Monday, June 10, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for June 8-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

The highlight of this week’s menu by far is film critic Molly Haskell, who will be hosting a night of films on June 11 called A Night of Working Women Who Surrender in the End. She begins at 8:00 pm (EST) and finally calls it a night at 5:30 am the next morning.

Haskell is a critic of long standing, having written for The Village VoiceEsquireThe NationThe New York Review of BooksThe Guardian (U.K.), New York Magazine, and Vogue. Her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1973; updated 1989) is a classic and now considered part of the film criticism canon. She should be familiar to long-time TCM viewers for her role as co-host of The Essentials with Robert Osborne in 2006. That was a magic year for the show and one that hasn’t been duplicated. Together she and Osborne brought an intelligent, serious look at the movie they spooled each week, and the show was not to be missed. It didn’t matter if I had seen the movie they were showing 1,200 times. I tuned in expressly to hear Molly and Bob discuss their opinions of the film. After Haskell left, her chair was filled with actors and intellectually it hasn’t been the same. The measured stance of a critic has been replaced with the “Golly-Gee Ain’t This Great” stance we would expect of an actor. *

And it is interesting Haskell’s theme is films about working women. Cher and Osborne had previously covered the subject in April during a month-long series running on Fridays. Considering what Cher did to those movies, it’s refreshing to see a real expert tackle them, although the only movies they will have in common will be His Girl Friday and Woman of the Year. Cher knew so little about the films presented that Osborne frequently had to correct her on basic points. It was truly cringe-inducing to watch and only furthers my despair about the channel moving from critic and historian driven to featuring more and more celebrities that really know no more than we at home do.

So, to Molly: Remind us once more of what TCM was with your brilliance.
8:00 pm Baby Face (WB, 1933) – Director: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Theresa Harris, Donald Cook, Douglas Dumbrille, Alphonse Ethier, Henry Kolker, Robert Barrat, Margaret Lindsay, Arthur Hohl, & John Wayne. B&W, 71 minutes

Stanwyck, who had already built an impressive resume in Pre-code films, stars as a woman who literally sleeps her way to the top. It’s been called the most notorious of the Pre-Code films and was said to have been responsible for Darryl Zanuck losing his job as head of production at Warner Bros. (I personally doubt that part of the story, but it sure sounds good, doesn’t it?) Carnal and lurid, the film ran into trouble with state censorship boards and several scenes had to be excised, including that fact that she was a kept woman. Also hitting the cutting floor was her scenes with a cobbler who gave her Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, The Will to Power. His character was changed to become the moral voice of the film, being used to indicate that Lily was wrong to use her body to get ahead. Originally he told her, “You must use men, not let them use you.” Warner’s also changed the ending: Lily discovers Trenholm (Brent) on the floor, having committed suicide because she wouldn’t sell her vast collection of jewelry to bail him out of his financial crisis, and simply takes it in stride and looks for her next “keeper.” In the more upbeat – and totally phony – ending, she gives it all up out of her love for him. Also cut was a scene between Stanwyck and a railroad brakeman that catches her hitching a ride on the freight train and her confrontation with her father, who she accused of pimping her out to the customers.

The expurgated film might have been the only copy we would ever see, but in 2004 a “dupe negative” copy of the film was discovered in the Library of Congress. The uncensored version made its debut at the 2004 London Film Festival and is the version TCM is showing. Look for a young Wayne as one of Lily’s conquests at the office.

9:30 pm Female (WB, 1933) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson, Johnny Mack Brown, Ruth Donnelly, & Ferdinand Gottschalk. B&W, 60 minutes.

At one hour this is not exactly a character study, but rather an exploitation film pure and simple. Chatterton is Alison Drake, the CEO of Drake Automotive, a company she inherited from her father. She runs the company brilliantly and with an iron hand. Pettigrew (Gottschalk), the man who runs the company’s secretarial pool, says, “She’s never found a man worthy of her and never will!”

But that doesn’t deter her from shopping around for a man. She invites men who appeal to her to her home, loves them, and then leaves them, sometimes with bonuses, sometimes with transfers to other offices if they try to become too possessive. She finally meets her match in engineer/inventor Jim Thorne (Brent). She tries the seduction route on him, but he turns her down cold. Undeterred, she invites him on a picnic and tries again. This time he succumbs, but later, when he asks her to marry him, she says no. Furious, he quits and leaves town. At this point, Alison realizes that she loves him and misses an important business meeting to find him. When she finally catches up to Jim she admits she risked bankruptcy to find him, and we have a happy ending.

Chatterton’s sexual habits raised the ire of the Studio Relations Committee, which was charged with enforcing the Production Code. They sent a letter to Warner Brothers detailing their objections. The studio agreed to comply but simply ignored the complaint and released the film as it was. When Joseph Breen rigidly enforced the Code in mid-1934, the film was shelved, where it stayed untouched until the Breen reign ended in the 1950s.

Trivia: It turned out to be quite a merry-go-round in the director’s chair. William Dieterle was originally scheduled to direct with cameraman Sid Hickox. But Dieterle suddenly fell seriously ill and had to bow out of the film. He was replaced with William Wellman, who brought along Ernest Haller as his cameraman. When Jack L. Warner saw the initial print, he complained about the performance of George Blackwood, who was playing the “boy toy” Cooper. He ordered him replaced and Brown was brought in for the role. As Wellman was now busy shooting the Dick Powell/Ann Dvorak/Pat O’Brien drama, College Coach, Curtiz was brought aboard to film Brown’s scenes. As those scenes took up nearly half the movie, Curtiz ended up with the directorial credit. So much for auteur theory.

The exterior of the house where Alison Drake lives was later used as the mansion millionaire Vincent Price hires for the night in House on Haunted Hill. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the building, which was known as the Ennis House.

8:00 pm His Girl Friday (Columbia, 1940) Director: Howard Hawks. Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Ernest Truex, & Roscoe Karns. B&W, 92 minutes.

One of director/producer Hawks’s best ideas was to re-cast The Front Page as a battle between the sexes. Getting the permission of his good friend Ben Hecht, who wrote the original, to adjust the remake, Hawks got Charles Lederer to write the script. His first choice for the male lead was Grant, who gladly signed aboard before seeing the script. He and Hawks worked together previously, and Hawks was one of Grant’s favorite directors. The female lead, however, proved more difficult. The director’s first choice for the role was Carole Lombard, but the studio balked at her salary demands. The script was then passed to Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers, and Irene Dunne. They each passed on the project. Finally, the part was given to Russell, formerly a supporting actress at MGM; one whose name could be found way down on the credits. The film not only made her into a leading lady, but also gave her the reputation as a gifted comedienne.

During the first few days of filming, Russell sensed that Hawks was treating her like the consolation prize in a contest. She took him aside one day in between takes and told him, “Well, you’re stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it.” He was so impressed with her brass that they got along swimmingly the rest of the shoot. As with other films directed by Hawks, listen for the overlapping dialogue and ad-libs. While the average rate of human speech is 100-150 words a minute, the dialogue in the film was timed at 240 words a minute. As for ad-libs, there were two great ones by Grant. When asked if he could describe his ex-wife Hildy’s new fiancée, he says that her fiancée looks like “That actor – Ralph Bellamy.” Later, when cornered by the mayor he tells him, “Listen the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.”

Trivia: Russell’s striped outfits were inspired by the look of newspaper reporter-turned- screenwriter Adela Rogers St. John . . . During filming Grant introduced Russell to theatrical agent Frederick Brisson. They married a year later, the first – and last – marriage for either, and stayed together for the rest of their lives.

12:30 am Woman of the Year (MGM, 1942) Director: George Stevens. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Fay Bainter, Reginald Owen, Minor Watson, & William Bendix. B&W, 112 minutes.

With the success of The Philadelphia Story at the box office, Hepburn was riding high at MGM, feeling vindicated for her years spent at RKO, where her pictures consistently lost money. Friend Garson Kanin steered her to a script his brother, Michael, had written with Ring Lardner, Jr. Hepburn loved it and acted as agent, selling it to Louis Mayer for $100,000 (she pocketed $11,000 in commission). The story then goes that a reluctant Tracy was recruited (he was Hepburn’s first choice for co-star, and according to Hepburn, had to be convinced to work with her). The rest, as they say, is history, as they not only went on to star together in eight more films, but also had a relationship that only ended with the death of Tracy in 1967. 

Most every film buff has seen this picture and knows the plot: crusty sports writer Sam Craig (Tracy) takes umbrage to remarks made by political columnist Tess Harding (Hepburn) that baseball should be suspended until the war is over. A peacemaking date takes place and gradually develops into a romance, and then marriage. However, the fundamental differences between the two go unresolved and Sam begins to resent Tess’ attention to her career, feeling she’s neglecting their marriage. Finally he’s had enough and leaves, which awakens Tess to try to win him back, which she does at the end with a horrible attempt at cooking breakfast. Sam embraces her and tells her that he doesn’t want to change her, only that she should put their marriage first. She agrees and they live happily ever after.

Trivia: Garson Kanin got the idea for the story after receiving a letter from sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. Kanin had spent the evening before in the company of political columnist Dorothy Thompson and began to muse about a story of two very different people falling in love and what would happen. He saw the story as a natural for Hepburn, whom he earlier met through his good friend Vivien Leigh during the Broadway run of The Philadelphia Story. When he was drafted he gave the idea to his brother Michael, who wrote the script along with Ring Lardner, Jr. When they showed it to Kanin, he loved it and set up a meeting with Hepburn.

2:30 am They All Kissed the Bride (Columbia, 1942) – Director: Alexander Hall. Cast: Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Roland Young, Billie Burke, Helen Parrish, Allen Jenkins, Andrew Tombes, & Emory Parnell. B&W, 86 minutes.

In the year 1942, Crawford’s career was on the downslide at MGM. Before her success in The Women in 1939, Joan had embarked on a string of films that kept the public home and earned her the moniker of “box office poison” by movie exhibitors. But after The Women, Joan took on three films that, while fine in their own right, did not attract the public: Strange Cargo (1940), Susan and God (1940), and A Woman’s Face (1941). Adding to the woes was Joan’s attitude. In Strange Cargo, she drove Louis Mayer crazy in a fit over billing with Clark Gable; and in A Woman’s Face, she played a woman whose face was badly scarred, a remake of the 1938 Ingrid Bergman film and a picture Mayer expressly did not want her to take on. With the financial returns diminishing, Mayer decided she was no longer worth the trouble she caused and so he did something unthinkable a few years ago: he loaned her out to another studio.

The studio to which she was loaned was Columbia. And to rub salt into the wound, the picture she was loaned out for was not even a vehicle written for her. Instead it was to be Carole Lombard’s follow-up to To Be Or Not To Be, but before filming could begin, Lombard was tragically killed in a plane crash while returning from a War Bonds tour. With Lombard gone and every other possible star already on another set, the decision was made to reach out for an actress that could play the lead. So, enter Crawford.

From what I’ve written so far, it looks like those that haven’t seen this film are expecting a bomb. Quite the opposite: it is a very funny film with Crawford playing in new genre for her, a screwball comedy. She is Margaret J. Drew, a woman who has taken over her late father’s trucking company. (As with Female, women must inherit their position. These were the days before a woman’s ability would be taken seriously.) Reporter Michael Holmes (Douglas) is publishing scathing attacks about the Drew financial empire, and Margaret, known to her employees as “M.J.,” has Holmes investigated. Holmes has been getting his information from driver Johnny Johnson (Jenkins), and while riding with him, runs into M.J., who promptly fines Johnny for carrying a passenger and stopping his truck. Furious about M.J.’s tactics, Holmes crashes her sister Vivian’s (Parrish) wedding. Through a series of misadventures and mistaken identity, Mike and M.J. get together, fall in love and marry at the end, as Mike has “tamed the shrew.”

Trivia: When Crawford accepted the role, she donated her salary for the film ($10,000) to the Red Cross in Lombard’s name. Her agent demanded his commission nonetheless, so Crawford paid him out of her own pocket and then fired him.

4:00 am Front Page Woman (WB, 1935) Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Roscoe Karns, and Winifred Shaw. B&W, 82 minutes.

Following her triumph as the sluttish Mildred in Of Human Bondage and losing the Oscar for that year to Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night, Warner Brothers rewarded Davis with a string of forgettable B movies. Immediately following the release of Bondage, she was cast as a homewrecker (Housewife, 1934), the loony wife of club owner Eugene Palette, in love with Paul Muni (Bordertown, 1935), a shopgirl who takes pity on a drunken lawyer and marries him (The Girl From 10th Avenue, 1935), and this movie, where she plays a reporter. At least it’s a step up from where she had been.

Front Page Woman, at least, is a thoroughly entertaining B with the young Davis standing in where we would usually expect to find Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell. Her co-star, Brent, is in a role where we expect Warren William, Jimmy Cagney, or Pat O’Brien. Davis was still in her ingénue days, and this movie at least offers her good exposure as a “sob sister” trying to prove she’s every bit as good an investigative reporter as the man she loves, who just happens to be Brent – and who just happens to work for her paper’s rival. Brent, for his part, believes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and works to undermine her at each and every turn.

It’s Davis who drives the film. She may be unhappy with the films she’s been assigned, but her performances do not show it. Had this film been made before the Production Office clamped down, Davis’ character would have been deliciously subversive. As it is, she’s forced to tone those aspects down, but still manages to shine in her scenes. For instance, at the beginning she’s been assigned to cover her first execution. Brent points out how horrible it can be and we can see the reaction perfectly in Davis’s eyes. She faints before she can write the story, so Brent does her a favor and covers it for her. Unfortunately, he neglects to have the story re-written, so the same story appears in both papers, getting Davis’s character into hot water.

Her big break comes when she’s dispatched to cover a fire. It turns out that the fire is only a cover for the murder of big shot Marvin Q. Stone (Huntley Gordon). Whodunit? Both Brent and Davis spend the rest of the film trying to outscoop and flim-flam each other looking to solve the case. The maturing of Davis’ character as she seeks out clues and interviews witnesses is fun to watch and Davis makes her character believable in a film that is wholly unbelievable. (For instance, later in the movie Brent walks up to the police lieutenant in charge, hands him two photos and tells the officer to arrest these two for the murder of Marvin Q. Stone. And the lieutenant does, without question.)

When it looks as though Brent has won, however, Davis turns the tables at the end. It’s directed by Curtiz and comes in at a nice and fast 82 minutes. While comedies were not Davis’s forte, having Brent around to help makes any actress look good.

* - In all fairness, though, Drew Barrymore has been something of an unexpected surprise. She is certainly an improvement over the rantings of Alec Baldwin and she does now something about the move screened each week. Her passion and exuberance comes through and she clicks well with Osborne.


June 11

2:45 pm Detour (PRC, 1945) – Director: Edgar G. Ulmer. Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, & Esther Howard. B&W, 67 minutes.

Ulmer did more with less than any other director in Hollywood history. A prime example is this movie, shot in a shoestring. There was so little money that the car used in the film was actually the director’s own car. Hollywood lore says the movie was shot in only six days, but in truth the shooting schedule was 28 days.

It’s a great story of fate, as the poor protagonist (Neal) picks up the wrong hitchhiker (Savage). One thing leads to another and he accidentally strangles her. Savage gives one of the best performances an actress can give. Too bad it was for PRC, so no one noticed. Years later her performance was praised by director Wim Wenders as being “30 years ahead of its time.” She should have had a bigger career, but languishing in the Bs was not exactly a prime advertisement at the time, as the studios were beginning to break down.

Again, this is a movie many film buffs have seen and one that is probably owned by many. I’m not preaching to the choir here, but reaching out to those who haven’t seen it and were wondering whether it was worth their time. It is.

June 12

6:00 am Scared to Death (Golden Gate Pictures, 1947) – Director: Christy Cabanne. Cast: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, Nat Pendleton, Molly Lamont, & Joyce Compton. Color, 65 minutes.

This quickie from an independent producer has the distinction of being Lugosi’s only starring role in color. (He also appeared in the 1930 Technicolor film Viennese Nights, but was not the star.) Other than that, it’s a cheap little mystery about a woman literally scared to death, hence the title. It’s no Sunset Boulevard; apart from the fact both films begin with narrations from the dead victims. It was also the only horror film released in 1947. Horror films had declined since the wars end, being replaced in the scare genre by the emerging sci-fi film. For completists, it’s a must. For those others, watch at your own risk.

June 14

11:30 pm The Burglar (Columbia, 1957) – Director: Paul Wendkos. Cast: Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield, Martha Vickers, Peter Capell, & Mickey Shaughnessy. B&W, 90 minutes.

The best quote about this movie comes from Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Jayne Mansfield film noir!” And if that’s not enough to sell you, nothing is. Duryea and Mansfield are part of a gang that steals a priceless necklace and then holes up in a seedy apartment until they can fence the goods. Duryea is great, Mansfield is sexy, and Mickey Shaughnessy, best known as Elvis’s cellmate in Jailhouse Rock, is noticeable as the gang’s muscle who can’t stop pawing Mansfield.

Trivia: The Burglar was actually filmed in 1955, but not released until 1957 to cash in on the burgeoning fame of Mansfield.

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