The Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

This post is part of the Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

sis-tryityoulllikeit-blogathon-4

Let’s be honest.  If you are a classic film fan the chances are good that you have at least one person in your life who is less than excited at the prospect of watching one of your “old movies” with you.  For me that person would have to be my husband.  God love him he tries, he really does, but he just can’t quite muster up the same enthusiasm as I do when I put in a DVD and Barbara Stanwyck comes on screen.  I’ve been trying to convert him, slowly, and I have found some films that he has enjoyed.  Recently, we watched THE PALM BEACH STORY and in my opinion it is a terrific movie to use when introducing non-fans to classic films.

the-palm-beach-story-1942-claudette-colbert-783626

First, a brief summary of the film.  Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are a married couple in New York City.  They are also currently in a bit of financial difficulty especially as their landlord is showing new tenants their apartment.  Gerry happens to be home during one such tour and takes refuge in a shower.  She is discovered there by a funny little old man who calls himself “The Weinie King”.  When Gerry explains that the reason the landlord is showing their apartment is because they have no money to pay the rent, the Weinie King gives her a large sum of money for no other reason than to annoy his wife.  And the fact that Gerry happens to be a lovely girl with a nice voice.  Gerry gratefully takes the money and gives the old man a kiss on the cheek.

Tom meanwhile is at the office making a sales pitch.  He is trying to convince a potential investor that his idea for a new kind of airport is an idea worth putting some money behind.  When he gets a very excited phone call from Gerry, who is trying to tell him what happened with the Weinie King, he barely has time to listen.  Gerry agrees to tell him everything that night and then hurries out to put the new money to good use.  When Tom arrives home later he is shocked to find that Gerry has paid all the bills and the rent, as well as bought herself a new dress and now she wants to take him out to dinner and theater with the money left over.  Tom is suspicious of this man who came into the house and gave his wife money and wanted nothing in return.  Gerry is slightly offended by this but not for the reasons you might think.  She has been trying for some time to use all of her talents to help Tom get ahead in the world and every time he becomes jealous and ruins things.  Over dinner that evening Gerry, who has had a bit to drink, tells Tom that she firmly believes that while she still loves him it would be in his best interest if she was to leave him.  She is only holding him back and since he won’t accept her help, leaving is the only way she can ensure that Tom’s career will be successful.  Tom dismisses this notion as foolish but even after they return to their apartment, Gerry is insistent that she is leaving him.  But some caring and helpful unzipping of a difficult zipper stop this conversation from going any farther.

screen-shot-2013-07-31-at-4-35-18-pm

Morning comes and while Tom slumbers peacefully, Gerry tearfully writes him a note.  In it she explains that she was perfectly serious last night, that in spite of how much she still loves him she is leaving him so that he will finally be the success he deserves to be.  Unfortunately, Gerry is not super stealthy when leaving the note and Tom wakes up in time to see her leaving.  He gives chase and the two eventually end up at the train station.  Having no money of her own, Gerry must resort to using her feminine wiles and finds success in a traveling group of men who call themselves The Ale and Quail Club.  She waves goodbye to Tom as the train pulls away from the station.  Tom decides to follow Gerry’s train and meet her when she arrives in Florida some time later.  By the time he finds her things have changed.  Gerry is no longer part of The Ale and Quail Club, but she is accompanied by a young man (Rudy Vallee) who happens to be a millionaire and who has bought her an entire wardrobe, and his wife introducing him as Captain McGlue to a very forward woman (Mary Astor) with a boyfriend named Toto.

the-palm-beach-story-mary-astor

THE PALM BEACH STORY is crazy, zany Preston Sturgess goodness.  It is just fun!  And that is what makes it such a great first film for non-classic film lovers.  Comedy is perhaps the easiest genre to take when trying a new kind of film, book, or television show.  Humor is a universal value and something we all can enjoy.  It sets people at ease, perhaps making them feel less pressured to do anything more than enjoy the film they are about to see.  Comedies don’t have to be dissected or discussed, although they can be certainly, they really only need to be enjoyed and it doesn’t get much better than Preston Sturges.

Too often people think of classic films as slow, clunky, and boring.  These are three words that will never be used to describe THE PALM BEACH STORY or Preston Sturges.  With THE PALM BEACH STORY, Sturges is at the top of his game and throws himself and the audience into the zany story with reckless abandon.  The story, the characters, and the jokes come fast and furious and with such enthusiasm that we can’t help but get swept up in it.  Have a friend who says that old movies are dull?  Show him this movie and stand back!  The comedy makes the transition easier, the ability to forget that the film being watched is over sixty years old simpler, and the preconceived notions of classic films seem foolish.  This is an old movie that doesn’t feel like an “old movie” and this is because Sturges has crafted such a clever, funny, and enjoyable comedy that it has become timeless.  In case you are still on the fence about whether or not THE PALM BEACH STORY is a great film to show a novice fan, here are three reasons why you should courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

So back to the night I showed THE PALM BEACH STORY to my husband.  He liked it.  He really liked it.  He laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  And days later he would look at me and say “Nitz Toto!” and start laughing.  I don’t think you can ask for a better review than that, do you?

 

 

The Criterion Blogathon: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947)

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.  Be sure to check out all the awesome posts here!

Spoiler Warning!  Before we go any further let me say that we will be having a somewhat detailed discussion of this film.  While I will not be revealing the ending, several plot points will be mentioned so if you don’t want to know stop reading now.

A bus pulls into a small Mexican town.  Passengers disembark and locals hawk their wares.  Among the tourists is a man who stands apart.  He walks with purpose into the bus station, under the sign that reads “WELCOME TO SAN PABLO”, and heads toward the back benches.  Sitting down, he opens his suitcase and pulls out a gun which he slips into his jacket.  Next he pulls out a slip of paper which he glances at before shutting the suitcase.  Walking to the wall of lockers, he choses one and places the paper inside.  Buying a stick of gum, he chews it and uses the softened gum to hold the key to the back of the large picture on the bus station wall.  This task completed he goes outside and asks the first local he sees where he can find a certain hotel.

Various locals give him varying directions until he finds a group of young girls.  The youngest girl offers to take him to the hotel, which she does, and before parting she gives him a local idol to protect him.  The man, Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery), scoffs at this but pockets the doll anyway.  Gagin enters the hotel in search of a man named Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and when he receives no help from the front desk, he makes his own way upstairs to Hugo’s room and acquaints himself with Hugo’s man Jonathan.  Gavin settles in to wait for Hugo to return when the door opens and a woman enters.  This time it is Marjorie Lundeen (Andrea King), Hugo’s main squeeze and she seems less concerned about Jonathan and more concerned about who Gagin is.  As she tries to work her charms on Gagin the phone rings and Hugo comes over the other end to say the he won’t be back until the next day.  Gagin takes his leave and tells Marjorie to just tell Hugo that “Shorty’s pal” was here.

In the hotel lobby a little old man approaches Gagin and invites him to lunch.  He has all the information on Gagin, including his name, bus number, and why he is so interested in Frank Hugo.  The man is Bill Retz (Art Smith) and he works for the FBI.  Retz is trying to arrest Hugo for the federal government but he needs more evidence, evidence which he believes Gagin has.  Gagin refuses to help, sighting his experiences in the service during World War II as reason enough to doubt that the government would ever do anything decent.  Retz leaves with one parting piece of advice for Gagin, don’t try to avenge his friend Shorty by killing Hugo.

Gagin goes in search of a hotel room for the night but finds that all rooms are booked thanks to the upcoming fiesta.  The bellboy at one of the hotels advises him to seek out a local tavern which he does.  However the tavern seems to be strictly for locals and they don’t offer a very friendly welcome…at first.  Luckily a man named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), the local carousel operator, who teaches Gagin that the way to the local’s hearts is through tequila.  Several drinks later Pancho and Gagin make their way back to Pancho’s carousel.  Along the way they run into the girl who took Gagin to the hotel.  The girl, Pila (Wendy Hendrix), continues to follow the two men until they both lay down to rest.  Something catches her eye and she hurries over to Gagin, alerting him that someone is coming.  It’s Retz and he has a warning for Gagin.  Hugo got his message and knows who “Shorty’s pal” is.  He has sent some of his men out looking for Gagin, hoping to kill him.

Gagin spends the night at Pancho’s carousel and in the morning heads back to the hotel for his meeting with Hugo.  Hugo, who is deaf, is unfazed by Gagin’s arrival and is even hospitable.  After some small talk things get down to brass tacks.  Hugo knows why Gagin is there.  It seems that Gagin’s friend Shorty used to work for Hugo and during his time there got the idea that he could be a crook too and decided to blackmail Hugo.  This was a bad idea and it ended up getting Shorty killed.  At this point Gagin reveals that he still has the cancelled check Shorty stole, the check that proves that Hugo bribed a government official, the check that he is willing to now sell back to Hugo for $30,000.  Hugo agrees to Gagin’s demands and the two men plan to bring their respective pieces of the deal to the Tip Top Cafe that night.

I have a theory about film noir.  I think that a lot of it comes from World War II.  The disillusionment felt by the returning servicemen and their families, the adjustments that needed to be made by the men who had fought on the battlefields and the women who had served on the homefront, the displacement felt by an entire population who now found the world completely altered lead to the creation of the film noir.  It wasn’t popular, correct, or acceptable to give voice to the feelings of pain, frustration, and alienation.  Men were supposed to come home and get on with their lives, women were supposed to give up their newly discovered independence and go back to their former roles, families and communities were supposed to just carry on as if nothing had changed when of course everything had.  The male stars returning to Hollywood were changed, the directors who had filmed the battles and troops were changed, the writers, producers, and directors who had sought refuge from their homes in Europe were changed.  They all needed an outlet for the anger, the sadness, the disillusionment, and the pain they felt and they found it in making films that seethed with an undercurrent of darkness.  Lucky Gagin’s entire journey in this film is propelled by his disillusionment with the country and the government after the war.  He is disgusted by the common acts of cowardice and corruption he witnessed in the service, the selfish behavior seemingly promoted among the population, the love of the dollar at any cost with no care for your fellow man attitude that seems to be prevalent among the very people he saw so many men die defending.  If they don’t have to care then why should he?  If they didn’t have to be decent why does he?

I have read some reviews which mention Robert Montgomery as being something of a weak link when it comes to the acting in this film.  More to the point, the feeling is that he falls short of bringing Lucky Gagin to full effect as a gangster especially as compared to Fred Clark’s portrayal of Frank Hugo.  I have to say that I disagree with this evaluation.  First of all, let me say that I think that Robert Montgomery is a wholly underrated actor.  Most people think of him in terms of the urbane comedies of the 1930s, especially those he did alongside Norma Shearer.  But I remember watching Robert Montgomery in NIGHT MUST FALL.  In it he plays a psychologically damaged man who kills old women and keeps their heads in a hatbox.  Starring alongside Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery gives an amazing performance of a man who is not purely evil but rather one who is disturbed and charming all at once.  The film was a critical but not a financial success, a symptom most likely of audience’s unwillingness to see Robert Montgomery as anything other than the wise cracking friend who usually doesn’t get the girl.  Perhaps it was thanks to this pigeon-holing that caused Robert Montgomery to direct and star in RIDE THE PINK HORSE.  If he didn’t direct the film it would never get made and if he didn’t direct it he would never get to star in it.

To me, Robert Montgomery’s seemingly less than adept performance as a gangster is less a lack of skill and more an artistic choice.  Lucky Gagin in the film is presented as a man who used to be a petty criminal before the war.  He entered the service, perhaps hoping for a better life or a nobler cause, and after the war was so discouraged that he returned to his former life of small time crime.  Shorty got him a job working alongside him and that was how he got involved with Hugo.  Shorty was killed and Gagin decides to avenge his friend by making Hugo pay by hitting him where it hurts, his wallet.  He isn’t going for a big score and he isn’t trying to make a fortune, pretty much everyone points out to him that he isn’t asking for very much money, rather he is trying to make a point.  Make a point to Hugo, to Shorty, and to himself that the world is corrupt and easily bought and the only thing worth anything is money.  Lucky Gagin isn’t a big time gangster and he isn’t a criminal mastermind.  He is small time crook who is good in a fight.  He isn’t too bright but he knows how the world works.  He used to think that the government was worth fighting for but now he isn’t so sure.  When up against Frank Hugo in a scene, Lucky Gagin feels like a blunt instrument which is what he was. And that is exactly how Robert Montgomery plays him.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE is a film noir that deserves a wider audience which will hopefully happen thanks to The Criterion Collection.  This unusual noir is exceptionally well done and gives an indication of what a fantastic director Robert Montgomery could have been given the opportunity, as well as what a fine actor he was in drama as well as comedy.  The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, setting up the entire character of Lucky Gagin without ever saying a word.  Robert Montgomery is much more than the light farce he spent much of his career making, hopefully this film will help to show that.

The Swashathon: THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937)

This post is part of The Swashathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Buckle your swashes and check out all the other posts here!

I love a good swashbuckler.  When I want to sit back, pop some popcorn, and have a darn good time, no Marvel blow-em-up for me thanks I will take Errol Flynn and his acts of daring do.  Now having said that, the name Ronald Colman does not immediately strike one as being a natural leading man in a swashbuckler.  But in 1937 with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA he became just that.

In some picturesque country far off in the Balkans, Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) is having a very strange time with the locals.  The British tourist is finding that wherever he goes people keep giving him odd looks and are unable to form words correctly.  He goes off to enjoy his fishing trip leaving the local inhabitants behind.  While relaxing by a stream he runs into two well-dressed men.  Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven) are on a hunting trip with the almost king, Rudolf V (Ronald Colman).  Zapt and von Tarlenheim are slightly startled by Rassendyll’s appearance but they are more amused than anything.  It soon becomes clear why when Rudolph V shows up.  He and Rassendyll look identical, most likely thanks to a dalliance between two distant relatives.  Rassendyl and Rudolph take a liking to each other and the group goes off to a nearby hunting lodge for some dinner and drinks.

The party lasts late into the night.  Rudolph proceeds to drink everyone else under the table.  When Zapt suggests that he might want to slow things down, especially since he has his own coronation to attend in the morning, Rudolph responds by slapping him in the face.  Clearly Rudolph is a great guy.  Zapt excuses himself and Rudolph is left alone.  A servant enters with a bottle of wine that has been sent by his half brother “Black Michael,” Duke of Streslau and Lord of Zenda Castle (Raymond Massey) which Rudolph partakes from.  The next morning Rassendyl awakes to a bucket of cold water in his face from Zapt.  Annoyed at first, Rassendyl is startled to find that Rudolph has been drugged by Michael.  If Rudolph is not in attendance at his coronation this afternoon not only will he not become king, but Michael will use this as an excuse to seize the throne for himself.  There is only one thing to do…Rassendyl must impersonate Rudolph and take his place in the coronation.

Meanwhile, Michael is already drawing up the needed paperwork to have Rudolph removed from power.  While this might seem a tad bit premature to some, to Michael this is simply prudent planning.  Everyone is quite cheerful at the prospect of their evil plan succeeding except for Michael’s French mistress Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor).  Antoinette wants Michael to be happy of course but really she is hoping that Michael will give up the throne and settle down with her (yeah, I don’t think it is going to happen either).  She is making her case for this bright future when Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) enters the room.  He has some delightfully off hand remarks for Michael, who quickly takes his leave of his favorite henchmen, and some scathingly risqué ones for Antoinette.

Back onboard the royal train, Rassendyl is practicing his speech for the coronation.  He must make sure to get everything exactly right or the jig will be up, as they say.  The ceremony goes off without a hitch, though not without a few tense moments, and Rassendyl gets to meet Rudolph’s cousin and fiancee, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll).  Flavia never liked Rudolph because, let’s face it, he was always sort of a jerk.  But now she finds him much changed and all for the better.  The two begin spending time together and love begins to blossom.  But alas things must be cut short as Rassendyl has done his job, and with the coronation a success he travels back to the hunting lodge with Zapt to retrieve the true king.  Upon arriving however they find the lights off and the servant left to guard the king, murdered.  And Rudolph?  He has been kidnapped by Rupert and been stolen away into the night.

There is no film quite like this version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA.  It is a perfect alignment of the stars (literally and figuratively) allowing for true movie magic to occur.  Just take a gander at these names…Ronald Colman, Madeline Carroll, David Niven, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, and David O. Selznick.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The story of The Prisoner of Zenda had been around for many years before this film was made.  Of note, when the play based on the 1894 book by Anthony Hope was first put on in 1896, C. Aubrey Smith played the dual lead roles.  The play had been a great success for many years and while several film versions were made this is considered to be the definitive one.  The shoot was not an easy one for director John Cromwell.  He had trouble with everything from David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s late nights on the town, Ronald Colman’s lack of knowledge when it came to his own lines, and Colman and Madeline Carroll’s insistence of being only shot from their “good sides”…which were both the same.  George Cukor actually stepped in to shoot some scenes when Cromwell became too frustrated.  In spite of any issues during filming, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is one of the best romantic swashbucklers around.

If I’m honest I think that the thing that makes THE PRISONER OF ZENDA so special is Ronald Colman.  For a start there is his voice, which I would quite happy listen to for hours.  He could say anything and it would sound fabulous.  Luckily for all of us he also happens to be reciting some intelligent and witty dialogue.  Ronald Colman brings a quality to Rudolph/Rassendyl that is equal parts nobility and amusement.  As Rassendyl he seems to be having the time of his life pretending to be king while at the same time, gravely aware of the importance of what he is doing.  When he must devise a plan to save the true king, Rassendyl swings into action with the cunning and strategic mind of a general without a moment’s hesitation.  In Rudolph, Colman finds not only the tempestuous man-child who has never been told no but also the humble contrition of a man shown the error of his ways.  Only Ronald Colman could create two men of such dignity and honor with such different moral centers while still making them likable people.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. initially wanted to play the lead role but when he received the role of Rupert instead, he was told by his father that “not only is The Prisoner of Zenda one of the best romances written in a hundred years and always a success, but Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. helped his son when it came to billing and costume, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. took his father’s advice.  His portrayal of Rupert is one of the best parts of the movie.  Rupert is a man who is only in it for himself.  He switches loyalty quickly and often, throws witty quips and punches, and has absolutely no problem flirting with his boss’s girlfriend.  Where Raymond Massey’s “Black Michael” is a villain in the most traditional sense, Rupert is a man of few scruples and even fewer alliances.  He is his own man and it is beyond delightful to watch him duck and weave his way through the story.

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA has been called a “splendid schoolboy adventure story”.  This is a perfect description of not only this movie but also any great swashbuckler.  Swashbucklers are not subtle or full of nuance, they are bold, brash, and exciting.  Swashbucklers speak to a part of us that still wants to go out in the backyard and climb trees with sticks/swords in hand.  That part of us that is still twelve years old and seeing the world through wide and curious eyes, the part of us that still believes that we can be heroes and heroines and go on grand adventures.

The Universal Blogathon: OH, DOCTOR! (1925)

This post is part of the Universal Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

Wrapping up my month of silents comes a quirky and thoroughly entertaining comedy from Universal starring Reginald Denny and Mary Astor!

Rufus Billop (Reginald Denny) was born with a thermometer in his mouth and a bottle of medication in his hand.  That is to say that dear old Rufus was a wee bit frail when he was born, so much so that he had to spend some time in an incubator when he was an infant, and though he survived the experience left him a hopeless hypochondriac.  Matters weren’t helped much by the fact that pretty much everyone in his family fed his delusions, all except for his Aunt Beulah (Lucille Ward).  Rufus has now grown up into a man dominated by his neurosis and is stuck living with Aunt Beulah because he has outlived every other member of his family.  For her part, Aunt Beulah is under the impression that all Rufus needs is some red meat and a visit from a twelve foot tall lady osteopath.

Rufus prefers the company of other, more conventional doctors.  He is visited by one such doctor, Doctor Seaver (Clarence Geldart), who realizes at once that Rufus is far healthier than he thinks he is.  Dr. Seaver becomes much more interested when he hears about Rufus’ financial prospects.  Although Rufus has no money of his own at present, he stands to inherit $750,000 as long as he stays alive for the next three years.  While Rufus is certain that he will be dead long before that ever happens, Dr. Seaver convinces him to take out a loan against his inheritance so that he can spend the money to have his final months spent in the comfort that any dying man might wish.  As luck would have it, Dr. Seaver also knows just the fellows who would be willing to take on this deal!

Mr. Clinch, Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Peck (Otis Harlan, William V. Mong and Tom Ricketts) are willing to loan Rufus $100,000 in exchange for the rights to his inheritance.  After an extensive medical examination Rufus is declared an absolutely healthy hypochondriac and therefore a completely risk-free investment.  Rufus is touched that these men are willing to help make him comfortable in what he is sure are his final days.  After receiving the money, Rufus sets about creating an oasis of hypochondriacal desires, complete with his own personal nurse.  When Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck go to visit him they find Rufus apparently at death’s door having been ushered closer to there by his nurse, Death Watch Mary (Martha Mattox).  In a panic that their meal ticket might be punched too early, the three men rush off to Dr. Seaver who prescribes a change of scenery for Rufus.

The change of scenery comes in the form of a new nurse named Dolores (Mary Astor).  Dolores is not only young and pretty, but she also believes in sunshine, fresh air, and not paying Rufus any mind.  Rufus does indeed sit up and take notice of Dolores and decides to take a good hard look at himself.  What he sees is not impressive and Rufus is determined to make himself into a new man.  He will become a man who, to quote his pretty young maid (Helen Lynch), is “not afraid of nothing!”

Rufus’ new life begins with pork chops.  From there it is a short leap to new clothes, a new car, a new driver, and some snappy dance moves.  Of course Rufus begins to take things too far and does things like crashing a motorcycle, driving his car on the wrong side of a racetrack during a race, and begins reading up on deep sea diving, aviation, and steeplejack tricks.  This new found lust for life is shortening the collective lives of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  If Rufus gets himself killed they won’t get their money!  The only person he listens to is Dolores, whom he has taken a particular fancy to, so the three men go off to enlist her help.  Dolores however has caught on to their scheme and has been coming up with one of her own to save Rufus from himself, as well as Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.

Reginal Denny is one of those actors who I know from sight but not by name.  But I know him like this…

Not like this…

So imagine my surprise when I realized that the man who I knew from MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE was the same man crashing a motorcycle in OH, DOCTOR!  Denny was an Englishman and a WWI veteran of the Royal Flying Corps who made a name for himself in silent film by playing the “All-American” guy in comedy films.  I have to say that I found his brand of humor quite refreshing.  While the comedy stylings of Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin can sometimes be a little out there when it comes to gag set ups, OH, DOCTOR! features comedy based on real life situations.  Rufus is goofy and quirky certainly but he is goofy and quirky in the realm of reality.  As a nurse I can’t tell you how many of these moments reminded me of patients, and family members, that I had encountered over the years.  I loved the parts when Dolores is practically, and sometimes literally, rolling her eyes at Rufus.  I could completely sympathize.

I was first introduced to Mary Astor via THE PALM BEACH STORY.  Seeing her run circles around Rudy Vallee, Joel McCrea, and “Toto” made me sit up and take notice of this dynamic woman.  I had no idea that she had a career in silent film prior to watching this film and let me say she is just as “sit up and take notice” as ever, which is even more impressive given the fact that she was only eighteen when this film was made. As an aside, can I ask why teenagers in classic/silent films are always twenty times more sophisticated than I ever was at that age?

Anyway, Dolores is fantastic.  Her moments with Rufus when she is first dealing with his neurosis are hysterical, especially to any healthcare professionals who will know exactly where she is coming from.  Not only that but she is also a genuinely smart person.  Sure she likes Rufus and dresses up in a pretty dress to impress him, but she also very quickly gets a read on his situation and figures out a way to deal with it.  No running off to Rufus for help, no soppy weeping for mercy at the feet of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  Dolores, like Rufus and his comedy, feels very rooted in reality and it makes her an even more enjoyable character as a result.

I was classify OH, DOCTOR! as a charming comedy.  It is different than most silent era comedies but is just as funny.  It also has a wealth of great character actors who are all serving up their A-games.  This was one of those films where I enjoyed the supporting cast just as much as the main characters.  The only sour note in the film would have to be the racially sterotyped intertitles given to the Chinese gardener, Chang (George Kuwa).  While this was typical of the time, although it was rare that an Asian character would be played by an Asian actor, it is still a bit jarring in practice.  Luckily it is only a few instances and not enough to ruin what is otherwise a really fun film that is deserving of a good deal more attention.  Don’t worry, I won’t make any jokes about it being just what the doctor ordered.  Even though it is.


Fritz of Movies Silently is the one who introduced this film to me through her great review which can be found here.

The CMBA Fall Blogathon: THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

This post is part of The CMBA Fall Blogathon: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Be sure to take a look at all the other entries here!

It is always difficult to talk about Alfred Hitchcock films, not because they are bad but because they are so tricky and well plotted that one is constantly making sure not to spoil the surprises of the story.  With that in mind we will proceed with a mild spoiler warning.  I will not give away the ending but as we talk about the film a few plot points may be revealed so if you are sensitive to that or have not seen this film yet, you might want to keep this in mind.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a young Englishwoman on a mission.  She is trying to get back to London in order to marry her chosen fellow but a recent avalanche has blocked the railways.  She and several other passengers are stranded at an inn in the country of Bandrika, including cricket fans Charters and Caldicot, a lawyer called Todhunter, his “wife” Mrs. Todhunter, and governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty).  That night Iris is having a terrible time getting any rest due to music being played in the room above her.  When she complains to management they remove the musician from his room.  This is all fine and dandy for a time, until the musician shows up at Iris’ door.  Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a fellow stranded passenger, having been dispossessed of his lodgings has decided that he will now share a room with Iris, much to her chagrin.  Unlike Iris, Miss Froy enjoys music and is listening to a local folk musician playing under her window.  Unseen by her, someone comes from the shadows and kills the man.

Morning comes and Iris is already having a bad day.  On her way to the train she was hit on the head by a planter and had to be helped aboard by Miss Froy.  Iris blacks out and when she awakens she is in a compartment with Miss Froy and several Italian women.  Iris and Miss Froy strike up conversation and soon make their way to the dining car for tea.  Iris asks for the name of her new friend but is unable to hear her answer over the roar of the train.  Miss Froy writes her name on a window for Iris to see and the two continue their pleasant afternoon.  Upon returning to their compartment, Iris falls asleep.

When she awakens, Iris cannot find Miss Foy any where.  The other people in the compartment claim to have no knowledge of an elderly English woman.  Stranger still Todhunter, who had actually spoken to Miss Froy, now claims to have never seen her as do Charters and Caldicot.  The European doctor on board, one Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), believes that Iris is suffering from a concussion and has imagined Miss Froy but Iris is insistent.  The only person will to believe Iris is Gilbert, and the two begin searching the train for their lost friend.  Their search turns up nothing but as they return to Iris’ compartment they spy a familiar hat.  Hurrying forward they find a woman…a German woman, one dressed exactly like Miss Froy but one who is decidedly NOT Miss Froy.

First conceived as a script called The Lost Lady, to be directed by Roy William Neill, the first film crew was kicked out of Yugoslavia after the local police found that they were not being portrayed in a positive light and the project was scrapped.  A year later when Alfred Hitchcock could not find a project to direct to fulfill his contract with producer Edward Black, he was offered The Lost Lady.  Hitchcock accepted and after some tweaks to the script, THE LADY VANISHES was born.  For his leads Hitchcock chose two relatively unknown actors.  Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who was a rising theater star but had no influence in cinema.

I love Michael Redgrave.  He brings such a great quality to Gilbert, who comes across as a roguish character with truly decent heart.  He is utterly charming and you can’t help falling for him.  Margaret Lockwood is terrific as well, portraying the character of Iris as intelligent and determined without being obstinate.  The best parts are when Iris and Gilbert are working together.  She knows what she saw and who she is looking for, and he is initially somewhat amused by her but as time goes by he becomes more and more certain that something is going on.  He always believes her but at first he takes it more lightly until finally becoming completely convinced that something terrible is going on.

This is also one of my favorite Hitchcock films.  It has what can only be described as a cracking good mystery with some truly entertaining and complex suspects.  Each supporting character has reasons and motives to be suspicious, each one feels like a fully fleshed out person and not like a piece of the background.  There is also such terrific wit and intelligence to the dialogue that just listening to the characters talk is an engrossing experience.  THE LADY VANISHES is fun, thrilling, tense, and unexpected.  I love every minute!

As this is a blogathon about transportation let us take a moment and talk about the train in THE LADY VANISHES.  It is practically a character unto itself.  In each scene the sounds of the train can be heard, the characters gently swaying with the movement.  The train adds several elements of suspense to the story.  First there is a question of space.  A train is small, cramped, with many places to hide but not enough room to move quickly.  This means that around every corner and in every compartment there could be someone hiding and listening.  It also means that escape is difficult but pursuit is even more so.

The fact that a woman has vanished in such a small space also makes the mystery so much more confusing.  How could a woman vanish on a moving train and no on see her?  It doesn’t make sense!  One of the things that Hitchcock did best was to get into his audience’s heads.  He manages to make the audience think and feel exactly the way his main characters do.  So while Iris is astonished and confused about the disappearance of Miss Froy, we are as well.  We want to know why people are lying about not seeing a woman that they spoke to the night before?  We want to know why a woman has vanished from an enclosed space?  The train is the perfect environment for this mystery to occur.

There is also a deadline, a time when the mystery will no longer be solvable.  The train approaches its final destination and with each station that passes the question of what happened to Miss Froy becomes more and more difficult to solve.  Each stop is a chance for someone to get off the train, a chance for new people to get on, a chance for someone to hide something or leave something behind.  And when the train finally stops at the last station it won’t matter if Miss Froy has been found or not, everyone will depart and it will be almost impossible to find them all again.  Each stop, each lurch of the train, each squeal of the brakes and hiss of the engines adds a layer of anxiety to the story as we feel the stakes rising each time and the chances of discovering the truth behind what happened to Miss Froy falling in return.

#LetsMovie TCM Discoveries Blogathon: KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (1937)

This post is part of the TCM Discoveries Blogathon hosted by Nitrate Diva and is also part of the TCM #LetsMovie Celebration.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

“A British spy tries to get a countess out of the new Soviet Union.”

This is the short synopsis of KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR from TCM.  The first time I saw this film was during a Robert Donat kick.  I had just seen THE 39 STEPS for the first time and was totally enamored of Robert Donat.  I still am to be honest, but this was when it was still new and I wanted to see all the films that I could with him in them.  I recorded this film with no idea of what awaited me.

A.J. Fothergill (Robert Donat) is a reporter in exile.  Sent to live in Russia as punishment for an article he wrote, Fothergill has been there for six years.  His fluency in Russian has not gone unnoticed and he soon receives an offer from the Secret Service.  A ruined career behind him, Fothergill agrees to forgo British protection and join the Secret Service.  He takes the identity of Peter Ouranoff and enlists in a revolutionary group lead by a bookseller named Axelstein.  When one of the group’s members bombs a carriage carrying the father of Countess Alexandra Vladinoff (Marlene Dietrich), he is chased by police and shot.  He manages to make his way to Fothergill’s apartment where he later dies, while Fothergil is arrested and sent to Siberia for his trouble.

World War I breaks out and Countess Vladinoff is left a widow, while Fothergill has spent two years in the frozen tundra.  Axelstein predicts that the war will lead to a revolution thought Russia and in 1917, when the Siberian exiles are freed, he is made a Commissar of Khalinsk.  He asks Fothergill to assist him in his new world order.  One morning the Countess Vladinoff awakens to find that all the servants have left.  Masses of people swarm the mansion, looting the household and taking the Countess prisoner.  Soldiers take members of the elite and members of the Vladinoff household away for execution.  Axelstein arrives and demands fealty of those assembled.  He also gives Fothergill the task of taking the Countess Vladinoff to Petrograd to stand trial.

The two are unable to take a train as the rails are no longer running.  This doesn’t bother Fothergill as his plan is to take the Countess over to the White Army and to safety instead.  They reach the White Army and all seems well until the next day when the Red Army soundly defeats the White.  The Countess is captured once again and now Fothergill has two problems.  One, he much find a way to free the Countess and get her to safety and two, he is deeply in love with her.

This was the first time I can truly say that a film left me breathless.  KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR just stopped me in my tracks.  The story was compelling and so well done, the acting superb, and the visuals stunning.  But the most amazing thing to witness is the relationship between Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich.

Let me start off by saying that I love Robert Donat.  He has such a gentle and kind spirit, a real honest generosity that comes through in his acting that I just can’t help but fall for him just a little bit each time I see him.  Don’t worry my husband knows and he is OK with it.  Fothergill is a man of principle, a man who does what must be done for what is right, and for King and country.  But he is also a man deeply affected by the suffering he sees around him, a man who is strong without being brutish, a man who is tough without being hard, and a man who is a warrior without losing his heart.

Robert Donat was the first draw for me in viewing this film but he wasn’t the only one.  Marlene Dietrich usually seems so aloof, so unknown, so dangerous almost in her portrayals that you don’t always feel as if you have a handle on her.  But in this film she brings a sadness, a fragileness, and a humanness to the Countess.  She is at once bewildered to what is happening around her and understanding of what must be done in order to survive it.  She is a refined woman but able to be humble when necessary.  And the love that grows between her and the truly gentle gentleman played by Robert Donat is a stunner.

The real power in this story is the love story between the Countess and Fothergill.  Without that the story of their journey would not have nearly as much impact.  When I first saw KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR I was riveted.  The relationship grows slowly but deeply, having moments of open affection before being tucked away and hidden from view.  Just like in A BRIEF ENCOUNTER, it is the moments where they cannot say or do what they wish with all their heart to that mean the most.  Watching this film we find ourselves just as invested in their relationship as the characters are themselves.  We want them to find safety with each other but we don’t know how that might happen.  There is a moment that I still remember all these years after seeing it for the first time.  Fothergill has returned to find the Countess whom he has left hidden for safety.  When they find each other the two embrace and Fothergill almost whispers to her, “Did you think I would not return…for you?”  It gets me every time.

As TCM celebrates #LetsMovie I have to take this moment to say thank you.  Over the years TCM has changed in some ways while staying the same in others.  At the core of the channel there is a feeling that while there will be films that are more “mainstream” than others, there will still be these little gems hidden amongst them.  Come to see Robert Donat in GOODBYE MR. CHIPS or THE 39 STEPS, but stay to see him in THE CITADEL or KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR.  Basically, TCM gives us all the chance to see films that we might never have had a chance to otherwise.  Be they from the 2000s or 1900s, I am always grateful when TCM introduces me to a film that I have never seen before but end up loving.  There is nothing better than finding a film that takes your breath away, just like KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR did for me.  So…#LetsMovie

That’s A Wrap On The William Wellman Blogathon!

william-wellman-blogathon-bill

The William Wellman Blogathon is now at an end and what a four days it has been!  We had over forty entries posted celebrating the life and works of William A. Wellman!

I want to take a moment and say thank you!

Thank you to all the bloggers who signed up for, posted entries for, read posts for, and helped promote this blogathon!  I wasn’t sure what sort of response to expect and I couldn’t have asked for a better one!  Thanks to all of you!

Thank you to Fritzi over at Movies Silently for making the fabulous banners!  She is one of my blogging idols and a Photoshopping, gif making wiz!  She also was a great sounding board when I was considering this blogathon, as was Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings.  Thanks ladies for your helpful hints!

Thank you to William Wellman Jr. not only for his support of this blogathon but also his fabulous biography that inspired it all!

Finally, thank you to William A. Wellman for a lifetime of amazing films and the attitude, courage, intelligence, and integrity to make them.

So, that’s all folks!  If you want to see all the great posts again the roster is here with updated links!  And let me know if you enjoyed this blogathon enough to do it again next year…

The William Wellman Blogathon Has Arrived!

At long last The William Wellman Blogathon is here!  Are you excited?  I know you are!

william-wellman-blogathon-wings

Listed below is the complete roster of the blogs that have signed up to take part.  Keep checking back throughout the next few days (September 10-13th) as I will be updating the list with links to the various posts as they go live!  Enjoy the blogathon and thank you to everyone for coming together to celebrate a great American director, Mr. William A. Wellman!


Roster

Now Voyaging – Lady of Burlesque

Speakeasy – Yellow Sky

Movies Silently – The Boob

Silver Screenings – The Ox-Bow Incident

CineMaven – Safe in Hell and Beggars For Life

Shadows and Satin – Lilly Turner

Stardust – Wings

Old Hollywood Films – The Public Enemy

Sister Celluloid – Frisco Jenny

Criterion Blues – A Star Is Born (1937)

Once Upon A Screen – The Purchase Price

Silents And Talkies – Heroes For Sale

The Stop Button – Magic Town

A Shroud of Thoughts – Beau Geste

Twenty Four Frames – The Ox-Bow Incident

Immortal Ephemera – Wild Boys of the Road

Movie Movie Blog Blog – Nothing Sacred

The Motion Pictures – Bill, the Director and Barbara, the Star

That Classic Movie Life– The Call of the Wild

Critica Retro – Nothing Sacred

Caftan Woman – Goodbye, My Lady

Laura’s Misc Musings – Wild Boys of the Road

Moon In Gemini – Westward The Women

Second Sight Cinema – Safe In Hell

Portraits By Jenni – The Story Of GI Joe

Pre-Code.Com – College Coach

Girls Do Film – Other Men’s Women

Vitaphone Dreamer – A Star Is Born (1937)

The Movie Rat – Night Nurse

Comet Over Hollywood – Battleground

Movie Classics – Thunder Birds

In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood – The Great Man’s Lady and Island In The Sky

Wide Screen World – So Big

Pop Culture Reverie – The Happy Years

Mike’s Take On The Movies – Island In The Sky

Back To Golden Days – The Iron Curtain

Barry Bradford – The Story of GI Joe

Noir Girl – Love Is A Racket

Serendipitous Anachronisms – Roxie Hart

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies – Blood Alley

The Cinematic Frontier – Wings

Defiant Success – The Ox-Bow Incident

Nitrate Diva – Beggars of Life

Louise Brooks Society – Beggars of Life

Wolffian Classic Movies Digest – Roxie Hart

B Noir Detour – Lady of Burlesque

Mildred’s Fat Burgers – Track of the Cat

Cinema Dilettante – Midnight Mary

Losh-Man’s Hollywood Classics – Across The Wide Missouri

Spellbound By Movies – Maybe It’s Love

Grand Old Movies – The Next Voice You Hear


Thank you so much to all the bloggers who have come together to not only contribute fabulous posts celebrating William Wellman, but who also have made my very first blogathon a greater success than I could have imagined!

The William Wellman Blogathon: LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)

This post is part of The William Wellman Blogathon hosted by me!  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

william-wellman-blogathon-beau-geste

Chances are that if you are a classic film fan you have at some point or another come across the Hayes Code.  Coming into strong effect in 1934, the Hayes Office and their code monitored and censored the subject matter of Hollywood films.  All blunt and open mentions of sex, drugs, and otherwise “less than desirable” behaviors were removed from films and writers, directors, and actors needed to find clever ways to insert their racy material.  Which leads me to LADY OF BURLESQUE, a film made at the height of the Production Code but one that still manages to keep its more mature material thanks to a burlesque tease of its own.

Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck) is the latest and greatest attraction at the Old Opera House on Broadway.  New owner S.B. Foss has changed the format of the opera house to that of a burlesque revue.  Dixie is the big draw for the crowds, wowing men and women alike with her singing and dancing.  She is also a big draw for comedian Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea) who ardently admires her, though she is somewhat less impressed with him.  Biff and Dixie are doing one of their best bits, all about a man who buys a woman-attracting charm in the form of a pickle on a string (infer at your leisure), when Dixie notices a squad of policeman filing into the back of the hall.  Backstage everyone is in a panic as the red light that is supposed to go off when police enter the building has been cut deliberately.  Pandemonium erupts as the police attempt to arrest everyone and Dixie makes her way toward the basement coal chute to hide.  On her way there however, she is grabbed around the throat.  She blacks out but her assailant is interrupted by a policewoman chasing a stage hand.  Dixie comes to but her attacker has vanished.

The entire company is packed off to jail where they are promptly bailed out by Foss.  At a group dinner later that night Foss tries to raise everyone’s spirits by giving each of them stock in the opera house.  Not everyone is mollified however, as Dixie points out that not only has her attacker vanished without a trace but that clearly someone is trying to shut down the opera house.  A few nights later ex-racketeer Louis Grindero comes by the burlesque show and finds his girlfriend Lolita, a stuck up songbird, rehearsing lines with one of the other comics who just so happens to be in love with her.  Louis takes out his displeasure on Lolita, beating her in front of everyone.  The screams from backstage can be heard onstage as well causing Dixie and Biff to ramp up the volume and antics of their performance.

Dixie comes off stage annoyed.  Lolita is already not a favorite among the other burlesque dancers.  Cocky and stuck-up, Lolita can’t seem to get along with anyone except the photograph of her mother she keeps on her vanity.  She has already had run-ins with Dixie, other dancers, and even Mr. Wong across the way.  The girls like to get their dinners from the local Chinese restaurant but Lolita decided it was a good idea to throw a bottle at the men standing by the open window, beaning Mr. Wong leading Dixie to go across to make peace and save their dinners.  The only person who is less liked than Lolita is the Princess Nirvena.  Recently returned from shady circumstances to once again thrill crowds with her act of clothes versus whip and her own version of a Greta Garbo impression, the Princess is someone not even Lolita can tolerate.  And now Lolita is fouling up Dixie’s act with her backstage drama.

Dixie goes upstairs to her dressing room expecting to find Lolita there.  Instead she finds some red wax on a closet door and no sign of the wounded songstress.  Lolita’s cue is coming up and Dixie calls down that she isn’t in her dressing room.  The stage manager comes upstairs to check just as Dixie pulls open the closet door and finds Lolita inside dead, strangled by her own G-string.  Yes, really.

LADY OF BURLESQUE was the first film made after the reopening of Hunt Stromberg’s independent movie studio.  Based on the book “The G-String Murders” by Gypsy Rose Lee, though thought to be ghost written by Craig Rice, this film was written by James Gunn and directed by none other than William A. Wellman.  Contrary to what you might think, Wellman was thrilled when offered the chance to direct by Stromberg.  He had never yet made a film that was a musical and was eager to showcase his range and ability.  Range and ability would be important because LADY OF BURLESQUE was part musical, part murder mystery, and part romantic comedy.

William Wellman offered the part of Dixie to his favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck.  The two collaborated on five films together and both had great respect and affection for each other.  Wellman always spoke highly of Stanwyck’s talent and professionalism.  Of Stanwyck he would say, “…(She) not only knew her lines but everyone else’s…I love her.”  For her part, Barbara Stanwyck was equally excited as Wellman to play a character so completely different from any that she had done before.  She also was looking forward to showing that her talents extended to singing and dancing as well.  Watch her in this clip and you tell me, is there anything Barbara Stanwyck CAN’T do?

The censors, not surprisingly, were all over this film.  They were very specific about what camera angles could be used, what dialogue could be permitted, and how little clothes the strippers…ahem, I mean…dancers could have on.  Still, Wellman manages to slip quite a bit past the censors from the opening number of “Take It Off The E-String, Play It On The G-String” to Dixie’s bumping and grinding just below the frame.  The dialogue is pretty risqué as well with such lines as;

Man: Did I startle you?  /  Dixie: Are you – kidding?  I’ve been startled by experts.

Biff: When we get around to that date, you’ll have to wear your working clothes.  /  Dixie: I’ll wear a suit of armor, brass knuckles, and hobnailed boots!  And where’s that prop you swiped?  /  Biff: The muff?  I’m gonna have it stuffed and hang it over my mantlepiece.

And let’s not forget the pickle on a string.

LADY OF BURLESQUE was a huge hit and brought in $1.85 million, as well as earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Scoring of a Drama or Comedy Picture.  A lesser known film today it is still great fun, a dark comedy celebrating a dead art form, as by 1942 burlesque had been driven from cities and towns alike by the soldiers of the Legion of Decency.  The movie has a little bit of everything, all filmed with the Wellman touch.  There is never a sense of judgment from Wellman in any of his films.  He simply tells the story that he would like to hear.  The women and other members of the burlesque company are just people going about their daily lives.  We are never given the feeling that we are any better or worse than they are, they just are.  The people who are nasty people are nasty because of who they are as a person, not because of what their job is.  Lolita would be an annoying prima donna even if she was a librarian and Louis would still be a jerk even if he was a respectable business man.  I feel that in another director’s hands there is a chance that the film would take on a feeling of moral high ground or even overly cartoonishness to diminish the impact.  Another director might be tempted to downplay the seriousness of the crimes simply because, well what do you expect when you live that sort of lifestyle?  Wellman and his film are refreshingly devoid of stereotypes, from the burlesque dancers to the Chinese cooks and waiters across the street.  Mr. Wong speaks English without a hint of an accent or incorrect grammar.

Part of what makes this film work is the feeling of enjoyment you get while watching it.  I know it sounds crazy to say that about a film where people are being murdered, but it is true.  Watching this film I felt like Wellman and Stanwyck were having fun, enjoying trying out something new and out of their comfort zones.  Is this the best film that William Wellman ever made?  No, and I doubt he would say it was either.  But I do feel that this is a film that deserves a second look.  LADY OF BURLESQUE showcases some of the best qualities of both Wellman and his favorite leading lady.  And if nothing else, you have a fine excuse to watch Barbara Stanwyck do the Boogie-Woogie.

The William Wellman Blogathon is Almost Here! Info for Participants and Those Who Want to Join…

william-wellman-blogathon-wings

In just a little more than a week we will celebrate the life and works of William A. Wellman in The William Wellman Blogathon!  So many fabulous blogs have signed up and I can’t wait to see what everyone has in store!  Also check out this fabulous video intro that Cinemaven created!


For those who haven’t signed up yet…

There is still time to sign up in case you haven’t done so yet and would like to join in the fun!  The announcement post with updated roster can be found here.  Duplicate subjects are acceptable but here is a list of films that haven’t been claimed yet!

For those who have already signed up…

Thank you!  I will be putting up a post on September 10th which will have the complete roster.  As I get links throughout the blogathon I will update the roster with the available posts.  Participants need only comment on that post, tweet at me, or send me an email with the link to their entries for the blogathon.  I am also planning to put up daily recaps of all the posts I receive each day!


So, what is there left to do?  Not much except get excited!  I can’t wait to see what everyone has in store for what I am sure will be a fabulous celebration of a great American director!