Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Neglected Post Theatre: "The Story of Temple Drake," or Oh Brothel, Where Art Thou?

This time around on Neglected Post Theatre we re-examine that pre-code to end all pre-codes, "The Story of Temple Drake."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Footlight Parade," or Taps


Everything below this logo is made up.

INTEROFFICE MEMO

April 12, 1933

FROM: Busby Berkeley

TO: Jack Warner

Greetings, J.L.

First off, let me say I was delighted to see you at the premiere of "Gold Diggers of 1933" the other night along with your new protege, Miss LaTour. I think her studio dancing lessons are paying off -- she seemed very flexible. And then she did that high kick that knocked off Jolson's toupee when he was looking up her skirt! I thought May Robson was going to bust a gut laughing.

Second, many thanks for the gift of the spats. I can't think of a better way to mark the success of "42nd Street" except maybe a large bonus, ha ha!

Now to the point of this memo -- an update on our next musical project.

I know we have a title picked out -- "Step-Ins of 1934" -- and we have James Cagney set as our lead. I have a story sketched out that I'd like to tell you.

I have an idea that Cagney, basically, plays me in this picture -- he is a brilliant creator-choreographer of motion picture prologues. And he is a prisoner of his own success, something I -- if you will excuse a personal aside -- know a little something about.

Every time Cagney comes up with a brilliant musical number filled with drama, spicy humor, scantily dressed girls and dazzling geometric dance routines -- something that takes weeks to choreograph, costume, set up and shoot -- he gets but one response from his bosses:

"Whaddya gonna do next?"

It's enough to drive a person to drink! (Speaking of drinking, J.L., thanks for having a "talk" to the judge about that whole messy car wreck incident.)

So Cagney is the brains of the outfit, and he works for two oafish producers -- let's say Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl. They are lazy, leeching slobs who wouldn't know Art if they tripped over it. They contribute nothing of value, but they are content to ride on the back of Cagney's success. His creations make thousands for the company and yet he is rewarded with something puny and insignificant, like a lousy pair of spats.

In fact, no one recognizes Cagney's creativity except his loyal girl Friday -- Joan Blondell, of course. Everyone else in this picture is out only for themselves, unable to see past their egos, refusing to credit, even fleetingly, the genius of Berk -- I mean Cagney.









And speaking of Cagney, I think he will be swell in this picture. He has a natural pugnacious grace that fits the character perfectly and a background in dance. I know he will be happy to step away from gangster roles temporarily -- he and I have had many heart-to-heart talks about what it's like to be taken for granted by oafish producers who make millions while the performer gives his all and guarantees the success of a picture much more than anything contributed by the overpaid, empty suits in the front office.

But I digress.

As for the supporting cast, I believe we can get Dick Powell and, of course, Ruby Keeler. A Warner's musical wouldn't be a Warner's musical without Keeler and her electric feet. Frank McHugh has only appeared in about 65 other Warner's films so far this year, so he's in. And Hugh Herbert keeps bothering me about a part, so I guess we can use him.






And before you ask me "whaddya got," I can tell you that the musical numbers will be sensational, J.L. These are, of course, the numbers Cagney's character slaves over while everyone else in the business is busy counting the money he makes for them.

And, of course, they will all feature Keeler. One will be called "By a Waterfall," featuring dozens of young woman in flesh-colored bathing suits, with strings of green vines as thongs.


Then there will be another number called "Shanghai Lil," where Cagney and Keeler will dance a duet.











I haven't forgotten, J.L., that there are two things you want to see in every one of my movies. One is that weird-looking little lecherous midget kid who makes you, as you once told me, laugh your balls off. 

And the other is that man in the White House. We will manage to squeeze in a subtle message about him.











Finally, just one more thought. While I recognize the box-office value of a title like "Step-Ins of 1934," I also know that the general feeling in Hollywood these days is that the Production Code we've been flouting for so long is about to get some teeth. So rather than ask for trouble, I've been thinking of another, less incendiary title. What do you think of "Footlight Parade"? Chew it over like one of those big expensive cigars you always have in your mouth and see what you think.

As for me, I'm convinced that, by any title, this movie is going to be a hit. How big a hit? Let's just say I look forward to getting a new pair of spats.

Best,
Bus

Friday, January 17, 2014

"Back From Eternity," or Ekberg Ahead

Despite popular demand, it's time for another edition of Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions.

I can't think of anything funny here.

Our hero is Robert Ryan, as a brilliant but renegade
pilot who refuses to wear his earphones correctly.
(Sorry for the borrowed joke.)


On board his flight is the Maytag repairman ... 


... future Bat Masterson and his fiancee ...

... George Bailey's mother ...

... and Lassie's master, Timmy.

Also aboard is Anita Ekberg as a party girl. She is
upset because the airline charged her extra fare
for her eyebrows.

And finally, there is a condemned man onboard. He is
being put to death for impersonating Marlon Brando.


"Make him an offer he cannot refuse." 




The flight is delightful ...

... even though one of the flight attendants walks off the job.

The plane makes a forced landing in an extremely isolated
place where no man dares to enter -- Cher's backyard. 

"The horror. The horror."



"Please, God, let Anita Ekberg be my stepmother."

Everyone begins to bond. Ryan offers to let one of
Ekberg's eyebrows fly free.

And Bat Masterson's fiancee likes the co-pilot's
landing gear.

This leads to an argument about whose boyfriend is cuter.

But wait! There is a dark hand pushing aside artificial leaves,
which is the universal symbol of the headhunter.

"I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody
instead of a bum, which is what I am."



The passengers work together to try and throw the plane
into the air. There is only one working engine, so some
passengers will have to stay behind to keep the weight down.

"Sorry, kid, but it's either you or me."

No, just kidding. The group takes a vote on who will
be left behind, and the decision is unanimous.







Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Executive Suite," or Separate Tables

The 1954 film "Executive Suite" begins with an ending:



The man lying dead on the Wall Street sidewalk, shot from a POV perspective by director Robert Wise, is Avery Bullard, CEO of the Tredway Corporation of Millburgh, Pennsylvania. Tredway makes furniture, and until about two minutes ago Bullard was the man whose hard-driving leadership had saved Tredway after the suicide of its founder. Now he is gone, with no successor in place -- just an anxious group of vice presidents looking over their shoulders and jockeying for position.
  
Based on a best-selling book by Cameron Hawley, "Executive Suite" is the kind of movie where the credits list the middle names of the characters. Why? To make it all seem a little more sophisticated, maybe, and to make the characters seem a little more three-dimensional than they are.







Still, this is one of my favorite 1950s movies. It's kind of the cinematic equivalent of the mid-century skyscrapers that started popping up about the time the movie was released -- sleek, modern, no big surprises but well constructed. And it has a great cast -- Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, June Allyson, Paul Douglas, Shelley WintersWilliam Holden as Kennedy and Fredric March as Nixon. (More about that in a few paragraphs.)

On a more emotional level, I enjoy "Executive Suite" because it reflects a time in recent history when manufacturing was done in America, and not farmed out to Mexico or China in order to beef up a stock dividend or add a bonus to the CEO's already obscene salary. It was a time when a company demonstrated a certain loyalty to the community that supplied its workforce, and when factory jobs helped build America's middle class. Millburgh is a company town, but in a good sense -- prosperous and populated by people who've worked for Tredway for generations.

Meanwhile, back at the executive suite, which has the ornate woodwork, stained glass and peaceful but prosperous air of a nice Episcopal chapel, personal and professional dramas are unfolding.

Julia Tredway (Stanwyck), daughter of the company founder, is mourning the loss of Bullard because he was her lovah --er, lover. A cool, remote, rather thoughtless lover, true, but you can't have everything. Julia owns a chunk of Tredway stock, which puts her in a position of power when it comes to selecting the next man at the top of the Tredway tower. Besides that, her voice is deeper than everyone else's.

Fred Alderson (Pidgeon), the company treasurer, is torn -- by rights and based on seniority he should be Bullard's successor, but he knows he is too old and tired and not the visionary the company needs.

Erica Martin (an Oscar-nominated Nina Foch) is Bullard's executive secretary, who, like most successful secretaries, knows and sees much more than she lets on.

Caswell (Calhern) is a scheming board member whose only concern is to make as much as he can from his Tredway stock. He was the only one to witness Bullard's death, and he sold his stock short as a result. His interest is in keeping the company chaotic so the stock will tumble and he can get back in at a bargain.

Dudley (Douglas) is the glad-handing vice president of sales who prefers to do business on the golf course or over cocktails. He has his own problem -- he's having an affair with his secretary (Winters).

Then there are the two main competitors for Bullard's job -- Kennedy and Nixon. Actually, that's a bit of an oversimplification, but the characters played by Holden and March are clearly meant to embody two very different ways of doing business.

Holden is MacDonald Walling, the vice president of design and development. He'd rather be in the mill, creating new products, than in the office. He's given to wearing single-breasted tweed jackets, Brooks Brothers shirts and never a hat.

Don, as he is known (not "Mac" -- that's an old man's name) has a background in design, and the house he shares with his loving wife (Allyson) and son is a model of clean, contemporary function. He wants Tredway to be known for well-made, useful furniture.


March is Shaw, the Machiavellian company controller. He didn't go to college the way Walling did -- he got his degree through night school. His focus is on the buck -- he advocates a cheaply-made, low-quality line of furniture that Walling despises. He is a definite hat wearer.

Walling is cool and confident, good looking and smart. Shaw always seems to be grasping and nervous -- he's constantly wiping perspiration from his upper lip. And he's driven by resentment, which leads him to use blackmail and other threats to get the top job.

"Executive Suite" comes down to a battle between Shaw and Walling for the future of Tredway, and, by implication, of Millburgh. It's pretty easy to see who the movie is rooting for. When Walling walks through the warehouse, he's approached by the nervous workers, who know and love him:



In the final showdown, Shaw defends his legacy by bragging about the dividends he's helped ensure for the stockholders. Walling doesn't have a problem with dividends, but he also believes in investing in the company's product. And he has a special scorn for the low-quality, high-margin furniture that Shaw supports:

    
These days, it's understandable to feel that the Shaws have won -- that too many of our major companies excessively squeeze profits and the workforce. Maybe the Wallings out there, few and far between, are too optimistic and idealistic. But once upon a time, Kennedy beat Nixon.

Here's the trailer for "Executive Suite":



Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Eddie Quillan Film Festival: "Sweepstakes" and "Gridiron Flash"

Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Eddie Quillan (1907-1990) was certainly one of them.

He began in vaudeville as part of a family act called "A Little Bit of Everything," which included his parents, his sister and two brothers. He made his film debut as a teenager in 1922, but didn't really appear in movies regularly until the mid-1920s, in a series of shorts shot at Keystone, playing opposite female comics such as Alice Day. He signed a contract with Pathe in the late 1920s and stuck around when the studio was absorbed by RKO.
If you remember Quillan at all, it's probably because of his open face and boyish manner that would mark his performances even into his 70s, when he was playing small roles on TV shows like "Baretta" and "Little House on the Prairie."



In the 1931 film "Sweepstakes," Quillan plays Buddy Doyle, a successful jockey known as the "Whoop-De-Doo Kid" because that's what he says into his horse's ear to drive him down the homestretch.

Buddy lives at Mother Clancy's boarding house with all the other jockeys and his lifelong friend Sleepy (James Gleason), a trainer who handles Buddy's mounts. When the film opens, Buddy has just won another race and heads home to a surprise dinner for his 21st birthday:



Buddy is now a man, and despite Sleepy's warnings, the siren call of a nearby roadhouse and its leading attraction, singer Babe Ellis (Marion Nixon), is too much to resist. He's shy around the ladies -- "I never tried to whoop-de-doo in a girl's ear," he says -- but he gets the hang of it.

Buddy's late nights with Babe lead to problems with Sleepy, so Buddy gets hired by the shifty owner of the nightclub to ride his horses instead. This means that Buddy ends up riding in a race against his old boss and buddy, Sleepy.

Will Buddy win? Or will he sidle up to Sleepy's horse in the homestretch and whisper "whoop-de-doo" into his ear, causing the horse to win and Buddy's career to go down the crapper?

Maybe this montage will answer that question:



Even the trains are booing him! That's cold.

Buddy can't get a mount anywhere, so he ends up as a singing waiter in Tijuana. When he does a song, we get some idea of what Quillan might have been like on a vaudeville stage:



Once Sleepy and Buddy reunite, it's only a matter of time before he's riding again, and Babe is waiting in the wings.


Boooooo!
The 1934 film "Gridiron Flash" was released after the production code went into effect, so don't expect any spicy humor.

In this one, Quillan is Tommy "Cherub" Burke, a small-time hood who ends up in stir, where he becomes the star of the prison football team.

A fellow named Smith (Grant Mitchell) arranges for Tommy's release and recruits him to play for Belford College. But, even though his roommate is Grady Sutton, Tommy has a hard time fitting in. He's pugnacious and hotheaded, and his playing style is considered too rough. He's ready to leave, but the coach talks a willing co-ed named Jane (Betty Furness) into faking an interest in Tommy, and he stays.

So there's a romantic subplot as well as hard-charging football action. But the most interesting aspect of "Gridiron Flash," to me at least, is the supporting cast, which includes stalwarts like Sutton, Margaret Dumont and Edgar Kennedy, who plays Jane's dad, the campus cop. When Tommy and the cop first meet, Tommy's natural antipathy to the law comes through:



When Tommy attends a party at Jane's house, Quillan's vaudeville training comes through again when he's forced to dance as part of an initiation:



Meanwhile, Smith is not what he seems -- he wants Tommy to help him rob a wealthy matron (Dumont) and throw the big game. Tommy also finds out that Jane's interest in him was a fake, at least in the beginning. So he leaves town and leaves Belford without its star quarterback. Will he return in time to save the school's football honor? Will Jane come back? Will Grady Sutton's voice change?

Personally, I'm not as interested in the plot as I am in scenes like this, between Edgar Kennedy and Arthur Housman, who specialized in playing drunks -- in this case, a drunk who keeps Kennedy from seeing the football game. This little moment is right out of a two-reeler, and that's not a bad thing at all:



From the mid-1930s on, Quillan's career consisted mostly of small roles in big movies ("Mutiny on the Bounty," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "The Grapes of Wrath") and big roles in small movies ("The Mandarin Mystery," "Sensation Hunters"). He also appeared in a series of shorts at Columbia Pictures with Wally Vernon, including 1948's "Nobody's Home," seen here in two parts. By then, Quillan was in his late 30s, but he could still take a pratfall:

 

In the 1970s and '80s, Quillan made the acquaintance of Michael Landon and Robert Blake. This led to bit roles on Landon's "Little House and the Prairie" and "Highway to Heaven," and on Blake's "Baretta" and "Hell Town." Both Landon and Blake were known for their massive egos as much as their talents, but it's kind of cool that they noticed and appreciated Quillan's history and ability.

Quillan's last acting credit was a 1987 episode of "Matlock," and he passed away a couple of years later.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "She's My Weakness"

If you had the world's smallest bottle, and put into it the combined talents of Sue Carol and Arthur Lake, there still would be space for the tears of boredom you would shed while watching them lurch their way through the 1930 film "She's My Weakness."

This movie has everything, and by that I mean nothing -- glacial pacing, labored plot, painful performances. Like so many awkward early talkies it's based on a play -- the 1927 drawing-room comedy "Tommy," co-written and co-directed by Bertrand Robinson and Howard Lindsay. (Lindsay would go on to write the book for such musicals as "Anything Goes," "Call Me Madam" and "The Sound of Music," co-author the adaptation of the long-running play "Life with Father" and co-produce such hits as "Arsenic and Old Lace.")

Lake plays Tommy, a well-meaning small town bank teller who loves Marie (Carol). To win the favor of Marie's parents, Tommy is always bringing candy and cigars (to mom and pop, respectively). But Tommy has competition -- fast-talking car salesman Bernard (Alan Bunce). Marie's pop doesn't like Bernard because his cars are driving pop's livery stable out of business, and because Bernard doesn't bring him cigars. (Pop is played by Lucien Littlefield, doing the kind of Keystone doubletakes that seemed dated even in 1930.)

Still, Bernard is pretty brash, as demonstrated by this clip that also demonstrates Carol's acting chops (not):



So, to recap -- Bernard is capturing Marie's affections because he seems more dangerous and her parents disapprove, while nice guy Tommy is in danger of finishing last.

Enter Uncle David (William Collier, Sr.), who tutors Tommy in being more defiant around Marie's parents, which he does in this clip that demonstrates Lake's acting chops (not):



Fortunately for almost all involved, "She's My Weakness" wasn't a career-ender.

Director Melville Brown went on to do some striking work, including the chain-gang film "Hell's Highway."

Lake, of course, went on to financial, if not artistic, success playing Dagwood Bumstead of "Blondie" fame in movies and on the radio and TV.

Carol wisely ditched her acting career and became an agent -- she's best known for finding and promoting the career of Alan Ladd, and eventually marrying the guy.

Ordinarily, we like to include three film clips with each review, but there's nothing else in "She's My Weakness" that's worth watching. So why do we even bother writing about it? To warn those who come after.