Monday, January 28, 2013

"Red Dust," or Sweat Surrender

The 1932 film "Red Dust" is ironically titled -- dust has very little to do with what happens in the movie. Moisture, however, plays a starring role -- moisture in the form of sweat, rain, steam and humidity, with a very special appearance by Jean Harlow's bathwater.

Set on a rubber plantation in Indochina, with the nearest large city being Saigon (they pronounced it "say-gone" in those days), "Red Dust" deals with Denny (Clark Gable), a rough-and-tumble plantation boss who's torn between two women -- earthy goodtime girl Vantine (Jean Harlow) and icy yet smouldering Babs (Mary Astor). The three of them face one crisis after another -- windstorms! Rainstorms! Tigers! Fever! The Chinese cook's bad teeth!

Vantine appears first -- we see her in bed, where she has gone to sleep and hide from a drunken worker (Donald Crisp), and she's illuminated by Denny's flashlight. This happens on a steamy night when Denny just happens to be in a bad mood -- he's on one of his periodic rants to the wizened McQuarg (Tully Marshall) about how he'd love to leave the whole grueling business: "Swallowing dust one month, wading in mud the next -- just so some old woman can take a hot water bottle to bed with her."

Vantine has taken the boat (On water!) to the plantation to hide out from the authorities. She doesn't say why she's in trouble, but from her appearance and filmy wardrobe we can guess.

Vantine: What else do you do around here besides work? Know any games?

McQuarg: If it was the summer of 1894, I'd play games with you, sister.

Then she tries to strike up a conversation with Denny:



In a nice touch that Howard Hawks would steal -- er, adopt -- in "To Have and Have Not," Denny and Vantine make up different names for each other. She calls him Fred, and he calls her Lily. And they end up playing other games together, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Both Harlow and Gable are surprisingly assured in their roles -- even more so for Harlow. Her star was still on the rise and it was during the making of this film that her husband, MGM executive Paul Bern, committed suicide. But Harlow gets all the film's best lines and knocks them out of the park -- for instance, while cleaning a bird cage, she asks the occupant, "Whaddya been eating? Cement?"

Fast forward a few weeks, and Vantine is ready to board the boat back to civilization. Arriving on that very same boat is Willis, the plantation's new surveyor (Gene Raymond), and his wife, Babs.

You can tell that the Willises aren't quite prepared for the rugged conditions they find -- they've packed tennis rackets, and when she sees the plantation headquarters, Babs asks where the main house is. On top of everything else, Willis has a tropical fever and he spends the next week or so sweating like crazy. Denny nurses Willis through his fever, and earns the gratitude of Babs. He likes that -- he likes her. Meanwhile, Vantine's back -- the boat has had mechanical trouble.

So there's a full house, and once Willis has recovered, Denny sends him on several long-distance missions so that he can make a play for Babs. He takes her on a tour of the plantation, and they get caught in a downpour, which has a way of breaking down, um, formalities:


Vantine can't figure out why Denny goes for a cool customer like Babs. But she just goes her own merry way while she's waiting for the boat to be repaired. This includes using the camp water supply as a bathtub, with Denny as a flustered observer -- not flustered for his sake, but for Babs's sake, for God's sake:



(By the way -- when Harlow basically played herself in the great 1933 Hollywood satire "Bombshell," there's a scene when her character, Lola Burns, has to do "Red Dust" retakes in the bath barrel.)

Despite Denny's infatuation, it's pretty clear that Babs isn't right for him. Unlike Vantine, she calls him "Dennis" and wouldn't think of joking around or pitching a double entendre. And when Denny goes to visit Willis in a remote location, he finally understands how much the guy loves his wife and how out of place Babs would be on a rubber plantation. (Babs, in fact, is the film's only sweat-free character, making her seem even less human.)

So Denny gets noble and comes back to break up with Babs. She doesn't take it well, and she has a gun, so Denny gets shot. Then Willis arrives, and Vantine steps in:

   

For them, the plantation is home, sweat home.

Here are full credits for "Red Dust," and a trailer:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"City Streets," or Gang Man Style

The 1931 film "City Streets" is blessed visually in several ways. One is by the smooth, innovative direction of Rouben Mamoulian, who in this film introduces one storytelling technique that today's movies are still using. Another is the atmospheric photography by Lee Garmes, who also shot "Scarface," "Gone with the Wind" and "Nightmare Alley." And then there's the presence of a tall, handsome drink of water named Gary Cooper.

Cooper plays a character called simply "the Kid" -- a straight shooter who also happens to be a crack shot. At this point, Cooper was also a legendary ladies man, with a line of conquests that included Clara Bow and Lupe Velez, and it's easy to see why -- aside from his physical attractiveness, he radiates strength and confidence.

Born Frank Cooper in Montana, our hero took up horseback riding as a kind of physical therapy to recuperate from a hip injury he suffered in a car accident. This made him a natural for western roles, such as in "The Virginian" and "The Man From Wyoming," but his cowboy's nonchalance wasn't restricted to the range -- for instance, as a Foreign Legionnaire taken by Marlene Dietrich in "Morocco," he might as well be wearing chaps.

"City Streets" begins with the Kid working at a carnival, where he runs the shooting gallery and amazes the spectators with his trick gun work. His best girl is Nan (Sylvia Sidney). She's a good kid with just one fault -- she's loyal to her nogoodnik stepfather (Guy Kibbee), who works as a "bodyguard" for bootlegger Big Fella (Paul Lukas).

Big Fella's catchphrase is "no hard feelings," which is gangster-speak for "very hard feelings indeed, and you will be riddled with bullets as soon as I can step out of the way." We first get a look at Big Fella as he's collecting protection money from a reluctant client:




I think we all know the moral to this story: never get your hat personalized.

Nan and the Kid want to get married, but they can't on his gallery salary. She tries to talk him into joining Big Fella's gang, but he's reluctant. Then when Big Fella's main rival is killed with stepfather's gun, Nan's loyalty is put to the test. She's found guilty of withholding evidence and is sent to prison. While there, she sours on the mob and is grateful that the Kid isn't mixed up in it. But he is. He tells her the news during a prison visit, and later that night it's still rattling around in her head:


(The voiceover in Nan's head is making its first movie appearance. Nicely done, Mamoulian.)

Once Nan is released from stir, she wants to pry the Kid loose from Big Fella's clutches. But Big Fella is more interested in getting his clutches around Nan. The Kid and Big Fella have a showdown over Nan, and Big Fella decides its time to rub out the Kid. But Nan pretends to be interested in Big Fella in order to save the Kid's life. Then one of Big Fella's old girlfriends (Wynne Gibson) shoots him and frames Nan. Everybody wants to nab Nan, but the Kid takes control of the mob in this skillfully edited scene:


"City Streets" is based on a Dashiell Hammett story and adapted by Max Marcin, the man behind the "Crime Doctor" radio and film series of the 1930s and '40s. It has the narrative drive you'd expect from a Warner Bros. gangster movie with the European visual flair of a Paramount film. That style flows all the way through to the final scene -- the Kid and Nan have escaped from the mob and crank up Wagner on the car radio as the camera pans up to birds circling in the sky.

Here are full cast and credits for "City Streets."

Friday, January 18, 2013

"City for Conquest" Starring James Cagney and ... Jack Benny?

By the time "City for Conquest" was released in 1940, James Cagney had been one of the top stars at Warner Bros. for ten years. The movies that put him in that position -- tough, fast-moving urban dramas with lots of action and snappy dialogue -- were so successful financially, artistically and culturally that they came to symbolize the studio's style during the 1930s.

In a way, "City for Conquest" is the last Cagney picture of that type. It's an elegy for those movies, usually set in New York City, with Cagney as a working-class Irishman named Danny, Eddie or Tommy who fights passionately for what he believes in, regardless of what side of the legal fence he's on.

In this movie, Cagney is in the unique position of being a kind of hero and elder statesman at the same time. There's crime in the picture, but unlike in the old days, he doesn't get directly mixed up in it. He's showing his age slightly -- his teaming with Ann Sheridan as his romantic interest, who's supposed to be the same age (there's a 15-year difference), is a little off. But in many ways, "City for Conquest" is the quintessential Cagney performance, combining his natural pugnaciousness and physical style with low-key drama and naturally played sentiment.

We begin in the city's Lower East Side, of course, led there by a philosophical and slightly annoying tramp (Frank Craven) who's supposed to symbolize the unbreakable spirit of New York. This part would seem a natural for Craven, who played a similar role, the omniscient stage manager, in the Broadway production of "Our Town." It isn't that it's a bad performance -- it's just that the character is more of a dramatic conceit than a person, and Craven has to make his way through purple pronouncements about the city like this: "Look at it! Seven million people fighting, fighting, clawing away to get one foot on a ladder that'll take em to a penthouse." See for yourself:


We first see Danny (Cagney) and Peggy (Sheridan) as kids -- Peggy demonstrates her love of dancing by doing a number on the sidewalk, and Danny demonstrates his gift for fighting by decking a kid who interrupts her act. Oh, and there's one other kid hanging around -- Danny's artistic brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy), fingering his accordion and staring into space, dreaming of the symphony he's going to compose.

Then we fast forward a few years -- Danny is driving a dump truck and boxing for relaxation. Eddie is giving piano lessons and still dreaming of that symphony, which he describes in phrases that might as well be spoken by our verbose tramp friend: "It's the city, with all of its proud, passionate beauty and all of its sordid ugliness ... of its teeming seven millions and its barren loneliness."

Meanwhile, Peggy's dream of dancing is given life by the smooth, arrogant Murray (Anthony Quinn in his days as the second-string Cesar Romero), and they become a team. Danny's happy for her success -- she's always gonna be his goil, no matter what -- but when Murray starts bad-mouthing Peggy and her friends, Danny gets hot:


Despite his skill in the ring, and despite the entreaties of his buddy Mutt (longtime Cagney sidekick Frank McHugh) Danny's always been resistant to a boxing career. Then, when Eddie loses his music scholarship and Peggy tells him of her dreams of being upwardly mobile, Danny realizes he's going to need some extra kale. So he signs with kindhearted fight promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp) and starts making the boxing circuit at the same time that Murray and Peggy start making the vaudeville circuit. We learn this in one of those great Warner montages:


About this time, we're introduced to a character who's a lot like the characters Cagney used to play -- Oogie, a pal from the old neighborhood (director Elia Kazan in an early role). Oogie's back from a stretch in the pen, and Danny stakes him to a meal and a new pair of shoes. As Danny rises in the fight game, Oogie's star is rising, too, most likely through nefarious means.

Then comes heartbreak -- Peggy leaves Danny for a nightclub tour, and a heartbroken Danny starts fighting outside his class out of anger and spite. This leads to a championship match where the opponent plays dirty by rubbing rosin dust in Danny's eyes, causing him to lose his sight. For the rest of the movie Cagney plays his role with a squint -- and he's one of the few guys who can make a squint look heroic. Oogie takes it upon himself to avenge Danny, and ends up eating lead on the waterfront. You can almost hear him say "I ain't so tough" a la Cagney in "The Public Enemy."

At the movie's climax, only Eddie has achieved his dream -- to conduct his symphony at Carnegie Hall. Danny listens on the radio, from his newsstand in Times Square:

You might call this ending over the top -- I would, but I think it's bad form to poke fun at a scene that brings tears to your eyes.

One of the best parts of Jack Benny's radio show were parodies of current movies, and "City for Conquest" did not escape scrutiny. By this point in Benny's career, he was the country's most popular radio comic and the regular cast that would be with him for decades was firmly in place -- jovial announcer Don Wilson; comic foil Mary Livingstone (Benny's real-life wife); vain, boozing bandleader Phil Harris and naive singer Dennis Day.

This is during the period when Benny's show, written by Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin, hadn't quite fallen into its postwar sitcom phase -- there is an opening about Jack putting his footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with Benny exhibiting the same kind of false modesty as Anne Hathaway accepting a Golden Globe for "Les Miserables."

The "City for Conquest" sketch is short, concentrating mainly on the boxer plot. Targets include the film's overblown "poetry" and Eddie's musical aspirations (Phil Harris plays Eddie, who is composing his symphony on a drum set instead of a piano. His solution for the big finish: more cowbell.) There's also fun poked at Cagney's Lower East Side patois:

Benny (as Cagney, to Mary): Is that a new skoit?

Mary (as Sheridan): Yeah. Is that a new shoit?

Benny: Yes, it's a new shoit. How do you like my shoit?

Mary: It's a little short around Detroit.



Here are the credits for "City for Conquest," and a trailer:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Joseph Cawthorn Film Festival: "White Zombie" and "Twenty Million Sweethearts"

"Vot are you looking at?"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Joseph Cawthorn (1868-1949) was certainly one of them.

To get an idea of the wide range of roles he played, just look at the character names: Dourfuss, Kleber, Selzer, Schlemmer, Krausemeyer, Schmidt, Kruger, Uppmann, Brokman, Speigal, Schneider, Barfuss, Schultz, Schultz and Schultz.

All right, so he's not Daniel Day-Lewis.

Nonetheless, Cawthorn had one particular character type down cold -- the cranky-but-harmless, usually wealthy, Dutch-German businessman who said things like "You vill pay me der seventy dollahs or I vill know der reason vy!"

He vas good at it.

Cawthorn started on the stage as a child, and in a 1908 Broadway show he supposedly created an animal called the whiffenpoof while ad libbing. Some fellows from Yale were in the audience and created a song to go with the name. Thus Cawthorn is only a few degrees separated from Cary Grant, who sang "The Whiffenpoof Song" in the film "Monkey Business"!

He didn't always play to type -- Cawthorn appeared in the 1929 version of "Taming of the Shrew" with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and he was the doctor who can't understand Jeannette MacDonald's need for male, um, companionship in the 1932 film "Love Me Tonight."

In "White Zombie," released the same year and as far from "Love Me Tonight" as we are from Pluto, Cawthorn plays slightly off type as Dr. Bruner, a missionary. Dr. Bruner has been in the missionary position in Haiti for over 30 years, and boy are his hips tired. He has been called to a plantation to perform a marriage ceremony for two visitors, Neil and Madeline (John Harron and Madge Bellamy). But the evil plantation owner (Robert Frazer) wants Madeline to himself, so he visits witch doctor-zombie master-golf pro "Murder" Legendre (Bela Lugosi) for advice.

"Murder" has two distinguishing characteristics -- he is always followed around by a vulture and he has a bad hairpiece. The evil plantation owner gives the bride some zombie formula, and on her wedding night she puts a serious crimp in the honeymoon by turning cold and stiff, although to some grooms that might be the perfect aphrodisiac.

Neil thinks that Madeline is dead, and he goes to Dr. Bruner for help. Bruner says, "You vill pay me der seventy dollahs" -- no, sorry, wrong movie. Instead, in a very long take, Bruner laboriously explains to Neil that Madeline has become zombified:

   

The grieving groom teams with Dr. Bruner and they set out for the castle of "Murder" and his army of obedient zombies. Cawthorn is third-billed in this movie, and in the big showdown he saves Neil and Madeline by telling the zombies to take a long walk on a short cliff:



"White Zombie" is visually striking, but the script is routine and humorless. There's only one joke in the movie, and Cawthorn gets it -- he's always asking someone for a match to light his pipe. While you collapse with hilarity, we move on to Cawthorn movie #2, in which he plays a more Joseph Cawthorn-ish role.

In the 1934 film "Twenty Million Sweethearts," Cawthorn is Mr. Brokman, the head of the Carlotta Soap Company. The company sponsors a radio show with crooner Buddy Clayton (Dick Powell), who was discovered by fast-talking talent scout Rush Blake (Pat O'Brien). We first see Cawthorn when he's passing on suggestions of songs for Buddy to sing:



Conflict rears its ugly head when Buddy falls in love with radio actress Peggy (Ginger Rogers) and Brokman and the network want to keep the romance a secret so as not to alienate Buddy's female fans. Buddy ends up quitting the show and the network, and Rush orchestrates an event to bring Buddy, Brokman and the network together again:



As for Cawthorn, his last film was "The Postman Didn't Ring," released in 1942.

Here are credits for "White Zombie," and a trailer:




Here are credits for "Twenty Million Sweethearts," and a trailer:



Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Ladies of Leisure," or Easel to Love

Barbara Stanwyck enters the 1930 film "Ladies of Leisure" -- and film history -- in a rowboat. The oars squeak. Her face is marked by mascara-streaked tears and she's clutching a broken dress strap. She's Kay, a party girl who just left a wild one on a yacht.

On shore is Ralph Graves as Jerry, who's also left a wild party, this one at his Manhattan penthouse. He's gone for a drive, but now he's fixing the flat tire on his Lincoln. Stanwyck climbs on shore, shivering.

Kay: How far is it to town?

Jerry: What town?

Kay: There's only one town.

So Jerry gives her a ride back to Manhattan, where the night is obliterated by blinking neon signs selling Squibb's Dental Creme and Aeolian Player Piano Rolls -- but where Kay will eventually learn to see beyond them to the stars.  

"Ladies of Leisure" isn't Stanwyck's first film, but it's the one that made her a star. It also marked the beginning of a five-picture collaboration with director Frank Capra (seen with Stanwyck at right) -- one that almost didn't happen. Capra wasn't impressed with Stanwyck at their first meeting, and she left upset. It wasn't until Capra was bawled out by Stanwyck's husband, comic Frank Fay, who urged Capra to watch an older Stanwyck screen test, that she was cast in the role.

Now back to the plot -- Jerry's an artist who's anything but starving. He lives high thanks to his family wealth -- dad runs a couple of railroads. On the ride back, Kay dozes off:



While she's asleep, Jerry sees something in Kay's face -- something that leads him to use her as a model for his new painting, "Hope."

"She had a mask on, like everybody else," Jerry tells his mother, "but underneath I think she had this."

The tricky part is getting down to it, and their first rocky sessions together show a bit of improvisation on Stanwyck's part:


Jerry knows that if Kay can get past her streetwise exterior, Hope will come through. But she's a tough nut to crack.   

Jerry: It's like a man I knew once. He was suspicious, bitter, harsh, cruel. Those things were written in hs face like a map of his life. He died -- I saw him laid out. His face was a new face -- it was fine, noble. There was peace in it. He was himself again. Do you see what I mean?

Kay: No. All I get out of it is you gotta die to find yourself. Not me -- not for two dollars an hour.

Also hanging around is Jerry's upper crust fiancee (Juliette Compton). She's cool and controlling -- we know she isn't right for our hero because she calls him "Jeddy." Marie Prevost is around for comic relief as Kay's roommate and best friend. And then there's Jerry's boozy friend Bill Standish, played by the ever-welcome Lowell Sherman. He and Stanwyck are perfectly matched in the wisecrack department:

Kay (seeing Bill enter): Drunk again!

Bill: Congratulations, so am I.

Of course, Jerry eventually gets through to Kay and she lets down her defenses and becomes a perfect model. They also fall in love, in a scene that echoes the moment in Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" when George Bailey (James Stewart) realizes in a mixture of anger and awe that he loves Mary Hatch (Donna Reed):


The Jerry-Kay relationship upsets Jerry's wealthy parents, and there's a father-son standoff. Jerry's mother (Nance O'Neil) visits Kay and tries to get her to break up with Jerry for his own sake, and in return mom gets the full Stanwyck:


Capra writes in his autobiography that, if she was filming an emotional scene, Stanwyck left everything on the field in the first take. And in this performance, so early in her career, she already has the ability to combine outer toughness with a sudden inner vulnerability that can tear your heart out. Sherman and Prevost perform like the pros they are. Graves, who was already a star thanks to his roles in the Capra-directed action pictures "Flight" and "Submarine," has a tough time impersonating someone with artistic temperament.

Here are the complete credits for "Ladies of Leisure."


Friday, January 4, 2013

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Back Pay"

"If the wages of sin is death I've got a lot of back pay coming!"

Corinne Griffith says this about halfway through the 1930 film "Back Pay," and if you understand what it means, you're ahead of me.

"Back Pay," which is a remake of a 1922 film, is about a young woman whose love of money and fast living take her from Demopolis, Virginia to New York City. There she falls into numerous affairs and lives the hotcha life.

Meanwhile, back in Demopolis, Faithful Boyfriend Gerald toils away in the town department store, waiting for his love to return.

Griffith had a successful career in silent movies, but she made only a handful of talkies, and when you see "Back Pay" you'll get a good idea why. The movie opens with her singing "They Didn't Believe Me" in an understated, charming way, but then she starts talking:



Griffith had the looks for pictures but she didn't have the voice for talkies. Her flat, unaffected monotone makes every line sound dull -- even the jokes. And it doesn't help that she's playing a character in her late teens when in real life she was in her mid-30s.

Griffith's character, Hester Bevins, lives with her aunt in what is apparently a house of ill repute. At one point she expresses her disgust with "my aunt in that filthy pink kimono -- sitting there with the men." While Faithful Boyfriend Gerald (Grant Withers) waits in the parlor, Hester sneaks out and hops a train to the big apple with a fast-talking traveling salesmen.

Fast forward a few years, and Hester has hooked up with tractor magnate Wheeler (Montagu Love). World War I is underway, and Wheeler is -- heh heh -- making a killing. "Don't profiteer more than is good for your health," Hester says monotonally.

A little later, while she and her rich buddies are on holiday, Hester ends up driving through Demopolis, so she tracks down Faithful Boyfriend Gerald, who's still working at the store:



By this point, America is involved in the war, and Gerald enlists, while Hester goes back to the city. An intertitle says: "While some marched through New York to lay down their lives, others stayed and laid down their honor." Burn!

Hester is partying at Lake Placid while Gerald is in Germany, dodging bullets and inhaling mustard gas. He ends up in the hospital with lung damage and blind. Hester, on the other hand, sees clearly for the first time, and she marries Gerald, even though (or perhaps because) he's terminally ill.

Then comes Armistice Day, and the end of the war coincides with the end of Gerald:



And although "Back Pay" was close to the end of Griffith's movie career, she went on to lead a pretty interesting life. She wrote numerous books, including a memoir called "Papa's Delicate Condition" that was made into a 1963 film with Jackie Gleason. She was a real estate magnate, worth an estimated $150 million when she died in 1979. She wrote the lyrics to the Washington Redskins fight song because one of her husbands owned the team. And during divorce hearings from her fourth husband in 1966, Griffith claimed that she was actually her own younger sister.

Here are the complete credits for "Back Pay."