Friday, June 29, 2012

Movie Scenes That Make Me Grin Like an Idiot: "The Music Box"

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Platinum Blonde" and the Birth of "Cinderella Man"

Give Frank Capra credit -- once the guy found a formula, he stuck with it. Specifically -- an honorable man, pure at heart, up against powerful and/or wealthy forces out to destroy or at least ostracize him. You can apply it to almost any Capra film, from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" to "Meet John Doe" to "It's a Wonderful Life" to "A Hole in the Head."

And this isn't meant as a criticism -- if the idea was a little familiar, Capra knew enough to work with writers who infused his scripts with lively, humorous dialogue. And Capra put the words in the mouths of some of Hollywood's best actors -- Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Thomas Mitchell, Jean Arthur. And his own background as a gagman and director of comedies for folks like Harry Langdon didn't hurt, either.

Still, it is interesting to see the idea of the "Cinderella Man" and the phrase itself being introduced in Capra's 1931 film "Platinum Blonde."  Clearly it captured the public's imagination -- columnist Damon Runyon applied it to boxer James Braddock in 1935 (director Ron Howard used it as the title of his 2005 film about Braddock), and it pops up again in Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" in 1936.

Anyway, back to "Platinum Blonde." The titular heroine of the 1931 film is Jean Harlow, who singleheadedly made the haircolor famous. She's Ann Schuyler of THE Schuylers, a high-society family whose blood is as blue as their noses. When the Schuyler son gets mixed up in a scandal with a chorus girl, Ann's path crosses that of reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams). She takes a fancy to him and tries to sweet talk him into caving on the story. He doesn't do that -- he might be a goofoff and a drinker, but he's a dedicated newspaperman. But once the story is published, he does help her out:



A romance develops between Ann and Stew, and they get married. She almost immediately begins to try and change him, though he resists. All of this happens to the dismay of Stew's best "buddy" on the newspaper, Gallagher, played by an 18-year-old Loretta Young, already demonstrating her acting chops:



And speaking of acting chops, "Platinum Blonde" is a real showcase -- tragically, one of the only ones -- for Robert Williams. He'd done a fair amount of stage work before coming to Hollywood, including a long run in the Broadway hit "Abie's Irish Rose," but in this role he's a movie natural -- and sadly, he died of peritonitis just after this film was released. With his pipe, easy-going manner and hooded eyes, he's an early Bing Crosby. His rapport with Harlow is so obvious that they can get away with scenes like this, when she tries to make him wear garters:



Young is luminous as the girl who gets left behind, at least temporarily. And the cast includes old pros like Walter Catlett and Halliwell Hobbes. There aren't many other 1931 films that move with the style and assurance of "Platinum Blonde," made when Capra was hungry and still making a name for himself as a real-life Cinderella Man.

Here are the first few minutes of the movie:


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"I Steal!": The Unflinching "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang"

Paul Muni begins 1932's "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" in an Army uniform and ends it in the uniform of the forgotten man of the depression -- unshaven, battered hat, threadbare coat, wrinkled trousers, probably the slight smell of sweat and cigarettes. He has a wild look in his eyes, as he should -- he's just escaped from a chain gang for a second time and has permitted himself just one final moment with Helen (Helen Vinson), the woman he loves:


From the darkness: "I steal!"

The ending is as abrupt and as unflinching as the rest of "I Am a Fugitive." Eighty years after its release, the film remains a true classic that is carried by the power of its true story, by Muni's performance and by Mervyn LeRoy's swift and sure direction.

The movie begins as James Allen, played by Muni, comes home after World War I. He's greeted by his adoring mother and ineffectual brother, a pompous clergymen whose faith will be absolutely no help to Allen as he faces life's cruelty and challenges.

Walking away from a factory job that will keep him close to home, Allen sets out to work in construction and makes his way across the country. When he is reluctantly involved in a robbery, he is given the harshest sentence possible -- years on a chain gang. (In Georgia, but Warner Bros. didn't want to risk any lawsuits, so that state is unnamed.)

The inhuman conditions Burns faces on the gang leads to his first escape, a terrific piece of kinetic storytelling:


Then it's off to Chicago, where Allen makes a prosperous life as a builder-contractor, until he is undone by the mercenary Marie, played by one of the best of the tough Warner dames, Glenda Farrell. She finds out about Allen's past, courtesy of a letter from the clergyman brother, and blackmails Allen into marriage. When he tries to divorce her to marry Helen, who he really loves, Marie turns stool pigeon. Allen strikes a deal with the authorities -- he'll return to the work camp for a few months, followed by a quiet release.

But after Allen has worked on the chain gang for a year, the state goes back on its word. Watch how Muni plays it, as a man crumbling apart from the inside:


"I Am a Fugitive" has the grittiness we expect from a pre-code Warner film; Allen's safe haven after his escape is in a bawdy house, where he spends the evening with a prostitute (Noel Francis). In another scene, the broke Allen tries to hock the medals he received in the war -- but when he goes to a pawnshop, the broker shows him a box full of medals he's gotten from other veterans. And the beatings and whippings Allen suffers on the gang still seem painfully real.

As a result of the movie, Robert Burns, the real-life James Allen, was pardoned in 1933. And though Muni would go on to deliver award-winning performances, he did little else that matches his vivid portrayal in this film.  


Monday, June 25, 2012

"A Little Erratic"

From Warner Bros. story editor Jacob Wilk to Production Head Darryl Zanuck:

April 6, 1932

The author of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang is coming out to report April 13th. He has to be undercover and is traveling under a phoney name. That name is Richard M. Crane, though his real name is Robert E. Burns. The reason he is traveling under a phoney name is because the State of Georgia is after him for having escaped. Will you please inform those people with whom he is to work that should Richard Crane call, he is Robert Burns, and they will know how to treat the matter from that point on.


In our contract with Burns, we are only paying his expenses out and back; no salary for his services. You may find Burns a little erratic, but you are used to all kinds of people so I am sure you will handle him and get the best out of him.

(From Inside Warner Bros., by Rudy Behlmer)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Blonde Crazy" and the Art of Cagney

Fellow film scholars, I believe we can safely say that the 1931 film "Blonde Crazy" is the only one where this happens.


James Cagney's facemask is played by Joan Blondell's brassiere. 

"Blonde Crazy," released just a few months after Cagney made a hit in "Public Enemy," shows a more playful side of the pugnacious star. My favorite movie actors -- Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Fred Astaire, Cagney -- have their own distinctive physical style, a special way of carrying themselves. At least part of Cagney's inspiration, he once said, came from the hopheads he'd see in his lower East Side neighborhood. But beyond that, Cagney was light on his feet and used his hands to accent his every move. And his training as a dancer showed up at the darndest times:



It's not hard to imagine that at least part of "Blonde Crazy" was made up as they went along, especially the interplay between Cagney and the ever-present Blondell. They both came to Warner Bros. from the Broadway play "Sinners' Holiday" and made at least a dozen films together, lending their relationships an easy realism.

In "Blonde Crazy" Cagney is Bert, an enterprising hotel bellhop always interested in picking up a quick buck. He even keeps a scrapbook of con schemes for easy reference. He is what today's kids would call a "baller."

Blondell plays Anne, who goes to work in the same hotel and reluctantly joins Bert in fleecing folks such as a lecherous traveling salesman (Guy Kibbee). And before you can say "pyramid scheme" the pair is working a counterfeit racket with Dapper Dan Barker (Louis Calhern). But then Dapper Dan pulls a con of his own, and the victims are Bert and Anne.

But Bert doesn't want to admit he's been taken, so he works a con of his own. He lifts a diamond necklace from a ritzy store and then hocks it. (He calls the pawnbroker "three balls.")

Meanwhile, Anne is falling for a bond broker (a young Ray Milland) who's a bit of a noodle. He sends her books of poetry, much to Cagney's delight:



And when Anne learns that Dapper Dan has given Bert the shaft, she sets up a little con of her own -- one with echoes of "The Sting" that involves horse races, off-track betting and license plates:



Written by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, the men behind "The Public Enemy," "Blonde Crazy" has a couple of neat little con games interwoven with the love story between Blondell and Cagney. By the end of "Blonde Crazy," Bert is the hero despite his larcenous ways, and he has won Anne by making a huge sacrifice for her. It's the typical Cagney formula -- a charming, tough, good-bad guy.

Who can dance.

And do this.



Here are the complete credits for "Blonde Crazy" and a trailer:

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Thirteen Women," or Trance with Me


In "Thirteen Women" (1932), Myrna Loy is Ursula Georgi, a beautiful but mysterious mixed-race woman who uses hypnosis, astrology and an exploding toy ball to rid herself of the wealthy schoolmates who ostracized her because of her lineage.

"My eyes are up here, sport."
Talk about carrying a grudge.

Based upon a novel by Tiffany Thayer, who must have been the Jackie Collins of his day, "Thirteen Women" is lurid stuff that involves murder, madness and suicide.

You see, Ursula has been planning her revenge for years, do you hear? YEARS! So she seduces an astrologer who is putting together horoscopes for all the women.

Under Ursula's spell, the astrologer sends each woman a horoscope that warns of imminent death or other sorrow, and their imaginations get the better of them, leading to scenes like this:



Hazel Cousins, the screamer, was played by Peg Entwhistle. Shortly after this movie was released, she committed suicide by jumping from the giant HOLLYWOOD sign.

Anyway, back to the plot. When the astrologer outlives his usefulness, he is dealt with as well:

   

The one classmate who isn't unnerved by the predictions is Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), probably because, based on the looks of her house, servants and chauffeur, she has a zillion dollars. Ricardo Cortez, who resembles a 1932 version of Stanley Tucci, is the detective on the case.

"I'm sorry we made your life a living hell, Asian Myrna Loy,
but we were just kids! Bygones!"

Because she can't unnerve Laura, Ursula targets Laura's son by giving him an exploding ball for his birthday, which leads to a chase through a newly-paved Beverly Hills just on the verge of bursting with bungalows. I live for this kind of Southern California location shooting, especially in movies of the early '30s:

  

Actually, there are only 11 women in "Thirteen Women," but if you want to get technical about it, you should probably just watch another movie. What makes "Thirteen Women" so much fun is Loy's performance as the exotic temptress Ursula, just two years before she would become cast as the perfect American wife in "The Thin Man." And the movie has its own unique visual style -- check out the ending, when Ursula's hallucinations begin to haunt her and she sees the astrologer she killed:



I've always been more partial to Dunne in comedies than dramas, and in "Thirteen Women" she's much less interesting than Loy -- take the scene when Loy tries to make a classmate shoot herself through hypnosis and then achieves almost orgasmic glee when she hears the gunshot. Her role may be stereotypical, but Loy gives it her all and despite the coldness of her character, she's actually the heart of "Thirteen Women."  


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"The Lost Squadron," or Aces High











(Caution: Spoilers ahead, and we aren't talking about the wings of the biplanes.)

Richard Dix made his film debut in 1917, and although he was active in sound films until 1947, his looks and acting style were very much out of the silent days. He was a beefy guy, usually in take-charge roles, and in 1932's "The Lost Squadron" he is Gibby, the official (during World War I) and then unofficial (after the war) leader of a ragtag group of flyboys -- Woody (Robert Armstrong), Red (Joel McCrea) and Fritz (Hugh "woo woo" Herbert).

The movie opens on Armstice Day, 1918, and as soon as Gibby's watch reads 11 a.m. on November 11 he stops shooting at his German targets and gallantly salutes them.

On the ground, the guys celebrate by getting drunk and then they return to America, and various disappointments -- Woody is broke, thanks to a cheating business partner; Red is out of a job (he passes it up so that an older co-worker won't be fired to make room for him) and Gibby comes home to his love, Follette (Mary Astor), only to find another man in her opulent apartment. "I've been bad, Gibby," she says. Awkward!

So the boys are out on their own again, and then time passes pretty quickly -- we go from the victory parades in 1918 almost immediately to the crash of 1929. (Really? What happened to the roaring '20s?)

Anyway, it's 11 years later and Red, Gibby and Fritz, against all odds, are still hanging together, being bums and stuff. They have hopped a freight to California because Woody is there, working as a stunt pilot in movies for autocratic director Von Furst (Erich Von Stroheim), a preening Prussian with a production company logo that looks suspiciously like a swastika.





"Meet my husband -- he's recently
 divorced from Norma Desmond."
Von Furst is known for encouraging dangerous stunts -- and lo and behold, he is married to Follette ("they say he beats the behoozis out of her," Woody tells Gibby).

Before you can say "madame is the greatest star of them all," all the flyboys are working for Von Furst -- and Gibby and Follette have had a reunion, much to the displeasure of her husband. This really puts Von Furst in a bad mood, although for him it's a short trip, and he takes it out on his cast and crew:



Gibby also has eyes for Woody's sister (Dorothy Jordan), nicknamed "Pest" because she chides Woody about his constant drinking. Unfortunately for Gibby, the Pest has eyes for Red. If Richard Dix represented the leading man of the 1920s, Joel McCrea was the shape of things to come -- tall, effortlessly handsome and already performing with the relaxed manner that would serve him so well into the 1930s and '40s.

"The Lost Squadron" takes a wonderfully dark turn when Von Furst sabotages Gibby's plane. But Woody secretly takes out the plane instead, and ends up seriously killed. In revenge, Red captures Von Furst and holds him hostage in the hangar (say that three times fast). Then there's a struggle with a gun, and Von Furst ends up ventilated. This leads to a great scene where Fritz, Red and Gibby prop up the dead Von Furst to throw suspicion off themselves:



But Gibby knows that the jig is up, and as the squadron leader it's up to him to do something about it:



"The Lost Squadron" offers a cool look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood of 1932, and it screams "pre-code" in its portrayal of Follette sleeping her way to the top, in Woody's drinking and even in allowing a lead character to get away with murder. The script is co-written by Herman Mankiewicz and was the first picture to credit David O. Selznick as Executive Producer. The movie isn't exactly up to the level of Mankewicz's "Citizen Kane" or Selznick's "Gone with the Wind," but it builds to a suspenseful, atmospheric and even darkly funny climax in the airplane hanger. The movie begins with "Auld Lang Syne" being sung at the end of the war and concludes with the same song, accompanying a pair of ghostly fliers in the haunted sky.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Gold Diggers of 1933," or Er-way in-hay the Unny-may



"Spare change, mister?"

Everyone on stage for the neon violin number!
Any movie that starts with Ginger Rogers singing "We're in the Money" in pig latin -- surrounded by chorus girls dressed in giant coins and little else -- is automatically a classic, but "Gold Diggers of 1933" is just getting started. Before it's all over, we'll also see the "Pettin' in the Park" number, which involves women stepping out of their step-ins and putting on tin suits, another number where chorus girls play neon violins and, finally, arguably the movies' first protest song, "Remember My Forgotten Man."


The man behind all this pre-code craziness was Busby Berkeley, who used his ribald imagination and startling camera angles to singlehandedly revive the movie musical, which had by 1932 fallen out of favor due to stilted staging and stodgy performances.

First came 1932's "42nd Street," where Berkeley choreographed a title number that included allusions to prostitution, lesbianism, rape and murder -- all acted out to the lyrics of a swell song! "42nd Street" was knowing, cynical, down and dirty, brazenly adult, and a huge hit. It even made a star out of the wan, winsome Ruby Keeler, despite her lack of acting skill and her leaden tap dancing.

The success of that film led to "Gold Diggers of 1933" and a series of wisecracking Warner Brothers urban musicals that flourished until the Production Code cracked down on naughtiness in the mid-1930s. Berkeley's sequences weren't just musical numbers -- they were little encapsulated plays, with the kind of massive spectacle that, in real life, would never fit on the stages where they're presented.

Like "42nd Street," "Gold Diggers of 1933" deals with the drama that occurs backstage at a Broadway show. This time around, the good-hearted showgirls are Keeler, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon. They're dealing with the depression with good humor and mock-toughness -- exactly the way the audience members imagined themselves dealing with it.

When Keller falls for Dick Powell, a songwriter who is actually a rich guy in disguise, Blondell and MacMahon try to outwit Powell's stuffy brother (Warren William) and his sidekick (Guy Kibbee), who don't want Powell in show business. They act like golddiggers, but their hearts are in the right place, and all ends happily -- even as the final number, "Remember My Forgotten Man," turns World War I soldiers into men waiting in a breadline. Here's the song, 1930s Warner Brothers style encapsulated:


But for sheer Berkeley craziness, you can't beat "Pettin' in the Park," which features, in no particular order, an on-stage rainstorm, rollerskates, women undressing, tin suits, and lecherous midgets posing as babies:


Berkeley's fame didn't last long -- he became a victim of his own success, and couldn't keep producing musical numbers with the same imagination and verve. But for a few years, until the Production Code tamped down on risque stuff in 1934, he was hot stuff, and his visions were the gold standard for naughtiness until censorship standards began crumbling in the late 1950s.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Coming Attractions

From one of my favorite photo blogs, www.shorpy.com:

"The Best Years of Our Lives": A Beginning

"The Best Years of Our Lives" opens and closes, roughly, at an airfield.

In the beginning, it's the point of re-entry for three World War II vets -- banker Al (Oscar-winner Fredric March), soda jerk turned bombardier Fred (Dana Andrews) and sailor Homer (Harold Russell), who has lost both of his hands and has become pretty adept with hooks. All three are coming home to Boone City, a midwestern metropolis not unlike Indianapolis or Cincinnati. And all three, for individual reasons, are scared stiff about reintroducing themselves to their loved ones and readjusting to civilian life.

The three of them have hitched a ride on an Army transport plane, taking a route back home that includes many stops along the way. This gives them time to share their stories, especially Homer, who is convinced that longtime girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) will leave him:



"The Best Years of Our Lives" is very much a product of its time -- that time being just after the allied victory in World War II, a victory that solidified America's position as a global power. At the same time, we came out of the war with a clearer understanding of the depths of evil and of how far we as a country still needed to go to ensure true equality for all of its citizens.

The film is ripe with the potential and the pitfalls of possibility -- of lives restarting, in the case of Al and his wife Milly (Myrna Loy); and of lives beginning, in the case of the forbidden romance of Fred, who is already married, and Al's daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright); and of Homer's difficult adjustment and gradual acceptance of the love of longtime girlfriend Wilma.

Director William Wyler handles each actor with delicacy and skill, but to me the most outstanding feature of "The Best Years of Our Lives" is the screenplay by Robert Sherwood, based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor. Sherwood's script contains some great, sharp-edged lines. One of my favorites is spoken by Al as he downheartedly prepares to return to the bank:

Al: Last year it was 'Kill Japs.' This year it's 'Make money.'

Another favorite scene is when Homer flees to the neighborhood tavern owned by his Uncle Butch after an uncomfortable re-entry with his family. Butch, beautifully played by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, slowly plinks out "Up a Lazy River" on the piano (which Carmichael composed) and has a great little monologue.

Butch: Give 'em time, kid; they'll catch on. You know your folks'll get used to you, and you'll get used to them. Then everything'll settle down nicely. Unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day.


But it's the visual moments that give this movie its real staying power, from Homer's return home to the arrival of Al at his apartment, where he surprises Milly:



And, at the end of the film, back at the airfield, Fred's visit to an airplane graveyard to put to rest some ghosts of his own while his hard-drinking father reads his son's citations:



I've been a fan of older movies since I was a kid, but as I have aged I see "The Best Years of Our Lives" through different eyes. It's a tremendously moving yet down-to-earth movie, its simple nobility enhanced by Hugo Friedhofer's Oscar-winning score. The movie ends with the wedding of Homer and Wilma, and the impending marriage of Fred and Peggy and, to me, the sense of it being very early morning of a whole new day.