Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Solitaire Man," or Nailed Diamond

Welcome aboard Jolly Good Airlines!

As you know, we specialize in flights across the English Channel, helping passengers escape from their criminal pasts in Paris and land in London as well-dressed, anonymous country squires. Since this is 1933, when flying is still a luxury, you will notice that the airplane seats are the size of divans and that the furniture is made from the finest wicker money can buy. You will also notice that the plane holds only a small group of passengers, the better to build a movie around.

I am your steward, and since in-flight videos haven't been invented yet, I will stand in front of you and speak to you about what to expect as we travel.

Oliver Lane, you are a passenger who looks a lot like Herbert Marshall. From all appearances you are a noble, honorable Englishman, but you are also a suave jewel thief known as "The Solitaire Man," and you are leaving Paris because you have just completed your final job. Your appearance and manner is very similar to that of Gaston Monescu, another jewel thief who looks like Mr. Marshall and whose story was told in "Trouble in Paradise." Alas, Oliver Lane, you are just a little more ethical and a little less interesting.


Inspector Wallace, you are from Scotland Yard and you look a lot like Lionel Atwill, the actor in those horror movies like "Mystery of the Wax Museum." You are determined to apprehend the Solitaire Man by any means necessary, including the use of bad manners, but you have a few secrets of your own.








Now to Mrs. Hopkins of Peoria, Illinois, who looks like Mary Boland. You are a big-mouthed but good-hearted American who can be counted upon to break a suspenseful silence with a plainspoken wisecrack.









And finally, we come to Mrs. Vail, who looks like May Robson, and her ward Helen, who looks like Elizabeth Allan. You two women are in cahoots, as they say in American westerns, with Oliver Lane. Mrs. Vail seems prim, but she loves baccarat and has a lovably grouchy manner. Helen, you are in love with Oliver and he with you.




Now I shall talk a bit about the plane's amenities.

The washroom is to my left -- Mrs. Hopkins, this will especially come in handy for you, because you are going to become airsick frequently, which will necessitate many humorous exits.

The light switch is to my right -- this will allow Oliver Lane to kill the lights and get the drop on Inspector Wallace in one scene, but then Wallace turns the tables.

Here is the exit door. You will notice that it opens without much effort, allowing at least one cast member to disappear easily.

Please enjoy your flight -- it promises to involve a battle of wits between Oliver and Inspector Wallace as well as startling revelations involving murder and theft. But the real suspense centers around Oliver's quest to retire to a Devonshire dairy farm, and the Solitaire Man will be no more.  

Will Oliver make it out to pasture? Or will he end up in the yard -- Scotland Yard? (Har har.)

Please expect a flight with a bit of suspense, several jokes about bumptious Americans and a couple of twists and turns before the bad guy is delivered into the hands of justice, and it might not be who you think. Now -- fasten your seat belts, made of the finest hand-tooled leather, and enjoy your trip.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The "Love Is on the Air" Guide to Making It in Radio

Greetings, fledgling broadcast superstar!

Yes, I'm talking to you, mumbles. Get your puss out of your oatmeal, slap on a smile, get behind a microphone and FACE LIFE already! You, too, could be the next Charlie McCarthy! There's a secret to making it in radio, and I'm going to slip it to you today, gratis! All you need to do is smile, turn on the charm and look like you know what you're talking about! As exhibit A, I give you Dutch Reagan, former announcer with WHO radio in Des Moines:

Dutch is a hard-working reporter for the local radio station.

A crime wave is sweeping the city, portrayed in stock
footage thrillingly borrowed from better movies. 

Dutch immediately begins reporting on the case, not
even pausing to take off his hat or extinguish the fire on his sleeve.

But man does not live by news alone, and Dutch takes time
out to woo the slightly sensash June Travis.

Then he swings into action to create new shows
for radio, like ...

... "The Irritating Children's Hour" ... 

... "Things You'd Rather See Than Listen To,"
featuring bicycle races ... 

... and "Hollywood Child Actor Death Match."

While embarking on his latest show, "Three People in the
Back of a Truck," Dutch stumbles across a shootout
and broadcasts it.

He is a hero and the crime wave is smashed!


Who can say what lies ahead for Dutch? Big-time radio,
Hollywood, maybe even the presidency ... of the
Screen Actors Guild, that is!  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Sleuthathon Entry: "The Big Sleep," or Doubting Shamus

This post is part of Sleuthathon, a Blogathon of gumshoes, hosted by Movies Silently.

How do I love thee, "The Big Sleep"? Let me count the ways:

1. I love thee because thou are, for lack of a better term, a screwball noir. That may oversimplify it a bit, but "The Big Sleep" is, without question, one of the breeziest movies you'll ever see about blackmail, drug abuse, murder and, worst of all, the smoking of unfiltered Chesterfields.

The tone of "The Big Sleep" is attributable to two things -- the relaxed banter between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the fact that director Howard Hawks thinks nothing about stopping the plot dead in its tracks in order to showcase the relaxed banter between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.






2. I love thee also because thoust women are more interesting -- and arguably smarter -- than the men in this movie.

I mean, look at the male representation -- Marlowe's client, Colonel Sternwood, is downright incapacitated, impotent in more ways than one. He can't do anything that doesn't involve a sauna. "I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider," he tells Marlowe. Then there's Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), world's worst blackmailer, who gets a slug in the gut just for answering a lousy door buzzer. And then there's hapless Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), who gets talked into taking a tall drink of poison because he's protecting a tall drink of water named Agnes.

Meanwhile, look at the women! There are so many that Philip Marlowe practically trips over them, from Martha Vickers as the unbalanced Carmen Sternwood to Dorothy Malone as a bookstore clerk with come-hither eyes, a sexy pout and two paper cups for that bottle of pretty good rye Marlowe carries in his jacket pocket.






And don't even mention the female cabby who gives Marlowe her card.

Then there's the smartest one of all -- Bacall as Vivian Sternwood. She's not only as smart as Marlowe, she's as tough as he is. That doesn't mean she throws her weight around; neither does Marlowe. But she's there to help him outwit the movie's most dangerous bad guys, and Marlowe respects her for it. When he tells her afterward "You looked good, awful good," it's a declaration of love as heartfelt as a Donne sonnet.

3. I love thee for thou go-to-hell storyline that leaves plot strands hanging like unconditioned hair. We all know that "The Big Sleep" doesn't make total sense -- Hollywood historians have been telling us that for decades. For instance, nobody has been able to figure out who killed Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, whose body was found in the family Packard in the water off Lido Pier. And, of course, it doesn't really matter -- even the script's loose ends were tied up as neatly as ribbons on a Christmas package, "The Big Sleep" would still be known more for its atmosphere and its quirks than its plot.

4. And finally, "The Big Sleep," I love thee because, at heart, you are a deeply romantic story in that way only cynical movies can be. You are the story of a Sir Galahad in a 1938 Plymouth coupe who saves the honor of the Sternwood family while falling in love with one of the princesses. You are the story of a slightly rumpled knight in blue serge who works for $25 a day and expenses -- one who displays emotion with a pull on the ear and a wince of a smile. One who fearlessly confronts bad guys who are taller than he is, with no effort made to hide the height difference.

Raymond Chandler described Philip Marlowe thusly: "As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it's going out of style."As played by Bogart, more than ably supported by the woman who was his best co-star in the movies as well as in real life, he's a hero for the ages.

And yea, verily, that is the truth. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"She Done Him Wrong," or The Way West

As Lady Lou, Mae West first sashays into "She Done Him Wrong" -- and into pop culture history -- by entering Gus Jordan's Place, where she is the featured, um, entertainment. But first she stops to say hello to a child:



At moments like this I think of movie censor Will Hays.

See, "She Done Him Wrong" was based on West's Broadway hit, "Diamond Lil." But Hays didn't like that title. He had no problem with lines like the ones above, but he didn't like the title?!

So "Diamond Lil" became "She Done Him Wrong," one of those rare classic films that today's audiences respond to as gleefully as most theatregoers did in 1933. The movie comes on like an 1890s melodrama, but the woman at the heart of it is grounded in the pre-code 1930s -- if not the more sexually sophisticated 1970s.

And in 1933 "She Done Him Wrong" hit movie houses like a Vegas payoff.

By that fall, as the ad at left reports, the movie was held over or brought back by popular demand at more than 900 theatres -- a record that hadn't been equaled since "The Birth of a Nation."

The success of "She Done Him Wrong" has pretty much everything to do with the self-possessed Miss West. She floats above the trifling plot like a well-padded bubble, descending only to make spicy wisecracks, pitch woo with co-stars Cary Grant and Gilbert Roland and raise an eyebrow every so often.





Lady Lou loves men and diamonds, not necessarily
in that order, and surrounds herself with both. She is so treasured by saloon owner Gus Jordan (Noah Beery Sr.) that he has commissioned a large painting of her, scantily clad, for the saloon. Lou: "I gotta admit it's a flash, but I wish Gus hadn't hung it up over the free lunch."

Lou's juggling several men at the same time with a kind of genial insolence -- Gus, Captain Cummings of the local mission (Grant), a slimy political boss (David Landau), a suave Russian swindler (Roland) and her imprisoned old flame, Chick (Owen Moore). And when she isn't collecting diamonds from her admirers, she's taking the stage at Gus's to sing songs like "Easy Rider":



"I wonder where my easy rider's gone," a nice song about a missing jockey. Wait a minute -- could that have sexual connotations?! Apparently Will Hays didn't think so!

Lou goes to visit Chick in prison, and just the sight of her -- and the thought of what she's up to when he's not around -- drives Chick to escape and head to Jordan's place. Oh -- and there's also a counterfeit ring operating within the saloon, and an undercover cop who's trying to crack the case.

But really, none of that matters very much. Everything comes to a screeching halt to focus on Lou whenever she starts playing a guy, especially if it's one who looks like Cary Grant:



And in the end, when the counterfeiters are caught and the problem of Chick and the political boss are disposed of, we're left with Grant and West in a carriage:



Funny how the effect of him taking the diamonds and rings off of one hand has practically the effect of stripping her naked. 

Random thoughts that didn't fit anywhere:

"She Done Him Wrong" was directed by Lowell Sherman, who, that same year, directed "Morning Glory," for which Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar. Imagine working with Katherine Hepburn and Mae West within the same year. Sherman was also an actor, playing the doomed dipsomaniac director in "What Price Hollywood?" He died in 1934.


The Media History Digital Library is a great resource of vintage Hollywood fan magazines and trade papers. It's fun to look through them and see letters written in support of Mae West when the censors started circling like vultures. Here are a couple of my favorites:

What's this I hear about Mae West being "bad medicine" for our young girls? Who got the idea and from what source? Mae West simply has the ability to reveal all her beauty of character, her sweetness and womanliness in such an enchanting manner that men, young and old, go down on their knees. I'm for her. There is nothing about her wonderful performance to arouse antagonism.

M. Watkins, Elmore, AL
-- Hollywood magazine, February 1934

Everyone is talking about Mae West. Her curves, her beauty, her personality, her excellent selection of words. But do you know what I think? I think she is the most clever little psychologist in Hollywood. She has something for everybody. Fat to please fat ladies, beauty and personality for the thin ones and sex appeal and scanty costumes for the men.

S. Flanagan, Ventura, CA
-- Hollywood magazine, April 1934

Hmmm. I'm betting S. Flanagan is a guy.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Neglected Post Theatre: "They Learned About Women," and Vaudeville

On this edition of Neglected Post Theatre, we take a look at the only motion picture made by the vaudeville team of Van and Schenck, the 1930 film "They Learned About Women."