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Monday, February 19, 2018

LADY BY CHOICE (1934)

Writer Jo Swerling wastes a decent first act in this little Columbia programmer, an attempt to double-dip on the success of Frank Capra/ Robert Riskin's LADY FOR A DAY/’33. May Robson, ‘Apple Annie’ in the earlier film, plays another feisty old street tramp, but in worse shape, a real wreck; drunk, disorderly, unsympathetic. A regular at night court where Judge Walter Connolly has run out of ideas to keep her out of trouble. That’s when she’s spotted by Carole Lombard, charged with indecency for her Fan Dance routine. Given a suspended sentence, Lombard (with sleazy agent Arthur Hohl) thinks up a publicity angle to help the act: adopt the old gal as her mother! So far, so good; neatly handled by hack megger David Burton, glowing under Ted Tetzlaff’s lensing. (Lombard looks like a Goddess.) But once these two gals get under the same roof, in an apartment a millionaire might envy, the relationship & mutual reformation doesn’t make any sense even by the standards of Hollywood wish-fulfillment. Worse, Carole is stuck with total drip Roger Pryor as upper-crust romantic partner. At least, it’s over in 75 minutes.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Lombard slipped in a couple of Columbia pics while under contract at Paramount. The one before this, TWENTIETH CENTURY/’34 (John Barrymore; dir-Howard Hawks), one of her best. OR: As mentioned above, LADY FOR A DAY, a true Capra beauty.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953)

John Ford mavens tend to write off the director’s special affection for this forgotten (even despised) B-pic as unwarranted devotion to a failed pet-project. Or, since it’s John Ford, contrarian behavior. Returning to Irvin Cobb’s stories of a Pre-WWI Jim Crow-era Kentucky (see Will Rogers/JUDGE PRIEST/’34), the casually accepted racism in custom & attitude of the original had turned Politically Incorrect long before this came out in ‘53, let alone now. Yet Ford subverts as much as he signs on to; and right from the start as that misunderstood comedian Stepin Fetchit (all but unemployable two decades after his Hollywood heyday playing shufflin’ ‘Darkies’) drops his fishing line to dash a four-minute mile, worried he’ll be late for Judge Priest’s wake-up call. Stepin Fetchit, in a hurry? A first, though still speaking in that high, strangulated voice. Similar topsy-turvy behavior informs about every other set piece in a film largely concerned with the re-election campaign of Charles Winniger’s Judge Priest, upsetting decorum of accepted behavior, yet staying true to his idea of Southern graces. Whether welcoming home the town’s alcoholic Black Sheep scion; granting a ‘Fallen Woman’ a respectable funeral (and borrowing the local Black Church for the purpose - note how the church stays segregated for an All-White service as Black parishioners look in from outside); supporting the woman’s shamed daughter; standing up to a lynch mob coming for a young black on a rape charge (we’re only two years from Emmett Till). Uncomfortable to watch even 65 years on, especially the first two or three reels. (Are we catching on to bait-and-switch tactics or adjusting to Cobb & Ford’s overly-sunny representations?) The film is too fascinating to miss on many levels, as well as loaded with tremendous set pieces: a duel with carriage whips; the lynch mob scene Ford wasn’t allowed to keep back in ‘34; or his long planned, and much admired, prostitute funeral procession.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oddly, the film, all but dumped Stateside by Republic Pictures, was critically well received in England, even nominated for a BAFTA Best Pic.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: When we finally get around to singing MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME the lyric is changed with ‘Darkies’ replaced by ‘Children.’ Progress or infantilization?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

SANTA FE STAMPEDE (1938)

One of those quickie Westerns John Wayne churned out in his ‘galley years’ (post-THE BIG TRAIL/’30; pre-STAGECOACH/’39). This one, from Republic Pictures workhorse director George Sherman, a ‘Three Mesquiteers’ actioner, featuring Wayne, Ray Corrigan & Max Terhune. In most ways a standard Kiddie Matinee Western (Terhune even squeezes in some ventriloquism) with the boys showing up to help an old pal make a gold claim in the face of corrupt town officials. But halfway in, light banter & lack of serious consequences give way to something darker: real violence & a sense of hopelessness as a cute little girl is murdered along with her father (and after she endears herself to us by telling Wayne how pretty he is!); plus a falsely accused Wayne threatened by a lynch mob before nearly burning to death (with the cute girl’s older sister) in the jail house. And not played as heightened serial melodrama, but in the nail-biting ride-to-the-rescue spirit of early D.W. Griffith. Pretty well handled, too. Not quite ‘a find,’ but not without interest.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t hold your breath for the stampede of the title.  Pure alliteration, no more.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Listen out for a near quote from (of all things) Berlioz Symphony Fantastique.  The harp glissandos from ‘Un Bal’ are the dead giveaway.

Friday, February 16, 2018

BECKET (1964)

Even with a major restoration that looks far better on DVD than it did in theatrical revival a decade ago (much to the benefit of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth), BECKET remains more satisfying as acting showcase than historical drama. But with acting this good, that’s enough. Peter Glenville, who also directed the B’way run, never developed a fluent film technique (only seven films over a decade), with stiff crowd scenes and an odd attachment to two-shots where both leads stare straight ahead dramatically. (Effective used sparingly, here it’s in every other scene.) But the debate on Church vs State authority from Jean Anouilh’s play holds a lot of interest as Peter O’Toole’s robust (often hilarious) Henry II loses the loyalty of close advisor Thomas Becket (Richard Burton, groaning with gravitas) once he’s appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s a breached bromance for the ages (and more than that?; so much talk of love, such heart-palpitations), ending in public breakup; exile; a magnificent horseback reconciliation on the beach; assassination; penance & sainthood. A full and satisfying story arc, slightly undercut if you know that Becket was actually 15 years older than Henry, his roistering days behind him. John Gielgud gets a moment as the wily King of France (on a hideous set), while Martita Hunt & Pamela Brown glower amusingly as Henry’s mother & queen. But the film is all about the two boys, and they’re worth all the bother.

DOUBLE-BILL: O’Toole had a second helping of Henry II (with Kate Hepburn as Queen) in THE LION IN WINTER/’68. Coarser, even more crowd-pleasing, and with a phenomenal cast of up-and-comers as sons.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE (1933)

Tip-top Pre-Code dramedy about tyrannical department store manager Warren William, a ruthless manipulator of 12,000 employees under him, and the board members, bank officers & absentee-owner above. In a series of swift cutaways, we watch store fortunes rise in the ‘20s, only to crumble as The Depression kicks in. The rest of the film charts his desperate (often despicable) struggle to stay ahead of the competition by any means, whether bailing on a delivery gone awry, or losing old-timers for junior execs like Wallace Ford with fresh ideas and 24/7 work ethics. What William doesn’t know is that Ford’s gone behind his back to marry lovely store model Loretta Young (dewy & beautiful at 19). And what Ford doesn’t know is that Young succumbed to Warren ‘Pre’ & ‘Post’ Nuptials. Meanwhile, the store’s falling fortunes have the bankers salivating for a takeover. All packed into 75", chock-a-block with hilarious sex angles (that’s Alice White as the tart minx spying on a rival for William even if it means learning to play chess!); and tragic vignettes of ousted long-time administrators. Jack-of-all-genres director Roy Del Ruth, in one of his best outings, keeps it all moving and clear as a department store display window. Not to be missed.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Warren William always played (and looked) a decade older than he was. (Died young, too, only 53.) Wallace Ford, the ‘kid’ he mentors, was only four years younger.

DOUBLE-BILL: At Pre-Code Warners, William was Sleazebag King. From 1932, try THE MOUTHPIECE or THREE ON A MATCH.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

TORTILLA FLAT (1942)

Lucky in adaptations of his major works, John Steinbeck saw his lighter, California-coastline stories on the rough & tumble locals of Monterey & Salinas Valley overcooked. (Even Rodgers & Hammerstein stumbled with their musical PIPE DREAM.) Here, in swarthy Latino makeup that gives him a unintentional menacing look, Spencer Tracy plays defacto head to a shiftless group of deadbeat ‘paisano’s’ (unlikely Latinos John Garfield, Frank Morgan, Akim Tamiroff, John Qualen & Allen Jenkins) who avoid work and seem meant to delight us with their scams (often as not against each other) & naive peasant wisdom. But mostly come off as not-so-juvenile delinquents. The main storyline has Garfield confronting two life altering events: inheritance and love. Each of them sabotaged by Tracy who thinks they will only tie him down. Some of the intrigues & sentiment still come off in entertaining fashion, though a sour note of condescension always hangs about. (In the books, too.) In a way, authenticity might be the last nail in the coffin for these stories; inauthenticity softens them. It certainly helps Austrian/Jewish Hedy Lamarr as the fiery Portuguese who reforms Garfield and, just this once (probably thanks to director Victor Fleming), finds the temperament otherwise missing in her screen portrayals. Always gorgeous, but never ‘there,’ she finally locates her dramatic sweet spot.

DOUBLE-BILL: Though not thought of as a Hollywood team, Fleming directed Tracy five times: CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS/’37; TEST PILOT/’38; DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE/’41, TORTILLA FLAT; and A GUY NAMED JOE/’43. First was best.

Monday, February 12, 2018

PHOENIX (2014)

Clueless (even tasteless), award-winning embarrassment from Germany, a Post-WWII story about a Jewish survivor, horribly disfigured by the Nazis, who returns to Berlin in search of the non-Jewish piano-playing husband she never stopped loving . . . but who may have betrayed her. Only glitch, she’s had total face-reconstruction! Will he recognize her? (But Wait! That might be an advantage!) Has love survived? Will she discover all before he figures out ‘her’ secret? Most important of all, does it star Joan Crawford & Franchot Tone like a real 1940s meller? Hard to know what writer/director Christian Petzold, critics & Film-Fest jurors where thinking. This sort of lumpy stew could make sense with a highly stylized treatment, but played out as ‘kitchen-sink’ realism, in a flavorless, unconvincing recreation of ruined Berlin, it’s borderline insulting. Especially with convenient plotting that locates missing Piano Man in the chaos of divided Berlin in about five minutes; then has him figure out how to use her amazing physical similarity to his ‘dead’ wife for an inheritance grab in another five minutes. If he can only teach her how to pretend to be ‘her;’ never knowing that she's really 'she.' Sheesh!

DOUBLE-BILL: Petzold’s last film, BARBARA/’12, a 1980s-set East/West German thriller, is better than this, but also has the feel of a 1940s Hollywood meller.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/LINK: As leitmotif (and final story beat), we get Kurt Weill’s ‘Speak Low’ (lyrics by Ogden Nash), from ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, a forgotten marvel of a musical. (Avoid the lousy film version.) Right show, wrong song: ‘I’m A Stranger Here Myself,’ from the same musical, is helpfully up-tempo and much more apt to the storyline. Here’s Mary Martin from the original cast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMA0e5QhUhA

Sunday, February 11, 2018

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN (1952)

Sam Goldwyn’s big family musical, with its fine Frank Loesser score and idiotic plot, looks weirder than ever. Co-star Farley Granger called it a Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Gets Boy story. He’s right, but doesn’t go far enough. Goldwyn spent two decades trying to get a script till B’way sophisticated hit-maker Moss Hart gave him what he wanted, going back to Myles Connolly’s original whimsy for a storyline. Andersen, a decidedly odd duck in real life, is made into a dreamy cobbler, making up tales for school kids before skipping town with his orphaned fawn-like assistant to head for Copenhagen. (Mispronounced in dialogue & song with a ‘soft-A’ vowel.) Once there, he’s sprung from jail (don’t ask) to solve a ballet slipper crisis; fall for lovely star dancer Zizi Jeanmarie; and misread her hot-and-cold relationship with company manager/hubby Granger. (Note the shared double-bed! A Post-Code first?) Eventually, Andersen writes a ballet story for her (THE LITTLE MERMAID), but returns to his village (with fawn-like companion) to regale cuddlesome children & forgiving parents. Director Charles Vidor seems utterly lost on the Pop-Up Picture-Book sets (out of a touring operetta company?), and even Kaye (charming in all his songs) seems testy with some of the kids. He also swiped the one song meant for Granger & Jeanmarie - ‘No Two People’ - knowing a breakaway hit when he heard one. Star’s prerogative.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: That’s Jeanmarie’s husband, Roland Petit, choreographer/partner in the Liszt-scored MERMAID ballet. But the standout dancer is in the Schubert-scored Ice Skating Ballet where Jeanmarie’s partner completely pulls focus off her without even trying and with little to do. Called ‘The Hussar’ in the credits, it’s Erik Bruhn and you’ll instantly see what Rudolf Nureyev saw in the guy; the very definition of ballet dancer noblesse.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see Kaye & a gaggle of delightful school kids, there’s MERRY ANDREW/’58, his underrated charm-fest chamber musical.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

THE TOY WIFE (1938)

The only film with Luise Rainer solo-billed above-the-title, but hardly a promotion. Instead, near career sabotage with her misconceived character pursued by 'Featured Players' Melvyn Douglas & Robert Young rather than A-list stars, and journeyman director Richard Thorpe ill-matched to an oft-filmed French play. (FROU-FROU by CARMEN librettists Meilhac & Hal√©vy.*) In antebellum New Orleans society, Rainer’s just returned from France with older sister Barbara O’Neil (next year’s mother to Scarlett O’Hara) to find a proper husband. Frivolous & flirtatious, more irritating than enchanting, her infantile impetuosity inexplicably tempting to Young (irresponsible; debonair) and Douglas (solid; sobersided). Guided to the safe choice by older sis O’Neil (who’d also fancied Douglas), Rainer proves too immature to raise their son or run the house leaving O’Neil to move in and take over all but the most conjugal of wifely duties. It all unravels with desertion, social disgrace, a duel, three deaths . . . and is perfectly dreadful on every level. Especially Rainer, at her most insufferable, gazing ever upward rather than catching the eye of fellow players.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The best reason to watch is to compare & contrast production standards @ lively Warner Bros. vs stodgy M-G-M in handling similar elements the same year in JEZEBEL; admittedly, with Bette Davis, Henry Fonda & director William Wyler all near the top of their game. Another Southern Plantation tale, so be advised that ‘Darkies’ are on hand to sing, dance & pray to ‘De Lord’ in regrettable period fashion. (Less 1830s than 1930s.) Though only WIFE has the gall to name one of the house slaves ‘Pickaninny.’ Yikes!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *What are the odds? Augustin Daly, who presented FROU-FROU on B’way, wrote an unrelated play titled JEZEBEL.