Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

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 cliché 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 fiancé’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) “...it 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”

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.