Saturday, November 30, 2013

Neglected Post Theatre: The Animal Kingdom, or Fie, Society

On this edition of Neglected Post Theatre, we take a look at Philip Barry's "The Animal Kingdom," wherein Leslie Howard is married to Myrna Loy but tempted by Ann Harding.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Three Cornered Moon," or Mother, Can You Spare a Dime?

A year before she won an Oscar as a madcap heiress in "It Happened One Night," Claudette Colbert played a not-so-madcap, not-so-much-of-an-heiress in "Three Cornered Moon." 

This 1933 film is an offbeat little gem, a kind of screwball ensemble drama that showcases just about everyone -- Colbert, Mary Boland, Wallace Ford, Tom Brown, William Bakewell, Hardie Albright -- at their best. (The male lead, Richard Arlen, is passable but he always seemed more comfortable in action roles -- here, as a romantic lead, he's punching a little above his weight.)

"Three Cornered Moon" is like an upper-class version of "You Can't Take It With You," but without the too-studied (to me, at least) eccentricities of the Sycamore clan.

Our family here is the Rimplegars, who occupy a comfortable almost-mansion in dear old Brooklyn back in the days when it was filled with almost-mansions. Papa Rimplegar, who ran a prosperous laundry, is gone, and devoted but dotty mother Nellie Rimplegar (Boland) thinks nothing of wearing a fringe-y dressing gown while mixing waffle batter, or of ordering taxis by the handful to accommodate the transportation needs of her grown children -- grounded-but-idealistic Elizabeth (Colbert), law student Kenneth (Ford), aspiring actor Douglas (Bakewell) and student Eddie (Brown). Lyda Roberti is the family's Polish maid, Annie.

The family leads a life of slightly rumpled elegance. Everyone assumes that their financial needs will always be met. Free of burdens like having to work at a job, Elizabeth spends her days with fiancee Ronald (Albright), a suffering writer who's a literary genius in the making -- just ask him. ("You write like a tree on fire!" Elizabeth says in what is supposed to be a compliment.) Together they sit in the park; between them, they try to whip up some existential angst:



Meanwhile, back at Rimplegar almost-mansion, reality is about to come crashing in the door because the family finances have been handed, unfortunately, by Nellie. And suddenly the money is gone -- thanks largely to a hefty investment Nellie made in a worthless mine called Three Cornered Moon.

So the Rimplegars are flat busted, and everyone (except Ronald the writer) scrambles to help. Douglas the actor gets a role in a play that consists of one word: "Yes." In this wonderful scene, he rehearses his heart out as a sympathetic Nellie watches, and does a little dusting:



Eddie gets a job as a lifeguard, and starts avoiding meals, which isn't such a good idea. Elizabeth wangles a job in a shoe factory where, like all the other working girls, she must withstand the unwelcome advances of her boss, or lose her job:



The family's one financial saving grace during this period is family friend Dr. Stevens (Arlen), who rents a room in the house, mostly because he's in love with Elizabeth. And when Nellie accidentally ruins dinner one night, the objective becomes to obtain the good doctor's rent money:



Then a family crisis results from Eddie's lack of food, and a plum job is offered to Ronald the writer. Will he sacrifice his artistic sensitivity to the workaday world for the greater good, or be a selfish boob? And there is another possible financial boost -- if Kenneth can pass his bar exam. On the day when the exam scores appear in the paper, everyone gathers round:



One of the many nice things about "Three Cornered Moon," beyond the ensemble performances and the dialogue, is its resolutely un-magical ending. In other movies, the family might somehow get its investment money back. Here they don't. And darned if they still don't end the movie better off than they were in the beginning.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Jazz Heaven"

The 1929 film "Jazz Heaven" is the same old story -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl break into a piano factory where he can play his song and they end up on the radio without knowing it.

In the 1920s and '30s, song publishers were like recording studios. They were where the hits were born, with the goal being to publish a song and make thousands from sales of sheet music.

The excitement of the music publishing business could be captured onscreen and used as a metaphor for the drama and bustle of a large city, and it's done very effectively in "The Broadway Melody," released the same year as "Jazz Heaven":



Here, by contrast, is the jazzy introduction to the song publishing business in "Jazz Heaven":



Meh.

All of "Jazz Heaven," in fact, is kind of meh -- not terrible, but not memorable. One exception is the featured song, "Someone." Oh boy, is it featured. It's hard to get it out of your memory, maybe because they play it 67 times. And it isn't bad -- Oscar Levant wrote the music.

Johnny Mack Brown, wearing trousers that come up to his nipples, is our songwriter hero, Barry, who has come to New York City from Mobile, Alabama, and has brought along his sing-song Southern accent.

Barry has been working for days on one special song, keeping the other residents in his apartment building up all night. This gets him in Dutch with the landlady, but her softhearted husband Max (Clyde Cook) helps Barry escape her wrath.

Then, hark! There is a female voice in the next room whose vocal improvising lends the ending to Barry's song! He uses it, they meet, and sparks fly. She is Ruth (Sally O'Neil) and she works for Kemple and Klucke, music publishers. She takes Barry, who she calls "Big Boy," to meet her bosses.

If Barry immediately sold his song to Kemple and Klucke, "Jazz Heaven" would be a 10-minute movie. But there are complications. One is that Barry's song needs lyrics, and after meeting Ruth he is inspired to write some, all about love and stuff. Then Barry's beloved piano is destroyed when Max tries to move it and it rolls down a flight of stairs. That's why Barry and Ruth perform the song in the piano factory (Max is the night watchman and he lets them in) and it goes over the air:



Farmers love it!

Bootleggers love it!

Rich people love it!

BUT! There is still conflict in the air. Ruth is being chased by her bosses, Kemple (Joseph Cawthorn) and Klucke (Albert Conti). Klucke tells Ruth he will orchestrate Barry's song and have it performed at a swell nightclub, but only if Ruth accompanies him.

So she does, leading to a misunderstanding on Barry's part, exacerbated by Cawthorn in full-bore cranky mode:



Cawthorn practically had this kind of role trademarked -- see here for more Cawthornian goodness. He does have one of the movie's better lines -- at the nightclub he tells Ruth, "Look at my spats! I got socks on under 'em and everything."

One of the reasons "Jazz Heaven" is so flaccid is the wan performance of Brown, a former football star who ended up making a lot of westerns, including serials. On the other end of the energy scale is O'Neil, who brings a Betty Boop-ish charm to her role. But a Boop alone does not a movie make, and "Jazz Heaven" is just blah.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"A Successful Calamity," or Million Dollar Maybe

The 1932 film "A Successful Calamity" begins with the hero being congratulated by the President, and even though it's only Herbert Hoover, we are still supposed to be impressed.

The fellow being congratulated is Henry Wilton, international man of banking, played by, as the credits list him, Mr. George Arliss. In the early 1930s, stage legend Arliss became the "prestige" star at Warner Bros., where he had his own production unit. He formed a close relationship with Darryl Zanuck, and when Zanuck left Warner in 1933 to form Twentieth Century Pictures, Arliss went with him.

Arliss was best known for dramatic roles. He played British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on stage and in two films -- for his performance in the 1929 sound version he won an Academy Award.

"A Successful Calamity," on the other hand, is a domestic comedy, and Arliss brings a puckish sense of humor to his performance. Some of his deadpan comic takes are downright Charles Butterworth-y.

As we begin, Wilton is returning to his Long Island estate after a year overseas representing Uncle Sam, negotiating payment of foreign debts. He is coming home to his much younger wife (Mary Astor), two grown children (Evalyn Knapp and William Janney) and a life of dinner parties, tea time and musicales.

Wilton is excited to see his family, but he couldn't care less about the other stuff. They, on the other hand, are major dervishes in the social whirl, and Wilton feels left behind, with only the company of loyal manservant Connors (Grant Mitchell).

Wilton's wife has made many changes to the family manse, including redecorating his bedroom in a modern style that doesn't suit him, to say the least:



Connors has saved the old furniture from Wilton's bedroom and has had it placed in his own room, which is where Wilton finds refuge. He doesn't care for tea times or musicales, but he loves his wife -- they've been married only six years -- and he indulges her love of "culture" and her sponsorship of artistic types, including composer-pianist Pietro (Fortunio Bonanova, nine years before he will become Susan Alexander Kane's voice teacher in "Citizen Kane"). In this scene, Wilton withstands Pietro's recital while flanked by talkative matrons:



Night after night of dinner parties and small talk begins to wear on Wilton. He wants to spend some time with his wife and children, so he gets an idea -- he tells the family he's broke.

"I don't know," says his wife, "whether I can bear to be poor."

But wife and children gather around Wilton while keeping stiff upper lips. Son goes to Wilton's business rival to ask for a job, and lets it slip that things are bad. Daughter goes to accept the marriage proposal of her priggish ex-fiance (Hardie Albright), but ex-fiance changes his tune when he finds the Wiltons are without means:



The wife, meanwhile, leaves with her protege and she's carrying a suitcase. Are they running away together?

The movie doesn't get too worked up about this or any other question. Daughter is spared from marrying a prig and ends up with Randolph Scott, who appears for about 90 seconds. Son's confession to Wilton's business rival triggers a series of events that ends in Wilton spiriting a block of stock away from said rival and making a zillion bucks.

"A Successful Calamity" is what used to be known as a star vehicle, showcasing Mr. Arliss in a dignified, slightly stuffy way. Very little is required of him -- mostly he looks bemused while his family grapples with the possibility of poverty. And watching him act that way is fun -- not a lot of fun, but fun.
  
Here's a trailer for "A Successful Calamity":

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Five Against the House," or When My Baby Smiles at Me I Go to Reno

Herewith, another installment of Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions, because why not? This time around, it is the 1955 film "Five Against ..." well, see for yourself:

This is not a sequel to "Six Against the Sea," "Seven Against the Sea,"
"Nine Against the River" or "Ten Against the Sea." Look at the word "against"
for a long time. Doesn't it look misspelled? That's some craziness right there.

The five against the house are a group of college buddies
including Wild Bill Hickok ...

Uncle Bill from "Family Affair"... 

Future Sinbad (the sailor, not the comedian)... 

And county agent Hank Kimball from "Green Acres."

They have lots of fun together, going to casinos and such in between
classes at good old not-at-all-fake-sounding Midwestern University.

"Did I ever tell you I live with my orphaned nephew and nieces,
Buffy, Jody and Cissy?"

"Did I ever tell you I once saw Eddie Albert in his underwear?"

Anyway, those are four of the five. And the house they are against
is Harold's Club in Reno, which is a casino which is filled with money.

Oh, and this is important to know -- Uncle Bill goes crazy whenever
anyone tells him he has hair like Donald Trump.


The fifth member of the group is Kim Novak, who is Wild Bill
Hickok's girlfriend.


"Miss Novak, you're trying to seduce me!"


Future Sinbad is the mastermind of the heist, which involves
the incredibly complicated scheme of putting
a tape recorder into a cart.

The plan goes into action with a 1949 Ford, a psychotic war vet and what's left of
Lucy and Desi's house from "The Long, Long Trailer." What could go wrong?  


"... and then there was the time I was in Venezuela and my
manservant, Mr. French, had to take care of the kids ..." 


On the day of the robbery, the guys dress like cowboys.
Their quarry is a heavyset guy wearing his wife's western shirt.


Alas, the plan fails when Sinbad forgets to put batteries in the
tape recorder. And somebody calls Uncle Bill "Trump," so he
gets mad and runs into an elevated parking garage.


"Uncle Bill! It's me, Wild Bill! You're not standing behind me
with a loaded gun or anything, are you?"


Uncle Bill finally breaks down and agrees to consider medical care.
And he reveals his darkest secret:
"Did I ever tell you I once saw Eddie Albert in his underwear?" 




Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Hell's Highway," or Unchained Melody

The 1932 chain gang film "Hell's Highway" is not to be confused with the video game, the AC/DC album or the Michael Landon TV series "Highway to Heaven."

No, "Hell's Highway" is a neat little film filled with what every pre-code lover lives for: Those double-take "Holy crap, did I just see that?" moments -- an exchange of spicy dialogue, a stunning visual or a contemporary viewpoint that elevates the film from the hundreds of movies that studios cranked out each year.

It's not quite on the level of "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," released about the same time. But thanks to the direction of Rowland Brown, who also co-wrote the script, "Hell's Highway" has more than its share of clever, striking set pieces.

Take this one -- it happens at the beginning at the movie, between our hero, Duke (Richard Dix) and another inmate, Matthew (Charles Middleton), also known as the preacher, who's in on bigamy charges. It's morning, and the gang members are performing their daily toilette at the local stream:



Duke: It takes a lot of ... backbone ... to keep three wives happy.

Preacher: Yea, brother. 

Like "I Am a Fugitive," "Hell's Highway" is nominally ripped from the headlines -- it's based on a series of deaths in Florida chain gangs caused by placing prisoners in sweat boxes. But Brown is more interested in telling us about the prisoners and showing us different sides of characters as opposed to reducing them to cliches.

Duke, for instance, is on the gang for bank robberies, something that would make him a hero to depression-era audiences. He has a plan to escape that includes Matthew the preacher. One of the prison guards, nicknamed Popeye, believes that Matthew is psychic, and Duke talks Matthew into telling Popeye's fortune while lifting his keys.

Matthew tells Popeye that his wife is fooling around, and sure enough when Popeye goes back to his house, the wife is there with a gentleman caller. The caller escapes out a window and Popeye shoots his wife. Duke has Popeye's keys and plans to escape, but at the same time his brother (Tom Brown) is brought to the camp and out of loyalty, Duke sticks around. Popeye's blames his wife's murder on the convicts who did escape; they are immediately captured and killed.

Now comes one of the movie's best scenes: the funeral of Popeye's wife, but seen through the eyes -- and the drawings -- of the inmates, while one of them sings "Frankie and Johnnie." Wonderful stuff:



There's other trouble afoot -- one of the convicts has stolen a spoon, which he is slowly, slowly filing into a knife. The stoolie mess steward lets the warden (C. Henry Gordon) know about it, and they share an interesting little game:



The warden isn't exactly a prince, but Brown also shows us his awkward side -- at night, all alone, he works on teaching himself how to play the violin.

The  real bad guy in "Hell's Highway" is a
"Dear Penthouse Forum: I never thought I'd be writing to you ..."
contractor named Billings, who's ruthless in his use of convict labor to complete a highway project. He's so sold on the sweat box that he writes a fan letter to the owner. If only the convicts put into it wouldn't keep dying ....








The sweat box deaths result in a state investigation that leads to another escape. Duke is fingered as the gang leader, and strapped up for a whipping:



In the end, justice is served, Duke's brother gets paroled and the sweat box is destroyed. But the inmates still have to wear those work shirts with targets on the back -- how did the Coen brothers miss including that detail in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"