Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ricardo Cortez - More than Just a Gigolo

And we’re back…

I’ve had to take some time out to attend to pressing personal real world stuff for the majority of this year, but luckily the mists are clearing and it’s time to get back on the horse, press play on my DVD player (and sometimes VCR) and get on with the business of watching some rather lovely classic movies. And yes, I do watch movies from a horse (doesn’t everyone?)

And after a nine month break what is the first thing on my mind? Why it’s the thing that’s on everyone’s mind come September 19th, the suave urban sophistication of Ricardo Cortez!

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ricardo Cortez (I even paid real money to get his autograph on eBay). He’s another of those comfortably dependable yet slightly unremarkable early 30s picture players that I like so much. Cortez could never quite sustain an A list career for whatever reason (and we’ll get to that) but nonetheless he was an important part of the studio repertory company of ‘name’ players who could take on a variety of featured roles. He’s seen today as predominantly a Pre Code star despite actually having a decent (and at times brilliant) career in the silent era and in B pictures in the late 30s and early 40s. In a way, the blueprint for the star he should’ve ended up as was Warren William, or maybe even Lee Tracy – urban yet urbane, romantic yet dangerous, a definite creation of the Depression . Sadly, though a capable actor Ricardo Cortex just never quite had the talent or charisma of either of those two gentlemen and ended up with a career that could be categorized as solid, yet definitely above average.

That’s not to say Cortez had nothing to offer, in fact far from it. I will admit to a fondness for underachievers, also-rans and second stringers but there is a lot more to Ricardo Cortez than just his pretty awesome stage name. Obviously, being a Latin heartthrob, Cortez was born in New York City to a Jewish family under the unassuming name Jacob Krantz. When he later arrived in Hollywood, true to form the dream makers at the studios took the handsome young man with the Austrian-Jewish background and recast him as one of the many Rudolph Valentine clones created to cash in on the popularity of ‘Latin Lover’ types. When Valentino died in 1926, Cortez was one of a number of actors put forward by the different studios as Rudy’s heir apparent, a role that he could never possibly fill, and indeed had no desire to fill. Despite becoming an established and bankable star, and occasionally showing some capable range as an actor, he wasn’t to escape the shadow of Valentino until the advent of sound.

Whereas sound posed a problem for similarly Latin tinged romantic leads like Ramon Navarro, Cortez with his confident delivery and audience friendly New York accent, combined with his slick, dark good looks could adapt to a variety of different roles in early sound features. Though it’s true that he took a while to adapt to acting in sound and often gave quite stiff or theatrical performances, he soon eased up and became a solid, capable player with a natural charm and definite screen presence. However, it’s his versatility, combined with the sheer number of classic Pre Code films that he features prominently in that marks Cortez out as an important star. His run of quality or at least memorable pictures from 1931 to 1934 is astonishing, brushing shoulders with all the great (and better remembered) stars of the era and holding his own easily whether playing hero or villain. The fact is, his track record in this regard speaks for itself - he was in demand for these sorts of roles as a dependable face that would do a solid job and lend an air or class and glamour to a production. He is possibly the biggest and best male star of the Pre Code era not to be remembered to a significant degree today. While this is probably because he never established a consistent screen persona that would have helped him to be remembered better today, he lent assured support as any number of stock roles from detective to gangster, family man to womaniser. Typically he played the ‘other man’, the dark haired Lothario who would seduce any number of Pre Code heroines away from their true loves with his charm, before (naturally) dumping them like the cold hearted cad he really was. He excelled at ruining reputations, tempting innocent women into a life of sin. In the end, his ubiquitous and commanding presence in so many melodramas of the period really means that any serious discussion of the great players of the pre code era has to include him very heavily.

He appeared multiple times with many of the great leading ladies of the era such as Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Bette Davis and Helen Twelvetrees to name but a few. Additionally, some of the truly great (and infamous) movies of the Pre Code era, the likes of Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, Big Business Girl, Thirteen Women, Broadway Bad, Midnight Mary, Torch Singer, Mandalay and A Lost Lady benefited greatly from his talents. Basically if it appears on one of those ‘Forbidden Hollywood’ DVD sets then there’s a good chance Cortez is in it somewhere.

He is perhaps best known for starring as Sam Spade in the first film version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931. While it’s ultimately futile to compare his performance to Humphrey Bogart’s later iconic portrayal of the role, his version of Sam Spade has its own gritty urban charms. It’s definitely a Depression era reading of the story as opposed to the later proto-noir slickness of John Huston’s classic and because the performances are so influenced by the attitudes of their respective era, as I said it’s fairly useless to compare the two. Personally I’ve always preferred Cortez’ harder edged, animalistic approach to the character and found that Bogart plays it like, well…Humphrey Bogart. Cortez doesn’t bother giving Spade any sense of nobility, nor attach any romantic glamour to the role of gumshoe. His Sam Spade is selfish, at times cruel and realises that one does what it takes to survive in the city. At the same time though, he’s a hard living womaniser who seems to actually be more fun to be around than Bogart’s world weary, sardonic private eye. The movie proved that given a good role, Ricardo Cortez could easily carry a movie and be a fairly dynamic screen star.

When Cortez got an interesting role he could be very good, such as in Gregory La Cava’s Symphony of Six Million, playing a local community Jewish doctor who forsakes his morals to become a practitioner to the idle rich of Park Avenue. His earnest portrayal of the doctor is nicely pitched, and in a film that tries to sympathetically portray the New York Jewish community, Cortez is allowed to completely drop the Latin act in order to lend an authentically Jewish air to the movie. Cortez also appears in one of the last hurrahs of Pre Code raunch, Wonder Bar with Al Jolson and stalwart Pre Coders Kay Francis, Dolores del Rio and Dick Powell. This highly amusing (and at times staggeringly offensive) movie was one of the last straws for the censors and alongside legendary taboo busters like Convention City and So This is Africa, helped to hasten the debut of the Production Code. Cortez is on great form as a hiss-ably immoral dancer who is both a business and love rival of Jolson. He plays up to every cliché of his gigolo character yet retains a steely cold eye of disdain for those around him. He also gets to dance with and whip Dolores del Rio in a bizarre leather clad dance routine in one of the (many) censor baiting highlights of the film. Perhaps most surprising is that Cortez manages to hold his own on screen with Jolie’s extraordinary screen presence, no mean feat with the legendary spotlight stealer. It is fitting that Cortez and Kay Francis both appear in the film, as the moral climate was about to change in Hollywood and shortly after Wonder Bar these two huge stars of the Pre Code era would be struggling to find decent parts. After 1935 it was a slow slide into B pictures for Cortez, and by the end of the 40s (with a short detour as a director from 1939-40) he was virtually out of the movie business.

Off screen Cortez’ life had its share of drama primarily due to his marriage to the drug addicted silent screen actress Alma Rubens from 1926 until her death in 1931. Rubens had been a big star since 1916 and had maintained her stardom well into the 1920s only to see it slip from her grasp once in the thrall of a crippling morphine addiction. In 1926 she ‘retired’ from the screen and married Cortez, her third husband. It must have been love because Cortez at the height of his silent screen fame certainly had little to gain from marrying a star on her way down the ladder due to such a potentially ruinous scandal. The marriage didn’t end well as it seems the couple saw little of each other by the time of Rubens’ death and she had in fact filed for divorce. Though to be fair, being married to a chronic drug addict and the ensuing chaos that surrounded her final tragic years doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of fun, and by the end her behaviour had probably edged him out of her life for good.

Laughably, in a tell all memoir Rubens confessed that she was married for almost a year before finding out that Ricardo Cortez “…instead of being a gallant Spanish caballero which I believed him (to be), was the son of a kosher butcher, with a shop on First Avenue, New York City” Of course, this is an outright lie on her part, and was really just an attempt to out Cortez as a Jew and wreck his burgeoning career as a leading man in the sound era (she also goes to great lengths to deny being Jewish herself despite having a Jewish father, and to distance herself from being a ‘Jewess’ by marriage to Cortez ). Unsurprisingly, no one cared about the bigoted views of a drug addicted former star and Cortez career continued unimpeded.

The only other vaguely scandalous behaviour attributed to Cortez off screen was his apparently appalling treatment of Greta Garbo when he co-starred with her in her first American feature Torrent in 1926. By all accounts Cortez, then a very big star with a number of years on top, was rather annoyed to be saddled with the young Swede, with her atypical looks, withdrawn manner and poor grasp of English. Whether he genuinely disliked Garbo, or saw the writing on the wall and displayed uncharacteristic professional jealousy at the young upstart being given the big promotional push by the studio is unclear but he certainly seems to have behaved in a rather ungentlemanly manner towards her.

Of course, his lack of faith in Greta Garbo’s talents would prove to be a mistake but an understandable one. Life in Hollywood must have been a precarious one (and I’d imagine it still is), with a constant influx of new talent being brought in to take the top spot from any established star. And the sight of a new, inexperienced, untried young woman being given the royal treatment over a headlining star like Cortez was likely to ruffle a few feathers in the studio hierarchy. Sadly, there is the old adage to remember to be nice to people on the way up because you may need them on the way down, and well let’s just say Greta Garbo was never in a hurry to make him her leading man once she became Hollywood royalty. However, I’m inclined to forgive or at least understand Cortez’ behaviour in this instance. I mean, a lot of people didn’t think Garbo had the “it” factor, and resented the special treatment the large footed Swede received, and to be honest I still don’t get her appeal. Maybe that’s a blog for another day though…

Perhaps the best part of the Ricardo Cortez story is that he got out at the right time. All too often, the movie industry, particularly in its early years of transition (from silence to sound and then to television) was guilty of devouring its own. The machine needed blood and yesterday’s big stars and pioneers were often crushed and spat out mercilessly but an industry with a severe case of Alzheimer’s of the past. Unlike a lot of his silent and Pre Code contemporaries that moved suddenly from the penthouse to the outhouse, Ricardo Cortez knew when to leave and returned to his previous occupation before becoming an actor, as a stockbroker on Wall Street. He seems to have had a comfortable life after Hollywood and his distance from the industry enabled him to become a clear and insightful commentator on his experiences in Hollywood when interviewed in the 60s by Kevin Brownlow for his seminal silent film bible ‘The Parade’s Gone By’.

He made his last film appearance in 1958, save for one TV guest shot in 1960 and died in 1977 aged 76. He left behind him a variety of memorable performances in a career that took him from Latin lovers to Jewish doctors. He’ll always be a footnote in history for being the first cinematic Sam Spade, but in an era of immoral and immortal screen villains, no one could play the suave heel like Ricardo Cortez. He found the perfect balance of charm and disgust, of danger and tenderness, wrapped up with dark looks and darker deeds. He was good looking yet cruel, the synthesis of the end of the Jazz Age and the effects of the Depression. Yet despite being so good at being bad, Cortez could easily slip into heroic roles without losing his audience. He was never a great actor, but anyone who could be as versatile, believable and downright ubiquitous as Ricardo Cortez deserves a great deal of credit. It’s just a shame that he is largely overlooked today, and his skills practically taken for granted amongst the bigger and brighter shining stars. Luckily, he can’t have been in the movie business primarily to satisfy his own ego because when the opportunities and good parts started to become scarce, he left with his dignity and his sanity intact. He left the madness of Hollywood and got back to his old life, and became rather successful. Given the movie industry’s track record, that’s a pretty happy ending in my book.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Happy Birthday Jack Benny - 39 Again!

When it comes to February 14th each year the first thought in my head is not that of love struck acts of romance, nor is it heart shaped gifts and cards. No, due to the fact that I don’t get out nearly as much as I should, Valentine’s Day - February 14th is solely remarkable for being Jack Benny’s birthday ( and in later years specifically his 39th birthday despite being born in 1894)

To be honest this is a bit of a redundant piece though. What can be said about Jack Benny that hasn’t been said better by others already? Not much at all. Undoubtedly the greatest comedian of the golden age of radio, he created a character so perfectly drawn that he barely had to do anything to get a laugh, almost existing purely by his reactions to the jibes thrown at him by his co-stars. I watched repeats of his television show when they were occasionally shown in my youth, and although I knew who he was and how good he was, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve listened to his radio work and appreciated his genius.

I remember a few years ago raving to a friend about how much I was enjoying listening to Bob Hope’s radio shows, telling him how funny and sharply written they were. He replied that Hope’s stuff was okay, but not a patch on Jack Benny. At the time I really found it hard to believe that there could be a better radio show that Bob Hope’s but he was so right. I got hold of a collection of about 600 Jack Benny shows and over the course of about a year listened intently to the lot, spanning the years 1932 to 1956.

As much as I talk about my enthusiasm for Old Time Radio, you really haven’t heard anything if you haven’t listened to Jack Benny. He is the cornerstone of classic radio, and the glue that holds it all together. Benny always ensured that he employed the freshest writers and that the quality of his show was the best on radio and with himself as head writer, the quality shines out. What I found fascinating from my year long listening journey was hearing the Benny character slowly evolve into the character that everyone unquestionably accepted - penny pinching, mean, vain - by the time his television show started.

When he started his radio show in 1932 it was in the guise of genial master of ceremonies, telling jokes and introducing songs. However, very quickly his cast started to pick apart this façade resulting in the some of the early shows basically being a group of people in a studio arguing with Jack for half an hour with no real plot or direction. Slowly, short plots including the cast replaced the skits and parodies and after about five years on air, the show stopped being set predominantly in a studio and the home life of Jack Benny was explored, giving the show the format of a situation comedy.

Jack Benny’s real strength as a comedian was not only to hire the best writers but to surround himself with a lovable ‘gang’ of comic characters to bounce off. From wise cracking Mary Livingston (Benny’s real life wife, though this was rarely acknowledged even though everyone knew they were married), chiselling servant Eddie ’Rochester’ Anderson, drunken band leader Phil Harris, obese product shilling announcer Don Wilson, naïve man-boy singers Kenny Baker and Dennis Day and early on, fun loving western star Andy Devine; they existed to make Benny’s life  more complicated and provide him with a source of irritation and frustration at the everyday trivialities he encountered.

His incredulity and exasperation at his cohorts slowly built up the details of Benny’s character in tiny increments. For example it took over five years for the signature Benny meanness to be mentioned, and many more months before it became a regular running gag. It’s the myriad of details in his character that give him his depth as a comic, from the bad violin playing, to his supposed toupee, his perennial age of thirty nine to the legendary rivalry with Fred Allen. The result was that in many ways the later shows (although they maintained the high standard) ended up that they almost wrote themselves. The Jack Benny character could be placed into any situation with guaranteed comic results

Jack Benny’s film career was respectable but never truly captured the genius of his radio and television work. Of course, he is primarily known for his much lauded turn in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, but a few more of his film appearances are worth watching. Both The Meanest Man in the World and George Washington Slept Here are very entertaining and use a version of his established character very well. Although I haven’t watched them yet, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (with Mitzi Green), Love Thy Neighbor (with arch nemesis Fred Allen) and Buck Benny Rides Again (with his radio gang) look in theory to be pretty good uses of his talents. However, though his films are usually fun they generally paint his character in broad brush strokes that lack the subtlety and intimacy of his appearances in other mediums.

One thing that is interesting about his radio shows is the choice of regular guest stars. From 1945 to 1951 Jack lived next door in storyline to Ronald and Bonita Colman. The running gag was that Jack continually borrowed items from the Colmans’ without returning them, which culminated in a famous storyline where Jack borrows, then loses Ronald Colman’s Oscar. The stint revealed Colman as a very adept comedian, increasingly pained each time Jack arrived at his door. Both he and Bonita are hilarious as they wearily deadpan their disgust at their horrid leeching neighbour to the point that in later shows their whole daily existence involves trying to avoid Jack. Another interesting guest was Orson Welles, who took over Jack’s hosting duties on the show for a month in 1943 while Jack was ill. The humorous end result was that Jack’s cast didn’t want him to return from his illness, but the choice of Welles was an interesting one (and one that also showed Welles' hidden talent for comedy), implying a mutual respect and friendship between the two.

While people may argue the merits (or lack thereof) of Bob Hope or Bing Crosby in private life, everyone seems to agree that Jack Benny was a kind and generous man who was universally liked and respected. His marriage to Mary Livingston wasn’t always the smoothest but it gave him enough of a stable family life to keep his career on track. In the end it doesn’t really matter what he was like in private as the Jack Benny character became so entwined with his own persona that the two were indistinguishable to the average person. And that is the genius of Jack Benny – to create a character, a radio show and a career that made his comedy look ridiculously simple and effortlessly natural. So many people have been fooled into thinking that comedy is an easy business but Benny made it look so easy because of a minute and painstaking attention to detail, absolutely perfect comic timing (probably the best ‘reaction’ timing of any comic there has ever been) and an uncanny ability to understand his character and his audience.

It took me a while but I realise now how far ahead of his contemporaries on radio Jack Benny was (the exceptions would be probably Fred Allen and Henry Morgan but their brand of comedy was so different in nature that it can’t really be compared). His comedy can be sophisticated, surreal, nuanced and ridiculous, but most of all it’s still after all these years laugh out loud funny. And what more can a comedian ask for?

I’m not quite thirty nine yet (getting there though) but I have decided that when I reach that age, and for all the years after, like Jack whenever someone asks my age I’m going to reply “Thirty Nine”. So this Valentine’s day I’m putting aside the love hearts and the roses, and raising my violin, affixing my toupee and saying “Jell-O again!”  to Jack Benny, the world’s oldest thirty nine year old.

And if we really want to get mushy for Valentine’s day, lest we forget in his will Jack Benny specified that after his death a single red rose be delivered to his wife Mary Livingstone each day for the rest of her life. And if that isn’t one of the nicest, most romantic gestures you’ve ever heard of then romance truly is dead.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Are You Listening? (1932) - On the Run from Radio with William Haines

William Haines was a major star in the late silent era and his fame and success was such that he was named the top male box office star as late as 1930. Sound presented no problems to him and the silly, energetic all American boy he portrayed translated effortlessly to the new medium and continued to appeal to audiences despite the subsequent economic downturn. However, within a few years, he was done as a performer and is largely forgotten by history today. The reason for this was the fact he was gay, and worse, openly so. When pressured by Louis B. Mayer to leave his long-term partner and marry a woman (any woman would do it seemed, just a woman), William Haines quit M.G. M and was pretty much never seen on the screen again. What is so interesting about the Haines story is that he was possibly the only star to clash with the tyrannical Mayer and emerge with his head held high, leaving on his own terms. In contrast, others who got on the wrong side of Mayer’s favour, such as John Gilbert, Buster Keaton or Erich von Stroheim, (though Irving Thalberg had a large part in the demises Keaton and Stroheim too) limped on with their careers, clearly broken and largely unemployable men. Haines quit, became a celebrated interior decorator, kept his relationship, kept his friends and walked out with no regrets. All of this was great for him, but a pretty bad break for the movie going public, as on the strength of that I’ve seen of him he’s a charismatic and dynamic actor who would have undoubtedly maintained a high level of stardom as the years went by, with studio support.

The movie starts with the words “Are You Listening?”, highlighting that its odd title is in fact part of a call sign and that this drama takes place in a radio station. There is a strange dynamic going on in the movie as the film makers obviously want to cash in on the burgeoning popularity of radio yet still feel the need to highlight the superiority of film as a medium. This exhibits itself in many ways throughout the picture and at times it seems a lot like Hollywood taking cheap pot shots at its sister art form. Nevertheless, the movie uses radio very well, and succeeds in making it a supporting character in the drama. Everywhere the characters go radio is present. It entertains yet it also intrudes and cleverly, it ultimately proves to be a key factor in the resolution of the plot.

However, early on we are treated to what undoubtedly was an accurate reflection of the spectacle of early radio broadcasts – live synchronised roller skating. Why exactly the radio station felt the need to put their orchestra in a skating rink to play the song “Skating in the Dark” we’ll never know. If anything it highlights the tension between representing an audio based medium in a visual way without endless scenes set in a recording booth. This backdrop sets up our main characters, Bill Grimes (William Haines) a writer of jingles and skits for radio shows and his sweetheart Laura O’Neill (Madge Evans) who also works at the radio station. Their first scene together displays their great chemistry, with plenty of rapid-fire dialogue and easy smiles. Haines cuts a rather odd figure with his high hairline, button eyes and big smile. He is slim, well dressed and comes across relaxed and easy going in front of the camera. In fact his laid back presence is at odds with the frenetic style of many of his contemporaries and exudes a pleasingly different sort of persona. He just stands still and smiles a lot. It’s very engaging, oddly mesmeric and refreshing not to see an actor constantly trying to impress his control over every scene.

This romantic interlude is soured somewhat by the disclosure that Bill is already married, but miserable as his wife won’t divorce him to be with Laura. While this conversation is going on the radio blares out in the background, with an announcer constantly talking about happiness. It’s not exactly subtle, but after a short while these ironically juxtaposed radio voices start to take on a slightly claustrophobic and oppressive resonance. Radio is everywhere and inescapable - at home, at work, interrupting the private and emotional moments of your life.

The plot takes a back seat for a moment as we are treated to what is obviously a sneering cheap shot at the radio industry by way of a recreation of an average radio drama. As the cast histrionically recite an overblown melodrama, we see a haughty German actor filing his nails as he says his lines, obviously bored. The sound effects are also lampooned as an avalanche is recreated by dropping some bricks into a metal bathtub (admittedly this probably was how sound effects were done much of the time in early radio). The whole production reeks of amateur hour, and something that attracts only the bored, the down of their luck or the talentless. Played for comedy the scene is amusing but there is definitely an element of ridicule in the way it is presented.

The film then seems to break into two distinct stories. On one hand we have the plight of Bill and his loveless marriage as he tries to get a divorce to be with Laura, and running parallel to this plot is the tale of Laura’s party going sister Sally (Anita Page) and their new in town younger sibling Honey (Joan Marsh) as she learns first hand some life lessons about men. The theme that links both the stories is that of people using other people, men using women and vice versa. Though Laura is used to the ways of the world, Honey is innocent and we follow the pair as they try to do their best gold digging around town in the company of rich older men. Despite wining and dining with the upper reaches of the social circle, Honey eventually falls for Jack played by Neil Hamilton. She thinks they are going to get married but in a pivotal scene he blows her off with the line “Men make promises, and girls believe them”. Crestfallen, Honey replies that she believed his promises, only to be told, “Well don’t again, for anyone”. Such is the way of the modern world that as if nothing had happened he then makes a lunch date with her.

This story of lost innocence in the big city would have perhaps made for an interesting movie on its own as Joan Marsh conveys the naivety of the character very well in contrast to jaded Anita Page. However, it has to compete with the main story about Bill and Laura (which gets surprisingly little screen time considering it involves the stars of the picture – possibly reflecting the studio’s view of William Haines). Bill’s story reaches a crescendo ironically at Christmas, having lost his job due to splitting up with Laura. We find him with his nagging wife (expertly played by Karen Morley) pacing up and down their small drawing room whilst he sits slumped over in a chair, head in hands. Again, the radio blares out in the background, this time giving a Christmas message of peace and joy. It’s a wonderfully framed scene, reminiscent of silent cinema (though for 1932 I suppose that wouldn’t have been much of a compliment). In despair, Bill tries to stand up to his wife, and in the commotion she falls, cracks her head and dies instantly. In an intriguing twist to the wronged man story, Bill despite being innocent decides to not phone the police and so goes on the run.

After all the melodrama, the final reel of the movie provides a neat tying up of all the themes. Bill escapes from the law but due to the work of a zealous journalist, is tracked using the ever present voice of radio (“We’ll use radio to catch the radio man!”) We hear the APB go out as a brief montage shows the different people that hear it such as families putting up the Christmas decorations and men gambling round a table. Radio reaches everyone, everywhere. This is a clever use of the new technology and a prescient realisation by the writer of the encroachment of media on our everyday lives.

Here, the movie perhaps takes another shot at radio, as the journalist character successfully uses the broadcast to catch Bill, not for justice but for the excitement of the scoop. There is the sense that a certain type of sensationalist radio broadcasting is being criticised (in contrast to it being glorified in later “the scoop at any cost” films such as Too Hot to Handle and His Girl Friday) On a live feed, Laura frantically pleads Bill’s innocence only to be met with a callous “wasn’t that a thrill folks?” from the excited journalist. Bill himself protests his innocence only to be described as a “cold, surly” killer. Radio is just another instrument of the yellow press.

The second plotline, that of Sally and Honey comes to a head in a neat convergence when it is revealed that Sally had been dating a high-powered judge (played by Jean Hersholt). Only he can give Bill a fair chance at justice but he refuses as to do so would implicate him in scandal by admitting an indiscreet dalliance with Sally. The penny finally drops for her as she screams at him “We’re of no importance therefore we’re not human!” You see, even gold diggers have feelings too. Sally decides to chart the whole thing up to “education” and everyone moves on with their lives, though all the while probably a little more dead on the inside. Laura is heartbroken, Sally and Honey have lost their faith in men, Bill gets convicted of manslaughter and three years in prison, but the rich old men continue with their affairs, the journalists still search for their scoop and, I’d imagine, there is still synchronised ice skating on the radio. At the end, Bill is led onto a train bound for prison at a gloomy station. After a last kiss and a weak attempt to remain cheerful, he’s led away to his fate. And on that downbeat note, the credits roll.

Are You Listening? is undoubtedly a minor entry in the resumes of all who worked on it but it is nonetheless very watchable and interesting on a number of levels. First is the way the tone just changes half way through, going from a silly romantic comedy to the darkest of melodrama. This is probably down to poor plotting more than anything but makes for quite compelling viewing. Characters mainly start off as stock figures but by the end all but the leads are revealed to be interested in using others for their own gain. Overall it’s a really odd mix that is perhaps too schizophrenic to be called successful but as noted, makes the proceedings fascinating in a “what is going to happen next?” kind of way. One can also only wonder what the movie would have been like if Warner Brothers or Paramount had produced it rather than MGM (and an MGM who wanted rid of its star). There’s nothing particularly racy to get pre-code hearts pulsing but the tone of the second half is so bleak that it’s really quite unusual, considering the jaunty way it started.

Sadly it would be William Haines last movie, though he had another released after Are You Listening? I believe this was the last one he filmed (I could be wrong though). Despite two more Poverty Row appearances in 1934 that would be all for him and that fact more that anything is the main story of this film. Last time I talked about starlets who had all the potential in the world but who, for whatever reason didn’t make it to the big time. As sad as this is, it’s kind of sadder when the failure is that of an already established star. John Gilbert could have been so good in sound if he was given the right treatment, and similarly William Haines should have worked for many more years, entertaining audiences. It happens in all walks of life but is especially tragic when the victim is one who gives enjoyment to so many others, struck down for petty, political reasons. The sad fact remains that Haines was ousted by the system, and not by the real deciders of these things, the movie going public. Are You Listening? is a testament to another failed career, but in a way I guess William Haines had the last laugh. I just don’t think he was in any hurry to decorate Louis B. Mayer’s front room…

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Forgotten Starlets and Contract Players # 1 - Dorothy Dare

One thing that I find interesting about the days of the big Hollywood studios is the professional hierarchy that existed and the inherent social struggle that was fought behind the scenes as stars, wannabes and veterans slid up and down the ladder of success. Sometimes this was due to a lucky break or a hushed up scandal, occasionally it was due to public opinion, but more often than not it was due to the fickle whims of Fate, or something with even more power than that – a producer.  Of course, in this movie hierarchy there were the big stars at the top that would headline the pictures, followed by the co-stars, featured players and character actors that filled the bill of an average film, all the way down in decrements of importance to the lowly anonymous extra. This pecking order gave rise to the classic Hollywood story of the unknown face in the crowd who climbs the ladder from the bottom and ascends from obscurity to become a glittering star. It was a fantasy that fueled many careers and even more broken dreams, as sadly the reality was that off screen it didn’t really happen that way.

However, just above the extra and quite a bit below the featured actor is what could be called the ‘bit part’ player. These are the (mostly) young actors and actresses that were on contract with the studios and who were used in small parts in movies. It’s in this sub-section of the movie making society that we can observe the dreams of every young girl or boy who won a local talent contest and moved to Hollywood to make their fortune. In these fledgling actors we can also be reminded that despite good looks, charisma and even talent the life of a contract player seemed to depend perhaps more than any other performer on the totem pole on timing, connections and old-fashioned luck. All they were given was an opportunity, and sometimes it was even out of their hands as to what they did with it,

I thought I’d try to write about a few of these minor players from time to time as on every occasion an actor or actress grabbed my attention in a small role in a film, I’d look them up on IMDb only to find that they had a brief career in pictures with perhaps one or two good parts until the work dried up, the contract ended and they seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. Sometimes all you find is a host of uncredited bit parts for a few years and then an abrupt end. I always wonder what happened to these people and how (or if) they ever adjusted to normal life after glimpsing the bright lights of Hollywood. Just due the sheer volume of talent being regularly brought in by studios that were constantly chasing the next big thing, there must have been so many promising careers brushed aside and not given the time and support they needed to grow and mature.

Due to this high volume of bright young things constantly entering Hollywood, the chances of success were slim as a contract player and very few made it to the big time. Failure is something that has always slightly fascinated me and whilst none of these bit part players truly failed (after all they got screen time with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, which is lot more than 99% of movie hopefuls would ever achieve), for different reasons their Hollywood adventure just didn’t pan out the way they thought it would and within a few years they were doing something else with their life. At the end of the day, broken dreams are as much a part of the Hollywood myth as success, and inevitably everyone has to play their part in the machine to keep it ticking along.

Anyway, with the introduction over let’s turn to the first of my forgotten contract players, Miss Dorothy Dare.

Dorothy Dare had a three year career in Hollywood from 1934 to 1937 (though she made an early appearance in the 1933 feature Nearly Naked, this was before she signed her contract with Warner Brothers) which was highlighted by occasional featured roles, some memorable musical performances and sadly quite a few small parts. She came to Hollywood from the Broadway stage, having appeared in a number of Ziegfeld shows and this experience was put to good use by the studio who initially used her in a variety of Vitaphone musical shorts.

I’m not entirely sure how she broke into her show business career but I was looking through my modest collection of film magazines and found her name mentioned as a talent contest winner for Screen Play magazine. All the fan magazines ran these talent contests though I’ve never been sure how legit they were as the winners usually went on to nothing of note and a short studio contract. Of course, they always needed to dangle the carrot of a relatively big name that did make it in Hollywood to convince hopefuls that they had a chance, and on this occasion Miss Dare was their carrot. However, in the September 1934 issue, while plugging the new Screen Play contest it is noted that -

“Miss Dare was an ambitious but practically unknown reader of Screen Play until she won the Pot of Gold contest a few years ago. Instead of a trip to Hollywood Miss Dare decided to accept a cash prize and used this as a stepping stone on the Broadway stage from where she has now graduated to motion pictures”

If this is true, the fact that she turned down the opportunity to go to Hollywood and instead opted to hone her craft on the stage implies that she had a dedication to learning and improving and some semblance of a long term plan for herself. Where others rushed it, it sounds like she seemed to have an idea of the level of experience and polish necessary to make a splash on the screen. Ultimately as a result of this patience she had a decent, though brief, career in pictures where other talent contest hopefuls disappeared within months of their arrival.

After appearing in a few well-received Vitaphone shorts she made her feature debut in Happiness Ahead with Dick Powell, billed seventh in the cast list. Dorothy followed this with a small part in the James Cagney film The St Louis Kid and a couple of great musical numbers that bookended Sweet Adeline with Irene Dunne. This all led up to undoubtedly her greatest feature appearance, as Dick Powell’s girlfriend in Gold Diggers of 1935. Sadly, despite an impressive showing and one where she displayed a promising dramatic ability, it was back to musical shorts and walk on parts, with the exception of a starring role in a 1937 B picture High Hat (which sounds pretty great though I haven’t seen it) By the end of that year Dorothy Dare was out of pictures, save for a poverty row appearance for PRC in 1943. She was so good in her limited screen time at her peak, with a peppy song and dance style and an undeniable screen presence that I’ve always found it hard to believe that no one at Warner Brothers took notice. Sadly, that is exactly what seems to have happened.

Personally, I first noticed Dorothy Dare when watching the Bette Davis and George Brent film Front Page Woman where she has a small part as a showgirl who helps Brent with his investigations. She’s only in the one scene but she is just so full of energy and glamour that for me she just lit up the screen. With her big eyes and beaming smile she reminded me of a young Joan Blondell but with the polish of a 40s star like Dorothy Lamour or Betty Grable. Despite that fact that her career had already peaked by this point, it’s strange that she never received more of a shot at stardom, as she was clearly very comfortable on camera and good at making the most of limited material. Perhaps it was timing as with her look she was too late to be a pre-code ‘chorus girl made good’ type but too early to be a wartime pin up. If she had come along a bit later I think she would have fitted in very well with the likes of Carole Landis, Vivian Blaine and many others as a polished singing and dancing 40s pin up starlet. Regardless of this, she is perfecting charming in her short Front Page Woman appearance and though obviously would have been better suited to musicals, she seemed to have more than enough star presence to sustain a lengthy career of some sort. Alas, it was not to be, and like many other starlets she obviously didn’t receive the support of the studio and she was out of work when her contract was up.

Ironically, it’s in death that Dorothy Dare perhaps achieved her most lasting recent fame. A brief search on Google for her brings up the strange tale of the Internet hoaxer who a few years ago appeared out of the blue claiming to be her and very much alive. At this time the details about her post Hollywood life were at best vague as she was a private person and little was really known about her life. Anyway, the hoaxer led some people a merry chase via email, answering questions about her friendships with an assortment of stars until a few resourceful people figured out that the facts didn’t quite add up and that in reality, (after some research) Miss Dare had died in 1981. It was a strange choice of subject for a hoax but the episode briefly propelled Dorothy Dare back from obscurity and into the minds of classic film fans.

Despite this, Dorothy Dare stands as a good example of the fact that dreams don’t always come true no matter how hard you work, or how pretty you are. It’s a bitter lesson that many have experienced in Hollywood and is as much a part of the allure of tinsel town as the chance to win an Oscar. However, though her appearances were brief, I believe that she like many other young contract players deserved better and had the timing presented itself she had more than enough talent to make a good (and lengthier) career for herself. Unlike faded or failed movie stars a decade later, there was no television for her to try to find work in, and by the 40s she was probably too old to go back to the chorus line. Ironically, that she didn’t get the chance is part of Dorothy Dare’s appeal, destined like so many others to be just another face on the screen, tripping as she climbed the ladder upwards to stardom

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Happy Birthday Myrna Loy!

Well, it's Myrna Loy's birthday once again and even though I have quite a few Myrna articles planned in the near future I'm not nearly organised enough to offer something substantial, I'm afraid. Since my world shattering prose isn't quite ready, I thought I'd share with you my favourite ever picture of Miss Loy. I think Myrna Loy more than most, has a portfolio of the most gorgeous, interesting and downright unusual portrait photographs in all of Hollywood. No other actress experienced the extremes she did in her career: home-wrecking other woman to perfect wife, fiendish oriental vamp to all-American girl next door, bathing beauty to wild gypsy temptress, they are all there and more besides. And somewhere in amongst all these characters and all these beautifully poised publicity photographs, there is this - Myrna Loy feeding a decorative egg to a moose (or is it a caribou, or even a reindeer? I don't know much about these things, I'm afraid).

Regardless of the species of animal in the picture, just what exactly in the name of Asta is going on here? You know, this photo has haunted me for years. When I first saw it, the resolution wasn't too good and I convinced myself that she was dressed as a flapper, feeding wax fruit to a stuffed moose head. I concocted an imaginary storyline in my head to explain what the photo was all about (something about a game of hide and seek at a society party that ends in murder - trust me it was the greatest film never made). Anyway, I let it hang there and percolate for a few years until a while later when I saw a better copy of the picture. It turns out it's a real moose/reindeer/caribou and she's actually feeding it what looks like a painted egg (a Faberge egg maybe?). She's dressed quite modern, though the head scarf has a touch of the gypsy in it, so I only got pretty much every major detail of the photo wrong, which doesn't say too much for my observational skills.

Of course, none of this explains what exactly is going on. And, can I just ask - what exactly is going on?? It doesn't seem to be a still from any film I've seem. It certainly seems to be early in her career, possibly during the late 20s and her exotic phase, but past that I'm stuck. If anyone out there knows the background to the photograph, please let me know as, hopefully I can get some answers and someday...someday, move on with my life. If not, I'm afraid I'm doomed to wander this earth feeding decorative eggs to antler sprouting mammals and let me tell you, so far the results haven't been pretty....

However, despite my odd fascination with this photograph, the real point is that there are always weird and wonderful films stills of Myrna Loy to be found depicting the many facets of her career, and it's one of the reasons I do find her rather wonderful.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Skippy (1931) - In Memory of a Dead Dog...

It always surprises me how much child stars remember of their time in the spotlight. I can barely remember a thing about being 8 years old (though to be honest I can barely remember what I did yesterday) yet many child stars would later grow up to write vividly detailed accounts of their formative years. In fact Sybil Jason wrote three volumes of (apparently very entertaining) memoirs based on her brief career in 30s Hollywood. Yet, when I watched Skippy, and more specifically the performance of nine-year-old Jackie Cooper, it was difficult to think of him as anything other than a fully functioning adult in a child’s body. He’s just such a good actor for his age, with an uncanny ability to emote that the only feasible explanation has to be that the best of the child stars are some kind of super race of geniuses wise beyond their years. The reason I mention the matter of memory is that the main claim to fame of Skippy is that it’s the film where director Norman Taurog infamously got Cooper to cry for a scene by pretending to shoot his dog. I guess I’d remember an episode like that but the day-to-day details of life on a studio lot would certainly pass me by at that age.

Ignoring the above digression, Skippy is a pretty fun movie, and this is coming from someone with a general dislike of child stars and their vehicles. The movie was the big-screen adaptation of Percy Crosby’s incredibly popular and influential comic strip and I’d imagine there would have been considerable expectation by the public to see that the character was handled right. Though Percy Crosby himself hated the film, the treatment is about as good as you could ask for with the performance and costume of Jackie Cooper perfectly reflecting the illustrated version. Additionally, the film successfully creates a self-contained world of bright picket fenced houses contrasting with the rickety industrial wasteland of Shantytown, seemingly pulled straight from a printed page. Other than that it’s the sweet tale of middle class boy Skippy and his adventures on the wrong side of the tracks in Shantytown playing with his younger friend Sooky. Though he’s told by his parents to stay away from Shantytown, Skippy enjoys the rough and tumble of life in the run-down area with its good honest poverty and social degradation.

The main plot involves Skippy and Sooky’s attempts to raise $3 to free Sooky’s pet dog from the pound and a certain death. This is perhaps the best part of the film as it highlights so clearly the pains of being a kid. The narrative is told entirely from a child’s point of view, with its underage cast and where the adults are sidelined to the role of the distant yet understanding parent or the vindictive authority figure. Skippy’s friends are portrayed as the sort of easily recognisable black and white archetypes that can only be experienced by a child. From the innocent Sooky, the irritating and bossy Eloise to the show-off Sidney and the local bully Harley, they are all simple characters populating the society of childhood that anyone of any age can understand and recognise.

The heartbreaking saga of the impounded dog and the enormity of raising the $3 are deftly played by the cast and director. Skippy and Sooky do a number of chores to raise the astronomical sum only to find out that (spoilers) the poor pooch has already been disposed of by the uncaring dog catcher. Jackie Cooper beautifully plays what could easily turn into a saccharine display of pathos as he cries at the news whilst glowering with impotent rage at the injustice of the act and the lack of power he commands as a lowly child. The following scene finds him moping at home, unable to summon the energy to even take a telling off from his father, utterly destroyed by the news (and it wasn’t even his dog!). The whole scenario is so expertly played by Cooper, who makes the viewer feel the powerlessness of childhood acutely on his behalf. It’s a powerhouse performance that makes the eventual happy ending all the more sweet, with an air-punchingly good dénouement where Skippy’s father finally understands what his son has been going through and takes action to set it right. Despite this, it’s Cooper that makes you feel the emotions of the film, and it’s Cooper that effortlessly invokes the feeling of being a kid. Considering his youth, the fact he can do this in a naturalistic manner can only be answered by my previous super genius theory. There really is no other explanation!

While Jackie Cooper holds the picture together, many other members of the young cast lend able and very entertaining support. In the role of Sooky is Robert Coogan, the younger brother of Jackie Coogan who at the tender age of seven is the youngest of the leads. In comparison to Cooper he’s awful, but his lack of ability works wonderfully well with the naïve character he’s given. He has such a lost look on his face, as if he has to concentrate really hard to remember his lines, and his regular fluffs are quite charming, as is a brief scene where he falls over mid sentence and everyone carries on regardless. He made me think of Jacquie Lyn in Laurel and Hardy’s Pack Up Your Troubles and the scene where she has to read Stan a bedtime story. She takes an age to get through it, constantly looking off camera for prompts between the blank looks as Stan desperately scratches his head and smiles to cover for her. It’s the sort of charming amateurism that you only see in early 30s films and in Robert Coogan’s case really lends an air of spontaneity to the movie

One other notable addition to the cast is the incomparable Mitzi Green as Skippy’s bossy friend Eloise. Although she doesn’t have much to do in the film, merely a handful of scenes, she lends a great sense of comedy and whimsy to the proceedings. She plays a variation on her usual character, a pushy know it all constantly badgering all around her to listen to her. In other film appearances (see Girl Crazy among many others), she usually pleads to sing, dance or do her much famed imitations, but this time round her character has a literary bent as she constantly composes odes and poems to the general annoyance of everyone else. On her first appearance she recites her new masterpiece “In Memory of a Dead Dog” to Skippy’s father, strangely foreshadowing events to come. The purple prose is typically awful, yet this fact doesn’t stop her reciting an endless stream of verse to Skippy’s confused dad, all the time beaming with pride. When the end of the poem comes, Mr Skippy gets up to leave, only to be told, “That was only the beginning. There’s a lot more” as he turns away from her in an effort to ignore her and read the paper.

However, Eloise has an important part to play in the ending of the film as when Skippy is at his lowest point after the death of the dog, she turns up (yodelling for some reason) with, - wouldn’t you know it, a new dog! Skippy convinces Eloise to swap her new dog for his new bike because, in the best line of the film “This dog looks like it would bite a girl, and then die of rabies”. So Skippy gets a new dog for Sooky and Eloise rides off on her brand new bike. She wobbles away, already staring a brand new poem in honour of her new possession.

At the 4th Academy Awards in 1932, Skippy was nominated for four awards and walked away with one. Skippy lost out to R.K.O’s Cimarron for best picture, which was understandable but the fact that it was even nominated (and was the second most nominated picture of the year) shows what an “event” movie it was. Jackie Cooper was nominated as best actor and lost out to Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul. Despite Barrymore’s inestimable talents and undoubted seniority as an actor, I’d actually give the nod to Cooper after comparing the two performances, though generally drama always wins over comedy in these cases. The third nomination was for Joseph Mankiewitcz and Sam Mintz’s script, which although well written and at times quite witty, in no way stands up to the majority of it’s fellow nominees like Little Caesar, The Criminal Code or eventual winner Cimarron.

Luckily for Paramount, Skippy did win one Oscar, the best director statue for Norman Taurog (still the youngest director to win the award). In retrospect it’s a puzzling decision because although the movie is well made, aside from a lovely tracking shot at the start, the only Oscar worthy aspect of the movie is how successfully Taurog managed to work with his young cast to get the most out of them. In terms of what we traditionally think of as merit for direction, the fact that Skippy beat out Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page and Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco is, to say the least odd. It goes to show that these decisions are made in the here and now with no thought to posterity, and that more importantly the Oscars are not and have never been primarily about the “best” films of the year. As I say every year, the Oscar ceremony has a story to tell, and in this case I get the feeling they wanted to give the movie something, so it got the director award. Then as now, there is always an element of politics and tokenism.

In the end, all is right with the world. The film could add the prefix “Academy Award Winner” to its advertising, Skippy and Sooky have a new dog each, Skippy’s father finally understands his son’s problems and stands up to the dog catcher and Shantytown is saved from development (after all, they are happy being poor and living in squalor, why build over it!). It’s corny and silly but after the emotional highs and lows in poor Skippy’s life, it’s just right that everyone lives happily ever after. Probably the most important part of the puzzle is that it was Skippy that propelled Jackie Cooper to greater things – a contract with M.G.M and the start of a career as one of the greats of the screen. I’m still not too keen on child stars but I have another name in my list of kids that I’ll make exceptions for.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Eric Sykes 1923 - 2012 : Britain's Last Comic Genius

Eric Sykes, one of the most talented and influential comedians in British entertainment history has died today aged 89 after a short illness. An actor, writer and director Sykes, along with Spike Milligan was largely responsible for the shape and form of post war comedy. Though I’d imagine he is virtually unknown outside of Britain, the importance of his work in the development of modern humour really cannot be stated strongly enough. While Spike Milligan single-handedly brought comedy out of its stale music hall roots and into a modern world of surrealism, anarchy and satire, Eric Sykes’ work served as the needed contrast, still surreal yet delivering more structure to the unstructured, and replacing Milligan’s free-wheeling wrath and bite with good natured whimsy and believable situations.

As a director, he was known for creating a handful of short silent films starting with 1967’s The Plank through to 1993’s under rated The Big Freeze. His films, in which he also starred and wrote, are beautifully constructed pieces of comedy filled with the sort of brilliantly realised physical gags only really seen in the golden age of the silent era. The films reveal Sykes as a true modern day practitioner of a comic lineage started by the great silent clowns. A friend and confidant of Jacques Tati, his careful, meticulously paced and layered visual approach to comedy not only echoed Tati’s (albeit on a smaller scale) but he was really Tati’s only true heir, and as it proved, the last of that particular line.

Eric Sykes got his start working as a script writer for radio in the late 40s with the B.B.C and he soon found himself as an in demand gag writer for virtually every big name in 50s entertainment in Britain. His penchant for painting visually surreal pictures with his words, particularly when writing for the popular comic Frankie Howerd marked Eric out as stylistically new and different from his contemporaries. Sykes eventually honed his style to a smooth mix of loosely structured situation and whimsy, which then gradually led to his return as a performer in his own sitcom for BBC television. Paired with Hattie Jacques, a large character actress who played Eric’s identical twin, his show Sykes And a… (and later just Sykes) set the bar for situation comedy in a household setting. I would go as far as to say that in terms of the domestically set sitcom, the sheer quality and variety of his work has yet to be bettered. Sykes is an endlessly creative show, cosy and gentle yet with each episode brimming more ideas than most shows had in a season. It’s no coincidence that Peter Sellers chose to make a rare 1970s television appearance on Eric’s show in a particularly memorable episode.

As an actor, Sykes was always in demand on the stage and in films and television. He had been a regular in movies from the 50s with particularly noteworthy appearances in Heavens Above! with Peter Sellers, the all star Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Shalako with Sean Connery and Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price. More recently he was seen in The Others with Nicole Kidman and as Frank Bryce in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He specialised in portraying a certain type of nervous and jittery everyman in his few lead roles, and later in support played the same type typically as a manservant or sidekick. Despite this typecasting he was an excellent comic actor who played the full range on the stage from modern farce to Shakespeare.

In interviews Eric displayed a great understanding and affection for the work of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and their ilk, and a deep understanding of the fact that comedy was not a job but a calling, something that you have to do and which is worked on and honed over years of practice. He also echoed Stan Laurel’s views on comedy being like putting together a watch in that when works perfectly, you can never over analyse what make it work in the first place lest it breaks forever. Someone, I think the writer Denis Norden called Eric “the master craftsman of comedy” which is an apt description if ever there was for his work and truly reflects the care and attention put into perfecting not just his job but also his craft.

He continued to work on television and stage until very recently and despite being virtually deaf and blind had lost none of his ability or energy. I saw him a couple of years ago at a question and answer session at a comedy festival, and even in his mid eighties and quite infirm, brought the house down with his razor sharp wit. It was one of the funniest performances I have seen in my life and treasure the experience to this day.

However, despite a stellar career as a stage, film and television actor, a writer, an author and a director, and by all accounts one of the only truly nice guys in show business, Eric Sykes was always somehow overlooked or just taken for granted. Even his autobiography was amusing called “If I Don’t Write It No One Will”. Sadly, I feel this will continue with his passing. He had no scandal in his life, both the public and his peers loved him and he was ridiculously good at what he did. Yet his gentle, good-natured, universal brand of comedy never truly found an audience to the later generation brought up on a comedic diet bad language and bad taste. He was admired but I get the feeling that few comedians around today truly understand his significance and genius.

Yet until he died today, Eric Sykes was the only man in Britain that could rightly be called a comic genius. I try to think who is left in the world of comedy that can take his place but he was the last of his generation and the last of his kind. Believe me, I’m not overstating it, but in terms of post war comedy and it’s evolution, and in terms of performers who just instinctively knew comedy like the back of their hand we have lost one of the greats. I feel that with him, an era has passed and sadly the world is a poorer place for it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Going Spanish (1934) - Bob Hope's Debut Goes South

Bob Hope made his screen debut in 1934 during his spare time whilst on Broadway, in the musical short Going Spanish for Educational Pictures and veteran director/producer Al Christie. After bad reviews, the short got more publicity that it would have perhaps normally received after Hope was asked his opinion on the film by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell. His reply, that “when they catch John Dillinger they’re going to make him sit through it twice” made gossip column headlines and has since passed into show business legend, ensuring that Going Spanish was never quite forgotten - though for all the wrong reasons.

The quote got a lot of publicity for Hope but also got him fired from his multi film contract with Christie. While he was eager to break into movies,his opinion of the short must have verged on embarrassment in order for him to speak so candidly about a paying gig. Either that or it was a calculated move on his part to generate publicity for himself and free him up to explore bigger opportunities. Whatever his motivation, it worked out well for him as he wasn’t a free agent for long and quickly signed for a series of Vitaphone shorts with Warners. From there he was picked up by Paramount and his star began its ascent.

However the question remains, Bob may have thought it was terrible but is Going Spanish really that bad? Today is Mr Hope’s birthday (by the way, when is that going to become a national holiday?) so I thought I’d watch his inauspicious debut and find out for myself. The answer? Read on, but I think you can guess…

The premise of Going Spanish is frankly, ludicrous. Basically, Bob, his fiancé and mother-in-law arrive in a South American (not Spanish despite the title) village for a quick marriage and discover it’s the day of the "Don't Do It" festival. This bizarre ritual decrees that townsfolk can insult, attack or abuse anyone they want as long as they sing to them afterwards. Naturally, hilarity ensues. It’s one of those whimsical half formed ideas that only seem to appear in low budget shorts and that are probably the by-product of over worked writing staff desperately trying to throw ideas against a wall to see what sticks. The concept probably sounded tops after three bottles of scotch, eight packs of cigarettes and a night trapped in a writers’ room.

The village, called Los Pochos Eggos (which gives you an indication of how sophisticated the humour is) is decked out for a fiesta full of gay caballeros in puffy sleeves and singing senoritas with roses in their hair as seen in pretty much every 30s and 40s movie set south of the border. The costumes and set dressing are actually quite good and no doubt were recycled from plenty of other similar films for cost cutting. This is all rather let down by the sound, which at times makes it seem like it was shot in a barn. In fact it was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studios in New York, but perhaps in was a more remote part of the facility since some voices seem to echo (echo). Anyway, it goes without saying that most of the men have silly accents and even sillier facial hair.I think there might have been a donkey somewhere too.

Bob Hope plays essentially the character he would be later famous for, though toned way down. He’s the brash American abroad but in this case with virtually no material to work off. I’d imagine if you were watching the film in 1934 with no knowledge of current Broadway stars (Hope had also yet to start full time in radio), Bob wouldn’t have made any impression on you. He’d just be another unknown and soon to be forgotten star in a poverty row short. He breezes through the film, smiles and says his lines and that’s pretty much it. The flashes of the familiar Hope persona are few and far between though it’s hardly his fault. In fact, there are times when he looks a touch bored, as if he realised half way through what he’d gotten himself involved in.

The highlight is an amusing musical number where Bob is wooing a senorita in a shop which despite looking massively under rehearsed starts off sounding like it might have the charm of his later duets such as “Thanks for the Memory" and “Two Sleepy People”. However, this effect is ruined by the gag of someone coming into the shop to ask of something inappropriate that rhymes with the last line. For example: "You sweeten up my coffee, I'm always glad to please. Why, you seem to have the fragrance of..." (Cue the interruption)"limburger cheese". despite this, it’s probably Hope’s best scene and his reactions to each intruder conjures up the first cinematic glimpse of the fabled Hope timing.

The supporting cast is generally competent and amusing. The leading lady, Leah Ray has a good singing voice and a pleasant manner. She’s the sort of actress who is the perfect fit for these musical confections but one that you can’t imagine having much to offer beyond those sorts of roles. Her suitor the mayor is played by Jules Epailly who spends the film decked out like Napoleon and who mugs shamelessly as he attempts to channel Billy Gilbert at his most over the top. It doesn’t quite work, in fact it doesn’t work at all but if falling over, destroying scenery and shouting are your bag then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Strangely the most successful artiste from this mess other than its star is William Edmunds as a deluded gaucho. He would go on to have a respectable career in character roles, as IMDb so archly puts it “a poor man’s J. Carroll Naish” in such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life , House of Frankenstein and indeed with Bob Hope again in Where There’s Life thirteen years later.

As for our boy Bob, he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself but for the most part the recognisable screen presence isn’t there regardless of the lack of good material. What’s strange about him is that although he would go on to establish a cowardly, slightly feminine character, this version of Hope is actually quite fey and almost camp. He has a strange habit of clasping his hands together at chest height in the manner of Jack Benny, and in fact a few of his mannerisms echo Benny’s body language. Just like Benny, he seems to have a dilemma over where to put his hands while talking as they flap about all over the place and he spends a lot of the movie fidgeting with his hat. While Benny worked out a way to use this as a cornerstone of his act, regular hand clasping really doesn’t suit Bob’s character.

Luckily, Hope quickly found the right formula (and somewhere to put his hands) as evidenced by his later Warner shorts. By the time they ended in 1936 with Shop Talk, the Bob Hope persona we know and love was pretty much all there albeit needing some refining. Going Spanish can be by no means described as good yet its contents are really no different from the majority of short musical comedies churned out by the smaller studios of the time that weren’t Hal Roach. In 1934 Bob Hope was a man of ambition with a successful stage career upon him, and with his talent and a bit of time there is little doubt that he would have made it as a star before too long. That he became the magnitude of star he did couldn’t have been predicted, and certainly not based on the strength of Going Spanish. At the end of the day, and with a tip of the hat to Mr Hope, I’m loathe to say that any film is truly bad so in this case I’d prefer to label it a ‘curio’. What’s more I actually sat through it twice and I enjoyed it more the second time. Maybe Dillinger shouldn't have bothered with Manhattan Melodrama...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The First Born (1928) - Miles Mander's Masterpiece Restored

Miles Mander is perhaps best remembered (if remembered at all) as a character actor in Hollywood in the 1940s, but in Britain during the silent era he was a leading light of the film community. He was friend and contemporary of Alfred Hitchcock, a noted actor, writer and producer and a pioneer of early sound techniques. He eventually made his feature directorial debut in 1928 with The First Born, co-writing the screenplay with Alma Reville (Mrs Alfred Hitchcock), adapted from his own novel and play. It was the culmination of a decade spent in the burgeoning British film industry yet a statement that arrived too late to really be noticed amongst the oncoming changes to the industry brought on by sound.

Set against a backdrop of the British upper classes, the story charts the disintegration of the marriage between Lord Hugo Boycott (played by Mander himself) and his younger wife Madeleine (an impossibly young and dark haired Madeleine Carroll). Hugo is a caddish would-be politician whose irritation at his wife’s inability to provide him with a son and heir drives him into the arms of a succession of willing women. In a desperate attempt to keep her husband Madeleine agrees to secretly adopt her manicurist’s illegitimate baby and pass it off as the son her husband desires. However, once this has happened she finds it is not enough to hold their marriage together and the relationship quickly descends into mutual suspicion, infidelity and lies. The tensions between Madeleine and Hugo are complicated by the interference of their conniving friend Nina, who seeks to seduce Hugo and tell him about Madeleine’s secret. Hugo, on the other hand suspects Madeleine to be secretly having an affair with David, a playboy with a bad reputation (played by John Loder at his most debonair).

What on paper seems like a polite and vaguely absurd drawing room drama is in the hands of Mander a keenly observed portrayal of the realities of marriage and the consequences of selfish behaviour on the surrounding society. Though the world of the British ruling classes in the 1920s is hardly something that today's average viewer can identify with, the hypocrisies and frailties Mander’s characters reveal are universally recognisable. Both Mander and Carroll are mesmerising in their roles, with perhaps Madeleine Carroll giving the performance of her career as the increasingly desperate young wife. The inherent selfishness of the group is nicely summed in a short scene where Nina drives away from Hugo’s home and in her hurry her limousine knocks over a small bicycle, spilling its basket of fruit. Like Hugo and Madeleine, she leaves unaware of the consequence of her actions.

What makes the film so compelling is that complexities and contradictions of the lead characters force the viewer to switch their loyalty as the story progresses. Hugo is selfish, a serial cheat who treats Madeleine with distain whilst using her for his own ends, yet is likable enough that we want to believe he can escape the mess he has made of his life. He is fiercely protective of his ‘first born’ (though uninterested in their second child) and is driven to rage and obsession at the thought of his wife’s infidelities despite ignoring his own fatal flaws. Madeleine on the other hand is blind to Hugo’s faults and her need to keep him is such that she is forced into an increasingly complicated web of deceit. When her lies eventually catch up with her she reacts selfishly, showing a lack of concern for those in the path of her thoughtlessness. Ultimately it is their tragic love that makes us pull for the characters, and the misguided need for both of them to have a ‘normal’ family life even though neither of them really knows how to achieve it, let alone hold onto it. Both Mander and Carroll have a great chemistry throughout the film, with Madeleine Carroll betraying her lack of cinematic experience with a sensitive and subtle portrayal. The climactic scenes between the leads sparkle with the sort of heart stopping intensity that only the great silent dramas can manage. Such is the power of the drama that when the final reel plot twist appears, at the screening I attended a collective gasp rung out through the audience to what in reality is a particularly contrived piece of melodrama (I won’t spoil it, but it’s amazing!).

Regardless of the skilled handling of the script and acting, what has received the most notice since the restoration of the film has been the visual aspect, highlighting yet again the amazing progression of filmmaking as a visual art by the end of the silent era. What sets The First Born apart from many others, and indeed its British contemporaries is in the stunning fluidity of its camerawork. From early on in the film, where Hugo throws clothes at an unseen Madeleine behind the camera, Mander seems obsessed with the idea of movement and distance. He does this to not only get the viewer inside the film but to also seemingly highlight the fact that as director he has the ability to set his camera free from its stationary position. This enthusiastic flight reaches a breathtaking climax during the scene where Hugo rushes to Madeleine’s bedroom in the hope of exposing her supposed affair. As he approaches the room, the view switches to a full point of view shot as Hugo rushes inside to find it empty, the bed slept in (both sides creased however) and assorted clothes on the floor. As his eyes whirl round the room taking in the detail, the camera moves so rapidly that in fact the frame rate struggles to keep up (no Steadicam in those days!), yet the blurry movement highlights the intensity of the feeling. Madeleine is in fact in the bath, and the camera then slowly opens the door to voyeuristically take a peek at her in the water, before the drama is resumed and we cut to Hugo's face. After tantalising us with the girl in the bath, Mander cuts us off and once again lets only the character see the result. Though undoubtedly the point of view shot had been done long before 1928, the way it is used and the fluidity of the camera movement makes the scene (shot in one take as far as I remember) both shocking and thrilling. It’s like Mander reached into the future and invented all the slasher film clichés in one go, or at least before Hitchcock got there.

Other visual touches include a beautifully lit dinner party scene that looks like one big table lit by several candles or lamps. In this entirely unrealistic yet massively atmospheric setting, each dinner guest peers out from the darkness onto their gloomy spotlight to speak, then retreats, eel-like back into the gloom to eat. It serves no purpose other than it looks great. Lighting is similarly used in an incredible scene where Hugo is seduced by Nina (wonderfully played by Ella Atherton who frustratingly only seems to have made one other film) in his own home as Madeleine sleeps upstairs. In the candlelight Nina lies back on a chaise longue and writhes and squirms like a cat in heat. Hugo is literally trapped in her seductive thrall and visibly shows his tortured mind and he wills himself to take a figurative cold shower and resist her. After the duelling close ups of the seducer and her conflicted prey, the solitary shadow of a beckoning finger cast by the candlelight seals the deal and releases Hugo’s desires.

There are other beautiful moments in the film such as another point of view shot on the hood of a car as Hugo drives up the road to the estate, and the clever use of overlapping fades to convey a conversation without the need for title cards (indeed, it is a film of few titles despite undoubtedly a lot of dialogue spoken by the actors). Near the climax the point of view camera is used one final dizzying time as Hugo falls down a lift shaft to his death. The viewer sees the fall as Hugo sees it complete with a spinning visual effect and a brief montage as his life flashes before him in his final moments. It’s an impressive effect, and guessing how heavy camera equipment would have been in those days, no doubt it was a very complex shot to achieve. These are just a few examples among many throughout the movie and what finally emerges is a film given a very thoughtful and inventive visual touch. In many ways there is perhaps too much crammed into it, but the gamble pays off and as Miles Manter’s only extant directorial work The First Born provides a fantastic showcase for his talents.

That it was Miles Manter’s debut as a feature director is astonishing, but not altogether surprising knowing his deep involvement in the movie world up until that point. Certainly, on the strength of The First Born, Manter was arguably ahead of Hitchcock artistically by 1928 and who knows, given the right opportunities could have been one of the great British directors. He certainly seems to have the potential to have been a great filmmaker. Sadly, though he went on to direct a few sound films, none seem to exist or be available to see, and after a while he decided to concentrate solely on being a reliable character actor. Like so many others his output has historically fallen into the black hole that British movies of the 20s and 30s seem to fall into, where the vast majority seem to be in limbo, either lost forever or sitting unattended in an archive. The First Born was earmarked for restoration just short of ten years ago and the fruits of the BFI’s labours are only being seen now. The restoration, with a newly commissioned score was premiered at the London Film Festival last year and will hopefully continue to get a few more showings on the art house circuit beyond it's current limited run. In these cash strapped times, one can only wonder if a DVD release will be cost effective but with a bit of luck it might get to be seen by more people. The First Born certainly deserves to be more widely viewed and can genuinely be described as a lost masterpiece and a film that will hopefully begin to shine a little more of a spotlight on its creator, Miles Mander as one of the unsung heroes of silent British cinema.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

New Faces of 2012 - Six Classic Stars I May Have Overlooked

Life should always be about discovering new things. As such, I was recently looking at the list of films that I’m preparing to write about in the weeks and months ahead and after scanning through a line up that largely included the usual suspects like Joan Blondell, Kay Francis and Old Time Radio stars, it occurred to me that I need to explore new vistas to avoid getting into a cinematic rut. It’s all very well concentrating on your favourite stars or directors but it’s also too easy to become dogmatic about the films you hold dear and assume that the work of a particular actor or director holds little interest to you based on nothing more than a gut feeling or the viewing of a solitary film.

In the last few weeks I’ve been stockpiling a fresh batch of (mostly pre-code) films to add to the never ending list to watch and hopefully write about. I have been picking these films mainly based on first impressions, whether it be the title, genre or poster that for some reason has grabbed me. One thing that I decided to largely ignore in making my choices was the star of the picture as I really wanted to see ‘average’ films of the era, movies that were typically and squarely of their time. Despite this, while browsing over the new titles in my collection it struck me that certain names cropped up time and time again, some of which were more familiar to me that others. I realised that all of them were names that I was guilty of taking for granted.

One thing that is great about the early 30s in Hollywood is the sheer variety of stars that got a shot at fame, most of whom for a number of reasons didn’t sustain a star career into the glory years of the late 30s and beyond. For every Spencer Tracy there’s a Lee Tracy, and for every Greta Garbo there is a Greta Nissen. There is literally a whole galaxy of stars, both big and small to choose from, and as usual it’s the lesser lights that interest me the most. So I’ve decided to pay a bit more attention to a number of these names and to give some new stars a try. Here’s the first batch of overlooked stars for me to explore in the coming months. As I said, some are actually very famous in their own right and not at all overlooked to most people but for whatever reason have been ignored by me in the past. All I ask is that if anyone can give this novice any pointers and recommendations for any of them I will be eternally grateful. Now, to the Class of 2012…

William Haines – William Haines certainly seems to have had an interesting life, being an openly gay actor in Hollywood who, rather than live a lie ultimately chose his lifestyle over success in movies. I’ve always been interested in the sound films of successful silent stars and it seems novel that for once a career was cut short on the star’s own terms. Watching his films should thus hopefully prove to be uplifting viewing with a star still in his prime as a contrast to say, the sound films of John Gilbert, where despite the quality of his performances the whole experience is tinged with melancholy at his ultimate failure. Another, more aesthetic reason I really want to see his sound films is the striking artwork for a number of his movies, some recently released by the Warner Archive. Remote Control, Are You Listening? and Fast Life look particularly enticing going by the posters. Okay, it’s not always a successful gauge of quality but give me something shiny with bright colours and you’ve got me hooked.

Dorothy Mackaill – Dorothy Mackaill is a name that seems to turn up a lot while I’ve been looking for suitable pre-code fodder to view yet she remains an enigma to me. I know little about her and have not seen any of her films. The fact that her career as a star was over by 1931 when First National opted not to renew her contract doesn’t seem to promise much. However, a glance at the titles of her prime starring vehicles seemingly paints a capsule picture of all the forbidden pleasures of the pre-code era. Safe in Hell, The Reckless Hour, The Office Wife, Party Husband and Bright Lights conjure up a banquet of censor baiting situations. It’s good to see that so many of her movies are finally getting an official release and I’m looking forward to finding out if her screen persona matches the lurid titles of her career.

Madge Evans – Madge Evans came to my attention due to a couple of absolutely stunning publicity photographs from the two films she made with William Haines. Looking back I realise that I’ve seen her in Fugitive Lovers, The Mayor of Hell and Guilty Hands but I watched all of those films years ago and have no memory of her performances. I know now that she was an accomplished stage actress who tended to play wholesome leading lady types but a quick glance at her filmography reveals some interesting and intriguing movies such as The Greeks Had a Word For Them with Joan Blondell, West of Hollywood with John Gilbert, The Nuisance with Lee Tracy, Beauty for Sale with Una Merkel and the aforementioned pair with William Haines, Are You Listening? and Fast Life. I feel that she’ll either turn out to be a standard and slightly anonymous leading lady whose purpose is to let her male co-star shine or (I’m hoping), a charming and beautiful leading light of the pre code era. Despite her obvious talent and ‘good girl’ image (not always a bad thing mind you), I just hope she brings the star quality to her films that she radiates in still pictures.

Warren William – Okay, Warren William can in no way be described as an overlooked film star, at least to the classic film community. I’m aware that he has a sizable following but despite seeing a few of his films I’ve been left largely unmoved by him. Looking back, I’ve decided that the fault probably lies with me and that I just haven’t seen him in the right parts. After all, I love pre-code films so surely I need to acknowledge the so-called ‘King of the Pre-codes’? This is an area where I definitely need some guidance, though I have a few of his movies on my radar. Most recently I saw him in Smarty, which is a great film but not one where he needs to do too much. I really want to like Warren William, in fact it would be a crime not to, but I feel I’ve not seen him at his best.

Nancy Carroll – I’ve only previously seen Nancy Carroll in the Cary Grant film Hot Saturday and she was quite charming. She also seems quite a versatile actress starring in musicals, comedies and dramas. She doesn’t seem to have been served too well in terms of her leading men, tending to be pared up with the likes of Phillips Holmes and John Boles or even an inexperienced up and comer like Grant. Once again though, her name just continues to show up and what I’ve heard of The Devil’s Holiday, Laughter, Follow Thru, The Kiss Before the Mirror and Night Angel sound intriguing. Added to that, some of her later work in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round and Atlantic Adventure looks, if nothing else fun due to the fantastic casts. She seems to be another of those early 30s stars that enjoyed a degree of fame but who fell out of favour both onscreen and off and who decided on early retirement as the best course of action.

Richard Barthelmess – Obviously, Richard Barthelmess was one of the great stars of silent cinema, and a highly talented actor but for some reason he’s never really appealed to me. Even though he is outstanding in Broken Blossoms and at the tail end of his career, compelling in Only Angels Have Wings, he has largely left me cold. However, he’s another name that has cropped up with surprising regularity and honestly, I got tired to deciding to pass on an otherwise interesting film just because his name was in the credits. So, in the spirit of fair play I’m going to give him a chance. Though he doesn’t seem to have any can’t miss films in his sound back catalogue, movies such as Son of the Gods, Alias the Doctor, Four Hours to Kill, The Last Flight and Central Airport definitely look like they meet my requirements for typical early 30s programming. Of all my new picks, he’s the wild card and you never know, I might be pleasantly surprised.

All in all, the pre-code era remains a fascination for me due to the sheer number of career casualties. It was such a period of change, littered with the corpses of promising careers that never took off, or of final hurrahs to formerly glittering silent stars. The sheer number of unjustly forgotten actors working at this time is staggering, and each time I watch someone new, a co-star will lead me further into the unknown. I think everyone needs to try something new from time to time and once I’ve explored these new (to me) stars I have a host of others to start watching. As always, and feedback, suggestions or pointers will be much appreciated and hopefully the fruits of my labours will be appearing here very soon.