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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.

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  1. Hi G.A. I was wondering where you came across your information that the fight between Errol Flynn and George Brent was one-sided fisticuffs? George Brent trained with a professional boxer in real life, and was so physically strong as well, that in the film Lilly Turner he picked up and carried another male actor who was taller and heavier than himself – without a cut in the scene or any ropes or other kind of assistance. As well, Flynn in his diary, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”, makes a reference about Ann Sheridan that he was the one who helped to make her a star tbhrough their film Edge of Darkness. Now if Errol Flynn, great actor that he is, had won the fight, being the proud chap he is, it’s so likely that he would have revealed that fact in his book, which he did not. So, it is my feeling and opinion that Errol may have lost the fist fight to George Brent.

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    • Hi Lorraine — Thanks for commenting. You could well be right. I read ‘My Wicked, Wicked Ways’ a long time ago and, yes, it was very forthright for those days. I can’t honestly remember where I read it. I used to read a lot of bios by Joe Hyams (I think it was) and other professional Hollywood journalists who were supposedly in tight with Bogie and the others at Warner Bros and knew the real actors — but I guess they might not have been above circulating good stories that became twice-told myths that turned around in the retelling. Congratulations on your research about George Brent. Possibly being Irish then meant you were also handy with your dukes. I wonder if Flynn got a “sucker punch” in first? One thing… I’ve never understood why George Brent is sometimes singled out as a prime example of a wooden actor of the day. I’ve always found him more than adequate — if not as spectacular (or melodramatic depending on your point of view) as other Warners stars or character actors. I’ve read recently that Bette Davis thought he was a great guy.

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