Friday, May 30, 2014

Neglected Post Theatre: "Below the Sea," or Love and Depth

This time around on Neglected Post Theatre we feature a post about the 1933 film "Below the Sea," which involves fistfights, heavy petting between Ralph Bellamy and Fay Wray and an amorous, nearsighted octopus who mistakes a bathysphere for a prospective mate.

Monday, May 26, 2014

My CMBA Fabulous Films of the '50s Blogathon Entry: "Love Me or Leave Me," or Great Day

This post is part of the Fabulous Films of the '50s Blogathon, brought to you in living color by America's premier classic movie blog association, the Classic Movie Blog Association.

The 1955 film "Love Me or Leave Me" comes smack dab in the middle of Doris Day's peak performing decade -- at its beginning she was a game gamine in routine Warner Bros. musicals and by its end she would be, arguably, the biggest and most bankable female star in Hollywood.

But "Love Me or Leave Me" is much more than a marker -- to me, it's one of Day's best movies, and certainly the one where she first demonstrates her chops as a top-flight dramatic actress. She's so good, in fact, she's on a level with her co-star James Cagney -- and that's quite a level. Day might have spent the first part of the 1950s in fluff like "Tea for Two," "Lullaby of Broadway" and "Shine On, Harvest Moon," but she was learning her stuff, and in this movie she struts it like she never did before.

We are in 1920s Chicago, the city of the big overcoats. At one of the burg's lesser nightspots, the Dance-Like-No-One-Is-Watching Hall, Ruth Etting (Day) is making with the foxtrot and Charleston, spending her evenings being pawed by pathetic prancers. When she talks back to a fresh customer, she gets the boot -- but she has lassoed the attention of Moe "the Gimp" Snyder (Cagney), a small-time hood.

At first, Snyder is solely interested in Ruth because he likes the way the fringe swings on her dress, and he thinks of her as a quick pickup. But she quickly lets him know just what kind of girl she is, and he can like it or lump it:



He likes it.

So Snyder takes Ruth under his wing, although his motives aren't totally altruistic. He uses his influence to get Ruth another job, at a club that we'll call Chez Cockroach. She joins as a member of the dancing line, but she wants to sing. Snyder's eyes are on the prize, so he does anything Ruth asks him, and she gets a spot as a singer. On her opening night he's a bundle of nerves:



From there it's only a short jump to radio, records and the Ziegfeld Follies, all with Snyder calling the shots. If Ruth strains too hard at the leash, he yanks it to remind her who's boss and who helped her get to the top. And she goes along with it, figuring she has an obligation to Snyder.

But Snyder wants more than to be Ruth's manager -- he wants Ruth. And in the movie's saddest scene -- both because of Ruth's despair and because of Snyder's desperation to convince Ruth to love him -- they get married. Snyder's tries to cheer Ruth by reminding her of how he can guide her career, and her response is devastating: "You don't have to work so hard -- you don't have to sell me. I'm sold."

  

After playing nightclubs around the country -- and becoming an expert at drinking heavily -- Ruth ends up in Hollywood, where she once again meets Johnny (Cameron Mitchell), a pianist who helped guide her career in Chicago. Now he's the musical director on Ruth's picture, and although she loves him she knows that Snyder will kill him if he finds out, so she plays it close to the vest. Still, that doesn't keep Snyder from resorting to violence out of jealousy.

"Love Me or Leave Me" is based on a true story, but it's been cleaned up for Hollywood in several ways. For one, Day is, from all accounts, a much better all-around performer than Etting ever was. Etting's strength was singing and that was it -- during her appearances in the Ziegfeld Follies, she was instructed to exit the stage after her number so as not to interfere with the dancers. For another, the movie's Snyder was meaner and poorer in real life -- he drained Etting financially as well as emotionally.

Etting herself is said to have disliked Day's performance, expressing a preference for Jane Powell in the role. She thought Day was too tough -- to me, Day underplays the role perfectly. She's cool, but with an edge. And a movie with a female lead who didn't hold her own against Cagney would be painful to watch.  

Cagney was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for "Love Me or Leave Me," but Day wasn't. Doesn't seem fair -- but in typical Day fashion, she sucked up any disappointment she might have felt and in 1956 she demonstrated her dramatic skills again in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much." You go, girl.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Gordon Westcott Film Festival: "The World Changes" and "Private Detective 62"

"Of course you can trust me, doll! Just
hand me the briefcase with your life
savings and the money you embezzled from
the bank. I'll be right back."
Of all the actors and actresses who were in 1930s movies, Gordon Westcott (1903-35) was certainly one of them.

Born Myrthus Hickman (shame he changed it) in St. George, Utah, Westcott was a track and football star in high school. He married a woman after he graduated, but when she gave birth to a son he deserted her and ended up in Hollywood.

Westcott made his film debut in 1928, and was under contract to Paramount and then Warner Brothers. His specialty was a shifty, caddish character. In the wild 1933 film "Lilly Turner," he plays a carnival smoothie who marries, impregnates and abandons (sounds familiar) our heroine (Ruth Chatterton). In "Footlight Parade," released the same year, he plays the guy who steals James Cagney's ideas for movie prologues.

In "Heroes for Sale," also released the same year, Westcott is cowardly Roger Winston, who tricks neighborhood chum Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) into single handedly storming a German stronghold during World War I. Tom is captured by the Huns, who nurse him back to health and
Bring the kids!
give him morphine for his pain. Roger doesn't know that Tom is still alive, and he receives -- and accepts -- all the plaudits for Tom's actions. When he discovers Tom is alive, he gives him a job at the family bank out of guilt. At the end of the movie, after they've long since separated, Tom and Roger are reunited as just two more homeless men looking for work.

In "The World Changes," also released in 1933, Westcott gets to spread his wings a bit. The movie is a ponderous multi-generational saga which stars Paul Muni as Orin Nordholm, a first-generation American who grows up on the plains and becomes a meat packing magnate in Chicago.

Beginning in the 1860s and ending with the Great Depression, "The World Changes" takes in a lot of territory and tries to emulate "Cavalcade," which won a Best Picture Oscar in 1933. But "The World Changes" falls short. Its main attribute is that it features a boatload of Warner regulars -- Muni, Aline MacMahon, Henry O'Neill, Donald Cook, Guy Kibbee, Patricia Ellis, Margaret Lindsay -- and we get to see them age based on the amount of chalk dust in their hair.

There is a standout -- Mary Astor plays Orin's wife, a snobbish sort who loves the wealth that meat packing brings but can't stand the smell and blood associated with the slaughterhouse. She finally loses her mind and becomes Scary Mary Astor:



Westcott plays John, one of Orin's ne'er-do-well sons. His big scene comes toward the end, when the daughter (Ellis) of Orin's brother (Cook) is scheduled to marry a fortune hunter (Alan Mowbray). But this is the same day that the family business is going belly up, and John can't wait to share the news:



At the end of "The World Changes," all is well. The family has gone completely broke, but Grandma Nordholm (MacMahon), with her commonsense ways, will lead the family back to happiness. Yay Great Depression!

Westcott plays truer to type in 1933's "Private Detective 62," a tasty little pre-code. Our hero is William Powell as Donald Free, a gumshoe who isn't quite as charming as Nick Charles in "The Thin Man" and a little more sober.

Free is a former secret government operative who's joined a detective agency that does lots of divorce work. Free lets partner Hogan (Arthur Hohl) do the sleazier jobs. Enter Westcott as shady casino owner Bandor. He wants Free to shadow Janet Reynolds (Margaret Lindsay in one of her "veddy veddy" performances), a society dame who's winning entirely too much at roulette.

But Bandor's real goal is to frame Janet for murder. And he thinks he gets away with it, until:



When Janet is accused of Bandor's murder, Free becomes her defender. And he resigns from the agency, much to the sorrow of office manager Amy (Ruth Donnelly being Ruth Donnelly):



Westcott's string at Warner Bros. continued into 1934 and '35, including a couple of films with Bette Davis ("Fog Over Frisco" and "Front Page Woman") and Joe E. Brown ("Six Day Bike Rider" and "Bright Lights").

Westcott was a polo enthusiast, and in the fall of 1935 he was playing a match on the Disney team against MGM. There was an accident, and his horse fell on him. After several days in the hospital, Westcott died on Halloween, just a few days before his 32nd birthday.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"The Hindenburg," or It's Hard Out Here for a Blimp

We go once more into the breach with Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions and explore the 1975 film "The Hindenburg." Please fasten your seat belts and grab your sickness bags. 

Gutentag and welcome aboard the Hindenburg,
Germany's glorious lighter-than-air craft powered
solely by the bottled ecstasy of Hitler youth! 

The Hindenburg is the ultimate in transatlantic travel,
1937-style. The amenities are so posh, you'd think you
were on the Titanic! Elegant salons, cozy bedrooms,
sleek observation decks -- and don't forget the Sunday
Night Sauerkraut Supper!

Naturally, such a majestic craft has an impressive guest list,
beginning with Col. Erich Von Blowheim, the reluctant Nazi.


Blowheim is on board to foil the plot of a saboteur, and to
go through everyone's luggage as often as possible. 

Also aboard is the Countess von Mrs. Robinson, who keeps
calling Blowheim "Benjamin" in honor of a lost love.

And then there is LeBeau from "Hogan's Heroes" --

-- and future Gil Grissom from "CSI."

Meanwhile, in America, officials are anxiously awaiting the
Hindenburg's arrival. Says one: "Its like landing a crate
of eggs. A boobytrapped crate of eggs. A boobytrapped
crate of eggs balanced on the back of a bucking horse.
A boobytrapped crate of eggs balanced on the back of a
bucking horse in a windstorm. A boobytrapped ..."  


Meanwhile, back at the Hindenburg ...

... LeBeau is offering a one-man performance of
"Fiddler on the Roof."


The Nazis are so offended they clear the room.
Or maybe it's just excessive flatulence from the Sunday Night
Sauerkraut Supper. 

As the Hindenburg nears its New Jersey destination,
Blowheim is getting tired of re-folding everyone's
underwear.

But then he finally finds the explosives that will desrroy
the Hindenburg! Can he defuse the bomb in time? 


(Spoiler alert.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Neglected Post Theatre: "Mystery of the Wax Museum," or Statue of Limitations

This time around on Neglected Post Theatre we re-examine the 1933 film "Mystery of the Wax Museum," with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell and cast of dummies.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

My Romantic Comedy Blogathon Entry: "Monkey Business," or My Chemical Romance

This is part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon co-sponsored by Backlots and Carole & Co. Visit them for more entries!

Cary Grant enters the 1952 film "Monkey Business" bespectacled and befuddled -- so much so that he is given verbal direction by Howard Hawks:


Hepburn ...
... Rogers.
Seeing Grant like this brings to mind "Bringing Up Baby" -- also directed by Howard Hawks, also featuring Grant in glasses as an absentminded man of science, also featuring a female lead (Katharine Hepburn in "Baby," Ginger Rogers in "Business") wearing a dress without any back to it.

So can I help it if I like "Monkey Business" more than "Bringing Up Baby"? To me, it's a more consistently funny, if sometimes too silly, movie -- on the other hand, to me the charms of "Bringing Up Baby" have always been intermittent.

"Monkey Business" also has a quality that I value more as I grow older -- perspective. The married couple at the center of this romantic comedy, Barnaby (Grant) and Edwina (Ginger Rogers), have been together for a while, but are still very much in love. They tolerate each other's imperfect qualities with an easy affection and can look back fondly on a past when they were more physically romantic with each other. Considering their numerous real-life marriages, Grant and Rogers play a contented, committed couple very convincingly.

Miss Laurel displays the new stockings that Barnaby
helped invent. He's very interested in her acetates.
Barnaby is preoccupied because he's a chemist working on a new formula that won't come together -- a kind of youth elixir that will be marketed as B-4, with a phoenix rising from the ashes as its logo (in today's market it would be a smiling guy giving a woman a footlong hot dog). Barnaby's elderly boss, Mr. Oxley (Charles Coburn), is particularly interested in perfecting the formula for many reasons, not the least of which is his secretary, Miss Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). As Oxley explains to Barnaby, "Anybody can type."

Back in the lab, Barnaby still isn't having any luck with B-4, and to make matters worse, the test monkeys keep escaping from their cages. While the janitor is changing the bottle on the water cooler, one chimp mixes his own formula by dumping chemicals into the cooler reservoir. Going against scientific protocol, Barnaby tries his formula and then washes it down with some H2O from the cooler. Then he tries it out.


(To be able to turn cartwheels in your late 40s? Well played, Cary Grant.)

Barnaby thinks his own formula has worked, but we know the truth -- hey, the movie isn't called "Barnaby Business." Barnaby's dose of the simian solution is enough to revert him to the showoffy teenage stage, and he hooks up for a day of fun with Miss Laurel that includes driving a new MG and going swimming:


Next to try the formula is Edwina, whose energy level goes through the roof and who dances the evening away with an exhausted Barnaby:


Edwina has taken Barnaby to their honeymoon hotel. There she reverts to her wedding day, which means she locks herself in the bathroom crying and Barnaby falls down a laundry chute. It's totally nonsensical, and it brings to mind this exchange from "Bringing Up Baby," just after Grant slips on an olive dropped by Hepburn and crushes his hat.



Hepburn: Well, Joe here was just showing me a trick, and the olive got away. 

Grant: First you drop an olive and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly.

Finally, both Edwina and Barnaby unknowingly take larger doses of the mixture and revert to childhood. Child Barnaby smears his face with war paint and recruits the neighborhood kids in his plan of revenge against a romantic rival (Hugh Marlowe) for Edwina, and Hawks favorite George "Foghorn" Winslow adds spice:


Oh -- and Barnaby and Edwina get into a Laurel and Hardy-style paint fight:


Meanwhile, back at the lab, Oxley is convinced that Barnaby's formula is successful, and an effort is made to buy him out:


Soon enough, the origin of the formula is discovered, the chimps are put back into their cages, and Edwina and Barnaby emerge older and wiser. We end where we begin -- with the Fultons going out for the evening:


Barnaby: You're old only when you forget you're young. ... It's a word you keep in your heart, a light you have in your eyes, someone you hold in your arms.

Edwina: My, I'm glad I'm going out with you tonight.

As much as I love "Monkey Business," it disconcerts me to read about what Howard Hawks thought of it. Apparently only Grant's character drank the formula in the original script, but when Rogers saw that she was missing the fun, she wanted the script changed so that Edwina drank the formula as well. To Hawks, Rogers's desire messed up the picture.

I couldn't disagree more -- I'm not always a fan of Rogers's late-career performances, but her comic work in "Monkey Business" ranks right up there with her work in "The Major and the Minor" or "Bachelor Mother." That accomplishment is all the more impressive when you consider that Hawks reportedly badgered her on the set and let her know she wasn't his first choice for the role. For a guy who had a hand in creating some memorable feminist characters, Hawks definitely had his piggish, crotchety side -- maybe he could have used a dose of B-4.