Thursday, April 14, 2016

CMBA Spring Blogathon: "Adam's Rib," or Court and Spark

This is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon: Words, Words, Words! Check out all entries!

SCENE: Upper middle-class New York City apartment, evening. Wife waits patiently by door. Husband enters.

Husband: Hello, thing.

Wife: Hello at last.

Husband: Well well well.

Wife: Well well well what?

Husband: Here we are.

Wife: How true.

Husband: Home at last.

Wife: You took the words right out of my mouth.

You have just read great screenwriting.

The movie is 1949's "Adam's Rib," a film about a married couple, inspired by a story about a married couple, and written by a married couple, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. The married couple in the film is played, of course, by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who were an all-but-married couple in real life, and this is, to my mind, the Tracy-and-Hepburniest movie of all.

That is: When we think of the unique give-and-take that we associate with a Tracy and Hepburn movie, the immovable male (who ends up moving) versus the edgy female (who loses some of her edginess), we think of this movie. Or I do, anyway -- so there! I'm also hazarding a guess that this movie comes closest to echoing their offscreen relationship, but maybe that's just a wish and not a fact.

Beyond that -- and adding to its greatness -- "Adam's Rib" captures, better than just about any American movie I can think of, what it's like to be married to someone in the best possible way -- sharing an easy, everyday intimacy that enriches your life and yet can still drive you crazy. No doubt Gordon and Kanin had this kind of relationship -- if they didn't, and they were still able to write a script like this, it's some sort of freaking miracle.

Even the way the story for "Adam's Rib" came about sounds like something that could happen in the movie -- Gordon and Kanin were driving through a frightening storm, and Gordon wanted to concentrate on something else. So she asked Kanin to tell her a story. He told her the true story of actors Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen. Once upon a time, they were married to each other, and they decided to split. Their attorneys were married to each other. During the legal proceedings, each of them fell in love with their attorneys, so both couples split and then everybody got married to everybody else.

From that, "Adam's Rib" began its gestation.

On the surface, of course, "Adam's Rib" is about a courtroom battle between two married attorneys on opposite sides of a case who almost divorce -- Amanda Bonner (Hepburn) is in private practice, and Adam (Tracy) is an assistant district attorney.

The case they get mixed up in involves Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a wronged wife. One afternoon, she buys a gun and follows nogoodnik husband Warren (Tom Ewell) to an assignation with lady friend Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). Doris barges in and shakily aims her gun at Warren, winging him. Then Doris breaks down and is arrested.

Something about Doris's case awakens the crusader in Amanda. She visits Doris in jail and gets her story, in a scene that also acts as a kind of unofficial screen test of Holliday for the Billie Dawn role in "Born Yesterday":


To paraphrase Carl Laemmle, good writing is worth repeating -- especially since this blogathon is about words. So dig the dialogue between Amanda and Doris. Notice how it's witty, yet appropriate and informative.


Amanda: Now, you would help us very much if you could reconstruct the day. All of yesterday.

Doris: Well, first thing in the morning ...

Amanda: Yes?

Doris: ... I woke up.

Amanda: Yes?

Doris: And I see he didn't sleep home.

Amanda: You were shocked and surprised.

Doris: Oh, no. Not shocked, not surprised. He used to not do that a lot, come home.
...
Doris: So then I bought some chocolate nut bars ... and I went outside of his office and I waited the whole afternoon. And I kept eating the candy bars and waiting until he come out. And then I followed him. And then I shot him.

Amanda: And after you shot him, how did you feel?

Doris: Hungry.

The Attinger Affair opens the movie with unexpected drama, with Manhattan location filming and a slight seediness that calls to mind "Naked City." The Attingers, even if they were getting along, are loud and unsophisticated -- they're a world away from the Bonners in several significant ways, and the script expertly conveys the way each couple lives, talks and fights.

Meanwhile, Adam has found out that Amanda will be his adversary in the courtroom. He steadfastly sticks to the idea that Doris Attinger deserves justice for what she did, but Amanda wants to make Doris more than a defendant -- she wants her to serve as a symbol for wronged womankind. But their argument about it never descends to Attinger territory -- they exchange words and then use their pet name for each other.

Adam: I am going to cut you into 12 little pieces and feed you to the jury. Good night, Pinkie.

In the courtroom, Amanda is intent on defending her client by skewering gender assumptions while Adam steams. And the headlines come at Adam's expense -- especially when a female weightlifter (Hope Emerson) lifts Adam in a show of strength.

That night, it's impossible for Adam to just make nice. He and Amanda are going to give each other massages, but his anger slips out, and an affectionate pat on the fanny is delivered with a smidgen of force, to which Amanda takes offense:



Adam: What are ya? Sore about a little slap?

Amanda: No.

Adam: Well, what then?

Amanda (outraged): You meant that, didn't you? You really meant that.

Adam: Why no, I ...

Amanda: Yes you did. I can tell. I know your type. I know a slap from a slug.

Adam: Well, OK. OK.

Amanda: I'm not so sure it is. I'm not so sure I care to expose myself to typical instinctive masculine brutality.

Adam: Oh, come now.

Amanda: And it felt not only as though you meant it, but as though you felt you had a right to. I can tell.

Adam: What've you got back there? Radar equipment? 



When the verdict is announced, the photographers for the newspapers (remember them?) want everyone to kiss and make up for the front pages -- the Attingers awkwardly acquiesce, but the Bonners? Not so much.

That night, Amanda is back at the apartment with her willing accomplice, next-door neighbor Kip Lurie (David Wayne), a songwriter in the Cole Porter mode (the song he writes, "Farewell, Amanda," was in fact written by Porter). Kip covets Amanda, and he's more than happy to console her while Adam isn't around.

But suddenly, Adam is around -- with a pistol:


Amanda: Adam. Listen to me.

Adam: Don't you handle me, lady. I'm not nutty. Not any more than the average. You said it yourself today. You said anyone is capable of attack if provoked. You bet, including me. Yes. (To Kip) Don't you move, young man. You stand as still as you can be.

Amanda: Now, Adam. Adam.

Adam: You said that before.

Amanda: You're sick. Please. What are you doing?

Adam: Teaching a lesson. Him first. Then comes yours. Get away, Amanda.

Amanda: Adam, stop.

Adam: Get away, Amanda!

Kip (intense, terrified): Don't do it, Amanda.

Amanda: Stop it! You've no right. You can't do what you're doing.

Adam: What?

Amanda: No one has a right to ... (realizes what she's saying)

Adam: That's all, sister. That's all I wanted to hear. Music to my tin ear. (Puts gun barrel in mouth as Amanda and Kip scream; Adam eats the barrel) Licorice. If there's anything I'm a sucker for, it's licorice.

Amanda (furious): I'll never forget this! Never!

Adam: Me neither. I'll never forget that no matter what you think you think ... you think the same as I think. That I have no right, that no one has a right to break the law! That your client had no right. That I'm right and you're wrong.

Then Amanda and Adam split up. The end.

Nah, just kidding.

But to indirectly prove Amanda's point -- that men and women are fundamentally equal -- Adam wins her back through a traditionally (at least in 1949) feminine method: by fake crying.

In the film's final scene, Amanda and Adam have made and they're heading to their house in Connecticut for the weekend -- but not before a final conversation that kind of serves as the movie's benediction for a fulfilling marriage.

Adam: Say!

Amanda: Speaking to me?

Adam: You were pretty good.

Amanda: When?

Adam: All the way through. Especially the summation. You had me.

Amanda: You weren't so bad yourself.

Adam: I didn't think so either. We got a big thing to talk about tomorrow.

Amanda: What?

Adam: They want me to run for that county court judgeship. The Republicans do. It's a sure seat, practically.

Amanda: Pinky!

Adam: Yeah, that's me. County Court Judge Pinky.

Amanda: I'm real proud of you.

Adam: I'd rather have you say that than anything.

Here's the trailer for "Adam's Rib":







Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pre-Code vs. Post-Code: "Grand Hotel" and "Week-End at the Waldorf"







Vicki Baum's 1929 novel (and play) "Grand Hotel" was purchased by MGM, and in 1932 the studio released a film version featuring all the big shots on the lot -- Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, with Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt thrown in for good measure.


Then in 1945 came "Week-End at the Waldorf," also from MGM, also based on Baum's work, featuring all the big shots on the lot -- Walter Pidgeon, Lana Turner, Van Johnson, Edward Arnold and Keenan Wynn, with Ginger Rogers (in her first film for MGM), Robert Benchley and Xavier Cugat and his orchestra thrown in for good measure.

"Grand Hotel" takes place in Berlin just before the Nazis come to power, and that setting -- along with the fact that the world seems to be closing in on several of the characters -- gives the film an air of melancholy. In typical pre-code fashion, there are several adult relationships and a cynicism that, by contrast, is almost totally missing from "Week-End at the Waldorf." World War II informs the latter film, which is understandable because it was happening at the time, but everything is covered with that slick, impenetrable MGM sheen. While "Grand Hotel" ends with a sense of disquiet, there's never really any doubt that everyone and everything in "Week-End" exists solely to steer the film toward a multitude of happy endings.

To see how vivid the contrast can be, consider the character who acts as a kind of philosophical narrator in each film -- in "Grand Hotel" it is the doctor (Stone, seen at left), whose face was horribly disfigured by a grenade during World War I. The good doctor is morose, to say the least. He haunts the lobby and is given one of the film's most famous lines: "Grand Hotel. People coming, people going. Nothing ever happens." But he's also given lines that hint at his loneliness and emotional desolation, like "A man who is not with a woman -- is a dead man."

In "Week-End at the Waldorf," on the other hand, our narrator is Randy Morton, played by Benchley. He's a superficial, silly-ass Broadway columnist who spends the whole movie worrying when his precious pooch is going to pop out pups.

Most of the characters of "Grand Hotel" are as alienated as the doctor -- Garbo plays prima ballerina Grusinskaya, whose physical and emotional exhaustion is affecting her work and draining her of life. The Baron (John Barrymore) is all hat and no cattle -- a gentleman with an empty title who resorts to petty theft to keep up appearances. The unfortunately-named Flem (Crawford) is a plucky stenographer who isn't above selling herself to get ahead. Preysing (Beery) is a bullying, hypocritical industrialist trying to set up a shady merger to save his Teutonic tush. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a lowly clerk in one of Preysing's factories, visiting the hotel for a last fling before being felled by a terminal illness. And Senf the head porter (Hersholt) is anxious because his wife is having a difficult labor offscreen.

But the real tragedy at the heart of "Grand Hotel" lies in the doomed romance between the Baron and the ballerina. They've seen each other around the hotel -- everyone has seen the Baron -- but they've never spoken.

One night, while she is performing, he slips into her vacant room to lift a string of pearls. She enters unexpectedly and he starts a slick line of patter that soon turns sincere. They Hit It Off.

In "Week-End at the Waldorf," the ballerina has been turned into unhappy actress Irene Malvern (Rogers) and the Baron has become war correspondent Chip Collyer (Pidgeon). In one of the best touches in Bella and Sam Spewack's script, their romance parallels that of Garbo and Barrymore, but with a much lighter tone -- and with lines of dialogue that even reference "Grand Hotel," not to mention a couple other MGM movies.

Chip to Irene: "I'm the Baron, you're the ballerina and we're off to see the wizard!"

Irene to Chip: "Goodbye, Mr. Chip -- Collyer."

Ginger Rogers is starting to do that raised eyebrow thing that
would become much more common in her later movies.
Irene isn't nearly as depressed as the ballerina, and Chip is no thief, although he's mistaken for one at first. The give-and-take between the two characters is geared more to romantic comedy than high drama, but so what? Rogers is great at romantic comedy and Pidgeon more than meets her halfway. When they end up having to pretend to be married, we just go along for the ride.

In "Grand Hotel," the ballerina and the Baron spend the night together, and he tells her his simple and cynical story.

Baron: "When I was a little boy I was taught to ride and be a gentleman. Then at school, to pray and lie. And then in the war, to kill and hide. That's all."

That is not a speech you would hear in a movie released in 1945.

The Baron and ballerina share a room -- hell, they share a bed. Hell, they may even have shared more than that!

In "Week-End at the Waldorf," Chip spends the night in Irene's suite because the house dicks think he's a thief and he has to hide out. But you can bet your bottom dollar that they stay in separate rooms, mister! They even make a big deal out of piling furniture against both sides of the door. We get it, 1940s people!  

In other remake news, Lana Turner takes Crawford's role as the stenographer and Lionel Barrymore's character is played by -- Van Johnson? Yep. Turner is Bunny -- that's her name -- and Johnson is Hollis, an Air Force Captain who will soon undergo a dicey operation to remove a piece of shrapnel that's dangerously near his heart (!). Bunny dreams of a nice place on Park Avenue, while Hollis just wants to get well and go home to small-town California. Oh -- and he also is carrying a song, written by a dead war buddy, that he wants Xavier Cugat's orchestra to play. You can pretty much guess what happens there.

Bunny, meanwhile, is torn between Hollis and the shiny things dangled in front of her by Edley (Arnold), an unscrupulous entrepreneur. And Wynn is a cub reporter snooping on Edley's shady doings.

Nice interacting there. Baron.
In the 1932 film, the plot threads are much more intermingled than in the 1945 film. The Baron, in fact, pretty much interacts with every character in the movie, and he is the real heart of "Grand Hotel." His death at the end of the film is genuinely affecting, devastating the ballerina, who loved him, and Kringelein, the odd duck whom the Baron befriended while everyone else dismissed him. The last indication of the Baron is his beloved dachshund, left behind to be cared for by the staff.

There's also a dog in "Week-End at the Waldorf," as we mentioned, but it's just a symbol of silly rich people. That's just one of the many reasons why "Grand Hotel" seems to have more of a heart -- even if it's a sad heart -- than its remake, which is entertaining enough, even if it has a whole lot less on its mind.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The "Killer Is Loose" Guide to a Happy Marriage

Greetings, fellow married people and others. My name is
Detective Sam Wagner. My first name isn't "Detective," ha ha!
Anywho, I'm here to give you some excellent tips on how
to be hitched -- and happy! 


First, get yourself a smoking hot wife.
This is mine, so slow your roll.


My wife's name is Lila and she's a tiger in the kitchen and
a worker bee in the bedroom. Or maybe it's the other
way around -- I never can remember.   


Oh, little problems come up now and again. Like the
 time I accidentally killed Warby Parker's wife
and he swore revenge on me by targeting Lila. 


Warby Parker was in prison, but he was paroled for
good behavior and so he headed our way. 


Lila was in real danger, so I did what any considerate
husband would do. I hypnotized her. Ha ha! Just kidding.
I didn't tell her anything at all. 


She just thought she was being shadowed by Buddy Holly.


Lila didn't understand how great I was being by keeping her
completely in the dark about being stalked by an armed
psychotic. She got mad at me and walked out. 


Buddy -- I mean Warby -- saw his chance and moved in on
Lila, who was wearing an outfit designed to blend in.


Warby disguised himself as a stadium blanket.



Of course, we stopped him in a peaceful manner and
Lila is safe.


Her trust level, on the other hand, is something she
needs to work on. 
  



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "Outward Bound" and "Between Two Worlds"

Sutton Vane's 1923 play "Outward Bound" takes place on a ship sailing to the hereafter, a kind of celestial branch of Carnival Cruise Lines where the passengers find out if their luggage is going to heaven or hell, and them with it. It was an unlikely stage success in London, and the 1924 Broadway production featured Leslie Howard, Dudley Digges and Beryl Mercer.

All three of them show up in the 1930 film version of "Outward Bound," though Howard's not in his original role; in the film, he plays the character played by Alfred Lunt onstage, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays the role Howard played onstage.

To say the least, "Outward Bound" is a bit of an odd duck, and the 1930 film opens with three screens full of introductory text begging the indulgence of the popcorn chompers in the audience who might wonder why they're watching a movie about people who don't seem to know much about where they are or where they're going. We're told it's "an entirely new and different imaginative conception of life, death and the hereafter," involving "strange psychology and glorious sentiment interwoven between the lines," told with "deep sincerity."

There's no such introduction in the 1944 post-code remake, "Between Two Worlds." Maybe that's because audiences were a little more sophisticated by then; also, the sad fact is that by 1944, almost everyone in the audience had lost, or knew someone who had lost, a loved one in World War II. The world was in flames -- it was easier to accept a movie about dead people. As a result, "Between Two Worlds" has a extra layer of poignance.    

There are three main characters at the center of both films -- Tom Prior, a rather dissolute young man who, it's implied, drank his life away (Howard in the 1930 film, John Garfield in 1944); and a young couple who decide to commit suicide. The couple, named Henry and Ann in both films, is played by Fairbanks and Helen Chandler in the 1930 film, and Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker in the 1944 film.

We open in London.

In the 1930 film, Henry and Ann are offing themselves because they're having an illicit affair and can't stand being without each other.

In the 1944 film, Henry is a concert pianist and a former member of the Free French -- he's like Victor Lazlo crossed with Liberace! Henreid-as-Henry can't get out of London because he can't get a visa and decides to end it all. When he opens the gas pipe, wife Ann -- You betcha they're married! No affairs allowed! -- stands staunchly by his side.

Then, before you can say "What do you want on your tombstone?," they find themselves sailing through a foggy night aboard a ship where the only crew member is a white-coated steward serving cocktails to the dead. Henry and Ann quickly figure out what's up -- in the 1944 film it's even more obvious because Ann had seen the other passengers earlier. They were all in a car driving to a ship when they were killed by an aerial bomb. In the 1930 film, we don't know how the other passengers met their deaths and came to be on board, but in "Between Two Worlds" the explanation, unfortunately, is all too obvious.

The passengers include rather unpleasant representatives of the British upper classes -- a stuffy matron (Alison Skipworth in 1930, Isobel Elsom in 1944) and a blustery, Trumpish tycoon (Montagu Love in 1930, George Coulouris in 1944). Then there's Mrs. Midget, a plainspoken member of the working class (Beryl Mercer in 1930, Sara Allgood in 1944) and the Reverend Duke, a timid priest (Lyonel Watts in 1930, Dennis King in 1944). They're all served by the steward, Scrubby (Alec Francis in 1930, Edmund Gwenn (at left) in 1944), an agreeable fellow who spills the beans about the passengers' final destination with the same line in both films: "We're going to heaven, sir. And hell, too. It's the same place, you see."

In the 1944 film, the ship looks as though it's floating through the clouds rather than fog. And it has a couple of extra passengers: George Tobias as a merchant seaman -- there's a war on, you know -- and Faye Emerson as a showgirl who's accompanying Garfield. There's also Gilbert Emery as the matron's put-upon husband -- he seems to be around mostly to emphasize how beastly his wife is.

In just about every way, the 1944 film unspools the plot with more clarity, and with more effective visual touches, than the 1930 film. It isn't that Robert Milton, the director of the 1930 film, doesn't try -- there are several striking expressionistic scenes impressively photographed by Hal Mohr. But in the 1944 film, with an adapted screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, the story is much more orchestrated and, in some cases, over-explained. (To really hammer the point home, Erich Korngold's score is full of "oooo-eee oooo-eee" moments of eeriness.)

The 1930 film is probably more faithful to the play and has a kind of pre-code take-it-or-leave-it simplicity. It doesn't feel the need to lay everything out so neatly. But it also takes its own sweet time in revealing the big twist that we've long since figured out. In the 1944 film, the twist is revealed in a more striking way -- Garfield-as-Prior knows the group is dead, and to get the point across to everyone else he stages a magic show that involves the tycoon:




Once everyone on board realizes that the limbo contest really IS a limbo contest, it's time for the ship to sail into its heavenly port and for the "examiner," Thompson (Dudley Digges in the 1930 film, Sydney Greenstreet in 1944), to start processing the passengers. Thompson is gruff but kindly for the most part, and he doles out what might be called afterlife lifestyle packages the way the Wizard of Oz gives out hearts, brains and courage.

The tycoon tries, of course, to buy his way into heaven, and Thompson treats him with the contempt you'd expect: "You'll suffer ... as you've made others suffer. That's all." Same goes for the matron, but the 1944 version offers a nice twist -- Thompson gives her a luxurious home, but she can never have visitors. And her husband decides to ditch her and live with his lifelong friends instead.

Then comes Prior and Mrs. Midget. Prior is offered a place in a not-so-hot part of heaven, but it beats the alternative of a very hot part of hell. Mrs. Midget is given her lifelong dream -- a seaside cottage with a garden. But for some reason, she's more interested in staying with Prior as a kind of -- mom. Even if it means giving up her cottage. Thompson knows her secret, and in the 1944 version this leads to a beautifully played scene with Sara Allgood, who also played the family matriarch in "How Green Was My Valley":


The different ways that Howard and Garfield play the same character are direct reflections of their acting styles -- Howard is introverted and haunted, while Garfield is cocky and confrontational. Garfield's character also has more dimension -- he's a newspaper reporter (as was the film's producer, Mark Hellinger) who was fired for being too good at his job, namely in the exposes he wrote about our friend the unpleasant tycoon, a war profiteer.

The minister's realization is handled with a striking difference in the two films. In the 1930 film, we see him praying silently and solitarily. But in the 1944 film -- again, perhaps because there's a war going on -- religion is much more on display as he leads the other passengers in a prayer:


The 1944 film then comes to Musick, the seaman played by Tobias. In many ways his is the movie's most tragic story -- like many servicemen, he has died without being able to see his newborn daughter. He pleads his case to Thompson the examiner, and he seems pleased with Thompson's explanation that everybody has to die sometime, but the underlying sadness makes the scene ring hollow.

Finally, we come to the couples. In both films, they're the only ones on board who have attempted suicide. Because of that, we're told, they will remain on the ship as "half-way" passengers. But Henry keeps hearing something, and as the ship pulls away it's clear that he's being pulled back to life. Will Ann make the leap back as well?

"Outward Bound" has had a life on stage beyond the film versions. In addition to the 1924 Broadway production, there was a 1938 revival with Vincent Price, Laurette Taylor and Helen Chandler, reprising her role from the 1930 movie and undoubtedly giving it the same tremulous treatment. There was also a 2012 revival in London.    


Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Talk About James Cagney

I'm a fan of James Cagney. I've written about him here, here, here, here, here and here. To me he is one of a handful of movie stars with a real sense of physical style as well as acting expertise. Dan Schneider, the impresario behind the arts site Cosmoetica, graciously invited me and fellow film blogger Marilyn Ferdinand to talk about Cagney's life and career. Here it is:


Monday, October 19, 2015

CMBA Fall Blogathon: "Silver Streak," or Train Man


This is part of the CMBA Fall Blogathon: Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Check out all entries!

The star of the 1934 film "The Silver Streak" isn't first-billed Sally Blane, or even male lead Charles Starrett.

It's the future.

Specifically, it's the future in the form of the Pioneer Zephyr, a streamlined diesel train here called the Silver Streak. But incidental roles in the movie are played by the Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair; by Boulder Dam (now known as Hoover Dam), at that point the nation's largest construction project; and even by the recent development of the iron lung.

All these projects sent the same message to depression-weary America -- that prosperity was connected to innovative engineering and improved infrastructure.

As a film, "The Silver Streak" sends a much simpler message -- work hard, be handsome, develop a streamlined train, and you end up winning Loretta Young's sister. But it's a fast-moving B movie that's very much a product of its time, with lots of cool location footage of the Zephyr, the Chicago World's Fair and Boulder Dam (with real workers in bit parts).

We begin in the offices of the Stuffy Old White Guy Railroad, run by B.J. Dexter (William Farnum). Passenger revenues are off, and Dexter's assistant Allan (Hardie Albright), who is also his son, supports a plan for a new, more efficient streamlined train developed by lantern-jawed Tom Caldwell (Starrett). Caldwell pitches his idea to a skeptical board of directors:  


Caldwell is thrown out by the seat of his blueprints, but he has another booster -- Dexter's daughter, Ruth (Blane, Young's real-life sister). She approaches a locomotive manufacturer on Tom's behalf, and before you can say "Amtrak," the Silver Streak is ready for its maiden run.

The elder Dexter and Ruth are on board, but things don't go as planned -- there's an engineering glitch:


(Dig that 1934 streamlined Chrysler Airflow on the road, by the way.)

Naturally, instead of spending a little more time figuring what's wrong with the Silver Streak, the decision is made to scrap the whole project and put in on display at the fair in Chicago. Tom tells off Dexter, and he and Ruth break up.

A few weeks later, Tom has figured out the engineering problem, but the railroad management would prefer to keep the train as the world's largest paperweight.

Meanwhile, Allan Dexter is leaving the family railroad because of his father's refusal to be innovative. This leads to a nice scene where the elder Dexter puffs his stogie like a locomotive and reminisces about trains of the past:


Allan Dexter goes to work at the dam in Nevada. Turns out that the men on the project are coming down with infantile paralysis, and no sooner does Allan get there than he passes out. Ruth has come to see him, but that's not enough -- he needs an iron lung immediately. Father Dexter is beside himself -- how to get an iron lung cross country toot suite? If only there was some sort of really fast train to take it!

The last third of "The Silver Streak" is all about the 100 mile-an-hour overnight race from Chicago to Las Vegas. Edgar Kennedy, God love him, steps in as an old school co-engineer and gives us several good examples of his burn takes in between thrill sequences like this:


There are lots of complications along the way, including close calls with oncoming trains, tricky curves and guys who almost don't get their handcar off the track fast enough. On board, meanwhile, Tom has to deal with hysterical passengers, an escaping murderer and, worst of all, Arthur Lake as comedy relief.

To the surprise of no one in the civilized world whatsoever, the Silver Streak makes it to Vegas, the train's future is assured, and Ruth and Tom make up.




In real life, by the way, the Pioneer Zephyr made headlines in May 1934, when it traveled from Denver to Chicago in about 13 hours, almost breaking the land speed record for that time -- and the engineer happily endorsed Camel cigarettes after his run.

And if you'd like to see the real Pioneer Zephyr, it's on permanent display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.




Sunday, September 13, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Sally"

The 1929 film "Sally" is more than an awkward early talkie -- it's also a kind of time capsule, preserving the elements of an elaborate Flo Ziegfeld stage show and the winsome performing style of its star, Marilyn Miller, who appeared in Ziegfeld shows and reviews from 1918 through the early 1930s.

"Sally" is based on the Ziegfeld success that ran from 1920-24, including a world tour and a final series of performances back in New York City. Miller appeared in a 1925 film version as well as this one, for which she reportedly received the record-breaking salary of $100,000 -- roughly a thousand dollars per hour of work.

Sally Bowling Green works as a waitress in a Manhattan hash house. She's an orphan who was abandoned at the offices of the Bowling Green telephone exchange, hence her name. Her dream is to be a dancer, but in the meantime she's the world's worst waitress.

Sally strikes up a friendship with Blair Farrell (Alexander Gray), a society swell who always stops outside the restaurant and waves at Sally inside. Alas, Blair is betrothed to another rich woman and is bound by family pressure.

When Sally messes up one too many orders of flapjacks, she is bounced from her job and ends up as a waitress at the Elm Tree Inn, a roadhouse managed by the gruff-but-kindly Pops (Ford Sterling). Sally's co-worker and buddy is a waiter named Connie (Joe E. Brown). In real life he is the Grand Duck Constantine of Czechoslovenia and Pops, a native of the same country, keeps Connie on the job out of loyalty.

Blair has been looking all over for Sally, and when he finds her at the Elm Tree Inn they don't waste much time before breaking into the show's big number, Jerome Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining":


Miller and Gray make an appealing pair, although his singing style doesn't date as well as Miller's. Her dancing style is pleasant, as well -- she actually seems to be having fun and doesn't stomp with the joyless passion of a Joan Crawford or a Ruby Keeler. One of the movie's highlights is this charming eccentric dance that Sally does with Connie:


Blair is in love with Sally, and as one of the Elm Tree Inn's best customers he persuades Pops to let Sally perform for the patrons. She is a hit! Hooper, a big time agent (T. Roy Barnes), happens to catch Sally's act, along with his frail, Rosie (Pert Kelton, forever known in trivia circles as the first woman to play Alice Kramden in "Honeymooners" sketches). Hooper hires Sally to appear at a high society soiree but she must pretend to be a Russian entertainer. Why? Because if she doesn't, there's no third act.

Originally filmed in two-strip technicolor, "Sally" exists now only in a black-and-white print with just a moment of two of recovered color footage. Here it is, from a number called "Wild Rose," with Sally doing her Russian act:


As a result of her appearance, Sally signs a big contract with Flo Ziegfeld and Blair disappears. Cut to Sally's opening night on Broadway, and a big old production number with dancers dressed as butterflies:


After the show, all of Sally's old friends come backstage to congratulate her, but Blair is nowhere to be found -- or IS he??!?!

Miller was a huge star on Broadway, but only made three films, with "Sally" being the first. She returned to the stage after the third film, 1931's "Her Majesty, Love," and died in 1936 of a sinus condition. She was 37.