Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Dillinger," or That Old Gangster of Mine

In the most exciting news since the introduction of the Pocket Catheter, it's time for another installment of Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions! Here for your edification is the 1945 film...

... which is "Regnillid" spelled backwards.

This is the hard-hitting, totally true, no really story of
famous gangster John Dillinger. We first meet him on
the day he has stolen a new suit from a five year old. 

Dillinger then shoves a Twizzler in his pocket and holds up
a candy store. Oh, the irony!  

(Sad trombone)

John ends up in the jug, where he starts
making new friends. 

His jolly compatriots include (left to right) Specs, Sneezy,
Romeo and Anthony Dellavorte, Certified Financial Planner.

Once John is released from prison, he does what any loyal
friend would do. He smuggles guns to his pals inside by
hiding them in a barrel of cement -- THE SAME CEMENT BEING

The new gang soon begins robbing banks with the vigor
of someone who is very vigorous. 

Oh -- and Dillinger meets a young woman who will
soon play a significant role in his DOWNFALL. 

But in the meantime, Hoosiers are in a state of terror
that will remain unequaled until the glory days of Bobby Knight!

Banks are being robbed all over the state, including
... El Segundo?

The fame makes Dillinger a worldwide celebrity,
but he starts to get a little unstable.

He takes up hobbies, including woodworking ...

... and model railroading.

Finally, he decides to rob a bank by using baby powder
and his gang decides it's time to move on to another
criminal mastermind. 

But the girl stays in the picture. And she starts wondering
where she's going to get some money to buy Christmas presents.

She and Dillinger decide to forget their troubles and
go to a movie theatre IT DOES TOO LOOK LIKE A

He is totally inconspicuous. 

Then, outside the theatre, Dillinger makes his fatal
mistake. He weighs himself and pays for it with a slug.

(Sad trombone.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Say It with Songs"

There is so, so, so much to make fun of in the 1929 film "Say It with Songs" that it's tempting to just kick back and start taking shots.

I mean, come on -- you have Al Jolson in full "world's greatest entertainer" mode, hamminess in overdrive, shoving his mug into the camera in what seems like every single scene, including one where he singlehandedly saves his son's life and restores his speech through pure Mammy power.

You have scenes of suffocating parental pathos between Jolson and Davey Lee, who was a huge hit opposite Jolson in 1928's "The Singing Fool" as Jolson's otherwise nameless son, Sonny Boy, appearing here as Jolson's other otherwise nameless son, Little Pal.

Finally, our man ends up in stir, the world's saddest convict, cheering up the other inmates with a passive-aggressive little ditty called "Why Can't You?" that includes these lyrics:

Violets from tiny seeds
Fight their way up through the weeds
Violets can do it
Why can't you?

Yes, prison isn't bad enough -- the punishment includes an Al Jolson motivational seminar. See for yourself:

So there's a lot to make fun of in "Say It with Songs." And yet -- stay with me here -- this movie is not totally absurd. It actually offers just the slightest taste of what would be the future at Warner Bros.: the urban-based, tough-talking, fast-moving dramas, like "The Public Enemy" and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," that the studio would be known for just a few years hence, all under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, who gets top writing credit for "Say It with Songs."

Of course, it's a bug jump from Al Jolson to Paul Muni. (Adapts Jolson voice) But you can see the seeds -- the tiny seeds! Fighting their way up through the weeds! Mammy!

"Say It with Songs" is tailored to Jolson's, ah, unique style. Here he is Joe Lane, a singer on his way up at a radio station. The movie's first scene establishes the station's programming -- a combination of commercials, singers and health and beauty "experts":

But then there is Joe, who stands out like a sore thumb. He is on the way up, but he has his irresponsible side. This is demonstrated when he gets involved in a crap game at the radio station. This is further demonstrated when he promises his wife he'll meet her for a date and keeps her cooling her heels for two hours. She makes empty threats to leave him, but the love between Joe and Little Pal keeps her from pulling the trigger.

But soft! There is trouble behind the microphone. The station's unscrupulous manager (Kenneth Thomson, a cad once again) is making moves on Joe's wife Katherine (Marian Nixon), the very mother of Little Pal!

Katherine tells Joe about the passes, and he knocks the station manager silly. Unfortunately, the guy falls and hits his head on a lamppost, and he ends up seriously killed. And before you can say (with apologies to Johnny Cash) "Jolson Prison Blues," Joe is in the jug.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Katherine has sent Little Pal off to boarding school and she goes back to work for a doctor who's always loved her. To spare her from society's wrath, Joe tells Katherine he wants a divorce, giving Jolson the opportunity to act noble and victimized at the same time.

Then Joe is released from prison, and "Say It with Songs" really gets maudlin. We'll spare you the details because you can watch it online but here's the scene where Little Pal recovers, no thanks to a network of doctors, but because of fatherly egotism -- I mean, love:

A couple of facts about "Say It with Songs": The songs were by the writing team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, who also wrote the megahit "Sonny Boy" for "The Singing Fool"; as part of his deal, Jolson's name was added as a songwriter, entitling him to a share of that sweet royalty money. This is in addition to the $500,000 he received from Warners. Also, contrary to Wikipedia and other sources, "Say It with Songs" wasn't a flop -- it grossed more than $2 million, which placed it in the rarefied company of other pre-code Warner hits like "Noah's Ark" and "42nd Street."

"Jolson Prison Blues." Heh.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Next Time I Marry," or Raising Kanin

The 1938 film "Next Time I Marry" isn't, and shouldn't be, a standout on the resume of anyone involved. Not stars Lucille Ball or James Ellison, or supporting players Lee Bowman or Mantan Moreland, or even director Garson Kanin.

And yet.

This is only Kanin's second film, and it offers several glimpses of the witty style he would demonstrate more convincingly in movies from "My Favorite Wife" to "Born Yesterday" to "Adam's Rib" to "Pat and Mike."

It also provides a nice showcase for Ellison, a leading man in the Joel McCrea mold who never achieved the same level of fame.

Ellison is remembered today, if at all, for playing Johnny Nelson, the sidekick of William Boyd in a series of Hopalong Cassidy westerns during the first half of the 1930s. By the late 1940s he was back in westerns again. But for a brief period, he played supporting roles in movies that were a cut above, like "Vivacious Lady," "Charley's Aunt" and "The Gang's All Here."

In "Next Time I Marry" he is Anthony J. Anthony, a forgotten man of the depression who is working on a roadside WPA project. Up pulls heiress Nancy Crocker Fleming (Ball) in her Duesenberg, looking for an instant husband. It seems that to inherit her fortune, she must marry a "plain American," and Tony Anthony seems as plain as anybody. Then her plan is to divorce Tony and marry her real love, the preening, freeloading Count Georgi (Bowman).

Tony's the freewheeling type -- he lives in a trailer he tows everywhere -- and he accepts Nancy's offer of cash. So they hie to the local justice of the peace, and Tony slips a ring on her finger that's made to hold car keys:

Nancy's scheme runs into the disapproval of her Uncle (Granville Bates, winding up for the kick at left), known as "Crock." He sees the Count for the four-flusher he is.

(Kanin must have appreciated Bates's comic ability -- he also cast him, to great effect, as the grouchy judge in "My Favorite Wife" who opens the movie by granting an annulment to Nick Arden (Cary Grant), whose wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) is presumed dead, and who closes the movie by granting a divorce to Nick because Ellen has turned up after all.)

"Next Time I Marry" is a road picture, and the travel begins after Tony and Nancy are married. She plans to head to Reno for a divorce, but Tony's pride won't let her make that move without him, so he "kidnaps" her and locks her in his trailer, and they both head to Reno. In retaliation, Nancy sets the trailer on fire, forgetting that she is in it. But Tony has everything in hand:

It isn't long before Count Georgi is in pursuit of Tony and Nancy, assisted by manservant Tilby (Moreland). The script isn't above some stereotypical humor at Moreland's expense, but there also is this very nice moment between Bowman and Moreland that involves interchangeable exchanges of "yassuh":

The group makes it way to the outskirts of Reno, where the Count hatches a plan. While Nancy distracts Tony, the Count will remove the license plate from the trailer, ensuring that Tony will be stopped by the law. Tony is about three steps ahead of the plan, but he's happy to let Nancy seduce him:

This movie marks the first time, I believe, that I actually laughed at Bowman in a movie. Seems like the guy almost always played the rival to the romantic hero, but here he's at least likably smarmy as opposed to just smarmy.

And what about Ball? Well, she smoothly steers her way through this movie in much the same way she did most of her films at RKO. She's the rock in this cast, totally committed to the role and the material. It's amazing to consider that by the time she hit television in 1951 with "I Love Lucy," she already had 18 years of film experience under her belt.

"Next Time I Marry" is available through the Warner Archive. Here's a preview:

Friday, October 31, 2014

CMBA Forgotten Stars Blogathon: Lillian Roth

This is part of the CMBA Forgotten Stars Blogathon. Be sure to check all entries!

Lillian Roth (1910-80) wasn't the first performer to struggle with alcoholism and mental illness.

But she was, arguably, the first one to make her fight public and reignite her career in the process, long before the world had heard of Shia LaBeouf or Lindsay Lohan.

Born Lillian Rutstein in Boston, Roth was a child performer and model. Her first professional job came in 1916, when she posed for the trademark of Educational Pictures, and by 1917 she was appearing on Broadway at night and working by day as an extra at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios over in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

By the mid-1920s, Roth was a regular in vaudeville (where she introduced songs such as "Ain't She Sweet" and "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along") and in such shows as "Artists and Models," "Earl Carroll's Vanities" and Florenz Ziegfeld's "Midnight Frolics."

Movies followed -- Roth made her film debut in 1929's "Illusion," and for her next film appearance she hit the jackpot, working with Ernst Lubtisch and appearing with the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and Lupino Lane in "The Love Parade."

As Lulu, the amorous lady-in-waiting to Queen Louise (MacDonald), Roth pairs off with Lane, and their scenes together are every bit as enjoyable as those between the leads. Roth has a likably brash comic manner and a strong, clear voice in the manner of Ethel Merman, and Lane has a great eccentric stiff-legged dancing style.

In subsequent films, Roth more than held her own against two forces of nature -- the Marx Brothers in 1930's "Animal Crackers" and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1933 film "Ladies They Talk About."

The latter is a personal favorite. It's a pre-code stocked with bizarre goodness, especially in the scenes where Stanwyck does time in stir for her part in a bank robbery. Roth plays Linda, who introduces Stanwyck to the madwomen, murderers and madams she'll be sharing space with in the jug.

"Ladies They Talk About" revolves around Stanwyck, but Roth gets a few moments to herself. In this scene, for instance, it's almost lights out, and she sings "If I Could Be with You" to a photo of Joe E. Brown.

And, for good measure, here's a 1933 animated short with Roth singing "Ain't She Sweet."

Turns out that 1933 was a peak year emotionally and professionally for Roth, with several film appearances and an engagement to her agent, David Lyons. But Lyons' death that same year from tuberculosis triggered Roth's alcoholic spiral, further fueled by deep feelings of inadequacy. As she told Mike Wallace in a 1958 interview:

"I guess it's something that stems from my childhood. I've never quite felt up to the many amazing things that happened to me. I've never felt at school that I was as pretty as the next child, or as clever as the next child, and anytime anything happens to me, I just thought it was luck. And that was mostly all through my life, and if I did a performance and the audience were wonderful to me, I thought it really wasn't good enough, it could have been better."

Several unsuccessful marriages followed, and Roth's career was little more than a string of nightclub appearances. Finally, in 1946, after a suicide attempt, Roth joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and in 1948 she converted to Catholicism.

In 1954, Roth's autobiography, "I'll Cry Tomorrow," was published. In a day before celebrity tell-all books became routine, the book was unusually revealing about Roth's drinking, her troubled childhood and her unsuccessful marriages.

Roth promoted the book on the NBC series "This Is Your Life" and it became a worldwide bestseller. The movie version followed the next year, with Susan Hayward as Roth. Hayward sang her own songs in the movie, which amused Roth no end -- in her nightclub act she did an impersonation of Susan Hayward impersonating Lillian Roth. Hayward was nominated for an Oscar, and Roth hit the comeback trail. Here she is on "What's My Line?" in 1957:

(And dig the other guest -- Salvador Dali!)

Roth made record albums, appeared in Las Vegas and went back to Broadway in the 1961 musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." She was first billed, above some newcomer named Streisand.

In the 1970s, Roth returned to Broadway in "70 Girls 70," leading to this appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show," where she is helped to her seat by co-guest James Brown:

Serendipity alert: "I'll Cry Tomorrow" will air on TCM on Tuesday, November 4 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Code Two," or Star Trek

It's time for another round of the CLAMBA-Award Winning* Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions. Our subject this time is the 1953 film "Code Two," which, although ostensibly about three Los Angeles police cadets, is actually about three young actors trying to break into the big time at MGM. Don't believe me? See for yourself ...

It's a big day at MGM -- the stars of tomorrow are arriving
from broken homes, orphanages, bawdy houses
and correctional facilities across America!

Yes, here they are, teeming with energy and animal vitality --
young performers with tomorrow on their minds.
Who will be the next Victor Potel? The next Maris Wrixon? 

Ralph Meeker, Jeff Richards and Robert Horton have made the
first cut, all of them scoring especially well in the swimsuit
competition, judged by Van Johnson.  

Now they are at the MGM Training Academy, where they
will be whipped into shape by such studio stalwarts as ...

... James Craig and Keenan Wynn. Craig is still in costume from
his latest picture, "The Guy Who Loved Wearing Short Ties."
The two men will put the hopefuls through a grueling initiation
that includes ...

... emptying June Allyson's ash trays ...

... fixing Mario Lanza's three daily breakfasts ...

... and expressing the anal glands of
Lana Turner's poodle.

Finally, they must try to give Van Johnson a wedgie.
Many are called, but few are chosen.

Alas, Jeff Richards's option is dropped and despite the pleadings
of Van Johnson, he is expelled from the studio.

To avenge Richards, Meeker and Horton swear revenge
on MGM studio head Dore Schary.

Every day, Schary's ego is transported back and forth to
MGM in a tractor-trailer, so Meeker and Horton
plan to hijack it. But they are foiled by the truck driver ...

... Van Johnson.

Horton gets kicked off the studio lot, but he ends up
in a popular TV western.

And Meeker ends up getting into a hot tub
-- at Van Johnson's house.

* The Clamdiggers' Marching Band Association.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "Picture Snatcher" and "Escape From Crime"

If you removed the atmosphere of breezy amorality from the 1933 film "Picture Snatcher," you wouldn't have much of a movie.

And, sure enough, the 1942 film "Escape From Crime" isn't much of a movie.

Both films are based on an original story by Danny Ahearn, but "Picture Snatcher" has that cheerful pre-code let's-see-what-we-can-get-away-with spirit, personified by our hero, Danny Keene, played by James Cagney. "Picture Snatcher" is a pretty typical pre-code Cagney picture, and to me that's not bad at all -- it has spice, irreverence and a bit of a nasty
streak, and it feels no need whatsoever to apologize for itself.

The bare bones of Ahearn's story -- paroled convict gets a job as a rough-and-tumble newspaper photographer -- is the same in both films, but "Escape From Crime" removes all the tasty vices on display in "Picture Snatcher," and the result is flavorless and forgettable.

Here Danny is played, glum and guilt-ridden, by Richard Travis. In fact, Danny, also known as Red, is so surly that Jackie Gleason, in a brief bit as the world's most hilarious convict, can't even get him to crack a smile:

(You have just seen Gleason's entire performance. He doesn't show up again.)

Post-code Danny is cranky because he hasn't heard from his wife Molly (Julie Bishop) in a long while. Yes, this Danny is married, unlike pre-code Danny. And he has a baby daughter. So when post-code Danny gets a parole from Stock Footage Prison, he's on the street with not one, but three, mouths to feed. When Danny gets sprung he heads right to see Molly, and whatever disagreement they were having instantly disappears. So why give Danny an attitude at the beginning? It's not the last time that this movie won't make a lot of sense.

In "Picture Snatcher," things also begin with Danny's release from prison, but it's a much jollier affair. Danny's old gang comes to pick him up, and they brought along a couple of women to make Danny welcome. Then Danny indulges himself with a perfumed bath and coolly announces to his buddies that he's dropping out of the crime game. He ends his speech by taking the money that was owed him as part of the job he went up the river for and then strolls out. In other words, Boom.

Post-code Danny, meanwhile, is a painfully straight arrow, and he's broke. But he spent his time in stir taking mugshots, so he's learned about photography, and he appeals to newspaper editor Cornell (Frank Wilcox) for a job. Cornell is as much of a stick-in-the-mud as Danny -- Cornell's pre-code equivalent, editor "Mac" MacLean (Ralph Bellamy), is shacking up with one of the reporters (Alice White) and drinks bourbon on the job. Cornell just sits at his desk and gives the impression that his suspenders are too tight.

Anyway, Danny gets turned away jobless, and as he leaves the office two things happen -- one is that he meets his old nemesis, flatfoot Biff "Biff" Malone, who sent him up; and the other is that he witnesses and photographs a bank robbery.

Compare that to the other Danny's first job, a pre-code situation if ever there was one -- a firefighter is holed up in his own burned-out apartment. His crew was called to a fire there, and the firefighter discovered his dead wife in bed with another man. Danny's job is to get an old photo of the firefighter and his wife, so he poses as an insurance man sent to survey the damage.

That incident illustrates some of the nastiness in "Picture Snatcher" -- we actually root for Cagney to take the poor guy's wedding picture.

Just as post-code Danny has Biff the cop on his tail, pre-code Danny has Det. Lt. Nolan (Robert Emmett O'Connor, who else?). To complicate matters, Danny has fallen for Nolan's daughter (Patricia Ellis), a pretty journalism student. To further complicate matters, editor Mac's squeeze has also fallen for Danny. Post-code Danny doesn't have time for the ladies -- he's got a wife and kid to take care of!

But the story's one big plot element makes it into both movies -- to save his job, Danny is forced to take an illegal photo of someone in the electric chair. When the rival reporters find out, they (and the cops) chase Danny back to the paper. Just watch how Cagney and Travis each handle the scene:

Something else to watch in those clips -- the sets. "Picture Snatcher" actually looks like it was shot in New York City, while "Escape From Crime" is pretty clearly stuck on the Warner back lot. We're supposed to be in Manhattan, but the bank holdup that Danny witnesses is at the "Doreville State Bank." Doesn't sound very cosmopolitan to me. And he and his wife are supposed to live on East 65th Street, but their house looks a bungalow, and you're about as likely to see a bungalow on the Upper East Side of New York City as you are a taxi-driving octopus.

The performances are also miles apart -- at one point, Travis walks into the family home with a "Sure and it's your husband, Mrs. O'Hara!" No. Do not attempt an Irish brogue, Richard Travis. Just don't. You are no James Cagney. You're no Jeanne Cagney, for that matter.

"Escape From Crime" does give us plenty of gunplay, and why not? Violence is fine in a post-code movie; sex, not so much. But the movie's real failing is that, unlike "Picture Snatcher," the makers forget a simple fact -- a great journalist can, and maybe even should, have a slightly larcenous side.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Helen Vinson Film Festival: "Two Against the World" and "Grand Slam"

"How veddy good of you to cahm!"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Helen Vinson (1907-99) was certainly one of them.

Born Helen Rulfs in Beaumont, Texas, Vinson was the daughter of an oil company executive and grew up on a country estate. She attended the University of Texas, where she performed in shows, and ended up doing little theatre in Houston. This led to Broadway, a name change, and then Hollywood, where in 1932 Vinson went to work at Warner Bros.

Given her upper-class upbringing, playing the high society type came easily to Vinson. She was the opposite of streetwise Warner leading ladies like Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell -- she was attractive in a demure way and spoke in an achingly proper manner.

One of Vinson's first films at Warner's is the majestic "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang." Vinson plays Helen, who meets James Allen (Paul Muni) after his first escape from the chain gang. He has changed his identity and built himself a successful engineering career in Chicago, but he is unhappily married to the blackmailing Marie (Glenda Farrell). For once, Vinson is the attractive alternative, but when Allen tries to leave his wife, Marie turns him in to the authorities. This leads to Allen escaping from the gang yet again and returning for a brief visit with Helen in the film's powerful final scene.

"I Am a Fugitive" shows us a warmer, more attractive side of Vinson -- she actually gets to act like a human being as opposed to someone being rude to servants at a cocktail party.

But from then on, Vinson's Hollywood career largely came down to playing one of two types -- the wealthy heroine's best friend or the wealthy heroine's worst friend, the one who was always trying to steal her husband/lover.

For an example, consider 1932's "Two Against the World," set in a world of thoughtless rich people, the Hamilton clan. Here Vinson is Corinne Hamilton Walton, a sociopathic socialite who's preoccupied with important things like gahden pahties. She's married to a rich stiff named George (Alan Mowbray at his stuffiest). But Corinne is not hap-peh; she's been having an aff-aih until her lover breaks up with her because he loves her sister Adell (Constance Bennett).

Adell Hamilton, on the other hand, has set her cap for dashing young man-of-the-people attorney David Norton (Neil Hamilton), and they bond over a lunch of baked beans at Norton's favorite greasy spoon.

Things take a dramatic turn when Adell and Corinne's brother finds a compact on the lover's bed that just happens to have the old Hamilton family crest on it. The brother thinks it belongs to Adell, but he is mistaken, and this leads to an outbreak of frantic eye contact between the two sisters.

The lover ends up getting seriously killed by Corinne and Adell's brother and, in order to save the reputation of her unfaithful sister and her guilty brother, Corinne takes the fall. But the prosecuting attorney is -- David Norton, Mr. Baked Bean of 1932!

This is most of Helen Vinson's performance in
"Two Against the World."
Considering that it's her infidelity that drives the plot, there isn't much of Vinson in "Two Against the World" -- she doesn't even get the satisfaction of shooting her ex-lover! Instead the movie centers around the love story between Adell and Norton (Hamilton was also Bennett's romantic interest in "What Price Hollywood?"). Vinson might as well wear a shirt saying, "I had an affair but all I ended up with is Alan Mowbray." It's not even clear which "two" the title is referring to -- Adell and Norton? The two sisters? The Warner brothers?

How you feel about the 1933 film "Grand Slam" will depend on how funny you find jokes about playing bridge. The film is a product of a time when the card game was the national craze.

Paul Lukas plays Peter, a mild-mannered man of Russian heritage who, everyone tells us, is a genius. He lives happily and simply as a waiter in a Russian restaurant, but one night his fiancee Marcia (Loretta Young) drags him to a bridge game. He masters the moves immediately, because he's a genius, remember? Then he ends up working at Park Avenue party, where a ritzy group including Lola (Vinson) needs a fourth for bridge. Peter steps in and his expertise makes him the life of the pah-ty:

Lola's attention leads to the breakup of Peter and Marcia, and the climax of the movie comes in a bridge match between Peter and the stuffy, self-appointed bridge expert Van Dorn (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Worldwide interest is so intense that once they start playing, time stands still!

"Grand Slam" is a stew -- a tasty one, with bits sprinkled in by Roscoe Karns (also in "Two Against the World") as a wisecracking radio announcer and our old friend Joseph Cawthorn doing his patented grouchy ethnic schtick, but still a stew.

To Vinson, who stood five feet seven inches tall, Hollywood was "an absolute sea of short men," she later told one interviewer. "Robinson, Muni, James Cagney and George Raft all had to stand on boxes when they acted with me."

The sea of short men started drying up in the late 1930s. In 1938 Vinson was in the headlines for divorcing husband Fred Perry, a British tennis champion who'd begun an affair with Marlene Dietrich. Shortly afterward she married socialite-businessman Donald Hardenbrook. Her last film role was in 1944's "The Thin Man Goes Home" and she returned to the East Coast with her husband, where she studied interior design and preferred not to look back at her film career.