Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Crop of Uninhibited Talent Has a Field Day in Caged

           The grandmother of all subsequent women prison dramas, 1950’s Caged fittingly was produced at Warner Brothers, as the tough, uncompromising nature found in the studio’s bread-and-butter genre, the gangster film is evident throughout this prime example from its sister genre. Director John Cromwell, screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (who knows exactly how to compose all those shadowy prison bars) and a truly incredible cast proudly maintain a rich melodrama flair throughout, which somehow proves more powerful and unforgettable than a realistic depiction of the events might have- every one of the movie’s many conflicts are delineated with a vividness that makes it difficult to pick out one most memorable moment, as nearly every scene features a dramatic highlight that would serve as the sole, buzzy “remember that scene?” topper for many other classic movies. However, the film does attempt to make viewers aware of the serious problems and injustices found in the prison system at the time in an intelligent, straightforward manner which, along with the film’s more sensational aspects, helps the sharp Caged remain relevant and riveting viewing.

Cromwell proves masterful at guiding his strong ensemble; the veteran director instinctively seems to know when to offer a trenchant close-up showcasing a great moment, or when to emphasize a more subtle approach in order to feature each player at her thespian best. Cromwell also does a great job setting up exciting showcase scenes such as the “girls gone wild” cell block riot. Kellogg makes an equally valuable contribution with a smart screenplay featuring solid, entertainingly florid dialogue (“Kindly omit flowers” is one of many killer lines) and scenes illustrating Kellogg’s substantial gift for creating arresting plot points which grant the players a treasure trove of unforgettable moments to play, which they do with sublime verve (each cast member deserve a pardon for knocking her role out of the cell).

Eleanor Parker had slowly worked her way up the ranks at Warners during the previous decade but, despite several prime assignments, including a very interesting, underrated take on Mildred in the 1946 version of Of Human Bondage, by 1950 she was still waiting for the major career breakthrough Caged would afford her. Parker took a risk accepting the role of Marie Allen, as there was an unknown variable concerning how much critics and the public would rate and embrace the heretofore uncharted subject matter, but she must have recognized one of the richest character arcs available to an actress when she perused the script, and Parker admirably ran with it, resulting in a Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival and a well-deserved Oscar nomination in a legendarily competitive year. Parker masterfully employs a quavering voice and nervous, wide-eyed quality at the outset, as the naïve 19-year-old Marie finds herself put away after serving as an accessory to her husband’s robbery, then shifts gears as the policies and politics of the system wear Marie down and she becomes more immoveable. But before that, Parker handles Marie’s riveting emotional outbursts in astounding fashion (just as she would ace her highly dramatic role, and gain another Oscar nod, in the following year’s Detective Story) and due to Parker’s committed, convincing playing, the audience is pulling for Marie to come up aces throughout the film.

As Evelyn Harper, the calm-yet-caustic prison matron, the imposing Hope Emerson has a rare talent of making every line sound like a sneer, and she’s pretty magnificent at portraying each of her character’s vicious actions with a disturbingly sedate vindictiveness. Evelyn could serve as a blueprint for all the subsequent depictions of cold nasty pieces of work overseeing inmates (paging Nurse Ratched), but Emerson adds great originally to her meaty role by often playing the character with a cool detachment, signifying Harper is completely confident of how much power she wields, and of the ignoble, unorthodox methods she can employ to keep these gals in line. Emerson’s deliberately casual playing of such a rotten tomato actually makes her even creepier and more formidable than a more aggressive approach, as Harper appears to be able to effortlessly work the system to her advantage while wreaking havoc on her supervised environment and the prison system in general, without being hindered by attributes such as scruples or feelings of guilt regarding her tyrannical actions.

In most films these two performances would dominant the other players, but Caged proves to be an all-timer in regards to perfect casting. One tagline on the film’s poster (also found in the movie’s trailer) mentions “a brilliant cast you’ll long remember,” and in this case the hype is apt. Over seventy years on, it’s amazing to watch so many performers make such a strong impression- the film is a feast for high-powered emoting, offering a wealth of colorful, multi-faceted roles, and the cast rises to the occasion in each instance. In some cases, such as Gertrude Michaels (the likable waitress Joan Crawford befriends in the previous year’s Flamingo Road) as a well-to-do inmate who goes stir-crazy in one of the most vivid early scenes, or Lee Patrick as Elvira, the powerful vice queen who takes a very clear shine to Mary (Elvira is one of the more forthright portrayals of a lesbian found in an American film up to that time), their perceptive work in against-type casting is so different than their other lighter roles one may feel compelled to double-check the cast list to confirm their involvement in Caged.

Agnes Moorehead gives one her most controlled and intelligent performances as Ruth Benton, the prison superintendent working hard to make a better life for the inmates. Moorehead does a great job at illustrating the strength of character that drives Ruth to take on the bureaucratic red tape (and the men behind it) hindering progress, or to challenge Evelyn’s nefarious agendas as Ruth tries hard to give a well-earned sack to Harper, but she also suggests the resignation and compromise involved in such a demanding job. Ruth has to pick her battles, and although she demonstrates a caring nature towards the inmates, Moorehead makes it clear Ruth understands there’s not room for a sentimental demeanor in her position- she has to stay as tough as her foes to have any hope of achieving positive change for the prison.   

Jan Sterling offers some welcome lighter moments as Smoochie, the easy-going, wisecracking prostitute who relates her letters home from mother, and the audience eagerly looks forward to each of her “I got news for ya” utterings as Smoochie comments on the action and her fellow inmates various personalities. As the sad-but-hopeful June, Olive Deering, with her low voice and melancholy eyes, conveys a haunting presence that is hard to shake off, even years after viewing (when I watch The Ten Commandments, as soon as Deering appears, thoughts of June in Caged spring to mind). Gertrude Hoffman as the oldest and sagest inmate has a very satisfying moment challenging the bullying Harper (you believe this “lifer” is up to the task of cutting the evil matron down to size, thanks to Hoffman’s sedate-yet-ominous tone that proves an ideal match to Harper’s calm malevolence) and, in a larger role as the awesomely-named Kitty Stark, a leader among the inmates, Betty Garde has an equally memorable confrontation with the tormenting Harper that makes one want to cheer (I would love to catch a showing of Caged with a packed house of appreciative fans). Smaller roles are filled by the likes of no less than Ellen Corby and Jane Darwell, indicating just how rich the field of players was for this once-in-a-lifetime cast.

Many women-in-prison-peril movies have followed, but rarely in this distinct film genre (or any other) has a cast made an impact with the potency the talented roster of players in Caged manages. Drawing an audience in from the first scene as the innocent Marie is indoctrinated into her brutal new world, Caged never lets down during its mesmerizing 96 minutes, thanks to the resolute efforts of Cromwell, Kellogg and an astonishing cast clearly intent on revealing every facet driving their characters’ actions, leading a to a wealth of grim but extremely compelling scenes. Other films of its era may be regarded in a more respectable light as a venerated classic movie, but few have dated less or offer such a richly rewarding viewing experience as the down-and-dirty, take-no-prisoners Caged.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Lolita Makes the Grade as a Kubrick Classic


         Helping to usher in a more permissive era in America films, Stanley Kubrick’s smart, richly entertaining 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the legendary and controversial 1955 bestseller, provides a fascinating example of how far a mainstream studio film could go during the pre-ratings board era in offering heretofore forbidden adult themes to the public in a manner deemed acceptable. Nabokov’s ingenious screenplay suggestively manages to address the novel’s primary plot points involving sexual obsession and murder without falling into a distasteful realm. The top-flight, perfectly chosen lineup of James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon fully invest their considerable talents to bring off performances of style and wit. One of the few Kubrick films to fall mainly in the comedy genre, the director’s skillful, remarkable work in crafting an engrossing Lolita for the masses suggests Kubrick could have excelled more often in lighter fare with the same success he found in other genres. 

           Although some of the novel’s racier aspects had to be toned down in the film adaptation, Kubrick and Nabokov were able to keep matters remarkably adult for 1962, incorporating sly, skillful methods to address mature themes in the unfolding of the story. The audience might have to read between the lines regarding the more salacious content, but (for example) when Lolita inaudibly whispers in Humbert’s ear about a game she played with a boy during summer at “Camp Climax,” anyone who read or didn’t read the book knows the score. Armed with Nabokov’s crafty script, Kubrick turned the censorship which prevented sexual matters from being overtly presented on film into an asset, by having characters address desires in an indirect, funny manner, such as Clare Quilty, with a Cherise cat grin, suggestively saying “Did I do that? Did I?” after information involving a tryst is whispered in his ear by a former flame, or during the in-disguise Quilty’s provocative-yet-indirect discussions with an increasingly unhinged Humbert Humbert. Over the lengthy 2.5 hour running time, Kubrick shows a deft touch in combining these entertaining lighter scenes with more profoundly dramatic ones, without ever losing a consistent overall tone. It makes for a fascinating watch, and Kubrick respects and trusts the audience, never playing down to them or trying to over-emphasize points for fear viewers won’t “get it” otherwise.  

           Kubrick is greatly assisted in his endeavors by a remarkable quartet of stars. The always-compelling James Mason adds another impressive portrait to his many fine screen characterizations. Humbert Humbert, the professor with a yen for pubescent girls, is a tricky role to bring off but Mason, with his cultured, melodic voice, manages to believably blend a great deal of style, humor and class with a darker emotional resonance fitting for a man torn by his desires. Mason could go as deep into a character as any actor of his era, as witnessed by his Norman Maine for-the-ages turn in A Star is Born and his conflicted Captain Nemo 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954 was a good year for Mason) or his drug-addicted, delusional father in 1956’s Bigger Than Life, wherein Mason greatly aided director Nicholas Ray in lending a horrific twist to the image of an ideal 1950’s suburban family. In Lolita Mason also gets a chance to show his comic adeptness, such as the scene wherein Humbert’s nonplussed, inebriated  demeanor in a bathtub shows how little he is shaken up by a dire turn of events, when a crestfallen reaction appears more apropos. The manner in which Mason is able to seamlessly switch from farcical to tragic moments is acting of the most proficient caliber, and Mason never puts a foot wrong while appearing in virtually every scene of the film, keeping the audience on his side throughout; it’s hard to picture another actor pulling off Humbert as memorably and endearingly as what Mason accomplishes in the role.

          For Shelley Winters the role of Charlotte Haze, an affluent widow who firmly sets her sights on Humbert once he takes up lodgings with her and her daughter Dolores (a.k.a. "Lo"), provided her with one of her best opportunities to shine. She plays Charlotte in a florid manner, yet her richly overt playing is far from one-dimensional, as Winters reveals the many facets (desperation, good-humor, jealously, lustiness, rage) that comprise Charlotte’s personality. This woman is full of life, and Winters has no problem playing Charlotte’s pretentiousness with a glorious abandon that somehow doesn’t cross over the line into the ridiculous, nicely tempering the character’s general joie de vivre with some touching moments wherein Charlotte reveals a more sensitive nature. Humbert may view Charlotte as obvious and silly, but Charlotte believes in her romantic convictions, ultimately showing Humbert (and the audience) she possesses a level of pride and intelligence far beyond his lowly assessment. Winters was always great at illustrating domineering behavior with a comic twist and admirable liveliness, such as in her old-fashioned-yet-sage Jewish mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and in her iconic role as the former “underwater swimming champ” in The Poseidon Adventure, who in the eleventh hour becomes a force of nature to match any tidal wave, thereby saving Gene Hackman and the day. In Lolita Winters tackles Charlotte’s many colorful, forceful actions with aplomb and conviction (such as teaching Humbert to Cha-Cha-Cha, or attempting to barrel through the generation gap during her conflicts with her mature, independent-minded daughter); with Winters in the part, it just seems natural Charlotte possesses such free-spirited vigor, and you believe Winters throughout, where another performer might give one pause during some of Charlotte’s more flamboyant scenes (such as Charlotte’s discussion with her dead husband, which Winters manages to make both pathetic and funny).

          Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, the mysterious writer who proves to be a constantly ominous and evasive presence during Humbert’s travels and travails, gives one of his most original, daring performances. Sellers’ confidence as an actor must have been peaking as shooting commenced, as he portrays Quilty in a fearless, spontaneous fashion that is riveting to watch. From the sensational opening showdown scene between Humbert and Quilty, Sellers makes it clear he is not going to be risk-adverse concerning character choices, as he switches voices and attitudes seemingly at random while Quilty attempts to distract the purposeful Humbert, finishing off the scene with a weirdly comical “ooh, that hurt!” exit line for the ages. It’s admirable to watch a major talent run like this with a role without worrying about the possible disastrous results if wrong choices win the day. Sellers somehow manages to keeps the characterization whole and on track though, making his irregular playing an intrinsic part of Quilty’s quirky demeanor. Sellers’ greatest moment in the film is perhaps the bizarre monologue Quilty delivers at a hotel to Humbert containing references to his “normal face” and the “lovely little girl” with Humbert. Sellers adopts a nervous, rambling manner as he races through the dialogue, leaving the awe-struck audience to wonder just what the hell this guy is up to. Sellers gleefully offers the same can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him-type of surprising behavior in all his scenes and, similar to Winters, it’s a constant pleasure to see just how far Sellers will go in vividly enacting Quilty’s every perverse move.                 

          With her simultaneously placid, alert and amused demeanor Sue Lyon proves ideal casting in the title role. Although it was mentioned upon the film’s release Lyon appeared a lot older than the book’s 12-year-old heroine (Lyon was 14 during filming) her knowing gaze and nonchalant, coolly detached air not only allowed her to perfectly blend in with her more experienced co-stars, but also made the film more accessible to the masses (and censors) in 1962, who could handle a more mature Lolita, wherein a pre-teen would have possibly been too unsettlingly provocative. Lyon manages to walk a fine line between adolescence and sensuality and she keeps her balance all the way, instilling both a youthful freshness and a sage world-weariness into the role that is suitable for this Lolita. Kubrick works extremely well in bringing out Lyon’s natural, intuitive approach to acting, and she handles the character’s development with impressively unforced style. Watching Lyon in her high-profile follow-up, 1964’s the Night of the Iguana, she appears well-cast as far as age and looks are concerned, but gives a more uneven, conventional performance. In Lolita, she easily holds her own among some major players, and is consistently interesting to watch (one example: I love the way Lyon, as the older Lolita, spits out the line “. . . you know, an ‘Art’ movie” to Humbert, making it clear to him and us exactly what kind of film she didn’t star in). Lyon is especially good at projecting slyness, such as her reaction shots as Lolita listens to Humbert and Charlotte discuss his moving in, wherein she shows this nymphet clearly gets what Humbert’s intentions are at first sight, or the self-possessed manner Lolita saunters in to say goodnight (backed by Bob Harris’s unforgettable theme, lively conducted by Nelson Riddle) and pecks Humbert on the cheek with a bold look and suggestive “goodnight” beyond her years. Lyon may never again have made the same impact onscreen, but her assured, composed work in Lolita guarantees her a place in cinema history among the most indelible coming-of-age performances.

        The sophistication, intelligence and creativity in evidence throughout Lolita has allowed the film to remain fresh and intriguing for contemporary audiences, just as it proved enthralling to cinemagoers over 50 years ago, wherein it gained healthy grosses (4.5 million in U.S./Canada film rentals, placing it 12th for the year, according to Variety) and a measure of critical acclaim, with several major Golden Globe nominations (including a win for Lyon as Most Promising Newcomer), and a well-earned British Academy Award nom for Mason and Oscar nom for Nabokov’s screenplay. With its fusion of ace direction, perfect cast, and clever, trenchant screenplay, Lolita serves as a quality example of how inventively and entertainingly adult matters could be presented on-screen in a less-permissive era, and offers a template to modern filmmakers of how to memorably depict questionable material with class, humor and skill. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

A Star-Studded Eternity for the Cinematic Ages

         In 1953, Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn and director Fred Zimmerman had a tall order in attempting to bring the adult themes driving James Jones’ epic 1951 novel From Here to Eternity to the screen. In addition to addressing the story’s controversial passages, obstacles such as the logistics involved in on-location filming in Hawaii and the clashes involved in finding the perfect cast suggested a possible bad return on a troubled investment, but Eternity represents one of those rare occasions wherein a film’s various elements appear to seamlessly mesh together in a satisfying and riveting whole. Detailing the plights of several serviceman stationed at Pearl Harbor circa 1941 and the women they become involved with, Daniel Taradash’s intelligent, superbly crafted script, which manages to successfully incorporate most of the novel’s mature elements while carefully dodging the ever-looming production code restrictions, clearly delineates each character and their motivations and condensing the lengthy novel’s major plot points down to a reasonable running time of 118 minutes without losing the impact of the overall storyline.

         Fred Zinnemann, fresh off his success with 1952’s High Noon, again proved to be an ideal fit for handing a first-class production with characteristic taste, sensitivity and maturity. Zinnemann had a great track record with actors, and his adeptness with and support of each principle player is apparent as the film moves from one memorable scene featuring vividly-depicted portrayals to the next. Zinnemann also maintains sublime pacing during the film’s nearly two-hour running time, skillfully covering a wealth of interconnecting storylines and characters without losing focus of any of them; his staging of the Pearl Harbor attack is very impressive and help lend an “epic” feel to the film, but the quieter, reflective moments between players is perhaps a better indication of Zinnemann’s distinctive directorial gifts, staying with the viewer long after the attack and film have ended.

          Of all the intelligent, vulnerable portrayals Montgomery Clift created during a remarkable run from his impressive 1948 screen debut in Zinnemann’s fine post-war drama The Search (although Clift’s also-standout work in the smash Red River was filmed first, but released later in 1948) through Eternity, his intense, emotionally-driven, honest and highly principled approach to acting perhaps found its most perfect outlet in a character sharing many of these same qualities- Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a disciplined, dedicated private intent on making the Army a career while stoically refusing to give up his individualism, which causes frequent clashes with superiors and colleagues holding a more traditional view towards Army life. Preferring to express himself through his keen trumpet-playing skills as opposed to using his expert boxing abilities to aid his unit after a tragic bout, Prewitt stubbornly refuses to compromise on any of his beliefs, and Clift’s work is so heartfelt (he truly stays “in-the-moment” every second on-screen and fully connects with each costar) he convinces the audience Prewitt’s introverted, noble manner is worthy of the upmost respect and admiration. It’s great Clift managed a career peak of Eternity’s magnitude during this prime period (which also included A Place in the Sun and fascinating, carefully thought-out work in The Heiress), as afterwards he took time away from the screen before suffering a horrible auto accident while making Raintree County, after which Clift gave some moving performances, but never quite equaled the unique appeal found in his earlier output.

           Top-billed Burt Lancaster gained new stature as an actor with his finely modulated work as First Sergeant Milton Warden. Although already a popular star, specifically in the action genre via such entertaining fare as The Flame and the Arrow and the also perennially enjoyable The Crimson Pirate, both which showcase Lancaster’s impressive acrobatic skills as he cavorts through adventures with former circus partner Nick Cravat, Eternity, which followed closely on the heels of Lancaster’s subdued, ultra-serious work as the alcoholic Doc in the previous year’s Come Back Little Sheba, signaled a continued effort to move into a more serious vein, with Lancaster managing to his combine his ever-imposing presence with a firm self-control that makes the Warden a more mysterious and equally-fascinating counter to the flamboyant, awesome figures Lancaster cut as the colorful, rousing anti-heroes of 1956’s (underrated) The Rainmaker and his Oscar-winning work as the bible-thumping Elmer Gantry. Lancaster infuses a still, calm quality into the Warden, therefore making it all the more impactful when the Sgt. does suddenly become more explosive, such as in the memorable moment he steps in to break up a fight at a bar, making the audience firmly believe no one would dare ignore Warden’s demands to behave, or during the climax of the film, when it looks as though the Sgt. might possibly be able take on the entire enemy single-handedly, before he capably leads his team on a counter-attack. For his mature, formidable work, Lancaster managed to garner his first New York Film Critic’s Award, although both he and Clift missed out at the Oscars, with William Holden taking home the gold for Stalag 17 (I’d back Clift, but 1953 was quite a year for Best Actor, with Marlon Brando lending his distinct to Julius Caesar and Richard Burton in The Robe also in the mix).

           Deborah Kerr’s provocative work as Karen Holmes who, as the disenchanted wife of an unscrupulous Captain finds solace in a torrid relationship with Lancaster’s Warden, was considered out-of-left field casting at the time (Joan Crawford was slated for the role at one point, which makes perfect sense if you read the novel’s depiction of the tough, bitter Karen), based on the string of proper ladies that had brought Kerr fame at MGM and elsewhere. However, closer inspection shows Kerr was no stranger to offering erotically-charged portrayals when appropriate- check out her restless nun in Black Narcissus or her adventurous heroine frequently disquieted by Stewart Granger’s sexy Allan Quartermain in King’ Solomon’s Mines for pre-Eternity proof of Kerr’s knack for vividly depicting sensuality in a bold manner that somehow also managed to find acceptance among the strict production code mores of the time. Kerr proves extremely adept enacting Karen’s tense-yet-direct sexuality, manages a nice American accent and of course has a wonderfully steamy chemistry with Lancaster, specifically in the beach love scene of its or any era, which was considered very racy in 1953 and still generates plenty of on-screen heat. Kerr and Lancaster’s committed work in their scenes make one believe in the couple, and helps keep their risky romance from moving too far into melodramatic territory.

            Of all the players gaining hefty career boosts via Eternity, none benefited from the monumental success of the film and individual praise for their work therein than Frank Sinatra, who was famously at a low-ebb, both on film and records, before launching possibly the biggest showbiz comeback of them all. Stepping in for Eli Wallach, who opted out to do Camino Real on Broadway, and aided by wife Ava Gardner’s pitching to Harry Cohn, Sinatra landed the ideally-suited-for part of Angelo Maggio, the slight-in-stature but imposing-in-personality, grit, loyalty and humor private who befriends the troubled Prewitt and before facing substantial obstacles of his own. Reportedly after reading the novel Sinatra knew the role was made for him, and he charismatically plays the role with seeming ease, proving some valuable lighter moments in the process, while also coming across forcefully in his main dramatic moment, which he pulls off with a quiet grace not seen in Maggio beforehand. Sinatra would reach his apex as an actor a couple years later as a drug addict in The Man with the Golden Arm and also impressively anchored 1962’s classic The Manchurian Candidate, proving himself to possess a screen presence equal to his imposing vocal abilities when the spirit moved him, as it certainly did in Eternity.

           Donna Reed, back by Cohn for another against-type casting in the other leading female role sought after or considered for others (I’ve heard Carolyn Jones, Shelley Winters and Kim Stanley were possible candidates), the tough “hostess” Lorene (aka Alma Burke), comes through with her best work since It’s a Wonderful Life. Although Alma’s job has been sanitized from the oldest profession she occupied in the novel, Reed conveys a hard-bitten, jaded quality suggesting Alma is determined to achieve her financial goals by whatever means necessary, whether or not they can be clearly stated on-screen. Reed is unusually and intently focused in her scenes with Clift, and their rapport accounts for some of the most emotionally compelling moments in the film, as conflicting dynamics threaten the couple’s unorthodox romance. Reed is also impressive in the scene wherein Alma relates to Prewitt she’s working hard to save enough funds to return to her hometown and gain a “proper” position in society- Reed does a great job of balancing cynicism with a sense of wounded pride to show how strong Alma’s independent spirit is, and how serious and driven she is to accomplish her plan, even at the risk of losing Prewitt.

          Among the rest of the first-rate players, Ernest Borgnine shows his adeptness at villainy a couple years before Marty made him a star. Playing James “Fatso” Judson, a Staff Sergeant who comes in conflict with Maggio in ongoing fashion, Borgnine underplays in a calm manner that makes his hateful intent fascinating to watch, and creepier than if Judson came across as a more-explosive monster; for example, Judson matter-of-factly telling Prewitt Maggio deserved the torture Judson put him through, as if constantly beating up someone is the most rational thing in the world and something to do daily at random, is an unsettling moment that carriers more power than most of the forceful bullies Borgnine played at high-pitch during his later starring years (although I’ll always love Borgnine’s shouting matches with Gene Hackman up, down and throughout The Poseidon Adventure). Rounding out the cast, Philip Ober is appropriately underhanded as Karen’s ignoble husband, who also finds time to give Prewitt plenty of trouble, and Jack Warden, George Reeves, Claude Atkins and Mickey Shaughnessy have some good moments as various enlistees.

             Upon its release in the summer of 1953, Eternity became of the decade’s biggest critical and commercial successes, with raves reviews singling out Zinnemann, Taradish and each of the five stars with a wealth of accolades, leading to the film sweeping most of the year-end critic’s prizes before gaining one of the biggest Academy Award payoffs ever in 1954 (13 nominations and eight wins- including victories for Picture, Director, Screenplays, and Reed and Sinatra for their supporting efforts). At the box-office, the small-screen, B&W Eternity placed second only to the introduction of Cinemascope via The Robe, amassing $12 million in rentals in the U.S. and Canada during its first run, according to Variety. With seminal direction, work rating at or near career-best for most of the actors, and that exceptional Taradash screenplay, Eternity offers a seminal example of what 1950’s audiences looked for in a top-flight drama, and it remains an entertaining testament to the significant virtues of its talented cast and crew.  

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.