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Posts Tagged ‘MGM’

MOVIE REVIEW: Malaya (1949) and the MGM Malaise

In comedy, film on November 17, 2012 at 6:51 am

Just after WWII the customary leading studio in Hollywood, MGM, was overtaken by Paramount, Fox and Warners in revenues. Parent company Loew’s of New York panicked, and in 1948 kicked out production head Louis B Mayer and brought in a new boss from RKO. Dory Schary kept MGM’s focus on its popular musicals for the most part, starring Judy Garland, Jane Powell, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire but right away added a new hard-hitting realism to its bow too — gritty war films like Battleground, film noir Force of Evil and Act of Violence, challenging social/racial mores in Intruder in the Dust, even a truthful western seen from the Red Man’s point of view, Devil’s Doorway, containing probably Robert Taylor’s outstanding career performance…

So what category to put Malaya into? Why even make it? Postwar audiences tended to cut down on the hokum, but for two highly lucrative sub-genres: Bing Crosby & Bob Hope comedies at Paramount, and Abbott & Costello comedies at Universal. Women’s pictures were still going strong with Greer Garson at MGM, Hollywood sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine feelancing, Ingrid Bergman under contract to David Selznick, Irene Dunne at RKO, and Bette Davis, Joan Crawford & Barbara Stanwyck at Warners.

But Malaya starred Spencer Tracy and James Stewart, neither very funny, and paired for once in their life. The superstars (both in the box-office top 10 at the time) play a pair of Americans — not much of a stretch — in an exotic land where the women wear sarongs. But there is no Dorothy Lamour, Maria Montez, Yvonne De Carlo or even Carmen Miranda in sight. The only woman in it is visiting continental femme fatale Valentina Cortese, here playing it straight as Tracy’s old flame but getting limited screen time. Spence and Jimmy (or in his own parlance, Jummy Shtoourt) are up against it with the local authorities. Beginning to sound familiar? — the premise of just about every Abbott & Costello and Bing-and-Bob flick ever made. Only in this case the authority is the Japanese Empire’s wartime army, whose bushido warriors were playing pin-the-head-on-the-POW with samurai swords a mere three or four years before this flick was made. I wouldn’t draw the parallel with the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope-Dorothy Lamour “Road” movies if the action wasn’t so hokey and thereby disrespectful to literally millions of defenceless people who lost their lives to these butchers whom this movie treats like laughable incompetents. In one scene stupid to the ultimate Spence, an unathletic 49-year-old who takes tiny steps when he’s “running” like he’s wrapped in a kimono and doesn’t want to fall over, nonetheless takes on five armed Jap soldiers with nothing but his bare fists and a laughable, geriatric jiu-jitsu kicking ‘leap’, and almost gets the better of them.

I think maybe Schary was humoring Tracy, who had expressed the yen to play two-fisted roles like when he was young, at Fox in the early Thirties. Stewart, for his part, left for Universal straight after this — and you can’t blame him — to get into his celebrated series of gritty westerns directed by Anthony Mann, and made a bundle from his profit participation deals. Tracy, with Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon and other old timers stayed for years longer at MGM on reliable but much smaller salaries. For the record, Sydney Greenstreet borrowed from Warners did best on screen here, in the last year of his life, and talented star character actors Gilbert Roland, Lionel Barrymore and John Hodiak were wasted as minor support players.

The movie was made in monochrome, not color, so it was not intended to be a blockbuster. But just what was it? At about the same time, 1949, MGM-British in London was filming Calling Bulldog Drummond with Walter Pidgeon, Margaret Leighton,Margaret_Leighton_1959 Robert Beatty as the heavy, David Tomlinson as Drummond’s sidekick Algie, and Bernard Lee as the arch villain. This was almost a B movie compared to the expensive “properties” in human form on show in Malaya. Yet, the “A” would have benefited immensely with deliciously talented Leighton (pictured) in it and comedic Tomlinson in place of Tracy — and Beatty instead of the Japs come to think of it.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to remake these movies digitally with just the right cast and retouches.

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MOVIE REVIEW — MGM Double Feature: High Wall (1947) and Crisis (1950)

In film, morality on November 12, 2012 at 5:59 am

I watched these two in sequence late last night on Turner’s Classic Movie channel and had seen neither of them before. Each was an eye-opener in its own way.

High Wall was like a Forties B-movie but just kept going on and on long after it was supposed to finish. I’d never seen a Curtis Bernhardt-directed film as unconvincing as this one during his Warners period. I’m giving the credited screenwriters (Sydney Boehm & Lester Cole, he of the Hollywood Ten) who took the blame for this the benefit of the doubt too, assuming it was “doctored” beyond their control — ditto playrights Clark & Foote — and weren’t able to take their names off it; ditto Bernhardt. The A-movie cast, led by Robert Taylor with Audrey “Hotsy Totsy” TotterAudrey_Totter_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_Twice_trailer and Herbert Marshall, was a puzzle too. It wasn’t as if MGM had finished with Taylor, apparently their taken-for-granted, underpaid big star by reliable accounts. He was only 35 and still had Quo Vadis?, Ivanhoe and more color spectaculars to come years after this one. Maybe because film noir was “in” they thought they would shove him into one, no matter how bad. Suffice to say here that Taylor’s character was so poorly written, Audrey’s one so dumbly devoted to him and Dorothy Patrick so sluttish as his wife (and hysterically overplayed at that) that it was very hard not to root for evil villain Herbert Marshall as the only one at least intelligent enough to know what was good for him.

Taylor is a hero flyer come home from the war to long-strayed sexy wifie who’s playing up with well-to-do editor Herbert. Taylor’s in the middle of throttling her on the spot at Herbert’s place when he blacks out — and wakes to find her dead. He’s placed in an asylum where hot psychiatrist Totter (dressed to the nines from head to foot so you just know she’s a suppressed volcano about to blow) takes a shine to him, and evidently has instant designs on Taylor, taking his 6-year-old son into her home. Everyone but her thinks he’s faking to get out of prison time. After a brain operation he seems to improve — but threatens to kill girlfriend Audrey (but she likes it rough, much preferable to nice doctor Warner Anderson) unless she smuggles him out so he can stalk Herbert, moving his furniture around so he knows that he knows. Taylor stays up all night fully dressed back at the hospital expecting him to call around on a casual visit to try to buy him off — and when he does in the morning and straight out confesses to murdering his wife, whom Taylor didn’t care about anyway, Taylor leaps on him like a mad dog and beats the shit out of him in front of everyone and thus jeopardizes ever receiving custody of his son. He’s dragged off Herbert and is hauled away foaming at the mouth, getting just one of the really stupid scenes over and done with.

Still, on escaping yet again to Herbert’s house — with seemingly the city’s entire police force out after the mad murderer Taylor — Audrey is the one who tracks him down. They somehow trick Herbert into taking sodium pentathol (truth serum) — can’t remember how this bit is contrived, thankfully — and the next we see is Taylor, the shoot-on-sight crim, interrogating Herbert and getting a full confession out of him conveniently as the police detectives and DA’s assistants have all arrived round at Herbert’s place just on cue, watching placidly.

An interesting cameo is by Elizabeth Risdon, an English superstar in the early days of silents, who plays Roberts longsuffering mom.

If this is a boy’s cops-and-robbers idea of a thriller of the period, then three years later we have an amazingly modern thriller, a triumph written and directed by young Richard Brooks on debut. If Crisis seems superficially like one of those Alfred Hitchcock thrillers where Cary Grant (or James Stewart) gets caught in an inescapable jam and spends the rest of the movie getting out of it, then it is done with an aura of overwhelming realism without any of the silly Hitchcock tricks or contrived coincidences — save for the very last scene.

Cary Grant, 46 at the time, is a neurosurgeon on vacation with wife lovely Paula Raymond (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms!, 1953), 25, in an Ibero-American country with a revolution about to blow. They are kidnapped by government police led by colonel Antonio Moreno (Latin lover from Hollywood silents) and taken to the palace of el presidente Jose Ferrer,Jose_Ferrer_in_Crisis_trailer acting everyone else off the screen, who will die of his brain tumor if not saved by Cary. On hand to assist are US ambassador Leon Ames and nice doctor Ramon Novarro (Latin lover from Hollywood silents). But in the meantime Paula is re-kidnapped by revolutionary leader Gilbert Roland (Latin lover from Hollywood silents) with the threat that she will not survive if el presidente does survive. Jose’s operation does succeed and so does the revolution… Guess what happens next! Will anyone survive the machinations of oh-so-courteous but coldly, calculatingly evil Mrs Presidente Signe Hasso?

Unbelievably, the cops and robbers get a higher rating at the International Movie Database site than the intelligently executed, believable thriller.

MOVIE LEGENDS — THE THREE GREAT BITCHES (of the screen): Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis

In celebrity, film on November 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Joan_Crawford_in_Rain_4Yes, they were complete, consummate actresses and had other strings to their bows, well able in the same scene, even the same line, to switch to sympathetic — though, significantly, none of the three could play out-and-out comedy convincingly. But these three icons of the big screen through the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and into the Sixties will always be remembered for their “strong women” roles and as bitches par excellence. All had eyes that could kill with a glance, their mouths set perpetually (and looking sexiest) between a sneer and a snarl, and the square-shouldered, intimidating bearing that might make large men wither and admit defeat. Their star careers were long — very, very long for those days when a woman both talented and glamorous might not last more than five years or so at peak popularity: Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Barbara LaMarr, Dolores Del Rio, Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, Sylvia Sidney, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis, Elissa Landi, Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald, Alice Faye, Veronica Lake, Linda Darnell. Each of the three went on in lead roles for 40 years or more before stepping down to semi-retirement. And their ever-presence on the screen belittled the moderate impact of all the politically correct, thoroughly civilised posing of “emancipated women” Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, who in comparison looked like tame graduates from an assertiveness course and might feel faint, definitely repulsed, at the mention or even thought of visceral emotions and impetuous behavior.

Of course the epithet “bitch” was assumed by many to translate to offscreen character too. Bette, demanding quality from all around her, ruffled more than a few tradesmen’s feathers on Hollywood film sets. But she would hardly have lasted her 17 years at the Warner studio (and been forgiven so many times by the Warner brothers) had she been the tyro many claimed. Many friends and coworkers balance out the claims Joan’s adopted daughter made about her tyrannical nature in Mommie Dearest. She was certainly professional and exacting, but most demanding of herself and the most devoted to her fans, answering all her mail personally or putting that touch to replies from secretaries she hired when the going got heavy — thousands of letters a month. But she was not openly rebellious, accepting the fact that though she might be at times the most popular female star in America, at her home studio for more than 15 years, MGM, she sat third in favoritism with no powerful exec to champion her interests. There were enough good roles to go around. Of the three jungle fighters, Barbara was the only one with the guts to freelance outside the shelter of a big home studio where work and good publicity were guaranteed. So she was actually absolutely unique in Hollywood — with not a single peer — among top or even medium stars, men and women, who all chose safety. Showing an uncanny confidence and business sense of her own commercial worth, she started in lead roles at Columbia at 21 (in 1929), and soon shared herself with Warners fifty-fifty. By the end of the Thirties she had worked at RKO, Fox, Paramount, MGM and United Artists too: all five major studios in the movie business and the two almost-majors. (Universal, the only other Hollywood production company occasionally aspiring to bigger things, was then almost of no account. Stanwyck dipped her toe in the water there in 1943 for a half-hour episode of Flesh and Fantasy, for which Universal stretched itself, the probable attraction being similarly imported leading man Charles Boyer.) She was equalled only by swearing-like-a-trooper Carole Lombard by coworkers in her down-to-earth reputation as a “regular guy”: uncoincidentally, another major star who got there by solid professionalism, consistent high craftsmanship and well-applied talent, not box-office hots.

Joan Crawford was the first to arrive, a leggy brunette — the tallest of the three at 5ft-3 and a half (sic) — by 1928, three years into her contract at MGM, a superstar at 24. In some of the last silent blockbuster spectacles she played an uncontrollable “flapper”, “jazz baby” and perpetual-motion dancer. When Joan was named the no.1 US box-office star of 1930, male or female — but on a factory treadmill and bringing in just $1,000 a week at the same studio that was paying Greta Garbo $250,000 per movie per year — blonde Barbara was starting in mature leading roles. Stanwyck worked hard freelancing — four starring roles a year at $50,000 a pop. This was a top fee for the day — the same that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert earned for all-time Oscar-hauler It Happened One Night (1934), and double what Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland would each get for the marathon Gone With the Wind (1939) production. Only Garbo and Dietrich negotiated much more than this per film in the early Thirties, on special deals to keep them in Hollywood and away from Europe where they were supremely popular (and Mae West, also rationed to one movie a year). Stanwyck fast earned a reputation with respectful film crews for cussing with the best on set, and as an actress in early talkies Barbara was rated among the top five women in Hollywood — “never brilliant and never lousy”, and never coming to rate in overwhelming box-office drawing power with Joan and Bette. At 29, as Stella Dallas, 1937, she would play a frumpy mother with a marriageable daughter — a gutsy move for the image-conscious Hollywood of the day. Bette showed up from Broadway, arriving with her mother on the train (a four-day transcontinental journey), Xmas 1930, and at first contracted to Universal was soon an impressive lead. BetteDavis1932In a year, requested by veteran English star George Arliss as his leading lady at Warners, Bette’s name was made. But she still had a long row to hoe to get her home studio to give her the roles worthy of her immense talent — called the greatest ever actress in any medium by so many of her peers.

From there, in Quigley’s 1931 roundup of box-office attractions in the US, in a top 10 dominated by seven women Joan came behind only sweet-girl-next-door Janet Gaynor, and ahead of Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Greta Garbo. The next year Dressler moved up and Joan was still third overall. Subsequently, she was sixth of the women in 1933; then regained third spot behind Gaynor and blowzy sexpot Mae West; and finally for the next two years was top woman (disregarding poppet Shirley temple unbeatable at no.1 overall). Though Joan played the prostitute central character in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932) — see first photo at top left — tempting too-upright man of the cloth Walter Huston, and Barbara had occupied the skins of many questionable types too, maybe fiery redhead Bette was first to play the out-and-out vixen type with a vengeance in Cabin in the Cotton and the following year on loan to RKO, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934), as an ultimately conniving guttersnipe tormenting nice, desperate Leslie Howard, an over-accommodating artist made insecure by his club foot and settling as her human doormat. That was her Oscar role but she won it instead for Dangerous the year after as consolation: an alcoholic actress making amends to Franchot Tone. A good production of The Petrified Forest starting 1936, again with Leslie Howard facing Bogie this time, was an isolated event in a series of nothing roles as in Parachute Jumper, a distasteful memory she took to the grave with her 50 years later. She refused assignment after crummy assignment, eventually passed on to the Joan Blondells, Glenda Farrells or Lane sisters who usually made something attractive out of these lower-budget projects. Jack Warner put her on suspension without pay and she escaped to England. There, studio boss Jack Warner defeated her in court and restarted her $650-a-week wage — hardly more than 14-year-old Bonita Granville, the studio’s girl detective in the Nancy Drew series; about one sixth of what less-accomplished Loretta Young was getting at Fox. Marked Woman released in spring 1937, playing a razor-slashed prostitute testifying against her kid sister’s gangster murderer, set her roles on an upward climb. Still, she was lucky to survive in the business climate of Warners during the Depression, production budgets being so constricted that the same kind of glossy sophistication attained by MGM, Paramount, even RKO (and both the last two studios had been forced into receivership for a time), wasn’t possible and prestigious stars whose forte was high class settings were let go in accordance with the policy of financial boss Harry Warner in New York: first Constance Bennett (paid an eye-watering $30,000 a week by Warners for two films early in the decade), then Ruth Chatterton (the “Queen of the Warner Bros lot” when Bette first arrived in 1931), then classy soap queen Kay Francis, still retaining impressive top 40 popularity unlike the first two, in 1937.

Joan Crawford is unique in moviedom — a one-off — at the forefront in pictures through three contrasting periods of history. In the Twenties she appealed as the party girl in carefree times; in the Thirties she defied the Great Depression and women fans loved to see her suffering in mink and pretended that she was, after all, one of us; and through and post-war she was the independent woman more than pulling her weight in factory jobs and wiping that lock of hair off her face to look pretty enough for her man. But in the meantime Joan was missing out on plum roles too, with Norma Shearer, the late boss’s wife, ahead of her in the pecking order at MGM, then Garbo. She got some good roles opposite (and had a fling with) Clark Gable, and married lower-case star Franchot Tone, who after a few years got sick of being referred to after the main event — as Mr Joan Crawford. She slipped out of the coveted box-office top 10, and quickly settled into the bottom half of the top 50 — not as far as her competitors Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn had dropped (both of whom, to their credit, would also revive to reinvent themselves by changing studio). The pressure was on Joan to deliver on a salary of $400,000 p.a. in 1937, one of the highest in Hollywood and now for just two movies a year. It was only in the early Forties when both Shearer and Garbo retired and the roles didn’t get any better — supplanted as she was now by Greer Garson, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner — that she elected to leave for Columbia to reestablish herself on a fraction of her previous fee. Then in 1944, turning 40, Joan Crawford was snapped up by Warners, amazingly back in the majors at an age when prettier and arguably more talented actresses were out the back door. Bette Davis was queen here at “the studio of working stiffs” where talent and not looks was king, and had long since overtaken Joan through a long series of classic roles 1938-44: Jezebel and Dark Victory to Queen Elizabeth I, at 30 ingeniously playing Old Queen Bess — see photo;Bette_Davis_in_The_Private_Lives_of_Elizabeth_and_Essex_trailer_cropped The Letter, as a prize bitch who murders her lover at the cost of another indulgent husband, Herbert Marshall; The Great Lie, a brilliant collaboration with Mary Astor; The Little Foxes, one of several women’s masterpieces — Herbert was her victim again — under director William Wyler (with whom she had more than a fling); then Now Voyager as an uggo-turned-swan still finding her wings, romanced by Paul Henreid; Watch on the Rhine surrounded by Nazi fifth columnists in wartime USA, with Paul Lukas as the European Resistance organiser (that Henreid was in Casablanca) and villainous George Coulouris; Old Acquaintance, with old, detested acquaintance Miriam Hopkins — Bette said she was the “most thoroughgoing bitch” offscreen since sweet Nancy Carroll; and taking Mr Skeffington (Claude Rains) for granted in favor of shinier wooers. She had just turned 36 and had done it all. There was no one to match her versatility, influence on acting style and sheer domination of the screen until Brando in the Fifties. Never absolute tops at the box-office as Joan Crawford had been a decade earlier, Bette was nonetheless top woman in a male-dominated top 10 from 1939 to 1941 inclusive. In 1942, the USA’s first year in the war, she was overtaken as a movie screen attraction by GI pin-up material Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour; Ann Sheridan hard on her heels, with Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner making their plays too. Alice Faye was making a comeback, and voluptuous blonde Betty Hutton just emerging. There was only English rose Greer Garson anywhere near even aspiring to her league in the serious acting stakes, and vastly to her credit against the odds Bette hung on until finally dropping out of the box-office top 15 (counting men and women) — fourth among women — two years after the war ended.

Through the latter Forties, “Crawford vs Davis” was embedded in popular culture as the rivalry of two great tragediennes, not least by Warner Bros’ own caricatures of them going head to head in Looneytunes animated shorts that also popularized the images of their top urban tough guys, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Bogie. A director who knew both women well on and off screen contrasted them accurately while linking them at the same time, characterizing Crawford as down-to-earth offscreen and taking on the diva as an acting persona, conscious of her looks and flattering camera angles, and Davis as the starrish diva offscreen and sacrificing all glamor for the realistic portrayal onscreen.

Some of Barbara’s best-regarded movies came in a rush, high comedy, three of them in 1941 alone: The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda under mercurial writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount; Meet John Doe, one of Frank Capra’s one-man-and-his-girl-against-the-world efforts (Warners); and Ball of Fire, again with Gary Cooper, this time at Goldwyn studios. In these sophisticated comedies Stanwyck did pretty well but tended to look like a fill-in for someone who wasn’t available, Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard being the ideal; Rosalind Russell or Myrna Loy in a pinch. No way could Barbara approach the touching performances of highly sensitive Jean Arthur, ministering and nursemaiding to Cooper/James Stewart as her deflated idealist boyfriend at the mercy of big politics in films of the capraesque style already perfected by the director at Columbia through the latter 1930s. Lady of Burlesque (1943), now at United Artists directed by William Wellman, was a fast-paced backstage murder mystery with strong comedy relief in which Barbara, like Joan, got to show off her dancer’s legs. In writer-director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), helped by Raymond Chandler in crafting this into the pinnacle of film noir, she played a bitch who gets hers in the end from boyfriend Fred MacMurray, both trying to fool insurance investigator Edward G Robinson. BarbaraStanwycks1940sIt was made for Paramount and she had been playing the studios at their own pick-and-mix game for years, parlaying her spitfire on-screen presence and reliability into a prime position with producers though her box-office was just sound even in her best years, rarely the sole centre of attention in a blockbuster as Joan and Bette were. Her compensation: She was the highest paid woman in America that year, just ahead of Bette. Now in the latter Forties all three would be predominantly at the superior talent factory that was Warners, suddenly overloaded with bitches. In 1945 they gave Joan her favorite role of all, Mildred Pierce, and it was said to be outdrawing Bette’s current project as a teacher in the Welsh valleys (The Corn is Green) at theatres on the all-important Eastern Seaboard three to one. In 1947, just as Bette dropped out of Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald‘s “official” top 25 stars list, Joan and Barbara made their comebacks to the list, their first appearances since the mid 1930s: both ranking in the top half dozen female stars most seen on screen. Other drama queens at the studio hardly got a look in: Olivia de Havilland, finally breaking through to the fringe of top 20 (fifth among women stars) to join her Warners sisters, left for lack of roles after taking many studio-enforced suspensions as Bette had the previous decade; Lauren Bacall, missing the polls entirely, took a much leaner schedule to bear kids and look after husband Bogie; Jane Wyman switched from comedy to drama at other studios, to rank high in the mid Fifties; and Ida Lupino finally quit in favor of directing.

Warners tried Joan out at the rate of $167,000 for just one film a year to test the water — and the water was fine. From 1946 came boffo box-office in Humoresque, as an alcoholic who walks into the ocean when neglected by concert violinist John Garfield — a famous concert artist stuffing his hand up a false sleeve did the fingering on the frets; then Possessed, murdering Van Heflin when he doesn’t requite her lust; on loan to Fox under Otto Preminger, as Daisy Kenyon, fashion designer fought over by Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews; in 1949 back at Warners, sympathetic for Flamingo Road under Michael Curtiz as a down-and-out carnival dancer but getting Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and David Brian to dance to her tune. She was 45 and the legs and the rest were holding up fine. In 1950 she freelanced at Columbia as Harriet Craig, one of her defining bitches, castrating husband Wendell Corey; then five years later as the Queen Bee, and Barry Sullivan was the gelding doing servitude.

Towards the end of the Forties, when resident tall, slimline beauty Alexis Smith was tiring and sultry wise-cracking brunette Janis Paige was found to be not what the public wanted in airhead musicals, Warners started to invest in gay perky young blonde things hardly showing a brain in their heads, June Haver — borrowed from Fox for two films — and Doris Day, quickly proving a long-term winner. Bette had taken till 1941 to climb to a respectable star wage ($252,333 that year) and elevated herself to a massive $365,000 a year by 1948 — the huge majority of it going in tax in the era of post-war austerity — just as her popularity was dipping at Warners through lack of good vehicles again. That year was Barbara’s fourth Oscar nomination, for Sorry Wrong Number at Paramount: a demanding invalid wife and younger husband Burt Lancaster trying to bump her off; but her next really good one, between her enthusiastic Commie-hunting projects off screen, was Fritz Lang masterpiece Clash By Night (RKO, 1952) and a great ensemble performance again cheating on hubby, this time painfully unaware working man Paul Douglas, with virile desperado Robert Ryan. (It had Marilyn Monroe’s best early role too, a demanding one.) That year Barbara and her husband, her previous leading man when visiting MGM, Robert Taylor, called it quits, she having been the senior partner four years older and admittedly the less pretty one. A positive quality was her sympathy for younger performers — Marilyn Monroe calling her the only one of older generation actresses who supported her. Yet in contradictory mode she could be the hardest-nosed of the three, estranging herself from her adopted son, 19. At the same time she joined the virulently “anti-communist” faction in Hollywood for “the preservation of American ideals”. Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn had dragged herself up by her bootstraps, as she saw it, to be Barbara Stanwyck — so even in youth had opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, somehow as the myth goes believing that all other poor people could follow in her footsteps.

Bette quit Warners to be in a good drama — over at Fox, All About Eve. She was 42 and showing every well-earned wrinkle. She was too insecure to back herself, taking flat fees ($130,000 for that one) and ending up with a fraction of what other stars got for participation deals out of profits. At the same time her old rival Katharine Hepburn, for African Queen, was taking $130,000 plus 10%; Bogart close to a million eventually for his part; and elsewhere, Cary Grant and John Wayne on half a million, James Stewart in rugged westerns on $600,000, even young Jane Russell on $400,000 with not much more than two assets to show off on screen.

JoanCrawford-colour1950Joan at 50 and Barbara nearing the mark still had the stuff to be glamorous-kinky, usually going after younger men, and both took to rather stylized, erotic westerns in the mid 1950s: Joan just once, maybe impressed by Marlene Dietrich’s outing in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, set in glorious technicolor at age 51. (Note this was at a time in Hollywood when the number of glamor girls aged over 35 and still on screen could be counted on one hand without a thumb.) She starred for auteur Nicholas Ray in Johnny Guitar (1954), romancing all 6ft-5 of Sterling Hayden, made well by tiny cheapskate studio Republic. The technicolor did well for Joan too, not much for vindictive villainess Mercedes McCambridge in a scenery-chewing triumph (later using her gruff voice as the demon’s in The Exorcist, 1973). Barbara starred in a whole slew of westerns through mid decade: Blowing Wild, doing the dirty on Gary Cooper with Anthony Quinn; Cattle Queen of Montana, bossing “Little Ronnie” Reagan (actually his nickname at Warners, said Bette); The Violent Men, a rare good one double-crossing Edward G Robinson for Glenn Ford and Brian Keith (and dismissing young and beautiful Dianne Foster with one imperious sweep of her hand); The Maverick Queen, a cheapie at Republic, this time tricked by Pinkerton detective Barry Sullivan, envied by heavy Scott Brady (this time the beauteous ingenue was Mary Murphy from Brando’s The Wild One); Trooper Hook, a thoughtful subject as a mother and prisoner of Native Americans, rescued by Joel McCrea; and Forty Guns, as a ranchowner again, protecting outlaw brother Barry Sullivan, fairly good under writer-director Sam Fuller. She was 50 and quit films. She took someone’s bad advice and died her hair grey hoping to pass as platinum blonde — it didn’t, and aged her overnight.

Bette came from the starchy New England thespian tradition and didn’t fancy long months in desert locations though she committed herself to guest spots on two of the very best westerns on weekly tv, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, and her remaining good roles were as old hags, to say it frankly: The Virgin Queen as Elizabeth I again but made in England (1955), this time losing Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) to Joan Collins, having 16 years earlier done in the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) over Olivia de Havilland; underestimated kitchen-sink drama The Catered Affair (1956) from the play by Paddy Chayevsky, adapted by Gore Vidal and directed by Richard Brooks, Bette as the frumpy working-class mother of the bride and co-starring Ernest Borgnine as her henpecked New York cab-driver husband and great support from Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald and Rod Taylor; and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 when she met up with Joan for the first and last time. Warners got its money’s worth when audiences had trouble till the end figuring out who was the biggest bitch up on screen killing off everyone and everything including a pet parrot, broiled. They were still legends but hardly irresistible draws to theatres anymore and going into the project skeptical Bette took $60,000 up front plus 5% of profits to come, if any; Joan took a risk on a $30,000 fee followed by a big 15% of surprise earnings — ending up almost as rich as Liz Taylor was to be soon with $1 million from her two years’ work as Cleopatra.

They were supposed to meet up again in something similar, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965) but Joan begged off ill at the last moment and Bette got her old Warners protegee Olivia de Havilland to step in. Joan had had her fill of horror by now, apparently caught hacking people’s heads off in low-budget Straight Jacket and romancing jailbate newcomer Lee Majors at the same time. Barbara, always a good mate of Joan off screen (both had been raised dirt poor, one in Hell’s Kitchen, the other in San Antonio), was a tv western star in The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to ’68, Barbara_Stanwyck_Victoria_Barkley_Big_Valley_1968and got her frustrations out dressed in black leather and wielding a riding crop at offspring Lee Majors (Was he recommended specially by Joan?) and Linda Evans of future Dynasty fame. Preparing for the role, appearing late ’64, Barbara got her kicks on the big screen molesting Elvis in Roustabout, and reportedly in the dressing room on that gig, veteran costumier Edith Head.

Oh ho-hum, just another day in Hollywoodland.

TV REVIEW: Invasion of the CSI Snatchers

In film, television on March 17, 2012 at 2:01 am

You never saw Clark Gable and Gary Cooper together in a movie… Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power… It was a surprise even to see two medium sized stars (as they were in 1942) John Wayne and Ray Milland together in Reap the Wild Wind. It was a waste of resources — Only a Cecil B DeMille extravaganza could afford it. Anyway, the big stars in a similar niche were normally at different studios. John Wayne and Henry Fonda got together just once (Fort Apache); John Wayne and James Stewart ditto (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) but when the rules were relaxed in the Sixties — and suddenly you were allowed to have Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark all in the same western, The Way West). In the mid Fifties, after a decade in movies, Burt Lancaster finally had enough cred to appear with a major figure of the older generation in decline: Gary Cooper (in Vera Cruz), then Clark Gable (in Run Silent, Run Deep) — but as the junior partner in both.<p>

There’s a photo that’s always fascinated me, one taken in 1949 by Life magazine visiting the MGM studio, in slowly dimming twilight after a quarter century of unquestioned dominance in movies. All the stars had been ordered to turn up dressed in character costume and here they were lined up in rows like for a school photo — 58 star names of the time with the lovely Lassie front & center. Tracy and Hepburn are at opposite sides looking blase; Sinatra dangerous; Ricardo Montalban and Angela Lansbury to name just two much better known on tv decades later. One’s gaze is drawn to four figures at the center of the second row, directly above Lassie. Of these all-time greats, far right is Judy Garland, then Ava Gardner; next to her Clark Gable, then Errol Flynn. Broad-shouldered Gable, 48, looks his smiling self, as ever. Flynn, about to turn 40, looks dressed for Soames Forsyte, his temples greyed for the occasion and looking conflicted for the character.<p>

Or was it that? What on earth did Gable and Flynn find to say on meeting for the first (and probably only) time as they sat next to each other? — What’s your score? Flip you for a date with Ava? Or purely professional on the finer points of acting the hero on screen, or Tilt your head — your left side is your best. Flynn happened to be there on a one-off loan from Warner Bros, and was earning at least as much as Gable who traded earnings for the minders, personal care and other perks MGM afforded. Had Gable said something belittling to the younger man, turning slightly away and looking somewhat indignant? Gable had been nearly 20 years the hunk of Hollywood, only now starting to make way for Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and still had another dozen years of popular films in him. Both were men’s men, but Flynn, for 15 years already the head Hollywood Pretty Boy along with Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, was fading. He was apparently emotionally damaged: as a child by a cold mother, then ridiculed as a walking penis — “In like Flynn” — taking on teenagers, then for not going off to the war (he had a secret heart condition) despite what his movies said. Vastly underrated in the official popularity polls, he was one of the very few megastars through the second half of the thirties and most of the forties whose studio could spend a massive $2 million “negative cost” on his movies (and more millions on worldwide distribution and promotion), which he usually carried alone (with secondary help from Olivia De Havilland or no help from a minor leading lady) time and again and be certain of coming away with a profit. Taking to drink and drugs, he was nonetheless an icon and his name still meant something substantive on the marquee till his death 10 years later.<p>

Now it wouldn’t be a surprise to see George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Goldblum and Al Pacino all together in a movie — combined summoning about half the star power of Gable alone on the screen. But my beef isn’t primarily with them this time.<p>

It is, in particular, with the performances of Gary Sinise and William Petersen — and those of the entire cast of Criminal Minds (except for the guy who used to be in Dharma & Greg). I’ve always wondered why actors capable of absolutely rivetting, diverse characterisations in their movies are so very, very BORING in their tv shows. It must take one hell of an effort for people so obviously talented to neuter their characters to such a degree. And for why? And now we have Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson, Tim Roth and that blond young Canadian actor with the constant simper, somehow ‘starring’ in his own series, to add to the list. That makes how many leading actors in movies who, for my money, are absolutely wasted on television. Some of the most vapid leading men of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” — and they know who they are by reputation — John Boles, Walter Pidgeon, George Brent — couldn’t be as wooden if they tried.

Either the writer/creator has written these intelligent, scientific types as cold fish with no visible personalities. Or there is an overriding philosophy in television acting today that says only robots in action movies are allowed to display marked emotion — otherwise tone it down to non-acting, walking through a scene. This was obvious as I watched a scene in Criminal Minds last night — and don’t say, You have to watch more than one scene! Any person with taste and discernment doesn’t have to watch more than that to see what is going on. I’ve always thought the way the group scenes in this series are written is ludicrous. Each one gets one line to say, then they all leave at the same time, like the heroes in Scooby Doo, to take on their tasks. The young walking encyclopedia with the stupid hair (again, he couldn’t get it that wrong by accident — even Einstein had some clues, social nous) sometimes displays more personality than the others, which in itself is very, very scary. I guess he’s based on Shaggy from Scooby Doo just as that scatterbrained girl back at base with the funny face, hair and outlandish wardrobe (there’s one too in one of the CSIs) comes from that little roundish girl in the original cartoon. They haven’t managed a human form of Scooby himself yet in live action, but give them time.

Contrast, say, Monk. It is very well acted and choreographed, and yes, I realise they are going for a light touch and dark humor. This is almost the only genre that American tv gets absolutely right these days (though not as good since Bitty Schram left) and can be seriously ruined, as with many entries in Murder She Wrote. I make exceptions for excellent serial miniseries like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men… each made with more of a feature film sensibility and production values.

MOVIE REVIEW: GENE KELLY — DRAMATIC ACTOR

In film, history, ideology on June 13, 2009 at 1:30 am

CROSS OF LORRAINE (MGM, 1943)

CROSS OF LORRAINEAside from the usual wartime flagwavers Hollywood came out with detailing the atrocities against “our boys” in the Pacific and other spheres, that stoked the home fires of those back home, the studios did their best on behalf of China, the Philippines and other allies to get the message out about foreign struggles for independence against the ruthless jackboots of the Axis Powers.

Each studio constructed moving if sometimes necessarily artificial vehicles for the voices of oppressed countries to be heard. Goldwyn’s North Star about a Russian village is the most (in)famous of them, with producer William Cameron Menzies enlisting the participation of writer Lillian Hellman, director Lewis Milestone, the photography of James Wong Howe, and the music of Aaron Copeland. These celebrated names and an illustrious cast including Walter Huston, Erich Von Stroheim, Ann Harding, Dean Jagger, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter didn’t save it from being the target of communist accusations by red-hunters later and the condemnation of critics ever since who have judged the film by how Russian the actors weren’t. Fox’s The Moon is Down has overall the best reputation — about the resistance of a Norwegian village to Nazi occupation, written and produced by Nunnally Johnson from a Steinbeck novel. Warners’ Watch on the Rhine, Northern Pursuit (Mounties chasing Nazis), Edge of Darkness (another Norwegian fishing village), Columbia’s The Commandos Strike at Dawn (commandos returning to Norway), and MGM’s The Seventh Cross are other socko movies worth seeing. Paramount’s The Hitler Gang, Hitler’s Children (RKO) and Hitler’s Madman from Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) are other well-known contributions; the last about the assassination of Heidrich with John Carradine in the title role, and the Nazis’ monstrous revenge against the Czech village of Lidice.

Gene Kelly as the aggressive Jew, Victor.

Gene Kelly as the aggressive Jew, Victor.

Cross of Lorraine — named for the emblem of Joan of Arc — was a good effort from MGM, a stirring hymn to French patriotism and stickability. The story traces the fate of a French squad persuaded to surrender when their army looks doomed by the Blitzkrieg invasion of May-June 1940. The Nazi promise is of repatriation to their homes — and they are delivered to a repressive POW camp across the German border. The ‘civilized’ Frenchmen led by top-billed Jean-Pierre Aumont think at first there must be some oversight and continue trying to appease and understand the Nazi mentality, trying to appeal to a sense of fair play, even rationality, that (they believe) must lie somewhere under the surface.

The only ones to resist and keep their spirits intact through two and a half years of captivity and starvation are Victor, an aggressive Marseilles taxi driver played by Gene Kelly, and a Spaniard (Joseph Calleia) experienced against the fascists from his country’s Civil War. Reacting against the murder of their chaplain (Cedric Hardwicke), Victor is severely beaten and put in solitary confinement. He is at the mercy of brutal sergeant Peter Lorre, who, annoyed at Victor’s continuing bullish defiance, has him castrated.

The informant among them, Duval (Hume Cronyn), promoted by the Nazis to ‘translator’, has had a hand deep in his own comrades’ suffering, including reporting on the priest, and gets his future sorted out by them. Aumont’s character, promoted in his place, gradually sees how responsible he is in collaborating in his own men’s failing spirits, and determines to organize a mass escape by stealth.

Jean -Pierre Aumont, the civilized POW, getting in touch with his animal side.

Jean -Pierre Aumont, the civilized POW, getting in touch with his animal side.

While not on the same artistic level as Jean Renoir’s classic French POW drama, La Grande Illusion, I consider this film very rewarding and well worthwhile watching. Gene Kelly, in particular, gives a powerful performance of an ordinary man instinctively disgusted and provoked by every duplicitous gesture of the Nazis — every bit as intense as Gabin’s in the Renoir film, and more subtle. On his emasculation, he insightfully and intelligently portrays the fear and anxiety of a man with his animal power and all mental initiative suddenly taken from him.

BLACK HAND (MGM, 1950)

At times Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio of Middle American gloss par excellence, surprises you.

Self-made junk man Louis B. Mayer moved into movie production during World War I and ruled MGM as the amalgamation in 1924 of three medium-sized companies to form the new titan of the industry, surpassing the previously all-powerful Paramount in one stroke. Its readymade stars and early acquisitions included popular leading men John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro (The Big Parade and Ben-Hur, respectively, the two biggest world earners of 1925-27), exotic leading women Barbara LaMarr and Renee Adoree, supreme child star Jackie Coogan, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, and a triumvirate of dramatic divas that would rule world screens with few interruptions from the late Twenties for more than a decade: Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.

Mayer had to continually compromise with young and creative production head Irving Thalberg until the death of the ‘boy genius’ in 1936, after which, for the next 12-year period, he had clear running. Trouble was, by this time, immediately post-World War II, MGM began to be overtaken by Paramount, Fox and Warners. Audiences were no longer the same, and wanted to see real life rather than MGM’s customary rosy Hallmark-greeting-card view of the world. The solution of Loew’s Inc, MGM’s New York parent company, was to bring in Dore Schary, the production head at RKO who had successfully diversified that studio’s output to take it into large profits for the first time in its twenty-year existence. Schary bailed just in time, in 1948, as new RKO owner Howard Hughes began his steady elimination of the studio’s talent through witchhunts for communists and other paranoid purges that would leave his own property as barely a fond memory a decade later.

A thorn in Mayer’s side for the next four years until MGM’s ruling paternal figure was ousted sideways out of the way, Schary instantly led MGM to deal with the reality of the new industry: more reality, less candyfloss. Combining the noirish grittiness he had established in the most realistic films at RKO with the bigger budgets now available to him, under his new influence outstanding films of gripping topical reality were possible: Intruder in the Dust (racial discrimination in the rural South) and Abraham Polonksy’s Force of Evil (postwar rackets), and the following year his first hands-on production, William Wellman’s Battleground, an impressive war film with tour de force ensemble performances from Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, George Murphy and others.

Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly) arrives back in New York City ready to deal to the Mafia one way or the other.

Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly) arrives back in New York City ready to deal to the Mafia one way or the other.

Black Hand, emerging shortly after, was a revelation to me in the performance of Gene Kelly among a number of intriguing elements contained in the film. A fixture at MGM since 1941 (excluding war service shortly after) at age 28, Kelly was of Pittsburgh Irish stock–arriving, according to his own testimony, “twenty pounds overweight and as strong as an ox.” When he was dressed up like Fred Astaire he still “looked like a truck driver.” So, with Fred Astaire the aristocratic dancer of Hollywood in top hat and tails, Kelly dressed in character, usually as a workman.

I’d seen him before in classic musicals of the mid Forties like Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth and Anchors Aweigh with Frank Sinatra; of the early Fifties in the iconic An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Pirate; as a hearty, convincing swashbuckler–a particularly athletic D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; even in a serious role in the dramatic wartime Cross of Lorraine.

Though I’ve since discovered he has been listed as 15th top actor ever in film by the American Film Institute, nothing had prepared me for how he pulled off this portrayal as a young New York Neapolitan (c.1900) caught up in the Comorra phenomenon imported from Napoli–as if born to it. Not only is perfect Italian speech intact, lithe movement and magnetic, brooding silences, but in this film he projects the macho, offhand persona of Sonny Corleone coming more than two decades later. At times the resemblance in mannerisms is so close I would be amazed if James Caan didn’t study Kelly’s performance before his Godfather role.

Gene Kelly -- a model for James Caan's Sonny Corleone?

Gene Kelly -- a model for James Caan's Sonny Corleone?

Gene Kelly is Johnny Columbo, a law student torn between avenging his father’s murder within or outside the law. Also scoring high in the film are Teresa Celli as the hero’s ally and love interest, J. Carroll Naish as a dedicated local cop and mentor and Marc Lawrence as the elusive archvillain of the local Comorra. The urban sets, dating from the period, are dramatically set off by atmospheric lighting and (mostly) shadow. All aspects of treatment of the subject, down to casting, are spot on. It took just two weeks to shoot and, according to Kelly, took millions in profits around the world.

Though several contemporary reviewers gave Kelly his dramatic due for this one it’s a pity that few observers since have even mentioned Kelly’s dramatic ability. To posterity I suspect Kelly will always be what appears above the surface most often: the screen master of free-form creative dancing–the counterpart to Fred Astaire’s more formal rhythmic dance steps.

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: 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?’

WHAT PRICE STARDOM?

In celebrity, film, generational/fashion on December 25, 2007 at 8:09 am

We seldom if ever give a thought to movie stars of a hundred years ago, partly because most people think they didn’t exist as early as that — but also because we live in a world that treats people as highly disposable commodities. Who can remember the divas that came after Madonna and disappeared before Whitney? The other day I struggled for hours to remember Kevin Costner’s name, even though — in his day — I had paid to see a couple of his movies, a rare thing for me: ‘The Untouchables’ and ‘JFK’.

Florence Turner, a great screen personality and a champion face-puller (gurner), taken on by Vitagraph studio, Brooklyn, in 1906 for a top wage of $18 a week

Florence Turner, a great screen personality and a champion face-puller (gurner), taken on by Vitagraph studio, Brooklyn, in 1906 for a top wage of $18 a week

Actually, to call a film actor a ‘star’ before about 1909-10 is, strictly, incorrect. Movies’ leading actors’ names were rarely publicized before that, for two main reasons:

1) Participating in movies at that time was even lower than performing in ‘legitimate’ theatre, only now shucking off its pariah status. Female performers in burlesque or novelty sideshows were previously thought no better than prostitutes, and were prey to the same social stigma, often purveyed by social climbers of their own sex. Performers of either gender hesitated to drag their family’s good name through the muck and would often appear for screen work under a pseudonym. In addition, for some seventeen years when the business of exhibiting movies was in its barely gurgling infancy, and until the courts finally ruled otherwise, it was believed that most movie production companies were illegal operations — that is, those who didn’t pay Thomas Edison royalties for using movie-making apparatus he held patents on. These ‘outlaws’, which included some of the best movie innovators of all, were reluctant to be thrown in the hooscow on old man Edison’s say-so, by his private police force.

2) Up to almost World War I it wasn’t necessary for movie actors to withhold their names because the studio they worked for did that — knowing full well that when a performer became a ‘name’, especially one with international exposure, he or she could command recompense in proportion to the size and popularity of that name.

The temptation became too much for Carl Laemmle, a diminutive German emigre who had worked his way up to own the biggest nickelodeon chain in the Midwest. In the spring of 1910, a year after he had made his first film (a single-reel version of the ‘Hiawatha’ story) for his own company, IMP — Independent Moving Pictures — he approached perhaps the most popular proto-star of her day with a promotional scheme that couldn’t miss. Florence Lawrence — not the kind of name a star would get away with today — had started on screen three years earlier with the then most successful American film studio, Vitagraph of Brooklyn, New York. In 1908 she had moved to local rival Biograph to be directed by the revolutionary D W Griffith, universally acknowledged as “Father of the Movies”, just shifting from acting. Florence, a year before Mary Pickford’s screen debut at the same company, quickly became the studio’s most popular ‘player’ (actor) — distinctive enough to be called by audiences “The Biograph Girl”. (Gene Gauntier was “The Kalem Girl”, Kathlyn Williams “The Selig Girl”, and so on.)

Florence Lawrence, the first American screen 'star', created in 1910

Florence Lawrence, the first American screen 'star', created in 1910

With matchless chutzpah (most of the second and third generation studio bosses were Jewish) Laemmle planted a story in newspapers that the Biograph Girl had been killed in a streetcar accident. Taking credit for her ‘rebirth’, he announced that she would reappear disembarking a train in St Louis. A huge crowd turned out for the occasion, and newspapermen and others insisted on knowing actual names. Thus was born a megastar with the mellifluous name of Florence Lawrence, “The Imp Girl”, officially the first* American movie star to be known by name. With a shipload of public sympathy behind his new prime leading lady, Laemmle was well on his way to founding Universal Studio. His initiative had revolutionized the industry, but other studio bosses, forced to top the exorbitant $200 a week he was paying Florence, didn’t thank him for it.

In 1915, the year Universal City opened for tours at the new base of Hollywood, and a new comic called Charlie Chaplin began his rapid rise to world stardom, Florence was badly burned helping a workmate escape a studio fire and was forced to retire for a time to recuperate. A comeback attempt failed. She continued in acting, though quickly forgotten by the fickle media. By the late Twenties she had been hired, like her early Vitagraph rival Florence Turner and other former stars fallen on hard times, by MGM boss Louis B Mayer for small, dignified parts on a steady salary. Studio shots of her in the early Thirties show her looking withdrawn, even distressed, far from the madcap camera hog she had been at her height. It is likely she sustained longlasting disability from the burns suffered in her heroic impulse to save fellow workers. In 1938, aged 52, she committed suicide by ingesting insect poison.

Sort of puts all the Britneys and Courtneys into perspective, doesn’t it.

*There is scholarly debate over what movie stardom precisely constitutes. G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, who had appeared in very early films including the legendary ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), from 1907 starred himself in highly popular westerns so that his name was generally known but without attracting the overboard ballyhoo that passes for stardom today. There is also international competition to enliven the discussion. In France, early comic Andre Deed had the popularity associated with stardom, but under his clown’s pseudonym. Following him, Max Linder, invariably playing the character “Max” from late 1907, and quickly accruing a vast European popularity that included Russia with its 30,000 cinemas, is said by many to be the first true international star of movies.

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