Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tyrone Power and the Gang Ride to Glory in Jesse James

Providing a retelling of one of the Wild West’s most famous outlaws, 20th Century-Fox’s 1939’s Jesse James forgoes much of any resemblance to the real James’ history to offer a more heroic bandit better-suited to the Classic Hollywood era of the period. In Fox’s rendering, James’ life of crime stems from his seeking justifiable revenge from evil railroad men who wreak havoc on James’ homestead and family, making it clear to the large audiences who turned out for the film who is being wronged onscreen, and is most deserving of their empathy. Fox knew how to put these spruced-up historical sagas together in entertaining fashion with great production values, and reliable in-house director Henry King stays on track throughout, keeping things moving at a brisk clip, particularly during an exciting staging of the pivotal shootout that changed James and his colleagues’ fortunes considerably.

As the troubled title character, Tyrone Power does some of his best work. Frequently used as a lighter romantic lead in Fox’s major productions, in these roles I’ve often felt Power, although professional, was fairly conventional in his performance style and played up his boyish charm, sometimes even in more dramatic fare (but not, of course, in his now-revered work in one of the best Fox films ever, 1947’s Nightmare Alley). In James, Power comes on much stronger than usual and, although he has a naturally endearing screen presence and looks like a million bucks in Technicolor (and in 1939 dollars at that), Power does not play for any audience sympathy as Jesse either, even if the script protects Jesse from being too much of a villain. Some of the darkness that came to full fruition in his Alley work can be seen here; when Jesse flares up and starts getting paranoid, you believe Power and wonder exactly how far Jesse will go.  

                As Jesse’s loyal older brother Frank, Henry Fonda is onscreen a lot less than viewers might expect, but he shows a laconic mastery of his role from his first (great) introduction on a back porch to his key scene challenging Jesse when his brother starts to become overly demanding with the gang. Fonda already demonstrates his keen ability to indicate layers of depth beneath a character’s calm, stoic exterior, and is such an assured, solid presence, there’s no doubt Frank can handle any situation throw his way, and it’s interesting to watch how formidable an impact Fonda can make in a smaller role, which would come few-and-far between after this film (after the success of James, Fonda would return the next year in the aptly titled The Return of Frank James, as well as starring in Young Mr. Lincoln later in 1939, and a little drama called The Grapes of Wrath in 1940).

Despite great work from her costars, Nancy Kelly proved to be the most fascinating performer for at least one rapt viewer. Having been a movie buff for several decades, there are few actors I’ve only seen once onscreen. Although she had steady output through the late 1930’s- mid 1940’s in movies, Kelly fell into this category for me, based on her now-iconic (in camp circles, at any rate) Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated performance as Rhoda’s progressively unhinged mother Christine in the 1956 all-timer The Bad Seed. Kelly’s grand, nervy theatrics in that unforgettable piece of work (in every sense of the word) are intriguing to view in comparison to what she pulls off in James as Zee, Jesse’s faithful intended. Although only 17 during filming in 1938 (James was released early in 1939) Kelly, already a veteran performance since early childhood, is remarkably composed and focused in her scenes, suggesting a maturity far beyond her years and the dramatic prowess she would display full-throttle in Seed, yet she’s much softer in her acting style in James, and vocally and physically looks very different (I wouldn’t have placed Kelly without knowing beforehand she was in the film, and I wasn’t sure in her first scene if she was the Nancy Kelly). However, although her work is more subdued and less mannered, Kelly is as captivating to watch in James as she is being tormented by her pigtailed offspring years later, as in James she seems to be fully vested and “in the moment” in each scene, truly interacting with and responding to her costars, instead of acting at them. She’s wonderful with Power; you sense the deep connection Zee feels for James, and how difficult it is for her to be apart from the frequently absent outlaw. Based on her moving work in James and the adept talent she clearly possessed as a screen performer, it’s surprising Kelly would have to wait so long to have a similar success late in her career (although only 35 when Seed came out, it was Kelly’s last film credit, as she only made television appearances thereafter).

                Among the rest of the players, Randolph Scott, as lawman Will Wright, who is both at-odds with and sympathetic towards Jesse, shows a low-key ease in the Western genre that would carry him to greater success in the 1950’s after teaming up Budd Boetticher for both of their most seminal works. Henry Hull handles his meaty role as newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb, Zee’s newspaper editor uncle who is constantly indignant over the mistreatment of James, in showy fashion, while a more sedate Brian Donlevy makes an equally strong impact in his villainous comfort zone as a slick railroad man out to con the James’ and any other citizen who gets in his vicinity. As Robert Ford, John Carradine also gets his chance to show his adeptness with limited screen time at making a strong impression as a cad, and Donald Meek, playing against his usual comic milquetoast roles with great verve, stands out as another nefarious railroad agent intent on destroying the James Gang, and in particular Jesse. You patiently wait for this worm to get his comeuppance, and one of the joys of watching a classic film is knowing it’s well-nigh inevitable a jerk will get what’s coming to him or her in a wholly satisfying manner.  Rounding out the cast, Jane Darwell gets a look-in and a warm-up for her iconic Ma Joad as James’ mother, and Lon Chaney Jr. is credited as one of the James Gang, although I can’t remember seeing him anywhere.

                Jesse James offers a fine example of the carefully-crafted entertainment major studios like Fox turned out regularly during Hollywood’s Golden Era, which many feel reached its peak in 1939 with an incredible run of enduring top releases. Impressively, among a slew of worthy competition for box-office receipts, James managed to out-pace most contenders and pull in some of the biggest grosses of the year, trailing only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz according to Susan Sackett’s Box Office Hits. It’s easy to see how a public eager for escapism was draw into the plight of James as presented in a more attractive, accessible manner by Fox than reality warranted (but people weren’t going to movies for grim realities in 1939; they already had dealt with plenty of that at home during the decade), with smooth, proficient direction by King, memorable work by a slew of capable performers and the still-novel Technicolor allowing the film to gain precedence over many in a strong 1939 field, and to remain endearing cinema over eighty years onward.

Postscript: The aforementioned 1940 follow-up The Return of Frank James, directed by no less than Fritz Lang, offers a very satisfying continuation of this story, with Fonda as the title character on a quest to find the Fords and avenge Jesse’s death. Henry Hull gets a better opportunity to grab some big laughs in one of the more enjoyable courtroom scenes on film and, in her film debut, Gene Tierney, as the aspiring reporter who gains Frank’s confidence, looks unsurprisingly stunning in Technicolor and gives an eager, earnest performance that might show Tierney as still developing her craft on screen, but her work also reveals a touching vulnerability. Tierney is immensely likable, and she generates great chemistry with Fonda in their limited screen time together, to the extent one wishes to see a lot more of this interesting, offbeat pairing of an outlaw and the well-bred, independent young lady drawn to him and his plight.

Friday, May 15, 2020

A Cleaned-Up, Compelling Peyton Place Scores Big in 1957

2oth Century Fox’s shrewdly crafted 1957 film version of Grace Metalious’ eye-popping novel from the previous year, which caught the public’s fancy for juicy, salacious material few would admit to reading while copies flew off shelfs in record numbers, Peyton Place offers engrossing entertainment, with memorable emoting from some well-cast performers at the top of their respective games helping to maintain viewers’ interest throughout a lengthy running time. Although the movie has to sidestep or dilute some of the book’s darker territory, which included incest, rape, abortion, adultery and, for good measure, a severed arm (no wonder citizens of the town Metalious based her no-holds-barred story on were outraged), onscreen Place was still progressive by production codes standards of the day, managing to address many of the book’s adult themes while keeping the movie appealing to the masses- Darryl Zanuck owed screenwriter John Michael Hayes a huge bonus for keeping a fine balance between the ribald and respectable, as the movie was embraced by the public and reaped some of the biggest grosses of the decade (according to Variety, the late-1957 release was second only to The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1958, with Place garnering $12,000,000 in U.S./Canadian rentals). 

For Lana Turner, the role of Constance MacKenzie provided a chance to take on a mature, juicy part in a high-profile project after her time at MGM had passed a couple of years prior. Constance proves an ideal fit for the star; there’s not a lot of novels you’d read and think, “I see Lana Turner in this character,” but the great-lady airs Turner brought to roles as a “big MGM star” (even after she left the studio) perfectly match up with Constance, a woman putting on a classy, aloof front at all times to hide a shady past. Turner properly appears both apprehensive and standoffish, and although there are a few moments she may overdo the dramatics, she also has some impressive emotional scenes, particularly with co-lead Diana Varsi as her independent-minded daughter Allison. Turner has been unfairly knocked during her lifetime and beyond for not being much of an actress; however, in a manner similar to Natalie Wood, Turner can go from giving a perfunctory performance to turning on some riveting emoting when a meaty scene gives her a chance to dive in, and her histrionic skill combined with the baby-doll quality Turner never completely lost, especially during highly emotional scenes, showcases an impressive screen presence and draws the viewer in. In her memoir Turner expressed surprise she won her sole Oscar nomination for Place, as she felt she didn’t do much in the film to warrant recognition, but she’s very well cast and does focused, professional work. Even if she did get the nod as part of the sweep that saw Place end up with nine nominations (if no eventual wins), I think Turner’s work holds up and merits this sole Academy approval she received.

         As Allison, Varsi makes a substantial impact in her first film, managing to convey the character’s poetic, innocent nature while possessing a calm, intelligent, ethereal quality that allows for highly individual work- Varsi is no ordinarily starlet slickly manufactured by the studio system. Her freshness and direct acting style (Varsi does a great job focusing on and naturally reacting to whomever she’s onscreen with) lends a modern element to the melodramatic proceedings. Adeptly handling much of the melodrama as Selena Cross, Allison’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks friend who doesn’t catch one good break during the film, mostly due to her odious stepfather’s unwelcomed advances, Hope Lange provides many riveting moments as she pushes herself to depths of despair not commonly seen onscreen. Although Lange would remain a professional, likeable performer after her breakthrough here (including winning two Emmys for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and winding up in Blue Velvet, which would make an interesting double bill with Place in demonstrating how far a filmmaker could go in depicting controversial material during and after the production code’s rigid censorship ruled Hollywood) she’s possibly most unforgettable depicting Selena’s many travails, mixing a quiet grace with powerhouse emoting and obtaining truckloads of audience empathy as Selena’s plight unfolds and she faces one travesty after another.

         Of the huge cast filled with well-known names, several manage to make a strong impression although with the three female leads. Arthur Kennedy does a great job of mixing relatable and repulsive characteristics into his portrayal of Lucas Cross, Selena’s less-than admirable wayward stepfather responsible for plenty of the drama that goes down. As the venerated schoolteacher, Mildred Dunnock has some good moments with Kennedy and instills a nice touch of bitterness later when she’s passed over as school principal and informs a sympathetic Allison to go get want she wants in life, “Don’t wait for anyone to give it to you.” Lloyd Nolan is wonderful as the town’s moral conscience, Doc Swain, and wisely plays in a down-to-earth, sometimes tough manner that keeps the good doctor (who seems to be a stand-in for the audience at times, in saying and acting as we would if aware of the town’s dirty underbelly) from becoming tiresome.

As she did several years earlier in parts of Come Back, Little Sheba, Terry Moore shows a knack for playing a tease while keeping the audience on her side, in possibly the role most sanitized from the book, as “town tramp” Betty Anderson, who in the film deeply loves her rich conquest, Rodney Harrington (a likeable Barry Coe). Moore has a great scene in a car with Coe wherein she manages to infer quite a bit of sexual energy onscreen, even though limitations prevented Betty from being as misbehaved as what she pulled off in the book. One of the things I love best about classic movies is how creative artists couldn’t overtly show certain mature aspects on film (specifically anything to do with sex) due to the production code, and therefore had to come up with ways to suggest these shenanigans without actually portraying the sins. Leaving things to the imagination ironically can lead an audience to think up situations far beyond what was intended, and I bet filmmakers had fun creating scenes like this fairly racy encounter between wayward lovers Betty and Rodney. 

         Although set in the early 1940’s, Peyton Place aptly captures the mores of the late-1950’s (including the increasingly prevalent generation gap), at least as they might appear on-screen in compellingly melodramatic fashion. Mark Robson’s direction admirably maintains a consistent tone in introducing and detailing the many characters and events without letting the drama move too much into far-fetched territory, as well as frequently showcasing the Camden, Maine locations in all their magnificence, providing an interesting offering of beautiful backdrops to frame all the unsavory story elements. Viewed as an impressive, tasteful rendering of source material deemed inappropriate for the screen (if wildly popular on the printed page) upon its release, Place still holds up as a prime example of how well a studio equipped with A-1 production values across the board could pull off a big-screen adaptation of a controversial bestseller by maintaining the flavor of the novel and offering some of its eye-opening content, while simultaneously classing things up enough for the lauded film to be eagerly consumed by the masses, who could go with their families to this “adult” movie and still appear respectable to their friends and neighbors, many of who probably had a copy of Peyton Place stashed in a closet. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

An Appealing Fox Biopic Earns its Stars & Stripes

20th Century Fox’s entertaining 1952 retelling of John Philip Sousa’s life, covering his 1890’s success as the leader of the Marine Corps’ marching band through key years fronting the renown Sousa Band, Stars & Stripes Forever differs from many of the biopics of this era in bypassing major dramatic elements such as alcoholism or other addictions and/or unsavory elements (see Love Me or Leave Me or just about any 1950’s Susan Hayward film of this ilk) to depict a life largely free of controversy. This could come across as stale and uninteresting (one of the film’s big moments finds the conductor stepping away from his post to dance a two-step with Mrs. Sousa), but great charm is found in Stars unpretentious narrative, with veteran director Henry Koster capability helming the proceedings and wisely keeping the running-time at a brisk 89 minutes and, most importantly, a group of charismatic, ingratiating performances by the leads helping to win the audience over.

From his initial scene wherein Sousa is seen buying 150 dozen pairs of white gloves for his chosen profession, Clifton Webb is fully in his comfort zone as the practical, precise bandleader, and although he can still pull off a caustic line second-to-none, he seems friendlier than usual and even smiles a few times. Webb is great at not overdoing anything here, playing in a simple, straightforward manner throughout, and he isn’t afraid to even look (aptly) a little foolish when Sousa starts to bellow the lyrics to one of his songs in less-than-impressive fashion. As Mrs. Sousa, Ruth Hussey has a wonderfully direct, knowing manner in her scenes, without ever coming across as phony or saccharine, a merit that applies to the other actors and the overall film as well. Hussey’s likeable professionalism is in perfect sync with Webb’s casual adeptness, and they make an endearing combo (and yes, that scene wherein Mr. and Mrs. Sousa dance the two-step around a ballroom is a winner in the hands of these two skilled performers). 

The handsome Robert Wagner, playing a young Marine who becomes a key member of the Sousa Band, is eager, pleasantly vacuous, and completely irresistible in a breakthrough major role after scoring as military officers earlier in the year in What Price Glory and, specifically, the hit Hayward biopic With a Song in My Heart. Every time Wagner turns on that mega-watt smile with an impact that would possibly even make Julia Roberts jealous, any greenness he might show as a novice performer is swept under the soundstage, and you can see why his career was off and running in short order. As his lady love, Wagner is beautifully paired with Debra Paget, the ideal 1950’s ingénue (IMO, at least- she might win the title based on her 1956 output alone; throw in Broken Arrow and it’s a no-brainer and step aside, Mitzi Gaynor), whose typical spiritedness and earnest approach are well-suited to her role as a young singer looking to break into the Sousa Band. Paget’s style also meshes superbly with Wagner’s playing- Wagner and Paget’s characters could be deemed conventionally “cute’” as is the case with many young onscreen lovers back in the day (and maybe still today) but, both in appearance and in possessing an easy, unforced youthful energy, they’re so damn perfect together that the audience is completely with them in every scene. Also, as a classic movie geek I waited patiently thinking surely George Chakiris, the good-luck charm of many a Fox or Paramount musical of the period, would have to show up and (in the words of the late, great Rosemary Clooney during her commentary on White Christmas) “gorgeous George” didn’t let me down- Chakiris waltzes by a few times in that ballroom sequence mid-way into the film.   

I admit to vapidity regarding becoming completely enamored with a movie showcasing gorgeous Technicolor, regardless of if the film has any merit besides this asset. Although Stars and Stripes has the aforementioned advantages, the terrific restoration effort put in for the Blu-Ray of Stars provides abundant pleasures for the eye to behold. Every scene appears pristine, and it’s rare to see this much work put in to make a classic film not extremely well-known (as opposed to a The Wizard of Oz) come out looking like gangbusters- thank you, Fox! Stars did well upon its initial release (a late-December 1952 release, it earned $3,000,000 in rentals and placed in the top twenty-grossing films of the year according to Variety) but I can’t remember seeing it aired much or being in any conversation of memorable movies of its period, musical or otherwise. It was great to finally watch it and find Stars to be such an enjoyable viewing experience. As Fox has been bought out by Disney, grab a copy of this worthy classic title sooner rather than later, for a very pleasant way to spend 90 minutes.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Reaping Ample Rewards with 1958's Overlooked Buccaneer

One of the pleasures of being a classic movie buff is the opportunity to discover a heretofore never-viewed movie (unwatched for a number of reasons but, in the age wherein most films can be found in some format, chiefly because the film has a reputation as a stinker, both critically and financially) then upon viewing the film finding “the bomb” to be surprisingly endearing. Of course the value of any movie is subjective and the majority may be right, while I’m in a cheerleading section of one, but I found 1958’s would-be blockbuster The Buccaneer, covering that 1814 trip along with Colonel Jackson Johnny Horton once mentioned in song, but centering around the unacknowledged pirate Jean LaFitte who had quite an impact on the  proceedings, to be a largely compelling, entertaining experience, and a lot more fun than many “prestige” pictures covering historical events in a somber manner and walking off with a passel of Oscars and decent ticket sales in the process. Buccaneer may not have the polish of some of those offerings, but I didn’t find myself yawning or dozing off through any of it, either.

Although first-time director Anthony Quinn faced the daunting task of filling in for the ailing Cecil B. DeMille (who looks frail- okay, near death- while appearing for the intro) and he can’t bring off those big, outrageous DeMille moments which might have given crew and cast members pause during filming but went over like gangbusters with the public (sly Cecil B. knew exactly what to do with that Golden Calf and Debra Paget, for example), Quinn’s sometimes dull but more straightforward approach works in favor of the film in at least one respect- namely, the actors dive into their roles with aplomb, and Quinn, frequently a great actor and/or ham himself depending on the occasion, allows them plenty of room to work, without big set pieces overshadowing their fine efforts. The movie has plot complications aplenty to lay out and Quinn doesn’t rise above maintaining a pedestrian feel in many of these scenes, but things gets better as the film goes along, and it wisely doesn’t push its luck past the two-hour mark, an asset many “big” films today could take a cue from. For me, Buccaneer doesn’t wear out its welcome and earns a place in the “Fun Popcorn Movie” category for me (and that is not meant as a slight or as a slight category in any way- The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain are also great popcorn movies).  

It seems Yul Brynner automatically got crap thrown his way any time he appeared onscreen with hair after his incredible 1956 break-out year in Ten Commandments, Anastasia and The King and I (who has a year like this? Just Yul and maybe Sidney Poitier in 1967) but as LaFitte he looks fairly dashing and yes, sexy in often very diverting pants, and he loses nothing as far as charisma goes either, which is a major advantage when playing the anti-hero Lafitte. Brynner does a great job not making it clear exactly which side LaFitte will battle on while still keeping a viewer’s loyalty with LaFitte, even if the suspense regarding who the swashbuckler will take up with regarding the War is nil, considering this is a large-budget 1958 American production.

Charlton Heston receives special “Co-Starring” billing, indicating he might not be around in the film much, but as Andrew Jackson he’s in very fine form and seems to be enjoying himself more than usual; someone must have noticed, as Heston’s around for much of the movie’s second half, and adds plenty of value to the movie in the process. It’s clear Heston loved playing yet another larger-than life hero (and in this case, yet again, as he previously played Jackson in 1953’s The President’s Lady), and in his sturdy hands you believe every move the fearless, commanding Jackson makes, specifically in his final scene, one of Heston’s best ever- big Chuck carries plenty of built-in presence, but he doesn’t usually grab attention this forcefully by forgoing his stock-in-trade (if effective) stoicism for a more fervent delivery. This time, he certainly had me straighten up and follow him in “Sir, yes sir” fashion during his kick-ass last moments. Also, as apropos for their characters in this film and not so much the last time they shared the screen in Commandments, Brynner and Heston appear to share a fine onscreen camaraderie, and it’s nice to see them on each other’s side and even smiling a time or two toward the other, after years of watching Heston wish a plague on Brynner and his followers via those Commandments repeat viewings.

Charles Boyer carries off his portrayal of Lafitte’s trustworthy ally Dominique You with his typical adeptness and grace, while lending a lighter tone at times to add some appealing color to the proceedings. I’ve never seen a film wherein Boyer hasn’t appeared to completely understand his character and perform with skill and charm, and once again he doesn’t disappoint as Dominique. As Bonnie Brown, an adversarial member of LaFitte’s party, Claire Bloom does have a fairly small role, but this great actress is never in danger of fading into the background, pulling off her assignment with skill and aplomb. Bloom was capable of looking and playing the beautiful, gentile leading lady, but she often tackled roles with the daring and commitment of a witch on a quest for some ruby slippers, resulting in fascinating, riveting work. Bloom’s cool, chic lesbian in 1963’s The Haunting is well-known, but check out what she pulls off as the restless, desperate nymphomaniac in 1962’s The Chapman Report for one of the more vivid dramatic performances by an actress in that period. In Buccaneer she plays her character’s feistiness for real; you can see she’s clearly engaged and magnetically “there” in every scene.

As a satisfying counterpoint to some of the more aggressive performing, Inger Stevens lends a lovely serene quality as LaFitte’s comely lady love, Annette Claiborne, while generating good chemistry with Brynner, making the mutual admiration between a blueprint example of "opposites attract" lovers believable. Stevens does a bang-up job of combining touchingly fragile, smart and willful elements into her appealing performance, which could have been a blank in the hands of a lesser ingénue. With Stevens leading individuality to Annette, audience empathy towards the character is complete (at least this audience), and you follow her plight with interest, hoping her romance with LaFitte can work out against the slew of obstacles typically found in a DeMille (or DeMille-like) epic.

When The Buccaneer was released in late 1958, it may have won the War onscreen, but it lost the battle with critics and at the box-office (about 3 million in American and Canadian rentals according to Variety, on about a 5 million budget, which included Paramount’s opulent Vista Vision and Technicolor that looks pretty good on the Olive Blu-Ray, which allowed me to finally take a peek at this buried treasure). I’m sure many could view the movie and believe I’ve lost my mind to defend it and enjoy it so much, but such are the intrigues involved in each individual’s experience of watching, reacting to and placing a value on movies according to each viewer’s specific tastes.