Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Lucy and Desi Reach Their Cinematic Peak Driving The Long, Long Trailer


 For classic movie fans, major buzz surrounding the release of Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos may conjure up memories of the actual big-screen output of the film’s beloved power couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Although Lucy and Desi famously met and united via 1940’s easy-going musical Too Many Girls, the apex of their cinematic outings occurred a few years after I Love Lucy shot them into millions of American homes and into the entertainment stratosphere, via 1954’s consistently beguiling The Long, Long Trailer, which afforded them the deluxe MGM treatment, with no less than Vincente Minnelli assigned to direct the adept, amusing screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (based on the Clinton Twiss novel), with his typical class and attention-to-detail. In depicting the series of mis-adventures that befall young newlyweds Tacy and Nicky Collini after they purchase the “New Moon” title character and venture out and about America, Minnelli admirably maintains a keen balance between slapstick, more situation-driven comedy, and a blend of the two, such as Arnaz’s constant paranoia regarding maneuvering the mammoth mobile home from point-to-point, and the ensuing chaos which occurs when his worst fears often come to fruition.

Long Trailer wisely maintains the reliable formula of misunderstandings and frenetic comedy that made I Love Lucy such a success, while also giving Ball and Arnaz chances to modulate their performances enough to add a somewhat more mature element to their one-of-a-kind chemistry, lending a freshness that allows the film to differentiate itself from its small-screen Phenom counterpoint, while still showcasing the unique teamwork that made the Ricardos such an enduring couple. Therefore, along with shenanigans surrounding the transient home that would fit right in with the Ricardos’ lifestyle (Tacy’s haphazard devotion to rocks comes into play, for example), the film also pauses occasionally for a calmer, more romantic moment, such as the carefree manner in which the stars trill their way through “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze” while doing exactly that down a scenic roadway. The first-class production values typical of any MGM and/or Minnelli cinematic outing is another welcome component, with a perfectly-coiffured Ball looking as glamorous as in her previous studio output, and Minnelli’s gift with set design on sometimes-amusing display (for example, the pink décor highlighting the “Just Married” sign on the back of the trailer matches the hues found on the bridesmaids’ dresses in the same scene).

           Lucille Ball had made a solid name for herself in pictures during the fifteen years prior to I Love Lucy, including fine work in the 1937 classic Stage Door and The Big Street (which prompted a rave review from James Agee) as well as serving as an ideal foil for Bob Hope, and the ease in which she depicts Tacy’s every thought and action shows the sure touch of a veteran screen performer. Ball instinctively seems to understand the importance of avoiding making Tacy a near-replica of most her iconic role, while still displaying the fine sense of broad physical comedy inherent in many of I Love Lucy’s most memorable moments. Toning down the wackier aspects of her television persona for much of the film, Ball appealingly adopts a more subtle comic approach; for example, notice Ball’s funny but subdued version of Lucy Ricardo’s trademark bawling in her first scene, as a bemused Nicky laughs off Tacy’s desire for a mobile home. This more grounded-but-still-very-much “Lucy”-based characterization allows the audience to believe Tacy’s quest for an idealized home-on-wheels is a practical notion, as engineer husband Nicky (sound familiar?) travels around the country. However, MGM and director Minnelli must have fully grasped the need to feature Ball in her most popular comical element, resulting in possibly the movie’s most memorable showpiece, wherein Tacy attempts to prepare dinner in the moving, bouncing trailer, with a literal tossed green salad and much worse wreaking havoc in every way possible around and on Tacy, as Ball sells the chaotic milieu with her matchless zany aplomb. 

Desi Arnaz’s Nicky serves as a close cousin to a certain Ricky, and Arnaz again deftly utilizes his under-rated skill at delineating a funny straight man with great natural charm and a sweet innocence. Early on, he also does a beautiful “no look” pratfall in the New Moon that does Preston Sturges (and Minnelli) proud- watching the stunt over, it’s hard to determine how Arnaz pulled it off without breaking some important part of his anatomy. In addition, it’s wonderful how, along with a series of Tacy/Nicky conflicts granting Ball and Arnaz a chance to fully explore the comic factors of that solid-gold dynamic of their partnership (and yes, Desi does end up slipping into his native tongue as Nicky during at least one zenith of exasperation), the film’s allowance for serene moments gives Ball and Arnaz the opportunity to display their deep affection for each other, such as in the scene wherein Nicky dreamingly listens to Tacy recount the moment she fell in love with Nicky or when, in touching fashion, the couple all-too believably mention one is no good without the other.

            At a stop-off along the byways and highways, Marjorie Main barges in with her typical Ma Kettle gusto and, aided by that bullhorn voice and imposing frame, proceeds to take over a couple of lively scenes as a fellow “trailerite” intent on helping the Collinis settle in for a brief rest (or unrest, with Main dominating the compact trailer’s space) whether they like it or not. MGM contract player and former Ball colleague Keenan Wynn (who complimented each other in one of the best MGM outings for both of them, 1945’s Without Love) also shows up as a traffic cop who directs the couple through a problematic intersection; Wynn must set a record for a performer’s best billing with the shortest actual screen time, as for this amusing bit that covers about one minute, Wynn received fourth billing. Wynn’s high placement on the cast list indicates how much of the film (smartly) revolves around Ball and Arnaz, with virtually everyone else getting a brief look-in as Tacy and Nicky roam around the country in a highly-diverting manner.

                Moviegoers hungry for a look at the peerless Ball-Arnaz combo in color (Ansco Color that is, with prints by Technicolor) and larger-than-life on the Silver Screen clearly weren’t disappointed by the resulting cinematic offering, as Long Trailer became one of the year’s most profitable releases, with (according to Variety) an estimated $4,000,000 in film rentals during the engaging comedy’s initial run. The current DVD of the film offers a nice print ideal for a rainy (or otherwise) Sunday afternoon viewing, which is how one Lucy-Desi fan first discovered the substantial entertainment value a Long Trailer can offer. The A-1 efforts of cast and crew have allowed the film to hold up as well as the more-renown t.v. counterpart, with the movie going over like gangbusters at a pre-COVID packed L.A. screening, which for this viewer illustrated how potent, timeless and universal the Ball-Arnaz teaming remains for legions of devoted fans.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Tuesday Weld & Company Soar in Axelrod’s Singular Lord Love a Duck

         Offering a memorable blend of comedy and drama, producer-director-co-writer George Axelrod’s one-of-a-kind Lord Love a Duck offers a unique, free-spirited portrait of Swingin’ Sixties youth caught at the crossroads between Beach Party movies and the hippie counterculture movement, with topical issues such as the Generation Gap, social status, suicide, and murder thrown into a daring anything-goes storyline. Axelrod somehow manages to maintain a sense of coherency as the tone of the film veers abruptly from farcical to tragic, then back again as the plight of beautiful self-absorbed teen-ager Barbara Ann Green unfolds during her senior year at the newly-established Consolidated High, keeping viewers enthralled as they wonder what surprise element will pop up at any given time during each scene. Following on the heels of The Loved One, the previous year’s equally-oddball comedy classic, Lord Love features a group of gifted players to rival the distinct group found in the earlier slightly-bonkers endeavor, and they aid Axelrod immensely in granting the film an off-kilter sensibility and flair that make it hard to put the film out of mind, even years after viewing.

         Axelrod wisely signals the haphazardness to come during the film’s chaotic opening, which finds the film’s protagonist, Alan Musgrave (a.k.a. Mollymauk) quacking his way through high school on graduation day as an unruly mob follows him, followed by a credit sequence mixing choppy, cinema verite-style editing of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage along with moments from the film, as The Wild Ones perform the catchy title song. After this frenetic start, Axelrod and co-screenwriter Larry H. Johnson (adapting the 1961 novel by Al Hines) introduce the film’s central figure in a calmer setting, as Alan recounts the plight of beautiful self-absorbed teen-ager Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld), first seen at night roaming around the grounds of the soon-to-open Consolidated High, wherein she meets the mysterious, elfin Mollymauk (Roddy McDowell), who appears seemingly out-of-nowhere as a guardian angel, who exists only to grant Barbara Ann’s every wish, resulting in an eventful, turbulent and rewarding senior year for Barbara Ann, often at the cost of those she encounters. One of the chief merits of the film is the manner in which Axelrod and Johnson dexterously provide a plentitude of mad-cap, satirical moments (along with a startling third-act shift into heavy drama) without throwing the storyline completely off-course as the characters move from one far-out premise to the next. Axelrod is trying something far afield from his previous stage and screen hits (such as The Seven Year-Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter) and he deserves plaudits for taking inventive risks that don’t always hit the mark, as opposed to producing a safe and less enduring comedy/drama.

       The gifted and inspired cast appears in total sync with the eccentric nature of the piece. As Barbara Ann, Tuesday Weld adeptly handles the formidable task of making the selfish, demanding teen wholly believable, vibrant and sympathetic with apparent ease (early on Barbara Ann informs Alan “Everybody has got to love me,” and Weld pulls the line off without seeming ridiculous or off-putting). Weld showed an impressive knack for comedy early in her career with attention-getting roles as Comfort Goodpasture, the boy-crazy, mature-beyond-her-years teen in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (with Weld bringing such fresh spontaneity to the role she escapes caricature) and, especially, on television as Thalia Menninger in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with the petulant, fickle Thalia serving as a warm-up for and distant cousin to Barbara Ann. Additionally, Weld possessed a dramatic range equal to any of her contemporaries, lending remarkable intensity to an impressive array of top performances. It’s stunning to watch Weld combine these two talents in Duck, instinctively knowing the exact stylistic approach to adopt for each scene to create a complex, vivid characterization; Weld adds clarity to Barbara’s motivations even when she’s acting in irrational fashion, and the skill and conviction she displays in switching from high comedy to deeply emotional playing is unforgettable to watch.

        Weld may be more famous today for could-have-been career-establishing roles in films she turned down (Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, True Grit and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) than her eclectic screen output. However, while simultaneously adhering to the role of a true Hollywood nonconformist, Weld nevertheless managed to put her original stamp on a variety of notable parts, such as her touching and funny work as part of Soldier in the Rain’s unlikely but compelling May-December romance with Jackie Gleason, wherein their carnival outing provides the screen with one of its most appealingly oddball and lovely dates (after mentioning past indiscretions, Weld’s Bobbi Jo telling Gleason’s character she’s no prize and him benevolently responding “Who is, Ms. Pepperdine, who is?” before Bobbi Jo comments on the sad, transitory nature of a fading firework is a beautiful moment) and her warm, melancholic heroine of The Cincinnati Kid, ideally paired with, and bringing out the romantic best in, Steve McQueen. Weld’s signature role came via her sly, perverse work as Sue Ann Stepanek, a Lolita with a dark noir twist, in 1968’s cult classic Pretty Poison (which Weld went on record as detesting the making of, even though she brings her typical excellence and flair to the role). Although seldom seen in high-profile hits, Weld’s talent assured her continued opportunities to shine during the 1970’s and beyond, finally breaking out of her cult status to gain mainstream success via an Oscar nomination for her tranquil, disillusioned sister in the bleak Looking for Mr. Goodbar then, after years of playing mainly downbeat roles (Play it As it Lays, Who’ll Stop the Rain, etc.), offering an alarming, lively turn in 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America, thereafter largely stepping away from the camera, but coming back for a much-needed amusing bit as Robert Duvall’s nagging wife in 1993’s otherwise-intense Falling Down.

As Mollymauk, Roddy McDowall gains one of his meatiest roles, and generates great natural chemistry with Weld, which helps to make Barbara Ann and Alan’s often off-the-wall interactions ring true. McDowall experienced phenomenal success in the 1940’s as one of the chief child stars of the era (How Green Was My Valley, My Friend Flicka) then, with the event of adulthood, largely left movies during the 1950’s to hone his craft elsewhere, resulting in a Tony Award on Broadway for 1960’s The Fighting Cock and a successful return to films thereafter, normally in character parts. Although, at about 37 during the filming of Duck, McDowall ranks as possibly the most mature high school senior this side of Stockard Channing in Grease, the improbable nature of being 20 years older than the typical 12th grader works in McDowall’s favor, as the somewhat otherworldly Mollymauk doesn’t seem entirely human anyway, being a protagonist who appears smarter than anyone else in wise-beyond-his-years fashion, with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly how to interact with and gain the upper hand on every person he meets. Mollymauk’s also involved in several shady proceedings as he works to gain Barbara Ann success in every endeavor, and it’s a difficult role to carry off without becoming abrasive, thereby turning the audience against you; however, McDowall’s spirited, confident style of playing (he’s great with his quackery, for instance), mixed with quieter, gentle moments with Weld, allows the audience to understand the deep devotion driving Alan to adopt extreme behavior throughout the majority of the film, to accord Barbara Ann the chance to continually move ahead in life. 

As Marie, Barbara Ann’s good-humored cocktail waitress mother, the ideally-cast Lola Albright brings a great deal of warmth and sensuality to the film’s most likable, direct and ultimately moving character. Albright matches up perfectly with Weld as far as physicality goes, and they also create a sometimes playful mother-daughter bond rarely seen onscreen; Marie and Barbara Ann come across as friends more than the mother-daughter dynamic typically found in films, making the relationship’s abrupt 180 turn into high drama devastating (Albright and Weld are both brilliant in this emotionally-powerful sequence). Although her screen time is limited, Albright makes such a strong impression with her deeply felt performance she won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival- I’ve read the panel wanted to jointly award the prize to both Albright and Weld, which would have made sense, but rules forbade giving out the award to two recipients.

Albright had made an early-career impact in Champion with Kirk Douglas and had a nice moment with Frank Sinatra in 1955’s The Tender Trap before her biggest fame on television a few years later as Peter Gunn’s singing sweetheart, Edie Hart, then gained her best chance onscreen in 1961 in an early independent film, A Cold Wind in August, wherein Albright lends great intelligence and depth to her skillful, persuasive work an aging stripper who becomes involved with a much younger man. Although post-Duck Albright’s film opportunities waned, with her last feature film work coming in 1968 (although she would continue to find work on television into the 1980’s), her indelible, emotionally-driven and sensual work in her best roles mark her, in a manner similar to Weld, as one of the most underappreciated but compelling actresses of her generation.

The rest of the top-flight cast manages to use their unique performance styles to fit into the film’s peculiar groove with aplomb. As Stella, the disapproving, overbearing mother of Barbara Ann’s high-society boyfriend/fiancée, Ruth Gordon blends her typical zaniness with a more hard-boiled nature, using the later trait to memorable effect in a strong confrontation scene with Albright and Weld. Martin West invests his role as Bob, Stella’s (in her words) “total idiot” of a son, with the right mixture of sincerity and buffoonery, and offers especially energetic playing once Bob is made the target of a series of Mollymauk’s nefarious schemes. Harvey Korman manages to come across as both frenetic and rigid playing the idealistic but out-of-his-element (once Alan and Barbara Ann take charge) new principal at Consolidated High, employing a low vocal range and a flamboyant sensibility to his work to push the character into the realm of the ridiculous, but in diverting fashion.

Stage veteran Martin Gabel also shows up to use his commanding voice to good comic effect as “Harry” Belmont, the inept producer of a string of bikini-themed pictures intent on making Barbara Ann a star once they meet at sea, while his current starlet girlfriend, Jo (a entertainingly deadpan Jo Collins), lounges on the shipboard sidelines wryly tossing variations of “Harry, you’re such a drag” out, even when he appears to be drowning. Finally, as Howard, Barbara Ann’s guilt-ridden father who left the family years before, Max Showalter (also known as Casey Adams) uses his goofy demeanor and googly eyes to disturbing effect in the film’s most daring and erotically-charged sequence, wherein Barbara Ann appears to seduce her dad into buying her a slew of cashmere sweaters, in order for her to join an elite girls’ club. As, in a progressively enraptured, sexual state, Barbara Ann tries on each color and intones the names (“Pink Put-on,” “Periwinkle Pussycat”) in tempestuous style to her transfixed daddy, resulting in the eye-rolling Howard growlingly reacting to each new shade with orgasmic glee, behavior which Barbara Ann then matches, a viewer wonders just how far afield of the still-kicking-but-soon-to-perish (especially with moments like this on offer) Production Code the scene will stray. Technically no intimacy occurs, but the suggestive nature of this sequence, which has been preceded by a scene of Barbara Ann and Howard gorging down a meal in a similarly lascivious manner, makes the mind reel, as Axelrod and company surely and impishly intended.

Lord Love a Duck faced mixed reviews (Variety’s headline deemed the film “Hilarious entry for current way-out cycle,” while Time labeled the movie “a murky black comedy about a teen-age dropout whose every wish comes true.”) and indifferent box-office from the public, unsure what to make of the movie’s bizarre potpourri of comedic and dramatic elements, who initially passed on viewing Axelrod’s unconventional and risky look at the burgeoning youth culture. However, Duck offers too many indelible moments and quality performances to be ignored, eventually developing a richly-warranted cult following over the years via such venues as late-night television showings, which proved to be a perfect showplace to be introduced to the unorthodox charms of the movie, as proved to be the case with one mesmerized teen close to the age of those depicted in the film, who thereafter could never shake off the jocular and haunting experience, and found himself decades later writing about the many merits of a truly original screen venture.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Elizabeth Taylor Answers BUtterfield 8's Call with Style

         An ideal example of what constituted a commercial property circa 1960, MGM knew exactly what they were doing when adapting John O’Hara famous 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 to the screen, forcing Elizabeth Taylor, their societal rule-breaking but major box-office draw/mega-star to play right into her current bad-girl image as the wayward Gloria Wandrous, who in one of the film’s more florid moments proclaims “I was the slut of all time” to her aghast mother, while still toning down the material enough to not make Gloria too controversial, in order to safely stay within the confines of the Production Code, even if as the decade turned the masses were starting to indicate a taste for more adult material onscreen, with sexy foreign fare such as La Dolce Vita as well as Psycho making a substantial impact with audiences. Although the throngs who turned out for 8 in late 1960 may have anticipated seeing a racier Taylor on film, MGM shrewdly crafted a star vehicle hinting at Taylor’s (at-the-time) scandalous off-screen exploits with Eddie Fisher (who the studio had no qualms casting in the film), while allowing their heroine to maintain an air of decency and class; in the film, the liberated Gloria’s been around the block, but is first hurt, then indignant by the notion someone might attempt to pay her for sex, as illustrated in the film’s memorable opening sequence.

         Ably directed by Daniel Mann, who wisely keeps his leading lady front-and-center in scenes throughout the movie, this introduction to Gloria also serves as a showcase star entrance for Elizabeth Taylor. Although Taylor (probably knowing what the studio was up to in using her scarlet reputation to help sell the film) hated the material and the resulting movie, she was possibly at her peak as far as “Elizabeth Taylor- Movie Star and Thespian” goes during the shooting, and you can’t keep your eyes off of her violet ones from 8’s first frame to its last. The leisurely outset of the film has Gloria rousing herself out of bed and, after calling out for her departed paramour, roaming around a luxury apartment, wherein evidence of the preceding night’s ribald events are discovered, before Gloria comes across a note with money left by her suitor, the affluent Weston Liggett, whereupon Gloria grabs a previously-inspected mink and heads uptown to Fisher. Throughout this passage, Taylor indicates Gloria’s every thought with straightforward, precise reactions and gestures, making it clear the romantic-yet-tough Gloria is no pushover or lady of ill-repute. As Gloria leaves the apartment in a huff, Taylor’s assured the audience is already firmly with her for the rest of the movie based on her smart, charismatic playing. Although Taylor in general (at the time and in retrospect) received greater plaudits for her impressive if more forced and obvious acting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the big revelation/breakdown scene during Suddenly, Last Summer’s jaw-dropping finale, she manages to achieve a maximum impact as Gloria without seeming to push the emoting as much- a more natural, relaxed and instinctive method of playing is in evidence throughout 8, and Taylor is ideally in tune with Gloria every step of the way.

        What Taylor pulls off in creating a full, wholly believable portrait of Gloria is no small feat, as the scriptwriters John Michael Hayes and Charles Schnee have trouble deciding exactly how to depict Gloria’s sexual liberation, painting her as both harlot and ultra-romantic heroine depending on whatever scene is unfolding. Therefore, you have moments such as Liggett’s creepy colleagues welcoming him to the “Gloria Club” as they talk about what a great lay she is mixed with one wherein Liggett states Gloria is good because she was seeking respectability despite her wild sexual nature (going by the mores of the times, a woman couldn’t simply have an active sex life outside of marriage and still be considered nice, additionally having to pay for her lusty behavior before the final fade-out- it’s amusing how often Code-area films appear to be completely obsessed with sex via constantly hinting at or suggesting ribald behavior as opposed to, for example, the casual, humorous and direct approach Mae West took to the subject in her pre-Code romps). 

       Despite contrivances surrounding the characterization, Taylor is in sync with Gloria’s passions and pitfalls, leading to the fantastic, emotionally-charged “I Was 13” confession, which certainly played into Taylor gaining her fourth consecutive Oscar nomination (this sequence would possibly raise even more eyebrows today, particularly when Gloria mentions she “loved it” despite clearly being taken advantage of by an older man after just entering her teens). Taylor pulls out all the stops as Gloria recounts her seduction at a tender age, and the dedication, conviction and professionalism Taylor demonstrates throughout the shocking speech is deeply moving and endearing.

        Regarding the famous Oscar win, it’s part of pop culture history that Taylor won the award for 8 simply because she nearly died during the voting process, leading to the Academy granting her the Oscar while Hollywood and the world simultaneously forgave her for any past discretions. Taylor herself supported this notion, while also stating (regarding the merits of 8) something to effect of “I still think it stinks” after winning the golden statue. Although Taylor faced quality opposition, particularly in the case of Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners and Shirley MacLaine’s seminal work in The Apartment, either of which could have also merited the award, it bears mentioning Taylor was nominated before any ill-effects entered the picture and, watching that climatic revelation speech, it’s difficult to place Taylor’s acting abilities below her contemporaries in the race, whatever the rest of the film’s assets or liabilities may be. Taylor was in peak form as both star and performer in 8 and, rather than merely a sympathy award, the win may more accurately fall in the category of exceptional work in a formulaic picture, which should possibly be recognized by the Academy more often, not less, as it might be harder to pull off great acting without much in the way of A-one support to be found elsewhere in the movie.

       It’s also wonderful to see Taylor given an opportunity to play some lighter material in 8. Taylor has a gift for putting over low-brow humor onscreen with great aplomb, witnessed by her lively work as the vain Amy in Little Women or Fred Flintstone’s haranguing mother-in-law, Pearl Slaghoople and, especially, in her robust work as X, Y and Zee’s free-spirited protagonist. However, based on her beauty and position as one of the cinema’s top female stars throughout her career, Taylor more typically was held to portraying more traditional, serious-minded leads. In 8, Taylor really comes alive whenever Gloria is afforded a good comeback line, and she’s great at sarcastic, wide-eyed reactions after a disrespectful barb is thrown Gloria’s way, conveying the idea Gloria would be a great gal to hang out with for lunch or a night out on the town based solely on her good-natured sense of humor, as opposed to the more evident sex appeal sought by men in the film, which the movie showcases via lush, glamourous MGM close-ups of Taylor, wherein Gloria appears to be a sensual icon for the ages.

      Concerning other 8 players Laurence Harvey, on a high after breaking through in the previous year’s Room at the Top, is a fairly good fit as Weston, the cool, somewhat oily 5th Avenue businessman who, in the manner of Top’s on-the-make Joe Lampton, has risen through the ranks based mainly on marriage to an affluent society girl. Although Harvey’s trademark stoicism and stiffness is well-placed as Weston (although not nearly as impactful as when utilized in his indelible, masterful work in The Manchurian Candidate) and he’s unafraid to depict the sometimes unhealthy nature involved in his attraction to Gloria, Harvey works at the romantic angle proficiently, showing Weston is torn by his desire for Gloria and guilt for straying from his compassionate, beautiful wife. In the other main male role Eddie Fisher, as Gloria’s lifelong friend, the composer Steve Carpenter, clearly was cast for his name value in connection with Taylor, featuring in scenes wherein she playfully attempts to flirt with and (at least in a pseudo sense) seduce the unwilling Steve, who is attracted to Gloria but, with his girlfriend Norma often in mind and in tow, is determine to nobly remain just friends. Fisher’s low-keyed, unenergetic playing tends to not linger in memory, but it’s intriguing to see maybe the world’s most infamous couple of the time onscreen; regarding the Taylor/Fisher notoriety, MGM unsurprisingly plays up this art-imitating-life angle, with the somewhat unadorned Gloria (clad in only a tight white slip) standing over Steve asking if she can do anything for him in teasing, mock-serious fashion, and the nature of the triangle existing between Gloria, Steve and Norma given considerable play during the film.

         The ladies in the cast often tend to have more fun than the guys, and make strong impressions in the process. Mildred Dunnock, who had thrived throughout the 1950’s with a number of key roles in important films and a couple Oscar nominations after starting her career with an ignoble boost down a stairway by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, is in fine dramatic form as Gloria’s understandably jittery, in-denial mother, and in her reliable fashion Dunnock manages to mine some pathos and individuality out of the part, resulting in some touching mother-daughter connections with Taylor. As Steve’s perturbed-yet-patient and remarkably understanding girlfriend (given Elizabeth Taylor is often lounging around Steve’s apartment whenever Norma shows up) Susan Oliver does alert, solid work and has a chance to engage in a little lively, catty repertoire with Taylor, while Betty Field as Mrs. Thurber, the knowing, caustic best-friend of Mrs. Wandrous, is given even more ample opportunity to spar with Gloria regarding her unconventional lifestyle, and her wry, acerbic exchanges with Taylor account for some of the film’s most entertaining moments; in addition, Field is able to enrich her role by emphasizing the great compassion Mrs. Thurber displays towards Gloria’s sensitive mother (there’s a wonderful moment wherein Gloria and Mrs. Thurber agree to bury the hatchet in order to appease a weeping Mrs. Wandrous, who’s been disturbed by their casually off-handed, not-so-good-natured digs at each other).

        As Weston’s wife Emily, Dina Merrill makes an entertainingly unorthodox entrance in the film via a skeet-shooting contest with her husband, but this gun-toting Mrs. quickly falls into the understanding-wife mode to even a greater degree than typically found in films at the time, with Emily forgiving her meandering husband anything, conveniently putting blame elsewhere; however, the lovely Merrill plays the role with grace and dignity, allowing Emily to be more believable in her convictions than might have been the case with just about any other well-breed leading lady in the role. Rounding out the cast, Kay Medford provides some additional and welcome comic relief as Happy, the proprietor at the motel wherein Weston and Gloria tryst their best, while also using her wonderful world-weariness to fine dramatic effect in her sole monologue wherein she recounts to Taylor her not-so-happy life’s misfortunes.

MGM got what they were after upon BUtterfield 8’s release as, regardless of reviewers’ responses, which garnered some praise for Taylor amid largely unimpressive reactions to the film’s other aspects, the film became the biggest box-office hit for the company since the mammoth returns of Ben Hur. Taylor also gained release from her MGM contract by fulling her obligations via 8, returning to the studio in triumph and on her own terms via 1963’s The V.I.P.s, which provided another financial lift to the studio as Fox’s Cleopatra loomed very large in the wings, thereby allowing MGM to beat Fox to screen with the first profitable Burton-Taylor pairing. 8 served as a fitting end to Taylor’s lengthy initial tenure at MGM, which spanned her initial rise to stardom via her wonderful work as Velvet Brown to a place at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy, with Taylor named the #1 box office draw by the renown Quigley poll the year following 8’s release (and with no 1961 release to her credit, the success of 8 must have factored heavily in Taylor’s #1 ranking); the film also offered its star the chance to pull off an indelible, substantive performance that ranks among her best, single-handedly pushing the movie outside of the realm of trashy melodrama (as phenomenally entertaining as that genre can be) into something considered worthy of more serious merit, at least in the case of Taylor’s distinctive work as Gloria.

And a fond adieu to Michael Nader, who passed away August 23rd at 76. Nader became well-known during the 1980’s via his work as Farnsworth Dexter on the smash Dynasty and on All My Children thereafter (after his introduction to soaps via As the World Turns in the 1970’s), but for at least one classic movie buff it’s his early cinematic work as possibly the most dashing and charismatic surfer boy in films (as Mike Nader, following his uncle George into the movies) via 1963’s Beach Party and several follow-up offerings of the same ilk that assures him a place in memory. I happened to watch Party, Muscle Beach Party and the all-time classic Beach Blanket Bingo just before Nader’s passing, and it was endearing to see how impressively Nader, although usually featured as one of the crowd of kids surrounding Frankie and Annette, stood out in these lighted-hearted excursions. It doesn’t hurt that, with his perfect tan and mega-watt smile, he could serve as the blueprint for the dreamy teen beachcomber of Gidget’s dreams (a role Nader went on to play on television opposite Sally Field), but Nader also invests a considerable amount of energy and focus into his scenes; whether he be interacting in flirtatious fashion with the girl he’s paired with (working especially well with Donna Michelle in Bingo), twisting, shaking and go-go-ing his way through any number of Dick Dale (and others) tunes, or doing a daring in-air flip into the sand in Muscle Beach Party, Nader is the emblem of carefree youth during the glorious days of summer.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Sandra Dee Rides the Wave to Stardom as Gidget

            As the jumping-off point for a slate of genre pictures to come in the 1960’s featuring sand, surf, music and romantic interludes, 1959’s Gidget provides a nostalgic look back at coming-of-age in a more innocent era (at least on-screen), including a generation gap theme much milder than the adolescent/parental conflicts found in such fare as Rebel Without a Cause or a couple of star Sandra Dee’s other 1959 offerings. Based on Frederick Kohner’s same-name novel, whose title character was influenced by Kohner’s daughter Kathy’s experiences as she strove to be accepted among the surfing set, Gidget handles both dramatic and comedic elements in an enjoyably straightforward manner, maximizing its appeal to audiences in the process, who must have found the charmingly uncomplicated Gidget a refreshing change-of-pace from the more disturbing, complicated themes highlighted in most teen-age dramas of the period. Gidget does flirt with a few adult topics, such as a possible May-December romance for the young heroine, but director Paul Wendkos and screenwriter Gabrielle Upton adeptly keep the film’s tone genial throughout, while also managing to detail Gidget’s many escapades on-and-off the beach in admirably compelling fashion.

                1959 proved to be a banner year for Sandra Dee, with three major offerings to her credit, including the classic tear-jerker Imitation of Life and one of the more memorable melodramas of the period, the florid A Summer Place. Although Dee showed dramatic prowess starting with her fine film debut (after years as a top child model) in 1957’s Until the Sail, wherein she handles a New Zealand accent with impressive aplomb at about 13 or 15 years old, depending on which biographical data one follows, and in some riveting dramatic moments in showdowns with Lana Turner in Life and Generation-Gap-Mother-from-Hell Constance Ford in Place, more typically Dee found herself playing wholesome young ladies offering less opportunities to show real dimension, leading to Dee being sent-up (and immortalized) in this Goody-Two-Shoes mode post-career by Stockard Channing in 1978’s Grease (even if it’s hard to believe Channing’s Rizzo would know much about what Troy Donahue wanted to do, with his star-making A Summer Place coming out later in 1959, sometime after those crazy Rydell High 20 (or 30)-something kids would have graduated and experienced Grease’s happy “We Go Together” finale).

                Although Gidget may serve as the blueprint for Dee’s sweetness-and-light image, this “Girl-Midget” at the crossroads between adolescence and young adulthood offers more facets than most ingénues and, as well as physically matching the requirements for the gawky (then blossoming) heroine, Dee is pitch-perfect throughout in displaying the character’s intelligence, independent mindedness and romantic longings. It’s nice to see a screen teen actually played by someone of the same age; Dee has no problem conveying a great deal of energy and spirit in a charming, unforced manner, possibly because she doesn’t appear to be performing traits that would be natural for a 17-year-old. Dee does show considerable acting ability and professional verve throughout the film though, working hard to stay present in each scene- she’s onscreen nearly every moment and remains endearingly earnest and positive, without becoming belabored or cutesy. Many other Gidgets would come, but this is a case wherein the original model is hard to improve upon.

                After a few years working his way up at Columbia Pictures, the ideally-cast James Darren scored a breakthrough as the clean-cut “Moondoogie,” spending a pivotal summer weighing the advantages of college in the fall over ditching convention for the seemingly idyllic life of a beach bum. Darren does a nice job displaying the calm, rational demeanor behind an often-brooding nature that indicates what a responsible, fitting mate Moondoggie would be for the smitten heroine enraptured by his considerable charms. Adding hugely to this is the fact that, in both in temperament and physical stature, Darren and Dee are a match made in cinematic Heaven, and when Darren smoothly sings the title song and later, a love ballad to his receptive costar, or shows a protective instinct when his pert intended appears to be coming dangerously close to adulthood (as in “a fate worse than death” lingo), the ultimate in wholesome 1950’s teen-age romance results. Launching off his success in Gidget, Darren would go on to quite a career after Gidget, with outside-of-Moondoggie highlights including 1961’s The Guns of Navarone, a wealth of success on television, and one of the catchiest pop hits ever, “Goodbye Cruel World.”

Cliff Robertson brings some welcome dramatic grit and maturity to the proceedings as Kahuna, the elder statesman among the surfers. Robertson admirably never plays down to his character in a condescending manner, fully committing to the part to depict Kahuna, an anti-establishment Korea War veteran who’s turned to a life on the beach with little responsibility for refuge, as a compassionate, conflicted soul trying to guide the younger surfing set who idolize him on the right path, as he tries to resolve his own destiny. Honing his craft at the Actor’s Studio, Robertson was soon thereafter on the path to major stardom following his debut in 1955’s smash film version of William Inge’s Picnic and his terrific work on television in Days of Wine and Roses; it’s admirable at a critical career juncture Robertson risked taking a change-of-pace, offbeat role in a movie clearly aimed at the teen-age set, as opposed to opting for a more typical white-collar leading man role that would befit a logical next step for a burgeoning leading man. With Robertson investing his considerable dramatic talent in the part (he particularly does a great job illustrating Kahuna’s strong fraternal instinct towards Gidget), while also allowing himself to loosen up during the character’s more uninhibited moments (catching pseudo-waves with the gang while wearing a perfect, irresistible straw hat, or grooving away at the beach luau), the caught-between-youth-and-adulthood Kahuna comes across as a highly original and refreshing counterpoint to the stoic, responsible male figures leading the way in most movies of the era.

Arthur O’Connell, who was achieving phenomenal success in hit 1950’s films, among them Oscar-nominated roles in Picnic and Anatomy of a Murder, does his patented befuddlement with ease, and his lighter “Dear-Old-Dad” take on fatherhood is in sync with the film’s overall jovial tone. Mary LaRoche, a prime example of the well-groomed, practical housewife during the era (see also Bye, Bye Birdie), has an uncanny ability to project warm understatement in her idealized mother role, and has several touching mother-daughter interactions with Dee. It’s wonderful to see two parents not portrayed as monsters because they don’t always agree with their offspring’s actions; although not always in accord with Gidget’s ideas to gain acceptance by her peers, these understanding elders actually listen to their daughter’s concerns and works with her to resolve problems relating to adolescent strife, instead of doing everything they can to wield authority and remain in control in bulldozer fashion. The film is as close to an anti-generation-gap movie as anything outside of Disney’s family-friendly output during the period, and O’Connell and LaRoche do fine work in illustrating the benevolence and love central to their characters’ parental nature.

Among the surfer dudes who razz Gidget before adopting her into their sector are Doug McClure, a far cry from his The Virginian stardom a few years later and Tom Laughlin, a galaxy away from his career-defining work as Billy Jack. Pertaining to Gidget’s girlfriends who try to catch the boys’ eyes less successfully than the waves manage to, Yvonne Craig represents the chief on-the-cusp of greater fame starlet, with several years to go before teaming up with Elvis in a couple of his lighter fares then, iconically, with Batman and Robin on television. Joby Baker also makes an endearing impression as Stinky, who runs a surfboard business in between hitting the water with the gang; in general, all the young cast and extras maintain a sense of light-hearted fun and appear to be enjoying the ride on-and-off the surf.

The popularity of Gidget spawned a franchise as the spry, knowing teen went on to travel to Hawaii and Rome in the 1960’s with Darren/Moondoggie in tow but, alas, without Dee, who was tied up with home studio Universal as one of its top players after her smash 1959 cinematic year suddenly turned her into one of the top-ten box office stars for several years. The influence of the film had much to do with the iconic 1963 introduction of Frankie and Annette in American-International’s Beach Party, which likewise resulted in franchise success, while Gidget moved on to television in 1965, providing Sally Field a career lift-off in the process, with many Gidget t.v. offerings to follow. However, the initial screen incarnation of this enduring and endearingly optimistic, action-oriented teen offers a perfectly blended mixture of exceptionally-cast leads performing with charm and dedication, an entertaining and compelling character-driven script and smart, efficient direction that places the 1959 Gidget in a class by itself.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Pros and Cons of a Woman's World, circa 1954

       Offering a twist on the popular cinematic trend of “trio” films centering on the exploits, romantic and otherwise, of three female stars (dating back to 1925’s Sally, Irene and Mary, at least), 1954’s Woman’s World (based on Mona Williams’ novelette May the Best Wife Win) technically concerns the corporate world and the three men vying for a top position as General Manager at the NYC-based “Gilford Motors.” However, 20th Century Fox had recently struck gold with the femme-helmed How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Coins in the Fountain and therefore, guided by the sure hand of director Jean Negulesco (who oversaw both Millionaire and Three Coins), the wives of the three G.M. candidates are detailed with as much (okay, more) emphasis as their male counterparts, offering an interesting take on some of the era’s prevailing views of both sexes in relation to big-business endeavors.

                Of the female leads, June Allyson as wholesome Midwesterner Katie Baxter is possibly the most prominently featured, but her character’s frequently-detailed ineptitude as a small-town doe lost among the sophisticates in the Big Apple grows tiresome quickly, and it’s disconcerting to see, based on other characters’ reactions to her, the audience is clearly meant to view the often-inane Katie as the most appealing wife, as she doesn’t pose a threat to the men by, you know, coming across as intelligent and/or ambitious- happy with domestic bliss, Katie doesn’t want her husband Bill (Cornel Wilde) to win the position and uproot the family from Kansas City. Allyson was having quite a career surge at the time playing variants on the idealized American housewife, with the same-year’s smash-hit The Glenn Miller Story really upping her stock in this vein (and her patented good wife in the same year’s all-star Executive Suite also helped- damn, June was busting out all over in 1954), but her best work may have preceded this Golden Era, with her lively gregariousness in 1947’s Good News and her sly take on “Thou Swell” pretty much stealing the show in the all-star Words and Music in particular showing off Allyson’s unique musical talents. Allyson also occasionally demonstrated she had seldom-tapped dramatic abilities outside of her perfect housewives (check out her tense performance in The Shrike, or Allyson’s breakdown scene in Strategic Air Command, which briefly shifts the tone of that Vista Vision aerial epic into darker psychological territory).

                As Elizabeth Burns, the most practical and perceptive of the wives, Lauren Bacall has on paper a more straightforward role with less opportunities for big moments, but Bacall is fascinating to watch in possibly her most pitch-perfect performance this side of her remarkably–assured debut in To Have and Have Not and the terrific follow-up, The Big Sleep. Bacall is clearly “on” in some of her performances, which ended up suiting her just fine once she hit (and then conquered) Broadway, but this overt style could come across as forced on-screen; however, in this World she tones down her playing significantly and maintains an element of intrigue and subtle depth that makes the audience stay focused on Elizabeth as she ponders marital issues brought about by a workaholic husband Sid (Fred MacMurray), and challenges him regarding the promotion that could cause irreparable damage; Bacall is great at conveying Elizabeth’s independent spirit, while still indicating the conflict she faces over her love for Sid and doing what she feels is right in order to save him at the expense of their marriage. She’s also very likeable interacting with Allyson as she helps (or, well, tries to help) Katie find her footing among the NYC elite, offering evidence that Elizabeth possesses enough social skills and Big City know-how to possibly aide the men both in and outside the boardroom.

                Although Bacall’s Elizabeth may hint at being equipped to handle the pressures of the business world, Arlene Dahl’s Cathy Talbot, in direct contrast to the supposedly more appealing Katie, shows the most overt ambition in wanting husband Jerry (Van Heflin) to climb the business and social ladders, and is willing to assist him in highly unorthodox fashion. As was typical during this period, a woman in film demonstrating she might want something better than an idyllic life at home (normally with kids) has to be revealed as unbalanced at the least (see Jennifer Jones in The Man in the Gray-Flannel Suit for the all-time neurotic example of this type) and a heartless villainess at worst. The script does Dahl no favors in painting Carol’s least-admirable traits at the expensive of any good qualities but Dahl, in addition to her phenomenal beauty (which is used to somewhat nefarious purpose in World) had considerably more charm and skill than she was given credit for (probably due to her incredible looks stealing the spotlight from her performance abilities). Yet, watching Dahl in something like Three Little Words performing “I Love You So Much,” after you get past the jaw-dropping opening close-up of her looking magnificent in an MGM Technicolor glamour shot for the ages, the playful sensually she incorporates throughout the rest of the number as she cavorts up, down and around a staircase with a group of eager suitors, sashaying along while trilling (in her own voice) “La-Dee-Da-Da” as memorably as Diane Keaton would later (almost) say it, suggests Dahl had magnetism worthy of better cinematic opportunities. At least among largely-decorative parts Dahl did get a few chances in movies, such as her disturbed sibling in Slightly Scarlet, ideally teamed with her chief 1950’s cinematic sister, Rhonda Fleming, or her adept, bemused work in one of the last of the 1950’s big hits, Journey to the Center of the Earth, wherein she pairs up wonderfully with James Mason, to illustrate what a fine, professional talent she possessed. In World, the part may be deprived of much depth but there is meat to be found in the role, and Dahl plays the largely unsympathetic Carol with flair, energy and yes, seductiveness, making some audiences members view the character in a more acceptable light (as in, “Man, this is a fearless gal who knows what she wants!”) than the disapproving onlookers in the film (and, probably, in 1954 theaters).

                Although the female stars are allowed the most ample chances for stand-out emoting, the male leads perform in a reliably stalwart fashion fitting to the chiefly male-driven professional business world of the period, “driven” by Gifford Motors in a literal sense in the movie, affording the filmmakers a chance to showcase a few awesome Ford Models of the period at the story’s outset. As Ernest Gifford, who stands as judge and jury regarding who the next G.M. will be, Clifton Webb is his usual quick, acerbic self, and he fits the role as a world-weary tycoon with becoming ease. As Bill, the youngest and frankest candidate, Cornel Wilde plays in the earnest, laid-back manner that served him well throughout his career, especially when supporting more theatrical ladies whose characters witnessed much ado about them (Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Linda Darnell in Forever Amber, etc.). Wilde’s calm, reassuring masculinity has great appeal, and Wilde never appears to be trying to force the limelight onto himself, opting instead to perform in a direct, no-nonsense fashion that helps move the sometimes complicated or far-fetched material (specifically in the Bill/Katie scenes) along with a minimum of fuss.

                After achieving stardom with an Oscar for fantastic, edgy work in 1942’s Johnny Eager and cementing himself as a valuable Noir player throughout the 1940’s in riveting fare such as The Strange loves of Martha Ivers and his memorably cold, caustic cad who (unwisely) shuns Joan Crawford in Possessed, by the mid-1950’s Van Heflin was settling into a productive period wherein his proficient professionalism was put to great use in a variety of mature roles, such as the homesteader in the previous year’s smash Shane, or his easy command as Major Huxley in a 1955 blockbuster, Battle Cry. In Women’s World Heflin does a nice job demonstrating Jerry’s staunch belief that he can only accept the G.M. position on his terms, as well as illustrating the character’s growing wariness regarding Carol’s extroverted efforts to gain him an advantage with Gifford; Jerry has cause for concern, but the chauvinistic view of the time deeming a woman can’t help a man in business is also front-and-center, and Heflin doesn’t shy away from portraying Jerry as something of an immoveable ass in this area (cue the film’s sophomoric tagline: “It’s a great big wonderful Woman’s World- because men are in it!”).

 Fred MacMurray’s gets a chance to show his great aptitude at conveying sweaty shiftiness as Sid, the man initially most eager for the position. Although among all his leading men and idealistic father roles he seldom was allowed to play ignoble parts, MacMurray’s skill at portraying nervous, spineless guys you can’t trust really has few equals onscreen and, as he did with even greater impact in the same year’s The Caine Mutiny, MacMurray seems to relish being the least-likable character in any room. Sid does manage to have some redeeming attributes, which MacMurray reveals particularly during a touching dinner/reunion scene between Sid and Elizabeth, but even then the audience can be forgiven for speculating how honorable Sid’s next move will be, as they wait for the worm to turn yet again.

Director Jean Negulesco had an uncanny knack for deftly crafting these slick, hard-to-resist all-star entertainments, and he keeps the various plotlines flowing throughout a brisk 94-minute running time, allowing each star key moments to shine (in close to career-best fashion in the case of Bacall and MacMurray) without throwing off the tone of the piece, in most cases (only Katie possibly overstays her welcome, and could’ve caught a Greyhound back to the kids in Kansas City mid-film with a quick “adieu” to Bill). Throw in lush 20th-Century Fox production values (including Cinemascope, Technicolor and the Four Aces singing the title song with their typical aplomb) and voila!- the perfect recipe is created to serve up a prime, flavorful piece of 1950’s drama with an industrial slant.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Crop of Uninhibited Talent Has a Field Day in Caged

           The grandmother of all subsequent women prison dramas, 1950’s Caged fittingly was produced at Warner Brothers, as the tough, uncompromising nature found in the studio’s bread-and-butter genre, the gangster film is evident throughout this prime example from its sister genre. Director John Cromwell, screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (who knows exactly how to compose all those shadowy prison bars) and a truly incredible cast proudly maintain a rich melodrama flair throughout, which somehow proves more powerful and unforgettable than a realistic depiction of the events might have- every one of the movie’s many conflicts are delineated with a vividness that makes it difficult to pick out one most memorable moment, as nearly every scene features a dramatic highlight that would serve as the sole, buzzy “remember that scene?” topper for many other classic movies. However, the film does attempt to make viewers aware of the serious problems and injustices found in the prison system at the time in an intelligent, straightforward manner which, along with the film’s more sensational aspects, helps the sharp Caged remain relevant and riveting viewing.

Cromwell proves masterful at guiding his strong ensemble; the veteran director instinctively seems to know when to offer a trenchant close-up showcasing a great moment, or when to emphasize a more subtle approach in order to feature each player at her thespian best. Cromwell also does a great job setting up exciting showcase scenes such as the “girls gone wild” cell block riot. Kellogg makes an equally valuable contribution with a smart screenplay featuring solid, entertainingly florid dialogue (“Kindly omit flowers” is one of many killer lines) and scenes illustrating Kellogg’s substantial gift for creating arresting plot points which grant the players a treasure trove of unforgettable moments to play, which they do with sublime verve (each cast member deserve a pardon for knocking her role out of the cell).

Eleanor Parker had slowly worked her way up the ranks at Warners during the previous decade but, despite several prime assignments, including a very interesting, underrated take on Mildred in the 1946 version of Of Human Bondage, by 1950 she was still waiting for the major career breakthrough Caged would afford her. Parker took a risk accepting the role of Marie Allen, as there was an unknown variable concerning how much critics and the public would rate and embrace the heretofore uncharted subject matter, but she must have recognized one of the richest character arcs available to an actress when she perused the script, and Parker admirably ran with it, resulting in a Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival and a well-deserved Oscar nomination in a legendarily competitive year. Parker masterfully employs a quavering voice and nervous, wide-eyed quality at the outset, as the naïve 19-year-old Marie finds herself put away after serving as an accessory to her husband’s robbery, then shifts gears as the policies and politics of the system wear Marie down and she becomes more immoveable. But before that, Parker handles Marie’s riveting emotional outbursts in astounding fashion (just as she would ace her highly dramatic role, and gain another Oscar nod, in the following year’s Detective Story) and due to Parker’s committed, convincing playing, the audience is pulling for Marie to come up aces throughout the film.

As Evelyn Harper, the calm-yet-caustic prison matron, the imposing Hope Emerson has a rare talent of making every line sound like a sneer, and she’s pretty magnificent at portraying each of her character’s vicious actions with a disturbingly sedate vindictiveness. Evelyn could serve as a blueprint for all the subsequent depictions of cold nasty pieces of work overseeing inmates (paging Nurse Ratched), but Emerson adds great originally to her meaty role by often playing the character with a cool detachment, signifying Harper is completely confident of how much power she wields, and of the ignoble, unorthodox methods she can employ to keep these gals in line. Emerson’s deliberately casual playing of such a rotten tomato actually makes her even creepier and more formidable than a more aggressive approach, as Harper appears to be able to effortlessly work the system to her advantage while wreaking havoc on her supervised environment and the prison system in general, without being hindered by attributes such as scruples or feelings of guilt regarding her tyrannical actions.

In most films these two performances would dominant the other players, but Caged proves to be an all-timer in regards to perfect casting. One tagline on the film’s poster (also found in the movie’s trailer) mentions “a brilliant cast you’ll long remember,” and in this case the hype is apt. Over seventy years on, it’s amazing to watch so many performers make such a strong impression- the film is a feast for high-powered emoting, offering a wealth of colorful, multi-faceted roles, and the cast rises to the occasion in each instance. In some cases, such as Gertrude Michaels (the likable waitress Joan Crawford befriends in the previous year’s Flamingo Road) as a well-to-do inmate who goes stir-crazy in one of the most vivid early scenes, or Lee Patrick as Elvira, the powerful vice queen who takes a very clear shine to Mary (Elvira is one of the more forthright portrayals of a lesbian found in an American film up to that time), their perceptive work in against-type casting is so different than their other lighter roles one may feel compelled to double-check the cast list to confirm their involvement in Caged.

Agnes Moorehead gives one her most controlled and intelligent performances as Ruth Benton, the prison superintendent working hard to make a better life for the inmates. Moorehead does a great job at illustrating the strength of character that drives Ruth to take on the bureaucratic red tape (and the men behind it) hindering progress, or to challenge Evelyn’s nefarious agendas as Ruth tries hard to give a well-earned sack to Harper, but she also suggests the resignation and compromise involved in such a demanding job. Ruth has to pick her battles, and although she demonstrates a caring nature towards the inmates, Moorehead makes it clear Ruth understands there’s not room for a sentimental demeanor in her position- she has to stay as tough as her foes to have any hope of achieving positive change for the prison.   

Jan Sterling offers some welcome lighter moments as Smoochie, the easy-going, wisecracking prostitute who relates her letters home from mother, and the audience eagerly looks forward to each of her “I got news for ya” utterings as Smoochie comments on the action and her fellow inmates various personalities. As the sad-but-hopeful June, Olive Deering, with her low voice and melancholy eyes, conveys a haunting presence that is hard to shake off, even years after viewing (when I watch The Ten Commandments, as soon as Deering appears, thoughts of June in Caged spring to mind). Gertrude Hoffman as the oldest and sagest inmate has a very satisfying moment challenging the bullying Harper (you believe this “lifer” is up to the task of cutting the evil matron down to size, thanks to Hoffman’s sedate-yet-ominous tone that proves an ideal match to Harper’s calm malevolence) and, in a larger role as the awesomely-named Kitty Stark, a leader among the inmates, Betty Garde has an equally memorable confrontation with the tormenting Harper that makes one want to cheer (I would love to catch a showing of Caged with a packed house of appreciative fans). Smaller roles are filled by the likes of no less than Ellen Corby and Jane Darwell, indicating just how rich the field of players was for this once-in-a-lifetime cast.

Many women-in-prison-peril movies have followed, but rarely in this distinct film genre (or any other) has a cast made an impact with the potency the talented roster of players in Caged manages. Drawing an audience in from the first scene as the innocent Marie is indoctrinated into her brutal new world, Caged never lets down during its mesmerizing 96 minutes, thanks to the resolute efforts of Cromwell, Kellogg and an astonishing cast clearly intent on revealing every facet driving their characters’ actions, leading a to a wealth of grim but extremely compelling scenes. Other films of its era may be regarded in a more respectable light as a venerated classic movie, but few have dated less or offer such a richly rewarding viewing experience as the down-and-dirty, take-no-prisoners Caged.