Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Strictly Dishonorable," or The Fox and the Hound


Preston Sturges's "Strictly Dishonorable" is a story about love, honor, happiness and the relative merits of living in West Orange, New Jersey.

The play had been a hit on Broadway, and Universal bought the rights for a then-unprecedented $125,000 -- not bad for something that Sturges wrote in six days.

The 1931 film version of "Strictly Dishonorable" is basically a filmed play, and as a pre-code film it has an adult tone that the 1951 remake would lack, although it isn't nearly as spicy as the poster at left (boiinnnnng!) would imply.

True, the story is stage-bound in many ways -- the plot is very linear and director John M. Stahl shoots the scenes in long takes; characters are disposed of and re-introduced the old-fashioned way, through old-school entrances and exits. But there are plenty of examples of Sturges's trademark wit, and a bit of cheerful cynicism that blends well with the sweet, romantic story.

We open in a speakeasy in a New York City apartment hotel. The place is run by the genial Tomasso (William Ricciardi, repeating his Broadway role), who treats his long-term guests like family. One of them is Judge Dempsey (Lewis Stone), a philosophical type who provides free legal advice to Tomasso in exchange for an old-fashioned or three. Dempsey was the maiden name of Sturges's mother, and the judge is very lovable and sympathetic.

Into the speak walks Henry Greene (George Meeker) and his fiancee, Isabella Parry (Sidney Fox). They've driven from their home with Henry's folks in West Orange, NJ for a night on the town, and Henry can't wait to have a nightcap and then escape from the "dirty" city. On the other hand, Isabella, a Southern belle from Mississippi, loves it. Henry's a bond broker, and as humorless and as pompous as a contemporary Wall Streeter.  

We learn Isabella's story -- she grew up on a plantation where things were flush, but tough times came "when cotton got high [and] women stopped wearing underwear." Henry came along as her knight in shining armor, and he never lets her forget it. "You just leave your happiness to me," he tells her, "and you won't have a thing to worry about." She, on the other hand, seems frighteningly ready to be subservient to him.  

The Judge can't help but notice this -- and when Henry starts pontificating about life in West Orange, the Judge becomes one of the first in a long line of Sturges characters to give the raspberry to small-town life:


The Judge's joshing brings Henry to a boil, and it gets worse when Gus Di Ruvo (Paul Lukas) enters. Gus is another resident of the hotel. He's a bit of a hound where the ladies are concerned, and he's also -- although he doesn't make a big deal about it -- a famous opera singer.

Isabella loves opera. Gus likes Isabella. Henry no like. He explodes and starts throwing the word "dago" around, which is a bad idea in a room where seven-eighths of the occupants speak Italian.

And, at last, Isabella reaches her limit. She gives him back her engagement ring and he leaves in a huff. (A two-door huff, to paraphrase Groucho Marx.)

Isabella: There's been something the matter with me for months and I didn't know what it was.

Judge: What was it?

Isabella: It was Henry. Entirely too much Henry.

The Judge agrees, adding that Henry threw "honor" around as if it was a weapon. "Honor should be tempered with the milk of human kindness," he says, "if you can temper anything with milk. And I'm afraid too much honor is apt to curdle the milk."

At any rate, Isabella is stranded at the hotel, but she doesn't mind. She'd like to spend the night with Gus, and at first he's open to the idea, until he realizes how young and inexperienced she is. Then HIS honor comes into play, even as he wishes it wouldn't:


The Judge hovers like an overprotective parent to make sure Isabella stays out of harm's way, but he doesn't need to -- Gus ends up sleeping in the Judge's apartment. The next morning, Isabella awakens as chaste (and as chased) as ever, but Henry returns and immediately starts assuming the worst.

Henry: Are you pure?

Isabella: Are YOU pure?

Henry: That's entirely different!

Despite the threat -- I mean appeal -- of life with Henry, Isabella can't resist the charms of Gus:


"Strictly Dishonorable" doesn't exactly move at a fast pace, but there are pleasures to be had in Sturges's dialogue and the performances of Lukas and Stone. Most impressive of all, however, is the petite Fox, whose career flagged in the mid-1930s. She gives Isabella a quiet charm and warmth -- you understand exactly what Gus sees in her and why he's ready to give up his playboy days. Unlike her placid, centered character, Fox was plagued by depression, and she died of a sleeping pill overdose in 1942. Here is a tribute to her career:

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," or Free Parking

Like bleu cheese, Al Jolson is an acquired taste.

He reveled in his status as "the world's greatest entertainer," but he was actually more than that -- the guy was a force of nature. He performed with such exuberance -- not to say hamminess -- that he crowded everyone else off the stage. When he did guest shots on radio shows, the hosts would practically have to pry him off the microphone.

Part of what makes the 1933 film "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" so interesting is that it gives us a look at a different, subdued Jolson. He's playing an actual character with human emotions, reacting to other people, as opposed to presenting an overwhelming one-man show at the expense of everyone else.

As for the movie itself, well ....

After what undoubtedly were frequent looks at similar contemporary films like "A Nous la Liberte" and "Love Me Tonight," you can tell that the very talented group behind "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" -- Jolson, writers S.N. Behrman and Ben Hecht, director Lewis Milestone and composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart -- wanted to capture the light-yet-adult tone of those films and their use of talked-sung songs to advance their storylines.

Ironically, Rodgers and Hart also did the score for "Love Me Tonight," and their work in that film is simple and sublime, while most of the "Hallelujah" score is more experimental -- from the mind rather than from the heart. Just watch "Isn't It Romantic" from "Love Me Tonight" and you'll see a spark of fun and a spirit of creativity that, to me at least, is missing from "Hallelujah."

"Hallelujah" tells a deeply conventional story as unconventionally as possible -- sometimes unnecessarily so. It flirts with heavy-handed class commentary, and its idealization of being down and out brings to mind the scene in "Sullivan's Travels" where Sullivan's butler reminds his boss that being poor isn't all it's cracked up to be:

"I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir. ... The subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." 

The mayor of Central Park, flanked by Acorn and Egghead.
Jolson plays Bumper, a lovable derelict in a soiled white suit who is the unofficial mayor of Central Park. He's good friends with the real mayor of New York City (Frank Morgan, almost as toned down as Jolson) -- seems that once upon a time, Bumper saved the mayor from being hit with a brick. So Bumper and his sidekick Acorn (a memorable Edgar Connor, a vaudeville veteran who died the year after this film was released) are always in hizzoner's good graces.

In Central Park, Bumper is the leader of a ragtag group that includes Egghead the street sweeper (Harry Langdon, reminding us of his comic chops) and carriage driver Sunday (Chester Conklin). This scene shows us Bumper's kingdom and his royal subjects:



The movie's about the parallel lives of Bumper and the mayor, often played out in Rodgers and Hart's "musical dialogue." In this clever scene, the mayor reluctantly attends a building dedication:


Meanwhile, back at the park, Bumper and Acorn live a life of leisure until, one day, they find a purse in Egghead's garbage can that contains a $1,000 bill. Egghead, a socialist, quickly turns capitalistic and demands his half. But there's a story behind the purse that the boys don't know about -- it belongs to the mayor's mistress, June (a luminous Madge Evans), who accidentally threw it away. The mayor, already worried about whether June is faithful, accuses her of giving the money to her paramour. He deserts her and she wanders the park, devastated, finally deciding to end it all by jumping off a bridge. She's rescued by Bumper.

June has amnesia. She's a childlike blank slate, totally dependent upon her protector, Bumper, who has no idea of her history. He's so smitten with her that he does the unthinkable -- he asks his buddy, the mayor (now heartsick and looking everywhere for June), for a job recommendation. Bumper and Acorn go to work in a bank -- Acorn's job is to count the towels in the men's washroom and Bumper's job is to stamp a bigshot's signature on business letters.

But Bumper is happy -- he's rented a room for June, who he calls Angel, and in one of the movie's best moments he serenades her with the movie's best song, "You Are Too Beautiful":



In the end, Bumper makes the connection between the mayor and June and arranges a meeting. When June sees the mayor, her memory returns and she's repulsed by Bumper. Bumper goes back to his real love -- life in the park with the acorns, and Acorn.

Here are the full film credits, and here's a preview:




Monday, October 21, 2013

Neglected Post Theatre: "Baby Face," or The Pubic Enemy

On this edition of Neglected Post Theatre, we take a look at "Baby Face," with Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, George Brent and a cast of foolish, foolish bank executives.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lee Tracy Bigmouth Theatre: "Clear All Wires" and "Washington Merry-Go-Round"


Between 1929-35, Lee Tracy appeared in more than twenty films as a reporter, shyster lawyer, press agent, publicity man, promoter, politician and puppeteer.

And in all of them he. Talked. All. The. Time.

Fast, and with authority, punctuating his words with jabs into the air. Or, when he is "contrite," spreading his fingers over his heart. Sometimes he uses this gesture so often that it looks like he's pledging allegiance to his co-star.

Tracy first found fame as Hildy Johnson in the stage production of "The Front Page," and although he didn't play Hildy in the 1930 film version -- Pat O'Brien did -- Tracy found himself typecast as the quick-thinking, ever-scheming, fast-talking operator who was just this side of a con artist.

In the 1933 film "Clear All Wires," for instance, Tracy is Buckley Joyce Thomas, foreign correspondent for the Chicago Globe. He's a freewheeling scoop machine given to dressing in military garb, and when the movie opens he's been missing for days, captured by enemy insurgents in Morocco. In reality, he's been treated like a king -- his unflappable style has charmed the leader of the group, who has given him an exclusive interview.

When Buckley is released, he is greeted with joy by his right-hand man, Lefty (James Gleason). Buckley's disappearance "shoved beer right off the front page," Lefty tells him. Buckley starts dictating his big story, even as his rival, Pettingwaite of The New York Times, pooh-poohs Buckley's methods. So Buckley takes a break from his story and lets him have it, in a standard Lee Tracy diatribe:



We then move to Russia, where Buckley has swiped Pettingwaite's hotel suite. He's there to cover the 15th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution, and he meets an old flame, Kate (Benita Hume), but it's hard to romance her because he has another old girlfriend, Dolly (Una Merkel) along. This makes for crowded quarters:



(Notice that the aria Dolly is practicing, badly, is the same one that Susan Alexander practices, badly, in "Citizen Kane.")

"Clear All Wires" is based on a play by Bella and Sam Spewack, and it has funny moments, but it's largely stagebound -- most of the action takes place in Buckley's suite. And the actual plot -- something about Buckley's battle with the Soviet secret police -- isn't really that interesting. Tracy keeps things hopping largely because Tracy himself keeps hopping. And talking.

The 1932 film "Washington Merry-Go-Round," on the other hand, has a stronger script that gives Tracy an actual character to play. He's Button Gwinnett Brown, a newly elected congressman who is a namesake and descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. "His blood is bluer than one of Sophie Tucker's songs," we're told.

Brown takes his heritage -- and his responsibility -- seriously. He's heading for Washington in 1932, at the peak of the battle between the government and the "bonus army," World War I veterans who want an early payment of the bonus they're scheduled to receive in 1945. The bonus army has set up a camp across the river from D.C. in Virginia, and one of Brown's old Army buddies is a leader. He invites Brown to speak to the men, and what he tells them isn't exactly music to their ears:



Voted into office by the local political machine, Brown turns on his benefactors and lets them know he will be his own man in Congress. He's helped by Alice (Constance Cummings), who becomes his political mentor; she's also the daughter of his state's Senator (Walter Connolly). In the typical Tracy tradition, Brown makes speeches in the darndest places, including the Library of Congress:



"Washington Merry-Go-Round" offers odd little foreshadows of Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The screenwriter, Jo Swerling, was a frequent Capra collaborator, but he didn't work on "Mr. Smith." Still, as in "Mr. Smith," Brown gets inspiration from a late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and, as was the case with Claude Rains's character in "Mr. Smith," Alice's distinguished Senator father is revealed to be an unwitting partner of the movie's bad guy, power broker Norton (Alan Dinehart). Brown's friend killed himself over his involvement with Norton, so he becomes Brown's sworn enemy:



Like "Mr. Smith," "Washington Merry-Go-Round" tries to make nice with the powers that be before decking them with a sucker punch. The movie is "dedicated to those public servants in Washington who, despite the malignant force which operates to defeat the principles of representative government, are serving their country sincerely and well." But most of film is cheerfully cynical about how Washington really works, and how bosses like Norton worm their way into the system.

As for Tracy, he kept playing roles like this up until 1934, when he was scheduled to play a reporter in MGM's "Viva Villa," opposite Wallace Beery. The company was on location in Mexico when Tracy created a "scandal." One story is that he urinated off a balcony onto a military parade; another is that he returned an obscene gesture from someone watching the parade and thereby "insulted" Mexico. Whatever the reason, he was replaced in the film by Stuart Erwin.

But it's too simple to say that incident alone ruined Tracy's career. Like James Cagney's gangster, Barbara Stanwyck's tough dame and Joan Blondell's golddigger, Tracy's fast talker with loose morals was very much a pre-code character -- one that was phased out with the rise of the Production Code, Mexican balcony or no Mexican balcony.

Friday, October 11, 2013

"The Las Vegas Story," or Craps-ablanca

Everything below this logo is made up.

RKO INTEROFFICE MEMO

February 2, 1952

To: Howard Hughes, RKO President


From: Charles Foster Schmutz, RKO Legal Department


Chief --

First off, let me say it's nice to communicate with you. We haven't seen you around the studio since Preston Sturges gave you a swirly in the men's room. And also allow me to thank you belatedly for your Christmas gift -- the nail clippings certainly were packaged attractively. I am especially appreciative considering that many of the other executives received what I believe to be Mason jars full of urine.

Now, down to cases. As you know, we have received a letter from the legal department at Warner Bros. alleging that RKO's newest, most exciting, most brilliant, triumphant film spectacular of this or any year, "The Las Vegas Story," is a blatant copy of "Casablanca." I have reviewed this letter and can refute these allegations completely. Here they are, one by one:

1. The Warner letter states: "A story of romance and betrayal set in a city that is teeming with corruption and violence, "Casablanca" begins when cafe owner Richard Blaine is confronted once again with his great love, Ilsa Lund, who deserted him in Paris. "The Las Vegas Story" opens exactly like "Casablanca," by showing us a map of the region and then focusing on the city. Here a local police detective, Lt. David Andrews (Victor Mature) is confronted once again with his great love, Linda Rollins (Jane Russell), who deserted him as Ilsa did Rick."

Ha! Well, Chief, I don't have to tell you that "The Las Vegas Story" is TOTALLY different from "Casablanca." For one thing, is Casablanca the same city as Las Vegas? I think not! Just as the map of Africa is completely different from the map of Nevada! Is Las Vegas "teeming with corruption and violence"? Of course not! And just look at the character names -- Rick and Ilsa, David and Linda. TOTALLY different.



2. The Warner letter further states: "In "Casablanca," Ilsa is with her husband, Victor Lazlo, and visits Rick's bar. The first person she sees is Sam, a philosophical piano player whose music, particularly the song "As Time Goes By," plays an important role in establishing the story's poignancy and romance. In "The Las Vegas Story," Linda has returned with her husband, Lloyd (Vincent Price). The first person she sees is Happy (Hoagy Carmichael), a philosophical piano player whose music, particularly "I Get Along Without You Very Well," plays an important role in establishing the story's poignancy and romance."  


Ha! We've caught them with their pants down on this one, chief. The arrival of Lloyd and Linda in Las Vegas is TOTALLY different than the arrival in "Casablanca" -- unlike Ilsa and Victor, Lloyd and Linda come to Las Vegas by TRAIN! Also, unlike Sam, Happy is white.



3. Finally, the Warner letter says: "In "Casabalanca," the empathetic side of Rick Blaine is highlighted through his efforts to help a young couple escape from the city while avoiding the romantic blackmail of police Capt. Renault, who is trying to seduce the wife. Rick arranges for them to win just enough money at roulette to pay for their passage. In "The Las Vegas Story," the empathetic side of David is highlighted through his efforts to help a young couple who have run away to get married in Las Vegas."

Well, Chief, the runaways in "Casablanca" and "The Las Vegas Story" are TOTALLY different. In our movie, the boy has blond hair.



In conclusion, Chief, there are no grounds whatsoever to the Warner claims. Our movie centers around a stolen diamond necklace, while "Casablanca" centers around stolen letters of transit. And our movie ends with a helicopter chase! Unless I'm mistaken, there were no helicopters used during World War II. But there were plenty of Nazis, which are TOTALLY missing in "The Las Vegas Story."

I think that's it, Chief. Say hello to Faith Domergue for me.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Dorothy Burgess Film Festival: "Playgirl" and "From Headquarters"

Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Dorothy Burgess (1907-61) was certainly one of them.


Here she is in the 1932 film "Play-Girl," opposite Winnie Lightner.











And who could forget her in "Hold Your Man," with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow?











Or "From Headquarters," with Kenneth Thomson?











And "Ladies They Talk About," with Barbara Stanwyck.











"Put up your dukes! I mean your duchesses!"
So, as you can see, the traditional Burgess role was the woman who was always picking herself up off the floor.

She was the troublemaker, the spiteful gossip, the jealous other woman. If you happen to be watching an old movie where one of the characters is always standing around with her hands on her hips, giving the stinkeye to the heroine, it's probably Burgess.

The niece of actress Fay Bainter, Burgess was born into a well-to-do Los Angeles family (dad was the first president of Western Airlines) and after a stint in a tony boarding school she made her Broadway debut while still a teenager in a play that starred Aunt Fay.

Like Myrna Loy, Burgess found fame in fiery temptress roles -- she played a gypsy girl in "The Squall" (a role Loy played in the film version) and an African-American woman in "Lulu Belle." She played a Mexican girl in her film debut, 1928's "In Old Arizona."

In late 1931, Burgess signed a contract with Warner Bros.-First National and began playing a string of mean girls.

In the 1932 film "Play-Girl," for instance, she is Edna, the bitter, negative counterpart to our heroine Buster, played by Loretta Young. Buster and Edna are sales clerks at the Mayfield Department Store, along with Buster's bosom buddy, Georgine (Winnie Lightner). Edna is a mean girl, always snidely criticizing the others:



Buster is swept off her feet by the brash Wallie, played by the hardly-ever-charming Norman Foster. They get married, and Buster thinks Wallie is a successful businessman who's always closing on big deals. Then he makes a confession -- the "deals" he's out making involve playing cards and poker chips! Then Buster makes a confession -- she's pregnant! They argue, and Wallie takes a powder. Buster is forced to return to the department store, and Edna is waiting to pounce:



In the 1933 films "Hold Your Man" and "Ladies They Talk About," Burgess crossed paths with Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck, respectively. In "Hold Your Man" Burgess plays Gypsy, the old flame of Eddie (Clark Gable), who's now hooked up with Ruby (Harlow). In "Ladies They Talk About," Burgess is Susie, a religious fanatic and bonafide nutcase who has eyes for political reformer Dave Slade (Preston Foster). Unfortunately, Slade is all about Nan (Barbara Stanwyck), a convict in the same cell block as Susie, which leads to Burgess picking herself up off the floor.

In the 1933 crime drama "From Headquarters," Burgess is Dolly, the drug-addicted former girlfriend of a millionaire who's been murdered. At first she is a suspect, but under questioning her mental foundation shows signs of cracking like dried oatmeal:



By late 1933, Burgess's career began to sputter. She was in the headlines due to her involvement in an auto accident where a young woman was killed, and in July she was injured while filming -- of course -- a fight scene at Universal Studios. She appeared in only a handful of films after that, concluding with 1943's "The West Side Kid."

Here is a complete filmography.
  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Numbered Men"

The 1930 film "Numbered Men" opens in a prison "built with the bricks of shame," not to mention the cement of indifference and the trowels of sadness.

Inside the prison are men -- numbered men! -- who count the days until freedom and stare longingly at the world of forbidden sunshine just beyond the gates.

One of them is 26521, or "2" for short. He is played by Conrad Nagel and he is a former counterfeiter. He's the nicest darn convict you'd ever want to meet -- a philosophical, pipe-puffing prisoner who is a source of friendship and wisdom.

Another is 31857, or "7," played by Raymond Hackett. He is a young man in prison on a trumped-up charge, and he is slowly going crazy because he's wondering if his girlfriend Mary (Bernice Claire), on the outside, will stay faithful. Whenever he talks about her he starts acting all over the place:



Yes, life behind the walls is lonely -- soooo lonely. So lonely that the pictures of women have been torn out of all the magazines. And, as one convict says, "Somebody even tore out a picture of Ben Turpin!" (Simulation below.)



These prisoners are in the honor group, which means there are never any guards around. In fact, there look to be only about three guards in the entire prison.

Then comes a new member of the group -- bad guy 33410 (Ralph Ince), or "3" for short. 3 framed 7. 3 and 7 almost have a confrontation, but they are divided by 2:



But soft! 2 and 7 have been placed on a road crew, so they will soon be out in the sunshine again! And 3, who is the worst honor prisoner ever, is planning his escape.

From here we cut to a farm, a set that looks a lot like the farm in another awkward talkie entry, "The Squall." By coincidence, this is where the honor convicts come after a day on the road crew. By further coincidence, 7's girlfriend Mary has just taken a job there. By even further coincidence, a small-time crook who used to love Mary is also headed that way. By even further further coincidence, 3 has escaped and is headed for the farm and he knows Mary, too! So Mary, in essence, is the 1930 version of Cookie Fleck (Catherine O'Hara) in "Best in Show," whose old flames came out of the woodwork wherever she went.

Anyway, when the honor convicts come back to the farm after a hard day's work, 7 and Mary are reunited. She wants to him to escape and run away with her, but he will not, so she gets an idea of her own:



In the end, 2 and 7 manage to dispose of 3 and Mary's other old boyfriend, 7's innocence is proven, and the prison honor program is shot to hell.

Here are the full credits of "Numbered Men."