Monday, June 16, 2014

My Gal Sal


 
We often think of Golden Age movie stars living a life of ease, making movies during the day and then going to nightclubs like Ciro's or The Brown Derby in the evening. But Golden Age movie stardom was hard work. When not making the actual movies, actors and actresses spent their days in endless publicity photo poses or learned new skills such as horseback riding, fencing or dancing the minuet for an upcoming movie. Such skills didn't come overnight and often required endless hours of rehearsal for a scene that may only last a minute or two on-screen.

That occurred to me while watching MY GAL SAL (1942), an above average entry in the period musical genre so favored by 20th Century Fox.

In one scene, Victor Mature plays two pianos at the same time during a medicine show. He swivels on his stool and continues to play the pianos behind him while facing the audience. I'm no expert on piano techniques, but Mature's fingering looks pretty spot-on to me. I don't know if Mature was musically inclined in real life, but if not, I can only imagine the hours of rehearsal he went through to make it look so convincing.

Fox had a penchant for celebrating obscure songwriters of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, such as Fred Fisher in OH YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL (1949), Joe Howard in I WONDER WHO'S KISSING HER NOW (1947) and Ernest Ball in IRISH EYES ARE SMILING (1944).

In MY GAL SAL, it's Paul Dresser's turn. Dresser's most famous song is probably “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”, written in 1897 and, according to Wikipedia, it became the second best-selling song – in sheet music sales – in the nineteenth century. Hoosiers liked it enough to make it the official state song of Indiana in 1913.

Much of what we know about Dresser comes courtesy of his brother, novelist Theodore Dreiser, author of “An American Tragedy”, which was made into a movie of the same name in 1931 with Sylvia Sidney and most famously in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). MY GAL SAL was adopted from his story “My Brother Paul.”(Paul Dreiser changed his name to Dresser when he was 20 years old).

Still, even blessed with a novelist's imagination, I doubt Theodore would recognize elements of Paul Dresser's life in the wildly imaginative MY GAL SAL. But that's OK- truth belongs to documentaries, and MY GAL SAL is a most entertaining, Technicolor-drenched show.

An indelible part of the film's appeal is Rita Hayworth, who plays the film's title role. She's Sally Elliott, big theatrical star, who earns Dresser's enmity when she and some friends laugh at Dresser's music act at a medicine show. When he sees her perform, Dresser realizes that he's only been slumming in the medicine shows and is determined to make it to the big time.


Rita Hayworth and Technicolor are made for each other, with her red hair and peaches and cream complexion beautifully captured by the Technicolor cameras.
If MY GAL SAL is not the equal of the musicals she made with Astaire or Kelly, it's still very enjoyable, though admittedly formulaic.

As is typical of these films, the two leads fall in love, fall out of love, and there's a misunderstanding or two until all is resolved. In the meantime we are treated to a series of musical numbers, some songs courtesy the pen of Dresser with others from the songwriting team of Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger.

(I've always been amused by the number of composer biographies that include new song numbers penned by studio songwriters.)

The interpolated songs are good ones, especially “Oh, the Pity of It All” charmingly sung by Mature (dubbed by Ben Gage, later Esther Williams' husband) and Hayworth (dubbed by Nan Wynn). I also liked “Me and My Fella and a Big Umbrella”, a charming number with Rita wearing a most fetching 1890s-style bathing suit.

The new ballad, “Here You Are” is a nice song but sounds exactly like it was written in 1942. It doesn't sound like anything from the 1890's. But I don't think Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck concerned himself very much with such matters.
Speaking of Zanuck, he could be very petty with actresses who didn't bend to his will. The Sally Elliott role was first offered to Carole Landis, but she refused to dye her blond hair red. Rita Hayworth was borrowed from Columbia for the role and Landis was given a nothing role as the gal in the medicine show who nurses Dresser back to health after he is tarred and feathered by an angry mob after the medicine show's elixir proves to be not so healthy. It's a demeaning role for one of Fox's most promising ladies, and proof one did not get on Zanuck's bad side.

I like Mature a lot in this too. His Dresser is brash, not particularly classy and a braggart. He sees a party thrown in Sally's honor as a party for him celebrating his first song hit. (Hayworth's reaction to this is priceless). But he brings some real vigor to the role and despite his coarseness, I couldn't help rooting for him. Rita and Victor dated in the early 1940s and their chemistry together is undeniable.
 

The film's choreographer Hermes Pan shows up as Rita's dance partner in “On the Gay White Way”, a terrific number that showcases Rita at her dancing best. The supporting cast can't be beat. Any movie with James Gleason and Frank Orth is worth cherishing.

Director is Irving Cummings, an old hand at material like this. He also directed one of Betty Grable's best period musicals, SWEET ROSIE O'GRADY (1943). If there's nothing particularly distinguished about these films, they at least move and are entertaining.

I've always liked Victor Mature. In the 1950s, my mom worked at a company and her boss served with him in World War II in the Coast Guard. He said he was a great guy who didn't take himself too seriously.

My favorite Victor Mature anecdote has to do with THE ROBE (1953). I don't want a horde of Richard Burton or Jean Simmons fans descending on me, but I think Mature gives the best performance in the film. Burton agreed and thought that he (Burton) gave a terrible performance. Burton liked telling the story of watching the scene where he is being bewitched by the power of The Robe, screaming, grimacing and making facial contortions, while Mature, in the background, has a beatific look on his face as he gazes heavenward.

Burton told him there he is on the screen making a complete idiot of himself while Mature stole the whole scene from him by standing there with that exalted look on his face. He asked Mature what he was thinking when they were doing that scene.

Mature told him, “ I was thinking of all the money Fox was paying me to stand here and look up at the ceiling.”

How can you not like that guy?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fabulous Films of the 50s: Devil's Doorway





The name of this blogathon is Fabulous Films of the 50s and when it came to the western genre, the 1950s was indeed a fabulous decade. There were probably more genuinely great westerns in that decade than any other.

1950 alone saw some of the greatest westerns ever made – BROKEN ARROW, THE FURIES, THE GUNFIGHTER, RIO GRANDE, THE STARS IN MY CROWN, WAGON MASTER and WINCHESTER '73, just to name a few. And DEVIL'S DOORWAY.

Amazingly, director Anthony Mann directed three of these – DEVIL'S DOORWAY, THE FURIES and WINCHESTER '73. Any one of these three would earn him a standing ovation in the Westerns Hall of Fame. Three in one year is very impressive, and a strong argument for the studio system. No time spent developing properties by the director, the studio did it for you.

Of the three, I'd probably give the number one spot to WINCHESTER '73, with DEVIL'S DOORWAY coming in a very close second. It's not as well known as it should be. It's sympathetic treatment of the American Indian was overshadowed that year by the huge success of the similarly themed BROKEN ARROW. I like BROKEN ARROW a lot, but its a more family-friendly movie, while DEVIL'S DOORWAY is stark, brutal and unrelenting.

In her book Source: Anthony Mann (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). Jeanine Basinger astutely places Mann's western work in its proper context: “Mann might be said to have modernized the genre, incorporating into it an increased violence and using it to express man's vision to self, the conflicts of his inner psychology.”
.
In DEVIL'S DOORWAY Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a full-blooded Shoshone, returns to his Wyoming home after serving with the Union Army during the American Civil War, where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Upon his return though, he finds himself the target of bigotry and prejudice, with not even the basic rights of a citizen.

The local doctor refuses to give up his poker game to treat  his dying father, and the town bully starts a barroom brawl with Poole simply because he's a Shoshone.

Poole owns a particularly coveted spread, eagerly wanted by the local ranchers. There's a loophole in the law uncovered by an Eastern lawyer named Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who wants the Shoshones driven from their land at all costs.

Poole enlists the aid of a new lawyer in town, A. Masters. To his shock, A. Masters turns out to be a woman, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond, underrated here), who takes his case. I think she knows the Shoshones are getting a raw deal and should keep their land, but knows in her heart its a lost cause. 

Poole and his fellow Shoshones stand ready to defend their land to the death. The U.S. Cavalry sides with the townspeople, and Poole and the Shoshones make a last stand on their land.

DEVIL'S DOORWAY deserves to be better known. It's a gorgeous film to look at. Mann and ace cinematographer John Alton film many scenes like a noir. There's a noir-like barroom fight where the spectators watch in sweaty-faced close up. Think THE SET-UP (1949) on the frontier. Much of the action plays in the shadows with some characters barely visible in conversations.

The combination of Mann and Alton means there isn't a dull or uninteresting shot in the whole movie. (Anyone who thinks black and white photography is boring really needs to see this movie, or anything Alton shot in black and white).




Take the photographic treatment of Coolan. Dressed in black, Mann positions him often in the foreground or at a low angle looking up, as people in the background discuss what they will do with the Shoshones. He stands there quietly taking it all in, almost as if he represented the evil of bigotry. I don't mean to imply that he is demonic or anything like that, but the way he is presented its almost as if he personifies  evil on the frontier, chortling inside as he spreads the ugliness of bigotry under a most respectable facade. Between this and his weak-willed lawyer turn in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE the same year, Louis Calhern had a banner year playing two very different villains.

 

Unfortunately, DEVIL'S DOORWAY tanked at the box office, having the bad luck to open the same year as the very popular and similar-themed BROKEN ARROW.

Basinger again: “DEVIL'S DOORWAY was not a critical or commercial success. Its reception was greatly harmed by the release of Delmer Daves's BROKEN ARROW, starring James Stewart as a western scout who tries to make peace with Cochise. Most critics saw Mann's film as a low-budget black and white rip-off of Daves. This was unfortunate, because DEVIL'S DOORWAY is a far superior film. BROKEN ARROW is self-conscious and talky, but its overt moralizing was taken seriously by the same critics who dismissed DEVIL'S DOORWAY. It was not Mann's style to film screenplays which discussed and presented concepts laid over a story. Rather he presented stories with ideas and concepts built into them, and the depth of his films is still overlooked on this basis....

“A key to the relative honesty of the two films might be their attitudes toward sexual relationships between Indians and whites. In BROKEN ARROW, Stewart married an appropriately beautiful Indian maiden, Debra Paget, who is killed by whites. This cliched area of white-man-loves-Pocahontas is a staple of the old-fashioned western story and does nothing to further the truth about the plight of the Indians. On the contrary, the sight of Paget in her beautifully designed suede moccasins and color-coordinated beads is enough to send any white man scampering to the reservation. No love is allowed in DEVIL'S DOORWAY, a far more truthful situation and although white-man-can-love-redwoman, white woman still cannot love red man without shame and ostracism....

“Fortunately, DEVIL'S DOORWAY has gained in reputation since its release. It is not only an honest portrait of the plight of the Indian, but it also has an interesting portrait of a pre-liberation woman. It is in every way a modern film. In Mann's career, it stands out as a major step forward, carrying over his noir sensibility, both formally and thematically, into a new genre.” 

Yes, a very modern film, though I suspect some contemporary audiences won't be able to get past the casting of Robert Taylor as a Native American. But he's terrific in it, and I would rank it among his top three performances. His Lance Poole is a very sympathetic character, giving everything for his country only to return to his home where he is treated less than dirt.

I can see some actors gnashing their teeth and beating their chest as indignity after indignity is forced on them. But Taylor underplays, letting us see the very proud man trying to hold onto his values while hoping he can help his people as much as possible.  It's a quietly physical performance, and I can't think of another actor who could have done as good a job.



Taylor made quite a few westerns in the decade, including two of the very best ever, WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) and THE LAST HUNT (1956). Even those of the more routine variety, such as AMBUSH (1950), RIDE, VAQUERO (1953) and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958) are very entertaining contributions to the genre. Add DEVIL'S DOORWAY to the list and I think a good case can be made that Robert Taylor made many important contributions to the western film.

I remember when DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) opened, and while I enjoyed it, it it bugged me to no end how in interviews and press materials the movie was touted as the first Hollywood film to treat Native Americans with respect  for their culture, instead of being the anonymous bad guys in hundreds of westerns.

I'm no apologist for Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans, but that's simply not true. Most reporters and film journalists whose knowledge of film history only goes back to STAR WARS (1977) eagerly nodded their heads and lauded Costner and Co. for their bold stand on behalf of the continent's original settlers. There was an article in Film Comment that pointed out the fallacy to the film's defenders, but many writers thought DANCES WITH WOLVES was the first western to treat the Native American culture sympathetically.   (I guess they never saw any of Richard Harris' MAN CALLED HORSE movies).


 

But Hollywood was there long before DANCES WITH WOLVES. Movies like DEVIL'S DOORWAY and BROKEN ARROW also showed the injustice the white man showed to Native Americans. Even in the silent era, Richard Dix played a heroic Native Americans in THE VANISHING AMERICAN (1925) and the part-sound REDSKIN (1929) – the title may be racist but the film hardly is.

There was the remarkable MASSACRE (1934) from Warner Bros., a pre-Code doozie with Richard Barthelmess trying vainly to save the reservation from ruin in the heights of the Depression, with hindrance after hindrance thrown up by crooked government officials.

Some viewers who equate John Wayne with traditional western thinking might be surprised at some of his dialogue in HONDO (1953), where Wayne pretty much says he doesn't blame the Apaches for going on the war path, as the Apaches never broke a treaty while the U.S. Government broke every one they ever signed.

So DANCES WITH WOLVES was hardly the first pro-Indian film, and far from the best, despite its many Oscars. Others were there first. DEVIL'S DOORWAY did it before and far more effectively. And as Basinger says, it's very modern, its starkly beautiful photography often in counterpoint with the stain of prejudice. It's one of the best westerns ever made, a tribute to Mann, Alton, Taylor and company.

Be sure to visit the Classic Movie Bloggers Association website - http://clamba.blogspot.com/ - for a list of titles and blogs during this blogathon. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tyrone Power Blogathon: Son of Fury


This entry is happily part of the Power-Mad blogathon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Hollywood's most enduring stars, Tyrone Power. Other entries can be found here: http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com/2014/03/celebrating-tyrone-powers-100th-birthday.html.

For me, SON OF FURY (1942) is a prime representation of Golden Age Hollywood. Impossibly beautiful leading men and ladies, luminous cinematography, a haunting music score, studio craftsmanship able to convincingly recreate 19th century London, an English country manor house and a South Seas island paradise on the Fox back lot, and a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of unforgettable character actors.

SON OF FURY is a perfect vehicle for star Tyrone Power. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was always on the look out for suitable stories for his top male box office attraction, and while Power may have blanched at some of these roles, Zanuck knew his audience and what to give them – and he did, in some of the best adventure films ever made.

Tyrone Power had that rare talent to wear period clothing and making it look completely natural. He inhabited those costumes like 007 wearing a tuxedo. And his beautiful speaking voice with clear diction made him an ideal fit for these roles.


Based on the 1941 best-selling novel “Benjamin Blake” by Edison Marshall, SON OF FURY tells the story of young Benjamin Blake (Roddy McDowall), the illegitimate son of an English landowner who is brought up by his grandfather (Harry Davenport). His estate has been stolen from him by his uncle Sir Arthur Blake (George Sanders).

Blake works at the estate as a stable boy where he grows up to become Tyrone Power, falling in love with his cousin Isabel (Frances Farmer) and tormented on a regular basis by his cruel uncle. Finding Ben and Isabel together, Arthur whips Ben unmercifully. (Power seemed to get beat up or tortured by quite a bit in his adventure films, such as here and in THE BLACK SWAN the same year).

With the help of kindly tavern keeper (Elsa Lanchester), Ben flees England and stows away on a ship headed to the South Seas. Upon discovery he is beaten up some more by the captain, but allowed to work his way for his passage. He befriends Caleb Green (John Carradine) who tells him of an island whose sea beds are loaded with pearls.


Ben and Caleb jump ship at the island, where they find a fortune in pearls. Ben falls in love with one of the girls on the island who he names Eve (Gene Tierney). After an idyllic time spent on the island, Ben returns to England, where he enlists the aid of London's sliest lawyer Bartholomew Pratt (Dudley Digges) to reclaim his birthright and extract revenge on his uncle, not only in court but in a well-staged bout of fisticuffs.

While Marshall set his novel in the 1770s and early 1780s, Zanuck was having none of that. A July 1, 1941 memo from script coordinator Dorothy Hechtlinger wrote: “Mr. Zanuck is against using any kind of wigs in the motion picture. For this reason, we will change the period of the story proper to 1810, the period of LLOYD'S OF LONDON (Power's first starring role in 1936), which is a very good period. The prologue would take place around 1795.”

Not only was the novel's setting changed, but so was the title. Though “Benjamin Blake” had been a best seller, Zanuck wanted a punchier title. Zanuck liked one of the suggested titles, SON OF FURY, enough to keep it. Other titles considered were HE WHO CAME BACK and SON OF THE STORM. But “The Story of Benjamin Blake” was retained as a subtitle on the film's promotional materials and on the film's title card, to help rein in the book's many readers.

Though Power was always set for the lead, some of the initial casting ideas for the other roles are very interesting. Laird Cregar was penciled in for Sir Arthur and Ida Lupino as Isabel. Though Lupino was under contract to Warners at the time, she still owed Fox a picture in a contract dating back to her role in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939). Instead, Fox cast her opposite Jean Gabin MOONTIDE (1942). Maureen O'Hara was then slated until she was felled by appendicitis which required surgery and recuperation. Next up was Fox contract player Cobina Wright Jr., until a serious throat infection caused her to drop out. In desperation, Fox borrowed from Paramount the troubled but very talented Frances Farmer, in what proved to be her penultimate film appearance.


For the role of Eve, Ben's South Seas love interest, Zanuck suggested “If we don't use a real native girl, Gene Tierney.” We now know Tierney from such roles as LAURA (1944) and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1946), but at this point in her career being cast as a South Seas maiden likely didn't seem so odd. She had been already cast as an Arab in SUNDOWN (1941), and Asians in THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) and CHINA GIRL (1942). She makes a most fetching Eve, especially when so lovingly photographed by ace cinematographer Arthur Miller on those moonbeam-drenched beaches. If Tierney in a sarong was enough to bring in the men, the ladies got Tyrone Power spending most of his South Seas scenes in his bathing trunks. Something for everyone.

It's easy today to be critical about Gene Tierney cast as an island maiden, but context is everything. As socially conscious as he could be (and Zanuck was the most socially conscious of all the studio heads), there was no way Zanuck the businessman wasn't going to showcase his newest exotic-looking contract player and potential star opposite the studio's biggest leading man in what was sure to be one of the year's smash hits.


Because he was a former screenwriter Zanuck had an unusually acute sense of story structure. He was critical of screenwriter Philip Dunne's initial drafts, telling him in a memo:

“You have Blake running away from social injustice so he can come back some day and cure the horrible conditions. We don't want to tell that kind of a story. We don't want this to be a social document. It must be a personal story – the story of a bastard who has the moral right to an estate using his wits against another man who has the legal right. It must be told with gusto – swashbuckling. It is a Monte Cristo setup and should be treated as such.”

Novelist Marshall seemed somewhat ambivalent about the final film and its many changes from the book, saying at the time of the film's release, “I wrote a book to be read; Fox has made a picture to be seen, and I think they complement each other nicely.” (I don't know what he thought of the adaptation of his 1951 book “The Viking” which was made into “The Vikings” (1958) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Hardly anything of Marshall's book is found in the movie.)

The film is loaded to the brim with great character actors. It's one of John Carradine's most appealing characterizations – it's such a pleasure to see him play a good guy for a change. Dudley Digges steals every scene he's in as the wily lawyer, and Elsa Lanchester delivers one of her loveliest and most understated performances here. No eccentricities, just a decent woman trying to do the right thing.



George Sanders delivers his usual venom-dripped performance. One senses Sir Arthur enjoys every aspect of stealing his nephew's inheritance, and even when it looks like all is finished he's still trying to finagle matters to his advantage. Any movie is better with George Sanders in it. His wife is played by Kay Johnson, wife of director John Cromwell and mother to actor James Cromwell.

Cromwell does a splendid job here. I've always thought he was a most unheralded director, based on his beyond marvelous THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) and that small jewel of a movie THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945). While not as good as those two masterpieces, SON OF FURY impresses with its sweep and lack of padding. There's a lot of story told in 98 minutes.

The film is also helped immeasurably by Alfred Newman's musical score. The film's major love theme – and its a beauty – had lyrics added to it by Mack Gordon and titled “Blue Tahitian Moon.” It achieved a modicum of success via recordings by Kenny Baker and Frances Langford, but without the smash success of Newman's haunting “The Moon of Manakoora” from John Ford's South Seas epic THE HURRICANE (1937). (While most famously used in the Ford film, that melody was originally composed for MR. ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932) starring Douglas Fairbanks.)

SON OF FURY was successful enough to warrant a remake, TREASURE OF THE GOLDEN CONDOR (1953), with Cornel Wilde, George Macready, Anne Bancroft and Constance Smith in, respectively, the Tyrone Power, George Sanders, Frances Framer and Gene Tierney roles. Filmed in Technicolor and moved to Guatemala, it's not a bad little film (the Sol Kaplan score is first-rate, one of his finest), but can't compare with SON OF FURY. The Power film remains as watchable today as it did when it was first made.



I know Power wished for more challenging roles from Zanuck, but he did exceptional work in the swashbuckling/adventure film genres. I've always felt he gave an Academy Award nomination-worthy performance in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) – it's probably my second favorite performance after his very atypical role in the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947). But Power, like Errol Flynn and to a lesser extent Stewart Granger, had the unheralded talent to look at home in other eras. It's much harder than it looks (ever see Brad Pitt in TROY(2004)? I think he's a terrific actor, but he was so out of place there).

It's a tragedy that Power died so young. It would have been nice to see him make it to the nostalgic boom of the 1970s, become a respected character actor, and look at his past films and say, “Boy, those were some pretty entertaining films after all. Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Happy 100th Birthday to one of the great ones, an actor whose performances have given and continue to give enormous pleasure over the decades.

(Background information on SON OF FURY came courtesy booklet notes from the SON OF FURY soundtrack CD, a Screen Archives Entertainment Production.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

James Stewart Blogathon: The FBI Story


 

THE FBI STORY (1959) is a product of its time, as conservative a movie made in the 1950s or any other decade. The FBI is portrayed as the finest friend the American citizen has, fighting against the Ku Klux Klan, those who would defraud Native Americans, gangsters, Nazis and, of course, Communists. I'm no  expert on American crime, but I know the FBI was hardly the halo-wearing bureau as presented here.

Alas, while THE FBI STORY is not one of Jimmy Stewart's most memorable films, it does utilize many aspects of the famed Stewart persona, and provides a preview of his “befuddled” father character he would play in the upcoming decade.

With Stewart's FBI special agent Chip Hardesty character guiding us through many of the most memorable crimes and outlaws of the 20th century, there's a little something for every Jimmy Stewart fan.

You want Stewart as an upstanding lawman upholding American values? You got it here.

 

You like seeing Jimmy Stewart out west? Then you will likely enjoy a segment with Hardesty in Oklahoma investigating the murders of members of the Osage Indians and a plot to steal their oil-rich land. While the calendar says 1920s, it may as well be Stewart in the Old West, what with crooked bankers and shady lawyers.

Others may enjoy watching Stewart as family man. The family scenes get lots of footage with wife Vera Miles sometimes resentful, but ultimately accepting, of her husband's job and the responsibilities that come with it.

The casting of Miles is interesting because it gives us a what-if idea of what their scenes in VERTIGO (1958) would look like if Miles hadn't gotten pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. There's a scene involving a family crisis with close-ups of Stewart comforting Miles and one can't help but think of VERTIGO's many memorable close-ups.


It may be one of the most fortuitous pregnancies in movie history because as much as I try, I can't see Vera Miles as Madeline (or Judy). Because THE FBI STORY came one year after VERTIGO, I think it's easier to imagine the VERTIGO possibilities than the other Stewart-Miles pairing in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), glamor-wise the complete antithesis of VERTIGO. (I find Novak so perfectly cast I can't imagine anyone else in the role.)

Stewart's scenes as the father trying to connect with his children look ahead to his father roles in such family friendly fare as TAKE HER SHE' S MINE (1963), MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962) and DEAR BRIGITTE (1965). Personally, this is my least favorite Stewart persona, though I do enjoy the Mr. Hobbs film. The family scenes are the worst part of THE FBI STORY and help make the film an almost unendurable 149 minutes long.

They also provide what is, for me, the most painful scene in Stewart's career, where Chip Hardesty, who has fought every type of villain under the sun, throws a hissy fit because one of his kids used all the tissue paper to make an angel costume for the school's Christmas pageant. Hardesty mopes, yells and complains and its embarrassing to watch. The scene seems to go on forever and it took awhile for me to re-adjust my sympathy back to the Chip Hardesty character.


THE FBI STORY was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and, alas, his best days were behind him. I'm not going to knock LeRoy, who directed several favorite films of mine, including two 1930s classics, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. Equal parts scrappy, biting and perceptive, these movies capture the 1930s as well as any documentary could, while being supremely entertaining. But none of the pep of these movies can be found in THE FBI STORY. A lumbering script, based on a best-selling 1956 novel by Don Whitehead doesn't help, but I'm not blaming LeRoy. He had less freedom on the film then any he did in his career, what with being under the steely glare of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for the length of the production.

According to “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover” by Anthony Summers (G.P. Putnams Sons, 1993), Hoover cultivated Jack Warner for years. Agents would greet Warner at airports and arranged quick exits through the airport. If any studio was going to produce a love letter to the FBI, it was Warner Bros. Hoover provided THE FBI STORY with two special agents as technical advisors on government expense and five additional agents appeared in the film as agents. I'm guessing that in this case, technical advisors equals spies.

(The Warner Bros. TV series, THE FBI was also produced under close scrutiny by the agency. Hoover read all the scripts and an agent was on the set at all times to ensure proper procedures were shown, scripts were never deviated from and the bureau was always shown in the most positive light.)

Hoover could not have been more pleased with the film. He wrote to director LeRoy:

“Dear Mervyn: As I told you yesterday, words cannot express my complete delight at seeing THE FBI STORY. I felt certain the picture would be a great credit to the FBI but what I saw and heard was beyond my greatest expectations. Your treatment of the development and growth of our bureau, interwoven with a warm family story, will have a great impact on the American public. It was down with great warmth, humility and dignity...It can be truly be said you are one of us.”


According to “Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover” by Richard Hack (New Millennium Press, 2004), Hoover received $50,000 in unreported income for his services on the film as a technical consultant. No wonder he loved the film so much.

I've always thought THE FBI STORY came about due to the enormous success of THE UNTOUCHABLES television show, but that show premiered in 1959 as well. There seemed to be some sort of nostalgia boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the 1920s, especially its lawless years.


While THE FBI STORY shows the bureau tracking down Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, each of these famous characters, and others, received their own movies. Mickey Rooney shot up the screen as BABY FACE NELSON (1957), Rod Steiger was a memorable AL CAPONE (1959), Charles Bronson was a violent MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958), Lurene Tuttle scowled her way through MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD (1960), Dorothy Provine was no Faye Dunaway in THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (1958), John Ericson played PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960), and Ray Danton impressed in THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND (1960). Even Robert Taylor got into the act as a 1920s gangland lawyer in the superb PARTY GIRL (1958). And of course, we can't forget Josephine and Daphne hiding from gangsters in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Sociologists more familiar than me with this fascination with the 1920s could provide a better explanation than me. Most of the above are of the B movie variety and have much more energy and zip than the often lethargic, though higher budget, THE FBI STORY.

But for its use of many facets of past Jimmy Stewart characterizations, and the first of his father vs. the generation gap characterizations, THE FBI STORY is worth watching for the Stewart admirer.

This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2014/03/announcing-james-stewart-blogathon.html)

Lots of great films to be covered by a lot of terrific writers. It's going to be a great week.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Master Minds


MASTER MINDS (1949) is one of the more amusing entries in the Bowery Boys series, and may prove of special interest to1940s horror movie fans.

At 48 entries and, to date, the longest-running feature film series in film history, I happen to think the Bowery Boys movies, produced by Monogram Studios between 1946 and 1958, is one of the more underrated movie series of the era. While the films were primarily aimed at children, earlier entries tended to be a little gritter and earthier, and some, like ANGELS IN DISGUISE (1949) offer scenes that would not be out of place in the film noir classics of the era.

Forty-eight films means all genres, situations and military branches got invaded by the Bowery Boys. Some of the more popular titles of their time, and today, are the entries were the Boys got involved in spooks, mad scientists, haunted mansions and monsters. The series' highest grossing film was THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (1954), one of the most self-explanatory titles in movie history (and an obvious cue from the success of the Abbott and Costello Meet movies).


One of the best of these is MASTER MINDS where Bowery dunce Satch (Huntz Hall) gets the uncanny ability to foretell the future after earning a toothache from eating too much candy. Chief of the boys, Slip Mahoney (Leo Gorcey) exhibits Satch's prophecy skills in a carny act. Satch really can foretell the future and attracts the attention of Dr. Druzik (Alan Napier), who wants to put Satch's brain into that of Atlas the Monster (Glenn Strange), creating an army of supermen and, in true Monogram fashion, take over the world.

Glenn Strange is perhaps best known for his three portrayals of the Frankenstein monster in three Universal horror pics, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). He also played an overalls-wearing werewolf in PRC's THE MAD MONSTER (1942). Physically imposing, Strange doesn't do much with the Frankenstein monster, especially in the first two entries.



But in MASTER MINDS, Strange really cuts loose, perfectly mimicking Huntz Hall's body language to a T. While his voice is obviously Hall's dubbed in, he perfectly conveys the idea that Satch is inhabiting a monster's body. I've seen a lot of Bowery Boys movies in my time, and Strange nails Hall's mannerisms. Strange appeared in seemingly hundreds of movies and I can't lay claim to seeing all of them, or even most of them. But from what I have seen, I have to pick his role in MASTER MINDS as my favorite performance of his. He likely enjoyed the change of pace and more than rises to the occasion.

Playing on of Dr. Druzik's assistants is the lovely Jane Adams. Universal horror fans will likely recognize female lead Jane Adams, who played the hunchback nurse in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Caped Crusader fans with a severe Batman fetish might get a kick out of seeing TV's Alfred the Butler (Alan Napier) share scenes with cinema's first Vicki Vale, Jane Adams from the 1949 Columbia serial BATMAN AND ROBIN.

Another of the assistants is played by Skelton Knaggs. A name and a face perfectly suited for thrillers and horror movies, Knaggs moves and looks like a zombie even when he is doing as simple as walking across a room.

 The movie itself is typical Bowery Boys shenanigans, which means I enjoyed it. For me, its one of the better entries. I always enjoy the never never land shown in Monogram horror movies of spooky mansions and hayseed law enforcement officers. All of the Boys (David Gorcey, Bennie Bartlett and Billy Benedict) have a little more to do than usual, and even sweet shop owner Louie (Bernard Gorcey, father of Leo and David) overcomes his courage of spooky places to impersonate a ghost to help save his profit-eating pals. (I'm currently re-watching the series, out of order, thanks to the Warner Archive, and hope to come across an entry where Slip, Satch and the Boys actually pay for something at Louie's Sweet Shop.)

MASTER MINDS is a most enjoyable entry in the horror comedy sweepstakes and I was glad to re-make its acquaintance. With 48 films, the Bowery Boys must have been doing something right.

I'm very pleased to be participating in the James Stewart blogathon, April 14-18, sponsored by the Classic Film and TV Cafe site. On April 14, I'll be tackling THE FBI STORY (1959). Not a particularly great movie, but an interesting use of the Stewart persona and a preview of what the next decade held in store for Stewart. I'm looking forward to all of the great posts on one one of my favorite actors.

 


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Best and Worst Movies of 2013



(My apologies for the lateness of this Best of 2013 column. It's up much later than I planned, thanks to irritating computer problems and equally irritating life issues that sometimes pop up. An earlier, slightly longer and more refined version of this article was ready when it went away into computer heaven. I never had so many problems with a blog posting. But at least it's ready by the Oscars. The following is based on my viewing of 100 2013 releases I saw, either at the theater or on DVD, from January 1, 2013 to mid-February, 2014).

I must admit to scratching my head when I read some articles proclaiming what a great year 2013 was for the movies, for I thought it was a fairly undistinguished one, especially compared to last year, which I thought was probably the best year for movies in a decade.

2013? Overall, not so much. Oh there were some good movies to be had, but mainly of the independent film variety. Most of the splashy Hollywood productions were very disappointing, with the summer being, for me, offering one colossal clunker after another.

One thing that struck me particularly this year, is that Hollywood has forgotten how to entertain. Even up to 10 years or so I can remember leaving some movies exhilarated and moved, but that rarely happens today. It does happen occasionally, but it was the rare occurrence this year when I left the theater with a smile on my face and a soaring feeling in my heart. (Don't get me started on the majority of new comedies I saw this year. Blech!)

It seems to me like many contemporary directors and producers think entertainment is a dirty word, and they’re almost afraid of providing a pleasurable reaction. Even ideally sure fire ideas like this year’s THE LONE RANGER and MAN OF STEEL were bogged down in their own sense of self-importance and spectacle for the sake of spectacle.

The summer was an especially loud and obnoxious one. The only big summer movie I enjoyed was the giant robot vs. giant monster epic PACIFC RIM. I saw it once, and enjoyed it, but have no desire to see it again. But at least I was entertained while watching it.

I will give major props to our actors and actresses, many of which turned in terrific performances even in movies I didn’t care for, such as AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and SAVING MR. BANKS (I swear if there was one more flashback to Australia I would have torn out my remaining hairs). Great acting on display here, even if the films themselves, were, for me, severely wanting.

Still, I’m not ready to write off Hollywood yet. The tide has to turn sometime. Last year was a great year and this year not so great. But if one looked past Hollywood and sought out some independent or smaller films, there were a lot of jewels to be found.

The following is my personal list of what I think are 2013’s best films. The list will will likely strike some as pretentious and snobbish. But I didn't respond to a lot of what was offered at the theaters and got the most satisfaction from the many fine independent films I saw last year.

RUNNER UPS:

Before I get to my top ten, the following films are ones that almost, but did not quite qualify for the Top Ten. Readers may want to realize I tend to rate films that are high on the emotional level – both happy and sad. I don’t mean schmaltz, but films that speak equally to the heart and the mind.

 


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL – The year’s most pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but I thought it was pretty darn good. Great candy-coated color too and production design, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s nice to see a fantasy film that wasn’t dominated by steely-looking gray or blue dominance.



FRANCES HA – Wonderful indie drama starring the great Greta Gerwig as one of these lovable but sad sack types we all know who just can’t seem to get it together. It was wonderful hearing that music too from the late, great French film composer Georges Delerue. I’m usually against using old film scores for new movies, but it sure was nice to hear real melody in a movie again.



THE CONJURING – The year’s scariest movie, and proof positive filmmakers can generate plenty of tension and willies without resorting to gore.

 

THE WAY WAY BACK – What can I say, I like coming of age dramas and in a year of good ones, this was one of the best. Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney and Steve Carrel deliver some of the best work of their careers.



BLUE JASMINE – I like most Woody Allen movies and his winning streak. This is probably my favorite entry in a year of movies devoted to the ever increasing gap between the haves and have nots. Cate Blanchett delivers the year’s best performance.



DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – Another one where I liked the acting more than the actual film, but Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto deliver two of the year’s best performances about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Count me as a fan, so maybe I’m biased.



CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – Beautifully acted and written, this one just missed for me because I remembered a lot of details of the situation from, I believe, a Vanity Fair article, and I’m not a fan of shaky-cam (such a cliché now). But there’s no denying the solidity of the acting here.



HER – Major props for originality, but for me, a tad too cold and antiseptic (this is a minority opinion). I also thought the main character, Theodore, was such a mope before and during his romance with his computer operating system that I didn’t care. Another demerit – too long by about 20-30 minutes.



A HIJACKING – Similar to CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, this Danish film was a gripping look at a prolonged hostage situation involving Somali pirates as well. Unlike CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, which we knew how it was going to end, this drama fascinated with its look at the toil long negotiations take, not only on the captors and their prisoners, but the negotiators, the families involved and the board of directors of the shipping line who begrudge paying any more ransom than necessary. For me, the year’s most intense film.



THE SPECTACULAR NOW – One of the best high school coming of age stories in a long time. Studious Shailene Woodley falls for likable though alcoholic Miles Teller and what happens when their feelings for each other start getting stronger. It's the type of movie where I was silently pleading with the characters not to go down certain life decisions.


THE BEST FILMS OF 2013

My very personal picks for the year’s best movies.


10. DISCONNECT – HER is getting all the attention with its look at man’s relationships with his machines, but this multi-part story about how technology is affecting our relationships strikes me as more powerful. This one has continued to stick with me for a long time. Standout work by Jason Bateman.



9. ABOUT TIME – This time travel romance was easily the most charming and beguiling film of the year, in a year of movies were such qualities were in woefully short supply. Rachel McAdams is luminous here and like the great characters of old, we eagerly await for Bill Nighy to appear and wish he was in more scenes.



8. ENOUGH SAID – Beautifully written, acted and directed middle-age romance starring James Gandolfini in one of his last roles and Julia Louis Dreyfuss as a couple befuddled by their relationship and how what one person thinks could derail a relationship.



7. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES – Another multi-part movie where several disparate elements that play off each other over the course of many years culminate in a shattering conclusion. I think Bradley Cooper was better here than in AMERICAN HUSTLE, but the latter is getting all the love.



6. NEBRASKA – Beautifully shot in black and white and one of the year’s most beautifully expressive scores highlight director Alexander Payne’s road trip movie starring the great Bruce Dern in the performance of his career. Equally memorable work by the feisty June Squibb as his long-suffering wife. The biggest surprise for me was how much I liked Will Forte here.



5. SHORT TERM 12– Wonderful drama about a foster care facility and troubled teens and how those in charge are not much older than those they are caring for. Despite their own troubled pasts, these young adults do their best to tend to those they are responsible for. Beautifully acted, and also heart wrenching, the final shot of this film may be my favorite of the year.



4. GRAVITY - Not the final shot, but GRAVITY's final sequence, with Sandra Bullock desperately trying to return to Earth is probably my favorite and life affirming. The year’s greatest technical achievement. What I liked about GRAVITY is I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day. A lot of movies. But Gravity showed me visuals and situations I’ve never seen before.



3. MUD – Deliberately paced, this Southern Gothic drama is one of the best coming of age movies I’ve seen in a young time, though the characters are younger than in THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Matthew McConaughey delivers his second best performance of the year, and Reese Witherspoon is the best she’s been in years. No other film had a better sense of time and place than MUD. An unforgettable experience.



2. PHILOMENA – The year’s most moving experience I had in a movie theater last year. Yes, I’m something of a softie, so that may have something to do with it. Some have said this is Anti-Catholic. I didn’t find it that way, and I attend mass every week. But it is a very powerful tale of forgiveness and Judi Dench is unforgettable as Philomena Lee who had her son taken away for adoption by nuns 50 years ago. She only wants to find out what happened to him and if he was happy. Wonderful on every level.



1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE – My pick for the best film of the year is one of the most brutal and difficult to watch films. We all know how cruel slavery is but never has it been painted on such a dehumanizing level for both slaves and slave owners equally.

THE WORST OF 2013

Here my choices for the worst films of the year, each and every one of these an excruciating experience. How bad were they? If I left the theater after watching one of these turkeys, got into my car, turned on the radio and heard there was an asteroid on an imminent collision course with Earth, I would not try to flee to high ground. That’s how dispiriting these movies were.

I’m not going to rank them, because they all stink to high heaven. No descriptions either, as I don’t want to waste any more time on them than necessary.

In the order in which I saw them:

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

PAIN AND GAIN

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

MAN OF STEEL

AFTER EARTH

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

THE HANGOVER III

THIS IS THE END

THE LONE RANGER

GROWN UPS 2

RIDDICK

THE FIFTH ESTATE

Here's hoping 2014 gives us a year of great movies enjoyed by friends and family along with much good health and happiness. And more than a few TCM premieres.