Saturday, March 20, 2021

Gene Tierney Shines in a Slice of Cinematic Heaven

                One of the chief Golden Age Hollywood classics to have continually witnessed a rise in stature during the last several decades, 1945’s riveting Leave Her to Heaven has gained a reputation as possibly the most notable Film Noir in the Technicolor realm, as well as occupying a place among the highest-regarded melodramas of the period. Based on the Ben Ames Williams bestseller and directed by John Stahl with a willingness to vividly depict events bordering on and sometimes crashing into the improbable (one can imagine King Vidor and Douglas Sirk nodding in approval while leaving a screening of Heaven) while still craftily maintaining a sense of taste and decorum amid the often disreputable proceedings, the hard-to-forget tale concerns the escapades of Ellen Berent, a beautiful young woman who meets her ideal man and is determined to keep him exclusively to herself, at any cost. Featuring top 20th-Century Fox production values (Darryl Zanuck knew how to showcase a good story when he got one), including a first-rate cast, a skillful screenplay by Jo Swerling that plays up the ultra-dramatic plot points in a consistently enthralling manner, while parring back on a few florid events from the novel (a wild forest fire sequence from the book was wisely  trimmed) and sensational, Oscar-winning lensing of those lush Technicolor hues by Leon Shamroy, the movie placed among the biggest hits of the 1940’s, with audiences drawn in by the undeniable vitality of the film’s dark aspects and its issue-laden heroine.

                Clearly driving the storyline throughout much of the film, Gene Tierney uses her calm, upper-class reserve and perfect countenance to terrific effect in perhaps her most transfixing performance. Although the previous year’s Laura may be the first film that comes to mind when thinking of Tierney, and even Tierney in the Noir genre (although Heaven has edged closer to the title, and may now hold it for many), that desert-island choice showcases Tierney’s unsurpassable beauty as a romantic ideal more than providing her with a chance for impressive emoting. As Ellen, Tierney was assured many front-and-center moments causing audience’s mouths to gape would be onscreen, and she contently laps up these scenes with a dreamy composure that, along with Tierney’s preposterous, otherworldly beauty, makes Ellen’s troubled mindset even more eerie than if played in a less-tranquil, more obvious acting style (as in “look at me, I’m evil but hiding it from the other characters, but you know I’m bad, wink-wink”).

Tierney had a great run at 20th throughout the 1940’s and beyond, and although she could be charmingly competent and gentile in more traditional fare such as her debut in The Return of Frank James (wherein she ideally matches up with Henry Fonda), 1943’s Heaven Can Wait and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Tierney in particular excelled when allowed to use her cool detachment for more nefarious purposes, chiefly as the icy Isabel in The Razor’s Edge, who with calculated composure placidly pushes romantic rival Anne Baxter round her last bender and over the edge, and in her surprisingly fierce work in 1954’s much maligned The Egyptian, a would-be Zanuck epic that offers contemporary audiences plenty of viewing pleasures, with Tierney rating high among the most entertaining aspects of the film as the commanding Baketamon, who could teach Caligula a few things about ruling with an iron fist (it was nice to see a late-career role played this vividly by Tierney, who shortly thereafter faced serious mental set-backs that ended her career as a top star). With Heaven, Tierney gained her most substantial “bad girl” success, with a fitting Best Actress Oscar nomination to go along with the droves of patrons eager to see a performance that surely caused a great deal of talk around the water cooler, and everywhere else (in Tierney’s autobiography, she proudly relates the biggest complement she received for her Heaven work, when at a dinner party shortly after the film’s smash release the server refused to get near Tierney due to having seen Ellen’s untoward actions onscreen; Tierney patched things up by showing she actually possessed a much warmer demeanor than the inhumane Ellen).

As much as Heaven represented a career high for Tierney, 1945 did about as well by her handsome, amiable leading man, Cornel Wilde, for whom the film provided a nice one-two punch after his resounding success as Chopin in A Song to Remember, which would place him in the Oscar race along with Tierney the following year. Although the stoic character of writer Richard Harland, who becomes entangled in Ellen’s unhealthy obsession after encountering Ellen on a train reading his latest work in an un-obsessed manner, doesn’t afford Wilde the chance to make quite as big an impression as in his previous effort (or just by showing up in tights as “The Great Sebastian” in The Greatest Show on Earth), he proves to be exactly right for the part, providing a sensible point for audience identification, especially when he finally figures out how far beyond reason Ellen has departed and stands up to his formidable, very significant other. Wilde does such a capable job of illustrating Richard’s decency, patience and good nature that, aided with a smile that could melt diamonds, a viewer is thoroughly invested in his plight and wishes a happy ending for him, even if they simultaneously hope Ellen sticks around long enough to keep wreaking plenty of havoc on everyone and everything around her (watching Ellen’s nastiness is addictive, like when you’re eating too much ice cream but you can’t stop because it’s so rich and tasty). A true renaissance man who counted roles as a pre-med grad, fencing expert and playwright and screenwriter among his achievements, Wilde forged ahead as a top leading man for the decade following Heaven, before also adding the realm of directing to his accomplishments, possibly reaching his peak in this area with 1965’s gripping adventure The Naked Prey.

Similar to Wilde, Jeanne Crain’s star was on a swift ascent by the end of 1945 when Heaven hit theaters, having made her breakthrough in State Fair. Although Crain perfectly fits in the popular “lovely young ingénue” category, she also provided an equally lovely, serene presence onscreen during her heyday, avoiding the forced, saccharine playing often seen by those enacting “good girl” roles. Crain is just about perfect in something like 1946’s Margie, which helped cement her stardom but unfortunately is rarely seen today (I think rights issues are involved, and it’s a shame this wonderful film is largely overlooked; among other assets, Margie offers a great example of the A-1 results which could occur due to the special care taken in crafting a major studio release during these peak production years in Hollywood). In Heaven Crain is right at home as Ellen’s benevolent cousin Ruth, offering audiences an exact counter to Ellen’s vengeful nature, while also indicating Ruth has the quiet strength to combat any wrath her jealous relative throws her way. Crain would build on her 1945 success to remain a fixture of Fox output into the 1950’s, including another memorable double-header year in 1949, with solid work in A Letter to Three Wives and her Oscar-nominated title role in Pinky.

Vincent Price (in-between assignments with Tierney in Laura and finally gaining leading man status with her in Dragonwyck) also manages to make an impression as Russell Quinton, the attorney fiancé who is swiftly spurned by Ellen once Richard appears; Price gets a chance to shine particularly in a showy courtroom scene where he comes across as the most biased lawyer this side of Raymond Burr in A Place in the Sun, who acts like he’ll kill Montgomery Clift’s George himself if he doesn’t get a conviction. As Richard worshipful (to Ellen’s chagrin) younger brother Danny, Darryl Hickman comes through big in the film’s ultimate among many unforgettable scenes, with an unsupportive Ellen and the most unfortunately remote lake in film history creating suspense that likely caused Hitchcock, along with Vidor and Sirk, to leave the film satisfied, while also wondering how to top this fantastic moment in his next picture. Finally, as Ellen’s composed-yet-disapproving Mother, Mary Phillips does a great job with a side glance or worrisome look of suggesting the unhealthy nature of Ellen’s passions (Richard’s very strong resemblance to her dad is involved) that 1945 censorship would not allow within fifty feet of a film strip.

The burgeoning reputation of Heaven has been assisted by the approval of no less than Martin Scorsese (among many contemporaries), and some fine home video releases, including a Fox Studio Classics DVD and, more recently, nice Blu-ray representation on Twilight Time and Criterion. A 2018 entry into the esteemed National Film Registry archives further cemented Heaven’s status as a classic worthy of merit; it’s an engrossing slice of Golden-Age cinema that continues to captivate viewers long since it reigned as (according to Variety) Fox’s biggest hit of the 1940’s. I showed the film to some friends a couple years ago, and gave a spare copy to one who was especially drawn to it; in short order, she posted a video of her family verbally reacting (with a head scratch thrown in) to one of Ellen’s most inappropriate, “What the Hell!” actions committed to highly entertaining effect. Like the book you can’t put down Heaven initially was, the film version featuring one of Classic Hollywood’s most memorably-unhinged (if outwardly reserved) characters offers an all-consuming viewing experience to equal Ellen’s infatuation with Richard, with a much more rewarding outcome for audiences able to keep a safe distance from Heaven’s alluring, dangerous femme fatale and simply enjoy from afar the wild enterprises she undertakes.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Wyler and a Virtuoso Cast Elevate a Gripping Detective Story

Release in a banner year for dramas which also included A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun, 1951’s Detective Story remains an engrossing, first-rate entertainment seventy years after its acclaimed screen debut. Helmed by ace director William Wyler, who deserves much credit for adroitly maintaining an apropos seedy atmosphere while keeping the action moving in a constricted space. As Wyler and screenwriters Philip Yokan and Robert Wyler (based on Sidney Kingsley’s New York success) artfully delineate the myriad of crossover storylines in compelling fashion, the film details the wealth of activity unfolding in a New York City precinct and how it changes the lives of those therein. With truly stellar work turned in by an incredible cast meeting every demand their meaty roles provide, the movie balances comic and tragic elements in a highly entertaining manner, and belies the confining set and stage origins to achieve merit as a top-flight classic cinematic offering.

Wyler has a reputation for being tough on actors, requiring many takes without clear direction outside of “do it better,” but his unorthodox method allowed stars to gain an awesome measure of plaudits (including many Oscars) and in Detective the ace director’s receptive cast clearly responded to Wyler’s sure hand. Star Kirk Douglas is firmly at home as Jim McLeod, the intense, hardboiled detective unwilling to cut slack with any suspect, in and outside of his personal life. Douglas conveys an immovable, fierce presence, but you sense the inner turmoil driving some of Jim’s misguided decisions, even if the character and Douglas’ honest playing is firmly front-and-center in a dynamic manner. Douglas is especially fantastic and convincing during Jim’s menacing outbursts, specifically when confronting the slimy “Dr.” Karl Schneider (played with perfectly composed sinister intent by ace screen villain George McCready); as was the norm in his screen outings, Douglas is a mega life force, and you can see why he lived long and prospered, both onscreen and off.

As Mary, Jim’s gentle, devoted wife, Eleanor Parker brings a stunning emotional charge to her key dramatic scenes; I’ve never forgotten the moment Parker suddenly collapses in sobs as Mary’s secret life prior to Jim is disclosed, in awe at the histrionic ability allowing Parker to switch Mary’s demeanor from composed to shattered in the space of a couple seconds. Although some of this subject manner is taboo for 1951 screens, and therefore watered-down, Parker digs deep to get to the core of the character’s despair in a transfixing manner. In her later scenes with Douglas, Parker matches her imposing co-star strength-for-strength as Jim and Mary’s conflict reaches its conclusion, adding credence to the idea that Mary is a lot stronger than her soft-spoken demeanor indicates. With very little screen time Parker scored her second Best Actress nomination (an Oscar record for the shortest nominated role, according to a recent Gold Derby piece) after her terrific work in the previous year’s Caged, and she’s so impactful it’s easy to see how her work couldn’t be overlooked, regardless of its length. Parker was a beautiful, competent leading lady before and after Story, starring among and matching many of the top male stars of the era (check out her fiery work in Scaramouche or Parker taking on Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle and Robert Mitchum in Home From the Hill) and gaining yet another Oscar nod for 1955’s Interrupted Melody and screen immortality as The Sound of Music’s Baroness/bitch, but her work as Mary possible stands as a career apex, in a dead heat with her more substantial (in terms of screen time) work in Caged.

In addition to the stars, the superior roster of players provide many memorable moments and richly add to the overall flavor of the piece. Making her impressive film debut (and unfortunate exit for years due to the destructive, asinine Blacklist), Lee Grant manages to balance amusing theatrical gestures clearly tied to her work in the original Broadway cast with moments of subtleness more in the wheelhouse of an instinctive, skillful screen performer. As a wary, inexperienced (and unnamed) shoplifter Grant is funny and touching, endearingly offering a lightness and freshness that helps lift the film past a strict adherence to the “Crime Drama” genre into a more unique comedy/drama classification.  It’s a shame Grant’s gifts were given short-shrift during many of her prime playing years, and it’s nice she at least had one golden opportunity to show her adept talents early on (winning an Oscar nom and a Cannes Best Actress award for Story), before her career renaissance during the late 1960’s and beyond put her firmly back in the spotlight, this time with an Oscar to show for it, via her sly comic turn in 1975’s Shampoo.

Horace McMahon does great, spot-on work as Lieutenant Monaghan, who sagely oversees precinct operations while trying to keep Jim’s fireball tendencies under control. McMahon illustrates Monaghan is Jim’s equal via distinctive, reserved playing that showcases the maturity and experience allowing the Lieutenant to be (when needed) a capable adversary to Jim; McMahon does the kind of intelligent, nuanced work that often gets overlooked in favor of more opulent playing, but is integral to keeping a movie grounded in reality (check out Monaghan’s scenes questioning Mary for an example of McMahon’s superior, controlled acting). William Bendix also turns in one of his best performances as Lou Brody, the tough-yet-benevolent counter to Jim’s harsher approach to detective work. Bendix helps humanize a subplot involving Arthur, a young man (a properly somber Craig Hill) who has stolen from his employer and Susan (the warm, gentle Cathy O’Donnell, a Wyler favorite who made a career of such roles) the loyal girl trying to help Arthur make amends; Bendix adeptly shows Lou’s world-weariness and compassion during his interactions with the young couple, and you buy Lou’s earnestness in attempting to get the wayward Arthur back on the right track.

             Joseph Wiseman offer’s perhaps the most florid emoting in the film as Charley Gennini, a highly-excitable con man, but he craftily manages to come across as both frighteningly aggressive (even more so than Douglas at times) and comically buffoonish, and is believably manic and spontaneous, as opposed to being impossibly hammy in an overly studied, phony way, and Wiseman appears to be having a good time in the process. Michael Strong offers an ideal low-key contrast as Charley’s partner-in-crime, while Frank Faylen and Gladys George also get a chance to briefly demonstrate their pro character actor credentials, as wry Det. Gallagher and Miss Hatch, a witness who knows her way around the block, and a mink coat or two.

                Although the critical hosannas coming the way of Streetcar and Place in the Sun cancelled out Story’s bid for most major awards after its initial release, the exceptional direction by Wyler and colorful, insightful work by a cross-section of some of the finest actors of the era places Story alongside the best stage-to-screen adaptations of its or any period, with a host of indelible performances that fully seize an audience’s attention in the same manner Grant’s shoplifter might latch onto a department store handbag. Recently released on Blu-ray via Australia’s Imprint Films in a fine rendering that includes a commentary by Film Noir expert Alan K. Rode (Story is included in a Film Noir box set; I’ve always thought of it more as a drama with comedy elements, but I guess due to the movie’s criminal aspects and New York precinct setting, it might fall into Noir territory), Story is a caustic, enduring classic worth any movie lover’s booking.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Cobra Women Offers a Montez Adventure with Bite

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 18, 2020

Leigh and Mitchum Conduct a Charming Holiday Affair

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

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

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

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


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


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

Monday, December 14, 2020

Powell and Loy Ideally Pair to Track Down The Thin Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Stanwyck and MacMurray Team for a Lovely Yuletide Night

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Lubitsch, Stewart and Sullavan Peak Around the Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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