Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone out there, may all your Christmas wishes come true!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Random Thoughts # 2 - November Round-Up featuring George Sanders and Bob Hope

November was a kind of quiet month for me movie wise, but nonetheless follow me as I dissect the film watching part of my brain to uncover last month’s highlights…
Movie of the month was a film that I (shock!) actually watched on broadcast television! The fact that this surprises me shows you the state of classic movie watching on regular TV these days (I’m really looking forward to Christmas and the annual repeats of Casablanca and the like). The movie in question was The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from 1945 starring the ever-wonderful George Sanders. I’m always drawn to George Sanders due to his world weary, sardonic screen persona (which by all accounts spilled over into real life too). He could take fairly everyday roles and imbue them with a charming cynicism that was really quite subversive. Obvious examples include his turns in All About Eve and The Picture of Dorian Grey, and less obviously his starring role in Albert Lewin’s rather brilliant The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Sanders was a unique actor in that he often gave the impression of being above it all and at times even terribly bored to be on screen. Though they were childhood favourites, looking now I can see that he is virtually sleepwalking through the Saint and Falcon series (and the films are possibly all the better for it). However, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is one of his non-cad roles and as such he brings a laid back, almost vulnerable quality to his role as the mild mannered clothes designer who is dominated by his overbearing, possessive younger sister. Technically the movie is classed as ‘film noir’ (to be honest not one of my favourite genres) in that Harry is motivated to take revenge on his sister when she breaks up his one and only love affair. Nevertheless, most of the film is taken up with a well-observed study of the lonely life Harry lives, constantly trying to make his sister happy and to keep the peace between her and their older sister. This in itself would have made an interesting film since it is so sensitively played by the cast, with Geraldine Fitzgerald as the younger sister being particularly excellent. The revenge plot takes the film into altogether darker territory and initially results in what we are led to think is a rather bleak ending. This development is interesting as Harry is not your typical ‘noir’ protagonist, almost being an innocent who is forced into making a tough moral decision. That is, until the twist is revealed! I can’t tell you the twist because the film told me not to with a “please do not disclose the ending” title card. However, suffice it say, Les Diabolique it is not! Anyway, George Sanders is always a fascinating actor who can always be relied on to brighten any screen, and here it was good to see him in an atypical part so well written. The ending, however, is not to most people’s tastes but in a strange way reflects Sanders own perverse and contrary sense of humour. But more importantly I saw this film on television! In 2010, who would have thought? Other Movie highlights in November – Quiet Please! (1933) – A fantastic Edgar Kennedy RKO short directed by George Stevens which sees the characters of the “Average Man” series begin to take shape. Here we find Edgar receiving a stroke of luck while on a train journey only for the family to ruin it all. There’s a nice reworking of Laurel and Hardy’s bunk beds sequence from Berth Marks and Kennedy is so good with his deadpan looks to camera that you really feel for him when it all goes wrong. So far two volumes of these shorts have been released by Alpha Video and here’s hoping for more! So Goes My Love (1946) – A Fairly entertaining Myrna Loy drama with Don Ameche doing his best William Powell impression as her eccentric inventor husband. What I found odd is that it features one of those typically ‘Hollywood’ pregnancies. After Myrna has told her husband that she is expecting, we flash forward a while to a scene where she has to chase away the family dog. She collapses from exhaustion and the next day the baby is delivered! At no time did she show the slightest sign of being pregnant. They must have had good corsets in those days… Lost in a Harem (1944) – I know the received wisdom states that Abbott and Costello were on the wane by 1944 but I really enjoyed this one (I’ve been watching them all in order and this has probably been my second favourite after It Ain’t Hay). It was slick, well made entertainment with some funny gags to boot. Of course it has the famous “Pokomoko” routine (or did the Three Stooges do it first? I can never remember) with Murray Leonard as the raving madman with the broken heart. Incidentally, they did the routine a decade later on the Colgate Comedy Hour with a grizzled Errol Flynn in the Leonard role which is worth seeing for the oddity value if nothing else. I really like Abbott and Costello. I don’t love them, but I really like them.
Old Time Radio highlight of the month – This month I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Hope radio shows. The collection I have also includes many of his guest appearances on other shows and it really helps to get a sense of Hope in the context of the period. There don’t seem to be a whole lot of his shows left compared to Jack Benny for instance, but what does exist is very interesting and as I mentioned back in May, show a side to Bob that many forget. In November I reached 1944, and by this time Hope has firmly established himself as the forces favourite with his tireless campaigning and entertaining. Although he was famous before the war started, it really seems to be this side of his career that establishes him as a massively popular star and showbiz fixture. He’s just so confident in front of the G.I. crowds, with expertly written and delivered monologues and a loose style that uses ad-libs in the right places to give the impression (whether true or not) that he’s relaxed and having fun out there. And the response from the troops is often deafening, it’s a crowd that sorely needs to be entertained. Strangely though, it’s his appearances on other shows that display his skills the best. Shows like Command Performance and G.I. Journal where he hosts alongside other stars allow him to interplay with others in a really funny way (you know, the way that makes you imagine that the stars are all part of one big showbiz family, living an big house together). Of course, this works supremely well when he’s teamed with Bing Crosby. Good examples of their patter occur on Command Performance from June 3rd and December 15th 1944 (the first one also has a great routine involving Bing, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra). The absolute best Bob and Bing routine I’ve ever heard is from Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall, dated October 12th 1944. Crosby had just returned from entertaining the troops overseas and appears from New York while Bing’s cast and Bob are in Los Angeles. What’s lovely about the skit is that the real affection between the two is immediately apparent. You can tell that Bob is really pleased to hear from his friend after time away, and the insults fly thick and fast, and are seemingly ad-libbed at times. Despite not being a ‘proper’ double act, I’ve no doubt that Hope and Crosby could improvise together at the drop of a hat, and that’s what is so good about them. They are a team, yet not a team and united in a real friendship. Anyway, my month’s listening has really made me realize how important to the war effort Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) were and when Hope sums up at the end of his shows with a message to the people at home, while it’s easy to be cynical in this day and age, I truly believe that he was being sincere, and in essence that is what made him so popular with troops the world over. And that folks, was November. Don’t expect any Christmas movies next month as I can’t ever think of any good ones to watch and I really think we all need to give It’s a Wonderful Life a rest for a few years…

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936) - Tod Slaughter Tells Us About His Latest Murder

I once read an article that declared that everyone owed it to themselves to see at least one Tod Slaughter film during the course of their film going life. While I would hesitate at the idea of seeing only one (why stop there?) I agree whole heartedly with the sentiment. Once you’ve seen Tod Slaughter “polish them off” it’s difficult to view classic horror movies in the same light. Such is the sheer gusto and enthusiasm he displays for his fictional vocation that one really can’t help but to cheer him on to ever more extravagant depravities. And if ever a horror star had a more apt name…

By the time Tod Slaughter made his first feature film appearance in 1935 he had accrued a lifetime of experience on the British stage. He specialized in revivals of Victorian melodramas, his so-called “new old melodramas” These plays gave him the opportunity to revel in all the grotesque grand guignol of favourites such as Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn and his signature role, that of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Incidentally the roles chosen for his first two film appearances). Melodrama, essentially is the struggle of good versus evil, and in playing the most outrageous, dastardly villains with such vigor and aplomb, Slaughter became a theatrical legend in his own time. His screen appearances are essentially filmed version of his plays, with even movies that originated as screenplays rather than stage plays following the same formula, both thematically and visually. Into this set up thunders Slaughter with his distinctly energetic and theatrical style. He has little concept of subtlety, preferring to hold the audience’s attention with sweeping gesture and (expertly delivered) lurid dialogue.

The Crimes of Stephen Hawke was Slaughter’s third film, and the immediate follow up to the success of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He plays the titular Stephen Hawke, a kindly moneylender by day who stalks the countryside wreaking havoc by night as the nightmarish “ Spine Breaker”. However, before we get to that it must be noted that the picture has one the most off beat and unusual beginning for a film (especially a horror film) that you are ever likely to see. After the credits, the camera pans out on a radio microphone and we are treated to a topical song by the comic musical duo Mr. Flotsam and Mr. Jetsam. Both in tuxedos and with Mr Flotsam playing the piano they are terribly “British” in the Noel Coward sort of way (although Mr Jetsam was actually Australian but I digress) and sadly have absolutely nothing to do with the film. Next up we hear from a Henry Hopkins, London’s last cat meat seller (that’s meat for cats not the meat of cats - I was worried for a moment) He tells us about how business isn’t what it used to be and…has absolutely nothing to do with the film.

Finally, the doubtlessly puzzled audience, lest they walk out of the theatre thinking they’ve wandered into the wrong film are introduced to the noted actor Tod Slaughter. When asked to introduce himself he immediately admits that “In my career I’ve murdered hundreds and hundreds of people”. The announcer asks rather sheepishly whether he has any favourite method of murder, to which Slaughter replies that “I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter”. Uh, we are still talking about fictional murders aren’t we? Aren’t we? He enthusiastically tells us about murdering Maria Marten and his grisly exploits as Sweeney Todd before introducing his new killing spree, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke. It’s a very odd start to the film that unwittingly makes you question where the real Tod Slaughter ends and the fictional one begins. To this day I’ve still got a lurking suspicion that he probably got mixed up sometimes and killed a few people for real. If nothing else the man certainly seems to take his work home with him.

However, the strangeness of the prologue merely serves to make us ill prepared for the opening scene of the movie. It starts with Slaughter skulking in some bushes (in an enormous hat) in the grounds of a country estate. A podgy yet adorably cute little boy comes over and asks him what he’s doing. “Can’t I look at a nice little boy’s garden?” he spits ominously. He beckons the boy over to show him a flower and the camera then quickly cuts to the boy’s nanny as we hear a piercing scream. A crowd gathers round the dead boy (the body is just out of shot) and people fearfully mutter about “the Spine Breaker!” It truly is a shocking beginning, as even in American pre code movies we wouldn’t expect to see a toddler brutally murdered by a predatory serial killer (especially in the opening scene!). Stephen Hawke (for it is he) is next seen galloping away by horse complaining that “my artistic ability was not appreciated”, before crackling evilly. Yes, actual cackling. The contrast of sadistic child murder and hokey melodrama couldn’t be sharper.

We then meet the kindly daytime version of Stephen Hawke, alongside his adopted daughter Julia and her would be beau Matthew (confidently played here by a young Eric Portman. It’s not often that Slaughter’s co-stars leave an impression but he does very well). They trust and love Stephen Hawke though unbeknownst to them he lives a double life. In true melodramatic fashion, Hawke uses his status to infiltrate the local rich families’ good graces in order to steal from them then finish them off as “the Spike Breaker”. However, this being a Tod Slaughter film things have to be taken to a few extremes. True to his villainous nature, Stephen Hawke has a deformed sidekick who does his bidding (I think there’s a law about it somewhere). In a normal film the sidekick would be a hunchback, or have a wooden leg, or perhaps wear an eye patch. Not for Tod Slaughter, oh no! His sidekick has all three at once! Take that Boris Karloff!

Despite it being noted that Stephen Hawke's hands “have sinews of steel” (he accidentally breaks a statue when he gets angry) and that he is insanely jealous of any man that goes near his daughter, no one seems to notice that kindly Stephen is the dreaded "Spine Breaker" (you’d think hanging around with a shifty hunchbacked, peg-legged, one eyed man might tip then off). The real reason for this is actually Slaughter’s remarkable transformation as he slips between the dual facets of Hawke’s life. Tod Slaughter, the actor was a deceptively large man (certainly over six foot tall) but in playing the kindly Stephen he shrinks down to an almost unrecognizably shriveled old man. The contrast between the body language of this performance and the dynamic fury of his murderous alter ego is amazing and obviously comes from Slaughter’s years of experience with quick changes on the stage. In this respect he is reminiscent of Lon Chaney, albeit only really being able to play the one character type.

At the end of the day, what all Tod Slaughter fans come to see is some gruesome murders. Or rather, Slaughter’s insane, eye rolling, gurning expressions as he revels in the sheer ecstasy and pleasure of his job (or hobby, take your pick). Luckily, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke does not disappoint, as he goes on a back breaking spree. In one fantastic scene, Hawke arrives by night at the home of his oldest friend to (obviously) murder him. Resplendent in a velvet cape that wouldn’t look out of place on Coffin Joe, he hovers over the hapless friend as we get a close up of his face, grinning and smiling as he breaks the poor man’s spine. In true Tod Slaughter fashion he exits giggling endlessly to himself like a child at Christmas, pleased as ever at an honest night’s work. A later scene sees him framed in shadow, almost Max Schreck-like as he creeps into another darkened room. No stealth for Slaughter, the man always makes an entrance.

Although his characters invariably are insane, it’s the over abundant sense of enthusiasm that makes Tod Slaughter such a great film star. Its as though he inherently understands the ridiculous nature of not only the scripts but of the genre itself (both horror and melodrama) and is thus determined to give the audience what they paid to see, not only first rate entertainment but grisly murder and lots of it. While the films generally aren’t explicit in the way of modern horror, his reveling in the process and detail of murder gives them a real vein of dark humour and a sense of (or at least a hint of) visceral depravity. Inevitably, as in The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, when the hero gets closer to uncovering the truth, Slaughter in turn ramps up the performance level and crashes and burns in a demented display of theatrics.

In this case, as Matthew unmasks Hawke as the villain and the officers of the law close in, Slaughter gets his big finale, proclaiming to the world gleefully “You’re right! I am the Spine Breaker! So many I’ve come to grips with!” before disappearing onto a rooftop for his inevitable fall. However, in a master class of true villainy he saves the best for last. He turns to the heroes, shakes his fists and cries, “You haven’t caught me yet, curse you! Hee! Hee! Hee!” before promptly falling off the roof. The quote itself doesn’t really do the unhinged nature of the performance justice. He’s every cliché of the mustache-twirling, cape wearing Victorian scoundrel, but in a style so outrageous that he tramples on these clichés and reinvents them for himself with his own mad rules. As I said at the start, you owe it to yourself to experience Tod Slaughter first hand. Finally, as he lies dying, he tries for redemption by, er…telling his daughter that she’s adopted. Thanks dad. Rather wonderfully, as the camera leaves the scene, the daughter looks distinctly unmoved as the thrice-deformed sidekick breaks down and starts to cry. And if all that is too much to take in we’re whisked back to the radio studio to see the announcer fast asleep! Well if The Crimes of Stephen Hawke didn’t keep him awake, I don’t know what will. Tod Slaughter looks on, rather bemused the wanders off as the credits roll.

These days he is often derogatorily labeled a “barnstormer”, or even worse “camp” for his scenery chewing acting style, but to see Slaughter in this way is to miss the dynamic, manic energy that he brings to each film. He positively steamrolls his way through each picture, rendering the supporting cast mere bystanders. Although melodrama is intended as the struggle of good and evil, it is only for Slaughter’s villains that we unashamedly root for. It is difficult to think of another film actor who consistently played villains, and more importantly whose villains become the focal point and raison d’etre of their films. And for all the talk of his theatrical acting style, it may be slightly unusual (and scarily, probably a considerably toned down version of his stage technique) but it never quite becomes over the top. Slaughter effortlessly pitches his performances to reach its pinnacle of madness at precisely the right moment, when all hell breaks loose. Up until the villain is caught out, Slaughter cackles and grins with a knowing wink to the audience, reeling them in to his diabolical schemes. It’s this ability to become the absolute focal point of the films, the one actor whom it is impossible to take your eyes off that is Tod Slaughter’s great skill. And of course, once mesmerized and under his spell, we too revel in his fiendish crimes.

It really is a shame that Tod Slaughter is not remembered in the same breath as the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre in the canon of classic horror. What’s also a shame is that for many people, British film horror started with Hammer in the 50s, rather than enjoying a healthy lease of life in the 30s and 40s due to Tod Slaughter. While hardly forgotten today, and with a sizable cult following, Tod Slaughter and his films have been nonetheless sidelined and unjustly derided by history. In his day he was more evil, more deranged and more sadistic than Karloff or Lugosi ever were, and he made films that even today can often startle but will always entertain. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, while not quite his best or most remembered is still a potent mix of dark humour and chilling horror. However, it’s Tod Slaughter that brings the “new old melodrama” to life with an energy that puts his contemporaries to shame.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

King of the Zombies (1941) - Mantan Moreland Saves the Day, and the Movie...

There are two movies running in parallel during King of the Zombies. One is a piece of straight up mystery in which heroic Dick Purcell and John Archer crash land on a strange island of the undead and do battle with a nefarious mad European doctor played by Henry Victor. The other movie involves Mantan Moreland having some goofy fun as he tries unsuccessfully to avoid becoming a zombie and to escape the aforementioned spooky island. On their own, each has its moments, but when the two films intersect – well, the movie is only big enough for one and the comic hi-jinks easily win out. It’s interesting that in a film where the black and the white characters are separated by class and by the stairs of a house, that despite (I’d imagine) the intentions of the writer the below stairs action proves to be by far the more exciting, funny and vital of the two. They are the flip sides to two very different films and two very different social outlooks and experiences.

Basically, if you take Mantan Moreland out if this picture you are left with a competent poverty row cash-in to the Universal horror cycle and nothing more. With him involved, King of the Zombies is not exactly a classic but nonetheless a fondly remembered and much revived movie (it also helps that it seems to be in the public domain). Monogram obviously saw the worth of Moreland as although he is billed third in the opening titles, interestingly his name is in a bigger typeface than his co-stars Dick Purcell and Joan Woodbury. In King of the Zombies, he steals every scene he’s in and acts everyone in the cast off the screen to such a ridiculous level that it’s not even funny. The man is and was a star performer of the highest order.

Despite his towering presence, it’s a shame that the viewers have to endure the same old tired “color” jokes. There’s about three in the opening 5 minutes, along the lines of (for example) “I thought I was a little off color to be a ghost”. I know it was 1941 but you’d hope that gag was lame even by then. Thankfully, as soon as Mantan gets to do his thing, the movie picks up greatly. When I reviewed Law of the Jungle a few months ago I made the point of defending Moreland’s big eyed scaredy-cat shtick, saying that in effect his comic reactions and double takes were no different to that of Lou Costello in a similar situation. However, it’s unfortunate that this type of character for a black actor has a particularly nasty cinematic baggage to go with it, but Moreland is such a talented comedian that I feel that he really does transcend such stereotyping. And anyway, what’s the alternative, should he be acting a little more “white”? No thank you. King of the Zombies is, if nothing else a movie that shows him to be an effective and hugely talented comic leading man. It’s pretty amazing to see a black actor effectively starring in a mainstream movie from this period, and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone who went to see the film did so due to the lure of Dick Purcell and the rest of the cast (except the zombies).

Anyway, the plots regarding a missing Admiral, a sinister doctor and some zombies are pure hokum and really only there for window dressing. What’s really fascinating is how the movie essentially starts by playing off the usual casual racism of the time and finds itself (intentionally?) being subverted from within by Moreland’s charisma and vitality. The crux of the first third of the movie is that Moreland is subservient to his two companions played by Purcell and Archer. It seems to be a relationship with a modicum of respect but not much else. Although Moreland’s role as servant to the other two is not explicitly defined, a key moment early on is when the mad doctor played by Henry Victor offers his guests a drink yet misses Moreland’s glass out when pouring. The crestfallen look on his face is a picture of disappointment that is made worse when he is told he can’t have a room to sleep in with the others as he should be in the servant’s quarters otherwise it would “set a bad example”. Heroic Dick Purcell is vaguely apologetic but basically tells him to put up with it. Of course, once he goes downstairs and discovers the zombies, Purcell and Archer accuse him of dreaming it or even worse, of being drunk. Some friends they are, now we know where they stand! This immediately sets up Moreland as the unlikely hero of the film rather than the comic sidekick. It’s almost as if the movie set out to be a horror but in rehearsals they saw how good he was and decided to play it for laughs and switch the focus of the plot.

No matter, luckily downstairs in the servant’s quarters is where all the fun happens! Mantan quickly hooks up with pretty kitchen maid Samantha, played by the delightful Marguerite Whitten who tells him of the strange voodoo rituals and of the “dead folk what run around”. Between the two of them, Moreland and Whitten really keep the picture afloat and in some alternate reality I‘m sure they went on to make dozens of movies together as they have a natural chemistry sadly lacking from the rest of the wooden cast. After wisecracking himself though the usual haunted house comic shenanigans, in which he even manages to get a laugh out of the line “the tropics sure give a man a color!” when looking in the mirror (no mean feat), Moreland eventually falls afoul of the denizens of the undead.

The highlight of the film then arrives as Mantan is hypnotized into thinking he is a zombie. The evil doctor tells him to repeat, “I am dead” and “I am a zombie” which gets the incredulous reply “I am a zombie…I am…I is??” When the hypnotism is complete and he has chanted, “I am a zombie” enough he stops, then looks at the zombies and deadpans “Move over boys, I’m one of the gang now!” Soon he’s convinced he’s a zombie and has taken over as their leader and is drilling them like an army (“Company halt! Gangway for king zom!”) He also finds that the zombies don’t eat much so ends up getting all the food to himself as Marguerite Whitten plays along suspiciously. In a funny exchange he says to her “Don’t you bother me woman, can’t you see I’m a has been?” When she tells him that zombies can’t talk he snaps back “Can I help it if I’m loquacious?” He’s then he’s told that if he puts salt on his food that he’ll dry up and die again so replies “This bein’ a zombie sure is a drawback!” before taking some salt and finally snapping out of the spell with a scream of “How do I look? How do I look?” He runs to a mirror and laughs with relief when he realizes he’s not a zombie, then with split second timing remembers to be scared again and runs for his life! Moreland’s turn as the hypnotized zombie and his interplay with Whitten are easily the best parts of the film and come across as so fresh, spontaneous and natural that the rest of the cast and the movie as a whole don’t really stand a chance in comparison.

That’s not to say that the rest of the (white) cast are uniformly bad. Henry Victor is suitable creepy as the mad doctor in a role purportedly intended for Bela Lugosi. He really makes the most out of lines like “She lives, yet walks in the land of those...beyond!" Sadly others like Dick Purcell and John Archer just stand around and say their lines. However, it’s the African American members of the cast that really shine. Aside from the aforementioned Marguerite Whitten, Leigh Whipper really impresses as the incredibly creepy and definitely psychopathic butler and there is a nice cameo for Laurence Criner as an educated doctor. And some of the extras definitely give the impression that they served as technical advisers for the witchcraft scenes! All this really proves to me is that there was an embarrassment of riches in terms of working black actors in Hollywood in the 40s and that I really need to investigate some Harlem cinema.

In the end Mantan was right about the zombies but his stupid friends are still stupid. They thought they had an adventure of their own and were probably blissfully unaware of the fun he and his friends had below the stairs. I understand fully that Mantan Moreland and other actors in his position were just doing their best to get work within the Hollywood system but when I see the way he so effortlessly commands the screen when given the opportunity it’s obvious that he was a man out of time. If he were around in these more enlightened times, he would be a massive star, no doubt about it. Someone with the gifts for comic timing, reaction and delivery just wouldn’t have gone to waste. However, I look forward to the next movie I can find where Mantan Moreland gets sufficient screen time (any suggestions out there?) because I can’t think of a more dynamic talent in 40’s screen comedy.

As for King of the Zombies, it’s a superior Monogram picture despite not exactly being a comedy or horror classic, but it is strangely subversive. When it comes down to it, by the end of the movie the status quo is completely reversed and the fool becomes the hero. The aloof European doctor which the lead characters are initially so in thrall of is shown to be a (thinly disguised) Nazi who is toppled not by the square jawed heroics of Dick Purcell but by the permanently scared bumbling of his ‘servant’ Mantan Moreland. Most importantly the conventions of the horror movie are turned on the their head by Moreland, who makes the viewer realize just how contrived and ridiculous the whole set up is by his barrage of Woody Allen-esque one-liners. At the end he emerges once again as the only real person in the cast and the only character in which we can find an emotional connection. He may be scared of everything he sees but he’s the most human character in the movie, and that’s including zombie and non-zombie alike. He sums up the situation perfectly with the last line of the movie, “If there’s one thing I wouldn’t want to be twice, zombies is both of them!”

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Smarty (1934) - Joan Blondell and the Funny Side of Domestic Violence

It seems that if you look hard enough at classic movies you find that times, tastes and morals haven’t really changed all that much in the intervening years. We can still recognize most of the staple characters of 30s melodrama - the gangsters, the gold diggers, the hen-pecked husband and the ambitious career woman all still exist in some form or other in contemporary popular culture. Even though the politics and morals of our time have changed, we retain an affinity for these situations because on some basic level they are still recognizable to us. Obviously not all social mores are the same, given that the representation and treatment of minorities, though rarely hateful still leaves us with a sense of unease and the assumption and or hope that society, has in some way moved on. Smarty falls firmly into the category of belonging to a (hopefully) bygone age in so much as it is a rip roaring comedy about the hilarious subject of, er… domestic violence.

It’s an odd choice for a comedy to say the least, and the result is bewildering clash of high drama and low gags. As usual for a Warner Brothers production of the mid-thirties it has an excellent cast, a sharp script, and a fine (and under rated) director packed into a brisk 65 minute length. It starts with bickering couple Joan Blondell and Warren William well…bickering. She teases and belittles him in a frankly nasty way until he becomes “impotent with rage”. An innocent night of bridge with friends Claire Dodd, Edward Everett Horton and Frank McHugh (playing their usual screen characters: Dodd is acid tongued, Horton is jittery and polite and McHugh is a bumbling simpleton) descends into fight night when Joan pulls the trigger with the words “diced carrots!” and Warren William is pushed about as far as a man can be pushed. He smacks her full on the face and seethes with his no longer impotent rage as she runs away in terror. All well and good for the start of a comedy, as you would expect.

If smacking around your back-talking wife wasn’t bad enough, the reaction to the deed is what really labels the film as a "period piece". Horton is outraged and shocked but is told by Claire Dodd that it’s only because he’s being too “virtuous and noble” because, uh... that’s a bad thing I guess. She continues with the immortal, only in the pre-code thirties line “A good sock in the eye is something every woman needs. At least once in her life” While Horton, and the modern audience pick their collective jaws up off the floor, McHugh (up until now the comic relief) chimes in that “there’s a lot in what she says” With that sagely advice, the motion is carried two to one, she deserved it.

Cut to poor Joan Blondell who is well, not really that upset about the whole episode. She claims, rather half-heartedly that she “won’t live with a man that hits me” and demands a divorce. You mean to say that the punch heard round the world was just a comedy plot device to get us to a divorce scenario? As this point I was trying, really trying to put myself in the mindset of a 1934 viewer but I was beginning to struggle somewhat. Let me get this right - she gets hit (and not a comedy slap, a real sock in the face), everyone thinks it’s okay and it’s played for laughs so that she can use it to her advantage in a plot to win back her soon to be divorced husband. It’s almost as if the writers knew the Production Code was coming in a few months and decided to see what they could get away with.

But it gets worse. After a cutting remark about Claire Dodd’s promiscuity, (On being asked to keep Joan company she says “I don’t mind strange beds” which gets the come back from Blondell of “If I’m not mistaken it’s a preference”) poor misguided Joan then laments the fact that the spark has disappeared from her marriage (hence the divorce). The reason? “If he really loved me, he’d have hit me long ago” Okay, I’ll admit, she’s an incredibly annoying character but I think I’d just turn to drink to get over my problems. Or maybe that’s just me being “modern” again.

To her credit, despite being so annoying Joan Blondell has perhaps never been lovelier or funnier than in Smarty. The whole film seems designed to show off her shapely form, from the opening shot of her legs to the ridiculously revealing backless dress that causes so many problems later in the movie. Her delivery of the lines, despite being tonally dubious (but that’s a problem with the film as a whole) have a distinct air of the Myrna Loys about them, with cheeky darting eyes and playful inflections. Her courtroom scene, in which she is granted her divorce, is a short master class in comedy as she plays up being a supposed innocent to win over the judge. She is all big eyes and teeth, as only Joan Blondell can do, but with subtle little moments of comic business, like briefly holding up the wrong hand when asked to swear on a bible. It’s a beautifully played scene that is designed to enable her to shine.

We fast forward a year and Miss “Smarty” is now married to Edward Everett Horton and is seemingly having fun tormenting and belittling him in her usual irritating fashion. He doesn’t want her to wear a backless dress so she goes ahead and wears it anyway then invites ex husband Warren William along to the party. She wastes no time in trying to seduce him but it initially doesn’t work out (he thinks the dress is like “lipstick on a child of eleven”) Before long she’s back to her old ways, telling him “I’ve been going to the movies quite a lot recently. There the girls are quite different. They get kicked ‘round and pushed in the face…with grapefruit…and they love it” It may be a funny and knowing wink to The Public Enemy (which also features Blondell – what did she make of seeing her doppelganger on screen, or is that just getting too meta-textual?) but clearly, the girl needs therapy.

Having been spurned by the ex-husband she tries to get the usually unflappable Horton to hit her and, one would assume become a real man. She taunts and dares him, knowing that he won’t do it until he too snaps and slaps her in the face. Somehow, this doesn’t have the desired effect and divorce is on the cards again. She didn’t seem to enjoy it much, perhaps he just didn’t hit her hard enough. No pain, no gain, right? In the end Blondell and William are reunited and Horton is sent on his way (he gets a lucky escape if you ask me). She immediately gets back in the groove and gets smart with William but this time he knows exactly what to do. He tears her dress off, holds her hair back tight and hits her again whilst telling her to shut up. They collapse onto a sofa as he says “If you don’t watch your step, I swear I’ll hit you hard”. As they kiss and disappear out of view she replies, “Tony dear, hit me again”

If we briefly ignore the complete and utter wrongness of the central premise, Smarty is a smart little film. The thing is, to a modern audience the central premise just can’t be ignored. Surely most people, even in 1934 couldn’t have thought that all women deserve to be slapped around a bit and that a man wasn’t a man until he did so? And what for me makes the movie all the more unnerving is that this frankly insane idea is played for laughs. Laughs? Okay, I’ll admit that the threat of domestic violence has been used for laughs before, such as in The Honeymooners, but Ralph never actually hit Alice did he? Throwing custard pies, plates or shoes at a woman may be funny, but throwing fists is not (and actually seeing the blows is even worse). Comic violence of this sort traditionally always happened off screen to the sound of bangs and crashes. Maybe I was being rather modern about it all but who on earth decided to green light this thing?! Or maybe I’ve just grabbed the wrong end of the stick entirely and like Edward Everett Horton’s character I’m being too prudish and thus missing the feminist subtext. Or maybe not.

As previously mentioned, sometimes times change for the better. Domestic violence is wrong folks, and even when played so enticingly by a top notch cast of beloved Hollywood icons. In the UK, the movie was called Hit Me Again, which in a true British manner, rather gets straight to the point and hopefully would alert viewers to the horrors ahead. That said, when it’s not being completely morally insane, Smarty is almost a great little movie but sadly also a very, very wrong one. Ultimately it probably says more about male film industry attitudes in the thirties than that of the average man or woman on the street. Despite this, I think several books deserve to be written about whatever issues Joan Blondell’s character has in the movie. Did she get on with her father? Was she hit as a child? Does she feel undervalued as a person? We need to know these things and give her all the help she deserves. Maybe she just needed a cuddle. Actually, I’m not sure I want to know, to be honest.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Random Thoughts # 1 - October Round-Up

Since I’m proving to be incapable of writing such a thing as a short blog entry, and since real life seems to be conspiring to prevent me from writing regular film reviews and profiles, I thought that I would start each month with a brief review of my thoughts, viewings and listenings throughout the previous four weeks. So here’s how I spent my October... The most newsworthy event in October for me was the death of Norman Wisdom aged 95. Though he stopped making regular film appearances in the 60s (and stopped making decent films in the 50s!) he became a bit of a national treasure in Britain due to his ability to seemingly never age (he was still falling off ladders well into his 80s) and his regular television appearances. He was someone that I grew up with and who, for a brief period in my teens was my favourite film star. I do mourn his passing but have mixed feelings, as I haven’t watched one of his films in years and I’m not entirely sure that I’ll still find his mawkish form of slapstick particularly funny. I really meant to watch The Bulldog Breed, Man of the Moment or Up in the World in tribute to him but I never got round to it. I still have good memories of him and though at times he fell in to the Chaplinesque trap of being overly sentimental, he was an excellent physical comedian with tons of charm and a real survivor, entertaining audiences for over 60 years. Despite his flaws and patchy filmography, he’s a uniquely British comedian (though inexplicably a national hero in Albania) and it’s sad that another part of my childhood has disappeared into the ether. For a rather nice tribute to Sir Norman, please click here.
Film highlight of the month was a rare big screen showing of the 1945 British thriller Murder in Reverse? Starring William Hartnell. Though essentially a B picture this was a tautly directed tale of a man innocently sent down for murder and who, upon his release sets out to clear his name. It went by at a cracking pace and Hartnell, as ever was excellent. He really is a most under rated actor and I would really like to see more of his work. Whilst best know today for Doctor Who, he was a juvenile lead in British films of the 30s (as Billy Hartnell) eventually graduating to character parts in films such as The Bells Go Down, The Way Ahead and Odd Man Out. Murder in Reverse? was one of several attempts to establish him as a leading man in thrillers and crime films, in the mould of Bogart, Robinson or Cagney. It didn’t quite work out but at least he got the chance to show his skill as an actor in films such as this. In Murder in Reverse? his character emerges from prison half way through the narrative after fifteen years inside and Hartnell excels at subtly showing the effects of what he has endured. He’s a broken man but a man with a pent up rage to even the score, despite being physically spent. In many ways, Hartnell is almost a method actor in his use of mannerisms and body language to emphasize details about his characters, both major and minor. Perhaps his greatest and most accomplished attempt at this approach is his portrayal of Dallow in Brighton Rock where it’s the details such as chewing on a matchstick or cleaning his nails that help to establish depth to the character. It’s a testament to his ability as an actor that Hartnell never lets his performance be swamped by Richard Attenborough’s blisteringly intense star turn. For me another Hartnell highlight is to see him tussle with Patrick McGoohan in the climatic moments of Hell Drivers. To see these two icons of 60s television share screen time (and try to kill each other) is a real treat. Though it seems that a DVD release of Murder in Reverse? is not on the horizon, I’d implore anyone with an interest in British movies of the 40s and 50s to search out a film featuring William Hartnell. I just wish there were more of them available, including the elusive and awesomely titled comedy I’m An Explosive. If anyone has a copy, well my right arm is yours…. Other Movie highlights in October – The Grass is Greener (1960) – One of my favourite Cary Grant films from back in the day still held up, much to my relief. It’s a lovely, underplayed film (sometimes too underplayed though) with a great cast, especially the demure and elegant Deborah Kerr. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) – I Finally made it through all 12 chapters of possibly my all time favourite movie serial. I know a lot of people prefer the first two but this one, with its stirring music and impressively epic scale gets my vote. If only all serials were so consistently exciting. Next up is The Mystery Squadron, my first Mascot serial, hooray! It’s a Boy (1933) – British farce starring Leslie Henson and Edward Everett Horton about a man finding out he has an illegitimate child on the eve of his wedding. It’s suprisingly racy for it’s time with several innuendo-laden lines and a scene where Horton and Henson have to explain what sex is! Old Mother Riley’s Circus (1941) – This is one of the better Arthur Lucan films featuring the character that practically wrote the book on lowbrow humour. I’m going to write a profile on the Old Mother Riley films once I’ve watched a few more but the character is certainly…an acquired taste. It’s very difficult to explain in a few sentences so I’d encourage anyone reading to get hold of one of the films. You may be confused at first, but trust me they grow on you. Old Time Radio highlight of the Month - I listened to an excellent edition of the Lux Radio Theater from September 26th 1938 where Jack Benny and Mary Livingston appear in a production of Seven Keys to Baldpate. What makes this one so good aside from having Jack and Mary playing themselves is that the usual host, Cecil B. DeMille also appears as himself. In the story, Jack Benny is constantly pestering DeMille to let him appear in and write one his films, so C. B lets him stay in one of his (haunted) properties in order to write the script. The whole thing is ridiculous but you can tell that the cast are having a great deal of fun, and DeMille, who really can’t act to save himself is pretty amusing. I know that there are about three million episodes of the Lux Radio Theater but this one is definitely worth digging up. And there you have it - that was October. All this and no mention of time traveling Chaplin extras! Not from me, no sir. Next month…November!

Friday, 22 October 2010

Mitzi Green - Pre Teen Flapper of the Screen!

It must have been a tough life being a child star. Regardless of the loss of a carefree childhood, the minute you start to grow up you instantly lose precisely the appeal that made you loved by millions in the first place. Even worse, in years to come all people will want to talk to you about is the work you did as a five year old that you can probably barely remember. Of course some child actors managed to reinvent themselves as fully-fledged stars as adults (mostly by starting as a teenager rather than a child it seems), though a magic formula for success in the transition was continually elusive. However, the vast majority did not make the transition, and once they reached a certain age, packed their bags and returned to civilian life, returning perhaps only for a short lived comeback as a young adult. Mitzi Green followed that pattern as far as her career in movies went, but luckily her talent was such that she crossed over to the bright lights of Broadway and continued to wow crowds throughout those ‘difficult’ years.

Mitzi Green, who would have turned 90 today, was a rather unusual child star in that despite being only nine years old on her screen debut appeared too grown up for a stint in Our Gang yet refreshingly dispensed with the sickly sweet sentiment associated with the Shirley Temples of the world. Miss Green appeared to be that rarity in the land of child actors: the child actor that isn’t precociously annoying. I mean that as no disrespect to the considerable talents of the likes of Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper and Shirley Temple but Mitzi Green created a screen persona that was the antithesis to the cliché of the Hollywood child star. She was worldly-wise, self aware, cheeky, manipulative, decidedly annoying (to other characters) and most of all, supremely talented for her age.

Though I’ve currently only seen a handful of her screen appearances (and I’m trying to get hold of more of her films as I speak!), from what I’ve seen she shows confidence, timing, poise and excellent physical and facial reactions. Of course, upon reading about her background this is no surprise. She was born in 1920 to a couple of vaudevillians and appeared in their act from the age of 3 or 4. Her natural talent was for mimicry and impressions and combined with her abilities in song and dance must have brought the house down on a regular basis. This translated very well to pictures and she made her screen debut in 1929’s The Marriage Playground. From her first moment on screen she looks at ease with the new medium.

The Marriage Playground is an interesting early talkie with an excellent cast including Mary Brian, Fredric March, Kay Francis, Lilyan Tashman and Anita Louise. Mitzi plays one of the children in a large family that are going to be split up due to the actions of their selfish socializing parents. With her round face and bobbed hair Mitzi Green stands out from the group of kids (almost a nine year old flapper!) and establishes herself as the brat of the family, cheekily asking everyone she meets for a present. She insults wayward mother Kay Francis about her “rotten taste in jewelry” (the pearls given for a present weren’t big enough it seems) and then puts her foppish boyfriend through his paces by riding him like a horse round the house (saying “Giddup you old nag!”) Later in the movie she dispenses marriage advice to lovelorn Mary Brian due to the fact that she once listened to Kay Francis’ character getting proposed to behind a door. Brian asks her what happened and Mitzi acts it out then innocently adds that after that “I couldn’t hear a thing for the looongest time!”

What’s interesting about her character in The Marriage Playground is that despite the wise cracking, know it all attitude she succeeds in making her character very funny and very appealing. Whether it’s chastising Fredric March’s (thirty-something) wife that “You gotta realize, you’ve lived your life!” or taking her little handbag with her as she shakes her fist at the characters to give them a piece of her mind like a middle aged warhorse wife, she makes every scene memorable and above all likeable. Of course, it helped that she paused to ask for presents first. It’s just astonishing to think that this fully formed little character was only nine and able to seemingly evoke so many reactions from an audience in just her first screen appearance.

Fast forward a few years and the twelve year old Mitzi Green is starring with Wheeler and Woolsey in Girl Crazy. I’ve already talked at length about the wonders of this film here, so I won’t go into much detail but in this picture we see Mitzi near the end of her career and seemingly in the movie for one reason only, to do her much vaunted imitations. In fact from her first appearance in the movie (as Bert Wheeler’s bratty kid sister) she asks everyone she meets “Would you like to hear my imitations?” The answer is a firm ‘no’, but in the meantime she at least gets to sing and dance a little, annoy the heck out of people and once again dispense advice to the lovelorn. She eventually breaks down their defences and she gets to do her imitations, though we have to wait until almost and hour into the picture for the pleasure.

Without having seen the appearances in between, it seems that by this time her screen persona had perfectly gelled into a well rounded, singing and dancing version of the 1929 one. Her timing, particularly in the bits of comic business she does with Bert Wheeler is excellent and her mannerisms get the most out of the material while also convincing the viewer that there is a real bond between her and her on-screen brother. Despite annoying him, she is always subtly looking out for him, whether fixing his love life, advising him what to do or trying to get him his money from scheming Robert Woolsey.

However, the real highlight of Girl Crazy is Mitzi Green’s famous imitations. Her routine is truly amazing and presents itself as a sort of bizarre and surreal late night cabaret act. The idea is basically the Gershwin tune “But Not For Me” as sung by a number of celebrities. Firstly, Bing Crosby ‘buh-buh-buh-buh’s through it, (only for Mitzi to comically run out of breath to follow up with the trademark whistle) Next up is a stuttering Roscoe Ates, which was pretty funny, but she tops it with her spot on and truly unsettling George Arliss (complete with what looks like an onion ring monocle!) The way her whole body and face change to actually ‘become’ Arliss is amazing and slightly terrifying! Finally we are given another picture perfect imitation of Edna Mae Oliver, complete with all the eye rolling and fussing one associates with her. The whole performance lasts only a minute or two but is a jaw dropping musical and comic tour de force. Disappointingly, she threatens a Maurice Chevalier impression earlier in the film but doesn't actually get to do it. It’s scenes like this that set her so far apart from her child star contemporaries. No need for scene stealing or sentiment, Mitzi was a truly unique talent, but sadly one with a definite shelf life in the movies.

Mitzi only had a few more film appearances before she packed her bags and left for Broadway. It was clear that she had an amazing combination of natural talent and it was not surprising that she found much success there. A movie and television comeback in the early fifties was short lived and she retired to raise her family. Sadly, she died of cancer aged only 48. Had she lived longer, I wonder how much she would have remembered of her days in Hollywood as a child star. Strangely though, seeing how confident and in command of her own talents she seemed on screen, I would like to have thought that it was a clear and hopefully pleasant memory for her. She certainly stood out from all the other child stars and presented a character that while no angel was just smart and sweet enough to win over audiences despite her sometimes beastly behaviour. More importantly, she achieved all this without resorting to the scene stealing, heart string pulling shenanigans of the curly haired brigade. No, Mitzi Green had far too much talent for all that.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

House of Errors (1942) - Harry Langdon on Poverty Row

I read a fascinating article years ago that theorized what could have happened to Laurel and Hardy had they chosen to join a studio other than Fox in 1940. Ideas were put forward as to the artistic and financial merits of signing with Columbia, Universal or even poverty row studios such as Monogram or Republic. Obviously Stan Laurel thought he could convince the big studios to let him exercise some creative control over his pictures, but ultimately it didn’t work out that way and years of artistic frustration were to follow. However, other comedians of the silent era down on their luck didn’t have the box office power of Laurel and Hardy and had no option other than to find a home with the likes of Educational or Pathe. It stands to reason that in a non-corporate, low budget setting the likes of Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon would be given more creative control in which to create their brand of comedy. I mean, surely a small time operator would bend over backwards to have a bona fide star (albeit a faded one) headline one of their productions?

Sadly, in Harry Langdon’s case, the freedom of a small studio did not equal a funnier, more creative film. Sure, some of his Educational shorts are very funny, but like Keaton he’s mostly just an actor rather than a creator. Perhaps in Langdon’s case it was just too late in the game for him to put himself heart and soul into the making of a new picture. Perhaps his reputation in the industry by the 1940s was such that producers merely saw him as a jobbing actor and not an artist. Perhaps he himself just saw movie work as a paycheck and was pleased to have income, no matter the quality of the material. Most likely he found, like his peers that the business model of the movie industry had changed since the 20s and that producers now called the shots.

This all brings us to House of Errors, a 1942 comedy starring Langdon for the Producers Releasing Corporation, a poverty row company mostly known for westerns. The movie is cheap and mostly cheerful, but what makes it interesting is the pairing of Langdon with former Laurel and Hardy gag man and director, Charley Rogers. The two had previously teamed up in Monogram’s Double Trouble in 1941 and the result must have garnered enough interest to warrant a second go. The pair work brilliantly together and despite the movie being slightly below par, they really come across as a double act with real chemistry. Harry Langdon by this time had evolved his “man-child form Mars” routine into a sort of permanently confused Hugh Herbert or Frank McHugh type of character, which played especially well off Charley Rogers’ fast talking, scheming Englishman. In fact, Rogers is so good at the character that I think he really missed his calling by not returning to his native land after the war, as he would have fitted in perfectly with the cast of music hall comedians making films in Britain in the late 40s and early 50s.

The plot of the film concerns wannabe reporters Langdon and Rogers (interestingly named Bert and Alf, the names of Stan and Ollie’s alter egos in Our Relations, a movie which Rogers had a big hand in writing) disguising themselves as home help for reclusive inventor in order to get a scoop on his latest idea, a new machine gun. Luckily, The Producers Releasing Corporation seemed to have had some faith in Harry Langdon as he is credited with the film’s story, and although it’s difficult to say with authority which bits were his, there is definitely an air of familiar Langdon-esque whimsy in the paper-thin plot.

What is really nice about the film is the little moments of comic business. Most of these come from the perfect timing and reactions of Langdon and Rogers. Langdon at times comes across a little like Stan Laurel but with the added layer of punch drunk buffoonery one associates with him (especially in sound). There’s lots of the usual vacuous blinking, bleary eye rolling, inept pointing, and inability to use limbs as nature intended, which due to Langdon’s advancing years (he was 57 when he made the film) make the whole childlike act all the more bizarre and incongruous. He also has an odd way of talking which involves saying…a lot of his lines…with…funny pauses. All in all he’s wonderfully entertaining and when paired with the fast talking Rogers, with his expert timing they produce a real winning combination.

The movie also has a number of quite charming visual gags which you have to assume were the work of Langdon, but which sadly never get the chance to evolve. On a side note, I’ve always found it interesting that Laurel and Hardy could easily pack a fully-fledged plot and a ton of well-worked gags into a 65 minute feature whereas movies like this at the same length collapse under the boredom of an inconsequential story interspersed with half formed routines. House of Errors (and its ilk) seems to take forever to end but Sons of the Desert does twice as much, ten times as good in less time. It raises the question, why did 40’s comedy producers feel the need to sideline comedians? Watching House of Errors, I could not care less about the nominal lead and his budding romance, and this goes for every Abbott and Costello or Ritz Brothers movie too. But I digress…

The aforementioned gags include Langdon’s heart beating out of his chest only to be moved by him to his other side (the accompanying line "I think he's got heart trouble", a sly mention of Langdon's final silent?), Langdon and Rogers doing housework and pushing air from a vacuum cleaner all the way under a carpet as well as playing a tune on a kettle. Also, in a flophouse the pair get involved with a flea circus (a nice cameo from Monte Collins) and Langdon traps his hand then does some ridiculous pantomiming as he tries to fix a crooked painting. All these situations are lovely while they last but unfortunately are brushed aside in favour of reporters, spies and plans for guns.

However there is a bit of redemption at the end where Langdon fires the new gun accidentally and in hitting some stock footage appears (I think) to kill the obnoxious hero! This done, the girl neatly falls into Harry’s lap, where being Harry he kisses her with his fingers then uses them to “eat her nose”! She seems a bit surprised as the credits roll…

House of Errors is by no means a good film, in fact it’s pretty terrible and sadly Harry Langdon is actually hardly in it. What makes in interesting is watching a former great in reduced circumstances, and regardless of the reasons for being there we can see tiny little glimpses of genius. I’d like to think that if Laurel and Hardy had ended up at the Producers Releasing Corporation that their films would have been just as awful too, yet similarly filled with glimmers of hope. In fact, anything they made for a poverty row studio would’ve been an improvement artistically over their 40s output at Fox and MGM.

The other interesting and unrealized part of the film is the pairing of Langdon and Rogers. It’s a more traditional double act than Langdon’s long-standing partnership with Vernon Dent (as good as that was) and really deserved more screen time. If only Columbia had seen the double act and decided to incorporate them into Harry’s then current series of shorts, it might have reached a degree of potential. As it is, all we have are a couple of films and a whole load of what ifs. But then again, Harry Langdon was probably pleased to get the work and a script credit and after all he had been through in his career perhaps that was more than enough.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Erich von Stroheim - The Man You Love to Hate

Erich von Stroheim is a man of many myths. From the myth of his aristocratic background to the myth surrounding his lost movies, he has certainly had his ups and downs at the hands of critics, writers and historians. It’s been interesting to watch over the years as his reputation rose, primarily based on the tantalizing thought of those just out of reach missing masterpieces, only to dip as the restored (or as near restored as possible) versions of his films became more easily viewable. Tastes change also, and his seemingly adult viewpoint in the twenties seemed starkly realistic to sixties critics, but those same viewpoints have been overtaken by the supposed deeper sophistication of contemporaries such as Lubitsch and Murnau. In fact, the consensus thought as far as I can gather these days is that he was an arrogant and foolish man with dreams bigger than his abilities and who was quite possibly a bit mad.

Though I run the risk of being thought a simpleton for my views and I fully understand any objections, I firmly believe that Erich von Stroheim was quite simply the greatest director that ever lived. Better than Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Lubitsch and all those other ones who currently find favour with the smart set. Though undoubtedly in terms of consistency, longevity or popularity he cannot stand up to any comparison, in terms of his passion, obsession, vision and forward thinking he stands head and shoulders from the crowd. Of all his contemporaries he is the most modern, both aesthetically and philosophically.

Like all great directors, he really only has a handful of things to say. Indeed, his pictures are littered with the same symbols, characters, times and places. What sets him out from his contemporaries is his incredibly adult approach to his material. While Cecil B. DeMille undoubtedly started the cycle of social realism in silent cinema, it is Stroheim that takes the concept and shows it in all its harsh, grotesque glory. His oft quoted comparison of himself with Ernst Lubitsch that, “he (Lubitsch) shows you the king on his throne and then he shows the king in his bedroom. I show the king in his bedroom first. In that way, when you see him on the throne, you’ve no illusions about him” holds true and perfectly highlights his thinking about the inner corruption and depravity that exist in the world as he saw it.

I could go on to give endless examples of this in his films but the point is that no one else in the twenties was thinking this way. No one else was so actively defying the morals of the time in the name of art and no one else thought to attempt to expose not just the seedier side of life and social classes, but while doing so to expose the corruption and disintegration of the post war society around him. By cleverly transplanting most of these situations to post or pre war aristocratic Europe, Stroheim was given free will to shape a world of his own choosing and to strip away the artifice of the very people around him in Hollywood.

However, what marks Stroheim, as a director of the very highest caliber is his all encompassing, obsessive worldview. On one hand this exhibits itself in all aspects of the film making process, not just in writing, directing and starring in his own productions but to his minute, compulsive attention to the details of set dressing, costuming and even the casting of extras. To some, the stories of footwear being bought at great cost for banquet scenes in which they are never even seen may seem ridiculous and unnecessary, but to me they strike me as the work of a man driven by his art. Stroheim also pioneered the use of real locations for films, used character actors in starring roles and used untrained extras in an attempt to put the microscope of the camera up as close to real life as was possible with scant regard to commerce. Others doing this would be applauded but it seems Stroheim isn’t in that select club.

Of course, as a director Stroheim is famous for two things. Firstly it is as the blueprint for every parody of the mad, tyrannical and aristocratic film director. This is perhaps justified, due to his habit of putting his cast and crew in danger in the name of a good take. From the swelteringly dangerous heat of Death Valley in Greed where he almost killed his actors in an attempt to get them to convey pure hatred and blood lust, to the use of real prostitutes to play prostitutes in orgy scenes (not to mention getting his extras drunk and filming it), his quest for the realest of the real was at the expense of all else. Once again, others (for example Werner Herzog) are mostly lauded for this life or death obsession with art, but Stroheim, it seems is just labeled crazy.

The second thing that he is famous for as a director is for probably being the only person that Hollywood effectively “banned” from directing films. In 1933, after being pulled from what would have been his first sound feature, Walking Down Broadway, Stroheim was never to direct again. His arrogance and excess finally ensured that no one wanted to work with him or employ him to be in charge of a film. In the space of a year, Stroheim went from being the infamous director of scandalous films, to being the subject of a begging letter sent round the MGM stars by a friend so that he and his family could eat at Christmas. In the end the money was raised but Stroheim was so ashamed that he threatened to kill himself that Christmas Eve. He was the living embodiment of the phrase “You’re only as good as your last picture”

I think only Buster Keaton had a similarly spectacular fall from grace. Of course both their declines involve Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg and highlight the then growing power of the producer in Hollywood over the artist. Those that couldn’t play ball with the big studios just had to find somewhere else to work. In the cases of both Keaton and Stoheim, they had families to feed so just had to take whatever work was available. Both ended up playing bit parts in poor films and having a stint in the MGM script department brushing up scripts unworthy of their talents. Similarly, both would eventually find their reputations restored in Europe before the end of their lives.

One of the most admirable traits of Stroheim was his inability to entirely give up on his art. Even though he spent the remainder of his life as a jobbing actor he still had the strength of will to impose his unique character and obsessions on each of his parts. Sometimes this meant subtle rewriting of scripts and sometimes it meant challenging the director to a battle of wills but in each time his part and usually the film benefited greatly from his input. His acting appearances are littered with aristocrats, disability, deformity, orthopedic braces, white gloves, religious imagery (Christian and voodoo), insanely detailed set dressing and sly references to Christmas and geraniums (a Stroheim signature). He even wrote a couple of pot boiling novels that neatly synthesized all his obsessions into pulpy, trashy episodes. In short, his dreams had been taken from him but he never gave up.

In the end the myths endure. Stroheim is a director who only made ten films, the vast majority of which were never released as he intended and which now exist (if they exist at all) in mutilated versions. What other director is held in such high regard with such little evidence available? I believe that his reputation goes beyond tales of the grail-like uncut version of Greed, or the anecdotes of insane extravagance and is due to his unique understanding of the motion picture as a medium of boundless potential, one that has no need to justify itself as art and which can and should peek behind the veil of lies that life presents. His obsessional need to explore this world, crumbling as it was, in any medium that would have him, marks him out as not only a great director but as an exceptional artist. That petty minded studio bosses ultimately curtailed the reputation, genius and development of such a dynamic and unusual talent is one of the great tragedies in film history.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Locked Door (1929) - Barbara Stanwyck's Secret Shame

Barbara Stanwyck is probably my 4th favourite actress. Her charm, beauty and intelligence shine through in each of her performances and she is undoubtedly a star in the upper echelon of Hollywood with a resume filled full of movie classics. Unfortunately, and I realize that to some people merely admitting this is utter heresy, I kind of lose interest in her work around 1936. For the rest of the 30s there are many films of hers that I really enjoy watching, but for the most part the magic of the early years is gone. Going into the 40s and beyond, while always watchable and entertaining, her movies just don’t push my buttons in the same way. Even later team ups with the likes of Errol Flynn and James Cagney leave me kind of cold. And all those westerns in the 50s (and hell, even co-starring with Elvis) don’t do it for me either. For me, the Barbara Stanwyck of Night Nurse, Ten Cents a Dance and Shopworn is the one that I want to watch, and while she arguable evolved into a much better, and certainly more famous actress I still think of her as the plucky Depression era girl trying to make good in a bad world.

Now that I’ve outed myself as a part time Stanwyck fan and earned your eternal distrust and revulsion, I’ll continue. I just needed to get that out in the open. I feel like a weight has lifted off my shoulders…

The Locked Door is yet another example of the stagy melodrama so prevalent in early sound films, and a movie generally considered by most (including Stanwyck herself) as being, well not the best example of the art form. To my alarm, during the first couple of moments I tended to agree with the critics. The opening scene sees Barbara wined and dined by bad boy Rod La Rocque on an illegal drinking cruise. The acting by both of them (but especially La Rocque) is just awful with stagnant dialoque and wooden delivery of the highest order. The horrible scene is only saved by the assured and subtle comedy of Harry Stubbs as a incompetent waiter. His appearance imediately shows both of them up and luckily deflects most of the pain.

From there (and 18 months later) the plot concerns Stanwyck’s attempt to split up the affair her sister-in-law is having with La Rocque while also trying to hide the shame of her own past with him to her new husband. You know, the usual fare for the early sound era: scandalous pasts and secret shames. The locked door of the title is the door behind which Stanwyck hides as her husband (played by William ‘Stage’ Boyd) scuffles with La Rocque and accidentally kills him. She confesses to the murder for the good of the family name and drama ensues, as you would expect.

In Rod La Rocque I thought that I’d finally found a silent star that just couldn’t act in sound if his life depended on it. I’ve no way of knowing if the film was shot in sequence but it certainly seems like it as it’s almost as if you see him grow in confidence as the movie goes on. The terribly wooden actor of the first scene is gradually replaced by a swaggering, slimy lothario played with a good attention to character. He makes you hate him but lets the veil slip every so often to see a cracked soul behind the charade. Rod La Rocque’s career wasn’t exactly stellar in the sound era but from this outing he certainly should have been given more of a chance to play villains as he seems well suited to playing the heel. I think I need to see more of his work.

There’s a quite charming relationship played out throughout the film between La Rocque and his butler, played by George Bunny. The implication is that many secrets have been shared (and covered up) between the two and although of differing characters and backgrounds, there emerges some real but unspoken affection for each other. As La Rocque sits idly in his room he puts away the photo of a woman on his desk and replaces it with the new flame, mentioning the oncoming “fresh flower” to his life. Bunny wistfully says to him “You’d be such a nice man if there weren’t any ladies in the world”, to which La Rocque’s equally wistful reply is “But it wouldn’t be such a nice world…” He may be a serial womanizer, wrecker of marriages and all round cad, but underneath it all perhaps he just wants to be loved. Or perhaps he just has fun doing it.

With the high melodrama of the murder comes one of the film’s other highlights in the shape of the wonderful Zasu Pitts. She plays the bored telephone operator at the apartment block where La Rocque lives. As the police arrive she gets more and more excited until she pleads with her boss (played by Keystone great Mack Swain) to be allowed to go up and watch the action, saying, “Oh let me go up, I may never see a murder!” Later, the police call for her to give evidence. As they open the door she falls in, having obviously been listening. She totters around, almost falls over then regains her balance all in one swift movement with a triumphant cry of “I’m in!” It’s a simple but beautifully played piece of comic business and is in fact the highlight of the whole movie. More movies need Zasu Pitts to liven them up.

Of course, none of the aforementioned chatter has really mentioned Miss Stanwyck and her performance. Well, she’s really not too bad. In fact, for her first sound appearance she gives the impression that she’d been at it for years, She has a tendency to shout a little too loud but having just listened to her reprise Stella Dallas on the Lux Radio Theater, that’s not something she got over very quickly (my advice: turn the volume down for that episode). With some minor tweaking, it’s almost as if she arrives on the screen fully formed as the (early) Barbara Stanwyck we all know and love. Her pairing with La Rocque, though starting off on shaky ground, develops into a confident showing for both of them despite the creaky melodrama of the plot and its characters.

And you know what? I’ve just realized that I started out wanting to talk about Barbara Stanwyck and ended up becoming a new fan of Rod La Rocque (my Stanwyck fan credentials just slipped even lower). I think really that says it all about The Locked Door. Barbara Stanwyck is good but she’s far from the most interesting thing on show. However, she’d have her day. Well, until 1936 if you're me.

Monday, 6 September 2010

A Notorious Affair (1930) - Kay Francis, Man-eater!!

A Notorious Affair is another of those films dealing with the lives and loves of the English aristocracy, a common subject in the early 30s for some reason. This time it is all about pretty English rose Billie Dove and her ill-fated marriage to Italian violinist Basil Rathbone. On one hand this is due to that eternal problem of the ruling classes, that she married beneath her station (I mean, a musician? What would the neighbours say?), and on the other hand that the aforementioned husband has the bad fortune to fall into the man-hungry gaze of a certain Countess Olga Balakireff, played here with relish by Kay Francis.

To say that Kay Francis steals the film would be a vast Titanic sized understatement to say the least. She gets the best lines, the most striking close ups, the most shimmering lighting and the swankiest of fashions. Best of all, you can tell that she knows she has a choice role as she is absolutely, jaw-droppingly outrageous in the movie. As a vamp, she about the closest to a hungry eyed, drooling she-wolf you are ever likely to see. Despite not really being in much of the film, she completely eclipses our nominal star, the rather lovely Billie Dove. It’s not that Dove isn’t good, because she does very well but her saintly heroine just can’t compete against Francis’ vulpine sexual predator.

The movie starts by showing a fox hunting expedition returning to the stables. A group of aristocratic gents with moustaches immediately let us know we are in jolly old England by saying “Wonderful!”, “Topping!” and “Rather!” to each other. No seriously, they actually say this. And what exactly is the object of their upper class clichés? Why, it’s Kay Francis, returning from the hunt and resplendent in top hat (we later find out that she’s “London’s most daring horsewoman”).

Upon dismounting her horse, she suddenly stops in her tracks having spied a youthful stable hand. We get a shot of her face with the most unbelievable look of lust in her eyes. She then checks that the coast is clear, and we see the stable door slowly close. There is a brief pause then the door reopens. Kay and the stable boy are readjusting themselves as she asks his age. He is 28. She replies, “I thought you were a lot older”, as he wipes the lipstick from his face. Satisfied, she walks out and immediately spies the kennel boy. There is another look of predatory lust, this time with a callous smirk. New conquests!

Although the scene is far from subtle (returning from the hunt, now where could we find a metaphor in that?) in a mere minute or two of audacious behaviour Kay Francis has already stolen the picture. In the next scene, Billie Dove declares that she doesn’t hunt foxes but “hunts ideals”. Bah! Who wants that? Miss Dove, you may be pretty with your big eyes but what we really want to see is Kay Francis having her wicked way with a succession of servants and orderlies. In a top hat.

Later, Billie Dove introduces polite society to her new husband, played by an impossibly young Basil Rathbone. Though he plays the part very well, he is lumbered with a ridiculous accent. I think it’s meant to be Italian but it could equally be French or Dutch. I suppose he was just starting out in pictures but it seems utterly mind-boggling to take away one of his biggest assets, his wonderfully rich voice. However, it speaks well for his ability as an actor that he gives a decent amount of depth to the role despite this handicap. Despite the having vocal stylings of Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man (he has an absurd speech about pushing a horse in a canal “before he bite me”), he is a solid and pleasingly unsympathetic lead.

As for Billie Dove, I refuse to adhere to the received wisdom that a large percentage of successful silent stars were unsuited to sound pictures. In fact I’ve yet to see the sound films of any big silent star that would give that impression regardless of their eventual success or failure in sound (but that’s a subject for another day). Dove is really very good in the film considering the competition she had on screen. In the few close ups that she is given (and this is a problem as Kay Francis is given all the important close ups), she shows much of the charisma she exuded in silent pictures, with her big eyes aglow. Despite working so much better as an actress in scenes needing facial emotions over dialogue, her voice and delivery are fine and she certainly looks lovely. It’s just that in this film, it’s so difficult to cheer on the hero…

Speaking of which, we next see Kay at the party where Basil Rathbone and his accent make their social debut. She looks stunning in a figure hugging sparkly dress, fashionably short cropped hair and long cigarette. Once again her eyes light up when she sees a man (Rathbone) and we know straight away that poor Billie Dove’s marriage is going to be ruined. He tells her about his occupation as a violinist, which gets the sharp retort of “Oh, how awful!” This gets him under her spell, and they part with her promise that “I hope to see you again…very soon”. This line is delivered with a cool puff on her cigarette, and in such a blatantly evil way that frankly all she needs is a velvet cape and a moustache to twirl and we’ve wandered into a Tod Slaughter film. Rathbone remarks that he expected the Countess to talk about horse riding but she talked of nothing but music. Billie Dove’s character retorts that it’s not surprising as “The Countess is very…versatile”. Well, that’s a word for it, I suppose.

Probably the apex of the man-eating comes shortly after the party scene, where we find her in her boudoir after a liaison with her latest conquest, the kennel hand from the start of the film, Higgins. As she (once again) starts to readjust herself after some bedroom gymnastics she looks at the poor man and says, “Higgins, I never knew you had pale blue eyes. I hate pale blue eyes. I never noticed it before…I think I’ll send you back to the kennels where you belong, Higgins” It’s all said with such detached arrogance that right there and then she just invents every single soap opera uber-bitch that would follow. Poor Higgins, he never really had a chance. He replies “Thank you, madame” and it’s back to the kennels for him.

She then moves onto Rathbone’s character and so begins their notorious affair, the details of which I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say it all works out okay in the end (Kay gets annoyed with his violin playing, he gets tired of her constant nymphomania. Well you would, wouldn’t you?). Kay Francis only has a few more scenes but she makes the best of them and the sheer outrageousness of her performance lights up the screen with its incendiary sexuality . It’s a scene-stealing, star making performance on a par with Myrna Loy in Love Me Tonight.

A Notorious Affair is typical of early sound films in that it’s essentially a creaky old melodrama, spiced up with some hints of moral indiscretion. If you take Kay Francis’ Countess character out of the script, then it’s a well-played but rather ordinary film. However, the combination of Francis’ sheer gusto in delivering the most audacious of lines and the director Lloyd Bacon’s obvious interest in shining the spotlight on a rising star lifts the film out of the average. Of course, Kay Francis would go on to become a bigger star and create a believable and popular screen persona but it’s really a shame that she didn’t go on to do more villainous roles. Her aloof, effortless glamour matched with her strikingly dark good looks mark her out as a natural vamp. I don’t think anyone can hold a cigarette holder with as much disdain as Kay Francis. Her early films, much like those of Myrna Loy show a window into a path not taken. And while commercially it was for the best, the occasional dress-up in the top hat would have been a rather fun and diverting change for her and the viewer.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Remembering Rudolph Valentino

Today marks the 84th anniversary of Valentino's passing and though I can't profess to be his biggest or most fervent fan, I've always had a certain fascination for the man in both life and in death. While he wasn't the first big movie star to die before his time, the sudden nature of his death provided the burgeoning movie fan scene with an icon to mourn over in a scale not seen since the days of the romantic poets. The chaos that his death provoked alone should have been enough to make him a legendary figure but with an already fully cultivated air of mystery around him Hollywood, not surprisingly went into fan meltdown. If it had existed then, today in 1926 the internet would have ground to a halt.

That his mystique has endured despite the advancement of film technology and our short attention span culture is a credit to his appeal and to the magnetism he exudes on the screen. He is one of a select group of cultural figures that only require to be known by a one word name and for which that name has become a byword for a whole set of behaviours and characteristics.

Like most people I grew up as a film fan fully aware who Rudolph Valentino was, but it wasn't until I saw him on the big screen in Blood and Sand that I realised what all the fuss was about. Of course with hindsight it is easy to ascribe his posthumous mystique and cult to his screen performances but I have to admit that there is an indefinable spark of magic in the way he interacts with the camera (the male equivalent of the "Garbo stare" perhaps). I even find it difficult to describe, but he exhibits at his best a sort of supremely animal like charisma that few have ever replicated. I greatly enjoy the work of his contemporaries such as Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid or Ramon Navarro but while many were better actors, none matched him for innate cinematic sparkle. As I said, a lot of this must be due to hindsight, as it is when judging any celebrity that dies young. With Valentino the cult is strong and at times difficult to overcome. Sadly, his death is just such an important part of his story.

I remember when I was a bit younger I was at a book sale and bought an almost complete run of Anthony Slide's silent movie fanzine of the late '60s and early '70s, The Silent Picture. It was a great magazine as he tracked down all sorts of still living silent artistes for correspondence and short interviews. He also received communications from the still running silent star fan clubs such as the one for Valentino, proudly proclaiming 40 plus years of service to his memory. I imagined a group of elderly women with tear stained photographs of the late star, determined to keep going through their eternal grief. I'd like to hope that somewhere the fan club is still running despite the lack of people still around who saw him in his prime.

If not, I can guarantee that there will be a veritable swarm of Women in Black today tripping over each other to place a rose on his crypt in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Despite the circus that the ceremony has descended into, it shows that he continues to remain a living part of our film culture and memory. The first time I visited Los Angeles, the first thing I wanted to do was to see Valentino's grave. I don't really know why but I felt a compulsive urge to see it. Eighty years after his death I travelled half way round the world to see some engraved marble. I guess that's the sort of pull he has on people.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Three Men on a Horse (1936) - '30s Dialogue and the Decline of Joan Blondell

Three Men on a Horse seems to be a fairly well regarded film but I found it on the whole, a bit puzzling. Not really for anything contained within the film itself but for the things it made me think about while I was watching it. The movie is an adaptation of a popular play and stars Frank McHugh, in a rare starring role as the hapless Erwin Trowbridge, a simple man with a knack of picking winning racehorses. The only problem being that he does it for fun and doesn’t believe in betting. When he falls in with some gamblers they try to befriend him in order to make their fortunes. This snappy premise is ably milked by the talented cast of character actors to showcase their considerable, and usually overlooked wares. And in the middle of it all, in a secondary role is one Joan Blondell, who at this point in her career definitely is not a character actor, and whose presence is, well…a bit odd.

From the beginning you can tell that the movie is essentially a filmed stage play. The sets are sparsely decorated and large, the cast is small, the script is dialogue heavy, there is virtually no location work and much of the action happens off screen. Of course there is nothing wrong with this approach, and despite the fact that the production screams “B-picture” the basic set up allows the experienced cast to flex their acting muscles in ways that I’d imagine many of them had rarely had the opportunity to do.

Despite all this, as the dialogue went whizzing by between the fast talking characters, all I could think was that in the last few years my mind had really become subconsciously attuned to Pre-Code movies. The dialogue in Three Men on a Horse is sharp and frequently amusing, but I think I’ve just become accustomed to there being a bit more bite in my ‘30s wordplay. It made me realize that the Hays Code for the most part really delayed the progress of movies as a form of entertainment to be enjoyed by adults. A lot of people hear so much about Pre-Code movies that when they finally see some examples they are vaguely disappointed by a perceived lack of scandal or overt sexuality. For me this is missing the point. Early sound films are so enjoyable because of their sense of freedom. The lack of any heavy censorship wasn’t a free pass to push taste boundaries, rather it made sure that dialogue could be written to not only better reflect life but to represent the viewers’ and the writers’ often varied tastes.

In contrast, late '30s movies like Three Men on a Horse seemed to develop a ‘wise guy’ patter that gives the impression of street level talk in its pitch, speed and rhythm, but in actual fact ends up saying nothing. Of course, this in itself was all part of Hollywood’s ‘re-branding’ in the post-Depression years, as the studio product got slicker and the stars became vehicles to push the glamour and prestige of film making. The point is, despite the witty script, it gets to a point where it’s just a group of men loudly talking at each other. In 1931, it would have been a different story. Perhaps not as well filmed and acted, but certainly a different story.

The cast in itself is mostly excellent. Frank McHugh is mesmerizing in the lead, tripping through the movie in a sort of naïve daze. His bleary eyed look gives the impression of a man out of step with the world and who has to put up with suburbia and a nagging wife in order to have a hobby that gives him enjoyment. The gamblers, played by Allen Jenkins, Teddy Hart and Sam Levene are impressive in that typical Warners way and hugely energetic but sadly hampered by really stagey accents. In fact everyone in the movie seems to have a really annoying thick Brooklyn accent of the ’I’ll moider ya’ and ‘you goys got a noive' variety. In fact Sam Levene’s accent as the dimmest of the three hoodlums doesn’t just verge on caricature, it practically throws caricature off the cliff then sets fire to it. Now, if all this is meant as some warped parody of the Warner Brothers gangster cycle then all is well and good, but I really doubt that was the intention. It may be a result of the script’s stage bound beginnings giving it a sense of heightened reality, but for a mostly stage bound movie it just becomes distracting. At times (and especially in the bar scenes) it really is as if the director Mervyn LeRoy just decided to do a performance of the play and film it for posterity.

Of course all this criticism is overlooking the good points of the film. The rest of the cast is really excellent, with Edgar Kennedy restraining the slow burn as a bartender, Carol Hughes (a childhood favourite of mine for her turn as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) as Mc Hugh’s eternally crying wife, Guy Kibbee as McHugh’s blustering boss and a brief, funny appearance from a pre-Jack Benny Eddie Anderson. As noted, it’s an excellent cast, but the approach just doesn’t work as a film and the accents are exactly what you hear in modern dramas when they do some awful pastiche of 1930s Broadway. Which brings us to Joan Blondell…

Unfortunately Joan Blondell succumbs to the theatrics of the play and sports a heavy, heavy Brooklyn accent, a la Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday but with none of the subtlety and charm. The accent is so thick that her character, the girlfriend of gambler Teddy Hart who has pretensions of a quiet life in the suburbs, can't avoid becoming caricature rather than character. Strangely enough I’ve just listened to a Lux Radio Theater production of She Loves Me Not from 1937 where she does exactly the same accent and it’s equally distracting and ridiculous (kind of like a lower pitched and more worldly wise Dorothy Lee). So the accent must have been her idea and a favourite to boot. Anyway, accent aside she really doesn’t do enough to merit her second from top billing, which begs the question, what was she doing in the picture in the first place? It’s clearly a B picture populated with character actors in featured roles, so why is she, the biggest star in the film, reduced to a minor supporting part?

Part of the answer may be down to Joan’s own lack of ambition and her then recent marriage to Dick Powell. She was known to just want to keep working and looking after her family rather than play studio politics so it’s likely that she was offered the script and chose to do it based on the strength of the writing and relative fame of the play. However, her appearance in the movie could also be a sign that her star was beginning to slip. Her screen appearances in 1936 give some hints as to this, despite three pictures teaming her with Dick Powell. In Sons O’ Guns she is lumbered with (and smothered by) Joe E. Brown as a leading man, and while Bullets for Ballots gives her a choice role with Edward G. Robinson, it is really just as the featured female lead in a 100% Robinson movie.

This was a pattern she would fall into more often than not in the years to come: the bright dependable leading lady to be paired up with A-list featured male stars (with Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen, Leslie Howard in Stand In and Bing Crosby in East Side of Heaven to name a few). In the late ‘30s and beyond there seemed to fewer and fewer opportunities for an equal pairing with her co-stars, with Dick Powell and Pat O’Brien being notable exceptions. Three Men on a Horse, silly accent aside may be one of the first indications that Joan was an actress to be slotted in to brighten up a movie, rather than a featured star in her own right. Of course, Joan being Joan, she didn’t fight it, choosing rather to get on with the work at hand. Perhaps if, like Bette Davis and Myrna Loy she had stood up against the quality of her parts it would have made a difference to her career. On the other hand, perhaps the example of the then fading Kay Francis at Warners was enough to make anyone forget such ideas.

I don’t know, but I can’t help but think that Joan Blondell is wasted in Three Men on a Horse, though ultimately she lends some class and real star power to a pretty cheap B-picture (Paul Harvey even fluffs a line and it stays in the film!). It’s not a perfect movie by any means but it is entertaining (in a 1936 sort of way) and features a generous spotlight on a number of actors more used to smaller roles. For my tastes however, it raises too many problems to make it a classic. And those accents…ugh. Did people in Brooklyn ever speak like that?