Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Children of Pleasure"

The 1930 MGM film "Children of Pleasure" tries to whip up big-city razzle dazzle in the manner of the same studio's Oscar-winning "The Broadway Melody" or "Chasing Rainbows," but due to a wan leading man and subpar musical numbers (including one where the dancers are dressed as brooms), the effect is more like a handful of confetti shaken out of a pant cuff by a surly headwaiter.

The leading man, Lawrence Gray, is a handsome fellow who supported Marion Davies in her first talkie, 1929's "Marianne," and who played opposite Marilyn Miller in "Sunny," one of the year's top-grossing films. But left to his own devices, Gray has little more than a smile and a shoeshine, and a mildly pleasant singing voice.

Gray plays songwriter Danny Regan, whose tunes are being whistled by every Dick and Dora along the great white way. "That's the stuff!" they say in unison. Yes, the world is Danny's oyster -- he even knows Jack Benny (playing himself)!


Danny's big hit at the moment is "A Couple of Birds (with the Same Thing in Mind)," sung in a Broadway revue by Fanny Kaye, played by May Boley. This is Boley's only musical role, which should tell you something. Her other credits include the 1930 film "Moby Dick" (as Whale Oil Rosie) and the 1939 version of "The Women" (as woman under mud pack). From its heard-it-before rhythms to its blackface chorus, "A Couple of Birds" is highly missable.

Meanwhile, back at Danny's music publishers, we meet the warm, vivacious Emma (Wynne Gibson), Danny's former vaudeville partner who secretly lurrves him as she helps him put over his songs. Alas, Danny has met Pat (Judith Wood, acting under the name Helen Johnson), a rather chilly society girl, and the big sap falls for her like a tycoon jumping off a ledge on Black Thursday.

Then there is more plot -- we're introduced to Fanny's piano player and reluctant lover, Andy (Benny Rubin). Fanny and Andy keep popping up to banter about Andy's roving eye.

Fanny (on Andy ogling a secretary): You never looked at me like that!

Andy: You never looked like that!

A production number based upon
particulate matter.
Danny pitches his next big number, called, um, "Raisin' the Dust." And brother, it's sweeping the country! Or at least this soundstage, where the chorus girls wear broom bristles on their arms and legs and rhyme "hades" with "ladies." What fun this must have been to shoot.

At the end of the number, Fanny -- wearing a one-horned hat that makes her look like a cockeyed unicorn -- brings Danny on stage, and in the audience he sees Pat again, much to Emma's disappointment. Danny and Pat finally formally meet at a night, where we also get a number with Lawrence Gray, Wynne Gibson and Benny Rubin.


(Because I can never resist including a number that ends with a joke about "my fanny.")

Anyway, before you can say "Why in the world would you want to marry an iceberg like her?", Danny and Pat are engaged. But she's still hanging around with old flame Rod (Kenneth Thomson playing the same kind of smarmy rich guy he plays in "The Broadway Melody"). And just before the ceremony Danny overhears Pat and Rod making baby talk, and Pat telling Rod "you're Danny's understudy." So the heartbroken Danny breaks up the wedding rehearsal, giving Gray his only opportunity in the movie to display emotion that isn't expressed by a smile.


But never fear -- Danny turns to the long-suffering Emma to relieve his broken heart.

"Children of Paradise" is based on the play "The Song Writer," which author Crane Wilbur based on the courtship of Irving Berlin and heiress Ellin MacKay. The plot of the movie-play turns out differently than the Berlin-MacKay affair -- despite the strong objections of her anti-semitic father, MacKay and Berlin were married more than 60 years, until her death in 1988 (he died the next year). In a bit of poetic justice, Berlin reportedly helped his father-in-law financially when the old guy was wiped out by the 1929 crash.

As for Gray, his career faded quickly and he ended up in grade-C westerns before dropping out of show business in the mid-1930s.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lauren Bacall's Smile


When I think of Lauren Bacall I always remember this scene that ends "To Have and Have Not," because it's one of the few times on screen that she smiles like a beautiful goof, a lovestruck teenager. I don't know if, by this time, she and Humphrey Bogart were already smitten with each other, but I do know that -- considering her career was built on maintaining a beautiful facade -- she seems refreshingly natural here. It's a clip of such infectious joy that Turner Classic Movies used it to cap off their Bacall tribute:

  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Al Capone," or Gang-Ham Style

This time on Motion Pictures Told Through Still Images with Goofy Captions (And GIFs!) we look at the totally true, completely factual, overacted 1959 film ...

Come and listen to my story 'bout a guy named Al,

Chicago-bound from Brooklyn as muscle for a pal,

But Al wanted money and he had a real hot head,
so all his rivals soon were filled with lead

Bullets, that is. Bang bang. Bust a cap.

Well, the next thing you know, old Al's the man in charge,

The law would like to nab him because he lives so large,

Then there's a lot of killing, and no hits were ever cleaner. 

One guy even gets it while munching on a weiner.

Kosher, that is. With mustard. Gluten free.

Al finally goes to jail for income tax evasion,

... and it's really hard to rhyme a word with "income tax evasion."

At Alcatraz he pays the price for all his dirty tricks ...

... the prisoners all welcome him by pelting him with bricks.

Extruded, that is. Hardened clay. Adobe. 


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "The Crowd Roars" and "Indianapolis Speedway"

Pre-code versus post-code is the difference between a Duesenberg and a Hummer, between cafe au lait and chocolate milk, between a camisole and a union suit.

Take the differences, for instance, between the 1932 film "The Crowd Roars" and the 1939 film "Indianapolis Speedway." Same story (by Howard Hawks, who also directed the first film), same setting, same characters (with different names, in some cases), even much of the same racetrack footage. By the way, want to know how to switch up your stock footage of a crowd? Just flip the image, like this:












And, since these are Warner Bros. films made in the 1930s, naturally both of them feature Frank McHugh -- playing the same character, and even with the same name. Spud. (Frank McHugh was born to play guys named Spud.)

But there's a distinct difference in the way the film's romantic relationships are portrayed, and, by extension, in the relationship between the brothers at the center of the story.

The brothers are Joe and Eddie Greer, played by James Cagney and Eric Linden in "The Crowd Roars" and Pat O'Brien and John Payne in "Indianapolis Speedway." Joe is a world-famous racing driver who drinks and carouses a little too much, tilting slightly but not totally into arrogance. Eddie is his hero-worshiping brother, who also wants to race.

In the 1939 version, Joe's reluctance to work with Eddie has a noble basis -- he wants Eddie to finish college, at Joe's expense. But after Joe leaves his hometown and his visit with Eddie to return to Los Angeles, he finds an unexpected stowaway.

In the 1932 version, Joe's reluctant to work with Eddie for two reasons -- one is because of Eddie's inexperience, but the other is that Joe doesn't want Eddie to know that he's shacking up with longtime frail Lee (Ann Dvorak). Once Eddie enters Joe's life, Joe starts giving the cold shoulder to the bewildered Lee. In "Indianapolis Speedway," by contrast, Joe and Lee (Gale Page) are already engaged, which makes their coupling a little more legitimate. When Joe gives Lee the brushoff in "Indianapolis," he makes it clear it's because he wants to tutor Eddie. In "The Crowd Roars," Lee grins and bears it, but in "Indianapolis Speedway" she gets rightfully honked off. Here are the two scenes:






But the real woman trouble in both movies comes from Lee's friend. In "The Crowd Roars," her name is Ann (Joan Blondell) and in "Indianapolis Speedway" her name is Frankie (Ann Sheridan). In both movies, she's first portrayed as bad news, and Joe doesn't want her "corrupting" his pure younger brother. In "The Crowd Roars," when Ann meets Eddie and starts showing some leg, Joe sneers, "Why don't you stand on your head while you're at it?" -- a line that's as likely to show up in "Indianapolis Speedway" as I am to grow a tail. In "Indianapolis Speedway," Frankie -- who's the roommate of Ann -- is known for feminine wiles that have driven at least one racer track wacky. (Sheridan, at the peak of her reign as Warner's "Oomph Girl," is top billed here -- and like Blondell, she is shown in the skimpiest post-code outfits possible.)

Here's how Cagney and O'Brien handle the problem of the other woman:






Even by Cagney standards, the character of Joe is wound unusually tight. His obsession with keeping Eddie from sinful entanglements and what he perceives as loose women -- playing around for me, but not for thee -- goes beyond brotherly concern and makes him seem like a hypocrite.

O'Brien portrays Joe as a little wearier -- the movie is telling us that what he needs is to settle down with a good woman, but it'll take him about 65 minutes to figure that out.

All around, in fact, the Joe in "Indianapolis Speedway" seems more human and more vulnerable. The relationship between the brothers is much warmer -- in the 1932 film, Joe dominates Eddie the way that Cagney naturally dominates the more diffident Linden. Payne, by contrast, has a stronger screen presence and makes more of an impression opposite O'Brien.

In both versions, Joe's downfall comes when, out of anger at Eddie's romance, he causes a fiery crash that kills Spud (Twice!). Joe is spooked and can't bring himself to race again, but he gravitates toward Indianapolis on the day of the 500. Eddie is racing, and when he is injured, Joe jumps back behind the wheel with Eddie as his co-driver. Guess who wins?

In the 1932 film, the reunion between the brothers isn't even played out -- Joe just jumps in the car and takes off. But in the 1939 version, there's a spoken rapprochement between the brothers, capped off when Eddie gives Joe his trademark cigar to chomp on for good luck. Guess who wins?

Here are the full credits for "The Crowd Roars" (which also features several real-life drivers as themselves) and "Indianapolis Speedway."