the can for this flick because the highly contrived and needlessly convoluted plot made it unsavable. For starters, for a film named Nora Prentiss after her character, she was only a passive victim in the plot — a nightclub singer intent on her career, not the hellraising harridan that Davis or Crawford played and that the studio tried to beef up this film into via hopelessly misleading promotion about how Nora wrecked any man’s life who came within shouting distance of her.

The entire plot turned on the warped predations of a supposedly responsible surgeon and family man — played by Kent Smith with his usual boring adequacy — who on meeting Nora turns into an obsessed, possessive stalker. He leaves his devoted wife and young adorable kids all on the half chance of getting the (admittedly delectable) Ann/Nora, who goes from hardly even luke warm towards him to more and more devoted as he gets more and more violent in his jealous possessiveness of her. To follow Nora to the big city he fakes his own death in a fiery car crash, using the body of a heart patient who’s died on him, and travels to New York to stalk her after she’s given him the push. Even when he viciously, jealously clubs in attempted murder her longtime friend, a nightclub owner played by Robert Alda, she helps him escape.

The whole movie would have been improved immeasurably, out of sight, had it followed a more conventional film noir

Robert Alda: better looking and more suave than his son

Robert Alda: better looking and more suave than his son

outline. The surgeon’s kindly partner should have been played by Alda, thereby eliminating Bruce Bennett from the cast altogether, with Alda becoming suspicious of his partner’s disappearance and tracking him down to save Ann/Nora.

In the end, the wayward surgeon gets a poetic comeuppance when on escaping he crashes and creates his own fiery furnace that transforms him — after miraculous surgery — almost back into his old self, with not a hair singed. A couple of enterprising detectives from the old home town, San Francisco, somehow buy his new identity and come and arrest him — for murdering himself in the original fiery crash. At the trial only his wife recognises him (at least I think she did — this scene was wholly inadequately acted by Rosemary DeCamp) but in an act of misplaced compassion leaves him to his own devices. So does Ann leave him to the chair, after he pleads with her to let him die ‘with honor’, the surgeon’s reputation and that of his family intact. The doleful, long-suffering Robert Alda is left to follow Ann in longshot, ever hopeful of winning her love — when anyone watching this film would have seen right off that he was a more realistic choice for a nightclub singer (fellow professionals choosing from their natural pool of potential mates) — and having looks and suavity and niceness all over the stolid Kent Smith’s self-absorption. Go figger.

The director of all this was Vincent Sherman, who had done some admired films previous to this: mainly Old Acquaintance and Mr Skeffington — but in both he had Bette Davis to work with at her infallible best and in her most glamorous, biggest box-office period. He went on straight after this to a watered-down remake of a better Bette movie, The Letter, again substituting Ann on an inevitable downward slope lumbered with what she had to work with. (Her one bright spot following was I Was a Male War Bride, 1949, with Cary Grant.) And in the early Fifties he made a series of undistinguished melodramas with Joan Crawford, which took her revived career at Warners into steady decline. Leaving Warner Brothers, Sherman was still in demand, at MGM no less, and made the Clark Gable-Ava Garner hit Lone Star; and at the end of the decade, The Young Philadelphians, one of Paul Newman’s lesser efforts.

All in all, Sherman seems to have been the kind of studio director who did better with big screen presences or with a big budget, riding on them — unlike the William Wylers and Michael Curtizes who developed their stars’ images and set the basis of success for the studio.

Movie Review: Homecoming (MGM, 1948)

In film, history, war on May 24, 2009 at 3:20 am

It is long past time that some neglected classic films were revisited and rehabilitated to their proper place — including this one. Having previously been put off by existing reviews of this old ‘women’s picture’ by high-priced professional columnists who go with the flow, late last night I was pinned to the armchair for the duration by Feline, Lucy and Tiger in a phalanx and so watched it right through for the first time on the Turner Sky channel. Imagine my happy surprise as an unpleasant duty as a reviewer slowly turned into a riveting experience. I found it, against all expectations, to be a very moving film — far from the manipulative tearjerkers tugging every heart-string with multi-G force that were put out in the studio era.

From the preeminent studio of the day, MGM, it was a rare exception at the glossy factory where as a rule output was geared to appeal to all-American sensibilities: in its genuine, low-key treatment of serious subjects, namely life priorities, wartime relationships and wartime separation. The director, Mervyn LeRoy, had been one of the Warner Bros hard-hitting armory of moviemakers plucking their stories from current headlines, often about gangsters and sometimes urging societal reform. Among his were classics Little Caesar (1930) and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). At the end of the Thirties he was lured by a huge pay hike and producer status to make the move and there followed a series of unabashed but effective wartime weepies including Blossoms in the Dust, Random Harvest and Madame Curie (1941-43) starring stiff-upper-lip Brit stars Greer Garson and Ronald Colman or upper-crust trans-Atlantic patrician Walter Pidgeon. This pool of talent was able to create a whole generation of trembling-lower-lip working moms in America and continue through the war with easily palatable sentiment served thick on a silver platter: not much was seen of real war or real people.

Which makes it all the more satisfying that this director turned around to make something genuine about war. Maybe most surprising of all was the fact that what made the movie was the performances of the four principals, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter and John Hodiak, especially those of the two superstars heading the cast — who from their own time until now have been treated by movie reviewers and historians of all shades as lightweight “star” performers relying on their own personalities to purvey a strong screen presence rather than any acting ability they might (or might not) have.

clarkgablehomecomingIn 1948 Gable was 47 and still the slim, trim figure and was as full of testosterone as ever. (In his fifties he would age rapidly, like the other male screen icons born within a year either side of 1900, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney — all roughing it without the aid of botox and casual cosmetic surgery undertaken today.) From what I have seen of Gable, and that includes more than thirty films stretching thirty years from 1931, this is one of his absolutely top-flight acting jobs, probably better than in Gone With the Wind, The Misfits or his Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night.

Yet this film is condemned by Leonard Maltin (Is this guy someone’s nephew?) as “dreary drama” and “one of Gable’s lesser efforts”. Is that because he doesn’t do as much huffing and puffing as Schwarzenegger or Stallone, or as much stony grimacing as Harrison Ford, or sweat and twitch like Anthony Hopkins or James Woods?

Portraying a social-climbing surgeon who enters the war indifferent to the strife of the wider world but is transformed into a genuinely compassionate well-rounded person, every nuance of human expression plays subtly across Gable’s face; but not so subtly as to deliver an anonymous non-performance lacking any human impact at all, as do most of today’s “stars”. His timing is natural and flawless — a true phenomenon and at least the equal to that of the screen’s finest comedians. See the extended bathing scene, where as a dignified middle-aged professional proud of his position in society, he is bashful even out of eyesight of earthy nurse Lana Turner’s nudity. Most satisfying of all, there was none of that sly-winking on-screen ‘fun’ where you can see Hollywood’s in-group stars smirking at how cute they are: Tracy and Hepburn in Adam’s Rib (1949), Crosby and Hope in the early Forties’ Road series, the Rat Pack in Ocean’s Eleven (1961) and numerous others. The modern Ocean’s 11, 12, 13… are made, I think, so fans can see George Clooney’s, Brad Pitt’s and Matt Damon’s sparkling smiles, and Julia Roberts’ sultry sulk. All on screen in Homecoming are dedicated to contributing — making a good picture even better in whatever way they can.

lanaturnerPossibly the biggest surprise to me was the pitch-perfect acting of Lana Turner, at the pinnacle of her popularity here but trivialized by commentators as “The Sweater Girl” since her first movie 11 years before, for her jiggling scene walking down the street and observed by a predator in They Won’t Forget (WB, 1937). In an age supposedly limited by its “personality” performers, it strikes me that there is a greater range of realistic characterization shown by Lana between this role and her seductress in The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), than say, Meryl Streep in any two of her roles, which depend mainly on a switch of accent and arching of eyebrows. Lana was just 27 here but within ten years was playing middle-aged momish glamor in Peyton Place (1957) and other glossy soap operas.

The first time I realised that Anne Baxter was capable of more than variations of Moses’ overheated temptress in The Ten Commandments (1956) was with her natural, totally convincing playing in the western Yellow Sky (1949) and Hitchcock’s I Confess (1952). In this women’s picture she is a callow but single-minded society wife transformed by war separation into someone capable of enduring patience and understanding. John Hodiak too shows a wide departure from his more frequent hard-bitten roles in the likes of Lifeboat (1944) and Battleground (1949) as an earnest grassroots doctor working in the slums, initially infuriated by his friend Gable’s complacency.

Given the fact that this was a “women’s picture”, pivoting on wife Anne Baxter’s needy devotion and Lana Turner’s knowing desire despite the doctor’s faults, the film has been put down simply for that — Gable supposedly coming off second best or wasted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether under LeRoy’s direction or not, Gable’s powerful manhood is intact throughout and his change into a guy who’s had the stuffing knocked out of him by war and love lost is portrayed brilliantly.

See also my forthcoming article ‘WHAT IS ACTING?’

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