Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Peerless It Happened One Night Cements Superstardom for Gable and Colbert

             One of the granddaddies of the romantic comedy genre, It Happened One Night constitutes one of those happy accidents in film history wherein, setting out to produce a modest studio picture with a minimum of fuss, all the filmmaking elements seamlessly meshed to instead create a timeless masterpiece possessing its own unique style and individuality. Expertly helmed by Frank Capra, the 1934 Columbia film represents an early cinematic example of a sleeper hit, with Depression-weary audiences immediately connecting with the beguiling storyline and charismatic stars, and word-of-mouth allowing the film to go on to achieve great success with both critics and public. Relaying the exploits of spoiled heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and her encounter with freewheeling reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) during a lengthy bus trip which provides several mis-adventures, the adept screenplay by Robert Riskin (based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams) does a fantastic job of blending romantic-comedy elements into settings easily-identifiable by the common moviegoer, providing a nice twist to much of the escapist entertainment of the period dealing with more upper-class scenarios. Here, the upper class as represented by Ellen is firmly brought down-to-earth by both Peter and her surroundings in an ultra-satisfying manner, such as when Ellen is made to wait in line for her shower at a camp, or has to cavort around the countryside with Peter later in the film. Sequences like these strongly resonated with filmgoers of the period and have a similar impact on modern audiences, such is the enduring appeal of this signature comedy.

Frank Capra would go on to a great degree of success making pictures celebrating the trials and tribulations of the everyman, but he possibly never again achieved the level of freshness and charm on display in this earlier classic. The narrative stays straightforward and the playing unforced throughout the film, with no attempts at overt sentimentality or deliberately-lovable characters allowing It Happened One Night to become dated and unconvincing. Capra does a wonderful job maintaining an appropriate easy-going tone while introducing the array of colorful characters Ellen and Peter meet during the trip, with a naturalistic approach seldom found in his later work. A prime illustration of this is the famous “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” sequence, wherein the bus passengers take part in an ensemble rendition of the song in a seemingly spontaneous, lovely fashion. The disarming simplicity Capra incorporates in his direction allows viewers to establish a vivid rapport with each scene and character, allowing the film to linger in the memory as a cherished favorite.

The two stars also have a great deal to do with the movie’s ongoing status as one of the key films of the 1930’s. Although Clark Gable was loaned out by MGM to Columbia to curb his ego in the face of his burgeoning career and Colbert was firmly focused on the rich payday the movie afforded her, the stars (literally) aligned to ensure two players were given roles exquisitely suited to their talents. For Gable, Peter Warne offers one of his best showcases for utilizing his sly, sexy glamour against the persona of a tough but decent, relatable guy for the masses. There’s also a playfulness to his work that immensely adds to his and the film’s likability factor, and in scenes such as Peter explaining to Ellen his method for undressing as he proceeds to do so (sending the sales of t-shirts plummeting in the process), one fully comprehends how the film sent Gable’s already-established stock as Moviedom’s chief male star into the stratosphere, with him deservedly earning the title as Hollywood’s “King” in the process, as he continued with a stunning run of hits and classics during the next decade (Mutiny on the Bounty, San Francisco, Gone with the Wind, etc.) before Gable went to serve during WWII, then returned post-war for success in a more sporadic vein, with 1953’s Mogambo opposite Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly and excellent work in his final film, The Misfits, alongside Marilyn Monroe providing two peaks for Gable in his latter-career stage.

As Ellen, Colbert possesses plenty of presence and charm of her own. Starting in movies during the silent era, by 1934 Colbert had honed a calm, confident skill on camera, and she goes about her work in an alert, completely unpretentious manner, with no hints of the showy emoting often seen in the early sound era. And as with Gable, Colbert appears focused and spontaneous while interacting with her costars, in the process creating in Ellen a fully-rounded character, indicating the class and breeding of a socialite, while remaining amusingly game for whatever life on the road has to offer (with Colbert in the role, you believe Ellen when she tells Peter, who has just show her how to dunk a donut in one of the film’s more memorable bits, that she’d “change places with a plumber’s daughter any day,” or when she impulsively sticks her tongue out, then smiles at, a bratty girl (who started it with her own tongue-lashing out) in that shower line). Colbert comes up aces at every turn in detailing Ellen’s sometimes flighty, sometimes more personable, but always good-natured behavior, and it’s easy to see how she became a leading-lady mainstay and top box-office draw during the next two decades, with Oscar-nominated work in Private Worlds and Since You Went Away, along with hits such as 1939’s amazing Midnight (which makes for a great double feature with It Happened One Night), The Palm Beach Story, So Proudly We Hail, The Egg and I and her movie swansong, wherein she outclasses the field in 1961’s Parrish.

Gable and Colbert are beautifully in synch throughout their iconic pairing, and although in appearance they clearly rate as an idealized romantic team, their direct, no-nonsense interplay possesses a contemporary vibe, nearly 90 years after the movie’s release. Unlike most romantic comedies (both then and today), wherein the audience knows from the outset the two leads are destined to end up together after initially sparring in “meet cute” fashion, Gable and Colbert play their chance encounter without a trace of adorability, only indicating a casual interest, which makes the eventual deepening of their relations all the more satisfying. Whether at-odds or warming towards each other, Gable and Colbert maintain a believable, easy chemistry, leading up to their most famous interaction, wherein each exhibits their method for hitchhiking, with Ellen providing the more fruitful system for hailing a ride, after Colbert first drily states “Oh, that’s amazing” in hilarious deadpan manner in response to one of Gable’s more elaborate “thumbing for a ride” gestures. Based on their adroit byplay and phenomenal success in this landmark film it was inevitable they would be teamed again and, via 1940’s smash Boom Town, Gable and Colbert were pleasantly reunited, abet with a more traditional romantic angle involved.

Among the rest of an indelible cast, several reliable character actors make strong impressions, as was the wont among the era’s awesome pool of supporting talent. Walter Connolly is alternately terse, funny and spry as Ellen’s understandably-perturbed father, while Roscoe Karns scores heavily as Oscar, the oily bus mate who proves annoying to both Ellen and Peter. Charles C. Wilson also makes a strong impression as Peter’s exasperated newspaper editor, and in smaller roles Ward Bond stands out as the gruff bus driver who memorably states “Oh yeah?” ad nauseam, and Alan Hale is briefly seen to memorable advantage as the outwardly jovial driver who gives the roaming couple a lift after Colbert’s attention-getting legwork.

The initial success of the film enhanced the careers of all the majors players, leading up to the film claiming the National Board of Review’s Best Picture prize before gaining even greater renown as being the first movie to gain all of the top five Academy Awards (for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay). This accomplishment still holds up today, as the work of Capra, his sterling stars and a first-rate cast and crew continue to enthrall lovers of classic film, and of films in general, with pristine prints of the movie available via Criterion’s excellent 2014 Blu-ray release and a recent 2022 4K disc from Columbia, wisely offering one of its cinematic Crown Jewels in the best viewing format possible. Romantic comedies may come and go, but the experience of journeying along with Gable and Colbert as they find adventure and love on the road has never become stale for several generations of movie-goers, and it’s safe to state It Happened One Night will continue to enchant future viewers in the same irresistible manner.

             I just completed a tribute to Clark Gable featuring his work in It Happened One Night and many other of his top films. The video can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Kc4Qlh2b0HQ

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds Gain Everlasting Fame in Singin’ in the Rain

The rare classic movie that remains fresh regardless of passing years and repeat viewings, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain made no pretense as a work of art upon its release (ala the previous year’s Oscar-winning An American in Paris), but over the decades it has rightfully come to be regarded as possibly the greatest cinematic musical ever and, for many, one of the best films period. Although co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, working with a witty, ingenious script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, set out to make a lighthearted follow-up to their more ambitious On the Town, Singin’ provided one of the scarce film instances wherein every element, starting with that ace screenplay and a perfect cast, blended seamlessly to create a singular work of entertainment carrying its own unique, inimitable magic and sense of fun that assured the movie would linger and rise in stature while other more highly-touted offerings aged indelicately.

From the opening sequence at a grand 1920’s Hollywood premiere to the lively finale, Kelly and Donen keep the film’s pacing over 102 minutes remarkably spontaneous and diverting, with Comden and Green doing a fantastic job of blending era-evoking musical standards by producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (along with a couple newer songs) into a storyline that recounts, in hilarious fashion, many of the problems filmmakers faced in the transitional period from silent to sound pictures, making Singin’, in addition to its remarkable entertainment value, a now-important document of a critical period in the history of movies. Centering around the top romantic pair in silent pictures, Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (the unsurpassable Jean Hagen) and the problems Lamont’s shrieking vocal quality and Lockwood’s perchance for ham-fisted emoting causes their home studio, Monumental Pictures, as it attempts to re-shoot their latest (but immediately passé in the wake of The Jazz Singer) epic, The Dueling Cavalier, the plot moves from strength to strength, with Kelly and Donen expertly staging one terrific musical number after another, while the story becomes richer and funnier as the film progresses.

                After starting his film career at the top with first-rate work opposite (and great chemistry with) Judy Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal, Gene Kelly had firmly established himself in film, gaining an Oscar nomination for zestful, charming work in Anchors Aweigh, which included his famous dance with Jerry the Mouse, then gaining his place as the top figure in musicals after the critical and commercial successes of On the Town and An American in Paris, which won a surprise Best Picture Oscar and a special Academy Award for Kelly. Singin’ would represent his peak and also the last successful musical (in terms of both box-office and critical appeal) of his career, although 1955’s edgy and inventive It’s Always Fair Weather and Kelly’s labor of love, Invitation to the Dance, were yet to come. With his forthright delivery style, effortlessly cheerful disposition and megawatt smile, Kelly was a perfect fit for the egocentric-but-amiable Don Lockwood, and he gives one of his most charismatic and assured performances, while putting over several classic numbers with his typical skill and athletic verve, including his (and maybe filmdom’s) most famous musical moment, the romantic, joyful rendition of the title number, which in the space of a few minutes sums up the Gene Kelly persona on screen, while he lifts the spirits of every audience member, making viewers want to be up there with him dancing up a (and through the) storm.

                For costar Donald O’Connor, Singin’ represented a huge career boost and also his peak. As Cosmo Brown, O’Connor performs with an impish glee and quick wit rarely seen, showcased unforgettably in one of the film’s highlights, his all-out solo offering ”Make ‘Em Laugh,” wherein O’Connor offers some gravity-defying moves among the awesome hilarity he displays throughout the number. O’Connor’s amazingly agile dancing skills provide the robust Kelly with the perfect partner, and their work in tandem on “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes” feature both at their lively best, and therefore represent two of the most buoyant examples of hoofing in screen history. A true pro, O’Connor started in films as a pre-teen (1939’s Beau Geste marks his top undertaking during this period) before moving on to prance his way through a series of B musicals during the 1940’s. Mainstream stardom came via 1950’s Francis and its sequels, and after the success of Singin’ O’Connor was seen to fine advantage in two more big musicals of the period, 1953’s Call Me Madam (wherein he is wonderfully paired with the lovely, nimble Vera Ellen in the dance numbers and puts over the show’s signature tune, “You’re Just in Love” with charm and verve alongside powerhouse Ethel Merman) and There’s No Business Like Show Business, wherein he teams with Mitzi Gaynor and Marilyn Monroe for one of the film’s more memorable moments, the drolly staged “Lazy.” Although his post-1950’s screen output was limited, Singin’ assures O’Connor of his rightful place as one of the most talented, dynamic performers ever to appear onscreen.

                As independent, spirited ingénue Kathy Seldon, Debbie Reynolds caught her star-making break after moving to the forefront of MGM starlets via 1950’s Two Weeks with Love, wherein she performed a rousing version of “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” that caught the attention of moviegoers and off screen would provide her with the first of two major hit records. Although Reynolds was largely untried as a dancer prior to Singin’, she energetically keeps up with her co-stars during the challenging, elaborately staged “Good Morning” number and this, combined with a natural vivacity and keen, intuitive comic sense seldom seen in a newcomer (Reynolds screen test from 1948 makes it evident she had a rare, incredible presence and spirit from the get-go), make her the ideal ingénue for the general tone of jubilance witnessed throughout the film. Following Singin’ Reynolds would go on to become one of the bigger names in movies during the 1950’s-1960’s, with the success of 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor giving her that second major record via the #1 “Tammy,” one of the signature late-1950’s tunes, and an Oscar nomination for her vigorous work in The Unsinkable Molly Brown providing two highlights during her primary years as a top star. After leaving the screen for over twenty years for the lights of Broadway (via Irene), Vegas and elsewhere following excellent dramatic work in What’s the Matter with Helen?, Reynolds made a triumph return to films in 1996 with stellar work as the title character in the exceptional Albert Brooks comedy Mother, then would continue to thrive in theater and films up to her passing in 2018. Although her rich career offers many great moments, Singin’ is perhaps the movie that best captures Reynolds’ talent, with all its youthful exuberance on full display.

                As Don’s dim-yet-shrewd, egomaniacal costar Lila Lamont, who possesses a tin ear and voice to match, Jean Hagen displays ace comic timing and a verve for all-out performing to match her ebullient on-screen colleagues. Hagen first showed a knack for low-brow comedy in her film debut as the other woman in Adam’s Rib (the origins for Lamont’s shrieking delivery style can be found here) before scoring dramatically as the moll in John Huston’s classic noir, The Asphalt Jungle. Hagen’s flair for mixing colorful emoting with more realistic aspects of a character is clearly on view throughout Singin’, with Lina often made the ridiculous butt of jokes, but also showing plenty of mettle as she schemes her way to greater glory; with Hagen in the role, you believe Lina can be both idiotic and imposing. After her success in Singin’, Hagen would gain a large measure of fame on television in Make Room for Daddy, then work less frequently after abruptly leaving the series, with the 1959 Disney smash The Shaggy Dog offering Hagen her highest-profile film work thereafter.

                Without a word, Cyd Charisse announced herself as a phenomenally sensual screen presence as the slinky temptress who diverts Kelly in the big “Broadway Melody” production number. Prior to Singin’, Charisse had spent a decade in films with limited success, occasionally popping up as support as a sweet, graceful young ingénue in a big MGM Technicolor opus such as Ziegfeld Follies, The Harvey Girls, or Words and Music, but making little impact in more standard fare. However, with her entrance in Singin’ via the most spectacular gams imaginable, she immediately marked herself as one of the most unforgettable dancers and femme fatales in film history, masterfully holding the screen while staying in perfect synch with Kelly throughout the lengthy “Melody.” After her breakthrough in Singin’ Charisse would thrive alongside Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon and Silk Stockings and reunite with Kelly for Brigadoon and the terrific Fair Weather, wherein Charisse oddly doesn’t dance with Kelly, instead showcasing her terpsichorean brilliance in an awesome number in a gym with a group of rambunctious fighters. After solidifying herself as the screen’s chief female dancer in the 1950’s, with the downturn in popularity for screen musicals Charisse found her screen output dwindle, with a guest appearance in 1966’s The Silencers, wherein she still dazzled with those legs and her own unique sensual flair, being a later career highlight, while her strong MGM output assured Charisse would be prominently featured via the That’s Entertainment series of films, and fondly remembered to this day as, in Astaire’s words, “beautiful dynamite” on the screen.

                Among the rest of the top-grade cast, Millard Mitchell finds the right stoic-yet-comical tone as Monumental’s often-befuddled studio chief, R.F., and gets to share in one of the movie’s funniest moments with Kelly and O’Connor during the finale. As specific Hollywood types, Rita Moreno is a game stand-in for a Clara Bow flapper, and Dora Blake uses her sing-song, fluttery vocal delivery to perfection as Dora Bailey, the excited gossip columnist who announces the arrival of Don and Lina, then interviews them at the film premiere seen at the outset of Singin’. Finally, Kathleen Freeman provides one of her many brief-but-memorable, amusing turns as Phobe Dinsmore, Lina’s understandably exasperated diction coach.

                Upon release, Singin’ in the Rain scored nicely at the box-office (with in rentals of $3,300,000, according to Variety, allowing the film to place among the top ten hits of the year), established Reynolds and Charisse, and received critical acclaim, with O’Connor ultimately taking home a richly-deserved Best Actor Musical/Comedy Golden Globe and Hagen Oscar-nominated for their stellar efforts, and Comden and Green winning a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Written Musical. Although in 1952 the film wasn’t held in as high regard as Paris, On the Town or other seemingly bigger musicals of the period, during the passing decades Singin’ has diminished not a whit in regards to the appeal and entertainment the movie provides with its peerless numbers, screenplay and a cast for the ages, growing in stature exponentially over the impending years, to the point where today the film often ranks high on lists and polls pertaining to the greatest films ever, while continuing to chase away the blues and put a smile on the faces of fans, old and new, as they view the wonders to be found in one of the cinema’s peerless musical masterpieces.

                As a p.s., I recently created a video tribute to the work of Gene Kelly, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/aMlkgkdcvV4

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Joseph Mankiewicz Moves to the Cinematic Fore with A Letter to Three Wives

                                    

               Offering one of filmdom’s slyest, most trenchant looks at marriage among the social classes, 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives granted Joseph Mankiewicz his ticket to major acclaim as one of the pre-eminent writer/directors of his era, while setting up a one-two punch of him winning four Oscars in the space of two years for writing and directing (with 1950’s legendary All About Eve matching Letter’s success). The film details the plight of three women who discover, while out on a country fieldtrip with nary a cell phone to be found, that one of their spouses may have deserted them for Addie Ross, a cunning friend of the trio adored by the husbands and tolerated by the wives. In flashbacks the audience is introduced to the women’s various backgrounds and interactions with their spouses and others as each woman ponders her fate. Helming with aplomb, Mankiewicz provides a truly first-rate cast with sparkling dialogue and situations, which they enact with great skill and verve, resulting in career-best work for several players, and close-to-it for just about everyone else.           

                After the introductory passage compellingly sets up the basic plotline, Mankiewicz adeptly highlights each of the three primary relationships, which become more enthralling as each marriage is depicted. The first segment details war bride Deborah’s (Jeanne Crain) union, as she finds herself a fish-out-of-water post-war while attempting to adapt to a life of affluence after marrying the town’s major catch, Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn). Although Mankiewicz reportedly didn’t think Crain was up to the level of the rest of the cast, the young star disproves this idea; as was the case in her best roles, Crain exhibits a warmth and a calm, subtle presence that proves ideal for Deborah, and she also adds elements of insecurity and bitterness that make the character much more intriguing to watch than the average ingénue of the period. Crain would also score the same year in a more dramatic vein and gain her sole Oscar nod for fine work as the title character in Pinky (one of the most successful, in box-office terms at least, of a spat of racially-themed films of the time), before returning to more standard fare during the 1950’s. As Brad, Lynn does good work with Crain and also adds a little edge to his character, but of the six principles he’s seen the least, and is literally out of the picture as the film moves into its two most entertaining acts.

                Mankiewicz tackles a fairly progressive take on marital bliss (for the 1940’s, in any case) as the film depicts a day in the life of Rita and George Phipps, with radio writer Rita shown as the family breadwinner over her sensible, English teacher husband. As Rita, Ann Sothern has perhaps her best role after spending years paying her dues in a variety of films, such as the Maisie series and the occasional grade-A production (MGM’s Lady Be Good comes to mind). Sothern has a wonderful, casual delivery style and ace timing, throwing out her lines in a natural, bemused way much of the time, while also vividly illustrating Rita’s concern for her marriage as her ambitious plans to better George’s position brings conflict to their previous idyllic partnership. Kirk Douglas, just before major stardom arrived with Champion, is also spot-on cast against-type (or what would become an against-type role for him, post-stardom) as the calm, introspective George, although in his biggest moment wherein George spouts a diatribe regarding the inanities involved in radio advertising to Rita’s employers, plenty of the patented Douglas forcefulness that would drive many of his greatest roles is in full evidence.

                The centerpiece of this section involves a dinner party, which allows for the introduction of Thelma Ritter in her breakthrough role as the Phipp’s direct, no-nonsense maid Sadie. After years of stage work, Ritter made a strong impression in her Miracle on 34th Street film debut as a stern mother taking on Santa Claus at Macy’s, and her beguiling talent for effortless scene-stealing was given its most prominent showcase to date in Letter, her third film, opening the door for a thriving career throughout the 1950’s and beyond as everyone’s favorite supporting player, amassing six Oscar nominations in the process but no wins, which to this day serves as a great party game among movie buffs discussing the question of the Ritter performance that should have gained her the prize (her sparkling work in 1951’s The Mating Season gets at least one Ritter fan’s vote). Florence Bates, who never shied away from playing unpleasant characters with great relish and without a care concerning gaining any audience sympathy (most famously in Rebecca), is also in her element as Rita’s boss, the caustic, overbearing Mrs. Manleigh,  who forthrightly shares her notions regarding the value of radio broadcasts, while Hobart Cavanaugh is on point as her milquetoast husband. The dinner also introduces the couple who’ll factor in the film’s most memorable sequence, Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway, vividly enacted by Linda Darnell and, in his film debut, Paul Douglas.

                This final segment details the unorthodox romance between Lora Mae, a girl living literally besides the railroad tracks, and her boss, department store honcho Porter. Mankiewicz does a fantastic job relating the clever maneuvers and assets Lora Mae utilizes to hook Porter, and Linda Darnell comes through in memorable fashion. The lushly beautiful Darnell had started her leading-lady career at 20th-Century Fox in 1939 at 15(!) and, after spending several years as the sweet, charming ingénue in hits such as The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand, which showcased both her and Rita Hayworth in their prime Technicolor loveliness, with 1944’s Summer Storm she made a startling switch to playing tough, no-nonsense gals looking out for their best interests and using their seductive powers to move ahead in the world. She’s in peak form in this mode as the world-weary waitress driving Dana Andrews to distraction in 1945’s great film noir, Fallen Angel then, after fine work in another classic, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, got her biggest chance as the title character in 1947’s Forever Amber, the film adaptation of one of the biggest novels of the decade, which scored heavily with post-war audiences but was largely bypassed by critics.

Darnell was competent in Amber, but Lora Mae provides a much better vehicle for the star to display her talent for depicting a ambitious, street-smart characters- it’s great to watch Darnell alertly taking in every situation, showing how Lora Mae is constantly accessing her relations with Porter and others to maintain the upper hand; check out her brief initial introduction to the other Douglas’ character, George, as Lora Mae dines with Porter, for a chief example of the deft manner Darnell adopts to show Lora Mae sizing up a situation. Beyond the character’s calculating demeanor, Darnell also reveals a forlorn side to Lora Mae, as she struggles to keep up a detached front with Porter as simultaneously the couple’s feelings for each other deepen. Darnell would continue to produce good work into the 1950’s, most notably in a Mankiewicz dramatic follow-up to Letter, 1950’s tense No Way Out, but Lora Mae represents one of the signature roles in her career, and possibly the peak of her reign among the top 20th-Century Fox players.

As Porter, Douglas puts over his first film role with the expertise of a film veteran, and underplays with great maturity and dexterity. He appears so unaffected and spontaneous that the viewer is immediately fascinated by exactly what Porter’s motives are in regards to Lora Mae, and what makes this self-made man click in general. There’s a great scene wherein Porter is leaving Lora Mae after a date, and you see him sitting alone in a car in deep thought, reflecting on where their relationship stands. Without a word, Douglas conveys to the audience how emotionally involved Porter has become with Lora Mae, and the fact this attachment may be dawning on Porter for the first time, as he lights a cigarette and tosses the car lighter out the window as he would with a match before driving on, without a care or any realization as to his miscue. He and Darnell also generate great chemistry throughout, clearly depicting both the combative nature and the strong desire that bond them together.

Great support is also featured in this portion of the film, with Ritter again scoring, due to Sadie being the best friend of Lora Mae’s warm-yet-forthright mother, Ruby Finney, played to perfection by Connie Gilchrist. A highlight of the film involves Sadie and Ruby at the Finney’s kitchen table prior to Lora Mae’s first date with Porter, as the women discuss Lora Mae’s possible motives behind dating the boss, as the trains roll by and shake the house to the rafters. This is followed by Porter’s arrival, and Gilchrist does an exceptional job switching between awed reverence towards the tycoon Porter, to a very direct, scene-ending assessment with Ritter of Lora Mae putting on airs as she and Porter depart. Gilchrist also makes “Bingo” a key line in the movie, and one of the funniest. Additionally, Barbara Lawrence is seen to good effect as Lora Mae’s sassy, knowing younger sister, Babe, having her great moment giving a sage, “I know the score with these two” look at Lora Mae and Porter as Babe leaves the house with her date for New Year’s Eve.

Regarding overall support in the film, as the unseen Addie Ross who narrates the proceedings Celeste Holm provides one of the best voice-overs ever, richly imparting the guile and high-toned airs that draw men to Addie while turning off even her closest female friends. I love the way Holm mentions Crain for the first time, saying “Deborah,” in a terse, disapproving manner, making you understand how the highly competitive Addie views all other women as adversaries more than allies, whether this attitude is warranted or not. Also, there’s been speculation over the years the ending of the film is left open to interpretation, but this idea doesn’t give proper credit to Holm for clearly emphasizing the movie’s conclusion via her final line as Addie.

Upon its release in early 1949, A Letter to Three Wives received top notices and solid box-office returns ($2,750,000 in film rentals, according to Variety, placing it just inside the top 25 grossers of the year in the U.S.). The film went on to earn an ample share of plaudits, including placement on both The New York Times and The National Board of Review’s top ten list, Writer’s Guild of America and Director’s Guild of America prizes for Mankiewicz, and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, to go with the two wins for Mankiewicz. Although none of the film’s terrific cast were nominated (possible due to the ensemble nature of the piece- back then stars didn’t normally try for nominations in the Supporting categories, as is the norm today, whether the role be supportive or lead), their striking work has held up beautifully over seventy years and, along with Mankiewicz’s paramount contribution, assures Letter will continue to be regarded as one of the most perceptive and wittiest comedy-dramas of its era.

            I recently completed a video tribute to Ms. Darnell’s career, which includes clips from Letter and many other of her top films. It can be viewed here at YouTube: https://youtu.be/FRtfJ9CGJp4

Friday, October 14, 2022

Angela Lansbury Gives a Performance for the Ages in The Picture of Dorian Gray

                On hearing of the recent passing of one of brightest lights of stage, film and television, the remarkably versatile Angela Lansbury, key images from her illustrious screen career came to mind: her legendary, take-no-prisoners villainess in The Manchurian Candidate; her equally impressive and very moving work in All Fall Down; showing a sly sexuality and impressive maturity in her film debut, Gaslight; bringing a sweet, breezy good-naturedness to The Long Hot Summer as Orson Welles’ loyal mistress; and stealing the show from a cast of heavyweights as a florid, woozy vamp in Death on the Nile. However, the first Lansbury role I visualized after hearing the sad news of her death, and the choice I’d make if I could only take a single performance of this legendary talent with me to a desert island, is her deeply felt portrayal of the lovely, fragile Sibyl Vane in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM’s tip-top adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic 1890 tale of the supernatural detailing the evil that men do, particularly in the case of the said title character.

              As an early target of the central figure’s affections, the lushly beautiful Lansbury is introduced singing the plaintive “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” at “The Two Turtles” bar/music hall, and completely awes both Dorian and the audience with her dreamy, lilting delivery of the melancholy tune. Already a skilled, intelligent performer in only her second year in movies, with an adept understanding of the subtleties involved in film acting, there’s a wonderful openness and naturalness to Lansbury’s playing that accentuates an emotional vulnerability seldom seen in her other roles, wherein she often played tough, wise-beyond-her-years characters (see her dance hall hostess in the following year’s The Harvey Girls), when not flat-out playing mature matrons, which she started doing at about 20 (check out Lansbury circa age 23 staying toe-to-toe with Hepburn and Tracy in 1948’s State of the Union for one impressive example of Lansbury’s fierce confidence on screen, as no one’s typical ingénue). In perhaps her most compassionate role, Lansbury looms large as Gray’s most human element, and the warmth and gentleness she conveys linger throughout the movie.

            Sibyl may deem Dorian her perfect “Sir Tristan” (inaccurately, once his nefarious nature is exposed), but she truly represents Dorian’s ideal mate and his best chance at happiness, and the point of no return for him once he decides to test her worthiness, as his life becomes extremely wayward once the loving, loyal Sibyl is gone from it. From Sibyl’s first scene, Lansbury does a vivid job illustrating the character’s romantic, shy nature and naiveté, while also demonstrating an undercurrent of emotional depth and sadness that makes a viewer feel very protective towards Sibyl; Lansbury’s great affinity with Sibyl finds the audience wanting to do anything to help her get away from Dorian and his hard nature as his chilling egomania becomes more evident. During her showcase moment singing “Yellow Bird,” Lansbury radiates a goodness and purity rarely seen on screen, making it clear Dorian’s initial reaction to and adoration for her as a very special ladylove is well-earned, with her radiance also pointing up just how cold and lurid Dorian ‘s subsequent actions will become. As Pauline Kael explains while praising Lansbury’s work as possibly her best on film, “When she sings “Little Yellow Bird” in a pure, sweet voice, the viewer grasps that the man who would destroy this girl really is evil.”

           Although a plethora of outstanding performances followed Lansbury’s sensitive work as Sibyl Vane, the manner in which Lansbury details the innocent girl’s plight with grace, nuance and a great understanding of her character’s every mood makes her appearance in Gray the screen role that looms largest in one fan’s memory, at least. Upon release Lansbury’s standout portrayal also received wide acclaim, giving her another boost in an already burgeoning early career, as Lansbury had one of the most impressive starts in the movies, with her first three films bringing her two Oscar nods (for her Gaslight debut, then the following year for Gray, which also gained Lansbury her first Golden Globe award, while the third movie in-between was a little horse opera called National Velvet). Truly a pro right out of the gate, despite limited professional experience prior to Gaslight, Lansbury was a natural who demonstrated an awesome capacity to play in any type of role or genre, and of course made good on her early promise at least tenfold throughout eight auspicious decades in the business. R.I.P., dear lady.

                As for the rest of Gray, although it sometimes is criticized as being too tame an adaptation of Wilde’s novel due to the restrictive Production Code of the era, I’ve always thought writer/director Albert Lewin does a great job suggesting Dorian’s debaucheries, which allows the imagination to reel more than if the mature themes were explicitly laid out for a viewer. Concerning the film’s most explicit and famous image, seeing the horrific “after” portrait of Dorian in a couple of the few color shots in the film (with the beautiful, lush Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography by Harry Stradling showcased the rest of the time), one is hard-pressed to think exactly what evil actions would lead to someone ending up looking like this (the painting by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright is on display at the Art Institute in Chicago, and seeing it face-to-face, the queasy impact of the disturbing imagery remains as potent as it was when first seen in the film). Lewin maintains a deliberately tranquil mood throughout much of the film, which is expertly narrated by the Cedric Hardwicke in a sophisticated, calm-yet-foreboding manner, so when jolts such as the portrait reveal do come, the shock value is intensified in a highly disturbing manner.

           Hurd Hatfield is notably restrained and glacial as Dorian, and the still contenance he consistently displays offers plenty of intrigue to the viewer, as one can see this detached, impossible-to-read version of Dorian getting away with murder and who knows what else, while constantly remaining what seemingly appears to be the embodiment of a perfect gentlemen, abet one with an unusual knack for defying age regardless of how many years pass by. The lack of emotion the controlled Hatfield sustains helps keep the role believable for a modern audience, as the serene young star shows no signs of overplaying in his scenes, allowing audiences to read their individual notions into what factors determine Dorian’s ignoble character and his immoral actions, as through his placid performance Hatfield ensures Dorian reveals little of his sordid life choices to those he encounters.

As Gray’s equally unprincipled ally, Lord Henry Wotton, the casual-yet-acerbic George Sanders so perfectly suits the role in manner and voice, and he offers many of the movie’s best and most caustic lines with such a beguiling dry wit, that the viewer is drawn to this entertaining rouge, even if one should hate him as Lord Henry proves to be the primary influence encouraging Gray to live a decadent life free of virtue. Among the rest of the top-notch cast, the earnest Lowell Gilmore makes a strong impression as Basil Hallward, the friend and moral counterpoint to Gray, who is responsible for the title portrait, while Douglas Walton makes a brief, compelling appearance as Allen Campbell, a former and current victim of Dorian’s attentions, in a scene that, in as clear of terms as the Code would allow, suggests a one-time homosexual alliance existed between the two. Donna Reed and Peter Lawford are both charming and extremely photogenic in early roles, while Reginald Owen and Lansbury’s mother, Monya Macgill, are both seen fleetingly to good effect.

Upon its release in early 1945, The Picture of Dorian Gray met with decent box-office returns and lukewarm critical reaction, with some clearly preferring the book to its handsomely-mounted screen adaptation. However, along with Lansbury’s essential contribution and Stradling’s evocative cinematography, praise was afforded the aforementioned portrait by Lorraine Albright and the contrasting one of the young, beatific Dorian by Henrique Medina, and the Oscar-nominated set designs by John Bonar, Cedric Gibbons, Hugh Hunt, Hans Peters and Edwin B. Willis, which perfectly capture the appropriate time-and-place of late-1800’s London. Over the decades since its release, Dorian Gray has been introduced to new audiences via television, VHS, DVD and more recently in a fine Blu-ray release by Warner Archive (which includes a marvelous audio commentary by Lansbury and Steve Haberman) and has found favor with many as a class A production making an honest attempt to do right by Wilde’s source material. Aside from other merits, Lansbury’s singular work guarantees that, in a manner similar to Dorian versus his portrait, despite any dated elements the film might now carry, in the form of Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane, The Picture of Dorian Gray will persist in maintaining a beguiling sense of freshness and beauty, no matter its age.

        I witnessed little of Lansbury’s stage work, outside of listening to the Mame original cast recording often, specifically “We Need a Little Christmas,” which of course is still heard annually, and watching her ingenious rendition of “The Worst Pies in London,” from Sweeney Todd via the 1982 lensing of the 1978 Broadway hit. However, although with seeing Lansbury give a delightful interview with Robert Osborne prior to a showing of “Gaslight” at a TCM Festival (her mention of how she and her mother mulled over the best way to “spend the dough” once MGM abruptly changed her fortunes was a highlight), I was also fortunate to catch Ms. Lansbury in one of her final stage triumphs, when she recreated her Tony-winning role in Blithe Spirit in an L.A. production shortly after the Broadway run of the play. As the zany Madame Arcati, a well-in-her-eighties Lansbury amusingly swooped around the stage with the aplomb and skill of a veteran, five-time Tony winning star, exhibiting a terrific, enchanting energy and love for acting that remained undimmed in her seventh decade of performing. She made every move and laugh look easy, but it was clear the audience was witnessing a dedication and talent rarely seen in the Arts, and of course the ovation and cheers she received at the curtain call were resounding and well-earned, as they always were throughout her rich, unequaled career. As a fan I sent her an autograph request afterwards, and she graciously replied with a signed photo I treasure. R.I.P., dear Ms. Lansbury.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Marlo Brando and Jean Simmons Find Their Rhythm in Guys and Dolls

         Offering a perfect example of what a big-budget, all-star cinematic production constituted circa 1955, Samuel Goldwyn’s opulent rendering of the smash 1950 Broadway musical Guys and Dolls manages the stage-to-screen translation with ample assets helping to outweigh an overgenerous running time and the omission a few key songs for the memorable Frank Loesser score. Given his unfamiliarity with helming a major musical production, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz pulls off his challenging assignment with skill, not only providing the screenplay of the Jo Swerling/Abe Burrows book (based on the work of Damon Runyon), but also showcasing performers possessing various levels of song and dance experience to their most advantageous, especially in the case of his prime star quartet, who put over the Loesser numbers with style and individuality. Mankiewicz also sagely allows Michael Kidd’s inventive, lively choreography to take the Cinemascope center stage at frequent intervals, which helps to move the lengthy venture along.

         Goldwyn took a substantial risk in hiring leads who, similar to their director, had no prior experience in the musical comedy field. However, this is one example wherein star names possibility used to bolster box-office chances also happened to possess the talent to rise to their change-of-pace material and richly add to a film’s success instead of hampering proceedings. The charm and conviction Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons bring to their assignments, along with the easy rapport they first established in the previous year’s Desiree, remains among the film’s chief assets. It’s easy to see how, upon the film’s release, any doubts regarding their unorthodox casting was quickly silenced, as both Brando and Simmons glide through their numbers in a beguiling manner, and provide a touching earnestness to their roles that make gambler Sky Masterson and his prim conquest, missionary Sarah Brown, compelling figures who fully earn the audience’s interest and support.

       By 1955 Marlon Brando had conquered both Broadway and Hollywood in revolutionary fashion with his explosive-yet-thoughtful, uncompromisingly realistic approach to acting, resulting in major stardom, first onstage via his electrifying work in Truckline Café and, specifically, his peerless Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, then with a terrific film debut at the decades’ outset in the fine, moving drama The Men, directed by Fred Zinnemann. Brando continued to fulfill his promise as the finest young actor of his generation and maybe ever, gaining four consecutive Oscar nominations for enthralling, dedicated performances in the adaptation of Streetcar, followed by Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar and On the Waterfront, which finally gained him a well-deserved win for his compassionate, complex Terry Malloy, confirming his status as an A-list star with plenty of box-office pull, even with Brando firmly upholding a fearlessly anti-establishment approach in opposition to the rules governing the Hollywood Studio system, and clearly determined to march to his own rhythm regarding his career and how it transpired.

        It would have been fitting for Brando to follow up an Oscar win for great dramatic work with another film rife with serious overtones, but it’s possible after several years of handling stark material he found the switch to a more playful role refreshing, even if he’d never before attempted to sing and dance onscreen. In any case, Brando slips into the role of the handsome, suave, somewhat mischievous Sky Masterson ideally, and especially shines while utilizing a sweet, light, romantic vocal style while singing “I’ll Know” and “A Woman in Love” to the attentive Simmons; Brando commented the recording sessions were done in note-by-note manner, as he couldn’t stay in tune for an entire verse, but the final product plays seamlessly onscreen, both in the aforementioned numbers and in his more lively and most famous number, the extravagantly-staged “Luck be a Lady.” The effortless tone Brando maintains throughout the movie is fascinating to watch, given how much was riding on such a large-scale production, and the likely pitfalls a star untried in musicals should have encountered via such a daring undertaking. However, in Brando’s confident hands Sky becomes yet another indelible addition to the actor’s long list of outstanding credits.

         Jean Simmons was also at an early career high during this period, following her 1948 breakthrough as an Ophelia for the ages in Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet, which garnered Simmons an Oscar nod as well as the Venice Film Festival Best Actress prize, with stellar, diverse work in So Long at the Fair, Angel Face, and The Actress mixed in with higher-profile fare such as The Robe and The Egyptian assuring Simmons a place among the top leading ladies of the 1950’s. As with her co-star, Simmons had developed a reputation as one of the finest young talents in the movies, but not one known to possess any aptitude in the musical field; however, Simmons carries off her big number, “If I Were a Bell” with a breezy comic flair, and also believably depicts Sister Sarah’s intriguing character arc, wherein she makes an abrupt switch from Sky’s stern adversary to his willing romantic partner in short order during a rendezvous in Cuba. Simmons would go on to continued success with The Big Country, Spartacus, possibly her best dramatic work in Elmer Gantry, a second Oscar nod for The Happy Ending, then a late-career Emmy for a mammoth t.v. mini-series hit, The Thorn Birds, but her diverting performance in Guys and Dolls remains a unique triumph in her career cannon, which gained her a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy and endures as a fine example of how well Simmons could deliver first-rate work in a lighter genre.  

        As the third top name in the cast, Frank Sinatra brings a wealth of assurance to his role as the hustling-yet-casual Nathan Detroit, and clearly displays his exceptional musical abilities honed over decades, which found Sinatra achieving great fame as the preeminent male vocalist of his era (and the bobbysoxers’ delight during his 1940’s heyday), while gaining substantial success in films, partially when partnered with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. After witnessing a career slump in the early 1950’s, Sinatra was in the midst of an incredible comeback following his Oscar win for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, and 1955 would prove to be a banner year in his resurgence, with Sinatra once again finding recording success (“Learning the Blues” and “Love and Marriage” were two big 1955 Sinatra hits) to match his movie hits, as in addition to Guys and Dolls Sinatra did nice work in Not as a Stranger, which cleaned up at the box office if not with critics, and was spectacular as a drug addict trying to kick the habit in The Man with the Golden Arm, which earned Sinatra a well-warranted Best Actor nomination for possibly his most committed dramatic performance. As Nathan, Sinatra is completely in his comfort zone, to the degree that upon the film’s release he received some criticism by those (Stephen Sondheim among them) who had advocated for Sam Levene (the original Nathan Detroit on Broadway) to play the part that Sinatra was too relaxed in the role. However, it’s hard to see how Levine or anyone else could equal peak-form Sinatra (both vocally and as a star presence), whether he’s beautifully putting over his solo, “Adelaide,” or partaking of the Runyon-flavored dialogue with verve; simply put, Guys and Dolls and Frank Sinatra suit each other to a “T.”

        As Nathan’s loyal, very long-term intended, Miss Adelaide, Vivian Blaine witnesses a triumphant return to the screen after scoring a smash success originating the role on Broadway. Starting her career on stage as a teen, Blaine had paid her cinematic dues throughout the 1940’s as 20th Century-Fox’s go-to, capable musical-comedy female lead, when Betty Grable or Alice Faye weren’t available, but outside of making a nice impact in possibly her best and most popular film of this period, 1945’s State Fair, most of her Fox output consisted of enjoyable yet standard, second tier offerings. The career-defining role of Adelaide finally gained Blaine the major stardom she warranted, and after many performances on Broadway, London and in Las Vegas, she was allowed to commitment her singular performance to film, thereby providing the blueprint for the scores of Adelaides that have followed. Blaine pulls off the rare feat of maintaining a fresh, spontaneous delivery style, even while it’s clear she has expertly fined-tuned the role and every indelible Adelaide inflection based on her years of experience with the part; she’s clearly in sync with the role and determined to leave every entertaining aspect of Adelaide’s makeup on the screen. This is especially apparent in Blaine’s ingenious execution of Guys comedic highlight, the brilliantly-penned “Adelaide’s Lament,” wherein the good-natured showgirl both forlornly and animatedly rues her predicament with the marriage-adverse Nathan, much to the audience’s delight. Blaine also does a wonderful job working with the Goldwyn Girls on two expertly-staged numbers, “Pet Me Poppa” and the clever, tasteful striptease, “Take Back Your Mink”; her lively, skillful contribution to Guys and Dolls adds immeasurably to the film’s value and supplies the signature performance Blaine will be remembered for. 

        Among the rest of the cast, Robert Keith and Sheldon Leonard make good impressions and Vera Ann Borg gets a few wisecracks in playing one of her trademark sassy, knowing showgirls. However, Stubby Kaye, allowed to transfer his stage success as Nicely-Nicely Johnson to the screen, gets the opportunity to shine brightest with one of the film’s last and liveliest numbers, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” which must have killed them on Broadway and is exactly the pick-me-up the movie needs as it enters its third hour. Kaye performs the number and also recites his Runyanesque lines in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, and puts an original stamp on the colorful role that would guarantee further career success, specifically as the similar-in-character “Marryin’ Sam” on stage and screen in Li’l Abner and as Nat King Cole’s wandering, singing cohort in 1965’s Cat Ballou.

        Upon its release in early November 1955, Guys and Dolls proved to find great favor with moviegoers, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits, with eventual U.S. and Canadian film rentals tallying $9,000,000 (according to Variety), while also receiving a good share of critical praise, culminating in a Golden Globe win for Best Musical or Comedy Picture along with Simmons’ honor, and Marlon Brando also gaining a Globe that year for World Film Favorite, which the huge success of the movie certainly factored into, along with it being his only film released in 1955. Although Guys and Dolls has not maintained a place along the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon at the forefront of the general public and critics’ perception of what constitutes the top 1950’s movie musicals, the strong, unique and sometimes surprising contributions of four stars at the peak of their talents, as well as the adept staging of a score of great numbers still adds up to quite a show, one that should guarantee fans of the genre and the major players involved (both in front and behind the camera) a rich, gratifying viewing experience.

        I recently finished a YouTube tribute video to Marlon Brando, using clips from many of his films. Reviewing the movies to obtain clips to edit the tribute together provided the opportunity to once again marvel at the prodigious talent of Brando, and how he fearlessly took risks in role after role- even in many of lesser films, he’s still in their doing interesting and often brilliant work, and you can’t take your eyes off him. The tribute can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/6FibwNyUa4s