Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Three's a Crowd (1927) - The Unmaking of Harry Langdon, Part 1

It’s not often that watching a film for the first time leaves me with a range of conflicting thoughts and emotions but Three’s a Crowd did exactly that. The thoughts and emotions in question stretched from shock and confusion to awe and admiration regarding what exactly I had just seen. And what exactly did I see? Well I’m still not entirely sure, but after mulling it over I thought that I’d make an attempt to share my thoughts on Harry Langdon’s much maligned directorial debut.

Rather than subject the world to another extra long movie review, I’ve opted to split this into a couple of shorter, more manageable parts, and I’ll start off here by looking at the background of the film and the story of its making, and its role in the subsequent unmaking of Harry Langdon. Three’s a Crowd, long unavailable for general viewing was released by Kino on DVD (as a double feature with Langdon’s follow up The Chaser) in 2008 and I’d heartily recommend picking it up. Simply put, regardless of critical opinion, Three’s a Crowd is unlike anything else Langdon or indeed any of his contemporaries would ever attempt.

To say that Three’s a Crowd is a polarising movie is a bit of an understatement. The film, its production and subsequent fallout has inspired fierce debate for decades. For the most part, the general critical consensus was that Harry Langdon’s first directorial effort is an artistic disaster, an ego driven misstep of such magnitude that it cost the comedian his career. Split from his collaborator Frank Capra, Harry Langdon was out of his depth and proved once and for all that he needed others to create the comedy for him. As a result of this tide of opinion, there is so much baggage attached to any viewing of the movie that it is often hard to see it untangled from its difficult genesis and the decades of critical mauling.

So I decided to finally watch this most unloved of movies and see for myself. After not laughing much in the opening ten minutes, I feared the worst and began to feel a dreadful sinking feeling. Were the critics right all along? Did Harry really just not understand his own character? Slightly worried, I kept watching but with my expectations lowered and now hoping for at best an amiably average little effort.

It took a short while for the movie’s dreamlike atmosphere to take hold, but once its fog of discord had seeped into my mind I was completely under its mesmeric influence. I went back and watched again from the beginning but now with my eyes open and a new found understanding. Far from the unfunny sentimental nonsense I was told to expect, Three’s a Crowd is an astonishing work of singular genius, and one of the finest and most misrepresented movies of the silent era. Once you get over certain expectations and start to realise what Langdon is trying to achieve, there are few superlatives that can do the film justice. It is nothing less than a masterpiece.

However, before we get to that, let’s review the events that led up to the making of the film and the received wisdom that gives it such a bad reputation. In brief, Harry Langdon started late in movies (he was almost 40) but within two years of his screen debut in 1924 had found a winning formula working for Mack Sennett in creative union with director Harry Edwards, writer Arthur Ripley and gag man Frank Capra. At the height of his fame and influence he signed a six picture deal with First National and took the team with him, promoting Capra to director. The first three movies of the new deal (Tramp, Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man and Long Pants) were very successful and represented the commercial peak of Langdon’s career (and perhaps his most consistently funny work). Popular with critics and moviegoers alike, Langdon was being hailed as a real threat to Chaplin’s crown. Everything was fine for a while but during the production of Long Pants, the cracks in the team began to show.

It seems that Capra and Edwards disagreed over the pacing of Long Pants, and Langdon sided with Edwards. Differing in comic philosophies with Capra, the rift culminated in Langdon firing Capra, leading to a very bitter public dispute that cast Harry in a poor light to the public and press. He decided to go it alone and directed the three remaining pictures of the contract himself (though his collaboration with Arthur Ripley continued). These three (Three’s a Crowd, The Chaser and Heart Trouble) were box office flops and First National did not renew the contract. With the coming of sound Langdon was out of work and declared bankruptcy. He had gone from being a top box office star in a major studio to working on poverty row in the space of a year and his reputation never fully recovered.

That’s the basic story as it is told in most accounts of film history, and that narrative exists due to a number of reasons. Firstly, upon being fired Capra, in order to salvage a burgeoning directorial career apparently vented his frustrations to the media, thus giving Harry Langdon the air of a man who was difficult to work with and egotistical. After Harry’s subsequent movies flopped, his prophecies appeared to hold weight despite the truth not being slightly more complex. However, what really tarred Langdon with the brush of failure was a number of statements made by Frank Capra in the intervening years, after Langdon’s death in 1944

Firstly there was film critic James Agee's hugely influential feature in Life Magazine in 1949, entitled ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’. It is now regarded as a seminal article and responsible for a great upsurge in interest in silent comedy at a time when many of its old stars had been all but forgotten. Frank Capra was a key interviewee, and when asked about Langdon noted that, “Langdon was almost as childlike as the character he played” and that when things went wrong in his career he “never did really understand what hit him”. This conceit that Landon was but a clueless puppet in the hands of the long suffering and hard working creative staff tasked with the unenviable job of coming up with something for him to do remains to this day. The fact that in a separate interview, Mack Sennett agreed with the notion entrenched it in critical history.

However, just in case anyone missed this character assassination, Frank Capra wrote his autobiography in 1971 and went into more detail regarding his views on Langdon’s artistic demise. His autobiography goes to great lengths to show how he was right and Langdon was wrong, and that Harry Langdon and his ego brought all his troubles on himself. The main tenant of his argument is that Langdon never understood his own character, or indeed his own comedy and could only be successful if guided by the safe hands of someone who did understand, like Frank Capra. According to Capra, at a screening of rushes at the Sennett studio, Arthur Ripley thought Langdon’s performance was so bad that he was beyond help and that “only God can help an elf like Langdon”. Capra claims that this became the basis for the character of Langdon’s successful years, an innocent fool out of step with everyday life, for whom his only ally is God. And there you have it - the hopeless vaudeville comedian was successfully moulded into a box office star by following the strict instructions of Capra and Ripley, and when he decided he didn’t need them, his career instantly derailed.

This theory has been successfully demolished by critics and historians such as Walter Kerr,  Joyce Rheuban and David Kalat but still persists (indeed, Langdon’s imdb bio repeats the old story). Capra’s account of things completely ignores the fact that Langdon had been a hugely successful vaudeville star for years who brought a clearly established character with him when he broke into movies in 1924. Langdon had already been making shorts for 2 years before Capra even joined Sennett, thus making the story about viewing early Langdon rushes impossible to have happened – out of 21 Langdon movies at Sennett, Ripley received his first credit on the 13th and Capra on the 15th. Virtually every part of the Langdon character was in place by the time they arrived, but what Capra did eventually bring to Harry Langdon’s work was a sure directorial touch, some needed focus and a clear sense of what was commercially popular.

Not to say that the new narrative should be all about bashing Frank Capra and his legacy. Capra’s success and career speaks for itself, and his role in Langdon’s downfall has really no bearing on his own movies and talent. What has to be brought to task is when his statements don’t match the facts, and when these facts can be readily evidenced on the screen. It’s understandable that Capra was angry and bitter at being fired by Langdon and as they say, history is written by the victors. However, it comes of as especially churlish to kick a man when he is down, and from his position at the summit of Hollywood’s hierarchy, that is exactly what Capra did to Harry Langdon. Also, what rubs people the wrong way is the fact that Capra essentially sets himself up as the man pulling Langdon’s strings, that much like Langdon’s screen persona, the real Harry Langdon was a hapless bystander as Capra orchestrated his success. Leo McCarey attempted the same thing in his later years too, insisting that Stan Laurel knew nothing about comedy and claiming all the credit for the creation of Laurel and Hardy's best work, regardless of the facts. Sadly, while people take McCarey's words with a pinch of salt, Capra's are often still treated as gospel.

What Three’s a Crowd proved is that without Capra, Langdon felt he was free to explore his comedy without the same commercial consideration. Ever the populist, this was something that Capra could not conceive of, and therefore in his head it was wrong. Even Capra’s central idea of ‘God is his only ally’ was rejected by Langdon, as for him his comic persona is so far removed from reality, and so wretched that even God openly abandons him. It’s an idea of startling daring and resulted in Harry Langdon creating a film of immense beauty, a dreamlike parable of despair that is so far removed from what his silent comedy contemporaries were delivering that it shocked audiences into confusion.

So there I was, watching my DVD of Three’s a Crowd and struck by the notion that firstly, the film wasn’t really that funny, and that secondly Langdon the director seemed to have no concept of editing (several scenes just lasted far too long). After ten minutes I realised that I was falling into the trap of all the audiences that watched it in 1927 and beyond in that my expectations did not match the delivered product. As I mentioned previously, I stopped the DVD and thought for a moment about what I’d just seen (something that I appreciate cinema audiences would never have the chance to do). Three’s a Crowd is not a comedy in the traditional sense, it’s a dark comic experiment that serves as manifesto for Langdon’s daringly abstract, absurdist view. I started again, with a glimmering of knowledge that this was something a very different and a bit special.

Next time, we shall look at the film itself and marvel at its many wonders…

Friday, 29 May 2015

Cancel My Reservation (1972) - The End of the Road for Bob Hope's Movie Career

The last time I wrote about Bob Hope, it was after watching his modest cinematic debut in the 1934 short Going Spanish. At that time, though a stage veteran the fledgling screen comedian was understandably not quite the character we grew to know and love. As his birthday has rolled around again, perhaps this time it is only fitting we now look at Bob’s movie swan song 1972’s Cancel My Reservation, some 38 years later. Bob Hope had a career as a lead screen comedian in five different decades (and as a top TV comedian for a further two), was a box office attraction for around 20 years and made dozens of very good and very funny movies, but by any means of looking at it, Cancel My Reservation is not one of them. However, he was still a big star, was never out of the public view and for the most part remained a much beloved comedian, but by 1972 Hope looked tired, bored and out of touch.  So what went wrong?

When he made Cancel My Reservation, I’m sure Hope had no idea that it would end up being his last cinematic effort despite the project being a troubled one. The script actually started life as a serious adaption of Louis L’Amour’s western novel 'The Broken Gun', which Bob Hope had taken the option on. Perhaps the rights were about to expire but rather than wait for the right adaption, the gritty western plot was shoehorned into a comic murder mystery. Part of this change seems to be an issue with funding, as Hope had to get NBC to throw in some of the costs (to add to his own financing) when United Artists passed on the project, and their insistence on the picture being a comedy complete with star cameos effectively closed the door on any serious dramatic pretentions Hope may have had. Rather than a change of direction for him, it ended up being just another day at the office.

The film itself is typical of many comedies of the era: fast paced, bright coloured, plenty of good looking girls, stereotypical stock characters, a lazy script and a half hearted attempted at either sending up or jumping on the counterculture or hippy bandwagon. For comedies of the late 60s and early 70s, it’s as if the twin spectres of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In are omnipresent, and the movies can’t resist the urge to reference such things as flower power, or 'women’s lib' and the watchword is decidedly 'wacky', all set to a groovy sounding pop soundtrack. The movies attempt this without really understanding what it is they are trying to do or who exactly their audience should be. Cancel My Reservation doesn’t sin nearly as much as say, Skidoo, but it does have the 'desperate to be hip vibe' of a Don Knotts or later Jerry Lewis movie, with all the zany hi-jinks one would expect. At least Hope’s earlier efforts had the saving grace of Phyllis Diller to liven up proceedings and keep him on his toes, regardless of poor scripts.

In the movie, Bob Hope stars as a talk show host who shares his show with his more popular wife, played by Eve Marie Saint. The strain on their relationship causes him to go for a rest in the Arizona desert without her where he gets mixed up in a murder and a plot to take land from the Native Americans. There is nothing wrong with the plot itself but the script is so uninspiring and tired, and despite some good performances the words just have no weight and even fewer laughs. Luckily there is a decent cast with Eva Marie Saint as Hope’s wife being the definite highlight. She has a great chemistry with Bob, and brings some real charm and stability to the movie as she attempts to patch up her relationship and solve the mystery. Familiar faces like Ralph Bellamy, Keenan Wynn and Forrest Tucker also keep the movie rolling along but don’t really add anything. Even a young Anne Archer doesn’t save it, sadly providing only window dressing. However, there is a faint glimmer of the old Hope in a scene where Bob is told he could face hanging if convicted of murder. He then dreams about his lynching as an angry mob lead him to the gallows and put a noose round his neck. As he does is usual hammy pleading for help then we see none other than Bing Crosby laughing in the crowd saying "Help you? Who do you think bought the rope?". Other faces in the crowd reveal themselves to be Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson and bizarrely, John Wayne (who says "I'd like to help you but it's not my picture!"). The dream sequence ends and we are back to reality (and NBC are kept happy), but it was a nice little reminder of times past and for long time fans the last chapter in the Hope and Crosby screen friendship.

In the end, Cancel My Reservation is a pretty bad film, but thankfully not his worst. However, the sad fact remains that despite obviously being committed to maintaining a film career in the 60s and 70s, Hope’s efforts were lacklustre. The problem was due to a number of issues, both off screen and on.
Firstly and most importantly, television was Hope’s main source of income and visibility and that’s what took up most of his time from the mid 50s onwards, which is when the quality of his movies start to decline. Part of this decline can be attributed to the end of his long term working relationship with Paramount, who obviously knew how to use him effectively, though the problem is equally the end of the studio system and the stability it brought. I’d say the last truly great Hope comedy is 1954’s Casanova’s Big Night, and he followed that with two mainly dramatic roles in Seven Little Foys and Beau James which pushed him out of his comfort zone to interesting effect. After that flurry of interesting mid 50s projects, things were never quite the same again.

With his lifetime NBC television contract, Hope had to come up with material for regular specials, and with the pressure to deliver laughs and ratings, this understandably took up most of his time and energy, making movies his secondary focus. Another problem with the later movies is that, ever willing to make a buck, Bob started to have a financial stake in his vehicles rather than just be a contract player. Rather than improving the quality of the movies, this seemed to only impede the creative process. Various accounts relate the struggles directors, writers, actor and producers had with Hope’s constant script changes and complaining, with on set problems being a regular feature of the later films when not paired with a director who could deal with his working habits. Indeed, director Paul Bogart apparently checked himself into a hospital to recover from the stress of working with Hope on Cancel My Reservation and vowed never to work with him again. This sort of atmosphere doesn’t really sound particularly conducive to making comedy, and it shows in the finished product.

Another problem, which is always the one that puts me off his later movies, is the change in Hope’s screen persona. The classic Bob Hope character of the cowardly Lothario, the pompous, fast talking yet well meaning fool worked so perfectly for decades that the sudden change in the late 50s to eliminate or tone down most of these characteristics removed the heart from his movies. The character was so good that Woody Allen based a performing career on him (Saying recently, “Bob Hope? I’m practically a plagiarist”). Something happened along the way though, and the cowardly likable goof version of Hope was replaced with a more realistic version of the television Bob Hope, a middle aged man who did real things and spat out a never ending line of tired quips as he went along. This Hope, rather than being a comic everyman (of sorts) became a family man, a hen pecked husband, or a business man who just said funny things rather actually being funny. I realise that Hope felt that he was getting older and probably couldn’t get away with his traditional character, though I’d argue that age is no barrier to the actions of a clown. However, I have a suspicion (as much as I hate to acknowledge it) that ego had a part in the decision as he just doesn't seem too keen to send himself up as he got older. If you see Hope on chat shows from the 60s onwards, he’s a lot more serious and guarded than he was in the 40s (though he’s still pretty cagey in the early interviews I’ve heard) and at times fairly grumpy. It all comes from being a very rich man with a lot of responsibility and a lot of power. He just doesn’t seem to try as hard as he used to because there is nothing left to prove. In a sense he stopped being Bob Hope the comedian and became Bob Hope the media personality.

It’s no wonder that the people who constantly knock Hope always do so with reference to his persona as seen on television at the height of the counter culture years in the 60s and 70s. He is seen as a kind of comic representation of the Nixon administration: patrician, middle aged and out of touch. Personally, I don’t think Hope really changed too much in himself (he seems to have always been a nervous, insecure performer even to the end), but his position changed. Like anyone with that amount of fame and money, it’s difficult not to live in a bubble of sorts and to be protected from what is glaringly obvious to the outside world. The fact that Hope during this period continued entertaining the troops and doing his charity work speaks volumes about the measure of the real man, but his public persona became rather frosty and distant and it rubbed off on screen in his movies. The likability factor that made audiences laugh but still sympathise with him had faded somewhat.

Nevertheless, Bob Hope seemed comfortable making his TV shows and becoming a familiar if unspectacular fixture on the small screen. From what I’ve seen of his specials, the quality depends very much on the guest star, but most of his material is often painfully thin. Unlike Jack Benny, Hope seemed not to pride himself on the quality of his writers, but on the topicality of his one liners. This worked for what it was, but in the big picture he failed at creating the television legacy that Benny (or even George Burns) managed where each appearance built on the next to create a lasting and well loved narrative.

Nevertheless, despite the critical, financial and artistic disappointment of Cancel My Reservation, Hope persevered with the idea of making movies. He spent the rest of his active career looking for the right vehicle but never got the script that suited him. It seems he almost got there with the legendary but unmade Road to the Fountain of Youth which would have reunited him with Bing Crosby for one last hurrah but was sadly interrupted by Bing’s death. Whether that would have made it to the screen and whether it would have actually been watchable or his equivalent of Mae West’s Sextet we will never know. He also tried and failed to make a movie about the life of Walter Winchell, a project he sat on for so long that he finally became too old to star in it. Apparently he was interested in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys as another vehicle for him and Bing, but Simon turned him down thinking quite rightly that their personalities would swamp the material (not to mention the fact it was about two old Jewish comedians).

No doubt there were many other attempts to find a film comeback but it never materialised. I remember even in the early 90s reading an interview with him where he said he still hoped to have one last film role before retiring completely. It’s a shame it never happened, as with the right writer (preferably not one of his staff) the still active and fairly sharp Hope of that era could have done something truly memorable, just as George Burns had managed before him. As it was we had to suffice with a few cameos and the TV movie A Masterpiece of Murder, which on paper sounds great but is just as unmemorable as Cancel My Reservation.

In the end it doesn’t really matter how Bob Hope’s film career wound up. People will love or loathe Hope largely depending on what version they saw of him while growing up. I’m lucky that I grew up knowing little of the real man in the 80s and 90s while watching his classic movies on television with no preconceived notions. Now having seen all the stages of his career I still think he’s great and I find something to enjoy in every decade and medium. Woody Allen said recently that he's always having to defend his love of Bob Hope to people (though the way it's going a future generation may have to spend  more of their time defending their love of Woody Allen to people but that's another thing altogether...). It's sad that people forget the good times and concentrate of the out of touch elder statesman of comedy that Hope was in the 60s, 70s and beyond. Unlike Jack Benny he never managed to become universally loved by each successive generation, or adapt to new challenges like George Burns but I'd still like to think there are plenty of people out there that realise how good he was and how important a comedian he was. On its own, Cancel My Reservation isn't that great a film, but as part of a 38 year cinematic legacy it's not too bad, a small piece in a much bigger and funnier picture. Despite the ups and downs of his standing with the public and the quality of his films, Bob Hope brought a lot of laughs to this world and did a lot of good, and that's something I hope is never forgotten.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Snapshot # 4 - He Was Her Man (1934)

What is it about? : Safecracking ex-con Flicker Hayes double crosses the gang and goes on the run to sleepy fishing village Santa Avila. With him is Rose Lawrence, a down on her luck girl who wants to put her past behind her and marry simple fisherman Nick and settle down. As the mobsters approach, Rose finds herself attracted to Flicker and having second thoughts about the wedding.

The Call Sheet : James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Victor Jory, with Frank Craven, Sarah Padden, Harold Huber, Russell Hopton and John Qualen

Behind the Camera : Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Screenplay by Tom Buckingham and Niven Busch, Cinematography by George Barnes, Art direction by Anton Grot.

Snapshot Thoughts : He Was Her Man is one of the last gasps of the pre-code era, sneaking in mere months before the Hays Code came into effect. As a result we see a lot of the usual tropes of what we know as pre-code cinema, though played with perhaps slightly less conviction and perhaps a hint of uneasiness. James Cagney, as Flicker Hayes is a largely unlikable character who wrestles with his own smugness for most of the movie as to whether he should let Joan Blondell’s Rose into his life or just use her like he does everyone else. It all plays out with a muted sense of doom and downbeat realism that would all but vanish within the next year. As ever, the characters are not so clean cut, with everyone having some sort of shame or compromise in their closet. Flicker is a criminal so low that he double crosses his fellow gangsters for his own amusement then runs away to avoid the consequences. Throughout the movie he uses the people around him to protect himself, and even when his noble side emerges it’s linked to his self preservation. Rose, for all her dreams of married respectability, met her prospective husband while selling her body to make a living. She flatly states. he was “a guy in town for a good time. The bellhop introduced us. Figure it out for yourself”. It’s the chance of escaping her past and present, rather than love or commitment that pushes her toward marriage. Even the one supposedly good character in the movie, fisherman Nick is not without fault. Most glaringly, if he is such a pious hard working family man (he even lives with his mother) why was he visiting ladies of ill repute in cheap hotels? The whole sorry situation just adds up to a portrayal of a broken society, crippled by the Depression with lonely people desperate for any sort of comfort or solace in the darkness. It’s the drama between the principle characters that provides the most interest in the movie, alongside the timing of the film’s release, and the muted performances of the leads, giving He Was Her Man the nostalgic glow of the end of an era. It would be a long time before movies would be as adult as this.

Star Performances : Despite putting in a committed performance, James Cagney just isn’t displaying his usual magic in this movie, so the star performance honours have to go to Joan Blondell. It must have been difficult to be one of James Cagney’s leading ladies as he’s such a force of nature, an unstoppable firecracker of movement on the screen that it was difficult for anyone to keep up with his electric presence. Joan Blondell, probably more than anyone got as near to being his perfect screen partner, complementing his hyperactivity either with a peppy energy of her own or by a simple look of big eyed charm. They appeared together in seven films, of which sadly this is the seventh. Despite working together so often and having an obvious chemistry they are rarely thought of as one of the great movie partnerships. Great screen partnerships require a give and take and a sense of equality but when working alongside Cagney, I’d imagine just trying to keep up was the main concern. Overall, I’m not a massive fan of Joan’s more restrained performances (of which this is one), as her big eyes and round face give way to a kind of lost puppy dog look that gets a bit wearing. For example, in Union Depot the initial promise of her world weary character gives way to just standing around in the later parts of the movie. She just seems more comfortable playing a character that does something about her problems, rather than submissively giving in to them. She plays a similar sort of role in He Was He Man but thankfully she has a bit more to do and she manages to make the most of what was probably on paper another world weary victim role. She certainly saves the part by injecting bursts of emotion in key scenes and her simmering passion and confusion ensures she is just as much a focal point as Cagney. Though in the end, it’s so difficult to criticise a Joan Blondell performance as she’s just so likeable, and this movie despite its flaws is no different.

James Cagney puts in a good performance despite playing a quieter and more restrained version of his usual screen persona. He skilfully runs a fine line between making the audience identify with Flicker as the hero of the movie whilst reminding us that he is not to be trusted. As the movie progresses and we naturally expect him to soften, Cagney’s use of body language and facial expressions keep us on our guard. Even in a comparatively minor film in his canon he gives a master class in screen acting. There really is no such thing as a lazy Cagney performance, he can never be accused of phoning it in. Other notables in the cast include Frank Craven as a duplicitous informant, Harold Huber and Russell Hopton as a convincingly mean pair of hit men and regular John Ford character actor John Qualen in a charming part (and one that for once doesn’t require him to be Swedish!) as a taxi driver. If you are particularly eagle eyed you can also see Billy West, former silent screen comedian and Chaplin impersonator in a one line part. I always get a kick out of seeing Hollywood veterans, all with storied careers of their own appearing in small parts in studio movies. Billy West doesn’t do or say much, but it was nice to see him get a pay cheque.

Technical Excellences: Actually not much to recommend in terms of technical innovation. As ever, Lloyd Bacon turns in a solid job at directing (is there such a thing as a badly directed Lloyd Bacon movie?) but in this case there’s not much to set He Was Her Man out from the crowd. There are some nice locations used in the film, shot in Monterey, California but even they are not used to their full potential. Rather than the fishing village seeming like a safe place hidden away from the outside world, it merely looks like any other Hollywood coastal location. So all in all, a solid yet uninspiring job done behind the camera. In fact, there was so little to inspire visually that I actually got a bit excited when there was a screen wipe used. I like screen wipes.

The Sublime: Joan Blondell’s character, Rose spends the first half of the movie supposedly torn emotionally over whether to marry the kind and dependable fisherman Nick, who she doesn’t really know or love, or flashy criminal Flicker, who she finds herself growing more attracted to. As a result of this mental confusion, and also the fact that the part is woefully underwritten, she doesn’t really do much other than do her best to look worried. The problem is, due to the script we are never too sure what she is thinking. She could be wondering who she really loves or worrying whether she left a pie in the oven; it’s all a bit vague. Thankfully there is a wonderful scene late in the movie where everything becomes clearer, and more importantly you can see that Joan Blondell, far from her usual bright and breezy screen persona has the acting ability to not only overcome poor material but also to convey great emotional depth. In order to save her from the two hit men, Flicker decides to tell her he was using her all along and was never going to take her with him when he left (which isn’t too far from the truth). The scene is played in medium shot, with the reaction from Joan (mournfully stating “I understand…I understand everything") in close up. In her close ups, Joan Blondell gives an unbelievably intense stare that conveys her hurt, disappointment and acceptance all at once. He leaves and she stands alone in the house, completely broken but managing to convey a sense of release also. She picks up her suitcase and makes her way back to her room. It’s one of the best bits of acting I’ve seem Joan do, at once vulnerable and tragic yet tinged with the inevitability of it all. Of course, the fact that Flicker has just unknowingly saved her life adds meaning to scene but she plays it beautifully. It seems that at about the time she made the movie, Joan was going through quite a lot of pretty heavy stuff in her own life, and perhaps her trials added to the emotional experience she could draw on for the scene.

The Ridiculous: The movie is played straight and as such everyone gives solid performances, and the script though under developed is treated with reverence. The only vaguely ridiculous member of the cast is the one residing on James Cagney’s top lip. Yes, Cagney sports an anaemic moustache in this movie and it’ distracting to say the least. He just looks so odd with facial hair, there’s an inherent wrongness to it. Like a clean shaven Clark Gable or Ronald Colman, or an unshaven Cary Grant, it’s just not right seeing Cagney with a moustache. It changes him from a no nonsense tough guy to a slightly oily con man (which is perhaps the point). Maybe it did suit the part, or maybe Warren William wasn’t available. Who can say?.

Is it worth watching? He Was Her Man is a very entertaining film despite its flaws. On one hand it’s the epitome of a solidly made B picture from a studio like Warners in the pre-code era. Star driven, with a fast pace and short running time, it does its job of diverting the attention from everyday matters. The plot, while fairly slight, has a genuinely surprising resolution which keeps you guessing (and just when you wonder what’s going to happen at the end, it suddenly becomes all about ice cream! Really!) Visually and artistically it’s nothing out of the ordinary, yet the whole effect is eminently satisfying. In my very first blog post a few years ago, I talked about how I was more interested in the films that slip through the cracks of  the well known film star filmographies. He Was Her Man is exactly that, a solid James Cagney and Joan Blondell film that never gets talked about, by a director that never gets talked about. Not great, and by no means bad, just entertainment in its purest form. If you want to see such a movie, and find who indeed was her man, this one is for you.

Random Quote: “Deus Meus! I forget the ice cream! It will melt!”

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Snapshot # 3 - Union Depot (1932)

What is it about? : Amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy train station, a smart talking hobo in a stolen suit passes himself off as a gentleman and decides to help a young girl get some money for her train ticket. He soon lands himself in trouble with a gang of forgers, the FBI and the girl’s creepy stalker.

The Call Sheet : Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale, David Landau, George Rosener, Frank McHugh

Behind the Camera : Directed by Alfred E. Green, Cinematography by Sol Polito, Art direction by Jack Okey.

Snapshot Thoughts : Union Depot is a typical Warner Brothers slice of Depression life, and as such exudes the usual streetwise attitude and grimy atmosphere. Pretty much everything that makes pre code films so enjoyable are present in some form, but more importantly the movie treats its audience as adults, being open and frank about the realities of life in the big city in 1932. This results in a film with a typically cynical, world weary viewpoint. Our hero, Chic (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a vagrant who steals clothes to pass himself off as someone else, continually lies, has no problem using stolen money and has a less than savoury attitude towards women. All this is treated as an acceptable by product of the environment. Along the way we meet a variety of Depression era stock characters in the titular Union Depot, each given a short vignette that hints at their own inner dramas and conflicts. Some of the more interesting are a grubby pan handler who only wants dollars and no less, a prostitute with money tucked into her stockings, a woman on her way to Reno for a divorce, a girl in tears as she presumably leaves to get an abortion, and a degenerate stalker (complete with black glasses and limp) with a penchant for having dirty books read to him. The list just goes on and on. There is so much detail in the film that it requires multiple viewings to take in every little moment. When this is combined with a tightly plotted storyline driven by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s curiously compelling character it all adds up to an evocative and textured movie experience. In many ways the main plot serves only as window dressing to the real story, the everyday struggles of ordinary, sometimes unsavoury people trying to make a living during the height of the Depression, and all passing through the crossroads of the Union Depot. The end result is never less than entertaining.

Star Performances : Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is definitely the star of the picture, and gives a confident, swaggering performance as hobo turned gentleman Chic Miller. He is at times unrecognisable from his matinee idol image; skinny, wiry, unshaven, sans moustache, constantly chewing gum and with an impassive grin, he is both charming yet deeply unlikeable. His years on the road and being in and out of prison have given Chic the rough edge of a survivor . A testament to Fairbanks' skill with the character is his reaction to Ruth (Joan Blondell) not being the good time girl he was expecting. He shockingly slaps her then berates for not putting out and thus making a fool of him. Yet within minutes, upon hearing Ruth’s sob story he agrees to help her, he smiles and all is forgiven. By the end of the movie, with everything resolved and goodbyes being said, Chic reaches the point where we almost like and admire him (Ruth has certainly fallen for him), though still with a lingering uneasiness that he is being less than sincere. That he manages this feat really shows Fairbanks' natural charisma and ease in front of the camera. Although perhaps better known as an actor from his late 30s films onwards, Fairbanks here proves to be an underrated pre code anti hero. The rest of the cast is the usual line up of stellar character actors including an excellent turn from Guy Kibbee as Chic’s eternally grinning best friend, a chilling George Rosener as the depraved stalker, a small but effective cameo from Frank McHugh as a drunk and the usual blink and you’ll miss them walk ons from the likes of Charles Lane, Irving Bacon and Dorothy Christy.

Technical Excellences: If it's the various minor characters given fleeting appearances that really gives the film its flavour, this is bolstered no end by the stunning cinematography of Sol Polito. Polito was Warner Brothers/First National go to cinematographer during this period and as such really outlined the look and mood of the studio in the pre code era. His work on I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang defined the darkness and cynicism of the era and more of his great work can be seen in films such as Three on a Match, Five Star Final, The Mind Reader and Picture Snatcher to name but a few. Union Depot is no different and in fact probably contains some of his finest work. This is seen particularly in the open scene where the camera enters the station, and floats up and down, focusing on the various people in the depot and their lives and dramas. The camera moves in a fluid, dreamlike way, eavesdropping on each scene then leaving just as it gets intriguing. The shot lasts a couple of minutes and must have been extraordinarily complicated for Polito and director Alfred E. Green to set up but the end result is one seamlessly edited, photographed and directed extended shot of pure cinema. Alfred E. Green deserves some credit too, despite being generally regarded as a journeyman studio director he manages to make the complexity of Union Depot’s busy plot and multiple characters flow very smoothly with a brisk pace. Mention also needs to be made of the location and set work. The depot itself really is the real star of the movie, from the impressively large station to the darkened train tracks shrouded in gloom. Apparently all the locations were massive sets constructed on the Warner lot, and in which case my hat is off to the designer as they look astounding. On a final technical note, the decision to do without a musical score for the movie is a stroke of genius. Instead of incidental music the soundtrack is populated by the noises of people in the station combined with the ever present clanging of the train bells and shunting and hissing of the steam engines, giving the film an almost otherworldly feeling. In an era where sound was used predominantly to record endless dialogue, Union Depot puts its Vitaphone capabilities to creative use.

The Sublime: The opening scene just has to be watched, it is a thing of beauty. As I mentioned, the choreography and direction must have been extremely complicated but it flows stunningly well. As the film starts with the Union Depot sign and the sound of a funereal clock chiming the camera starts its journey and we see glimpses of other people's lives: a newspaper seller, a drunk, a man selling wooden duck toys, a brass band, all combined with the rumble of the streets in the background. As we step into the station the camera lifts into the sky and proceeds to swoop down to eavesdrop on a variety of everyday situations played out by the commuters. The snippets of dialogue here are sparkling with earthy wit. A haughty society lady asks at a news stand “Haven’t you a ‘Town and Country’?” to which the man behind the counter replies in a thick accent, “I did, only they took it away from us three thousand years ago”. A sailor propositions a flapper with “C’mon sweetheart, I ain’t like most sailors” to which the girl snaps back, “Then I ain’t interested!”. A starlet on her way to Hollywood clutching a small dog is asked to show some leg by a reporter. She is reluctant but shows an ankle until he says “Think of your public!” and she hoists it up to thigh height! There are so many little moments like this that are beautifully observed that one wonders what Lubitsch or Cukor could’ve done with the material. However, if the movie had their sort of polish, so much of its grimy charm would be lost. As it is, the opening shot of Union Depot deserves to be remembered as one of the cinematic highlights of the pre code era, as it encapsulates everything both socially and cinematically that makes early sound films so evocative and thrilling.

The Ridiculous: Though the movie is generally very entertaining there are a few scenes and details that let it down somewhat. Most perplexing is the scene where Chic mistakes Ruth for a prostitute at the station and offers to "work out a scheme" to pay for her train ticket. Whether Ruth is aware of his intentions is left ambiguous though she does mention that she desperately needs the money and agrees to go to a hotel room with Chic. When they get to the seedy hotel room Chic puts on the mood music but once Ruth realises exactly what sort of arrangement she is part of and starts crying, Chic flies into a rage and slaps her. The scene is well acted in itself but it displays a troubling attitude to women on the part of our hero. He has nothing but contempt for prostitutes, yet seemingly has no problems with using them. Furthermore, when a woman refuses to go along with the ‘scheme’ he loses his temper and complains about how they have made a sucker of him. However, the minute he finds out that Ruth is actually fairly virtuous (though she’s ‘no Pollyanna’), his demeanour changes entirely and he becomes the epitome of charm and ready to help. It’s a worrying attitude, particularly for the behaviour of a supposed hero (or even anti hero), but doubtless one that was (and still is) not uncommon amongst men. This doesn’t exactly qualify as a ‘ridiculous’ moment but it’s one that leaves about as sour a taste as anything I’ve seen in a pre code movie.

Another problem with the movie is its use of Joan Blondell. By 1932 she had graduated to starring roles and had a string of memorable parts behind her, yet here she’s an afterthought. I’m unclear when this was filmed in relation to her other movies of the time but there are moments when her acting is quite stilted and unsure, and lacks the pep of her usual appearances. Even worse, as the movie draws to a close and the mystery is being untangled, she is so incidental to the plot that she spends the last reel either sitting or standing around in silence, with cuts to occasional close ups where she attempts to convey a mix of fear, disappointment or bewilderment with mixed results. In fact for one moment it looks like she has fallen asleep waiting for her next line. So between being slapped about and ignored, Union Depot is not her finest hour. Luckily the movie gives us the gift of Alan Hale to lighten the tone and his truly preposterous German accent, complete with heavy rolling 'r's ("put this young rrrascal behind bars!"). Combined with the fact that it’s difficult to see Alan Hale as anything other than the genial sidekick, he’s the least convincing villain you are likely to find. Sadly, that's not the original intention.

Is it worth watching? Definitely. Aside from the opening shot (have I mentioned that the opening shot is amazing and that you need to see it?), the whole movie just bursts with Warner Brothers' unique brand of pre code ’social realism’. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. does play a troublingly unlikeable character but nonetheless brings rugged charm to the role. Sadly Joan Blondell is completely wasted but at least she is there and though slightly muted, is never less that lovely. However, at the end of the day, the real star is the Union Depot itself, and its ever present soundtrack of bellowing porters and clanging bells. That the film begins and ends with the Union Depot sign emphasises the importance of the location as the only real constant in the movie. Everyone else is just passing through.

Random Quote: "I can't stand a dame who plays me for a sucker. Why only a couple of minutes ago I walked out on a little tramp. The minute I saw you I knew it was a conquest"

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Snapshot # 2 - Internes Can't Take Money (1937)

What is it about?: A young medical intern named Dr. Kildare helps a widowed ex-con to find her missing child and avoid the clutches of an unscrupulous mobster...

The Call Sheet: Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Lloyd Nolan, Stanley Ridges with Irving Bacon, Barry Mccollum and Charles Lane

Behind the Camera: Directed by Alfred Santell. Story by Max Brand (aka Frederick Schiller Faust). Cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl. Art direction by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier.

Snapshot Thoughts: Aside from it’s archaic spelling of ‘Intern’, Internes Can’t Take Money is an odd little film. It’s the very first Dr. Kildare movie yet it stars Barbara Stanwyck and largely side lines Joel McCrea’s Kildare, with the end result being that it succeeds in fully showcasing neither. The following year, MGM took over the Dr. Kildare series and recast it with Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore and in doing so created a very successful and well remembered movie franchise, but this film is an almost noir-ish anomaly. As it is, it’s an interesting mix of medical drama, gangster film and melodrama with a stellar ensemble cast. I have no idea why Barbara Stanwyck took on the film as it seems like such a B picture for a star of her stature. Despite this, Joel McCrea is everything you would need from a dashing young doctor: tall, blond, principled and fearless and he always has good chemistry with Stanwyck. Barbara Stanwyck herself is the epitome of melodramatic desperation: she spends the majority of the film with her eyes glistening with fresh tears (they never quite roll down her cheek), forever on the verse of emotional collapse and fuelled by determined motherly love. However, because the movie splits its time between their individual plotlines, sadly neither star is well serviced by the film.

Star Performances: While the two stars are good in their roles, the movie ultimately belongs to the supporting cast of character actors playing the story’s many underworld dwellers. Lloyd Nolan is excellent as ever as the gangster whose life is saved by Kildare and although he is only in the last 15 minutes of the film he gives considerable depth and range to the part, transforming from anger to understanding at Dr. Kildare’s situation in a brilliant piece of emotional acting. Also of note are Charles Lane as the world’s grumpiest butler and Irving Bacon as a eye patch wearing barman, both adding some (off) colour charm to the proceedings. However, Stanley Ridges pretty much steals the picture, and every scene he’s in as the blackmailing criminal Dan Innes. Relaxed, smug and confident, he is a man perfectly at ease with his place in the world. His life is a continuous game of exerting power over people, from his butler (a friend who lost a card game to him and was shanghaied into service to pay the debt) to Stanwyck’s Janet Haley, to whom he dangles the carrot of knowledge about her missing child. One of the props that Ridges uses to his advantage is the character’s love of popcorn. The popcorn has many uses in the movie, mostly as an innuendo laden conversation topic, but the way he casually takes handfuls, rolls them around in the palm of his hand and chews slowly just reeks menace and intimidation. He may dress very dapperly, and his apartment is that of a playboy who likes the finer things in life, but Stanley Ridges never lets the audience forget how dangerous and callous a thug Innes really is.

Technical Excellences: Despite the movie being a B picture, it is shot and dressed like a far more prestigious vehicle. The art direction by Paramount mainstays Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier are superb, with the hospital and bar sets being stylish and evocative. The hospital set in itself is a thing of beauty, with Art Deco designs and lettering combining with an open plan clinic with large bay windows displaying stylised matte views of the Manhattan skyline. Later, the bar set reverses the feeling, giving a turn of the century, dingy, smoky environment where backroom deals are done and shady mobster hurry back and forth through the grubbily ornate swing doors. A lot of thought has been put into the look of the movie and it lifts the production from a run of the mill melodrama to a brilliantly conceived slice of late Depression life.

The Sublime: Perhaps the highlight of the movie occurs when Janet (Barbara Stanwyck) visits Innes (Stanley Ridges) in his apartment to attempt to come to some sort of 'arrangement' for information about her missing daughter. The scene starts with an insight into Innes’ life as he sits in bed clad in his expensive dressing gown eating breakfast (which looks suspiciously like popcorn) served by his ill mannered butler Grote (a brilliantly chosen name for surly Charles Lane). Janet arrives and the two move through to the living room to talk, all the time the walls glowing with the dancing shadows of the rain hitting the windows outside. Innes tries to turn on the charm but Janet nervously ignores it . In a nice piece of business, when Stanwyck sits down the chair is quite low and exposes her knee. She subtly and awkwardly pulls her skirt down as she adjusts her seat while he eyes her wolfishly. The conversation turns to what she can do for him and as ever, he brings up the subject of popcorn, saying “I didn’t always like popcorn. I didn’t like it until I tried it. First it was kind of hard to take, used to stick in my craw. I guess I hit you about the same way, don’t I?” He purrs the words in a deliberate way that leaves no doubt as to what he’s really suggesting, and all the while his eyes seem to be imagining what sort of arrangement Janet and he could come to. Never has popcorn seemed to threatening.

The Ridiculous: The 30’s must have been a confusing time to live in if you had lost a child. Stanwyck’s character Janet spends most of the movie trying to find her lost three year old daughter in orphanages despite not having seen her since she was a baby. She’s told (quite reasonably) by a kindly nun that “babies change a good deal in two years. Their features change”, but despite this Janet feels she only needs to look into the child’s eyes to know which little moppet is hers. She’s also good at picking needles out of haystacks I hear. Oh, and this despite the fact that the orphanage only need the barest of anecdotal evidence to be convinced that they should give a child to a woman fresh out of prison, but I digress. Anyway, I don’t have to spoil it for you for you to guess how it ends, but just to hammer home every available clichĂ© we are treated to an astonishing final tableaux of mother and daughter reunited as a heavenly choir sings, flanked in shadows by the Mother Superior, the good Dr Kildare and a massive statue of the Virgin Mary that looms up onto the screen out of nowhere. Praise be! For it is a miracle! Boy, did those Jewish Hollywood people love their Catholic imagery but I guess it kept the censors happy.

Is it worth watching? It’s certainly a by the numbers Barbara Stanwyck film, and is possibly one of her most forgettable appearances of the decade but she’s likable and vulnerable and determined as ever and doesn’t disappoint. If you are a fan of the Dr. Kildare series then Internes Can't Take Money it has to be watched as a curiosity (in the same way that the first sound Charlie Chan film Behind That Curtain bears no resemblance to the long running series that followed it) and an interesting comparison. If you don’t judge it as a Dr. Kildare film then there’s a lot to like. The movie looks great, is directed with style and has a fine cast of well written characters. All in all an overachieving B movie with an A list cast. Bring your own popcorn.

Random Quote: “Popcorn’s good for you, you know. Roughage.”

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Snapshot #1 - Five and Ten (1931)

What's it About?: John Rarick is the owner of the largest five and ten cent store in the country and decides to bring his family from Kansas City to the bright lights of New York City. As he gets more wrapped up in his business he fails to notice that his once happy family is unravelling in front of his eyes. His daughter Jennifer attempts some social climbing with disastrous results and falls in love with an engaged society maven. His bored wife plans an affair and his son Avery starts drinking to cope with the pressure of having to inherit the family business. Misery ensues…

The Call Sheet: Marion Davies, Leslie Howard, Richard Bennett, Irene Rich, Douglass Montgomery (as Kent Douglass), Marry Duncan and uncredited appearances from Haliwell Hobbes and Henry Armetta

Behind the Camera: Directed by an uncredited Robert Z. Leonard. Costumes by Adrian. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. A Marion Davies Production!

Snapshot Thoughts: Though the film is essentially about the disintegration of the Rarick family, the story mainly focuses on the fraught love affair between Jennifer (Marion Davies) and socialite Berry (Leslie Howard). Their tragedy being that Berry is engaged to be married to a woman ‘of his class’, while Jennifer is ‘new money’ a thus unable to fit into his society without the clutching of pearls and the clenching of teeth from all and sundry. Can’t all the rich people just get along? Luckily (or unluckily depending on your view) Berry is an also absolute cad with a wandering eye and is easily tempted away from his fiancĂ©’s arms. When Jennifer visits his apartment for the first time he suddenly and randomly strokes her bare arm, presumably with the intension to shock her (and the audience) with his boldness. Unfortunately, it just comes across as inappropriate and awkward (she should've reached for the pepper spray) and resembles the fumbling of two teenagers on a first date to the ice cream parlour. The scene sets the tone for the interaction between the leads but nonetheless it’s a testament to Leslie Howard’s ability that Berry is at least vaguely likable because on paper he’s a bit of a creep. The love story has some good moments but sadly takes over far too much of the movie which could have been better spent exploring the relationships of the Rarick family as they struggle to cope with their new wealth. Instead we get a rather damp and ill-tempered romance that weighs down the film.

Star Performances: Marion Davies and Leslie Howard are very charming as the romantic leads but sadly there is virtually no chemistry between them, despite the smoke and mirrors of the script to wring some romantic tension out of their affair. Despite this, the supporting cast is very appealing, led by famous stage star Richard Bennett as the family patriarch in a good role. He’s a sort of combination between Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone and plays John Rarick with a great deal of subtlety and care.  He succeeds in maintaining our sympathy for the character despite his many failings and his blindness to what is going on around him. However, the star of the movie is Douglass Montgomery (here under his early career name of Kent Douglass) as brother Avery. He is only in a few scenes but his transformation from happy go lucky youngster to pressured businessman and finally to alcoholic wreck is well played. Montgomery has an unusual look, an intense yet young looking face, a shock of blond hair and an impossible prettiness that must have made him hard to cast in suitable roles. He’s definitely not the traditional leading man, but he’s very good here as the tortured brother, and shows real talent.

Technical Excellences: It’s never a good sign when there is no director’s credit on a film, and I’m not sure the circumstances of this omission but uncredited or not, Robert Z. Leonard does a good job. Despite being quite stagey at times, everyone looks great and the action travels at a good pace. In the main scenes between Davies and Howard there are some admirably long takes employed and these extended scenes at least help give an organic feel to their relationship. This is a useful way to hide the slight lack of sparkle between the two leads.

The Sublime: The best scene sees Berry enter Jennifer’s room unannounced while she is in her nightgown. Despite her ‘what would people think?’ protestations, he refuses to leave, and regardless of her attempts to resist him, she doesn’t want him to leave either. After a few breathless embraces, the stalemate is broken and he wearily says "Now look here, you know I’m not a man of honor. Don’t look at me like that, won’t do any good!". He then reluctantly asks her to get dressed, but of course, while she is dressing he covers his eyes, then immediately sneaks a peek! Somehow the fact that he has been so noble convinces Jennifer that he actually loves her and suddenly the roles become reversed - he becomes uncomfortable and wants to leave and she is the one pleading for him to stay.  All this makes Leslie Howard’s character a bit too morally corrupt to be the usual idle yet erudite dreamer we are used to from him, but Howard plays it in such a way that you have to at least admire his nerve. In a film marred by leaden love scenes, this is the one that manages to impress, and both Davies and Howard do well to give the impression of deep emotional conflicts running beneath their need to be together.

The Ridiculous: Avery (Douglass Montgomery)’s decline is a highlight of the movie for drama, but the way it ends is definitely not. It’s established that he has started hitting the bottle to cope with his problems, and in true movie fashion he downs a couple of stiff drinks, then immediately starts staggering around and slurring his words (I’d love to get some of that fast acting Hollywood booze!). Just then, he has a moment of clarity and realises that the family is starting to fall irreparably apart. Oh no! Seeing his moment he mumbles “There’s an answer to everything” and runs off. Next, we cut to him FLYING AN AIRPLANE, (still in his suit!), and before you can blink he’s crashed straight into a forest in a cloud of smoke. You know, I have a suspicion that he didn't think through his answer. Personally I would have just called a family meeting, but I guess it was a simpler time in 1931 so I can't judge. It’s an utterly ludicrous, yet glorious moment of insanity that seemingly arrives out of a different (and funnier) movie. It’s a good job he talked about his love of flying earlier as foreshadowing and…oh wait, he didn’t, did he? Hmm. Anyway, he dies but you know what? It brings the family back together, so what do I know about family reconciliation? Simpler times.

Is it Worth Watching?: Well, fans of Marion Davies will definitely want to watch Five and Ten, as she’s rather charming and gets to show her dramatic skills a bit more than usual  Leslie Howard is fairly disappointing but they both try hard with a dull script. In the end it’s a pretty average melodrama but one that is worth a look if you bypass the main story and focus on the secondary plot lines and the cast of top notch supporting actors. It also has to be pointed out that Marion Davies wears a hat for approximately 80% of the movie, so make of that what you will.

Random Quote: "Well, if I must be a hero, give me a little help will you? Take some of these arms away from me. For heaven's sake put some clothes on, I won't look".

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Big Brown Eyes (1936) - Exclusive! Joan Bennett Solves a Crime While Polishing Nails!

There’s a lot to take in while watching this movie: two engaging stars, some nifty direction and cinematography, a sterling line up of supporting players, and a very schizophrenic approach to tone. However, on the whole Big Brown Eyes doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, but strangely this is exactly why it’s such a fascinating and compelling film.

Released in April 1936, Big Brown Eyes from all appearances is firmly a B picture. For a start there’s the bland generic title that unlike similar 30s movie titles with no thought put into them (such scintillating gems as Lawyer Man, Parachute Jumper, Air Hostess and Jewel Robbery spring to mind) succeeds in not only being unimaginative but in no way describes or has relevance to the plot. Whose brown eyes? And how do we even know? The movie is in black and white! One would assume it refers to Joan Bennett’s character but they could have at least written one line into the script to reference it. She has eyes, but to my knowledge they are neither big nor brown.

The film is unusual due to its odd mix of genres, styles and tones. Ostensibly it’s about the relationship between quick talking detective Dan Barr (Cary Grant) and his equally sharp witted girlfriend, manicurist Eve Fallon (Joan Bennett). They bicker, fight, fall out and make up over the course of the movie and in doing so foil the plans of a gang of jewel robbers. The thing is,there's so much going on it’s as if the writer(s) just had lots of bits left over from other films and decided to throw them all together to see what fitted. It’s at once a cops and robbers movie, a poor girl made good movie, a fast talking journalist movie, and a lone detective movie. It’s also both a breezy romantic comedy and a gritty gangster film, and none of these elements fit together very well. When lowly manicurist Bennett becomes a hotshot reporter for the local newspaper seemingly overnight you can tell the writers are making this stuff up as they go along.

Most jarringly is the tone, sweeping from the light and snappy one liners of the soon to be typical Cary Grant romantic comedy to the darkest of the dark, during which the criminals accidentally shoot a baby in the park when a gangland disagreement goes wrong. We see the anguish of the mother as she looks into the bullet ridden pram then…the movie continues in its merry way, and the jokes and silly situations continue. In fact the criminals in the film are about the most unsavoury bunch I can remember seeing outside of the early pre-code gangster movies and at times just seem to be in the wrong film. More leftover plots from an earlier time?

The movie’s B credentials are furthered by two solid mid level stars as leads. Obviously, Cary Grant would go on to greater things but here he’s not quite there yet (but almost). In Joan Bennett the movie gains a young, pretty name actress, but not one who ever quite made the A lists despite a long career as a star actress. In fact I always think of Joan Bennett at one of the great unsung talents of the 30s and 40s and a real dependable utility player in Hollywood. I started noticing it whilst listening to Lux Radio Theater as whenever an advertised star had to cancel due to ‘illness’, it always seemed like Joan Bennett was the girl chosen at short notice to replace them (and if she wasn’t available Virginia Bruce got the call). She has a great range and is everything a star should be, but often just seemed to get lost in the shuffle, with very few of her early films remembered well today. Perhaps this a case of someone who movie history has overlooked but I wish she had become a bigger star. In any case dependable is good, and in Big Brown Eyes she is simply wonderful. In fact if she was as charming and sassy in all her movies as she is here, I know we would remember her much more, though her career would perhaps be less interesting.

You could write a whole book studying the young Cary Grant’s path of discovery towards becoming the Cary Grant character in his early films, which is one reason why they are often so fascinating. Here he’s 18 months and half a dozen films away from his breakout performance in The Awful Truth, and you can see him gaining confidence and starting to put the pieces together for his new screen persona. He plays a confident, wise cracking cop trying to solve a murder and has loads of opportunity for the sort of self effacing foolery he later made an art. He is charming, forceful and funny but somehow he’s not 100% believable in the role. He hasn’t quite joined the dots on how to pull it all off sucessfully and behind the smile there is a smidgen of doubt. He didn’t have long to wait though, and we all know how that worked out (yes, he was never heard from again...).

For me though, Joan Bennett is the real star of the movie. She has an air of confidence that really carries the film, and she really needs it to get away with some of the ridiculous fashions she sports during the proceedings. It's almost as if her part was another holdover from the pre-code era, a final hurrah to the sort of girl who works her way up from the shop floor to success and romance, the sort of girl who is tough and hard because her life is, yet becomes all smiles and big eyes when love comes her way. There are comedic moments when Cary Grant threatens to outshine her, but she holds her own, and frequently manages to get bigger laughs. A scene where she mimics Grant is both hilarious and unexpected and she shows a flair for outrageous comedy. Bennett literally stomps through the picture unperturbed, instantly becoming a reporter, keeping her boyfriend in line and solving a crime while buffing nails like it's the best day out ever. It's a breathlessly effervescent performance that is perfectly judged (unlike the script) and makes one wish she had been given similar vehicles in the pre-code era.

Surprisingly (at least to me), Big Brown Eyes is directed by Raoul Walsh. I'm surprised because I always associated Walsh with a higher quality of product but a quick glance at his filmography shows that after his great silent successes of the late 20s such as What Price Glory and The Thief of Bagdad, he spent most of the 30s making fairly forgettable movies. This creative lull would come to an end in 1939 with a move to Warner Brothers for The Roaring Twenties and after that he had an incredible run of great movies that would continue pretty much to the end of his career. So what happened in the 30s? I'd take a guess and say he was just seen as a contract studio director at Paramount and never given the chance to direct anything worthy of his rugged talents. Every studio was a fit for certain stars and directors, and it seems that Paramount had no idea what to do with him.

Despite being given a fairly unremarkable vehicle to work on, Walsh and his crew work hard to bring the movie up to a level above the norm. There are some stunning Art Deco sets, some of which seem so incongruous with the tone of the movie that they stand out like a sore thumb. This, combined with some outrageous high fashion really makes the visual style memorable, and the movie is at times an awkward halfway house of early and mid 30s styles. This is complemented by a style of direction and cinematography that while patchy, is at times far better than a film of this type deserves. There is a wonderful opening sequence set in the beauty salon where the premise of the diamond thieves is explained through a stunning montage of gossiping staff and customers in the salon. The quick cuts and extreme close ups of the faces, combined with the constant chatter and whisper about the scandal produces a scene worthy of Hitchcock and more importantly sets up the plot perfectly in about 30 seconds. This trick is repeated in a more unusual way, full of strange camera angles to heighten tension during a later court scene.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movie, and the area where Raoul Walsh exerts his influence the most noticeably is in its treatment of the criminal characters. To do this successfully, the movie casts a group powerhouse character actors that get some of the best roles of their careers. If we ignore the fact that the tone of the movie is schizophrenic, the part dealing with the jewel gang is excellent, and it's all down to the talent of the actors and a firm directorial hand. The criminal scenes are shot in a matter of fact way, with a bleak dispassionate stare and a black streak of humour.

Lloyd Nolan plays Russ Cortig, the head of the jewel gang and brings to the role his customary combination of believability and rough charm. The character is both thuggish and cultured, an arrogant criminal yet a man with a sensitive side that hints at hidden depths. When we see his apartment it is dressed with all different types of flowers, and Cortig himself is listening intently to a horticultural show on the radio. His interest in flowers is not merely a lazy gimmick, it is a motif that is woven into all his appearances in the movie. When detective Dan Barr (Grant) arrives to confront him, he puts his drink in a vase of lilies, much to Cortig's dismay. Barr replies by saying “There'll be plenty left for your funeral” thus foreshadowing a prominent use for the precious flowers in the gangster's life. The flowers may put Cortig a cut above his loutish cohorts but when he is acquitted of the baby murder he shows his true colours and leaves the courtroom laughing heartily, ready to get back to his beloved plants. That we still have a degree of sympathy for the character after this is all down to the subtle playing of Nolan.

Eventually he is shot dead by fellow gang members, surrounded by his plants. Unaware that he will be the recipient of a hit, he tells his would be assassins about this love of flowers: “American Relatives. My favourites. I guess that's because they're so expensive”. The line is delivered so perfectly, all at once undermining any pretence of depth in the man, and confirming that his tastes, though genuine were largely a matter of ego and status. As he goes to put the flowers in a vase, he talks to them (“these go in poppa's bedroom”) and absentmindedly lectures his friends on the ins and outs of flower arranging. He puts a flower in his lapel, turns around and is shot to death. As predicted, earlier, the flowers find a use covering his dead body.

Another memorable player in the movie is Douglas Fowley, who plays the gang's resident wise guy Benny Battle. He has the most amazingly high-waisted trousers, a cocked hat and the catchphrase “Howzit babe?” that mark him out as a come to life figure out the pre-code era. He is all front, with his corny patter and Bowery bravado he is the epitome of Warner Brothers gangster film swagger. Later, he is arrested and is convinced that he has squealed on his gang, so flips out in the police station, and we see the most amazing transformation from bully to scared little boy. It's a brief but intense performance and is easily one of Douglas Fowley's best character parts.

Despite these great performances, the movie is completely stolen by Alan Baxter in the role of gang hitman Cary Butler, who appears alongside his brother and fellow hitman, played by Henry Brandon (here billed as Henry Kleinbach). Alan Baxter is someone who I wasn't aware of before this film but he made such a big impression here that I have to start tracking down his other appearances. He looks impossibly young (actually 27) in this movie, but with a cold steely eyed determination in his face that just oozes menace. His character only appears a few times in the movie, but each appearance is sufficiently striking that at times it seems like he is in a completely different movie (again, this is probably the script's fault but his scenes are directed with a degree of seriousness that is still at odds with the majority of the film).

Cary Butler and his brother are always together, always similarly attired and always looking shifty. It is an argument with brothers that causes Lloyd Nolan's character to shoot the baby, and so later it is up to the them to sort the mess out. In a rather chilling scene, the real boss of the gang (played by Walter Pidgeon) calls them up with a job, we find them lying on a bed together smoking and staring off into space as if they are automatons that have nothing to fill their lives without killing. As the phone rings, they look at each other then sit up in unison. Butler talks in a low, clipped monotone, stone faced but for the hint of a cruel smile. Now with a job in hand, they calmly start packing and talk about catching a flight. It is the brothers that kill Russ Cortig, with Butler looking particularly cold and inhuman in the face of a man and his enthusiasm for tending for plants. After the shooting he throws some flowers on the prone body, snarling “Take these with you...daisies never tell”

Alan Baxter's performance really has to be experienced, as his otherworldly deadpan approach is strikingly modern. He doesn't say or do much but every movement and every word is laced with threat and menace hiding behind a boyish face and dead eyes. Mention also should be made for Henry Brandon playing his brother, though he isn't quite as good, his size and mean face (which were put to such memorable use in Laurel and Hardy's Babes in Toyland) combined with his almost complete lack of dialogue gives him a scary presence.

All in all Big Brown Eyes is a really watchable film. It's odd combination of the serious and the comic, and its mix of genres and characters at least makes it far from ordinary. I would love to know about the genesis of the script as there are so many elements and characters that seem decidedly pre-code. It's almost as if it was a script that was lying around in a studio drawer for a while and subsequently spruced up by Raoul Walsh for a 1936 audience. Nonetheless it is a great film, with two stars at very interesting parts of the careers, a host of top notch character actors giving scene stealing support and a director trying to do a little more that is usually required with a B movie and a B script. And if nothing else, it's really worth watching for the final seconds. As the criminals are rounded up and justice prevails, Cary Grant grabs Joan Bennett in the clinch for the customary final kiss and fade out and...let's just say he's enthusiastic! Cary Grant has always been a great screen kisser but here he looks like he's really giving it the old college try. Well, maybe it was her big brown eyes...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A New Year, A New Start!

It’s been a tough couple of years for Screen Snapshots. Three posts in two years isn’t good for any blog but sometimes real life just gets in the way. I had a couple of false starts, times where I thought I was back in business but they really didn’t amount to anything. So with the new year I’ve paused for reflection and thought about whether to continue or not. The internet is littered with dead blogs, the product of temporary bursts of creativity that ran their course and left a half completed shell to gather dust and fade away into the cyber ether. Should I consign Screen Snapshots to the same fate?

The thing is, I started my blog because I enjoyed watching classic movies so much and felt that I had no one to talk about them with. Even if I never directly managed to get into conversation or correspondence with people about movies, or became part of the blogging 'scene', just getting my thoughts out there helped make me just a bit more content in life. I plugged away, looking at other blogs, doing a tiny bit of networking and promotion (I’m absolutely useless at this as I feel so self conscious having to blow my own trumpet, so to speak) and I felt like I had built up a modest little following. I got comments for a lot of my posts, some people followed my blog and occasionally someone would post a link to one of my posts. Somebody was reading, and this made me immensely happy. Additionally, each time I finished a post and put it online I really felt a sense of achievement. I’ve always had problems with motivation and confidence and for once I felt like I had a little corner of the world where I could be creative. And tens, maybe dozens of people might have read it!

The fact that anyone at all read my blog has really made me happy, and was something I never took for granted, and to anyone out there who did so, (and especially for those who felt compelled to post a comment) I am eternally grateful. You will never know how much it meant to me that someone thought what I wrote was interesting or entertaining and worth a few minutes of your busy day. That in itself has helped my confidence immeasurably.

And then personal problems got in the way, and my enthusiasm and motivation for writing about anything kind of dried up. Sadly, writing a blog is all about connections and networks and if you stop for a moment, people stop paying attention and move on to the next place. So if I want to keep going I basically have to start again and build my blog up from the bottom. My time away has probably cost me all my regular readers and followers as well as all the listing on countless blogrolls. It certainly cost me my membership on the CMBA, and it’ll probably take quite a sustained effort to get back into that esteemed company.

Despite my misgivings, I still enjoy watching classic movies and writing about them, so the blog will continue. There has been something missing in my life, and it has been the sense of achievement and enjoyment that writing this gave me. Again, thank you to anyone who has read this blog in the past, and I hope I can provide something worthwhile to read in the months to come. I have notes and half written blog posts for a couple of movies to finish up, so look forward to my thoughts on Union Depot, It’s in the Bag!, Internes Can’t Take Money, Big Brown Eyes and Diplomaniacs among others. I'm aware that what I really need to do is to work on the skills of writing a short review, but with a bit of luck I should be able to get them all finished soon. I also have acquired a rather interesting piece of Myrna Loy memorabilia which I have been meaning to share for ages now. What is it? Stay tuned to find out!

In the meantime. I wish you all a happy, healthy and classic movie filled 2015!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Presenting...The Six Worst Movies of 1931! Sort Of...

As a sometime collector of vintage Hollywood fan magazines, I was instantly drawn to the January 1932 cover of The New Movie Magazine with its attractive portrait of Barbara Stanwyck and the somewhat alarming sideline “Theodore Dreiser Picks the Six Worst Pictures of the Year”. What caught my eye (apart from Miss Stanwyck), was the fact that the story actually sounded like it might be somewhat critical of the very movies the magazine was set up to blindly publicize. Surely not?. Though largely set up to provide fluffy stories about the decadent lives of the stars and their (mostly imaginary) dramas outside the screen, depicting the reality of life in Hollywood was rarely their purpose. They sold a dream and a lifestyle to the (predominantly female) reading audience and until the public thirsted for some real gossip and scandal and the magazines took a distinctly tabloid approach in the 60s, they did as much as the studios themselves to perpetuate the Hollywood myth. What’s interesting in the magazines is often reading between the lines of the stories and snatches of gossip. Though rarely mean spirited, the magazines often hint at issues going on behind the scenes that in retrospect can only now be understood. Even without this subtext, they can be enjoyed today as a wonderfully glamorous dip into the past.

Movie reviews were a staple of the magazines and frustratingly every film manages to come out shining in some way. The idea of giving a one star review and saying that a movie wasn’t worth seeing was strictly a no-no. Instead, the great films are lavishly praised, and the not so great ones are dismissed as average or fair, and any criticisms are presented in a neutral manner guaranteed not to offend. No one is hurt and the magazines got to continue their relationship with the studios. What made the afore mentioned headline so intriguing was that I couldn’t believe in 1931 that any magazine would actually come out and say what they thought the worst films of the year were, even if they managed to get a noted writer like Theodore Dreiser to say it for them. As we shall see, the headline was slightly misleading, but nonetheless rather interesting.

Theodore Dreiser (1879 -1945) was a hugely respected and influential novelist, largely known these days for his classic 'An American Tragedy' (made into a film in 1931 and again in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun), written in 1925. He was renowned for his intense dedication to social realism in his work and his profound understanding of the desires and struggles of the everyday working men and women. These days his often verbose, plodding style is somewhat out of fashion and in comparison to contemporaries like Fitzgerald he is largely overlooked. However, he was a giant of his day and quite how he came to write an article for a movie magazine in late 1931 is anyone’s guess. Most likely it was his way of venting over what Hollywood had recently done to his novel in Josef von Sternberg’s version of An American Tragedy, which he hated. Dreiser sued Paramount for misrepresentation and lost the case so perhaps the article was a way to let his anger out against the film industry.

Dreiser pulls no punches in his opening salvo, declaring: “Hollywood’s industry represents millions upon millions of hard earned money, pays salaries far more fabulous than those of general, king, scientist or artist, buys rights to literary masterpieces at figures in the hundred thousands, and what does it all come to? Merely the cheap sex story!”

He continues: “Hollywood has one Almighty it swears by. This is luxury, against which background sex flourishes…as for anything else – be it economics, science, politics, medical discoveries, the ordinary and yet so human and intense wear and tear of life…it has no eye nor ear – the disdain, really of a drunken reveler…After all, most of our lives are fought out without millions. And many of them are colorful and strange and even beautiful. But does Hollywood know that? Can it be made to see? No, it cannot. For its head is as empty as its purse is full”

Dreiser elaborates his point by mentioning six movies from 1931 that show the moral emptiness of Hollywood and it’s obsession with glamour and luxury at the expense of realism and beauty. And so he names his ‘worst’ films of the year, ranting at their deficiencies and lack of character. One would imagine that for legal reasons, An American Tragedy was left off the list. They are, in no particular order (with some choice quotes included that show his disdain)…

Bought! (starring Constance Bennett and Ben Lyon, directed by Archie Mayo):  “How did Constance Bennett’s character…inspire her boyfriend writer? No hint of that in the picture, except by close-ups of a pretty face.

A Free Soul (starring Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore, directed by Clarence Brown): Miss Shearer didn’t care two cents about her polo-player sweetheart, but he made a convenient thing to go to in the end, so, presto, marriage. It has to be! In the movies. And quick too!”

Bad Girl (starring Sally Eilers and James Dunn, directed by Frank Borzage) “And what accomplishment if any is required in the sex story to bring about emotion? The only accomplishment of ‘Bad Girl’ was having a child, and that was an accident. (The film) introduces a philanthropic doctor who…not only brings the baby to moneyless and reckless parents, but contributes a good sum of money to help the pair along! Miraculous, but as life socially worthless”

The Front Page (starring Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien and Mary Brian, directed by Lewis Milestone) “ is not even melodrama; it’s just tomfoolery. Chasing men around the table and in and out doors and windows to get a newspaper story”

Alexander Hamilton (starring George Arliss and Doris Kenyon, directed by John G. Adolfi): “Even a picture which might have some social value because it is supposed to be based on history is often weakened by Hollywood boomers who dabble in it. The movie…does not give the impression that Hamilton was an aristocrat; in fact, it tries subtly to dispel that idea. Yet, in fact, Hamilton…considered that monarchy was best…that the opinions of the property-holding class were always better for the poor people. But is that in the movie? Tush! Be still! In reality, Hamilton was fifty times as strong a figure in real life as he was in the movies. Yet, Hollywood had to make him sweet”

The Road to Singapore (starring William Powell and Doris Kenyon, directed by Alfred E. Green): “Miss Kenyon reclined and posed sensually several times, Mr. Powell lit several cigarettes masterfully, a dozen or so South Sea natives beat tom-toms. And there you are”

So there you have it, the great man speaks. Good thing he decided to hold back a bit. Oh wait, there’s more…

On relationships in such movies: “…Hollywood offers only a meaningless sensuality that is faithless the moment the other’s eyes are turned. Every man is the sweetest man in the world to the girl. Every girl is a night out, even to the sweetest man. Such is their fickledom…no intelligence, no sense even, is needed for the girls. The less the more human, thinks Hollywood”

On intelligence in movies: “But Hollywood has no interest in encouraging the people to think or to know. Of course not. The useless psychology of the carefree. The medicine man of the Aborigines. That’s what Hollywood is to the whole world. And yet Hollywood sends this primitive stuff to civilized countries all over the earth with the idea that it has something to give them. So many movies are not just plain hokum, but they are socially meaningless and, worse, debasing.”

On social issues in the movies: “For almost always they concern the lives of wasters who apparently do nothing, contribute nothing and, worse, do not care to, and even think it is smart not to. Any comprehension of the social scheme of things as it is today is out, particularly if it approaches the need of doing something, beneficial or useful to others. You would never believe, from a Hollywood movie, that any one really had to work on order to eat. No Hollywood film knows the meaning of it. Sorrow (real sorrow) – it, too, is gruesome, and hence out.”

Just in case the reader was left in any doubt as to his real feelings on the matter, he sums up in a typically devastating way: “As it is now…the crook, the fool and the waster have dominated all. Sex has been marketed until all sense of its real value or force has gone. Not only that, but it is consistently used to bolster up and put over wholly mistaken conceptions of life which can only to harm to all…in so many other respects, I find these motion pictures encourage false ideals and ideals about life.”

Reading that last quote, I was struck how, for all the sophistication of our film making today, the exact same words could be used to describe our current mainstream movie output and our reality show obsessed youth with their unrealistic views of life and sense on entitlement. Except that Dreiser was talking about a bunch of movies now mostly rendered old fashioned and tame by progress. I’ve read many editorials in fan magazines of the 20s and 30s about the threat of violence or sex on the screen but Dreiser’s article strikes me as something different from the usual magazine editor trying to keep on good terms with the censors and religious groups.

Of course, he is being slightly reactionary in his views about film, not realizing that it is largely a mass form of entertainment rather than a vehicle for high art. Ridiculous plot contrivances and unrealistic relationships have always been a staple of the movies, and it some ways the whole point of them as entertainment. What we see on the screen isn’t real life, and never has been, but perhaps his opinions come from disappointment rather than ignorance. He makes no mention of his view of silent films but his opinions seem to echo those of many in the industry at the time of transition between sound and silence. As Kevin Brownlow says in The Parade’s Gone By “Had the talkies been delayed just a few years, to give the onrush of silent-film technique time to reach its limits and settle down…we might today be seeing commercial films of a far higher artistic and technical level”. This echoes the ideals of pioneers like D. W. Griffith and similar film makers for whom the achievements of film could have and should have matched those of the great works of literature and theater. This generation, of which Theodore Dreiser was a member, must have considered so much of the early promise of the artistic and social value of film wasted by the Hollywood producers with money in their eyes to the point that art meant virtually nothing. They saw a new art form that started in the hands of individuals for art and progress and ended up run by the machine for money.

Dreiser’s article is interesting in that it appeared in a fan magazine at all and perhaps shows what a big name he was in his day that he was allowed to say what he did (and get top billing on the cover over the shocking story ‘The Frankest Revelation of Garbo Ever Published!’). It goes to show that the magazine editors did have an editorial voice when needed and didn’t always publish the stories that the studios wanted them to. However, some of the article’s credibility is strained as it’s clear that Dreiser has an axe to grind over his failed lawsuit and disastrous dealings with Paramount (his line complaining about studios paying big money for ‘literary masterpieces’ at the beginning is telling). Nonetheless the points he makes are valid then as now. Obviously not all films are as stupid, vacuous and facile as he makes them out to be and if they were, then sadly that’s probably the reason why people flocked to the theaters to see them in the first place. This irony is something he himself realizes, as he spits out his last barbed comment on the whole affair, no doubt with the failed adaptation of his own work foremost on his mind:

 “It is hokum that the public wants and hokum it shall have as long as the “long green” can thereby be inveigled into the Hollywood cash-box. Yet I do not charge them with no honor, no decency, no aesthetic taste or pride. They would not know what I was talking about”