Monday, April 22, 2019

Le Beau Serge

Film in Focus

By Jean-Paul Garrieux

Le Beau Serge (Ajym Films, 1958) – Director: Claude Chabrol. Writer: Claude Chabrol. Cast: Gerard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michele Meritz, Bernadette Lafont, Claude Cerval, Edmond Beauchamp, Jeanne Perez, Andre Dino, Michel Crueze, & Christine Dourdet. B&W, 98 minutes.

Have you ever returned to your hometown after a lengthy absence to find that, while the town is still the same, the people have changed to the point where you now feel like a stranger in their midst? This is the plot of Chabrol’s, Le Beau Serge, a plot that might just as well come from the pen of Albert Camus. It is an excellent exercise in existential alienation.

The film begins on a quiet country road. The only sounds we hear come from a bubbling brook in the foreground of the frame. It’s the stuff of which picture postcards are made. The loud roar of an engine suddenly interrupts the peace as a large bus crosses the frame. It’s a harbinger of what is to come as Chabrol cuts inside the bus, and after giving us a brief montage of the passengers, he settles on as bespectacled, sickly-looking young man named Francois Bayon (Brialy) who is returning to the hometown of Sardent for a lengthy rest after years away in Paris (where he was a theology student) and Switzerland, where he went for treatment. He is suffering from tuberculosis, and has come back to his old hometown for the milder winter.


Immediately after arriving he is greeted by Christine (Dourdet), a friend of his parents, and Michel (Crueze), an old friend from boyhood. They exchange pleasantries, but soon Francois is distracted by the presence of two men, one of whom he recognizes as his close friend Serge. He calls out to Serge, but Serge keeps walking with the other man, heading for a tavern. Michel tells Francois that when Serge is “drunk as a skunk” he’s oblivious to everything. As Michel carries Francois’ bag to the hotel, they discuss old times as children and how the place has changed. But Francois can’t get his mind off Serge and asks how he got that way. Michel explains that Serge wanted to study architecture and passed his entrance exams, but then impregnated a young lady, Yvonne (Meritz) and had to marry her. The child was stillborn, a mongoloid. Yvonne is pregnant again and Serge’s fear is that this next baby will be born the same way, so he abandons himself into a liquor-hazed world, oblivious to most everything but womanizing. The old man Serge was with is his father-in-law and drinking buddy, Glomaud (Beauchamp).

The most arresting part of the scene is that while the driver is fetching Francois’ luggage on the roof of the bus, we see Serge and Glomaud standing on the other side. Immediately after the camera espies them, a sharp, dark sting of music punctuates their presence, and the way they are framed in the scene makes them appear most sinister.

The opening scenes also establish Chabrol’s mise-en-scene, which is drab, barren, and suffocating. The bleakness of the late autumn countryside blends with the stark claustrophobia of the village, with its narrow roads and unwelcoming run-down buildings. The hotel where Francois stays, with its granite walls, dark halls and stairways, is more like a penal institution than a place to relax. This is not a happy place, the townspeople are a reflection of their surroundings, caught in the decay. For instance, an act of incestuous rape is treated with a "ho hum" indifference by the village. 

While discussing Serge and what has happened to him while walking to the hotel, Michel talks of Serge’s shattered dreams, telling Francois that “at least I knew I would end up a baker.” The best way to avoid pain and suffering is not to dream. But then, not to dream is to abandon hope.

For Francois, this state of affairs is intolerable. He sees out as up to him to set things right and he’ll begin with Serge. At first the two friends try to reconnect as they share memories and laugh as they talk over the divergent paths their lives have taken and the recent developments in those lives. But too much time has passed and their superficial and disjointed conversations quickly take a bitter turn. The unspoken conflict between the two is existential: Francois has been to the city. He haas become worldly, exuding an air of entitlement. Serge, on the other hand, has degenerated into a country bumpkin trapped in a downward slide. At first excited about his friend’s progress in escaping the village, Serge’s wonderment quickly grows resentful as he is put off by Francois’s superior attitude and his constant advice about how Serge can turn his fortunes around.

What began as a happy reunion has now become a quiet battle marked by passive-aggressive volleys back and forth. Soon Serge’s wife Yvonne and her slatternly sister Marie (Lafont) are drawn into the fray, with every get together between them seeing as if it could easily turn vicious. Serge has cheated on Yvonne with Marie, and the town gossip has it that Glomaud isn't actually Marie's father. Marie, for her part, is quick to jump in bed with Francois, who in turn is not about to turn her favors down.

This comes back to haunt Francois when Glomaud spots François in the hotel tavern and asks him to buy him a drink. François refuses, to which Glomard responds, “You won’t drink with me, but you’ll sleep with my daughter?” Glomaud yells. François’s defense to the charge is to repeat the unsubstantiated gossip that Marie is not his daughter. Glomaud, though, calls witnesses to attest to François’ statement, then stumbles off to rape Marie, whom he has reputedly lusted after for years. François later finds Marie in tears and tries to comfort her, only to be told that “You observe us as if we were insects.” Francis then chases down Glomaud, who is trying to escape through the local cemetery, and throws him to the ground. 

Bewildered by what just transpired, François retreats to his hotel room, where Serge finds him. They engage in a telling conversation, as François says, “Everything’s so different here . . . You’re like animals, as though you had no reason for living.”

Serge can only respond that “The earth’s like granite; they can barely scrape a living. They work because they’ve no choice . . . Come and look. Miles to walk home, often in deep snow. Still, they want to learn. We’re animals, but who cares? Everyone can’t simply leave. You understand? It’s like a baby couldn’t walk if there were no one to show him how.”


Later Serge will make the observation, “Poor François. Always eager to do a good deed.” Francois may have changed outwardly, but he’s still the same judgmental person he always was, with Chabrol nicely emphasizing Francois’s lack of understanding of the insults thrown his way.

Chabrol’s portrait of Francois emphasizes his elitist outlook toward the economic and existential challenges faced daily by the townspeople. For François, the answer is simple: he must convince Serge to leave Yvonne, as she is clearly responsible for the problems between them and contributing to Serge’s fall from grace by getting pregnant and forcing him into a shotgun wedding. Later, expanding his mission, he rebukes the town priest (Cerval) for abandoning his mission to help the villagers find redemption via religion. The priest’s response that Francois doesn’t understand the situation and should mind his own business only causes him to dig in his heels. Chabrol shows that François has come to see himself a savior; it is up to him to save Serge, Yvonne, and Marie. And how? Merely be being there for them. “I think they need me, I think they need an example,” he says. He has become a false prophet, thinking that can succeed where the local institutions have failed in addressing and alleviating the town's economic and moral stagnation. 

The schism between the former friends and François’ complete incomprehension of the villagers reaches its conclusion at a local dance. Francois objects to Serge’s callous treatment of Yvonne and begins dishing out advice and admonishment. Serge walks out into the street, followed by Francois, who gets a beating from his friend for his troubles. The villagers look on, imploring Serge to “teach the Parisian a lesson.” But instead of understanding François stubbornly remains stays in the village, feeling he is still needed to redeem Serge.

The film comes to its climax as Yvonne goes into labor. Serge is nowhere to be found. Francois finds the family doctor, then goes out looking for Serge. He finds his friend dead drunk in a barn and literally has to drag him through the snow. Once home he awakens Serge by rubbing snow in his face, just as his son’s first cries break the silence. François, collapsing, utters his last words, “I believed,” while Serge, hearing his healthy son’s cries, weeps from joy.

Afterwords

No matter how we look at it, the fact remains that Le Beau Serge was an impressive debut for the 27-year-old director. Yet. there was seemingly something in the film to cheese of everyone: Some criticized the blunt treatments of sexual material while others were bothered by the overt Catholic moralizing. The town of Sardent, where Chabrol grew up, was presented as somehow frozen in time; an incredibly insular place not unlike the backwoods towns in some horror movies, quietly threatening. Roland Barthes attacked it for its “right-wing” and “static” image of man, but on the other side it was championed by none other than Francois Truffaut who said at the film’s opening that it “is as masterly as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with a camera.”

The contrast between François's holier-than thou attitude and Serge's self-destructive actions reflects Chabrol’s Marxist view of the world as one of class divisions that in themselves produce lasting social consequences. Francois represents the well-to-do bourgeoise, who fail to realize the real problems of the working classes, instead offering platitudes instead of real solutions.


The film is also a cross between a family drama and a murder melodrama, as Chabrol was greatly heavily influenced by the films of his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, in particular, Shadow of a Doubt, as it announces the arrival of a dark presence in its opening scene. While critic Tom Milne notes that “As mirror images of each other, the two men reflect the interest in Hitchcockian themes of transference later elaborated in Chabrol's work, but here expressed rather too overtly in terms of Christian allegory (a transference not so much of guilt as of redemption)” he is overlooking the fact that the attempt at Christian redemption is self-serving and superficial. Chabrol is at heart a moralist, but not in the usual sense of lecturing people about right and wrong. Rather, he is more interested in finding out how and why people make moral decisions and how they come by strange beliefs. Unlike Chabrol’s later films, thrillers that disguise their morality beneath a veneer of bloody murder and tension, Chabrol goes right to the core of this film’s morality by asking two important questions: Why has Serge taken to drink, and why is Francois so obsessed with redeeming him?  

Chabrol and cinematographer Henri present Sardent as both divided and interlinked as Francois and Serge, using the mise en scene of the town’s cramped layout to establish an atmosphere of alienation and ennui. Emile Delpierre's music, with its sinister surges, is used to foreshadow events. Throughout the movie Chabrol uses the music not not merely as a mood enhancement, but also to clarify what is occurring and anticipate what is to follow.

As Serge, Gerard Blain comes across as a sort of Frenchified James Dean, but without the histrionics that Dean often employed. Jean-Claude Brialy hits all the right notes as Francois, a man torn between the demands of the spirit and the pleasures of the flesh. And special mention must be made of Bernadette Lafont, who while only 19 when the picture was filmed, comes across with the intensity and presence of an actress much older. 

Le Beau Serge is often regarded as the first of the French New Wave, but in truth Agnes Varda beat him to the punch with her 1955 production, La Pointe Courte. Still, Le Beau Serge is a fascinating film, made all the more so by the fact of its being a first effort, and one that demands to be seen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Maltese Falcon

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Maltese Falcon (aka Dangerous Female WB, 1931) – Director: Roy Del Ruth, Writers: Maude Fulton, Brown Homes (s/p), Lucien Hubbard (uncredited), Dashiell Hammett (novel). Stars: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson, Walter Long, Dwight Frye, J. Farrell MacDonald & Agostino Borgato. B&W, 80 minutes.

Those new to classic film are usually surprised to learn that not only was there an earlier version of this iconic film, but also how much it’s like the 1941 remake, which is considered by critics and film historians to be the definitive version. Those of us who have spent years watching classic films know that Warner Bros, frequently recycled its films. In fact, the 1941 version was the second remake of the 1931 original. In 1936 the studio remade the 1931 version as Satan Met a Lady, with Warren William, Bette Davis and Alison Skipworth in the Kasper Gutman role. (This version is so different and so wretched it deserves its own review.)

Having read the novel and seen the movie as a teenager, I was a big fan of Hammett and his writings. I saw the 1931 version in college and marveled at its faithfulness to the text. Over the years the love of both these movies and the author never left me. And I spent many an hour reading obscure articles on the author, the book and the movies.

The main difference between the 1931 and 1941 versions is the transcendent issue of care. In 1941 great care was taken to ensure a good movie. The screenplay and the cast were chosen after careful deliberation and the director, though a novice, went to great lengths to ensure the movie’s quality.


For anyone who has not seen the ’41 version or read the book, the plot goes as follows: Sam Spade (Cortez) and Miles Archer (Long) are private eyes hired by the attractive Ruth Wonderly (Daniels) to tail a nefarious character named Thursby, suspected in her sister’s disappearance. Archer opts to follow Thursby but is shot and killed in doing so. The police are suspicious of Spade. Complicating things is the fact that Spade was engaged in an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva (Todd). The police then discover Thursby’s body, also shot to death.

Spade needs to clear himself. Wonderly hires him to protect her but is evasive on the details. Spade discovers that she and three other criminals named Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are after a jewel-encrusted falcon, yet no one admits to having it. What does the bird have to do with deaths of Archer and Thursby? Will Spade find the real murderer before the police pin rap on him? And is he falling for a client he knows he can’t trust?

Both ’31 and ’41 versions adhere to this basic plot. The difference is that Spade is shown to be much more of a womanizer than he is in the ’41 version. We first meet him as a woman is leaving his office. We don’t see her face, but we do see her adjusting her stockings, which spells out what was going on behind the closed doors. Right after she leaves, Spade is kissing his secretary, Effie (Merkel) on the neck and giving an admiring glance to her posterior before cleaning up his office, which suggests it was in use as an adult playpen.

The relation between Spade and partner Miles Archer (Long) is much the same as in the 1941 version. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, and we’re pretty sure Archer is aware of it, but doesn’t care. 

After Spade is notified of Archer’s murder, he goes down to the scene of the crime. Things follow as in the ‘41 version except for the fact that, while leaving, Spade stops to chat in Chinese with a local merchant. (this scene is not in the book, either.) 

In then ’31 version Ruth spends the night at Sam’s apartment and while she sleeps he sneaks over to her flat and searches it, looking for the falcon, convinced that she knows where it is. However, he finds nothing.    

The introduction of Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer happen for the most part as they do in the ’41 version, though in Huston’s version there is more emphasis on Gutman, thanks to a wonderful performance by Sydney Greenstreet. Gutman is accompanied by his right hand man, Wilmer (Frye), who plays the role much like Elisha Cook does in the later version.

The ’31 version now plays out like the later version, with Gutman drugging Spade after Cairo tells him the falcon is due in on a boat from China; the bird being dropped off at Spade’s office by Captain Jacoby (Borgato) before he dies from gunshot wounds; and Spade returning home after hiding the falcon to find Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer, and later Ruth (who was hiding) waiting for him.     


Sam insists that he will deliver the statue as soon as they agree on a fall guy in order to clear him with the police and Gutman reluctantly agrees to hand Wilmer over. When Effie delivers the statue to Sam at his apartment, they discover it is valueless. Wilmer uses the opportunity to escape through the kitchen window, while Gutman and Cairo stick up Spade and demand all of the money they’ve given him returned. 

Wilmer later kills Gutman and Cairo while Sam accuses Ruth of killing Miles. Though he has fallen in love with her, he turns her over to the police. In a departure from the book, we see Ruth at her trial, where she is identified by an eyewitness from Chinatown – the same one who was talking with Spade on the night Miles was murdered. Ruth is convicted and sent to prison, with Sam receiving a political appointment as a reward.

The differences between the ’31 and ’41 versions have everything to do with the economic climate of the times. In 1931, Hollywood was holding on by a thread, weathering the effects of a depression that seems to be getting deeper rather than tapering off as other depressions and panics had in the past.

The philosophy of Warner Bros. in 1931 was to make movies, make them fast, and then get on to the next one. The novel, about a crew of low-life characters in pursuit of a legendary jewel-encrusted bird, seemed perfectly suited to be filmed.

As in the book, Sam Spade has well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man, seducing female clients and even having an affair with his partner's wife. As in the book, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are homosexuals. Gutman, refers to Wilmer, as his "gunsel," which is prison slang for both a hired gun and a passive homosexual.

Director Roy Del Ruth staged the film to emphasize its sexual mystique. Ruth Wonderly spends the night in his apartment, Spade tells her he’ll sleep on the couch, but when she awakes the next morning, there’s an obvious indentation in the pillow she's not using to suggest where he really slept. (It seems as if the writers added the line about Sam sleeping on the couch to put off the censors.) There was also a scene added during the confrontation at Spade’s apartment. Sam, suspecting Ruth of stealing $1000, confronts her in the kitchen and makes her strip to prove she didn’t steal the money. Although she undresses out of camera range, Spade has a few articles of her clothing thrown in his face. When the censors later objected to the scene, studio production chief Darryl Zanuck tried to assuage them by saying that because she didn’t throw her underwear at Spade, the audience knew she wasn't naked. 

Although the film's gay element is somewhat subdued, it was far more apparent than in the ’41 version. For instance, at Spade’s apartment, Gutman fondles Wilmer's cheek while setting him up to be the fall guy.

As in the ’41 version, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer meet their demise off screen, del Ruth leaving it too the imagination of the audience. Huston merely has Spade telling then police about Cairo and Gutman about too leave town and warns them about Wilmer.       


The final confrontation between Spade and Ruth occurs as in the ’41 version, the main difference being that Bogart’s Sam Spade is not as indifferent as Cortez is in the Pre-Code version. For instance, Ruth cries, “Then you’ve been pretending. You don’t care. You don’t love me!” To which Spade can only reply, “Oh, I think I do. But what of it?” Bogart’s Spade doesn’t pussyfoot around, telling her that he can’t be sure of her loyalty, that someday, when it suits her, she’ll kill him. (“All we’ve got is that maybe you love men and maybe I love you.”) He also brings in a detective’s code about having to take action when one’s partner is killed; it doesn’t matter what you may have thought of him. And the final denouement is the epitome of the noir relationship: “I won’t because all of me wants to.”

The fatal flaw in the 1931 version is its complete lack of tension. We really don’t get the feeling that Cairo and Gutman are going to pose much of a threat to Sam Spade. This, I think, has much to do with the quality of the acting. Cortez, as Spade, grins and mugs his way through the film, and Dudley Digges and Otto Matieson are nowhere near the menace level of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who almost steals the ’41 version from Bogart. The only performance with noting in the 1931 version is Bebe Daniels, who is excellent as Ruth Wonderly, although she has nowhere near the acting chops of Mary Astor. Thelma Todd and Una Merkel aren’t around that much to make a proper impression; more’s the pity. 

In the final analysis, the Pre-Code version is a wonder when first viewed, but repeated viewings bring out its weaknesses in comparison to the 1941 classic. However, it’s far more worth the time than the 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, which was so wretched that its star, Bette Davis, fled to England to get out from under her contract to Warner Bros. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Quick Millions

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

Quick Millions (Fox, 1931) – Director: Rowland Brown. Writers: Rowland Brown (story & s/p), Courtney Perrett (story & s/p), Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur (s/p, uncredited), John Wray (add’l dialogue). Stars: Spencer Tracy, Marguerite Churchill, Sally Eilers, Bob Burns, John Wray, Werner Richmond, George Raft, John Swor, Leon Ames & Edgar Kennedy. B&W, 72 minutes.

Like so many other Fox pre-Code features, Quick Millions is rarely shown and not widely available on DVD. Once Little Caesar (1930) made the gangster a hot commodity, other studios were looking to cash in, and this effort from Fox is rather par for the course. It was the directing debut of Rowland Brown, a former newspaper reporter and contract writer for Fox. It is also the film debut of George Raft, who has a featured role in the picture.


Star Spencer Tracy is Daniel J. “Bugs” Raymond, a truck driver who just spent a little time in stir for fighting with a cop (Kennedy). Broke and with callous girlfriend Daisy De Lisle (Eilers) on the verge of leaving him, Bugs, who describes himself as a “guy with a one-ton brain who’s too nervous to steal and too lazy to work,” is looking for an angle to get rich.

He first goes to parking garage owners, seeking to sell protection for $75 a week. But one owner tells him there’s not enough business to warrant protection money, so Bugs vandalizes cars parked on the street and drums up the necessary business for the garages. Having been a truck driver Bugs realizes that truck drivers are the ones who make everything in the city run smoothly and without them everything stops cold. His next angle leads him to join forces with with Nails Markey (Richmond), who, with his father, owns 200 produce trucks. From 1925 until 1931, through intimidation, threats and murder, they organize all the trucks in the city.

Another angle has Bugs and Nails throwing a party for prominent citizens, during the course of which they arrange for thugs to hold up the guests. In so doing they collect enough evidence of wrongdoing among the guests to keep them from interfering with their racket. 

Now that he has the goods on his potential enemies Bugs decides to muscle in on the most lucrative market in the city – that of construction. Bugs zeroes in on weak-willed real estate developer Kenneth Stone (Wray), and using sabotage and purchased inside information supplied by a board member, Bugs coerces Stone into paying him to supply trucks for the building of his new tower. When Stone realizes he stands to lose a quarter of a million dollars because the tower will not be completed on time, he accepts Bugs's offer to see that it is finished ahead of schedule if Bugs is appointed director of the firm.

Now established in legitimate business, the downfall of Bugs Raymond begins. And with any gangster it starts with a woman. Dissatisfied with Daisy because she isn’t cultured enough to meet his new standards, Bugs ships her off to Europe while he sets his sights on Stone’s sister, Dorothy (Churchill). She meets all his criteria: attractive, college-educated and a granddaughter of a former governor. In line with his new found social status, Bugs begins dissociating himself from his gang as he plays billiards and golf and goes to the opera with his bodyguard, Jimmy Kirk (Raft). 

Nails, angered that Bugs has given him the high hat, decides to take over the gang, ordering attacks on the city’s food industry, contrary to Bugs’ previous orders. When a radio commentator speaks out against the crime wave, Nails sends Jimmy to silence the “loud speaker.” When the headlines connect Bugs with the killing he realizes Jimmy is a liability and arranges to have him killed.

After the dedication of the new tower, Stone and other intimidated businessmen tell the district attorney that they are through with graft and promise to back his crackdown on the racketeers. Bugs also has a setback on the personal front as Dorothy rejects him, preferring to stay engaged to her beau who is returning from Europe, after which they will be married. 

The setbacks convince Bugs to return to his life as a hoodlum and he convinces Nails to help him in his latest angle: the kidnapping of Dorothy at her wedding. Bugs will have her at any cost. Daisy, who Nails has propositioned after Bugs threw her over, suspects he is plotting against Bugs, but keeps silent. On the way to the church, Nails shoots Bugs and tosses his top hat from the car window as it passes the church.

Afterwords

Quick Millions is not a film that is interested in exploring any of the social issues it inadvertently raises. Once Bugs leaves the cab of his truck we are no longer presented with the street level perspective which dominates the film until that point. Rather, the film is a fascinating, if flawed, portrayal of a gangster who leaves not only his fellow gang members behind, but also his fellow truckers to join the swells on the other side. In so doing he leaves behind what made him prosper and pays the ultimate price. Once Bugs establishes himself on the other side, there is very little attempt to provide insight into the society characters he now associates with, as Brown prefers to give a superficial account rather than delve for meaning. 


The film’s attraction comes from the performance of Tracy. His Bugs is cool and calculating, not an angry street kid like Cagney in Public Enemy, a power-driven killer like Robinson in Little Caesar, or a psycho like Paul Muni in Scarface. Tracy’s Bugs is interested in achieving the American dream the quickest and easiest way possible, and ironically, once he does that he sets in motion the cause of his downfall.

The problems with Quick Millions lie in its direction. The film moves quickly – too quickly – in telling its story, using a vignette style to give us a picture of his rise from truck driver to mob boss, and of the reasons behind his downfall. It’s a fascinating story, focusing as it does on racketeering rather than bootlegging, but it’s told in superficial style by Brown, which makes it instantly forgettable once the film ends.

Unlike its contemporaries, gunplay is minimized, though we see the undercurrent of violence in scenes of the racketeers spraying water on cement, blowing up buildings and riddling milk cans with bullets. The murders in the film are handled in a rather stylized manner, almost like silent cinema, only with sound effects. Besides the murders, Brown utilizes a great lighting effect at the testimonial; as the robbers move in the lights go out and the scene is presented in darkness, which adds to its effect. Another excellent touch is the scene of Raft dancing to “Frankie and Johnnie.” Brown focuses on his dancing legs, then cuts to the next scene where we see Raft’s legs before committing the murder. But these scenes aren’t enough to overcome Brown’s uninspired direction and the film fails to capitalize on the momentum provided by these scenes.

Brown seems so intent on his vignette approach that he leaves several large plot holes in his wake. When Jimmy is killed at a gas station the killer is immediately arrested by police, but nothing more comes of it. And the scene of the intimidated businessmen joining with the DA just seems to come out of nowhere and is left swaying in the breeze, and there is no further development.

As for the acting, Tracy is superb. Even at this early stage he exhibits the underacting style that made him so effective and which contributed to his reputation among his fellow actors. Later, aspiring actors would crowed the set of a Tracy film hoping to pick up tips and strategy.

This was George Raft’s first film, and while he doesn’t handle the delivery of dialogue too well, he has already nailed the ferret-like persona he would later use to great effect in Scarface. Marguerite Churchill is fine as Dorothy, playing off Tracy to great effect. Sally Eilers, on the other hand, is badly underused. It would have been nice to see more of her character, especially in the final scene, where she realizes that Nails is going to bump off Bugs. It’s a scene of great potential, but all Brown does is cut away to Bugs and Nails in the limo.

In the final analysis Quick Millions disappoints. Anyone expecting another Little Caesar or Public Enemy will likely go away disappointed. But the film is a Must See because of Tracy’s performance in his first starring role and the fact that Fox pre-Codes are difficult to find.     

Trivia

The working title of this film was Sky Line.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Hold That Ghost

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

Hold That Ghost (Universal, 1941) – Director: Arthur Lubin. Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo (story & s/p), John Grant (s/p), Edmund L. Hartman (uncredited). Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello. Richard Carlson, Joan Davis, Evelyn Ankers, Mischa Auer, Marc Lawrence, Shemp Howard, Russell Hicks, William B. Davidson, Milton Parsons, Ted Lewis & The Andrews Sisters. B&W, 86 minutes.

Filmed right after their breakout hit, Buck Privates, but not released until after In the NavyHold That Ghost is, in this author’s opinion, their finest film, a wonderful send-up of The Old Dark House genre, even though the studio panicked and almost ruined it.

It was originally titled Don’t Look Now, and later, Oh, Charlie!, but just before its release, the studio – reacting to audience fervor for the musical interludes in Buck Privates – decided to re-tool the film by adding musical interludes and a new opening. It made the film almost incoherent at times, as characters came and disappeared and others entered without introduction to the audience. That it remained as funny as it is was a tribute to both the writing and the comedy stylings of the boys.

The movie opens with Chuck Murray (Abbott) and Ferdinand “Ferdie” Jones (Costello) working as relief waiters at Chez Glamour, a nightclub where The Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis and His Orchestra are appearing. A subplot involves gangster Moose Matson (Davidson), his lawyer Bannister (Hicks), and torpedo Charlie Smith (Lawrence), who threatens to rat out Moose to the DA unless he’s given a cut from Moose’s latest heist. Chuck and Ferdie end up being fired after head waiter Gregory (Auer) catches them eating a patron’s food.

The next day Chuck and Ferdie are back working at the gas station when none other than Moose Matson pulls in for gasoline. As they service his car the cops spot Moose and the boys find themselves inadvertently kidnapped as Moose speeds away. Moose is killed in a shootout with the pursuing police, and as he dies he pulls a copy of his Last Will and Testament from his jacket.


During a meeting with Banister they learn they are the sole beneficiaries of the will, but Bannister tells them there is no money: “Moose Matson always said that he kept his money in his head. We never learned what he meant.” The only tangible asset is an old tavern on the highway out of town. Bannister buzzes for his associate, Charlie Smith, to accompany the boys to their inheritance. Charlie makes plans with Chuck and Ferdie to meet him at the corner the next day, where they will catch a private bus driven by Harry Hoskins (Parsons) to the tavern. “It’s going to be a pleasure to take you boys for a ride,” Smith tells them. As Chuck and Ferdie leave the office Ferdie has second thoughts about the inheritance. Chuck chides him for his attitude, but then shots ring out from a passing car, missing Ferdie, but hitting his hat. As the car speeds away we see Charlie Smith inside along with other gang members.

Arriving on the corner at the prescribed time the boys learn that other passengers have also hired the bus: Norma Lind (Ankers), Dr. Jackson (Carlson) and radio actress Camille Brewster (Davis). As they drive to the tavern a thunderstorm breaks out and it’s decided to rest for the night at the tavern until the weather clears. They unload the groceries and enter the tavern, hear a backfire and run outside, only to see Hoskins driving off with their luggage. They’re stuck.

As the night progresses, strange things happen. Smith disappears while searching the basement, and later his corpse turns up unexpectedly several times. The water in the tavern is undrinkable. Ferdie's bedroom turns out to be rigged with hidden gambling equipment. The girls are scared by what appears to be a ghost. Two detectives show up but vanish soon after starting their investigation. Chuck and the doctor decide to search for the detectives while Ferdie examines a map to find the quickest route back to town. However, the candles on the table move mysteriously and scare Ferdie.     

Chuck takes Ferdie to a room they deduce is Moose Matson’s bedroom. A long cord hangs by the bed. Ferdie asks what it’s for and Chuck tells him “you pull that when you want your breakfast.” As Ferdie yanks the cord the curtains separate to reveal a closet door. Chuck tells him to open it, but Ferdie refuses: “I know what happens in those mystery pictures. A guy walks up to a perfectly ordinary door, he opens it up and zowie!Out falls a body right on its kisser.” Chuck opens the door and there is nothing there. Ferdie feels ashamed and slams the door. As he does so Charlie Smith’s body, bound and gagged, falls out from behind some curtains. Ferdie faints and Chuck drags him out, calling for the doctor. The doctor examines Smith and tells the others that he’s been strangled. “Is that Serious?” asks Ferdie. “The man is dead,” Chuck replies. “Oh, that’s serious.”

Later, Chuck tries to find Ferdie another room, but the problem is that, in each room, as Ferdie tries to go to bed, he finds his room has changed into a gambling parlor, thanks to a trick coat tree; but when he goes to get Chuck he takes the article of clothing off the tree, which causes the room to change back when Chuck enters. Downstairs, Norma finds Jackson testing the tavern's water, and the two begin to feel a mutual attraction. Unable to find the police, and convinced that someone is trying to scare them out, the group decides to leave the tavern. Chuck seats Ferdie at a table and gives him a map of the area to find a way out. Later, Camille joins him and we are treated to one of Abbott and Costello’s classic bits – the moving candle routine – before they are jumped by a “ghost,” a thug with a sheet over him.

As Chuck and Camille are trying to figure out what Moose meant when he said he kept his money in his head, Ferdie arrives to join the discussion. This leads to a funny bit on “figures of speech,” with Ferdie hitting on the solution about Moose’s money when he points to a moose’s head on the wall, and says, “You mean he kept his money in that thing?” Chuck and Camille think he’s crazy and Ferdie begins reaching into the head to prove himself wrong when bills suddenly begin coming out, followed by what Ferdie thinks is a tonsil (roll of bills).  

Members of the gang appear and demand the money, leading to a chase through the building with Ferdie knocking them out one by one with the bag of money. Alerted by the sound of a police siren, the gangsters scamper out of the tavern, unaware that the "siren" was actually Ferdie. 

With the gangsters gone, Chuck and Ferdie count the money, but the doctor tells them that the water they drank last night has therapeutic properties, and Ferdie and Chuck are inspired to transform the club into an nightclub. The boys hire Ted Lewis and The Andrews Sisters to headline, and even Gregory, the maitre d' who fired them from Chez Glamour, turns up as a waiter. Jackson and Norma arrive fresh from their honeymoon, and when they ask Ferdie about Camille, he tells them that he and Camille had a “runaway wedding,” she got the license and he ran away. Ferdie works the cash register, but when Chuck checks it, he finds it nearly empty, then discovers all the money hidden in Ferdie's tuxedo.

Afterwords

The problem with Hold That Ghost is, though it is hilarious at times, it has a choppy plot. Characters enter and disappear with no explanation and plot threads are suddenly dropped with no explanation. 

Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo completed the screenplay on January 14, 1941, a week or two after Buck Privates wrapped. Their vision for the film was to move Bud and Lou from supporting players in a romantic plot with music to the focus of the film – real characters who do much more than simply come in to supply a routine or two to liven the pace. 


As written, it’s a funny, though incoherent, film. The problem is that the cuts that were made in order to fit in the musical sequences, led to the loss of several plot lines. Characters come and go without sufficient explanation. A prime example are the detectives who arrive after Smith’s body is found. We see them looking about, but they suddenly disappear and no more is said. Several supporting characters, members of Smith’s gang (such as Paul Fix), also have had important scenes cut.

Perfectly paced by director Lubin, the film is filled with funny gags and classic routines. The idea of Matson as a gangster who doesn’t trust anyone adds to the fun as the boys discover that due to their kidnapping, they are his only heirs. (“Whereas anybody who would associate with me in the first place must be a rat; and Whereas I can’t tell my friends from stoolies, leeches or chiselers; and Whereas it’s impossible to foresee who will turn yellow when the going gets tough; therefore I hereby bequeath all my worldly possessions to those with me at the final moment when the coppers dim my lights.”) But as mentioned before, the only asset is the roadhouse, where it’s suspected to be the hiding place for the Moose’s dough. 

While waiting for Charlie at the corner we meet the other passengers, the most memorable of which is Camille Brewster (Davis), who introduces herself as “Camille Brewster the radio actress.” In spite of Camille’s self-introduction, the only thing she’s known for is the opening scream from a radio show called Tales of Terror. She tells the boys, “I told them I was an actress, not just a sound effect, so I quit. Guess I’ll have to go back to the movies.” Chuck asks, “Movie actress?” “No,” she says, “usherette.”

Once they reach the tavern, Chuck and Ferdie help Camille and Norma with dinner while Charlie Smith goes down to the basement to “rustle up some heat.” As he searches for Moose’s bankroll a pair of hands emerge from the furnace, grabbing Smith around the neck and pulling him in.

Upstairs the evening meal is punctuated with classic bits of Abbott and Costello dialogue as soup is prepared and everyone minus Charlie sits down to eat. Ferdie reaches out with his hand and is given an etiquette lesson by Chuck: “Don’t reach! You want something, ask for it. You have a tongue, haven’t you?”  

Yeah, but I can reach further with my hand,” replies Ferdie. 

Ferdie and Camille then perform one of the best routines ever seen in an Abbott and Costello film as they take part in a “water ballet” on the dining room floor where there is a large puddle from a leaking roof. Though the scene itself was scripted, the improvisation from both Costello and Davis raises the dance to hilarity. Running through the puddle Ferdie slips and falls down, which leads to the two splashing each other like a pair of kids before Camille, attempting to rise, falls backwards into a bucket, which Ferdie plays like a bongo to a Latin beat as they depart the room. In Joan Davis, Costello has met his match, a comic who can perform pratfalls and rattle off witty lines as well as he. Almost stealing its from Costello, it’s a shame they never worked together again.

Afterward, when the group decides to look for Charlie Smith, Chuck, Ferdie and the doctor search the basement. Ferdie opens the furnace only to find a pair of glowing eyes that blows out his candle. “Ah, it’s only the wind,” Chuck says. “Since when does the wind eat garlic?” Ferdie asks. 

Watch for the next scene where Norma and Camille decide to look upstairs and are scared by an owl. Their screams bring up the men from the basement, but Ferdie wants no part of going upstairs. As he shouts, “Did you see the puss she (Camille) made?” we see Joan Davis trying to keep from cracking up. When we realize that this scene must have been rehearsed and gone through earlier blown takes, it’s a testament to the comic ability of Lou Costello.

As the group continues to search for Smith, they discover hidden rooms and come to the realization that Moose used the tavern as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Meanwhile, Ferdie becomes convinced that the tavern is haunted, as strange things continually happen to him when he is left alone.

After Ferdie chases off the gangsters by imitating a police siren, everyone watches while the boys count the money. However, in the original version the money turns turns out to be counterfeit. That’s when Dr. Jackson tells Chuck and Ferdie that could mask more money right here. The water that tasted so bad turns out to have therapeutic qualities. “It’ll make sick people feel like dancing,” he says.

In the original ending, the boys have turned the roadhouse into a health spa with Camille as the dietician. In the last scene a rich woman is in Moose Matson’s old bed and asks Camille what the long cord is for. Camille says its purpose is to ring the staff. The woman pulls the cord and out falls Charlie Smith. The movie ends with a close-up of Camille screaming.

The new scenes required a rewriting and reworking of the existing footage. Joan Davis was not available for all the retakes, which explains her absence at the end of the edited film. having by that time reported to 20th Century-Fox for a role in Sun Valley Serenade (1941). As she was unavailable for the re-shoots, Davis had to be written out of the new scenes (including the new nightclub finale). In one scene, the tavern money counting scene, her back is to the camera and it was assumed that this was not Davis but a double. According to studio records, Davis was on hand for retakes during that sequence. However, in the rush to complete the retakes she just happened to be facing the wrong way.

Universal said it changed the movie at the behest of patrons at test screenings who “missed the music.” However, the studio would have been better served by releasing the musicals first, as they did with In the Navy, and held Hold That Ghost over until the next year when the musical fad ran its course. Despite the butchery, though, the film holds up better today than do their service comedies.

Trivia

Co-writers Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo would later work together and write Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They both ended up being blacklisted for supposed Red connections during the Hollywood witch hunt.

The animated opening was done by studio animator Walter Lantz’s crew.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

TCM TiVo Alert for November 1-7

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
November 1–November 7

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

LITTLE CAESAR (November 5, 8:00 pm): The movie that made Edward G. Robinson a legitimate movie star. Warners set the standard for its gritty, engaging, violent, tense-filled gangster films in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar on January 9 and Public Enemy with James Cagney on April 23. Both are among my favorite films. In Little Caesar, Eddie G. plays Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, a small-time hood who does everything possible to become a mob boss in Chicago. Robinson's portrayal of Rico, also called Little Caesar, is among the most authentic in cinematic history. His ability to get into character, playing someone that cold-blooded, ruthless and single-minded without a concern about anything or anyone else is impressive. The ending is a classic with Rico gunned down in the gutter saying with surprise, "Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Rico?"

GASLIGHT (January 11, 8:00 pm): As a huge fan of Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman, it's great to see that when the two teamed together in this 1944 film that the result was spectacular. Gaslight has fantastic pacing, starting slowly planting the seeds of Bergman's potential insanity and building to a mad frenzy with Cotten's Scotland Yard inspector saving the day and Bergman gaining revenge. While Charles Boyer has never been a favorite of mine, he is excellent in this role as Bergman's scheming husband who is slowly driving her crazy. Also deserving of praise is Angela Lansbury in her film debut as the couple's maid. Lansbury has the hots for Boyer and nothing but disdain for Bergman. A well-acted, well-directed film that is one I always enjoy viewing no matter how many times I see it.

ED’S BEST BETS:

ALEXANDER NEVSKY (November 4. 2:00 am), As with the rest of director Sergei Eisenstein’s work, this is a Must See, a brilliant tour de force that unfortunately foresaw the horrors of the near future. And like most of Eisenstein's best films, Alexander Nevsky was conceived as a morale film whose aim was to rally Russian patriotism. Though set in the 13th century, the villainous Teutonic Knights are obviously meant to represent the then contemporary threat of Hitler and his Wehrmacht. With Russia besieged by both these knights and the Tartars, a charismatic leader is needed to save Russia from the onslaught of barbarians who stoop so low as to kill babies (Eisenstein depicts the villains tossing screaming infants into bonfires). The hero who comes forward to save Russia is the legendary Prince Alexander Nevsky, portrayed by Nikolai Cherkasov (who bears a striking resemblance to Gary Cooper). The turnaround for Nevsky occurs at the battle of ice-covered Lake Peipus in 1242, filmed by Eisenstein in spectacular fashion, using specially-commissioned music by Sergei Prokofiev as an underlining and to supply emphasis. Ironically, Leningrad was saved from total starvation by the Germans as the Soviets ferried supplies and took away starving children across frozen Lake Pagoda. Watching it today, even after all this time, it still has the power to enthrall and captivate the viewer, no mean feat.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (November 5, 8:00 am): Ernest Lubitsch was at his absolute best when he directed this wonderful gem about two feuding co-workers at a Budapest notions store who do not realize that they are secret romantic pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, as the employees, bring the concept of charm to its ideal. They are aided and abetted by a sterling cast, including Frank Morgan (in one of the best performances), Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, and Inez Courtney. It boasts a superb script by Samson Raphaelson, who adapted it from Nikolaus Laszlo’s play, Parfumerie. In fact, the film was so compelling that it was later remade as a Judy Garland musical, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a Broadway musical, She Loves Me (1963, revived in 19934), and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, You’ve Got Mail (1998), where the lovers correspond via e-mail. However, the original still stands head and shoulders above the remakes and is an essential

WE DISAGREE ON ... MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (November 1, 6:00 am)

ED: B-. Mighty Joe Young is no classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite watchable. My partner absolutely hates it, probably the result from some trauma suffered in childhood where his parents broke his crayons to make sure that he watched the movie. We should see the film for what it is – the entertaining, friendlier version of King Kong that Son of Kong tried, but failed, to be for the studio. This time around, however, the film has a much more pronounced subliminal message than did either two Kong films. Willis O’Brien was an early version of today’s animal activist, he believed that animals should be left alone, and further, be free to be left alone. Joe Young was happy living in the wilds of Africa until Robert Armstrong and his pals showed up to take both Joe and his companion, Jill (Terry Moore), back to “civilization” as part of a nightclub act. The poor ape is abused by drunken audiences and placed in a cage between performances. Anyone who sees the scene of Jill visiting Joe in his prison can’t help but be moved by Joe’s plight. When Joe has a natural; reaction one night to his audience abusers, he (no pun intended) goes ape and is ordered to be shot by a judge. But Joe escapes, and to show what a good guy he really is, rescues about a dozen orphans from a burning building. The judge relents and Joe and Jill return to Africa to live happily ever after. Unlike the earlier Kong movies, this film is quite obviously aimed at the kiddies. Most of the budget went for O’Brien’s special effects, and Armstrong was brought in to remind audiences of King Kong. (In fact, this film often played on a double, or triple, bill in some cities to cash in on its predecessors.) As such, important things such as plot, direction, and star power went by the wayside, which hurts the film. Disney remade Mighty Joe Young in 1998, but steer well clear of that one, as one would of all King Kong reboots.


DAVID: D+. I'm not a fan of King Kong so you can imagine how much I dislike this pathetic Kong rip-off. Ed is partially correct about this film and trauma I suffered in childhood, but it has nothing to do with crayons or at least I don't think it does. My father was a huge Kong fan and he loved this film so I've seen it about a dozen times. I freely admit I haven't seen this film in about 30 years, but when you've seen it as often as I did and loathe it, the memory of this train-wreck of a movie stays with you for a very, very long time. The plot reminds me of Curious George meets Santa in the courtroom scene of Miracle on 34th Street. There is barely a plot. There's a pathetic attempt to be some sort of message movie though I don't understand what the film's message is. Ed wrote the film has a more pronounced subliminal message that the first two Kong films. The message must be extraordinary subliminal because I don't get it at all, or maybe I do and it hasn't reached my consciousness yet despite seeing it so many torturous times. The acting is atrocious. The special effects are a mixed bag, but not awful. However, Joe's changing height is laughably bad. He's sometimes the height or a person and then he's much taller in other scenes. At least the movie doesn't take itself seriously, or it shouldn't take itself seriously as it comes across as a cheap-looking attempt at slapstick comedy. That's not saying much, but the all-too-few bright spots save the movie from getting an F. 

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.