Thursday, September 26, 2013

"West of Broadway," or Haunted Honeymoon

"Whatcha watching?"

Old movie.

"THERE'S a shocker. What's it called?"

"West of Broadway," 1931. With John Gilbert and Lois Moran.

"John Gilbert? The guy with the good-looking girlfriend?"

Greta Garbo, you mean? Yes.

"Tell me his story in five short sentences."

Heavy drinker. Hated Louis B. Mayer. Died young. Left at the altar by Garbo. And talkies killed his career. At least that was the conventional wisdom for years.

"That was six sentences."

Whatever.

"He looks sad."

He does indeed. I'm trying to figure out if it's acting or not. He plays a guy back from World War I whose fiancee has jilted him. So that's sad. And his sidekick is played by El Brendel. Maybe that's why he's sad.

"El Brendel? That's a person? Sounds like the Spanish name for blender."

Hm. Anyway, Gilbert's home from World War I and when his ship comes in he hangs around the dock while the band plays "Smiles" about fifty times and his girl still hasn't shown up. So he goes to her apartment and she greets him with a handshake.

"After being in the war and everything? Not even a pity kiss?"

Not even a pity kiss. Now he's really sad.

"But he doesn't just look sad. He looks -- haunted?"

Yep. Again, I'm trying to figure out if he's acting or not. Anyway, he meets a new girl, Dot, who's come to a party at his house.

"I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger, but she ain't going with no broke --"

You're right, but don't finish that sentence.

"She's kind of a little hottie."

Her name is Lois Moran. She had an affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald, made a few more movies, married a Washington big shot and then retired.

"Well, isn't SHE the only Coke in the Coke machine!"

What?

"That's an expression where I come from. Means she's special. So what's happening now?"

So they go out together, and Gilbert sees his old flame -- the one who jilted him. And he introduces his new date, Dot, to the jilter, Ann. He says "Dot, this is Ann. Ann, this is Dot. Dot the I and cross the Ann." Then he looks at Ann and says, "Or is it the double cross? I forget."

"Burn!"

Yes. So he's nursing his broken heart, and he gets drunk and marries Dot. The next morning, while extremely hungover, he tries to tell her it was a mistake:



"That guy has a really convincing case of the shakes."

Yeah. I'm trying to figure out if he's acting or not. So, anyway, he tries to dump Dot by offering her money, but it turns out she's in love with him. And in return he's kind of a jerk to her.

"I miss El Blender."

Brendel.

"Whatever."

So back to the story. Gilbert is a millionaire and he has gone out west to his really cool ranch to recover from his war injuries and to ditch Dot. El Brendel is there too.

"Thank God."

And that's Ralph Bellamy as the ranch foreman. And whattya know -- Dot has followed Gilbert out west because she wants to help him overcome his melancholy.

"She looks cute in her little cowgirl outfit."

Yes. She keeps trying to melt Gilbert's cold heart, and he keeps being mean to her. But it's handled in sort of a good-natured bickery way. Meanwhile Bellamy has become attracted to the little filly himself.

"Never mind that -- why is the Chinese cook wearing a sombrero?"

Because we are about to have a festival of ethnic humor with Willie Fung, who plays the cook, and El Brendel. Hold on to your shorts:



"Wow. Thanks for sharing that."

You're welcome.

"I was kidding."

By now, Gilbert is starting to warm up a little to Dot, who has helped him stop drinking. He decides to go to her room for a visit:



"And they share a cigarette. Ooooh. Do they live happily ever after?"

Well, there are a few more rough spots first. And with Gilbert, who can tell from happy? There's something melancholy -- haunted -- about him all through this movie.

"I'm trying to figure out if he's acting or not."

That's my line.

"Whatever."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Johnsons: "The Front Page" and "His Girl Friday"

This post is part of the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, co-sponsored by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay's Movie Musings.

The difference between "The Front Page" and "His Girl Friday" is pre-code versus post-code, scene chewers versus scene stealers and, above all, Hildebrand Johnson versus Hildegarde Johnson.

Both films are love stories embedded in hard-boiled comedies about the newspaper business. But by turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson from a man in "The Front Page" to a woman in "His Girl Friday" -- and not just any woman, but the ex-wife of her boss, editor Walter Burns -- director Howard Hawks adds an extra dimension to the Johnson-Burns relationship while keeping the cynical tone of the original story.

Based on the play by Chicago-based reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, "The Front Page" takes place in a city of big shoulders, a toddlin' town, a windy city that, on the advice of studio lawyers, isn't specifically named.

We are in press room of the Criminal Courts Building, on the eve of an execution. A cop killer named Earl Williams will be hung at dawn. There is lots of evidence that he is mentally ill, but there is also an election coming up, and the sheriff and mayor are determined to sacrifice Williams to win the law-and-order vote.

The press room is filled with reporters representing every newspaper in town -- a relic of the days when you could use the phrase "every newspaper in town" and mean more than one.

The 1931 film "The Front Page" goes right from opening credits to black humor on the gallows:



The 1940 film "His Girl Friday," on the other hand, begins with a reunion. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is back in the newsroom of The Morning Post after a long vacation, which has included a divorce from the paper's editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant). There are greetings all around -- Hildy is clearly a pro and has an easy camaraderie with her fellow ink-stained wretches.

Hildy, in a tailored suit and mannish hat, has returned for one last meeting with Walter:



Hildy has another surprise for Walter -- she's gotten engaged on her vacation, to a nice insurance salesman named Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), and she's leaving the newspaper. For the first time in the movie, the fast-talking editor is speechless. But Walter gets the wind back in his sails after a few seconds, and then he insists on meeting Bruce:



In "The Front Page," we first see Hildy (Pat O'Brien) when he enters the press room, letting Walter (Adolphe Menjou) know via phone that he's leaving the paper to get married and to go into advertising in New York City.

The funny thing is, the relationship between Menjou and O'Brien's characters seems more romantic than the one between Russell and Grant. Menjou says things like, "so you're leaving me for marriage" and "I love you, you crazy mug." Even Peggy, Hildy's fiance, knows it: "You adore each other!," she says. On the other hand, "His Girl Friday" is, in the tradition of Howard Hawks's films, free of practically all spoken terms of endearment. Affection and attraction might be demonstrated in other, more visual, ways -- and in a Hawks movie, often dialogue that has nothing to do with love ends up having something very much to do with love.

After the interlude with Walter, Hildy and Bruce, "His Girl Friday" also moves to the Criminal Courts Building. In both films, Hildy is surrounded by a wisecracking pack of character actors playing wisecracking reporters. In the 1931 version, the group includes Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett and Frank McHugh (as "McCue"). In the 1940 version, we have Roscoe Karns, Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards and Regis Toomey.

We also have a more humanized look at the condemned man, Earl Williams, in "His Girl Friday."

With the promise of a nice commission for Bruce, Walter agrees to buy an insurance policy, so Hildy agrees to cover the Williams story. Hildy greases the palm of a prison guard to get a one-on-one interview with Williams (John Qualen) and we see two things -- that Hildy is a crackerjack reporter and that Williams is just plain crackers.

But before Hildy can write up her interview, Williams escapes. The reporters scramble to cover the story and Burns heads down to the press room to keep Hildy focused on the story and off of leaving with Bruce. To keep Bruce on the sidelines, Walter constantly sends trouble Bruce's way. (When he pays a woman to accuse Bruce of mashing so he'll get arrested, Walter describes him thusly: "He looks like that guy in the movies -- Ralph Bellamy.")

Maybe just to see if he can get away with it in an early talkie, director Lewis Milestone moves his camera whenever possible in the 1931 film. This circularly-staged scene, consisting of just a conversation between Hildy and Walter, makes you kind of dizzy:



Hawks's direction, of course, is completely the opposite. It never draws attention to itself -- he directs the cast instead of the camera. And in "His Girl Friday," especially, the cast does the heavy lifting, including overlapping dialogue that plays almost as if it's being ad-libbed. Watch this wondrous scene between Grant, Russell, Clarence Kolb as the crooked mayor, Gene Lockhart as the crooked sheriff, and the great Billy Gilbert as the guy delivering a reprieve for Williams -- someone the mayor and sheriff shooed away earlier:



(Another inside joke in that scene, as Grant's character refers to Grant's real name, Archie Leach. The 1931 film has plenty of names dropped as well, including "Judge Mankiewicz" and a guy in a speakeasy named Benchley.)

As faithful as the 1931 film is to the play, and as filled as it is with pre-code craziness, including one character giving the finger to another, I have to say I prefer "His Girl Friday." It represents smooth, expert Hollywood movie making in the best sense -- everyone involved, especially Grant and Russell, are hitting on all cylinders. It is the work of supremely assured craftsmen and performers, all moving at top speed. By comparison, Menjou and O'Brien -- especially O'Brien -- pitch their performances to the back row of the theatre.

You can see for yourself, since both films are in the public domain. Here's "The Front Page":


And here's "His Girl Friday":

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Day I Insulted Lillian Gish

Back in the mid-1980s, one of our local museums featured a showing of "Broken Blossoms," and Lillian Gish was in attendance. After the film, she talked about her performance and answered questions from the audience.

My girlfriend and I were so excited about the event that we arrived early and had great seats right in front. Which was great, because my proximity to Gish made it easier to insult her.

It happened when Gish was talking to the audience about the memorable scene in "Broken Blossoms" where she became hysterical, and she said something like this: "I worked very hard to modulate my performance but still tried to make it seem as realistic as possible. Do you think I succeeded?"

The audience, as one, nodded its head in agreement.

All except me.

I was whispering something to my girlfriend at the same instant, and as everyone in the audience was nodding I was shaking my head "no."

Gish stopped and looked straight at me.

"Don't you agree?" she asked. She may have even called me "young man," which would have made her sound even more Lillian Gish-ier.

I felt my face redden and at the same time I felt like I was in the center of a staggeringly rarefied universe, population me and Lillian Gish! For just a microsecond I was in the sights of one of film's greatest actresses and memoirists. And I knew at that point I had to clear things up -- that I wasn't insulting her, I just wasn't paying attention. So I tried to clear things up --

"Humina humina humina..."

Somehow, my face still burning, I collected my thoughts enough to ask her about "Night of the Hunter."

Her gaze softened, and she told the story of how the film's director, Charles Laughton, had been watching Gish's films at the Museum of Modern Art. The MOMA people called Gish -- they probably had her on speed dial -- to let her know. And she talked about meeting with Laughton, who told her of his plan to make a film with the same storytelling power and emotional sincerity of those silent films.

Whenever I think of that encounter with Gish it reminds me of the scene in "Strangers on a Train" where Guy (Farley Granger) is playing tennis and everyone in the stands is looking from one side of the court to the other, watching the ball, while Bruno (Robert Walker) is sitting right in the middle of everyone, his gaze frozen on Guy instead of the match.

I'm sure that Gish had no further memory of her encounter with the Gish-disser. But I like to think we had our awkward little Hitchcock moment.

(This post was inspired by the Gish Sisters Blogathon sponsored by Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures. It ended, um, last Monday. Sorry for the timing -- been a little scattered lately. You should still go check it out if you haven't.)       

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Mata Hari," or A Kiss Before Spying

Toward the end of the 1931 film "Mata Hari," our titular heroine (Greta Garbo) has come to a military hospital to see her lover, Alexi (Ramon Novarro), who has been blinded. She is carrying flowers, and when she encounters another blind soldier who is embittered and helpless, she is touched by his vulnerability and leaves them with him. Then she walks past yet another blinded vet who is sitting in the hallway playing "Ave Maria" on the violin before entering Alexi's room, where she takes the place of a nun who is nursing him.

And at this point, you start to think, if it hasn't occurred to you already, that "Mata Hari" lays it on a bit thick.

The movie is, after all, the story of a German spy, not Mother Teresa. True, even in this highly fictionalized form, Mata has her mean moments. But most of the movie is devoted to building a pedestal for Garbo to radiate from -- the character's exploits take a back seat to costuming, bejeweling, set decoration and lighting designed to make Mata Hari look like a cross between a Madonna and a courtesan.

See?

We open on a firing squad, where men who have given secrets to Mata (even Mischa Auer!) are now facing their doom. The French investigator DuBois (C. Henry Gordon, aka Evil Fred Astaire) is unable to get anything out of the men, so shots ring out and down they go. DuBois decides he must see this Mata Hari for himself and decides to attend her performance that evening.

"Such is war," a man says to DuBois. "Some dance and some die."

"And some," says DuBois, "will do both."

That night, there's a packed house to see Mata do the hoochi-coo. Also in the audience, along with DuBois, is the Russian General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) and Lt. Alexis Rosanoff (Novarro). Once Mata comes out the men snap to attention, even though they're sitting down:



In case you haven't figured out by now, and I'm not sure how you haven't, Mata Hari's beauty and smooth dance moves drive men mad, mad I tell you! And by using her feminine wiles, she picks up military secrets for the Germans all over the place. Sometimes she takes the secrets and slips them inside a vaginal-shaped orchid she carries around with her.

Lewis Stone and his toupee play Mata's boss, the inscrutable Andriani. Barrymore is one of her many conquests. And Mata is blase about men until she meets Alexi. He comes to her chambers. She pays no attention to him and starts playing the piano, but when he kisses her right on the glissando, she changes her tune.

Then Mata realizes that she has to steal secrets from Alexi, too. So the next night she visits him and allows him to seduce her:   



Alas, Mata has begun to fall in love with her target. And this displeases Andriani. "A spy in love," he says, "is a tool that has outlived its usefulness." He sends an assassin to dispense with her -- a guy with a clubfoot who follows her everywhere. And she doesn't even notice him. Some spy.

"Mata Hari" ends where it began, in the shadow of the firing squad. Mata is in prison, but she has tricked Alexi, who can't see, into thinking that it's a sanitarium where she has gone for minor surgery, and the guards all play along:



If anyone could sell the absurd romanticism of a movie like "Mata Hari," it's Garbo, but even for her this is heavy sledding. Still, even when she didn't play exotic characters, she was still capable of driving men mad, mad I tell you!

Here are the full credits for "Mata Hari," and a trailer:



 






Monday, September 2, 2013

Neglected Post Theatre: A Tale of Two Falcons

On this edition of Neglected Post Theatre, we look at two versions of "The Maltese Falcon," where Humphrey Bogart's rough-edged Sam Spade faces off against the more polished Spade of Ricardo Cortez. Here's the post.