Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for May 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

May 2

7:15 am The Mystery of Mr. X (MGM, 1934) Director: Edgar Selwyn. Cast: Robert Montgomery, Elizabeth Allen, Lewis Stone, Ralph Forbes, & Henry Stephenson. B&W, 91 minutes.

This is a perfect example of a film that, when released, garnered critical praise, but has fallen into the black hole of forgotten films. The problem with the film is that it’s extremely well crafted, with a good plot, excellent acting and tight direction. But as there is nothing of a unique trivial nature to recommend it for posterity, such as starring a tragic actor or one that made his or her mark later, or being directed by such as One Shot Beaudine, it becomes just another movie produced in the year 1934 by MGM.

Based on The Mystery of the Dead Police by Philip Macdonald, it tells the story of a criminal released from prison after 15 years and who then sets out to kill 15 policemen, one for each year he spent behind bars. When suave jewel thief Nicholas Revel (Montgomery) is mistaken for the killer, Revel must find the real Mr. X before Scotland Yard finds him.

But don’t take my word for it. Following is the opinion of noted film historian William K. Everson, who wrote about the film in his "Rediscovery" column from a 1980s edition of Films in Review, and brought to us here courtesy of the TCM Website:

Apart from its thrill and melodrama content it is a beautifully civilized production, full of sophisticated writing and elegant playing. Even if it wasn't a good and absorbing thriller, it would be a pleasure just to watch and listen to... Particularly effective is a sequence in a pub wherein the jewel has been hastily dumped into a glass of ale when the police arrive. The scene ends with the jewel resting cozily at the bottom of one of two virtually empty glasses, presenting Montgomery with the predicament of having to gulp out of two glasses (one of which is not his), talk the overeager barmaid out of taking them away to bring him a fresh drink, and at the same time not arouse the suspicion of onlookers and the police. It's a particularly neat sequence, all the more effective for being underplayed and not tricked-up with distorted angles.

Trivia: Preview audiences rejected the original ending so a new one had to be shot, and because director Selwyn was not available, Richard Boleslawski was brought in to direct.

8:00 pm Duel in the Sun (Selznick, 1946) Director: King Vidor. Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Charles Bickford, Otto Kruger, & Lillian Gish. Color, 136 minutes.

There are bad films and there are spectacularly bad films. This is one of the latter, and over the years it has become a cult classic, featured at bad movie parties where those in attendance do a home version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

If there is one word to describe this movie, it is “overheated.” Everything about this picture is overheated: the plot, the acting, and especially the production. Producer David O. Selznick was bound and determined to make an even splashier film that his previous Gone With the Wind, and in doing so, elevate his paramour, Jones, into a major Hollywood star.

Jones is half-breed Pearl Chavez, everyone’s favorite bad girl. Her father, Scott (Marshall), plugged both her mother and mom’s lover and gets hung for his trouble. Pearl is taken in to the home of greedy Senator McCanless (Barrymore) and his good, kindly wife, Laura Belle (Gish). Put bluntly, Pearl is trash. How do we know this? Because she tells us herself, repeating this message several times in the movie, and at one point saying “I’m trash. Trash, trash, trash, trash, trash.”  In case we didn’t get it the first time.

Meanwhile, Pearl makes friends with the Senator’s sons: the virtuous Jesse (Cotten) and the evil Lewt (Peck). Lewt has his way with her but refuses to marry her. Pearl, in turn, falls for – and marries – foreman Sam Pierce (Bickford). When Lewt finds out, he kills Sam and become an outlaw. Jesse, meanwhile, has fallen for the daughter of his father’s rival – railroad tycoon Langford. When the Senator organizes his cattlemen against Langford, Jesse initially backs his dad, but then changes sides and is disowned by his father.

The whole thing ends when Laura Belle passes away, Pearl has a breakdown, and Jesse takes her away to recuperate. Lewt finds out and shoots Jesse, who survives and reconciles with his father. This sets up one of the most absurd endings in the history of Hollywood, with Pearl and Lewt going at it in a shoot ‘em up finale in a canyon and crying out each other’s name before embracing as they die.

The film does have some good things going for it: the production values, especially the Technicolor photography, are stunning. Unfortunately, one-dimensional characters that seem addicted to chewing scenery populate the cast. Add to this a nonsensical, rambling plot and outrageous cartoon violence, and we have all the ingredients for a Must-See Bad Movie.

Trivia: The film was nicknamed “Lust in the Dust” by disdainful critics, a name that was said to inspire a later Western shot in 1985 using that name and starring Lanie Kazan and Divine.

May 3

8:00 pm Alice in Wonderland (Paramount, 1933) Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Cast: Leon Errol, Gary Cooper, Charlotte Henry, Louise Fazenda, Cary Grant, Ford Sterling, Skeets Gallagher, Alison Skipworth, Polly Moran, W.C. Fields, Edward Everett Horton, Ned Sparks, Richard Arlen, May Robson, & Jack Oakie. B&W, 76 minutes.

The very fact that Paramount chose to present an all-star live action version of Lewis Carroll’s imaginative book should give us a clue as to the state of the economy – and Paramount Studios – in 1933. Ida Lupino was originally considered for the role of Alice, but shortly before filming began, Charlotte Henry, a young Broadway stage actress, was given the part. What should have been a treasure turned into a curse for Henry as the film, despite its all-star cast, bombed at the box office. Henry later went on to appear in the Hal Roach-produced Laurel and Hardy Babes in Toyland, and a small role in Charlie Chan at the Opera, but thereafter good roles were almost impossible to come by. After appearing in a Sam Katzman-produced East Side Kids film (Bowery Blitzkrieg) in 1941, she packed her bags and left Hollywood to return to Broadway.

Trivia: Mary Pickford and Walt Disney planned a combination live action and animated feature, but Paramount beat them to the punch.

9:30 pm No Greater Glory (Columbia, 1934) Director: Frank Borzage. Cast: George Breakston, Frankie Darro, Jackie Searl, Jimmie Butler, Samuel S. Hinds, & Ralph Morgan. B&W, 78 minutes.

Adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s autobiographical novel, The Paul Street Boys, this is a sensitive tale of the loneliness of youth and the senselessness of war set on the streets of Budapest, Hungary. Nemecsek (Breakston), a small, frail and lonely boy who just wants to belong, worships the charismatic Boka, leader of the local street gang, “The Paul Street Boys.” The gang not only sports their own uniforms, but also rallies around their very own flag. 

The gang makes its home in its territory, an abandoned lumberyard. However, another gang, this one called “The Red Shirts” and led by Feri Ats (Darro) also covets the lumberyard. The Red Shirts have captured the Paul Street Boys’ flag and Boka declares that they must recapture the flag “or die trying.” After several attempts, Nemecsek, fighting off what he thinks is a mere cold (but turns out to be pneumonia), to win back the flag, dies in the effort. It’s all for naught, however, as the next day bulldozers arrive, for the abandoned yard has been sold to make way for an apartment complex.

May 5

2:00 am Late Spring (Banshun) (Shochiku Eiga, 1949) Director: Yasujiro Ozu. Cast: Chisu Ryu, Stesuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, & Jun Osami. B&W, 108 minutes.

This film was one of director Ozu’s favorites, a heartstring-tugging tale of a widower who pretends he is going to get remarried in order to get his overly devoted 27-year old daughter, Noriko (Hara) to leave the nest and get married herself. Ozu was a master of what might be termed “understated elegance.” Everything in the film – not just plot points and dialogue, but what appear as mere background landscapes and city scenes – have an integral effect on the film. 

Ozu is a master observer of middle-class life and mores in Japan: the contrast between individual freedom and fulfillment as against social pressures to fit happiness into a strict context. In particular, watch how Ozu uses a simple prop like Noriko’s wedding dress to illustrate this contrast between the earlier freedoms she experienced and the oncoming oppression and social stifling of marriage as symbolized by the dress. Few directors can match this, let alone surpass the emotion. As with his other films, this is a Must See.

Trivia: The film was written and shot during the Allied Occupation of Japan.

May 7

10:00 am Virginia City (WB, 1940) Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh, & Alan Hale. B&W, 121 minutes.

The reason I’m recommending this routine, but enjoyable Flynn/Scott Western is because of the bizarre performance of by Bogart as a Mexican bandit, of all things. Flynn as a Union officer out to stop a shipment of gold from falling into Confederate hands, and Scott as a Southern officer waiting that shipment are excellent. It’s what we have come to expect from the stars and their director Curtiz. Curtiz wasted little film when making his trademark Flynn actioners and this one is no different. Hopkins, however, playing a saloon singer who is secretly a spy for the confederacy, is clearly beyond her reach here.

But it is Bogart, as the slimy bandit John Murrell (!) who provides the miscast performance of the year. Bogart, in those pre-Falcon days, was an actor in search of a character, which led to many casting mistakes. Previously he was thoroughly wooden as criminal Rocks Valentine in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) opposite Edward G. Robinson; a piss-poor Irish groom, replete with a horrendous accent, in Dark Victory (1939), with Bette Davis; and, perhaps, the most bizarre role of them all: playing a vampire in The Return of Doctor X (1938). That he even lasted long enough to play Sam Spade is a testament to his perseverance, if nothing else. So, if you have not yet seen this film, by all means, take it in. You won’t be disappointed.

Trivia: Hopkins was a last minute replacement for Olivia de Havilliand, who fell ill during filming.

1:45 am Out of the Fog (WB, 1941) Director: Anatole Litvak. Cast: John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, John Qualen, Eddie Albert, Aline MacMahon, George Tobias, & Leo Gorcey. B&W, 85 minutes.

Litvak’s allegory of fascism makes for fine viewing, especially when the heavy is none other than Garfield. The movie is based on Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Gentle People,” a plea against fascism that calls for a united front in Europe. Litvak shifts the action to the Brooklyn waterfront. Low-level gangster Harold Goff (Garfield) is skaking down fishermen Jonah Goodman (Mitchell) and Olaf Johnson (Qualen) for protection money. He has forced them to sign an agreement that the weekly payout is to satisfy a previous debt so they can’t go to the police.

Jonah’s daughter, Stella (Lupino) catches Goff’s eye, and the feeling is mutual, though Stella does not know Goff is the one shaking down her father. To separate Stella from Goff, Jonah offers to send her to Cuba with money that he and Olaf have been putting aside to purchase a larger boat. When Stella unknowingly leaks this to Goff, the gangster demands that Olaf and Jonah hand over the savings to him. They plan to lure Goff onto their boat with the intention of killing him but find they cannot go through with it. Unexpectedly, however, Goff falls overboard and drowns.

Trivia: Humphrey Bogart lobbied for the role of Goff, but he had worked with Lupino on They Drive by Night, and the two did not get along in the least. When Lupino heard about Bogart’s request, she lobbied Jack Warner herself to cast someone else in the role and Warner acquiesced, leading Bogart to send him a note questioning whether Lupino was making the casting decisions at the studio. 

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