Thursday, November 13, 2014

British Empire Blogathon: The Sun Never Sets



Universal Studios' THE SUN NEVER SETS (1939) sounds like its the quintessential salute to the British Empire. It's not, and it's curiously actionless for most of its 96-minute running time. But the themes of sacrifice and love for country are prevalent throughout, and coming as it did to theaters on the eve of World War II, it likely struck a chord with audiences – not just the British – about the world wide sacrifices soon to come.

Set during contemporary times, THE SUN NEVER SETS focuses on the Randolphs, a family who have dedicated themselves to England for several centuries. Basil Rathbone is Clive Randolph (named after the famed British statesman Robert Clive perhaps?), returning to England with his wife Helen (Barbara O'Neil) after 15 years of service as Commissioner in the Gold Coast of Africa (present day Ghana). They both look forward to serving their country from England and raising a family.

Younger brother John (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr) is something of a hothead, and doesn't believe in following the family trade of diplomatic service. He's resentful of the sacrifices made to his family. When John asks why the family does what it has done for so long, family patriarch and grandfather Sir John Randolph (C. Aubrey Smith, naturally) answers John's critique with three words - “But we belong.”

John agrees to join the service because, as he explains in the film's best line, “I just got run over by an empire.” No better words exemplify C. Aubrey Smith.

Sir John is inordinately proud of his family's service, serving England for more than 40 years. He keeps track of the various Randolph postings throughout the Empire by planting flags to mark their locations on a map in his study.

I experienced a bit of confusion in the script regarding Sir John's character. John makes reference to his grandfather's expulsion from the diplomatic corps for one small mistake, but no other mention is made of it by anyone else. Sir John seems to hold no resentment for being cashiered from the service.

But Smith is marvelous in the role, as he is in every performance. It's hard to imagine any Golden Age movie set in the British Empire that does not have Sir C. Aubrey Smith in it. His closest competitor was Sir Guy Standing, who died in 1937, so Smith owned the this particular field for the next 10 years.

Another bit of oddity regarding Sir C. Aubrey is a short scene at a dinner party where Sir John is about to relate one of his tales of old glory until he is stopped cold by the guests, who tell him he has told that story many times before.

This could be a winking allusion to what would be one of Smith's most famous portrayals, as the old soldier who relates his exaggerated exploits at the Battle of Balaclava in THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939). THE SUN NEVER SETS was released in the United States on May 31, 1939, and THE FOUR FEATHERS had opened the previous month in England. Or it could be a coincidence.

Anyway, between his grandson's mention of an early expulsion from the service and a tale cut short at a dinner party, it's assumed he was not the most effective diplomat. It's something the film barely touches on and is not part of the film's overall ode to Empire service. But its there. I wonder if earlier drafts of the script played up this angle more? Or, with war looming, any suggestion that the Empire would get rid of valued workers over a petty incident would likely not play well with a paying audience.

Villain of the piece is Zurof (Lionel Atwill), who leads a scientific expedition studying ants and insects. It's all a front, as Zurof is digging for raw materials called, I think, something like melibium, which is an element used for bonding steel. The mine is also a front for a broadcast station which is used to ferment “organized agitation” throughout the world. Broadcasts are worldwide via a giant antennae which stays underground until put to use, when it rises out of the ground and into the sky like something out of a serial. We then see a montage of unrest in the world with acts of sabotage linked to the broadcast, such as factories being bombed, ships torpedoed and bombs falling from the sky.


Zurof says the world is ready to be taken over. “It only takes one generation to make a dictator.” While he is not identified as German, the surname, along with a monocle he wears in several scenes, make it clear Zurof's nationality.

No one is sure of the agitator's identity, and the British government calls an emergency session to discover the broadcast's source. “We need the best minds in all our colonies” to find out where the broadcasts are coming from.

Clive Randolph is ordered back to the dangerous Gold Coast. He reluctantly accepts even though Helen is expecting their first child. John is also sent to the Gold Coast, but still resents his duty and can't see why his brother would want to subject his increasingly ill wife to the harsh African countryside.

Basil Rathbone had a stellar year in 1939, with five film appearances including his first two Sherlock Holmes movies. He made two other movies at Universal with director Rowland V. Lee that year, the historical drama TOWER OF LONDON and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

In THE SUN NEVER SETS, Rathbone has a good scene with Atwill when the two of them fake civility with barely hidden hostility. Those fans who enjoy their scenes together in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) will likely get an extra charge from their scene here.

In another SON OF FRANKENSTEIN echo, Clive's pressure between duty and love of wife causes him to have a brief bout of hysteria, and the scene here where he is overcome with emotion is reminiscent of his SON OF FRANKENSTEIN's hysteria scenes.

Helen is the strong one, sending Clive on his mission, telling him he's never failed the service and he's not to start now. Helen Randolph is in the best tradition of wives who selflessly let their men serve their country.

Surprisingly, the film offers little action in the first 80 minutes or so. John Randolph inadvertently becomes Zulof's dupe, and Clive gets cashiered out of the service, taking the blame for John's mistake.

But in the best Hollywood tradition, John redeems himself by learning of Zulof's true identity, and discovering the secret radio station. The underground radio station is, again, like something out of a serial and no doubt delighted the Saturday afternoon crowd.





Fairbanks likely didn't think much of the film as there is no mention of it in “The Salad Days” (Doubleday, 1988), the first volume of his autobiography. (Even GREEN HELL (1940), which Fairbanks names as his worst movie, gets a mention).

To the best of my knowledge the film has never been released on VHS or DVD. I viewed the film thanks to a decades old recording taped off AMC. I remember when the film was scheduled, as I had never heard of it and was surprised when the credits came up listing all those well known names. To be sure, it's a small footnote in the careers of Rathbone and Fairbanks, but the two play well together (they were good friends off screen) and are convincing as brothers.

Barbara O'Neil delivers the film's best performance and has a terrific scene where her dangerously sick Helen, soon to give birth, practically orders her husband out of camp and to his duty. O'Neil had another film in release that year, where she played Scarlett O'Hara's mother. I won't bother with its name. She also co-starred with Rathbone that year in TOWER OF LONDON.

Its salute to the British Empire as a stabilizing source in a troubled world was a likely tonic to a nervous world holding its breath as to when conflagration would erupt. It did later that year, of course, and if its politics seem quaint today, the film offers a peek into a world where the non-existence of the British Empire was unthinkable.

For moviegoers of the first half of the twentieth century movies of valor and courage set in the British Empire were a regular staple of movie goer's diets. This blogathon celebrates the best of these and there's tons of good reading to be had. Go to http://phantomempires.weebly.com/movies/announcement-the-british-empire-blogathon for a list of titles and sites. My sincere thanks to hosts Jeff at The Stalking Moon and Clayton of Phantom Empires for allowing me to participate.


Upcoming Blogathon: The British Empire



I'm very pleased to be participating in the upcoming British Empire Blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.

I will be posting on THE SUN NEVER SETS (1939), with Basil Rathbone, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lionel Atwill, and, of course, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. With a title like that, Sir C. Aubrey better be in it!

Alas, I will not be able to post until Monday, November 17, as my home laptop is under repair and I will be out of town that weekend for a funeral. I won't have access to a computer until Monday.

It looks to be a jolly good line-up of contributors and I'm looking forward to reading all the entries.

A complete list of participants can be found here:
http://phantomempires.weebly.com/movies/announcement-the-british-empire-blogathon

See you on Monday. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Girl in the Case



Even into the mid 1940s, studios were trying to replicate the success of M-G-M's enormously successful Thin Man movies by making their own movies featuring a happily married, yet zany, couple who get mixed up in murder and mayhem.

THE GIRL IN THE CASE (1944) is a one-shot effort from Columbia Pictures featuring Edmund Lowe and Janis Carter as William and Myra Warner. William Warner is a lawyer by trade but also an well-regarded locksmith with a special interest in historic locks and keys.

Allusion is made to a substantial age difference between the two, but William and Myra clearly adore each other. He indulges her spending sprees and she puts up with his fascination with locks.

The initial set-up is promising, as Warner greets client Dick Elliott in his law office suite. He beckons Elliott to the room next door which is filled with ancient keys, locks and chests.

Warner and his assistant Tuffy (Stanley Clements) communicate with each other via clickers tapping out Morse Code and the subtitles appear on the screen for us to see what they are saying to each other. This comes in very handy when the two lock Elliott in a stockade and can't find the right key to let him free.

It's an engaging set-up and I thought I might be in for a breezy and entertaining B mystery movie filled with snappy patter and mysterious going ons.

But the film is never as good as those opening scenes, and the film gets sillier as it goes along. The Warners get involved in some shenanigans involving a secret chemical formula found in an ancient trunk that only Warner can open. The mystery isn't very involved and journeyman director William Berke doesn't generate much atmosphere or suspense.



But the film does allow some small pleasures. I was amused by a scene where Warner is asked by the police department to help open up some doors at an oceanside warehouse that has caught fire. The Warners look at the conflagration from their balcony and it looks like the whole city is on fire. We're talking Chicago Fire here. Either that, or its the biggest warehouse ever constructed anywhere.

They make their way to the warehouse where Warner uses his locksmith skills to open the door so some potentially lethal gas cans can be retrieved before they explode. Warner is wearing a top hat the entire time. It's that kind of movie. Someone from Columbia's famed comedy shorts department must have been on hand that day to supervise the scene where flames light up the top hat of an unsuspecting Warner.

 

I've always had a soft spot for Edmund Lowe since he stars in one of my favorite 1930s movies CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932). He and Janis Carter have some nice chemistry together, despite their age differences. There are some close-ups of Carter where she looks so much like Anita Louise its surprising no one ever cast them as sisters.

THE GIRL IN THE CASE was recently released as part of the Sony MOD program. I must admit to never even hearing of it before, but I'm glad titles like this are coming out. There are often some real gems to be found and if its because these titles are so unfamiliar its not because they're bad, but because they haven't been seen in four or five decades.

It seemed worth a rental and while I'm glad I saw it I must admit to barely remembering it even as I write these notes less than 24 hours after watching it. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Comfort Movies: Big Jake






 BIG JAKE (1971) is probably my favorite John Wayne western. Not his best, mind you, but my favorite. I've seen it countless times and will happily sit down and watch it a dozen more times. While I'm not blind to the film's faults, for me they are minimal and don't hamper my enjoyment of the film.

I was nine years old when I saw my first John Wayne movie, BIG JAKE, at the theater and that may be one of the reasons I like it so much. I remember being very impressed by this towering authority figure who travels to Mexico to retrieve his kidnapped grandson from the clutches of a ruthless outlaw gang led by John Fain (Richard Boone).

I've written before about that viewing that night at the Dolton Theater, my home away from home growing up. The place was packed on that summer evening and the theater was obviously loaded with John Wayne fans. When that freeze frame appeared at the end and the triumphant Elmer Bernstein score kicked in to herald the end credits, the applause and cheering was long and sustained. I remember it to this day. I think I was one of those louder participants.

Like some young 'uns seeing STAR WARS (1977) or E.T.  (1982) for the first time, I can say that BIG JAKE screening changed my life.




I love the many dialogue exchanges between Wayne and Boone. Here are two men who would kill each other at the drop of a hat, but I believe have a grudging respect for each other. The film was written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, who also wrote DIRTY HARRY that year. I can easily imagine Dirty Harry saying some Big Jake's dialogue and vice versa. The film is loaded with endlessly quotable dialogue.



The one scene between Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, in what proved to be the last of their five films together, is a testament to movie star mystique.  Wayne greets estranged wife O'Hara and the look that passes between them says more than pages of dialogue could. If one had never seen a John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara movie before, the scene plays beautifully, with the two anxious to secure their grandson's freedom. But for movie fans who have long enjoyed their previous films together the scene has added resonance. However you see it, it plays beautifully on both levels.

As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate the many familiar faces in the cast. Old-time western fans  who watched hundreds of westerns in the past likely silently cheered each time a favorite face showed up: John Agar, Harry Carey, Jr., Glenn Corbett, Jim Davis, John Doucette, Gregg Palmer and Hank Worden. Just typing all of those names makes me very happy.

BEWITCHED's Dr. Bombay himself, Bernard Fox, has a good scene as a shepherd about to be hung before being saved by Big Jake.



Wayne has one of his all-time best introductory scenes here, with a great close up of him taking aim at the aforementioned lynching party. He's decides not to butt in, until one of the lynchers hits a little boy. That's enough for Wayne to ride down and confront lynch leader Jim Davis.




Patrick Wayne (Duke's son) and Christoper Mitchum (Robert's son) are both every appealing as his estranged sons who join their father in the trek down to Mexico. Jake's best friend is an Indian, Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), who accompanies the trio as well. Also tagging along is Wayne's dog, which he simply calls Dog. (Was this an homage to Wayne's great HONDO (1953)? If memory serves, he calls his dog in that movie Dog as well).



Anti-P.C. Rant – I love how Wayne's best friend in the movie is a Native American, which gives no credence to the belief held by many that Wayne's movies are filled with anti-Native American bigotry.  Some may wince at a Native American being played by Bruce Cabot. Wayne would have scoffed at that. Bruce Cabot was a long-standing friend and Wayne loved working with his buddies. Cabot needed the work and Wayne was happy to oblige. Helping out a friend was much more important to Wayne than being politically correct. It was one of Cabot's last films. He died the following year.

If there are some faults to find with the film,  it's we never find out why Wayne left his family years ago. Sam and Dog are both killed in the final shoot out and I wish there had been a scene – heck, even a line of dialogue would have sufficed – where Jake is regretful about the losses.

But the shootouts are beautifully staged, the scenery on the trek to Mexico is to die for, and the comedy   bits are well played. Elmer Bernstein contributes one of his most infectious scores and the whole thing is a blast from beginning to end. It's one of my all time favorites.

After I saw it for the firs time, I remember asking my dad about this Wayne guy and he told me he's been in movies forever, and they showed up on TV all the time (even in the early 1970s this was true). A few weeks later a local station advertised THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) on the 10:30 movie. Since Wayne was in it I wanted to see it and to my delight there was Oliver Hardy in the movie. I had been a Laurel and Hardy fan for as long as I could remember but didn't know he was going to be in it. It was like a whole world was opening up before me. I couldn't wait to see what else it revealed. 







Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Comfort Movies: Prince Valiant


Comfort movies. I guess everyone has a different definition of what a comfort movie is. For me, a comfort movie is a very personal one, a movie you really enjoy and watch whenever it is on TV or you watch the DVD more than other movies in your collection.

That love may not be shared by others.

I'm not necessarily talking about favorite movies beloved by millions like CASABLANCA (1942) or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952).

No, what I mean are those movies that you and you alone seem to adore. The kind where  you eagerly share with others, but when the movie is over an embarrassed silence engulfs the room.

“You actually like that?” is the unspoken implication.

Maybe comfort movie isn't the right term, but it will do for now. I know quite a few people who can quote  from the THE GODFATHER movies at the drop of a hat. Again, I'm not talking about universally beloved movies, but one's own very personal favorites.

I have friends who have their own comfort movies. One friend unreservedly loves MR. DESTINY (1990) with Jim Belushi, while another worships at the altar of MYSTERY, ALASKA (1999), the Russell Crowe hockey movie. I enjoyed both of them but not to the extent they do. But there is some intangible thing about those movies they respond to. I get that. I may not share it with those particular titles, but I totally understand where they are coming from.

There will be occasional looks at favorite comfort movies of mine. Movies that make me just as happy to think about as to watch, opinions not shared by many others, but that does not stop me from adoring each of these movies without reservation. (Note, these will not be critical evaluations). There may be some slight spoilers ahead.

Prince Valiant

One of 20th Century Fox's first Cinemascope adventure films, PRINCE VALIANT (1954) ranks among my all-time favorite swashbucklers. Not only is it one of the most enjoyable swashbucklers ever made, but I think it is one of the best comic strip/comic book adaptations ever. Some of the images and scenes were copied right from Hal Foster's celebrated comic strip chronicling the adventures of the young Viking prince, and they're a joy to behold. For me, its one of the few movies that captures the exuberance and excitement of the comics medium.

Some friends I've shown it to do not share my appreciation of the film, and found it pretty juvenile. For one, they could not get past star Robert Wagner's wig in the film. (Wagner agrees with them, calling it his Bette Davis look). But you can't do a Prince Valiant film without that famous Valiant hairstyle and trying to do so is like making a Superman movie without the iconic costume)

 



It doesn't bother me at all, and neither does Wagner's portrayal. The Valiant of the film is young, callow and very green. He's all exuberance, giving little thought to the consequences of his actions. Wagner does a great job of promoting Valiant's immaturity while still being very likable. That's harder than it sounds.

Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain is also a tough swallow for many, but the big lug is very appealing. It may not be his best performance, but I'm hard pressed to think of one that is so likable. True, I guess a Knight of the Round Table should not be thought of as a lug, but that's how Hayden plays him.

 

Love interest is delivered by Janet Leigh and Debra Paget, two of the loveliest medieval princesses one could imagine. This is the movie that began my life-long infatuation with Debra Paget. (Shameless name dropping: Years ago I met Janet Leigh at a book signing years and told her how much I like this film. She said she read the Prince Valiant comic strip growing up, and was thrilled to be cast in the movie.)




James Mason is Sir Brack, a Knight of the Round Table who is also the Black Knight, a mysterious figure who allies with the pagan Vikings to overthrow King Arthur's Camelot. He's great as always, with his marvelously plummy voice contrasting nicely with Wagner's. I've always been intrigued by his  appearance here. He likely considered it slumming, as movies adapted from comic strips and comic books were mainly the purview of Saturday afternoon serials. Over the last several decades, it's become routine for celebrated actors like Gene Hackman and Anthony Hopkins to appear in comic book movies, but back then James Mason's appearance in one must have been an eyebrow raiser for many. I think he's great in it, a pure pleasure to watch. What a year he had in 1954, what with two of his most famous performances, in A STAR IS BORN and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.



Director Henry Hathaway, who has provided me with lots of red-blooded thrills over the years, gives us one of the best castle sieges in history, with Christian Vikings attacking the pagan Vikings in an orgy of screaming men, flashing swords, battering rams, fire, boiling oil and crumbling walls.

But the real star of the movie may be composer Franz Waxman, who delivered one of the most gloriously exuberant scores in motion picture history. Why it isn't more celebrated I'll never know, because it's pure joy from beginning to end. There's a short sequence where Valiant is escaping from a seaside prison by undoing the bars on a window. Using a rope made from a mattress spring he uses it to scale the walls and escape. Waxman gives us a stunning piece of music during the 120-second or so sequence which delivers more orchestral color, drama and suspense than anything I've heard at the movies over the last 10 years.



The final broadsword duel between Valiant and Sir Brack is one of the best in moviedom, with the broadswords making enormous clanging sounds as each tries to outfight the other. Waxman leaves the sequence unscored save towards the end, when Valiant begins getting the better of his nemesis. Waxman introduces a very ethereal, high pitched, slow treatment of his main Prince Valiant theme, played on, of all things, an electric violin, subliminally implying that now is the moment when Prince Valiant has ceased to be a boy and has become a man. It's a beautifully scored scene, working on both a dramatic and musical level. 

The final scene sees Prince Valiant knighted Sir Valiant for his service to King Arthur. It's a great pity there was never a sequel called SIR VALIANT. But what we have here is one of the most wonderfully entertaining swashbucklers of all time.

One of the best studies of the swashbuckling genre is the book “Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York” by Jeffrey Richards (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1977). Richards shares my enthusiasm for the film and provides some very interesting production background:

“The rights to the strip were purchased by MGM who for two years tried and failed to get it into script form. Eventually they sold the rights to 20th Century Fox and producer Robert Jacks, enthusiastic about the project, decided to go directly to the strip for inspiration. 23,980 drawings were made available to screenwriter Dudley Nichols and from them he fashioned a dramatic and exciting script. Fox then assigned a budget of 3 million dollars and assembled a talented team of artists to bring the script to life: cinematographer Lucien Ballard, composer Franz Waxman and ace action director Henry Hathaway. Nine weeks of location shooting in Britain produced some superb footage of Caernarvon, Warwick, Braemar and Eilean Donan castles, with Ainwick standing in as Camelot and the Scottish village of Dornie transformed into a Viking settlement. Back in Hollywood, Sligon's castle was constructed at the Fox studios and for several days a Viking fleet was to be seen sailing off the Pacific coast, so that exteriors for the film could be completed.



 “The resulting film has all the innocence, vigour and mythic quality of Foster's elegantly drawn strip. Action, dialogue and settings are appropriately stylized, creating a totally believable fantasy chivalric world, perfectly laid out picture-book gardens, majestic castles superbly photogenic, coolly inviting woodlands, rolling downs grazed by peaceful sheep, a deep-blue sea edged with creamy breakers....

“Tableau-style ceremonial, hieratic groupings and deliberately posed medium and long-shot dialogue scenes are the entirely appropriate hallmarks of Henry Hathaway's direction, conveying without effort the ritual and mythic elements of the story. But the film is punctuated by all-stops-out, no-holds-barred action sequences, handled by veteran stunt director Richard Talmadge, with a full complement of Hollywood stuntmen, half of whom were injured in one way or another during the course of the picture. (Fencing Instructor) Jean Heremans coached Robert Wagner in sword-fighting and helped stage the fencing sequences. Henry Hathaway paid tribute to his expertise when he described the character of Valiant as a “combination of D'Artagnan, Doug Fairbanks Sr., Tarzan, Robin Hood, Jim Bowie, William Tell and Jean Heremans.'”

You can have your dopey Dark Knight movies or the beyond wretched MAN OF STEEL (2013). For me PRINCE VALIANT ranks among the best comic strip movies ever. It's a fun, exhilarating movie that doesn't have a dull moment and is chock full of speed, romance and action. I don't care if others don't respond to it. PRINCE VALIANT is one movie I never get tired watching.

Off the top of my head, I can think of other comfort movies I can write about, such as John Wayne in BIG JAKE (1971), Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in BREAKHEART PASS (1976), WWII all-star musicals THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943) and (despite an aversion to Betty Hutton) STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942), Jon Hall and Maria Montez in ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944). So many wonderful movies....even if I sometimes feel I'm the only one who thinks so.

What are some of  your favorite comfort movies?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dibs and Dabs: Russell Crowe, Jersey Boys, Obscure U.S. Presidents on Film and A Strange Coincidence Involving The Mole People


I haven't watched anything of late to blog about, but I've had a few ideas percolating in my mind for a couple of weeks. Current movies will be discussed, but there will be some Golden Age tie-ins.

The Mumbler Russell Crowe



Two of the dopiest movies of the year are NOAH and WINTER'S TALE. Both star Russell Crowe, and I'm afraid he's a big part of the problem. For in the last several years, Mr. Crowe has become a mumbler, that dreaded aspect of so many contemporary movies where performers have decided that mumbling their lines is “natural” and “true to life.” Not by a long shot.

No one talks like this. I've had some very serious conversations in my day but none of them took place at volumes lower than dog whistles. Some of Mr. Crowe's dialogue delivery in these films, especially NOAH, is rendered practically mute due to him speaking his lines in a barely heard whisper. I had no problem understanding dialogue from the other performers, so there was no fault with the theater's sound system or my hearing. It's infuriating and compounds what is already two excruciating viewing experiences. He's always been a low talker, but he seems to have taken his whisperings to new levels of inaudibility.

Among Golden Age stars, Alan Ladd was probably the champion low talker. Now I've seen many an Alan Ladd movie in my time, but never once have I had a problem understanding what he was saying. Alan Ladd enunciates. Russell Crowe mumbles.

Like someone telling Clint Eastwood to please hire a professional composer to write the scores for his movies, I wish someone would tell Russell Crowe to stop mumbling, speak clearly and don't pretend that your mumbling has anything to do with the way people talk. In its own way, it's as forced and mannered as the most exaggerated pantomime in silent cinema.

Jersey Boys

Speaking of Clint Eastwood I went to see his latest, JERSEY BOYS, one of my most eagerly anticipated films of the summer. It's only OK, and I was pretty disappointed. We've seen so many rags to riches show biz sagas I'm not sure if anything new can be brought to the table. I like my musical biographies to have lots of music and for me there was not enough of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as performers. Some might argue that if I want the music buy a CD. But for me, if a movie sacrifices back story for performances of the music that made them famous,  such as the Sousa biography STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER (1952) or the Gus Kahn story I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1952), then I'm all for it.



Not that a musical biopic should be all music. But since many show biz movies are so clich├ęd, I'd rather hear the music that made the artist famous in the first place. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) is, for me, the champion biopic that deftly balances music, drama, comedy and historic background in a most satisfying way.

Minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph:

JERSEY BOYS wraps up with a production number of “Oh, What a Night” with every character in the movie participating in during a street party. It's a terrific number and one of the highlights of the movie. But then director Eastwood almost ruins it at the end, with everyone freezing with arms extended into the air, as if they are awaiting applause. It lasts a long time and is really annoying. It's a movie, not a stage show. Very odd. I felt the same way at the end of the movie version of MAMA MIA! (2008), where Meryl Streep and company perform ed a number and then asked the audience if they want more. What works on stage comes off as terribly forced and one would think a more creative solution could be found for such moments. It's all very strange and off-putting.

Obscure Presidents on Film

 


I'm always interested when obscure U.S. presidents are shown on film. By coincidence in one week, I saw President #23, Benjamin Harrison, make a token appearance in the Sousa biography STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER (1952) and, in a much bigger role, #20, James Garfield, in THE NIGHT RIDERS (1939), a Three Mesquiteers B-western starring John Wayne. The latter is interesting, as President Garfield asks the trio to investigate wrong doings by an unscrupulous land baron out west. It's a secret mission, known only to the President and the Mesquiteers. When the three are jailed and facing execution, they await word from the president to pardon them, not knowing that Garfield has been assassinated, and no one in Washington is aware of their predicament.

If that sounds familiar, it's because two years earlier Secret Service agent Robert Taylor found himself in a similar jam in THIS IS MY AFFAIR (1937), with President #25 William McKinley felled by an assassin's bullet before he can pardon undercover agent Taylor. Again, only the president is aware of the mission.

There aren't too many portrayals of Harrison and Garfield in the movies, and I found it an amusing coincidence that I saw them a few days apart. I eagerly await future sightings of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur.

The Police and the Mole People
A scene from THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) while channel flipping recently reminded me of the strange quirks the universe sometimes plays on us poor souls.

I've only been in the police car twice in my life and both times there has been a MOLE PEOPLE connection. How's that for an attention getter.

 


Back in the VHS days, Blockbuster Video used to have a big sale during Labor Day weekend, where unrented tapes would be put up for sale. I would spend far too much time driving to various Blockbusters looking for wanted titles. Since my interest was in classic cinema and most Blockbuster patrons only rented the latest trash on the New Releases shelf,  I usually found some real gems.

One visit netted me a copy of THE MOLE PEOPLE, a terrible film to be sure, but one I'll probably watch many more times than the Best Picture winner that year, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. 

I was driving home when I saw vast amounts of steam coming from my car hood. I was at a red light when the car stalled. The blinkers went on and fortunately a squad car had seen me and followed me. He pulled up behind me, lights flashing and I waited in the back seat of the squad car for a tow truck to take me to the repair shop at my dealer, several miles away.  I remember watching THE MOLE PEOPLE when I got home. After all, I didn't have a car to go anyplace.

Jump ahead quite a few years and I'm in the car again, waiting for a red light to change. It does and I'm ready to go forward when the car dies. Nothing. I put the car in park and turned the key several times to no avail. Again, a squad car was nearby, noticed by flashing blinkers and pulled behind me. For the second time in my life, I waited in the back seat of a squad car until I could be rescued by a tow truck.

Since the car repair shop was only eight blocks away, I walked home and there on the front porch was a package from Amazon, a DVD set of five 1950s science fiction movies, one of which was THE MOLE PEOPLE.

What are the odds? I mean, really. What are the odds?

I will never buy THE MOLE PEOPLE on Blu Ray. I can't afford another car repair bill.

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?