Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Happy Birthday William Powell!

I’ve always found William Powell to be hugely entertaining to watch, with a screen persona that matched elegance, wit and sophistication with a self-effacing and genial charm. I realize that he is still very popular with the classic movie crowd but it’s such a shame that he has not been remembered as much by the media and general public. Of course, the Thin Man films have had an enduring appeal and for him probably amount to the closest to cinematic immortality that he is likely to get, but there is really so much more to his career than just Nick and Nora.

I have to admit, much to my eternal shame, that I haven’t seen any of his silent films. I can’t comment on him as a silent actor though he had obviously established himself as a fairly big star by the time sound was introduced. Like Ronald Colman, it’s a testament to his immediate success in sound that his silent triumphs have been virtually forgotten but Powell had a voice that perfectly matched his persona and he seems to have taken to the new technology straight away.

It’s really his Paramount and Warner Brothers films that I find most rewarding to watch. Here, his screen character is a shade darker and more serious and he shows his ability to he a compelling and confident leading man. This, combined with his criminally overlooked partnership with Kay Francis (six films in total) set him out as a heavyweight star of dramas and romances. And if anyone out there hasn’t seen One Way Passage, stop what you are doing and go and watch it NOW! Beg, borrow and steal to get hold of it because it needs to be seen!

Of course, the eventual move to MGM propelled him into the upper echelon of stars and resulted in one of the best screen partnerships in film history so it’s not like it was a step down. The Powell-Loy partnership really is cinematic gold and one of the reasons why I’m proud to be a fan of classic movies. Regardless of entertainment value they also show Powell’s range and amazing gift for light (and sometimes quite bizarre) comedy.

Unfortunately I find that his late ‘30s and ‘40s films without Loy lack a certain ‘something’. Often it’s the fault of the film itself (the uninspiring Crossroads for example) and other times it’s due to his co-star merely being a Myrna Loy surrogate because she wasn’t available for the film (The Ex-Mrs. Bradford take a bow). Despite this I must admit to a fondness for Mr Peabody and the Mermaid and its threadbare charm and heartily recommend it.

In the end, though teaming with Loy was a great career move, it ultimately worked out better for her. She continued to be a star in her own right whereas Powell started to become defined primarily by the partnership and the character he developed with her. Their films may well be cinematic gold but they started to limit his career and the types of roles given to him. Of course, another explanation for his career lull could be the unfortunate death of Jean Harlow and his own later health problems. However, on the whole he has a filmography to be proud of, and unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he knew when to quit and managed to go out on top and in a dignified manner.

However, the best thing about William Powell is the emotions he evokes. He’s one of those stars that always bring a smile to my face and for whom I like so many others, hold real affection for. There’s something very genuine in him and his performances, a real and infectious sense of fun and enjoyment. As I find myself saying all too often, he is one of those stars that make it look all so effortless and easy, but this just shows what a huge talent he was. Like all great film stars, besides being a good actor he represents an ideal and an aspiration, and to me he represents warmth, sophistication and good humour (as well as tuxedos, cocktails and crime solving but that goes without saying). In fact, most importantly he represents everything I enjoy about Hollywood films in the 1930s.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Lux Radio Theater - The All-American Beauty Team 1917-1937

I’ve recently been preparing an article on the Lux Radio Theater, the long running radio anthology that ran from 1934 to 1955 hosted for much of the run by Cecil B. DeMille. Specifically I’ve been listening to a lot of the early episodes (the ones available anyway) and recently came across an interesting piece of Hollywood fluff from the opening episode of the 1937/38 season, their adaptation of A Star is Born. As was usual on the show, Cecil B.DeMille would interview all manner of Hollywood insiders and back stagers on life in the movie colony, as a way of breaking up the drama into commercial friendly segments. As a result, all manner of people are interviewed: glove makers, talent scouts, continuity experts, historical researchers and gossip columnists to name a few. On this particular episode, DeMille interviews John LeRoy Johnston, the managing editor of Hollywood and Screen Book magazines. On a side note, these were apparently on the cheaper end of the magazine market and indulged in all manner of gossip and fabrication, and it’s quite surprising that they get a free plug on the show. Anyway, Mr Johnston decides to talk about his views on beauty and “the most beautiful women in motion pictures in twenty years (sic)”. He decides to list his all time favourites and when asked his basis and criteria for the list he replies, The typical American conception of beauty, by this I mean normal, charming finely chiseled features, clear expressive eyes, intelligence, poise, well…to be honest, loveliness. DeMille asks him what is best, the “old fashioned type of yesteryear or the athletic type of today?” He answers, I don’t think the American ideal of beauty has or will ever change. I think every man admires the lovely dainty feminine woman. If she’s truly beautiful she’ll look beautiful in crinoline or slacks. He then goes on to name his most beautiful women of the screen from 1917 to 1937, the “All American Team”. And without further ado, and in mostly chronological order, here they are...

Alice Joyce Corinne Griffith Clara Kimball Young Billie Dove

Mary Nolan Joan Crawford Janet Gaynor Jeanette MacDonald

Dolores Del Rio

Norma Shearer

Madeleine Carroll

After that he names his 2nd Team as: Anne Harding, Carole Lombard, Joan Bennett, Anita Louise, Madge Bellamy, Virginia Bruce, Mary Astor, Gloria Stuart, Olivia de Havilland, Mary Brian and Marla Shelton. Obviously the 2nd team is full of then-current actresses and is interesting in itself, (I had to look up Marla Shelton as I’d never heard of her) but the 1st team is a pretty fair survey of the previous twenty years from a guy close to the business. Perhaps the only person who perhaps shouldn’t normally be on the list is Janet Gaynor, not for a lack of beauty, but only because she was the star of the night’s play and Johnston probably felt she had to be on the list to avoid her losing face. Either that or it's an awfully lucky coincidence. It’s also an interesting list based on the ideals of beauty at the time, notably with DeMille’s mention of the current “athletic” look. At the time, and throughout the Lux show, they seem to be taking great pains to convince the listener that the stars of the day are fit and healthy, as they constantly detail the exercise regime every star has to go through daily. It comes across as one of many efforts to legitimize movie acting, and to attempt to convince people that Hollywood is no longer "Sin City". Johnston’s description of the American ideal of feminine beauty is also vaguely amusing, as the way he mentions clear eyes and poise he could as well be judging at a dog show… The list is also notable for who it misses out, but ultimately it’s one man’s opinion, and a brave one at that. Predictably Cecil B.DeMille wouldn’t be drawn as to his opinions of the choices, and personally I think I’ll keep most of mine to myself too...

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hold 'Em Jail (1932) - Wheeler and Woolsey Beat The Marx Brothers at Their Own Game (Almost)

I’m unashamedly becoming an enormous fan of Wheeler and Woolsey and I’m finding that in watching their films in order they seem to just get better and better. Of course, I know that the Hays Code and studio apathy towards comedy eventually ends their run of good pictures but with Hold ‘Em Jail, their eleventh feature together, one can see a comedy double act at the height of their powers. Of course, for a lot of people the main point of interest is in the contribution of writer S. J. Perelman, one of the Marx Brothers most lauded scriptwriters. In this case the interest lies in the similarity between elements of this film, and Perelman’s previous effort, the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers. Both pictures concern college football and end with a climactic, gag filled football match. Without knowing the background to the writing of the two films, the similarity is odd and suggests either a startling coincidence or an even more startling lack of ideas. Whatever the reason, the Wheeler and Woolsey version, whilst not as well known, certainly pulls its weight in the comedy stakes and in some ways *whisper* is the funnier of the two films.

Hold ‘Em Jail manages to poke fun at two different genres, the football picture and the prison picture, and by combining them does so in a rather unique way. The film is set in probably the world’s most incompetently run prison, which also happens to have the worst prison football team. The warden is being laughed at by the other wardens and risks being thrown out of the prison football league if he loses the upcoming derby (he also stands to lose all his money due to a bet he’s put on). In a desperate measure he hires a mobster to recruit for “the old alma mater”. The substitution of a college for a prison is a clever one as it highlights the lack of difference between the two. The football game is more important than running the prison as indeed the game is always more important than academic achievement of a college. The “recruit at all costs” idea also gives the plot a lot more comic mileage as career criminals are convinced to get arrested “just for the football season”.

Of course, the satire takes a back seat to our stars, the irrepressible Wheeler and Woolsey. The pair play a couple of joke salesmen who get framed for a hold up and then, once in prison get mistaken for star football players. Along the way we get the familiar romantic pairings, (Bert Wheeler gets the young pretty girl, Robert Woolsey hooks up with the Margaret Dumont substitute) fast talking, lowbrow gags and the knockabout humour which regularly made up the successful Wheeler and Woolsey formula. However, where Hold ‘Em Jail really shines is in its excellent casting and in its polished script.

A fantastic cast is assembled for the film, full of familiar faces and comedy veterans, but perhaps the most inspired casting is of Edgar Kennedy as the prison warden. The film even opens with a variation of the famous Kennedy slow burn and throughout the film he positively sizzles with pent up frustration and rage. His first scene with Wheeler and Woolsey, in which they try to sell him novelties (they shower him with confetti, horns, balloons and lock him in a Chinese finger puzzle) is a breathtaking set piece of back and forth talking and constant subtle comic business. Such is the pace that I can’t imagine how long they spent rehearsing the scene but the end result looks utterly natural and smooth with each performer making the other two really work to keep up the pace. Kennedy really holds the picture together in his scenes and it reminded me how good he was as a straight man who could react against others to get his own laughs (a very difficult skill). It’s in scenes like this that the S.J. Perelman influence can really be seen, especially in Robert Woolsey’s cigar smoking wise guy routine (even down to his seduction of a frumpy older woman). Although this had been established as his character in most of the previous films, he is especially Groucho-like in this film, though in this case he manages to stamp his own personality on the familiar situations.

Speaking of frumpy older women, if you can’t get Margaret Dumont, the next best choice has to be Edna Mae Oliver, in her third film with the double act and clearly having a great time. She plays Kennedy’s sister who constantly feigns a prim and proper exterior, only to reveal her slightly more liberal and cheeky ways at the drop of a hat. It’s a really clever and assured performance from her and she wrings every bit of innuendo out of her comic exchanges, showing great chemistry with Woolsey. Memorably she declares that she learnt to sing after “I spent four years in Paris, though of course I’m not virtuoso”. Woolsey fires back, “Not after four years in Paris, no”. With a raise of the eyebrow she stops playing the piano and responds, “I trust we’re both talking about the same thing?”

The rest of the cast is just as well chosen, with appearances from Roscoe Ates, Robert Armstrong, Warren Hymer and comedy veterans Stanley Blystone, Monty Banks, Monte Collins and the ever-wonderful Charlie Hall. The only disappointing member of the cast is a very young Betty Grable as the love interest for Bert Wheeler. While she is fine in the role and does very well, it’s really the part traditionally taken by Dorothy Lee in these pictures and a Wheeler and Woolsey film without her just doesn’t feel right.

Along the way there is lots of very silly comedy. After all, audiences did not expect sophistication from this team. There is a brilliant bit of business where the boys try to get Roscoe Ates’ ball and chain removed by sticking his leg in a fire. As his whole leg goes up in flames, Ates sheepishly notes, “I think my foot is burning”. Wheeler looks at it and replies, “Yes, looks like it is…it’s burning” There’s a long pause while the three men vacantly stare at the burning leg. This vein of absurd humour showcases itself well in the climactic football match at the end of the film. While it’s not as polished as the similar game from Horse Feathers, it certainly has a knockabout charm and at times looks positively under rehearsed. They do all the usual stuff like running the wrong way, physical pile ups (puny Wheeler getting crushed by the burly opposing team), using decoys and hiding the ball, all to good comic effect, though you have to wonder what the response from the public would be, with Hold ‘Em Jail being released only a month after Horse Feathers.

However, some nice gags are dug up in between, such as an amusing scene where Wheeler’s pants get ripped off while running away, leading to some embarrassed looks (and Edna May Oliver remarking “I didn’t know football was so interesting!”) as a towel is put up while he changes. Generally Bert Wheeler’s physical skills make the whole football sequence worthwhile as he clowns and pantomimes his way through the final reel and its rough and ready climax. His staggering towards the line to score the winning touchdown is just so over the top and stupid that you can’t help but cheer as he somehow manages to win the game for his team. Whereas the Marx Brothers try to subvert the rules of football, Wheeler and Woolsey are just lucky to survive, such is their lack of smarts. Remember, no highbrow stuff here.

While the dialogue generally isn’t as pre-code and racy as in some of their previous films, the writing in Hold ‘Em Jail is particularly sharp and Wheeler and Woolsey carry it off with impeccable quick fire timing worthy of the Marx Brothers at their best. The confidence and exuberance shown in this film and the few before it show a team that is really getting into its stride. Wheeler and Woolsey aren’t the most likeable comedy team in film history, but they exude the brash Depression era spirit that makes us root for them. No team in film comedy is so much of their own time, these are two guys cut from the same cloth as Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell and all their Warner Brothers ilk.

Of course, Horse Feathers is undoubtedly the better film, but Hold ‘Em Jail is by far the more enjoyable of the two. Whether S.J. Perelman used some of his left over ideas for the script remains a mystery to me, but it seems, whatever his eventual contribution to the script that Hold Em Jail, unshackled by high expectations rewards in a far more carefree and endearing manner.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Parachute Jumper (1933) - Not Enough Parachute Jumping and Not Enough Bette Davis

“She’s got a southern accent like I’ve got a southern accent”

Just like Sunset Blvd decided to stick the knife into the corpse of Queen Kelly, almost as if to thumb its nose at a relic of a bygone age (and in full view of an uncomfortable Erich von Stroheim), so too did Parachute Jumper receive a posthumous kicking almost thirty years later in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As a result, and perhaps a little out of embarrassment, Bette Davis would for years mention how awful the movie and her performance in it were. I really didn’t know what to expect when I finally saw it, and although it’s actually a pretty decent movie, it turns out that the 30s producer character in Baby Jane was right about the accent but very wrong about the acting and the film.

Sadly, Bette Davis doesn’t really have a whole lot to do in the picture, as the story really belongs to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He’s surprisingly good here, and does everything right but I always feel with him that no matter how respectable his career was, that possibly more than anyone in Hollywood he’s just someone who can’t escape the shadow of his last name. He’s always charming and never less than competent but he’s just not the larger than life character that you expect from the name Fairbanks.

Anyway, the story concerns Fairbanks and his pal Frank McHugh who are a pair of ex Marines looking for work in the Depression. They find a friend in Bette Davis and quickly decide to set up home with her for reasons not entirely explained or plausible. From there Fairbanks does whatever he can to earn money, becoming a parachute jumper (to justify the incredibly bland title), a chauffeur, a bodyguard and eventually a smuggler. That’s really it for the plot, but the fun comes from the colourful details as the film gallops through its breakneck running time of just over an hour. The film positively reeks of the Depression, with numerous episodes devoted to the survive-at-all-costs attitude, combined with some rather salacious pre-code fun.

Fairbanks shows quite a loose and playful acting style from the outset as he firstly staggers around drunk in a cantina (the tongue in cheek opening shot is of a rumba-ing bottom which pans out to show Doug cavorting with a dancing senorita while supposedly on duty with the Marines) then later while getting dressed in his apartment (he shares clothes with McHugh to save money) mincing around using a camp showgirl voice complete with exaggerated hand gestures (“Say listen dearie…”). It’s certainly not the image one expects from him but it’s so disarming and...unusual that he just about pulls it off.

Enter Bette Davis and her southern accent that veers from Dixieland drawl to Mae West impersonation then occasionally just reverts to her regular accent. Well, at least she tries. Doug and Bette bond over stealing from the local diner, then in the most heinous action I’ve ever seen in a movie, they steal a fish right from the mouth of a poor starving kitty cat. The confused little thing just blankly meows as if in shock then licks the sidewalk as if to convince itself that it will eat tonight, and it will feed it's poor starving kittens. Our heroes walk away laughing smugly to themselves. Animal cruelty is fun, isn’t it? No Mr Fairbanks, no it's not.

They move in together after just meeting, though in a platonic sense – she can do the cooking and housework for him. However, on the first night Doug walks into her room in the middle of the night, the cad. When Davis kicks him out he apologises with “It’s not going to happen again, at least not while I’m sober”. She replies, “Well, I’ll take a chance”. Either things were really bad during the Depression or she’s very easily convinced. Similarly, all Doug has to do to get his first job as a…(wait for it) parachute jumper, is tell the pilots that he has some experience in flying. That is it, no questions asked and before you know it he’s flinging himself out of a biplane and onto the tracks of an oncoming train. Again, either people were really gullible in the 30s or the Depression really thinned out the talent pool.

After this, the whole parachute jumper angle is dropped and we get to the real plot (you’d almost think that they had some footage of someone jumping out of a plane and they couldn’t find the right film to put in) where Fairbanks is hired by socialite Claire Dodd to be her chauffeur. His interview is hilarious as Dodd, who almost steals the picture channels the spirit of Lady Chatterley as she sees what he’s made of. Basically the interview consists of Doug taking his jacket off as Dodd feels his muscles and remarks “You seem to be a very well built young man!” You’re hired!

Later she turns on the charm again after he delivers her home. After noting that he’s earned himself a drink she notes that he’s “not just an ordinary chauffeur” and that the job will include “considerable night work”. Finally, in case we didn’t understand what she was getting at she mentions that her previous chauffeurs were all Frenchmen because they are “more versatile”. And just how much were you paying?

After such pre code hi jinks the film reverts to a kind of dull smuggling plot that is only enlivened by the revelation that Fairbanks and McHugh were not smuggling alcohol across the border but dope! Just due to its relative rarity as a plot devise, the admission that the bad guy is a drug baron is pretty shocking. Leo Carrillo (later to achieve a kind of immortality playing Pancho in The Cisco Kid on TV and in numerous other westerns) plays the villain of the piece with a smooth menace. He’s particularly good in an early scene when he kicks out Claire Dodd (shouting “don’t come back you bag!”) and later when he hires Bette Davis (yes, the writers find something for her to do) to be his stenographer. In the scene used to show how awful Baby Jane was as a juvenile lead, Davis doesn’t do too badly, using her not inconsiderable feminine wiles to get the job. It goes to show that context is everything, just like when they show clips of silent films in adverts for laughs. In it’s place it’s a pretty good scene. Twenty-nine years later in another film, it looks a little ropey.

After some thrilling aerial stunt scenes, and a possibly quite raucous gag where Frank McHugh gives the finger to a passing motorist (I watched the scene over a few times and he seems to raise his index finger but we’re clearly meant to thing it’s his middle one) we to get the final scene where Fairbanks runs through an office block looking for Davis, saying “I’m going to go through this building like a dose of…” before being cut off by the closing of the elevator door. He runs from office to office, barging in on a number of scenes, one of which involves a rather fey man taking notes. Doug puts on his showgirl voice again and briefly camps it up to apologise in an unexpected piece of 30s homophobia. In the end we never find out what office Davis was in, as he snatches her away from something unimportant (like you know, getting a job in the poverty stricken Depression) so that they can go back to his life of kissing predatory socialites, the hilarity of petty theft, being vaguely homophobic and getting enjoyment from watching animals starve to death. Life is fun if you are a parachute jumper!

When it comes down to it Parachute Jumper is a grubby little slice of life on the street level of the early 30s. I wouldn’t say Douglas Fairbanks Jr is charming as the hero but he’s certainly got some nerve and goes all out in the role. It’s a shame that Bette Davis wasn’t used better but, wobbly accent aside she does some good work when given screen time. However, I’d say that Parachute Jumper must rate with Lawyer Man as one of the most generic titles that Warners ever came up with. Yes, it’s technically correct but really, with a title like that I would expect…well, some more parachute jumping for a start.