Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Saturday, 28 February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Snapshot #1 - Five and Ten (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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