Friday, March 29, 2013

Neglected Post Theatre: The Monroe Owsley Film Festival

Welcome to Neglected Post Theatre, where we re-post posts with negligible views post-posting, aka not many people saw them. Were they neglected due to weird timing, bad karma, or were they just stinkerooos? YOU be the judge!

"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
Today's entry is a little something we like to call The Monroe Owsley Film Festival: "Ten Cents a Dance" and "The Keyhole."

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Trouble in Paradise," or The Snatch Game

"Trouble in Paradise" bugs me, man.

Writing about it bugs me, that is. It's such a flipping perfect little movie that I can't make affectionate fun of it the way I do with awkward early talkies, or Joan Crawford's bug eyes, or Marie Dressler's mugging. It forces me to resort to phrases that aren't part of my vocabulary as a cynical middle-aged guy in the early 21st century but that nevertheless are accurate, like "beautifully constructed," "sublimely witty" or "delightfully acted." Or descriptors that you usually use when talking about desserts, like "exquisite" and "fluffy" and "delectable."

Worst of all, I lack even an iota, a scintilla, a microscopic speck of the skill of the people behind the movie, particularly director Ernst Lubitsch, from whom all blessings flow, so how can someone so humble report adequately on something so special? Who do I think I am, Self Styled Siren? It falls to me to try and write about a movie I love while knowing that my pitiful efforts at describing why it's so special will never, ever, ever do it justice.

Having now built your expectations to a fever pitch, let us hie to Venice, where a night of magical romance is just about to go through cupid's checkout counter (12 items or less). We are in a hotel where the Baron (Herbert Marshall), a smooth customer with half-lidded eyes and a perpetual half smile, is ordering dinner from a willing waiter:

Baron: It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: And waiter --

Waiter: Yes, Baron?

Baron: Do you see that moon?

Waiter: Yes, Baron.

Baron: I want to see that moon in the champagne.

Waiter: Yes, Baron. (writes) Moon ... in ... champagne.

Baron: And as for you --

Waiter: Yes, Baron?

Baron: I don't want to see you .. at all.

Waiter: No, Baron.

The dinner guest arrives. It is the Countess (Miriam Hopkins), looking beautiful and breathless because she just succeeded at barely avoiding someone she wanted to avoid. Someone with a title and an estate, no doubt, but uninteresting -- the kind of ne plus ultra people who attend so many of the ne plus ultra parties she is forced to attend, in case you were wondering.

The Countess and the Baron circle each other, taking turns with mutual compliments and pleased smiles. Then comes moon-infused champagne, and dinner, and some straight talk:

Countess: I have a confession to make to you: Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9. May I have the salt?

Baron: Please!

Countess: Thank you.

Baron: The pepper, too?

Countess: Oh, no, thank you.

Baron: You're very welcome. Countess, believe me, before you left this room, I would have told you everything. And let me say this, with love in my heart: Countess, you are a thief. The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket. In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet.

The Baron is actually Master Thief Gaston Monescu, and the Countess is actually Lily the Very Good Pickpocket. They are con artists, and each thrilled to be in the company of a master, so they become a couple.

Fast forward to Paris, specifically Colet and Company, makers of cosmetics. This is the business owned by the third side of our triangle, Madame Colet (Kay Francis). Her husband started the business, but now he's dead, and Madame isn't that interested in it. Neither is she interested in her two persistent suitors, the Major (Charlie Ruggles) and Francois (Edward Everett Horton). She gets joy mainly by buying beautiful things, and when her very expensive evening bag goes missing at the opera, she offers a large reward. The rewardee is Gaston, but when he meets Madame he senses the potential for more than just a reward:


Gaston: Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking - in a business way, of course.

Madame: What would you do if you were my secretary?

Gaston: The same thing.

Madame: You're hired.


Gaston becomes Madame's live-in financial secretary. And Lily is hired as a stenographer. But when Madame confides her feelings about Gaston to Lily, the Very Good Pickpocket starts getting a little antsy.

Meanwhile, there are signs the jig, she is up. You see, on the night Gaston and Lily first met, in Venice, Gaston had just come from robbing a silly rich man in the same hotel, and it was Francois -- the man in room 235, 7 and 9. And since Francois is always hanging around Madame Colet, he meets Gaston and starts putting two and two together, but not without great difficulty.

At any rate, Gaston and Lily sense that it's time to go. But to Gaston, known to his mistress as Monsieur Laval, Madame Colet has become more than just an attractive target, and he takes appropriate action:  

Gaston: Is this the Petite Flower Shop? I want you to take five dozen roses -- deep, red roses. And I want you to put them in a basket, and send this basket tomorrow morning to Madame Colet. And attach a card: "In memory of the late Monsieur Laval." Tomorrow morning. Ten o'clock. Yes. Huh? Oh -- charge it to Madame Colet.

Truth be told, Gaston does not leave Madame Colet that abruptly. He does it with the kind of wit and style that marks "Trouble in Paradise" beginning to end. I've tried to recount some of it, but compared to the finished film my efforts are like those of the first fellow we see in the movie, an opera-singing Venetian piloting a gondola overflowing with garbage through a moonlit canal.

Oh, and one more thing -- Kay Francis has the cutest little speech impediment. You really notice it toward the end of the movie, when she turns to Gaston and says:

"Why talk of wobbewy on a night like this?"

Why indeed.

Here are complete credits for "Trouble in Paradise."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Chance at Heaven," or Miss Rogers' Neighborhood

The year 1933 was a good one for Ginger Rogers. She starred in two huge musical hits, "Gold Diggers of 1933" and "Flying Down to Rio," and at the same time came into her own as a dramatic actress with vehicles like "Chance at Heaven." 

"Chance at Heaven" is a pleasant but minor movie, and Rogers is its heart and soul. She plays Margie, called "Mug" by her longtime boyfriend, Blackie (Joel McCrea). They've grown up together in a small Massachusetts coastal town (actually the San Fernando Valley masquerading as Massachusetts) and Mug has been waiting patiently for Blackie to propose. In the meantime, she meets him at his charming little bungalow after work and cooks his favorite chicken pot pie, and then goes home to her parents.

Blackie loves Mug, but he's wrapped up in running a thriving little filling station ($1.85 would fill you up in those days) and marriage is not a high priority.

Then one day, rich Glory (Marian Nixon) arrives on the scene and works her way into Blackie's heart while slamming her Packard into his service station, and that is not a euphemism:



Glory is engaged to Sid (George Meeker), a whiny rich guy with bad posture. She goes for Blackie because he's everything Sid isn't -- tall, strong, handsome, hardworking, decent. The couples meet at a nightclub, and when she's alone with Glory, Margie starts to realize she has some competition:



Then Glory pays a visit to Blackie's gas station, and they steal a kiss just before Margie enters and realizes that the jig, she is up:  



One night Glory invites Blackie to a party at the family mansion, and as they sit outside Glory sees the lights of an amusement park in the distance. Blackie explains that it's a place called Pleasure Park, where all the regular folks go. Glory tells him she wants to go to Pleasure Park, too. Every night, if you get me.

Then, before you can say "pre-nup," Glory and Blackie have eloped. They move into Blackie's house, followed by newspaper photographers who want to see who the heiress eloped with. Then comes Glory's snobbish mother, who disapproves of the match. Finally, there is Margie, who still wants to be friends with Blackie -- and Glory, who's feeling a little out of her element.

Margie and Glory become such good friends, in fact, that when Glory learns she is pregnant, she tells Margie before she tells Blackie. And since this is 1933, they celebrate by drinking gin -- pregnancy, schmegnancy.

Blackie is thrilled, and Margie is resigned. Once the news is out, Glory's mother insists that her daughter join her in New York City for the pregnancy. After a few months, Blackie insists that Glory come home, but she isn't coming back. He rushes to New York to get the news -- Glory is ready to move on with her life and wants a divorce. The regular life is not for her. And what about the baby, Blackie asks. Glory's mother looks at him stonily: "The doctor was mistaken." Hmm -- interesting pre-code allusion to abortion there.

Blackie is crushed, and returns home. You can guess who's waiting for him with a smile on her face and chicken pot pie in the oven.

"Chance at Heaven" is an interesting glimpse at Rogers in a warmer, more domestic role; she gives the movie its emotional core. She's so winning, in fact, that you can't really figure out why Blackie goes for Glory -- compared to Margie she's silly, superficial and not as attractive. On the other hand, if he didn't go for her, there wouldn't have been a movie.

Here are the complete credits for "Chance at Heaven."


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Min and Bill," or Punch Drunk Love

By the time she appeared in the 1930 film "Min and Bill," Marie Dressler was in her early 60s and had been performing for 38 years. Along the way she had befriended a powerful ally in screenwriter Frances Marion, who had adapted "Min and Bill" from a book written by her friend, Lorna Moon. The final screenplay bore little resemblance to Moon's work; Marion told MGM to buy the book rights mainly to help Moon financially. And she created the role of Min specifically for Dressler, to give her a starring role and more bargaining power with the studio. It worked -- "Min and Bill" was a huge hit, and Dressler won a Best Actress Oscar. (Marion would also be a kind of good-luck charm for Dressler's co-star, Wallace Beery. She would be the guiding force behind three of his best-known films -- this one, "The Big House" and "The Champ," which would result in Beery winning a Best Actor Oscar the year after Dressler's win.)

When she played roles in lesser pictures -- see "The Girl Said No" and "Chasing Rainbows" for just two examples -- Dressler would mug her way through scenes like a bulldozer tearing through topsoil. "Min and Bill" gives her a little more to chew on -- the film is an expert mix of comedy, drama and sentiment, compact and well paced.

Min is a crusty-but-lovable battle axe who runs a waterfront hotel-saloon. Her star boarder is Bill (Beery), a fisherman who's also her drinking buddy and confidant. The two of them bicker with an easy rapport, as illustrated here as Min gives Bill a shave:



The working girl Min is barking at in that scene is Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), who has been raised by Min after she was abandoned by her hard-drinking mother Bella (Marjorie Rambeau). Min loves her, but you'd never know it from the way she barks at her. Funny thing is, Nancy does know it and works willingly in the hotel.

Then two things happen -- one is that one of the other fishermen (Russell Hopton) is making advances to Nancy.  The other is that, after more than a decade, Nancy's mother is back on the scene. Min tells her that Nancy is dead, and then sends Nancy off to live with the local schoolmaster without any explanation. Then Min takes even more extreme steps to protect Nancy from her mooching mother:



Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Bill and Bella are making time with each other.

Bella (to Bill): You ain't so bad -- I've seen worse.

Bill: I've been told that before.

This provokes Min's wrath. She throws Bella out and then deals with Bill:



Nancy goes to boarding school for two years, and returns for a reunion with Min. She has news -- she's engaged to the son of a wealthy cannery owner. But as bad luck would have it, Bella also reappears, and she has discovered that Nancy is her daughter. But before she can ruin Nancy's life, Min stops her -- with a bullet, but not before Bella burns Min with a curling iron.

It's Nancy's wedding day, and Min is determined to protect her to the end. Bill wants Min to escape with him to Mexico, but Min can't resist taking one last look at Nancy:




"Min and Bill" shows the softer side of Dressler -- and as a result, she won an Oscar and became, you should excuse the expression, the biggest actress on the MGM lot in the early 1930s. 

Here are the complete credits for "Min and Bill," and here is a trailer:




Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"The Fortune": Post Modern Meets Pre-Code

"The Fortune" isn't commonly considered a highlight in the careers of Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson or director Mike Nichols.  In fact, when it was released in 1975 it was largely ignored by critics and moviegoers. But there was at least one person who thought it was great -- some geeky 18-year-old kid living in the Midwest who loved movies of the 1930s.

That would be me.

All these years later, I am still a cheerleader for "The Fortune," and the more pre-code movies I see the more I appreciate this film's pre-code flavor, even though it was released in an age where everything that was alluded to in the pre-code period could be explicitly shown on screen. (Did that sentence mention "pre-code" enough?)

"The Fortune" was written by Carol Eastman, under the pseudonym of Adrien Joyce. She also wrote "Five Easy Pieces," a big hit for Jack Nicholson in the late 1960s. Nicholson supposedly brought the script of "The Fortune" to the attention of Nichols. Beatty signed on as part of a two-picture deal with Columbia -- the other movie he would make for the studio is the great "Shampoo."

Each man brings his own special qualities to the movie.

For Nicholson, it's a chance for a rare straight comedy role. At this point he'd made his mark in dramas or comedy-dramas -- "Chinatown," "The Last Detail," "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces" -- and he would soon win an Oscar for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." As our Oscar, he has a rubber face, a frizzy hairstyle and the befuddled yet rascally manner of someone who thinks he's a lot smarter than he is.

For Beatty, it's a chance to spoof his own image as a suave ladies' man -- the first time we see him in this movie, he's looking at himself in a rearview mirror and adjusting his hat brim for maximum pimpness. Nicky looks good but he isn't very bright, either -- the fact that he hangs around with a dim bulb like Oscar is evidence of that.

And for Nichols, it's a chance to inject his trademark wit into a script that veers from the hilarious to the silly. "The Fortune" also features a Nichols specialty -- musical montages that help set the scene and even advance the plot. (See for instance "Silkwood," "Working Girl," "Postcards From the Edge" and, of course, "The Graduate.")

Based on a true story, "The Fortune" takes place in the late 1920s or early '30s -- a time when, we are told, the Mann Act forbade unmarried women to cross state lines in the company of married men. This causes a problem for Nicky (Beatty) and Freddie (Stockard Channing in one of her first feature roles). They want to be married and move to California, but Nicky's divorce isn't final. So Nicky talks his pal Oscar (Nicholson) into marrying Freddie and the three of them set off for the coast. Once Nicky gets his divorce, he figures, Oscar can split and he and Freddie can be married.

And the film's terrific opening sequence, scored by David Shire and with a vocal by Channing, lays out the setup very nicely:



There is more to the story -- Freddie is an heiress (to an empire built on sanitary napkins), which is why Nicky is so eager to get his clutches into her. And Oscar, who is legally married to Freddie, starts trying to worm his way into her heart -- and her inheritance. Romantic friction begins to develop -- Oscar grows a mustache like Nicky's. The threesome moves into an apartment, but Freddie can't have a dog or cat. So Oscar buys her a smaller pet:



But eventually, Freddie realizes that both men want her money, and announces that she's going to give it to charity. And Nicky and Oscar start planning her demise. But first comes Freddie's birthday, where Nichols nicely illustrates the triangle with a tango montage. This is followed by a scene where Nicky and Oscar, in very bad disguises, buy a poisonous snake as a possible murder weapon:



"The Fortune" is spiced with a memorable sense of time and place, courtesy of production designer Richard Sylbert and director of photography John A. Alonzo. The Los Angeles of this period is still in many ways a small desert town, and the apartment complex where they settle down is straight out of "Day of the Locust" -- a nondescript stucco village of bungalows surrounding a courtyard. Plant life is scarce, but that doesn't keep the nosy landlady (Florence Stanley -- Mrs. Fish on "Fish," for all you fans of late 1970s sitcoms) from hosing down everything constantly.  

The garages behind the bungalows where Freddie, Nicky and Oscar live are reminiscent of the garage where James Allen (Paul Muni) hides out in order to see his love Helen (Helen Vinson) for one last time in the haunting final sequence of "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang."


And in another sequence, Nichols has Nicky and Oscar meeting their contemporary equivalents -- two Laurel and Hardy-looking fellows in a Model T.

Eastman's script also has a nice pre-code spirit. She loves the slang of the period -- a mustache is a "cream catcher," a fight is a row (pronounced raow). One character points out that another character's fly is unzipped by saying "your fiddle case is open."

Once Nicky and Oscar decide to murder Freddie, "The Fortune" starts to sputter. First they buy the snake, but when they put it in into a cage with Freddie's pet -- now a full-grown chicken -- the chicken kills it. Then they try to drown Freddie by putting her into a birdbath. Finally they pack the unconscious Freddie into a trunk and drive to the ocean, where they intend to throw her in, but through their ineptitude the entire trunk ends up in the drink and Freddie ends up floating down to Long Beach, where she ends up hitching a ride (and getting involved) with another man.

Meanwhile, Oscar and Nicky are putting together a story for the cops and falling apart in the process. Freddie comes home to get her clothes and her chicken, and the story is wrapped up in a final musical montage:



Finally, attention must be paid to Stockard Channing. She more than holds her own against Beatty and Nicholson, which is high praise. Her character isn't allowed to mug as much as either of them, but she nails Freddie's upper class mannerisms, making them authentic and funny at the same time.

Here are full credits for "The Fortune," which by the way will air March 30 on Turner Classic Movies.   


Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Henry Kolker Film Festival: "I Like Your Nerve" and "The Crash"

"I wonder what she meant by that?"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Henry Kolker (1870-1947) was certainly one of them.

He had a long stage career and directed several silent films, including a 1921 production of "Disraeli" with George Arliss, who repeated the role in an early sound film. In talkies, Kolker most often played older, pasty white men of power and/or wealth, often with younger wives and/or girlfriends who run rings around them -- the kind of guy who says, "Something wrong, my dear?" a lot because he doesn't know that his significant other is making whoopie with another guy.

In the course of a very prolific career -- including a mind-boggling 28 films in 1934 -- Kolker played judges, doctors and attorneys. He played the president of the bank that Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top of in "Baby Face," and he was the stodgy father of Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 film "Holiday." He also played the cuckolded husband of Kay Francis not once, but twice -- in the 1933 film "The Keyhole" and in the 1932 film "Jewel Robbery." In this scene from "Jewel Robbery," Kolker is the guy in the straw hat who watches impotently as William Powell slickly robs a jewelry store and enthralls Kay Francis in the process:










In the 1932 film "The Crash," Kolker plays a character who's more in control. He is John Fair, a successful Wall Street trader who kicks off the movie by calling it quits with his selfish mistress, Linda Gault (Ruth Chatterton):



But Linda's husband, Geoffrey (George Brent), is taking a beating on Wall Street. And he knows that Linda and John have had an af-Fair (Get it?) so he tries to blackmail Fair with Linda's letters, which receives a chilly response:



In the odd little 1931 film "I Like Your Nerve," Kolker slicks his hair with what looks like black shoe polish and adds Rudolph Valentino-style sideburns as Areal Pacheco, the minister of fiance in the small Central American country of Sao Pedro. Pacheco has embezzled funds, but to repay the debt he has engineered a marriage between his stepdaughter Diane (Loretta Young) and a piggish, priggish Englishman Clive Latimer (Edmund Breon) who happens to be very rich.

Diane has reconciled herself to the loveless match, but then she meets brash American Larry O'Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who sweeps her off her feet by giving her a ride home -- after spreading broken glass across the road where her limousine will travel and causing four punctured tires. Pacheco regards the American coolly:



O'Brien's devotion to Diane includes engineering a kidnapping so that Latimer will pay a ransom, which O'Brien then passes on to Pacheco, thus earning the affection of his future stepfather in law:



Kolker stayed active in movies right up to his death at age 77 -- his last film was 1947's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Here are complete credits for "I Like Your Nerve," and a trailer:



Here are complete credits for "The Crash," and a trailer: