Thursday, January 07, 2021

Cobra Women Offers a Montez Adventure with Bite

Watching Universal’s extravagant 1944 Technicolor adventure Cobra Women made me once again ponder the value of art versus entertainment. It goes against the grain to label Cobra a great film, but with the story’s pseudo-exotic locale (it was filmed in one of the more beautiful areas in L.A.), colorful characters earnestly enacted by an attractive cast, boldly outrageous plotline, and gorgeous Technicolor, for me the movie provides a richer, more satisfying experience than many a Best Picture Oscar winner. Just as the Academy has a bias towards drama with important, timely themes over comedies that sometimes endure with audiences in a much more prevalent manner, it’s unfair that an incredible adventure that captures the imagination and provides an uplifting experience can’t be considered on the same critical level as a film with a more serious theme, as bringing an abundance of laughter and excitement is just a profound experience as making an audience ponder over a moral issue. Cobra may not lean towards any deeply intellectual topics, but in my opinion Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu cavorting in their makeshift South Seas paradise proves to be just as moving and satisfying in a positive manner as Schindler’s List is in a slightly more dire fashion.

Director Robert Siodmak, famed for his string of now-classic Film Noirs (including The Killers, Criss Cross and Phantom Lady, released shortly before Cobra) helms the proceedings with flair, maintaining a fun, energetic tone and a strong camp sensibility throughout the film (and Siodmak knew to not overplay the film’s fantastic premise, as the movie runs a swift 72 minutes). Nowhere is Siodmak’s considerable craftsmanship more apparent than in the film’s centerpiece, which finds evil High Priestess Naja beckoning for “King Cobra,” before, in an entranced state, she performs a withering, erotic kind-of dance around the serpent (or at least the pseudo-serpent that stands in for the genuine article in the long shots), climaxing with Naja choosing victims from the understandably increasingly frenzied crowd to be sacrificed at a later date, while the music builds to a crescendo. It’s a one-of-a-kind happening for sure, and Siodmak maneuvers his camera around the florid scene with style and skill.

Although stars Montez, Hall and Sabu received scant plaudits during their careers regarding thespian abilities, in Cobra and elsewhere during their 1940’s reign as Universal’s go-to stars whenever an exotic locale appeared in a script, the attractive trio provide a vacuous earnestness and unique flavor that is a distinct, invaluable component of these florid extravaganzas (the only aspect missing from this stalwart team in Cobra is the irreplaceable presence of Turhan Bey, who might have been sowing some Dragon Seed over at MGM). Montez, gowned in some fabulous, overwhelming creations by Vera West, possibly reaches her glamorous “Queen of Technicolor” peak in Cobra, portraying the good island girl Tollea and her aforementioned nefarious twin Naja with admirable ultra-serious intent and a fair level of conviction; Montez is clearly whole-heartedly invested in this fantastic project, thereby capturing the audience’s imagine and attention and making it easy for them to suspend disbelief in the film’s many improbable events and good-naturedly go along for the lively ride, including the peerless, famed moment during the climax wherein Tollea demands Naja to “give me that Cobra jewel.”

Hall, with his calm, unfazed demeanor and suitably beefcake physical attributes aptly serves the heroic requirements of his role as Ramu, matches up nicely with Montez and his agreeable stoicism grants a touch of sanity to the hyperbolic proceedings surrounding him. As Ramu’s young friend who aids and abets him through multiple adventures, Sabu performs with his standard spirit, simplicity and eagerness-to-please that marks him extremely likable as he cavorts around Cobra Island. Rounding out the principals, Lon Chaney takes a break from the horror genre to beneficially put his imposing stature to good use as Hava, the somber and imposing accomplice who joins forces with the hero and heroine as they battle against the island’s ominous (but entertaining) adversaries.

Technicolor has rarely looked as impressive and vibrant as on the current Cobra Blu-ray disc from Kino Lorber. With one exception wherein a tiny piece of green flutters around Sabu’s face for a few moments (and this may have been on the original negative), the print is consistently sharp and pristine. Cobra Woman, with an overbaked but irresistibly juicy plot and characters put over with inventive style and flair by a cast completely in sync with the story’s fantastic elements, provides a perfect antidote to and escape from trying times, for both WWII-weary audiences and viewers today looking for diversion from an oftentimes cumbersome reality. This exotic potboiler may not be high art, but something better instead- a robust, fanciful entertainment with no pretense to do anything but provide an inventive, satisfying piece of escapism.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Leigh and Mitchum Conduct a Charming Holiday Affair

                An appealing RKO seasonal romantic comedy from 1949 that has proved enduring through numerous telecasts (both from TCM and, years before, late-night showings on cable stations) and several releases on home video and DVD, Holiday Affair adds some nice twists to its central plot concerning a love triangle, and allows a chance for each of its principals (Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey) to shine. Director Don Hartman, who had much success as a writer (including two Oscar nominations) prior to his brief directional career, capably unfolds the storyline and captures the feel of NYC at Christmastime circa 1949 very well. Although some scenes fall into the stereotypical or overly-cute (Mitchum and Corey’s awkward banter after their first meeting, a contrived scene with the star trio and Henry Morgan as an alternately perplexed and sarcastic judge) Isobel Lennart’s engrossing screenplay, with its fine detail to each character and rare onscreen depiction of the problems faced by a post-war single-mother, draws viewers in quickly and allows them to understand and care about the principals’ motives, and what fate holds for each of them.

As Connie Ennis, a young widow attempting to raise her son Timmy (played with a good deal of charm by Gordon Gebert, and less guile than normally seen in child performers of the era) Janet Leigh gets one of her best early-career roles and runs with it. Discovered by Norma Shearer in early 1946 after the famed star caught a glimpse of young Jeanette Helen Morrison in a photo Leigh’s father proudly displayed at Lake Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl ski resort where Shearer was visiting, the untried ingénue showed a remarkable intuitiveness for screen acting from her first film role in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge. After future success, including great work in a now-classic Noir, Act of Violence and a fine, somewhat undervalued performance as Meg in her other 1949 holiday-themed film, Little Women, Leigh continued to thrive with her excellent delineation of Connie in Affair. The complex character includes a lot of emotional baggage, such as dealing with an ongoing attachment to the husband she lost in the war, trying to survive via a fairly thankless job as a comparison shopper, facing conflict brought on by her attempts to deny her attraction to Steve Mason (Mitchum) due to her lawyer fiancée, Carl Davis (Corey), and also encountering challenges rearing the strong-minded Timmy. Leigh manages to aptly demonstrate the constantly-shifting emotions Connie possesses with a rare skill, naturalness and spontaneity. Watching her impressive work in Affair makes one happy to know Leigh would go on to star in several classic films (and possibly the most famous movie scene of all time) that would ensure her reputation and substantial place in Hollywood history. 

              Mitchum puts his laconic, “Baby I don’t care” demeanor to good use as the guy who upsets Connie’s world after they meet and immediately connect, offering an early sign Mitchum could score in a traditional leading man role different than the Noirish anti-heroes which helped establish him in the late 1940’s. Mitchum also shares Leigh’s gift for instinctive screen acting, and the two play together in simpatico fashion, aptly conveying the fact Connie and Steve are made for each other, even while Connie fights against this notion throughout the film. Mitchum’s low-key, unforced style greatly aids in making Steve, who spends a lot of time analyzing Connie’s mindset and telling her exactly what he thinks of her and her decisions, a still-likable regular Joe who the audience can see building a future with Connie. Although the fairly straightforward character doesn’t give Mitchum the shadings to play found in his best work, as usual he finds a way to comfortably fit into the picture and, with a minimum of fuss, uses his strong masculine presence to the benefit of the film. 

The also-sometimes Noirish Wendell Corey gives a subtle, endearing performance as Carl Davis, the patient lawyer in eager to marry Connie. Carl is an intriguing character as, in contrast to most love triangle scenarios, as the clear odd-man-out of the trio he isn’t made unattractive and/or a flat-out jerk and/or an idiot. It’s clear Carl has worked to become a supportive, sympathetic figure in Connie’s life, and loves her enough to continue to wait for her forego her attachment to her lost husband and move on with him, and Corey and Lennart invest Carl with a calm, understanding nature, even as Steve enters the picture and complications become evident. Corey’s best scene finds Carl intelligently discussing with Connie the intricacies involved in their feelings for each other and her interest in Steve, which illustrates Carl fully understands the “it’s complicated” nature of relationships, and what the healthiest decision for him and everyone else will be. It’s rare to find a situation in a movie wherein both suitors seem to be equally-valuable catches for a female lead, but Connie has her hands full in this Affair, with Corey making Carl a winning, stable companion entirely worthy of Connie’s (or someone’s) affections.

             Outside of the triangle, young Gebert admirably handles his large role as Timmy (the movie’s really more of a quartet when forgoing its romantic elements to consider all the main characters involved in the plot), largely side-stepping opportunities to play things coyly and cute, and coming across as a normal boy trying to adapt to the idea of having a new father figure. Gebert’s interplay with Leigh in particular is unforced and rings true, cementing the story’s core mother-son relationship with a genuineness that proves to be one of the most valuable and memorable components of the movie. Gebert went on to make a few other noteworthy films, including 1950’s great Burt Lancaster action-adventure The Flame and the Arrow, before adulthood granted him a second estimable career in architecture. Rounding out the cast, Esther Dale and Griff Barnett do nice work as Connie’s visiting in-laws; although Mrs. Ennis’ askance look upon hearing Carl named as Connie’s intended is curious (as if the character can’t really like the lawyer because Steve/Mitchum is the better catch/bigger star, even though Mrs. Ennis hasn’t even met Steve yet) Dale brings the moment off, while Barnett has one of the movie’s most charming moments delivering a holiday dinner speech to his Mrs. and company. 

           Although not a box-office success upon its initial Christmastime release, Holiday Affair’s strengths have allowed it to build a nice following, abet via prints that haven’t always looked terrific on t.v. or even DVD, a situation that appears to be rectified, judging by the early reviews, with Warner Archives new release of the film on Blu-ray. Within the confines of its central romantic plotline, the movie manages to creatively address relationship issues and mother/son dynamics with a freshness and sensitivity that garners an audience’s interest and allows the movie to resonate with modern viewers over seventy years after its debut. The enduring charms of its talented cast, headed by a fully-committed Janet Leigh, aided fine work by Hartman and Lennart behind the camera, also are key factors in ensuring viewers enjoy a worthwhile Holiday Affair, whether it be December or any other season. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Powell and Loy Ideally Pair to Track Down The Thin Man

           One of the biggest hits of its era, the 1934 comedy whodunit The Thin Man, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett and skillfully directed by the prolific W.S. Van Dyke, features a top-grade cast and A-1 MGM production values, highlighted by one of the most perfect onscreen pairings of its or any era- William Powell and Myrna Loy, who portray the urbane, witty, free-spirited Nick Charles and his well-to-do wife Nora with disarming ease and unmatched chemistry (the film came out hot on the heels of another MGM hit helmed by Van Dyke and starring Powell and Loy for the first time, Manhattan Melodrama, with Clark Gable). Over decades the film has kept its reputation as one of the top MGM offerings, and due to the Powell/Loy dynamic the film retains a freshness rare to find in a 1930’s movie. As a bonus, the movie also serves as a somewhat unorthodox (given the subject matter) but apt choice for holiday viewing, as much of the film takes place during the Christmas season. 

 Van Dyke does a supreme job navigating the able players through a tricky plot that at times comes close to rivaling The Big Sleep in complexity; Van Dyke keeps things on track though (aided by a quality screenplay crafted by husband-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who mix comedy, mystery and marital elements with aplomb), and covers more ground in 91 minutes than most epics manage in 3-4 hours. Although the movie was shot on a tight schedule, Van Dyke carefully sets up each shot and maintains adept pacing in a manner that allows the audience to stay abreast of the array of suspects and the constantly-shifting focus on this largely untrustworthy group. Van Dyke also does a great job guiding the cast to give performances in keeping with the piece as a whole, with their colorful interactions managing to come across as less melodramatic than performances found in many films of the period.

Audiences had never seen a screen couple display such a spontaneous, off-handed approach in regards to their marriage vows before Powell and Loy’s surprising turns as Nick and Nora, who throughout the film appear to find good-naturedly ribbing each other as important as solving any murder, which was Nick’s stock in trade prior to his life of ease and cocktails with Nora. This iconic team is so bemused and in tune it’s hard to tell when the script is being adhered to, as opposed to them simply ad-libbing a line or gesture- it’s great to watch Powell and Loy’s reactions to each other’s shenanigans to try to determine when they’re playfully throwing a curveball in impish fashion. Powell is expert at delivering his dialogue with ace timing, and he knows exactly when to mug for the camera to hilarious effect right after a risqué line comes up. 

Myrna Loy makes such an impact in the film, alternately teasing and showing loving concern for Powell, it’s surprising during subsequent viewings of the movie to see how little screen time the character actually has, what with all the plot details to cover. Both stars seem so comfortable in their roles and with each other they hardly seem to be acting; making a pairing (and acting) look as easy onscreen as Powell and Loy consistently manage to do is actually no mean feat and deserves mention alongside many more highly-touted performances who took home awards for more serious-yet-pedestrian work. Fortunately the public grasped the value of Powell and Loy together, and it’s easy to understand how audiences immediately took to this uniquely in-sync teaming, leading to many other successes, both in the Thin Man vein and otherwise (1936 was a particularly good year for the Powell/Loy starrers, with After the Thin Man, Libeled Lady and The Great Ziegfeld all placing among the year’s top hits). 

In supporting roles, the reliable Nat Pendleton is both tough and endearing as John Guild, the frequently-perplexed police lieutenant who stays one step behind Nick and Nora in solving the primary crime, but apparently bears no grudge towards their more finely-honed sleuthing skills. Maureen O’Sullivan does a conventional ingénue job in a sizable role, abet with some of the genial charm seen to great advantage as Jane in the Tarzan series, while Minna Gombell puts her large eyes and often-florid emoting to good use as a nervous suspect. Porter Hall shows his skill for making a strong impression in a brief role as MacCaulay, a colleague of the missing title character, and Cesar Romero briefly shows up with not much to do, but looking like a template for an Art Deco-era lover. Most important among the supporting players is Asta, the most famous movie pooch this side of Toto, who knows when and when not to follow Nick and Nora’s instructions with uncanny canine sense. 

                Opening in May of 1934 after a swift shooting schedule saw the movie reach audiences within five months of the novel’s release, The Thin Man’s major box-office success led to four Oscar nominations (including ones for Powell, Van Dyke, the screenwriters and for Best Picture) and five sequels featuring Nick, Nora and Asta, as well as an eventual placement on the National Film Registry list of preserved films. Warner Archives has recently put out a great Blu-ray featuring a pristine print of the film that properly showcases James Wong Howe’s luscious cinematography and an awesome trailer with some pretty good visual effects wherein Powell meets Powell to discuss the movie. It’s nice to see The Thin Man looking this good over 85 years after the film first captivated a Depression-era public eager for the type of light, entertaining diversion the film and its irreplaceable stars so smoothly convey in their initial romp as the timelessly appealing Nick and Nora Charles. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Stanwyck and MacMurray Team for a Lovely Yuletide Night

      One of the most iconic onscreen pairings during the 1940’s started out the decade in a gem of a holiday-themed comedy/drama that has slowly risen in status, primarily due to showings on TCM, without ever gaining a warranted spot among the top Christmas movies of all time. Made a few years before their teaming as possibly Film Noir’s most ill-fated lovers in 1944’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray first demonstrated their easily chemistry and perfectly-meshed performing styles in ace director Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night. Crafted from a terrific Preston Sturges screenplay, made just before the multi-talented legend started his own directing career and cranked out a slew of unrivaled classics in short order, the film manages to maintain a believable and compelling mixture and comedic and dramatic elements during its 94 minutes, while never forcing its hand by pushing for easy sentiment or laughs. Every light and moving moment appears earned, thanks to the aforementioned stars, director, screenwriter, and a wonderful supporting cast. 

       Prior to helming Night, director Leisen honed his craft for years, first as an art director for Cecil B. DeMille before amassing an adept 1930’s directorial output (Death Takes a Holiday, Hands Across the Table, the wonderful Easy Living), which culminated in one of the best of the 1930’s comedies, or comedies period, the peerless Midnight, made just prior to this Night. It’s interesting to compare the way Leisen appears to carefully compose scenes in a classy, intelligent manner even when events become more frenetic to how Sturges might have handled the material, particularly the zanier aspects of the storyline. There’s a charm in how Leisen is able to confidently and smoothly switch from a stark dramatic scene (such as Lee Leander’s (Stanwyck) meeting with her mother, played with unforgettable placid grimness by Georgia Caine) to an endeavor involving the haphazard milking of a cow, without losing focus and throwing the film’s overall tone off. Sturges, although varying in his approach from Leisen’s calmer methods, later proved he could also blend heavy and light dramatics (see: Sullivan’s Travels) and his screenplay work on Night artfully introduces each character and shift in the story’s dynamics in a manner that presages Sturges own phenomenal output as a writer/director.  

                It’s intriguing to see Stanwyck and MacMurray paired as characters running counter to the iconic and underhanded Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson of Indemnity. In Night, Stanwyck’s Lee may possess some criminal intent at the outset (when Lee’s a shoplifter) but, coming out of the depression, the idea Lee steals to survive is a mindset many viewers of the time could relate to. For a modern audience, there’s still no problem identifying with Lee and her plight, because Stanwyck has such a natural, direct approach to acting (her work is probably the least dated now of any of her 1930’s and 40’s contemporaries) one connects with, understands and believes her characters’ motives, and wants to ride to glory with her, whether literally in a Western such The Furies or Forty Guns or here wherein she plays an endearingly flawed-yet-charming heroine without a trace of artifice. Stanwyck always managed to handle the nuances of a role with such adeptness she was able to switch from drama to comedy to romance in a scene with the apparent ease she displays in Night, but don’t try this at home- it’s a tricky proposition, and few if any could convey these multi-facets in a character as dexterously as Stanwyck does. I was going to write “as the prime Stanwyck does,” but when wasn’t she in her prime? Over 40 years after Night, Stanwyck remained absolutely riveting in The Thorn Birds, scoring one final major and widely-seen success to add to a career full of terrific work. 

As for MacMurray, he brings a relaxed, matter-of-fact demeanor to his playing of John Sargent, the lawyer who through a host of unlikely circumstances becomes involved with Lee over the Christmas holidays. MacMurray’s easygoing, extremely likable “regular Joe” personality aligns ideally with Stanwyck’s acting style, and you root for Lee and John to end up in each other’s arms where they so clearly belong. After John falls for Lee during their holiday excursion back to his old homestead, which includes a doting-but-practical mother (played by Beulah Bondi, naturally) MacMurray has a great moment late in the film wherein Lee nobly states she’s going to give John up due to her shady past, to which he affably proffers an “oh yeah, sure” type of response and reaction, as if John knows they’re made for each other and there’s no reason to waste time debating it; it’s a throw-away moment, but also deeply romantic and touching. MacMurray would continue to thrive in the light comedy vein wherein he first found success opposite Carole Lombard in the 1930’s, with 1945’s memorable Murder, He Says and his 1960’s heyday as one of Baby-Boomers’ ideal television and big-screen fathers via My Three Sons and a host of Disney films still to come, with a couple of satisfying forays into less virtuous roles via Indemnity and as the chief heel in The Apartment granting the dependable star a chance to shine against type in two all-time classics. Night captures MacMurray at his early-career best, with hints of the dramatic shadings that would come to greater fruition once Billy Wilder got a hold of him nicely offsetting the general levity MacMurray brings to his role.

The festive atmosphere kicks into high gear once Lee and John visit his mother and Aunt Emma (the always spot-on Elizabeth Patterson, whose byplay with Bondi as the two veterans amusingly spar over Emma's lack of cooking finesse provides some solid laughs) at the rural locale of John’s youth. Bondi is right at home as a folksy-yet-sage matriarch, who is both supportive and concerned regarding the burgeoning romance between John and Lee- she has a great moment with Stanwyck discussing the dynamics of Lee’s unorthodox relationship with John and what the future holds for them. Leisen expertly conveys a sense of time and place as the household prepares for Christmas events, such as stringing popcorn for the tree while singing songs together in the cozy living room, a scene so effective in creating holiday ambiance it brings to mind audience’s similar experiences. Completing the makeshift family, Sterling Holloway also scores as Willie, the lackadaisical, wistful handyman on the premises and, in one of the film’s highlights, he beautifully vocalizes with accompaniment on piano by Stanwyck in the aforementioned ideal holiday setting, while the others join in. Hearing Holloway’s normally hollow, high voice suddenly become impressively melodic and moving is both surprising and hard to forget.

 The richly entertaining blend of comedy drama, romance and holiday cheer Leisen and company provide in the class production Night represents makes one wonder at the various  circumstances at work in one film evolving into a perennial holiday favorite, while other films possibly more worthy of recognition fall by the wayside. Fortunately, the fact “film is forever” allows for a previously less-recognized jewel such as Night to eventually gain a wider audience as a top Christmas film, 80 years after its initial release in the case of Night. I became aware of the movie via the fine 2014 Blu-ray from the TCM Vault Collection (with an introduction by the late, great Robert Osborne), and the film is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and via streaming. If you’re in the holiday mood to see two top stars of yesteryear shine in an artfully-crafted concoction supremely guided by an ace director and writer, reward yourself by spending some time with this seasonal Night.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Lubitsch, Stewart and Sullavan Peak Around the Corner

        One of the most perfect films to come out of the studio system, Ernst Lubitsch’s tantalizing, ageless The Shop Around the Corner provides a satisfying option for those wishing to watch one of the greatest comedy/romances, holiday-season or overall movies ever made. The “Lubitsch Touch” is on deft display throughout, with the exceptionally-crafted screenplay by Samson Raphaelson and Miklos Laszlo aiding the masterful director in providing a sterling cast a chance to do memorable work that ranks among their best. MGM’s slick, high-class production values oftentimes appear dated now, but this is one offering that utilizes the studio’s assets without over-doing set designs or costumes, thereby threatening to throw the tone of the film off. An environment is created wherein everything seems exactly right in this artfully-created Budapest, and Shop glides through its 99-minute running time in an effortless, charming and ultimately moving manner, and few films stand up to repeated viewings as well, drawing in the audience each time to observe the various plights of an assorted group of employees working during Christmastime at Matuschek and Company with unwavering, rapt attention.

         Although he had already established himself at the forefront of film directors with an unmatched and highly individual element of class and style on view in classics such as Trouble in Paradise, Shop resonates in a manner second-to none when considering Lubitsch’s output. Although he makes it all look easy, it’s rare to watch a movie that “flows” scene-to-scene in such a consistently-believable and interesting fashion, allowing viewers to become invested in each character early on, and fully sharing in their fortunes and setbacks; there’s a humanity in these characters anyone can identify with, which allows the film to leave a deeper impact on a viewer’s memory than most movies manage. Although the oft-revised material could and has come across as overly “cutesy” in less-adept hands, Lubitsch assures the story unfolds with unforced and unsurpassed technique in this rendition.

        Former and future costars Margret Sullavan and James Stewart are in perfect sync with Lubitsch’s style and each other. It’s hard to think of another screen couple who perform together in such a natural, playful and charismatic manner; they’re ingratiating and touching throughout, creating one of the screen’s most beautiful on-screen pairings. As store assistant Alfred Kralik and Matuschek’s crafty new seller Klara Novak, who have a lot more in common than either suspects, the underlining affection these frequently-bickering colleagues share for each other is perfectly captured, mirroring Stewart and Sullavan’s long off-screen friendship. Sullavan has an endearing way of portraying all of Klara’s traits in a manner wherein the audience understands her motivations even when the romantic Klara is being too high-minded and idealistic. Sullavan glides through the role with such sure adeptness it’s easy to overlook how uniquely focused and on-the-money her work is, and how hard it is to play the multi-faceted Klara’s blend of resolve and romanticism without ever making her playing abrasive or force- you’re with Klara all the way, and want all her dreams to come to fruition, as she seems eminently worthy of them. 

        For James Stewart, Shop captures the actor at an early career high, and possibly the apex of his career; anyone who buys into the popular notion Stewart won his Philadelphia Story Oscar mainly because he missed out the previous year should take a look at the burgeoning star’s other seminal 1940 work, which supports an alternate view that Stewart may still have given the best male performance of 1940, if in a different movie than Story. There’s a genuineness and sensitivity in Stewart’s playing, and he is (ideally) as romantic and funny as Sullavan in Shop and, similar to his co-star, demonstrates an uncanny ability to seamlessly blend the comic and dramatic aspects of his role. Although I’ve enjoyed his work in many films, from lighter comedy to his much tougher roles in a slew of Anthony Mann Westerns and his career-topper as the sage lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder, I can’t think of another film wherein Stewart so perfectly captures every nuance of his character, with no nod to his endearing-but-sometimes-mannered “Aw Shucks” persona he adopted in many films. 

        The rest of the sublime cast also comfortably fit into the proceedings. As Hugo Matuschek, the owner of the title’s establishment, Frank Morgan lends an intelligence to the role surprising to those who know him chiefly from his colorful and amusing work as the most famous wizard in film history, Harry Potter be damned. Morgan’s trademark deftness in comedy is on display whenever Matuschek appears befuddled or jovial, but there’s also an unexpected element of toughness Morgan brings to the part, allowing one to believe he could be an imposing boss when needed. As Matuschek faces personal conflicts, Morgan shows impressive range in balancing comedy with drama, illustrating depth and fine emotional nuances (Morgan also demonstrated these skills a couple years later via his wonderful Oscar-nominated turn in Tortilla Flat). 

Joseph Schildkraut adeptly adopts a calm slyness in his playing of Ferencz Vadas, the fly in the shop’s harmonious environment, while Felix Bressart brings a likeable gentleness to his role as Pivovitch, a longtime employee and Alfred’s ally; Bressart has some great moments with Stewart and Lubitsch provides him with some choice bits as he acts as a go-between for Alfred and Klara. During the first few viewing of the film, Sara Haden and Inez Courtney didn’t leave much of an impression as Flora and Ilona, but their low-keyed, straightforward work is in perfect synch with the rest of the cast and helps foster the idea these close-knit employees view each other as family; they’re touching in a quiet, subtle manner when fate threatens to break up the group. Lastly, on initial viewing William Tracy might come across as a bit too abrasive as Pepi, the smug, ambitious youngest of the employees, but Tracy suggests a decency and maturity exists in Pepi’s disposition and actions, underneath the more prominent bravado, and he emerges as at least one of the movie’s heroes.  

At the risk of adopting an overly sentimental tone Shop masterly avoids, I’ll state the film holds a very special place in this viewer’s heart: Shop is watched once-a-year at Christmastime (it’s my favorite holiday movie) and remains fresh with each viewing. It also ranks in my top ten “desert island” movies, and takes a back seat to none of the estimable others. I’ve yet to show Shop to anyone who hasn’t fully appreciated the film’s timeless charm and most love it, whether it be a relative’s sister-in-law who grabbed the dvd box afterwards to ensure she had full information regarding the film (I think she wanted to take the dvd, but I couldn’t be that generous, not with my prized copy of Shop) or my three young nieces and their friend, who sat watching the film one holiday season with avid joy. This year promises to end happily with what should be a pristine print of the movie finally coming out on Blu-ray via Warner Archives, who also recently released the Stewart-Sullavan starred The Mortal Storm. I’m looking forward to catching two of my favorite costars in another work that has a pretty good reputation, as I’ve never seen Storm, but I don’t expect their teaming there to match the perfection achieved by Lubitsch and company in the gold standard for romantic comedies which The Shop Around the Corner represents.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

On a Celebrated Holiday with Hepburn and Peck

1953 proved to be a banner year for classic Hollywood which, along with the introduction of Cinemascope and the rise to prominence of Marilyn Monroe and 3D, featured such diverse classics as From Here to Eternity, The Band Wagon, The Big Heat, and William Wyler’s quintessential romantic comedy Roman Holiday. Wyler had a knack for bringing out a performer’s best and, wisely filming on location in the Eternal City to ensure the proper mood was captured, he proved to be the ideal directorial choice for the auspicious Hollywood introduction of the endearing and enduring charms of Audrey Hepburn. Happily teamed with one of the era’s top leading men, Gregory Peck (who insisted his largely-unknown leading lady be given above-the-title billing with him once the rushes starting coming in), Hepburn became an immediate audience favorite and won the Oscar to boot after so memorably portraying the film’s capricious, enchanting Princess Ann as to the manner (or palace) born.

Hepburn’s unique onscreen charisma was possibly shown to its freshest and most unforced advantage in Holiday. This is the kind of rare performance that blends the perfect performer and role in a way that transcends regular acting. Guided by Wyler in her first major film role (after playing small and bit parts in several British films- check out her charming brief exchange with Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob), Hepburn makes nary a false move throughout the film and, along with her beauty and beguiling nature, shows an intuitiveness for providing an emotional depth and truthfulness at the center of her work. Although she would be logically cast (and excel in) several Cinderella-type roles (Sabrina, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, et. al) after her enormous impact in Holiday, and offer her most iconic fashion “look” in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn continued to also work on her substantial dramatic gifts in both comedy and drama, resulting in some unforgettable portraits which offered a fascinating mixture of quite grace and turbulent emotions, specifically in 1959’s The Nun’s Story, wherein Hepburn beautifully conveys the moral conflicts facing her character as she attempts to maintain her religious convictions and in her terrific work in 1967’s double-header of Wait Until Dark and Two for the Road.

For Gregory Peck, Holiday provided a welcome change-of-pace after scoring a string of hits for nearly a decade as a handsome, stoic, reliable leading man in a series of dramas, most notably 1947’s Best Picture Oscar-winner Gentlemen’s Agreement and Twelve O’Clock High. Although Peck’s earnestness served him well and he could sometimes lend humor and colorfulness to roles (his work in 1946’s as the wise, gentle father in The Yearling and, in stark contrast, as the low-down but sexy villain in the same year’s Duel in the Sun are particularly endearing) he’d never taken on a flat-out romantic comedy.  As not-always-ace reporter Joe Bradley, Peck is clearly enjoying himself and eager to display his talents in a lighter vein. Along with his obvious rapport with Hepburn, he’s also great with Eddie Albert as Irving, his photographer sidekick who suffers a few indignities at the hands of Joe. Peck most valuable contribution may be in playfully providing one of cinema’s most renowned improvisations in probably the movie’s most famous scene at the “Mouth of Truth,” wherein Peck reportedly caught Hepburn off-guard and provoked a delightful reaction from her at the end of the scene, based on his mischievous actions therein. Albert also does solid, ingratiating work and scored an Oscar nomination for his troubles, while Paolo Carlini is also memorable as Mario, the shy-yet-cheery hairdresser who takes a shine to the incognito Princess and invites her to the dance that serves as a climax to the Princess’ adventures.

The ingenious, delightful story and screenplay by Dalton Trumbo is another critical component in the film’s success and ongoing popularity. Although blacklisted at the time and unable to collect his well-earned Best Story Oscar for his sublime work (Trumbo’s friend Ian McLellan Hunter agreed to stand in for him so Trumbo could collect a hefty salary by proxy; years after his 1976 death, the Academy finally rectified this injustice and properly credited Trumbo- God the blacklist was so stupid, and to no purpose) Trumbo hopefully could take some solace knowing how invaluable his contribution was to the film’s initial and ongoing success. In Trumbo’s hands, the fanciful tale never becomes overly sentimental or cute; for example, notice the carefully-composed dialogue early on between Peck and Hepburn in his apartment, before he’s aware of the visiting royalty therein, as the audience understands Anne’s asides are completely in keeping with her regal role, but not something Peck would be able to fully grasp without more information. Thanks to Trumbo’s smart, original work, the viewer buys into and follows Princess Anne’s exploits throughout the film without pondering how improbable the events might be in actuality (such as no one in Rome recognizing the princess, whose likeness has been filling the daily newspapers, as she cavorts around the city). 

Paramount recently came through with a wonderful restoration of the film via its Paramount Presents Blu-ray line, granting a new generation of viewers a chance to see this touching and timeless bittersweet fairytale in the best visual rendition possible. A critical and financial hit upon its release, with film rentals (according to Variety) of $3,000,000 and 3 wins from 10 Oscar nominations (besides Hepburn and Trumbo, Edith Head scored one of her eight Oscars for the film’s costumes), the glories of Rome and Audrey Hepburn never had a better showcase than in the inventive, artfully crafted Roman Holiday.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Betty Grable Finds her Ideal Screen Mate in Tights

Post-WWII audiences found comfort in films celebrating the joys of the American way of life, and in this vein 1947’s Mother Wore Tights makes no pretense to be anything other than another formulaic, cheerful 20th-Century Fox Technicolor musical, this one pertaining to a husband song-and-dance team who strive to blend family life as they raise two daughters while maintaining their ongoing stage careers in vaudeville. That was about it as far as the plot went, but gold was struck by pairing Fox’s reliable leading musical star, Betty Grable, with the affable, multi-talented Dan Dailey, and the film caught on in a big way with possibly the largest movie-going audience ever. Forming a unique onscreen kinship which would see them through three additional films after Tights hit big and made Dailey a star, these two hard-working pros show a clear admiration for each other’s adept trooping and, although the material may be standard, there’s a special good-natured aura created whenever Grable and Dailey are together, either performing ingratiatingly in several numbers or via dramatic or comedic scenes that place their work together firmly in the “irresistible” category.

Although Betty Grable downplayed her substantial fame as one of the leading female stars of the era (she was the first women past the age of 10 or 11 (when Shirley Temple ruled for four years) to hit the #1 spot on Quigley’s poll of top stars, in 1943 during her WWII peak) by saying she was standing on her two good reasons for being in show business, in actuality Grable worked at her craft in an earnest, down-to-earth manner that struck a chord with the public and kept her at the top of her profession for a good ten years, which doesn’t even account for the 10 or so years before her 1940 breakthrough, wherein she showed up as a chorus girl and second-lead in a string of programmers and sometimes more worthy offerings, specifically her memorable number in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. Grable bided her time in B programmers for the reminder of the decade, but once she showed up in Technicolor (stepping in for Alice Faye) in 1940’s Down Argentine Way, and shortly thereafter became the G.I.’s #1 pin-up girl via one of the most iconic images of that or any era, her status soon reached superstar level. 

Grable was a good soldier for Fox and reaped big profits during the war starring in a slew of relatively uninventive fare such as Pin Up Girl and Coney Island with handsome, interchangeable leading men. Given a chance in Tights at a role with more depth and maturity, Grable is phenomenally likable as Myrtle McKinley. Grable may have not have thought of herself as an actress, but she has a sincerity that can’t be beat, and her reactions in certain scenes (such as when her daughter sings one of mom and dad’s signature tunes near the end of the film) are very moving and create great audience empathy; you can’t fake this kind of earnestness, and the result is more touching and true than watching someone clearly acting to gain an effect. With Grable, you sense she simply is overcome, and one identifies with her so strongly you want to reassure her; moments like these make it obvious why Grable was able to remain an audience favorite for years after the war ended. I really wish Grable had taken on the meaty role Darryl Zanuck supposedly offered her in The Razor’s Edge that won Anne Baxter an Oscar, as I think it would’ve been fascinating to watch Grable apply her professionalism to a character that runs the range from charming to extremely downtrodden after a series of tragedies befall her. As things played out, she stayed in her bread-and-butter genre and kept giving her all (check out her dynamic “No Talent Joe” in 1951’s Meet Me After the Show for a prime example of Grable’s comedic and dancing prowess) until her retirement from films in 1955, not long after co-starring in and grabbing her share of laughs as “clever with a quarter” Loco in probably her biggest hit, How to Marry a Millionaire, with the emergent Marilyn Monroe.

                The light, big-lug persona Dan Dailey so capably adopts in Tights was but one facet of his impressive talents. As with Grable, Dailey started working as a performer during childhood and honed his craft for over a decade before gaining much ground in Hollywood. After a stint with MGM in the early 1940’s, wherein Dailey popped up in various small roles, including a memorably ominous appearance as a boneheaded fighter in 1941’s Ziegfeld Girl, Dailey was off the screen for several years before Mother launched a very productive period for him throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, including an Oscar nomination for 1948’s When My Baby Smiles at Me, wherein he offered a much deeper characterization than is typically found in a musical, and stand-out work in one of the last of MGM’s classic musicals (even though it underperformed upon initial release) 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather, wherein he again suggests a restless, discontented nature underneath a casual exterior. As Frank Burt in Tights, Dailey displays amiable, easy-going charm and an impressive confidence onscreen, given the film was his first starring role. Working with Grable in perfect unison (they’re particularly endearing putting over “Kokomo Indiana”) would lead to subsequent successful pairings with his favorite onscreen blonde, as well as work in the 1950’s with John Ford and his own co-starring hit with Marilyn Monroe via There’s No Business Like Show Business.

            Henry King reliably helms the proceedings and, although the latter stages of the film focus more on the exploits of the couple’s daughters (played by Mona Freeman and Connie Marshall) to the detriment of seeing more of Grable and Dailey’s perfect teaming, King had worked frequently with Grable before, and he knows how to stage the numbers to properly showcase both of his stars’ singing and dancing talents, and therefore reap the maximum entertainment value from each song offering (King also had major success in apart from Grable with Fox output such as State Fair and his big one, 1956’s The King and I). I’ll take King’s safe, solid craftsmanship over any of the arty latter-day directors who spastically whirl the camera around during a number, making it difficult to determine just what exactly the performer contributed to the piece. Tights has no such pretentions and its family-friendly storyline and that smash Grable/Dailey combination resonated with 1947 audiences, leading to the film bringing in over four million in rentals (according to Variety) to place among the top hits of the year and solidify Grable’s place in the top ten box-office stars (she placed from 1942-1951 in the annual Quigley poll, a feat match by few; Tights helped put her at #2 for ’47, just behind Bing Crosby), as well as spawning a big hit with the ballad “You Do” for Crosby and several others (Dinah Shore and Vaughan Monroe among them)- in the film “Do” is performed by Grable and Dailey in two contrasting renditions- his jaunty and featuring some lively hoofing, backed by a chorus line including Grable, who later does a beautiful job with a slower-tempo take on the song. 

Although outside of Millionaire most of Grable’s starring vehicles haven’t endured in the mainstream along with the more iconic classic movies that are frequently revived and discussed, some of her work has been represented on DVD and Blu-ray, including Twilight Time’s recent offering of a nice print of Tights on Blu-ray. Although conventional in many aspects found in standard Fox musicals of the time, Tights surpasses most of them due to the exceptional chemistry of its leads, and the movie is worth a look to see one of the supreme screen teams of the post-war era playing beautifully off each other, as Betty Grable and Dan Dailey adroitly put over the whole show with style, verve and a touch of class.