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.