Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stanwyck and Fonda Glow in a Sparkling Eve

Universal's wonderful Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection box set features seven of the writer/director's movies made during his remarkable run at Paramount Studios from 1940-1944. Although Sullivan's Travels is often cited as Sturges most indelible work, in picking the apex of the Sturges heap, my money's on 1941's The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a beautiful card shark and Henry Fonda as the socially inept, but handsome, intelligent, and incredibly wealthy bookworm/snake enthusiast who catches her fancy. The more-than-considerable talents of the two screen icons truly has never been seen to better advantage than in this ingenious romantic comedy, which also features an astounding troupe of supporting players and a brilliant, hilarious script by Sturges which ranks among the most entertaining and timeless original screenplays ever concocted by a Hollywood scribe.

As Jean Harrington, the awesomely versatile Stanwyck has one of her most satisfying screen roles (on par with her work as Stella Dallas or Phyllis Dietrichson), using her charisma, vivaciousness, warmth, and unimpeachable acting finesse to expertly etch a memorable character rich in personal charm. Although Eve provides the best screen opportunity to showcase Stanwyck's considerable comic ability (especially during the second portion of the film, wherein Sturges miraculous scripting reaches comedy heaven after the title character is finally introduced) the film icon also manages to color the role with moments of touching vulnerability to illustrate the sensitive nature underlying Jean's tough, more sensible side. In addition, gowned by Edith Head's sensational wardrobe, Stanwyck has never been more beautiful or sexier onscreen (witness the sly way Stanwyck dreamily states her audacious query to Fonda, "Don't you think we ought to go to bed?" while nestling with her dazed leading man on a sofa). It's impossible to picture another female star evoking Jean's tenderness and high spirits in the forthright, intelligent manner Stanwyck adopts while also putting the role across with high comic flair.

The strapping Fonda is equally amazing in blending aspects of comedy and drama in his role, mixing his down-to-earth, natural delivery style with a cheesy smile, clueless demeanor, and frequent and perfectly-executed pratfalls to create one of the cinema's most believable and hilarious portraits of a loveable nebbish. Judging by his smooth, confident playing in Eve it's a shame Fonda didn't opt for more characterizations of the comic ilk, as he easily proves himself a master of the genre. Wisely playing his scenes with a somber, serious demeanor suitable for his role as the straight-laced Charles, Fonda manages to make the character funnier than any comic actor pitching for laughs could (when he uneasily states “Snakes are my life” while being seduced by Stanwyck, Fonda very amusingly demonstrates how Charles is becoming both unnerved and horny by Jean’s fearless advances).

Sturges was renown for the rich array of supporting performances which populated most of his films, and Eve is second to none in presenting some unforgettable 'sideline' characterizations. As Stanwyck's sometimes-sneaky but caring father, Charles Colburn is both funny and sage, especially when he takes on Fonda in a couple of the screens most memorable poker games. Also lending their distinctive screen presence are William Demarest and Eric Blore as, respectively, Muggsy Murgatroyd, Fonda's ultra-protective and easily agitated right-hand man, and as Sir Alfred McGlennon-Keith, the unflappable high society English gent who aides Jean in her plot to one-up her unforgiving suitor. Possibly best of all is the irasicable Eugene Pallette as Fonda's gruff father: the actor’s foghorn delivery is used to maximum effect as Pallette bellows riotous retorts while witnessing an unending string of misfortunes which befall his hapless son during one of filmdom’s most notably amusing dinner parties.

With its beautiful fusing of a perfect cast, story, and director, The Lady Eve ranks as one of Hollywood’s freshest, funniest, and smartest romantic comedies, and serves as an enduring testament to the wit and sophistication of Preston Sturges, one of the greatest and most influential talents the cinema has ever produced.

Eve, Travels and yet another top Sturges laughfest, 1942's fast-paced The Palm Beach Story starring Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert, all are making their second appearances on DVD (both Eve and Travels received the deluxe Criterion treatment in their earlier DVD incarnations). However, there are several new-to-DVD titles to be found in the set, including Sturges' breakthrough as writer/director, 1940's The Great McGinty, which won Sturges an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and another memorable Sturges classic, 1944’s Hail the Conquering Hero, featuring Eddie Bracken in a remarkable performance as Woodrow Truesmith, a discharged Marine who suddenly finds himself posing as the hometown hero of the title after befriending a group of Marines, led by invaluable Sturges regular Demarest and the remarkable Freddie Steele, an ex-middleweight boxing champ who holds the screen with a brooding, simmering intensity that predates the young Brando's work in Streetcar. How Sturges resolves Woodrow's predicament involves one of the screen's most dexterous blends of comedy and drama. Few extras outside of theatrical trailers are included, but most of the films are treasures (I've yet to see Sturges foray into serious drama, The Great Moment, which is considered sub par in comparison to his ingenious comedies), and they amply cover Sturges' incredible heyday among the Paramount elite (only 1944's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Sturges' wildest and most provocative farce, starring Betty Hutton and Bracken, is missing from the set, but it's available at an affordable price from Paramount DVD).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Answered DVD Prayers: Storm Warning and Kings Row

The new Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection box set features two of the most eagerly awaited (and memorable) films from the late Warners Contract Player/President's career. One of the most intriguing films Reagan (or anyone working in Hollywood during this era) made, 1950's Storm Warning is a rather fascinating potboiler featuring some of the more sensational subject matter to appear in a mainstream film of the period, most of it concerning the KKK. Mixing elements of A Streetcar Named Desire (Warning blatantly lifts key plot points from the Tennessee Williams play; the studio seems to be trying out some of Desire's more controversial material, possibly warming up for the studio's magnificent 1951 adaptation of Desire) and the socially conscious films of the period (Gentlemen's Agreement, Intruder in the Dust, Pinky, No Way Out , etc.) director Stuart Heisler serves up the 93 minute screen equivalent of the book you can't put down; as one unbelievable moment follows another, the viewer's unsure how far Heisler, screenplay penners Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, and a strong star cast will go in depicting the racist crimes of a hate-ridden community, and the consequences of these violent acts. Considering the apple-pie era the film was produced in (and taking into account the almighty Production Code), these artists manage to delve deeper than one expects while unmasking the tragic fallout which comes from a society ruled by bigotry, hate, and fear of nonconformity.

The engrossing story loses no time in grabbing the audience's attention, as shortly after the credits roll we find Ginger Rogers, portraying Marsha Mitchell, a sleek traveling model taking a brief detour to visit her pregnant young sister Lucy (Doris Day), witnessing a KKK murder outside of a jailhouse. Immediately thereafter, Rogers identifies Day's dim but seemingly warm-hearted husband Hank as one of the killers. After this explosive opening sequence the melodramatic aspects of the film sometimes become turgid during the next hour-and-a-half, but the pace certainly never falters as the rapt audience follows Marsha's predicament, wherein the hesitant witness finds herself torn between helping noble district attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) assure justice is served, and maintaining her strong family ties by keeping her mouth shut concerning who she saw at the murder scene. An unbelievable finale provides several shocks, leaving flabbergasted audiences asking the question, "Why haven't I heard about this incredible film?"

The cast goes a long way in making this material work, with Ginger Rogers and Steve Cochran the standouts. In her vivid depiction of Marsha, Rogers combines a down-to-earth, world weary charm with a tougher demeanor, making it clear Marsha will prove herself a formiable match for the crisis evolving around her (in one vivid encounter, Rogers stares down the guilty Cochran and, without uttering a word, manages to hold the screen with commanding force). However, Cochran gives the most memorable performance in the film, displaying substantial acting chops as he combines a unique blend of vulnerability, sweetness, and menace in creating his indelible portrait of Hank (Hank is obviously a low-brow cousin to Stanley Kolwalski, and Cochran delineates every sympathetic and unsavory facet of Hank's complicated nature in true and startling fashion). In support, Doris Day gives one of her standard 'nice girl' performances (Day hadn't yet honed the acting skills she displayed in Calamity Jane or Love Me or Leave Me, although she's still interesting to watch when things become extremely melodramatic and she gets the chance to do some heavy emoting) and physically she's a very convincing match for Rogers, as the two screen legends definitely appear to spring from the same family tree. Ronald Reagan is adequate, but not at his career best (he makes virtually no impression on the viewer- for more on top-notch Reagan, read on).

A decade earlier, Warners managed to create a superior account of the scandals hid beneath a small town's placid exterior in 1942's Kings Row, based on the bestseller by Henry Bellamann. Director Sam Wood expertly helms this tale involving the corruptive forces at work circa 1900 in the title locale, aided by James Wong Howe's beautiful, era-evocative B&W cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lush, atmospheric score, which deftly sets the right tone for each scene, and a very fine cast of players.

Outside of lead Robert Cummings, who is frequently callow and slick as the ultra-sincere Parrish, the cast of Row features a roster of talented stars determined to hit career highs via their meaty Row assignments. As the happy-go-lucky Drake McHugh, a perfectly-cast Ronald Reagan easily has the best role of his lengthy-but-largely-forgettable film career, coming across onscreen as immensely likeable (Reagan is amazingly natural, comfortable and self-assured before the cameras in this film). Reagan's completely relaxed air and friendly manner add considerable shock value when Drake's fortunes take a sudden and very severe nosedive. The tragedy which befalls Drake allows the often-panned actor to show real acting finesse, as Reagan skillfully depicts Drake's feelings of terror, self-pity, and hope in the face of truly overwhelming adversity.

As Drake's true love, Ann Sheridan effortlessly displays compassion, strength, and optimism, while Betty Field dominates her scenes as the haunted Cassandra, a troubled young woman who loves Parrish but mysteriously appears unable to escape the powerful influence of her father, Dr. Tower. As the doctor, Claude Rains creates another memorable character, skillfully adding an underlying sinisterness to the doctor's distinguished demeanor (Field's and Rain's accomplished performances illustrate Cassandra's relations with her father are deeper and more complicated than anything Casey Robinson could mention in his intelligent screenplay). Charles Colburn, veering far away from his stereotypical portrayal of a lovable old codger, adds further luster to the film with his outstanding enactment of Dr. Gordon, the town's other leading physician, who uses his venial, unorthodox practices to perform the film's most diabolical and infamous act on the helpless Reagan. Finally, with her tremulous voice and remarkably expressive eyes, Nancy Coleman is so effective as Louise, Colburn's distraught young daughter (this girl sagely discerns exactly what daddy's up to), one wonders why this talented performer didn't gain a much bigger post-Row acting career (aided by Korngold's powerful score, Coleman's frequent, welcome, and vividly believable emotional outbursts do much to keep the film exciting during the second hour).

Overall, the entertainment value found in Warning and Row makes the Reagan box set a worthwhile buy for lovers of classic films. In addition, Reagan's breakthrough role as George Gipp in 1940's Knute Rockne, All American is included, along with the well-received 1949 drama The Hasty Heart, costarring Patricia Neal and Oscar-nominated Richard Todd, and 1952's The Winning Team, wherein Reagan is reunited with Warning costar Doris Day in a biopic detailing the life and career of 1920's baseball star Grover Cleveland Alexander. Although I've only managed to view Warning and Row so far, the prints of both films looked great on their respective DVD transfers. Judging by Warner's impeccable track record, I'm assuming the print quality of the other films in this fine collection will also shine on DVD.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Perkins in the Thrall of Weld's Pretty Poison

One of the cinema's most entertaining and unconventional sleepers, director Noel Black's 1968's Pretty Poison offers a clever riff on the many secret agent sagas that were pervading American culture through the James Bond movies and T.V. shows such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Finally available on DVD in a terrific print (alas, no extras are found save for the original theatrical trailer), this cult classic allows viewers the chance to see two talented screen originals, Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, give adept, incisive performances in a bleak but fascinating story involving love, murder, and betrayal.

The ingeniously scripted tale (by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., based on the Stephen Geller novel, She Let Him Continue) recounts the plight of Dennis Pitt (Perkins), a young man attempting to start a new life in a small Massachusetts town after spending some years in a mental institution to resolve issues formed during his difficult childhood. While employed at the local chemical plant, Dennis becomes infatuated with the beautiful Sue Ann Stepanek, a flirtatious high school honor roll student. Creating a fantasy world wherein he presents himself as a secret agent on a dangerous mission, Pitt soon gains the blonde's attentions by involving her in his fantastic schemes. However, Pitt finds himself in over his head as his beautiful accomplice gets carried away with the pseudo espionage plot and takes matters into her own hands. As Pitt finds his life run amuck, Sue Ann becomes liberated and empowered in unexpected ways, much to the chargrin of Pitt and to the girl's observant, foxy mother (played by Beverly Garland, in a brief but commanding performance), leading to Poison's surprising climax.

Anthony Perkins gives possibly his finest post-Psycho portrayal in Poison. Prior to filming Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, Perkins had established himself as a young screen actor of considerable ability with his wonderfully effective Oscar-nominated work in 1956's Friendly Persuasion and in the following year's Fear Strikes Out, wherein Perkins memorably portrays the emotionally-unstable baseball star Jimmy Peirsall. However, after Psycho Perkins seldom was allowed to escape the imposing shadow cast by his brilliant, unforgettable portrayal of Norman Bates, as aspects of this legendary performance pervade many of Perkins later roles. In Poison, Perkins casts aside many of the famous neurotic "ticks" which sometimes hampered his performances subsequent to Psycho, and grounds the movie's often-fantastic premise in reality with a portrayal that is smart, funny, complex, and true. Perkins shades the misguided Dennis with senstivity and depth, and the caring nature he demonstrates towards Weld vividly conveys the notion Pitt truly hopes this girl will provide him with the means to get his life back on track, offering him the love and stability unknown to Dennis during his troubled past.

By virtue of her remarkable talent, Tuesday Weld managed to carve herself a solid reputation as one of the major talents in film during the late 1950's through the 1970's, while she also avoided, either deliberately or through bad judgement, any of the many chances for major stardom that came her way. Although her career started in mainstream films such as Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! and The Five Pennies, Weld proved herself to be a truly free spirit by passing on starring roles in, among others, the sure-fire career establishers Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, and True Grit, in favor of showcasing her remarakble acting skills in offbeat fare such as Soldier in the Rain (wherein, in one of the cinema's more implausible couplings, she memorably and touchingly is teamed with Jackie Gleason), Lord Love a Duck, and Poison, giving performances of such hypnotic depth she leaves an audience awestruck by her impressive thespian skills. Although Weld occasionally returned to the mainstream with fine work in 1965's The Cincinnati Kid and via her Oscar-nominated role as Diane Keaton's disenchanted sister in Looking For Mr. Goodbar, many feel Poison provides Weld with her signature role, and the nubile, shrewd Sue Ann certainly ranks as one of the actresses most indelible characterizations. Weld perfectly conveys the guilibility which would lead the teenager to accept the far-fetched premise Dennis presents to her, while she also effortlessly projects a wise-beyond her-years sensibility, making Sue Ann's rapid switch to full-blown maturity (and depravity) completely believable. An incredibly intuitive actress, Weld's most awesome contribution to Poison lies in the manner in which she resists any temptation to overdo her juicy role during the many unforgettable scenes featuring Sue Ann at her most calculating and fearless; Weld plays these moments with a seemingly matter-of-fact, wide-eyed innocence, leaving the impression Sue Ann isn't entirely aware of the immorality of her actions (which makes these scenes all the more powerful), as Weld wisely never fully illustrates Sue Ann's true motives until the character's stunning final moments in the film.

Although Poison's darkly comic subject matter guaranteed the film would never become a popular hit with audiences, the film had a substantial impact on critics, led by Pauline Kael's rave review, which resulted in a New York Film Critics award for Semple's screenplay (Weld was the runner-up for Best Actress). Over the years Poison's reputation has grown significantly, as few who have seen Perkin's and Weld's vivid enactment of one of the 1960's cinema's most trenchant stories are likely to forget it- the small-scale Poison could indeed be considered a forerunner to and an important influence on the modern-day independent film movement. Fans of Perkins, Weld, and unusual movies won't be disappointed by the many charms of this Poison.