Pre-Code Crazy: Jewel Robbery (1932)

•October 3, 2021 • 10 Comments

October is the cruelest month . . . for me trying to pick out a pre-Code to recommend on TCM!

You see, TCM’s schedule every October features lots of horror movies, from the famous to the obscure, and if you know me at all, you know that horror movies are not my bag, man. So, once I eliminated the Draculas and the Frankensteins and the White Zombies, I wasn’t left with much to choose from. Fortunately, as I reviewed the list of the month’s offerings, one movie jumped out at me – Jewel Robbery, featuring two of my favorite performers, William Powell and Kay Francis. It was a no-brainer!

In this compact, 70-minute comedy set in Vienna, Francis stars as Teri von Horhenfels, a bored Baron’s wife who gets her kicks from playing with the soap in her overly bubbled bath and bedecking her digits with flawless diamonds. Her devoted husband, the Baron (Henry Kolker) is quite a few years older than Teri and suffers from gout, and her once-thrilling marriage, after only a short period of time, has become “dull, unbearably dull.”  After sleeping until noon each day, she’s pampered by a phalanx of no less than a dozen maids, who take care of her every need, including bathing her, dressing her, and even carrying her to the chair where she is simultaneously pedicured, manicured and hair-styled. Ho hum.

As jewel-loving best buddies, Teri and Marianne are a hoot.

The action in the film begins when Teri’s bestie, Marianne (Helen Vinson), excitedly shares the news about the latest in a series of “sensational” jewelry store robberies, carried out by a gang headed by “a distinguished young man of fashionable appearance.” Teri’s immediate and only concern is to ensure that the unlucky establishment was not Hollander’s, which carries the famous 28-carat Excelsior diamond that her husband has promised to procure. Teri and Marianne travel to the jewelry store to meet the Baron – who is accompanied by Paul (Hardie Albright), a cabinet officer who just happens to be romantically involved with Teri. During a surreptitious chat in one of the jewelry store nooks, Paul is dismayed to learn that Teri has tired of him and plans to call an end to their affair. Meanwhile, the Baron balks at the fifty thousand dollar price tag on the coveted diamond ring, and haggles with the store’s owner in an effort to secure a lower price.

Powell and Francis have a delicious chemistry. This is the fifth of six films they starred in during the pre-Code era.

In the midst of these goings-on enters a handsome, impeccably garbed gent (William Powell), who promptly produces a gun and instructs those inside to put up their hands. The man (who gently corrects Teri when she calls him a thief: “Let’s say ‘robber.’ There’s more flavor to ‘robber.’) and his equally well-dressed crew, proceed to efficiently gather up all of the jewelry in the store, all the while maintaining a polite, even amiable manner. The robber (who is never named) plays a recording of the Blue Danube Waltz, offers the owner what appears to be a marijuana cigarette (“A pleasant, harmless smoke. He’ll awaken in the morning fresh and happy. With a marvelous appetite.”), compliments Teri on her frock and compares her eyes to sapphires, and even gets a late-arriving, unsuspecting security guard to carry the heavy, jewel-laden suitcases to the getaway car. By the time the robber exits the store, Teri is thoroughly entranced – and the feeling appears to be mutual. As you may imagine, this encounter isn’t the last between Teri and the robber – but I’ll let you find out for yourself what happens next.

If you’re a fan of the intelligent, urbane comedies directed by Ernst Lubitsch – like Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, and Ninotchka, you’re likely to enjoy Jewel Robbery. To be honest, before I consulted the Internet Movie Database, I was certain that this was a Lubitsch film – it’s rife with sexual innuendo, physical gags, witty lines that you simply have to hear to appreciate, and a final shot that is guaranteed to make you smile. The film airs on TCM October 25th – if you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and tune in. And if you have, treat yourself to a rewatch – the more you see it, the more you’ll love it.

And don’t forget to visit Kristina’s blog, Speakeasy, to see what pre-Code gem she has recommended for the month of October (and to see whether we’ve broken our streak after all these years and selected the same film)!

Suddenly, Last Summer: The 2021 Classic Movie Book Challenge

•September 15, 2021 • 2 Comments

As a wise man once said, “Better late than really, really late.” Or words to that effect.

For seven consecutive years, beginning in 2013, I was a participant in the Summer Classic Movie Book Challenge, the brainchild of Raquel Stecher over at Out of the Past. To join the event, you read six classic movie-related books between June and September, and then write about them; it’s been a great way to finally read some of the many classic film books that I’m (apparently) addicted to buying, and is something I’ve looked forward to every year.

And then came 2020.

Even though I started working from home in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, never went back to working in the office (I retired in June of this year), and was in my house most of that time, I was only able to finish one single book last summer. I don’t know what it was – perhaps it was that I often seemed to be working around-the clock, or maybe I was stymied by the surreality of the pandemic experience – whatever it was, it just couldn’t do it.

But I wasn’t letting that happen this year – so here I am, with my write-up for the six classic movie books I read this summer, and the one I read in 2020 for good measure! As always, it’s been an great experience, informative and interesting, sometimes a bit frustrating, and always loads of fun. So here you are – my 2021 entries for the Summer Classic Movie Book Challenge! (And I apologize in advance for the length of this post!)

My Life and the Final Days of Hollywood (2018) by Claude Jarman, Jr.

This personally autographed book was gifted to me by AnnMarie Gatti, owner of the Classic Movie Hub website. Before I received it, I knew Jarman had played the little boy in the 1946 feature The Yearling, and I’d even caught a glimpse of him at a TCM Film Fest a few years back. But that was it. So I was interested to delve not this book and see what this actor’s life was all about. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The book was an easy read that started with Jarman’s childhood in Nashville and quickly jumped into an extensive discussion of his experience as Jody in The Yearling, beginning with his discovery in his hometown by the film’s director, Clarence Brown. He was literally first noticed in his fifth grade school classroom; Brown and his assistant conducted a tour throughout the South in search of a young blond boy to star in the film, and after traveling to Hollywood for a screen test, Jarman was given the part. One of the women who read with him for his screen test was Jacqueline White, who you might remember from her roles in The Narrow Margin and Crossfire. White was slated to play the role of Jarman’s mother in the film, but she was later replaced by Jane Wyman. Jarman had nothing but good things to say about Wyman and the actor who played his father, Gregory Peck.

Back in Hollywood after his location shooting in Florida, Jarman attended classes in the MGM schoolhouse, where his classmates included Elizabeth Taylor (the “unofficial queen of the class”), Jane Powell (“cute, bubbly and down-to-earth), and Dean Stockwell (“a bit distant and withdrawn from the rest of us.”). He also rubbed shoulders with other young MGM contract players, Margaret O’Brien, Roddy McDowall, and Anne Francis. And when he won an Oscar for Most Outstanding Child Actor of 1946, the award was presented to him by “the biggest child star of all time,” Shirley Temple – “It was a thrilling moment,” Jarman wrote.

Jarman had a prominent role in Roughshod.

The remainder of the book covered Jarman’s experiences in such pictures as The Sun Comes Up (1949), a Lassie movie that was Jeanette MacDonald’s last film (and where Jarman got bit in the face by the famed pup); Roughshod (1949), with Gloria Grahame and Myrna Dell; Intruder in the Dust (1949), an anti-lynching film starring Juano Hernandez and helmed by The Yearling director Clarence Brown; and Rio Grande (1950), where he played the son of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Jarman also talked about a car accident that happened when he was 16 years old; while driving in Nashville during a rainstorm, he struck and killed a 57-year-old schoolteacher. After an inquiry, it was judged that Jarman was not at fault, but the actor admitted that his grief surrounding the incident remained with him ever since.

By the early 1960s, Jarman’s film career was all but over, but he spent 15 years, from 1965 to 1980, as executive director and co-programmer San Francisco International Film Festival, growing it from a small event to the one of the world’s most prestigious cinema fests. If you’re a fan of Jarman, The Yearling, the San Francisco festival, or just enjoy behind-the-scenes tales of old Hollywood, you’ll enjoy this memoir.

The Essentials Vol 2: 52 More Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2020) by Jeremy Arnold

In the 2017 Classic Film Book Challenge, one of the six books I read was Jeremy Arnold’s 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter, which covered such gems (and personal favorites) as Grand Hotel, Out of the Past, and All About Eve. Well, Arnold is back at it again, with 52 more films that you simply must see, and I am here for all of them. Like his first book, this tome includes a brief overview of each movie, behind-the-scenes information, and a “What to Look For” section, as well as a quote from one of TCM’s hosts for the “The Essentials” segment, usually the beloved Robert Osborne, but also Alec Baldwin, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore, and Ava DuVernay.

This volume included many of the films that I love to watch again and again, such as Twentieth Century (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), The Women (1939), and Pillow Talk (1959), as well as a selection of some of my favorite noirs, including Mildred Pierce (1945) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). My favorite part of the book was learning new information about the movies; here are just a few of the new-to-me tidbits of knowledge:

Maria Ouspenskaya earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Dodsworth. She was on screen for less than five-and-a-half minutes.

What did she say???

At the end of The Quiet Man, Maureen O’Hara whispers something in John Wayne’s ear and the actor reacts with a kind of pleased amazement. The film’s director, John Ford, instructed O’Hara what to say – both O’Hara and Wayne vowed to never reveal what she’d said, and they never did.

In The Maltese Falcon, there’s a scene where Humphrey Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, is at the scene of his partner’s murder, talking to a cop played by Ward Bond. In the background, a poster for Bogart’s 1938 musical comedy film Swing Your Lady can be seen peeling off a wall. This is an inside joke, as Bogart considered this film to be one of his worst.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a family affair for more than the father-son combo of director John Huston and star Walter. Tim Holt’s father, Jack Holt, was a star from the era of silent westerns; he can be seen briefly as a bum talking to Walter Huston.

This book makes an enjoyable companion to Arnold’s previous book – I hope he comes out with another 52 must-sees!

The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography (1999) by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl

The first chapter of Esther Williams’s autobiography doesn’t start with her birth, or even her parents’ beginnings. It opens with her detailed description of taking LSD at the suggestion of Cary Grant.

If this doesn’t give you a clue of what kind of wild ride this book would be, I don’t know what will.

A champion swimmer, Williams became a movie star through more than two decades of MGM pictures that spotlighted her talents in the water. Once you get past the LSD info, Williams’s autobiography takes us back to her early days, when one of her earliest recollections was the death of her older brother, Stanton, who was a child actor with a promising future.

Williams takes the reader through her successes as a competitive swimmer, her entry into professional swimming with the Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the San Francisco World’s Fair, joining the MGM family as the studio’s answer to 20th Century-Fox skater Sonja Henie; and her four marriages and three children. Throughout the 404-page book, she shares a series of personal, often shocking, recollections – sometimes about herself, sometimes about others. Here are just a handful:

For two years, beginning when she was just 13, Williams was sexually assaulted by a neighborhood boy that her parents took in after their son’s death.

She lost her first baby while her then-husband, singer Ben Gage, spent the day playing golf. Incidentally, her husband dubbed the singing voices of Dana Andrews in State Fair and Victor Mature in My Gal Sal.

Speaking of Victor Mature, Williams had an affair with him during the filming of Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). She describes their first encounter like this: “One night, after doing a steamy love scene that was more than adequate foreplay, we went to my dressing room, locked the door, and unleashed our hunger, our passion for each other. Vic was a strong and fulfilling lover. Even better than I had fantasized.” (Okay, then.)

I must say, Fernando Lamas didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose in this book.

Her third husband, Fernando Lamas, proposed that they get married on New Year’s Eve 1969 by saying: “I’ve had a very good year and I need the write-off.”

Williams also shared that Lamas loved to go without underwear “to make sure people looked at his crotch.”

Williams also made some rather catty comments about several actresses, including Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball. (I couldn’t help but find it interesting that all three actresses were dead by the time Williams’s book came out.)

In perhaps the most scandalous and controversial revelation in her book, Williams says that actor Jeff Chandler, with whom she had an affair, was a “cross dresser.” She states that before she ended her relationship with the actor, she told him that she found his “aberration [to be] very, very sad.”

Overall, I found Williams’s book to make for very interesting reading. It was well-written, never boring, and led me to want to see her movies (before reading her book, I’d only seen one – Million Dollar Mermaid). However, I was really turned off by some of the things she said about people who are no longer around, especially Jeff Chandler. Even if it was true, I don’t think it was Williams’s place to share that information.

Jennie Gerhardt (1911) by Theodore Dreiser

After I read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) for the 2019 classic movie book challenge, I expressed my interest in reading the author’s other books that had been made into movies: An American Tragedy (1925) and Jennie Gerhardt. I read An American Tragedy in 2019 (too long ago for me to review here), and Jennie Gerhardt this summer. Of the three, Jennie Gerhardt is my favorite.

The book tells the story of the title character, who is one of six children from a poverty-stricken German family in Columbus, Ohio. When we meet Jennie in fall 1880, her father, a glass-blower by trade, is ill and unemployed, and Jennie and her mother are visiting local hotels to seek work. Jennie’s beauty works on their behalf and the two are given work cleaning in the hotel. This leads to Jennie’s fortuitous encounter with a senator who winds up falling for Jennie and wants to marry her. Unfortunately, before this can happen, the senator is stricken with typhoid and dies – and Jennie is pregnant. The book goes on to span a period of several decades, with Jennie’s soap opera-esque life seeing her involved with Lester Kane, the younger son of the wealthy family where she works as a maid, giving up Lester years later when he is disowned for his illicit relationship with her, Lester’s marriage to a wealthy widow, the death of her beloved daughter, and being called to Lester’s bedside when he dies.

Sidney was perfect in the title role.

I found Jennie Gerhardt much easier to read than the two previous Dreiser novels I read – there was less flowery language and fewer unnecessary ruminations. I must admit, though, that there were a few phrases that had me heading for Google. In one scene, for instance, Lester tells his wife, “You’re a seraphic suggestion of attenuated thought.” And in another section of the book, Dreiser refers to “the one divine, far-off event of the poet.” I was able to determine that the poet he referenced was Alfred Lord Tennyson, but I really wasn’t able to grasp a clear understanding of the far-off event (the second coming of Christ?) and how it related to the Lester’s musings. On the other hand, one of the best things I learned was the origin of the word “antimacassar.” Macassar was a heavy oil that men used as a hair tonic in the 19th century. Because the oil had a tendency to rub off on collars and chairs, the “antimacassar” was created – a lacy cloth spread over the top of the chair!

Dreiser’s novel was made into a 1933 Paramount film of the same name, starring Sylvia Sidney in the title role, Donald Cook as Lester, and Edward Arnold as the senator (Sidney was excellent, but it would’ve been nice if a more charismatic actor had played Lester). The film devoted less time to Jennie’s siblings and father and, interestingly, it portrayed Lester as a kind of business savant when, in the book, it was actually his older brother who had all the talent. Also, in the book, when Jennie’s daughter Vesta died, Jennie later adopted two children. This wasn’t portrayed in the film. These were minor deviations, though; all things considered, the film provided a faithful adaptation of the book, which I highly recommend. (You might want to get some tissues handy near the end, though.)

Ernest Borgnine: My Autobiography (2009) by Ernest Borgnine

I bought this book several years ago after seeing its subtitle: “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want To Keep My Nuts Warm.” How can you pass that up? I toyed with the idea of reading it for one of the previous year’s movie book challenges, but for some reason, the book just didn’t grab me. I decided to give it another try this year, and boy, am I glad I did. This was a good one.

First of all, it was easy to read – which, as you may have guessed, is a big selling point for me. (I can’t tell you how many movie star biographies I’ve abandoned because they were just too much work to slog through.) Reading Borgnine’s book was kind of like listening to a friend tell you a series of stories – sometimes folksy, occasionally profane, often juicy, and always interesting.

Borgnine – whose parents were both born in Italy (his father’s name was Borgnino) – was frank from the start; he talked about the suicide of an aunt, the drowning death of twin cousins, and his mother’s early onset dementia. He was bitten by the performing bug when he was a Boy Scout and slayed the audience at an event where he wore his father’s long johns and a bib around his neck. Although his mother wanted him to be a barber, Borgnine joined the Navy and served during World War II. When the war ended, Borgnine was 28 years old and to his surprise, it was his mother who suggested that he become an actor: “You always like to make a damn fool of yourself, making people laugh,” his mother said. “Why don’t you give it a try?” And the rest is history.

The budding actor honed his craft in the Randall School in Hartford, Connecticut, and a repertory company, The Barter Theatre of Virginia. Between auditions, he made ends meet with a variety of odd jobs, including washing dishes, unloading trucks, and working in baggage rooms at train terminals. After several years, in 1949, he landed a role in his Broadway debut, playing a mental patient in the play Harvey (he replaced Jesse White, best known for his commercials as the Maytag repairman). He also appeared on Broadway in Mrs. McThing, which starred Helen Hayes (who became his first child’s godmother), and he made his big screen debut in the 1951 drama The Whistle at Eaton Falls, starring Lloyd Bridges and Dorothy Gish.

Borgnine and Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock.

Over the years, Borgnine distinguished himself in classics that included From Here to Eternity (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), and The Wild Bunch (1969). He also gained popularity on the small screen, starring in the title role on TV’s McHale’s Navy. Borgnine had fond memories of working with many stars, including Susan Hayward, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper, but Jim Brown wasn’t a favorite. (He said he agreed with the director of The Split [1968] when he told Brown that he wouldn’t work with him again if he were the last actor on Earth.) And, notably, Borgnine won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the title role of Marty (1955). His touching acceptance of the award can be seen below; watch when he first goes on stage and hands something to Jerry Lewis. Lewis had been so certain of the outcome that that he bet Borgnine $1.98 that he would win. Borgnine put 198 pennies in a sock before the ceremony – that’s what you see him giving to Lewis!

One of my favorite things about the book is that Borgnine devotes roughly half of the book to covering many of his films – from the popular to the obscure – sharing his recollections from each. It made for fascinating reading. He also devoted a chapter to some of his special friends, including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, George Lindsey (best known for playing Goober on the Andy Griffith Show). He was also good friends with Lee Marvin.  Interestingly, he devoted very little space to his first four marriages – instead, he focused primarily on his fifth wife, Tova, to whom he was married from 1973 until his death in 2012.

There is just so much to love about this book – I haven’t even scratched the surface of the interesting stories that Borgnine had to tell. I’ve long been a fan of this actor, and I appreciated him even more after, years ago, he responded to my request for an autographed photo by writing me a lovely letter. But by the time I was finished with his book, I was simply in love. He came across as genuine and down-to-earth – the kind of guy you’d love to share a beer with. And if I can just add one more tidbit that illustrates Borgnine’s character – at the end of the book, he tells us that he used to be a heavy smoker (five packs a day!), but he kicked the habit after having a benign nodule removed from his throat. Following this story, he encouraged his readers to stop smoking: “It’s a drug, it’s a nasty habit, and in the end it’s going to kill you . . . there are better ways to relax than by lighting a cigarette or getting drunk or doing drugs or any of the things we do to ourselves because of stress or social demands. And, you know, the time you sit there is not only relaxing, it’s good for reflection. In our increasingly fast-paced world, I can’t recommend that enough.” What a guy.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classic Movies (2009) by Lee Pfiffer

I’ve had this book in my collection for longer than any of the others I read this summer. Divided into 16 chapters according to type – from silent films to epics – the book presents films in each category that are judged to be “classics” by the author; his criteria include movies with an enduring legacy that has extended beyond its initial release, movies that audiences want to experience repeatedly over many years, and movies that resonate with their intended audience. In addition to a brief description of each movie’s plot, the author includes information related to behind-the-scenes trivia, remakes and sequels, production errors, and deleted scenes.

In reading the book, I not only gained a lot of new information, but I also compiled a lengthy list of films that I now want to see. The list can be seen here; below are some of the many trivial tidbits that I picked up:

John Ford was the original director for Mister Roberts (1955), but he disagreed with star Henry Fonda over his interpretation of the title role and left the production halfway through filming. He was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy.

James Cagney and David Niven can be seen as extras in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Cagney, who had been a star for several years, just thought it would be fun to be part of the movie!

Leone wanted these parts to be played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach.

Sergio Leone, director of popular spaghetti westerns such as Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, wanted to cast the stars of the latter film – Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach – in the roles of the three luckless gunslingers in the opening sequence, but Eastwood wouldn’t agree. The parts were ultimately played by Woody Strode, Jack Elam, and Al Mulock.

The screenplay for the fifth Sean Connery James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, was written by Roald Dahl, best known for authoring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As appreciative as I am for the new films on my must-see movie list, and as enjoyable as it was to take in all this new information, I have to say that the experience reading this book wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I was able to put aside the author’s all-too frequent use of superlatives to describe films or performances, and I could ignore his inexplicable disrespect for Mark Wahlberg (he never missed an opportunity to toss some shade the actor’s way), but I was unable to overlook the errors that were scattered throughout the book. These ranged from misspelled names, like “Joel McCrae” and “Joseph Cotton” to mis-identifications – referring to “Ingmar” Bergman as “Ingrid” – to completely incorrect plot descriptions. In sharing the plot of Now, Voyager (1942), for instance, he states that Bette Davis’s character falls in love with her “married, dashing shrink.” False. (Davis falls in love with Paul Henreid, who is NOT her doctor.) For D.O.A. (1950), he tells us that Edmond O’Brien is a “groom-to-be who decides to unwind from pre-wedding jitters with a stay in San Francisco. Nope. (O’Brien’s character has a girlfriend, but there’s never any mention of them getting married.) And we’re informed that Ray Milland, in Dial M for Murder (1954) learns that his wife, Grace Kelly, “once had an affair with a friend of his . . . [and] hires an assassin to murder her.” Actually, Kelly has an affair with a writer who Milland did not know, and Milland engages an old schoolmate (who’s certainly no assassin) to kill her. These errors were just sloppy – a good proofreader with a knowledge of popular movies could have caught every one of them.

On the positive side, the author provided a comprehensive look at a wide variety of classic films – from the well-known to the obscure – and was presented in a reader-friendly format and a conversational manner. It was worth the purchase.

Hollywood’s Hard-Luck Ladies: 23 Actresses Who Suffered Early Deaths, Accidents, Missteps, Illnesses and Tragedies (2020) by Laura Wagner

This was the one book that I was able to read in the summer of 2020, but I enjoyed it so much that I felt compelled to include it in this year’s write-up. As the title indicates, the author writes about 23 actresses – some well-known to film fans, such as Mae Clarke and Helen Walker, but many others who were far more obscure, such as Charlotte Henry, Marjie Millar, Rosa Stradner, and Constance Worth. For each actress, the author provided biographical information, career details, and specifics about their respective downfalls.

Although the book was absorbing, some of the stories were especially hard to read – Susan Cabot, who I remembered from her role in the 1954 Audie Murphy western Ride Clear of Diablo, was beaten to death by her son. Judy Tyler, seemingly on the verge of stardom after her co-starring role opposite Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957), was killed in a car accident before the film’s release. And Lyda Roberti, who was hilarious in the 1933 pre-Code Three-Cornered Moon, died of a heart attack at the age of 31.

A couple of bright spots in the midst of the gloom – I discovered two new-to-me movies by reading the book: Peggy Shannon’s Deluge (1933) and Sidney Fox’s Bad Sister (1931). Both are available on YouTube, and both are well worth your time. As is this well-written, well-researched book!

And that’s it! If you made it this far, I am shocked truly thank you. I’m very proud to have successfully completed this year’s challenge (it was no walk in the park!) – and grateful for it, as well, as it got me back into the habit of reading, which the pandemic seemed to have quashed. I’m already looking forward to next summer’s event!

List o’ the Week: Must-See Movies

•September 11, 2021 • 28 Comments

After recently reading a 2004 book called The Idiot’s Guide to Classic Movies, I identified a whole slew of interesting-sounding films that I’d never seen before (and some that I’d never even heard of!). This week’s rather ambitious list consists of these films. How many have you seen? Are there any that you would especially recommend — or recommend that I skip altogether? Let me know!

A Man and a Woman is one of those I’d never heard of.

A Man and a Woman (1966)

A Taste of Honey (1961)

Attack! (1956)

Billy Budd (1962)

Faces (1968)

Harvey (1950)

In Which We Serve (1942)

Hombre (1967)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

La Strada (1954)

I’ve given Harvey a try a couple of times, but never made it very far. Worth the effort?

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

On the Beach (1959)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

One, Two, Three (1961)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Seconds (1966)

Summertime (1955)                                            

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Having recently finished Ernest Borgnine’s autobiography, I’m especially looking forward to seeing The Dirty Dozen.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Professionals (1966)

The Searchers (1956)

The Talking Moon (1968)

Two for the Road (1967)

Whistle Down the Wind (1966)

Will Penny (1967)

The Return of Pre-Code Crazy!

•September 1, 2021 • 12 Comments

I’m so excited to announce that, after two long years, my pal Kristina at Speakeasy and I are bringing back our series Pre-Code Crazy, where we each recommend a pre-Code feature airing on TCM in the coming month. It’s hard to believe it, but our last Pre-Code Crazy entry was two whole years ago, in August 2019 – but we’re back and, as I always say, better late than never! (Actually, I don’t say that, but you know what I mean.)

I’m celebrating our Pre-Code Crazy return with one of my all-time favorite films from the era: Blondie Johnson (1933), starring one of my favorite pre-Code actresses, the incomparable Joan Blondell. Blondell plays the title role of Virginia “Blondie” Johnson which, for my money, is one of the best parts of her career.

When we first meet Blondie, she’s down and out – and that’s putting it mildly. She’s trudged through pouring rain, with ill-fitting clothes and runs in her stockings, to beg for help from the local welfare and relief association. We learn that she and her sick mother are living in the back of a drugstore, after being turned out in the street from the tenement where they were living. She finds neither welfare nor relief, however; she’s told that because she has a roof over her head and she’s not starving, her case is not an emergency. Sadly, when she returns to the drugstore, she discovers that her mother has died. Grief-stricken and bitter, Blondie vows to rise above her circumstances; when a local priest cautions her that there are two ways to get money, Blondie affirms, “Yeah. The hard way and the easy way.”

Like Lady Macbeth, Blondie was running the show.

The next time we see Blondie, she’s running cons at the train station on unsuspecting cab drivers, and before long, she encounters Danny Jones (Chester Morris), the right-hand man to the city’s biggest mobster. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Blondie becomes the power behind the throne – coming up with innovative money-making schemes and shrewd plans for Danny to take over the leadership of the mob. And eventually, she steps from behind the throne to take her seat as the head of the organization.

Intelligent, fearless, and always quick with a quip, Blondie is an amazing character, not just because of the craftiness she displays during her rags-to-riches ascent, but for her unwavering stance concerning sex. From the first night of their meeting, Danny makes no secret of his attraction to Blondie, but she’s having none of it. “Can’t you see this romance stuff don’t belong?” she says in one scene. “With me, business comes before pleasure. And I’m not stopping for love and kisses until I can take ‘em on top of the pile. Do you get that?” And later, after she’s urged to “give Danny a tumble,” she makes her position clear to the two other females in the gang (played by Mae Busch and Toshia Mori): “I got plans – big plans. And the one thing that don’t fit in with ‘em is pants.”

No sex.

Like the best laid plans of mice and men, however, Blondie’s plans go awry – but I’ll leave the details for you to discover when this gem airs on September 27th on TCM. You only owe it to yourself. (Meanwhile, see below for some trivia tidbits on some of the film’s cast members . . .)

Born in Australia, Mae Busch appeared in comedy two-reelers at Keystone Studios, and she reportedly had an affair with Keystone studio chief Max Sennett that led to the end of his engagement to popular actress Mabel Normand (who, incidentally, was previously Busch’s mentor and friend). In her heyday as a contract player for MGM, Busch starred in films directed by Erich von Stroheim and was seen opposite Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three (1925), but her career never really rebounded after she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926. She did, however, appear in the popular Laurel and Hardy film Sons of the Desert in 1933. Busch died in 1946 of colon cancer; she was 54 years old.

Busch and Mori played key components of Blondie’s empire.

Toshia Mori, a native of Japan, was best known for her role as Mah Li in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932) – she was singled out by the reviewer for Time magazine, who called her “the most noteworthy female member of the cast.” The same year that this film was released, Mori was named as one of 13 WAMPAS Baby Stars – this was a group of young women identified each year by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers as actresses on the verge of big-screen success. Others in the 1932 crop included Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart; Mori was the only actress of color to ever be named to the group. Oddly, a number of references on the Internet claim that Mori later changed her name to Shia Jung in an effort to secure film roles that were going to Chinese actresses. Several references point to the low-budget 1939 film Port of Hate, which credits Shia Jung in the cast. I’ve watched it, and I think it could definitely be the same actress who was in Blondie Johnson. To make matters even more confusing, the Internet has completely different biographical information for Mori and Jung, stating that Mori was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1912 and died in 1995 in the Bronx, New York, and that Jung was born in Hong Kong in 1916 and died there, of SARS, in 2003. So I just don’t know. Despite her small role in Blondie Johnson, Mori was fascinating to watch – I’d love to get to the bottom of it some day.

Allen Jenkins, on the left, always there to lend a hand.

Allen Jenkins, who played a mobster in Blondie’s inner circle, was a familiar face in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, including such first-rate features as 42nd Street (1933), Marked Woman (1937), Dead End (1937), and Ball of Fire (1941). Contrary to his screen persona as a ruthless tough guy or a slang-slinging blue collar worker, Jenkins attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He worked up until the year of his death, 1974, appearing that year in an episode of TV’s Police Story and the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau remake of The Front Page.

A brief appearance – one scene, three lines – is served up by Charles Lane, who was seen in nearly 400 feature films and television shows during his lengthy career. In 1933 alone, he was seen in no fewer than 13 movies. Some of his best-known pictures include 42nd Street (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), It’s a Wonderful Life (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), and The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). Lane died in 2007 at the age of 102.

Don’t forget to turn into TCM on September 27th for Blondie Johnson – and pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending this month!

Noir I Don’t Care For: The Paradine Case (1947)

•July 4, 2021 • 14 Comments
Gregory Peck looks like the way I felt watching this movie.

As I’ve mentioned a time or two in previous posts, I am a member of a classic movie meetup group that continued to flourish throughout the pandemic; each week, we’re assigned an old movie that’s available on YouTube, and then we gather via Zoom to discuss it. Moderated by Steven Reginald over at Classic Movie Man, these weekly events offer lively discussions and interesting and varied opinions on classic movies, and served to be a beacon of light for me in this otherwise otherworldly past year.

A recent film that was viewed by the group was The Paradine Case, one of the movies that was featured in last year’s Giant end-of-year Dark Pages issue, which focused on films released in 1947. I’d never seen the movie, but I’ve always been intrigued by the promising combination of star Gregory Peck and director Alfred Hitchcock, and I was looking forward to what would surely be a memorable cinematic experience.

As it turned out, the film was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

But let me start at the beginning. Set in England, The Paradine Case centers on Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli – credited only as ‘Valli’), who is accused of poisoning her blind husband, Colonel Paradine. She is defended by Tony Keane (Peck), a hotshot lawyer whose happy marriage to Gay (Ann Todd) hits the skids when Tony falls head over heels for his client. Also on hand are Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton), who presides over the court proceedings; Horfield’s wife Lady Sophie (Ethel Barrymore); and Andre Letour (Louis Jourdan), the devoted valet for the deceased Paradine patriarch. With such a stellar cast, and a production helmed by the master of suspense himself, I would never have dreamed that I would dislike this film as much as I did. But I did. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why, starting with . . .

Tony Keane.

See the expression on Mrs. Paradine’s face? That’s about as good as it gets.

Let me say here and now, I love Gregory Peck – To Kill a Mockingbird, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Yellow Sky, The Yearling – I mean, come on! The man is a cinematic giant (not to mention incredibly easy on the eye)! But I just wasn’t feeling him in this film. I didn’t like his character’s weak nature, his illogical decisions, and the way he so easily turned his back on his seemingly ideal wife and marriage for a woman he barely even knew. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a problem with silver screen infidelity, but this just didn’t make sense! Speaking of not making sense, it was primarily due to . . .

Mrs. Paradine.

Alida Valli was excellent in The Third Man, which was released two years after this feature, but in Paradine, I was completely turned off by her zombie-esque performance. She was totally expressionless most of the time – she only caught my attention when she was venting her hatred toward Peck’s character and, frankly, by that time, I’d pretty much given up on the entire production. Her acting was so wooden that it seemed farfetched that she would not only entice the very-married Tony Keane, but also . . .

Andre Letour.

As played by Louis Jourdan in his American film debut, Letour was one of the few characters who halfway piqued my curiosity. To be honest, though, I was only interested in him during his appearance in the film’s (lengthy) courtroom trial, where his previously staid persona frequently erupted into emotional outbursts. Other than these moments, I found him to be almost as boring as . . .

At first, Gay and Tony displayed a playful, sexy relationship that was fun to watch. But then ol’ Stoneface Paradine entered the picture and I just didn’t care anymore.

Gay Keane.

Tony’s doting, loyal wife, Gay Keane was, to me, as dull as dishwater. She was unquestionably incisive, as she was able to detect her husband’s wandering affections before he was aware of them himself. And she was also wise, realizing that if Mrs. Paradine lost her case and was sentenced to death, her husband would be inextricably bound to her. But while some may see the positive aspects of this noble creature, she was simply annoying to me – too virtuous and perfect and self-sacrificing for me to bear. As she said to her husband in one scene, “You’ve been my life for such a long time, Tony. Do you think I could ever want anything bad for you?” Blecch. But Gay wasn’t the only character who annoyed me; this emotion was also directed toward . . .

Lady Sophie Horfield.

I confess that I simply did not understand the purpose of this character. Her husband – the judge – treats her like crap, humiliating her in front of guests and browbeating her when they were alone, turning her into a stammering, anxious, self-conscious shell of a woman. She was only in two or three scenes, but she could just as easily not been in any, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. The fact that she was played by Ethel Barrymore, and that Barrymore received an Oscar nomination for the role, is beyond me.

And if my feelings about these characters weren’t enough to solicit my thumbs-down on this feature, there was . . .

The writing.

Riveting dialogue. RIVETING, I tell you!

Let me just give you an illustration. This is the scene where Andre Letour appears at the door of the room in the inn where Tony Keane is staying.

Letour: Can I have a word with you, sir?

Keane: Come in. What can I do for you?

Letour: It is not a question very easy to answer.

Keane: How did you know that this was my room?

Letour: I saw you come up from the lake shore. And then this light go on.

Keane: You’ve been watching the inn for some time?

Letour: Yes. I walked over from Henley.

Keane: To see me?

Letour: Yes sir. It came to my mind it would be well to see you.

Keane: Sit down. Why didn’t you come to the front door? What was your object in coming in the back way?

Letour: They’d all gone to bed, sir, and I didn’t want to disturb the household.

Keane: But you might have come earlier.

Letour: I didn’t care to come earlier, sir.

Keane: Why not?

Letour: I’ll leave that to you, sir.

OH. MY. GOD. Are you SERIOUS. What is the point??? Is there one???? I found so much of the dialogue in the film to be like this – just completely inane, unnecessary, interminable exchanges. It was all I could do to keep from falling out of my chair.

Laughton was everything. But not enough.

In fact, I had only one favorable impression about The Paradine Case, and that was the character played by Charles Laughton: Judge Horfield. Every time he appeared on screen, he instantly became the focal point for me, whether he was hitting on Gay Keane during a dinner party (by literally grabbing her hand and putting it on his leg), or making wry remarks during the court proceedings. In my favorite part of the trial, he drew the laughter of the trial onlookers (as well as my own) when Tony Keane tried to cast aspersions on the character of Andre Letour, referencing his “pathological bias” against women because he’d once had a fiancé who left him at the altar. Horfield observes, “I may be stupid, but I fail to understand what this jilting has to do with the case. After seeing the witness and observing his appearance and bearing, I should be inclined to regard the young lady’s conduct as pathological, not his.”

Unfortunately, Laughton’s performance wasn’t enough to make me appreciate this picture – nor was the film’s direction by Alfred Hitchcock, who is one of my favorites. And from what I’ve read, Hitchcock wasn’t much happier with the film than I was. According to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, the film’s screenplay was re-written on a daily basis by producer David O. Selznick, who was notorious for meddling and micro-managing the movies under his banner. Spoto also stated that Selznick dictated more than 400 memos before filming ended, which surely transformed the movie into something vastly different than what Hitchcock had originally intended. The bottom line is, I didn’t care for this movie, I was disappointed after looking so forward to seeing a new-to-me Hitchcock feature, and I will definitely not be indulging in any repeat viewings.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I was one of the few members of the discussion group who didn’t like it! (How d’ya like THEM apples?)

Have you seen The Paradine Case? What’d you think of it? I’d love to hear your impressions! (Incidentally, there are those who contend that The Paradine Case isn’t film noir . . . but that’s another discussion for another day.)

CMBA Hidden Classics Blogathon: Bad Sister (1931)

•May 20, 2021 • 8 Comments

Up until a few months ago, I’d never heard of the movie Bad Sister. Then I read a book called Hollywood’s Hard-Luck Ladies by Laura Wagner (which I highly recommend, by the way). The book centers on 23 actresses who “suffered early deaths, accidents, missteps, illnesses, and tragedies.” The chapter on actress Sidney Fox noted that her film debut was in the 1931 feature Bad Sister – which was also the first feature film for Bette Davis – and that Fox played a “horrible little wretch.” The picture’s intriguing title, the fact that it was Davis’s first film appearance, and the description of Fox’s character all combined to make this a must-see for me. So you can imagine my delight when I found it on You Tube – and my utter satisfaction to discover that it lived up to its promise!

Produced by Carl Laemmle, the film was based on a 1913 Booth Tarkington novel, The Flirt, and centers on a middle-class, small-town Ohio family, the Madisons. The family includes Mr. and Mrs. Madison (Charles Winninger and Emma Dunn), and their children, the self-absorbed Marianne (Sidney Fox), kind but reserved Laura (Bette Davis), and mischievous Hedrick (David Durand).

Marianne is the kinda gal who could benefit immensely from a slap in the kisser.

Like her own world, the film revolves around Marianne, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a clear idea of just what kind of person she is. When we first meet her, she’s lying in bed; the wall above her is decorated with a series of large photographs – each is of Marianne. The family maid, Minnie (Zasu Pitts), enters to announce that breakfast is ready, and Marianne leisurely requests that her meal be served to her in bed. Minnie – who’s no slouch in the smart-mouth department – vehemently objects and Marianne lets loose with a series of insults, calling her stupid, common and ignorant. Later, Marianne asks her father for $50 (a sum which, adjusted for inflation, would be a whopping $800 today) to buy a new dress, employing every device from cloying sweetness, to fury, to tears until her father caves in.

Marianne jumps in the car with this guy.

Marianne is sought after by several suitors, including Wade Trumbull (Bert Roach), who’s overweight and a little goofy, but owns a successful insurance business, and Dr. Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel), who is also the target of unrequited love from Marianne’s sister, Laura. Marianne, meanwhile, continues to show that she is a real piece of work – while on a date with Lindley (who had the nerve to show up at her house sans transportation, expecting her to take THE BUS), Marianne encounters a man driving an expensive car and literally jumps in beside him, leaving Dick on the street alone. The man, Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart), is a stranger in town but will figure prominently in the film’s plot – he woos Marianne with his big-city sophistication, and attracts the town’s leaders with his plans to build a factory and his assurances that they can get rich by signing on as partners. Unfortunately for Marianne and her family, Corliss is not all that he appears to be – a realization that they discover the hard way.

Bad Sister is worth watching for a number of reasons. First off, it’s fascinating as the first film of Bette Davis, who is my absolute favorite actress. But while there are a few brief flashes of the brilliant performer that Davis would become, there aren’t many. It’s really Sidney Fox’s show. She has the juicier part and she makes the most of it. Her Marianne is a self-centered bitch, a social climber who’s not above stepping on anyone – including members of her own family – in order to get her way.

Hedrick isn’t falling for the okey doke.

Interestingly, Marianne’s parents are either completely oblivious to her true nature, or they make a conscious effort to overlook her potential for nastiness. It almost as if they’re so delighted with her beauty and her popularity and her style, that they’re able to convince themselves that she’s really not that horrible. Like the scene where Marianne not only comes home with a new dress but new shoes – when she tells her mother that she just had to have them, and charged them to her father, Mrs. Madison first frowns and says, “You shouldn’t have done it.” But seconds later, practically against her own will, she says admiringly, “But they are pretty!” One person who isn’t fooled by Marianne’s charms is her little brother, Hedrick. He constantly gets under her skin; at breakfast, he graphically describes the kissing sounds she made the night before, and he delights in exposing her plans to ditch Wade in favor of Dr. Lindley – right in front of Wade! And he really sets her off when he makes Marianne pay him to stay away when Corliss is invited to dinner, and then shows up anyway, plopping down right beside the guest of honor and cheekily inquiring: “What are you doing here, anyway?”

Val charms them all.

Humphrey Bogart who, up to this point in his career, had appeared in only three full-length films, is intriguing to watch, especially if you’re more familiar with his later performances in pictures like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. Like his characters in those films, he’s smooth here, too, and loaded with a certain kind of charm, but he’s clearly up to no good. He plays the entire family like one big fiddle, giving each of them what they want – enticing Marianne with the promise of freeing her from her “one-horse” home town, luring Mr. Madison with the notion of being secretary and treasurer of his corporation, drawing Mrs. Madison in with the notion of being the wife of a big-time businessman – he even charms the normally acerbic Minnie, gallantly taking her in his arms when she’s tripped by Hedrick: “I think you’re just wonderful,” she swoons.

Clocking in at an economical 68 minutes, Bad Sister doesn’t have a single dull moment – the performances are noteworthy and the story is interesting and multifaceted, containing just the right amount of melodrama, pathos, humor, and pre-Code badness. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

You only owe it yourself.

Other Stuff:

This is the third version of the Booth Tarkington novel. It was filmed as The Flirt in 1916 and 1922. Both the 1922 and 1931 versions were produced by Carl Laemmle.

The film’s cinematographer was Karl Freund, who I know best as the director of photography for I Love Lucy. On the big screen, he was behind the camera for such classics as Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Key Largo (1948).

Sidney Fox, in better days.

Sidney Fox had been named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931 (along with such future stars as Joan Blondell, Frances Dee, and Karen Morley), and was seen in good roles the following year in The Mouthpiece, opposite Warren William, and Once in Lifetime with Jack Oakie. But her few follow-up films were mostly forgettable, and her life off-screen was a rocky one, with an on-again, off-again marriage to an abusive husband. Her last big screen appearance came just a few years after Big Sister, and she died at the age of 34 from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Bad Sister is the first of seven movies in which Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart appeared together. The others were Three on a Match (1932), The Petrified Forest (1936), Kid Galahad (1937), Marked Woman (1937), and Dark Victory (1939). (Not a clunker among ‘em!)

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This article is part of the Hidden Classics Blogathon, presented by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to discover more great classics to add to your must-see list!

The Six Films, Six Decades Blogathon

•May 16, 2021 • 14 Comments

Every year, on May 16th, the classic film community celebrates National Classic Movie Day. And every year, Rick over at the Classic TV and Film Café hosts a blogathon to acknowledge this significant day. And every year, no matter what’s going on in my “real” life, I make it at a point to join in the fun!

This year, Rick’s theme is “Six Films, Six Decades,” and each participant is invited to list one favorite film from each decade, from the 1920s through the 1970s. To select just six films from all of the great movies released during these years, I had to come up with some criteria: first off, I had to love it. Second, I had to have seen the movie multiple times – it wasn’t enough to have seen it and loved it; I had to really KNOW it. And finally, it couldn’t be a film I’d already covered on my blog. Given those parameters, I thought it would be a piece of cake (mmm, cake) to identify six beloved movies, but it wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined. There was just so many good ones! But, at long last, I finally managed to narrow down my choices (and, for most decades, include a couple of honorable mentions just for giggles). Here we go!

THE NINETEEN TWENTIES

My film from this decade was the easiest to decide. I’ve seen a number of movies from this decade, but to my knowledge, there’s only one that I’ve seen multiple times: The Broadway Melody (1929). This early musical had a dynamite pedigree, including lyrics by Arthur Freed, music by Nacio Herb Brown, and art direction by Cedric Gibbons. Talk about packing a punch!

The film isn’t above showing gratuitous scenes of ladies in their lingerie.

What’s it about?

Anita Page and Bessie Love star as sisters, Queenie and Hank Mahoney, who travel from their small town to New York, determined to find success on Broadway. The film also stars Charles King, who’s engaged to one sister, but falls for the other.

What’s to love?

Although this film has a rating of 5.7 (out of 10) on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and a score of 33% on the Rotten Tomatoes website, it was the top-grosser of 1929 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I can’t say that I don’t understand these low ratings – the movie is as creaky as Grandma’s rocker – but I’ve been fascinated by Melody since the first time I saw it, and my love for it continues to grow.

It’s hard to put my finger on, to be sure. The musical numbers aren’t anything to write home about (one of them – “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” has to be seen to be believed, there’s so much going on), the dialogue is corny, and the performances fluctuate between stilted and over the top, but to me, it’s so bad, it’s good. Plus, there are all kinds of little things that keep me riveted. Sometimes, it’s what’s going on in the background that fascinate me – like in the opening number, performed by Charles King at a music publishing company. While King is singing, surrounded by a group of men and women who gather around to listen, I can’t take my eyes off a woman with a cloche hat and pearls, who is mesmerized by the song, bopping and swaying to the music, biting her lip, and seemingly on the verge of ecstasy. A clip of this scene is below; check it out and you’ll see what I mean.

Other times, it’s just a few lines or a throwaway gesture that get me. In one scene, when a group of chorus girls are rehearsing a number, the choreographer stops them and orders one out of the line. Then, we get this exchange:

“Listen, toots – what’s the matter with the left leg?”

“Well, I’ve got a headache.”

“Well go on and sit down – take a load off your mind.”

“Don’t talk to me like that – I don’t feel well.”

In writing, it may not seem that funny, but the chorus girl’s delivery of her lines cracks me up every time.

Also, I love the song “Broadway Melody” – and the movie helps out by performing the number over and over. And over!

What else?

This feature is notable as MGM’s first all-talking picture, and the first sound film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The film’s popularity prompted a spate of musicals – a total of 75 that year!

The film was originally planned for vaudeville stars Rosetta Duncan and Vivian Duncan (aka the Duncan Sisters), but they were unavailable, so Bessie Love and Anita Page won the roles of the Mahoney Sisters. (Incidentally, neither Love nor Page can carry a tune!)

Honorable Mentions

It (1927)

Sunrise (1927)

The Kid (1921)

THE NINETEEN THIRTIES

The hardest part about picking a movie from the 1930s was choosing a film I hadn’t already written about. So many of my favorites from this decades are pre-Codes, and I’ve previously written about so many that I love – The Divorcee, Three on a Match, Bombshell, Night Nurse, and on and on – but once I moved away from the pre-Code era, the decision was a little easier. My pick is Alice Adams (1937), starring Katharine Hepburn in the title role. The cast also includes Fred MacMurray, Evelyn Venable, and Frank Albertson. The film was directed by George Stevens, who also helmed such gems as I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953).

Even Alice’s body language in this shot demonstrates her desperation to be liked and accepted by the town’s social leaders.

What’s it about?

A small-town girl’s desperate longing for social acceptance is thwarted by her family’s low-income status, her own over-eagerness, and the pettiness of her peers.

What’s to love?

For my money, Katharine Hepburn is one of the screen’s greatest actresses, and her portrayal of Alice Adams is one of her best. Hepburn takes this character, who is often self-deluding at best and shallow and phony at worst, and not only infuses her with humanity, but makes us root for her. Even when Alice’s affectations and truth-stretching make us uncomfortable to the point of practically cringing, we still empathize.

But Hepburn’s Alice isn’t the great thing about this movie. Alice’s family – her mother, father, and brother – is unforgettable, each demonstrating, much like Alice herself, contradictory personality traits. Her father has the softest of soft spots for his only daughter, but his explosive temper and clumsy behavior is sometimes a detriment. Her mother only wants the best for Alice, but she constantly berates her husband for the family’s financial straits. And her often mean-spirited brother has a gambling problem, but is capable of feeling sympathy for his sister. These contrasting characteristics keep the audience on their toes and make the film even more fascinating.

And the picture contains one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema. Alice hosts a dinner for Arthur Russell (MacMurray), a well-heeled and eligible young man who has expressed an interest in Alice, despite his informal engagement to a local debutante. Alice and her mother go to great lengths to impress Russell – arranging and rearranging their furniture, planning an elaborate four-course meal (with caviar sandwiches as an appetizer) and hiring a “colored” maid, Malena (Hattie McDaniel) to serve. Unfortunately, the dinner falls on what is apparently the hottest day of the year, and the heavy meal they’ve prepared doesn’t make matters any better. In short, the entire evening is a disaster, starting with Malena falling down the cellar stairs and punctuated by Mr. Adams’s stiff tuxedo shirt popping open at the dinner table and exposing his bare chest. During the meal, Alice’s desperation grows as she tries frantically to keep the conversation going, Malena shuffles indifferently in and out of the dining area with her maid’s cap askew, and Alice’s brother interrupts to announce to his father that he’s in trouble with the law for embezzling money from his job. By the time Russell leaves, Alice is certain that she will never see him again.

That fateful dinner.

What else?

The film was based on the book by Booth Tarkington, but the book’s end was less hopeful than the conclusion of the screen version. In the book, Alice did not end up with Arthur Russell. Both Hepburn and the film’s director were in favor of this, but RKO insisted on a more upbeat ending.

Hepburn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but she lost to Bette Davis for Dangerous (1935). Davis reportedly declared on more than one occasion that Hepburn deserved the award.

Honorable Mentions

You Can’t Take It With You (1937)

Marked Woman (1937)

The Women (1939)

THE NINETEEN FORTIES

Bette Davis is my favorite actress. So it’s only fitting that at least one of my films for this blogathon is a Bette Davis vehicle. One of my most beloved of her many pictures is All This, and Heaven Too. Directed by Anatole Litvak, the film’s first-rate cast includes Charles Boyer and Barbara O’Neil.

What’s it about?

After taking a post at a school in New York, a French teacher recounts her past as governess to the four children of a duke and duchess in France, and the tragedy and scandal that ensued.

What’s to love?

This ain’t no Mrs. O’Hara.

All This, And Heaven Too is based on real-life events, and it’s a period piece – two of my favorite things in cinema. As Henriette Deluzy Desportes, Davis portrays a thoroughly appealing character, a woman of high ideals and integrity, sweet-tempered and gentle, and committed to the children of the Duke and Duchess of Praslin, played by Boyer and O’Neil. While the duke is endlessly appreciative of Henriette’s devotion, his wife grows increasingly convinced that the duke and Henriette are having an affair. O’Neil – who the previous year played the patient and loving matriarch in Gone With the Wind – is a standout as the duchess, with her irrational jealousy a sharp contrast to the respectful patience exhibited by Henriette.

Also memorable are the four children of the duke and duchess: Isabelle, Louise, Berthe, and Raynauld, played by June Lockhart, Virginia Weidler, Ann E. Todd, and the cute-as-a-button Richard Nichols. Each of the children have distinct personalities and are an important part of the narrative, making the audience care as much about them has Henriette.

The film clocks in at two hours and 21 minutes – quite a long running time for a motion picture in 1940. But the significant length of the film lends itself to its excellence. It takes its time to build the relationship between Henriette and the children, and Henriette and the duke, as well as document the growing paranoia of the duchess, and illustrate Henriette’s entire experience, from the time she joined the Praslin household until her arrival in New York. It’s time well spent.

Henriette and her beloved charges.

What else?

June Lockhart, who played the oldest daughter, was appearing here in her second film and her first credited role. She is perhaps best known for her TV roles in Lost in Space and Lassie. Her father was actor Gene Lockhart. (And she’s still with us!)

Ann E. Todd, who played the youngest daughter, Berthe, is not to be confused with actress Ann Todd, who starred in such films as The Seventh Veil (1946), The Paradine Case (1947) and So Evil, My Love (1948).

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) says that this movie set a Guiness World Record for the number of times the word “mademoiselle” is said in a motion picture. I have no idea if this is true or not. I just thought it was funny. And even funnier that anybody can enter anything on the IMDB site like it’s fact.

Honorable Mentions

His Girl Friday (1940)

The Little Foxes (1941)

Gaslight (1944)

THE NINETEEN FIFTIES

For years, whenever I would try to introduce friends to classic movies, I would share the same handful of films. One of them was From Here to Eternity. With a high-powered cast including Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine, is there any wonder?

Part of Eternity’s first-rate cast: Clift, Lancaster, and Sinatra.

What’s it about?

The film looks at the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a military base in Hawaii, shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

What’s to love?

There are four major plot points happening simultaneously in this film: (1) Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift) is being pressured by his superiors to join the platoon boxing team, but he refuses because of an injury he caused during a bout years before; (2) meanwhile, Pruitt is falling hard for a prostitute he met in a local men’s club on the island; (3) Pruitt’s closest friend, Private Angelo Maggio (Sinatra) is embroiled in an ongoing feud with a sadistic higher-ranked officer (Borgnine); and (4) First Sergeant Milton Warden (Lancaster) is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Karen (Kerr). It’s a beautifully detailed story. We grow to know, care, and understand the motivations and feelings of each of these main characters. And the performances are so good, they practically defy description.

What else?

The film won a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Donna Reed, Best Supporting Actor for Frank Sinatra, Best Adapted Screenplay for Daniel Taradash, and Best Director for Fred Zinnemann.

The title comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1892 called “Gentleman-Rankers.” It’s about soldiers of the British Empire who lost their way and were “damned from here to eternity.”

Honorable Mentions

Picnic (1955)

12 Angry Men (1957)

The Best of Everything (1959)

THE NINETEEN SIXTIES

The Manchurian Candidate was released by United Artists in 1962; 10 years later, the United Artists contract expired and representatives for the film’s star, Frank Sinatra, acquired the rights. The studio reacquired the rights in 1987, and the film became available for theater and video release. That’s when I first saw this picture. I’d like to say I was blown away, but I think I was a bit too immature to see it at that time; I confess that I didn’t really understand what was going on. I’ve seen it numerous times since. NOW I’m blown away.

It’s quite a movie.

What’s it about?

Communists in Korea capture a U.S. Army platoon during the Korean War, brainwashing the men and programming one as a sleeper agent who will kill on command.

What’s to love?

Even if I hadn’t been on the youngish side when I first saw The Manchurian Candidate, I might have been hard-pressed to understand all the nuances the first time around, but it’s a film that gets better and better with every viewing. The performances are outstanding, especially those of Frank Sinatra, as one of the brainwashed men, Laurence Harvey, playing the programmed sleeper agent, and Angela Lansbury, as Harvey’s mother – one of the most unsavory, despicable and frightening mothers that you’re ever likely to see in film.

The film’s plot is yet another thing I love about it. Yes, it’s complex and unique, but it’s also riveting. Sometimes, even now after repeated viewings, I find myself so caught up in the goings-on that I barely seem to be breathing. The shocking scenes of unexpected violence, played against unusual set-pieces, grab the viewer’s attention from the very start – if for no other reason than because we’re trying to wrap our heads around what we’re seeing.

What else?

Leigh was served with divorce papers on the day this scene was shot.

For years, the rumor persisted (as fact) that this film was pulled from circulation after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, because the film contained a similar plot device. This turned out to be completely untrue.

Janet Leigh co-starred as the love interest for the Sinatra character, who she meets on a train. In real life, on the morning that this scene was filmed, Leigh was served divorce papers by her then-husband, Tony Curtis.

In once scene, Frank Sinatra has a fight with co-star Henry Silva, During the fight, Sinatra broke the little finger on his right hand.

Honorary Mentions

The Hustler (1961)

The Miracle Worker (1962)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

THE NINETEEN SEVENTIES

Blazing Saddles (1974) will always and forever be one of my favorite comedies. I’ve seen it countless -times over the decades since its release, and it never fails to make me laugh. It is, simply, a masterpiece.

What’s it about?

A black convict is tapped by a pair of corrupt officials to serve as the sheriff of a small town that they intend to demolish to make way for a railroad.

What’s to love?

It’s a hoot from start to finish.

There’s just so much going on in this movie, so many scenes of absolute ridiculousness and over-the-top hilarity – not to mention politically incorrect racial references – that it’s a little hard to describe. In the very first scene, we come upon a crew of black convicts, working on a railroad, when they’re ordered by the boss of the chain gang to sing a “nigger work song,” like they did when they were slaves. Instead of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or some such, the men break out into a beautifully harmonized, jazzed-up rendition of “I Get A Kick Out Of You.” It is an absolute scream – and a perfect indication of the kind of wild ride that this film has in store.

The film’s cast is bubbling over with talented comedians, reading like a veritable Who’s Who of go-tos for a chuckle: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Mel Brooks, Madeleine Kahn, Dom DeLuise. For my money, they all do some of the best work of their careers in this raucous feature. It must have been a real hoot to make. It certainly is a hoot to see.

What else?

Gene Wilder plays Jim, The Waco Kid, whose quick-on-the-draw expertise has been challenged so many times that he has turned to alcohol as a respite. The character was originally to be played by Gig Young who had a drinking problem in real life. According to Mel Brooks, in Young’s first scene, he was actually drunk and started vomiting. Brooks subsequently replaced Young with Wilder, and Young sued Warner Bros. for breach of contract.

Harvey Korman plays a character named ‘Hedley Lamarr,’ and throughout the film, he’s constantly correcting people who insist on calling him ‘Hedy.’ In real life, actress Hedy Lamarr sued Mel Brooks because the character’s name was so close to hers. The suit was settled out of court.

Honorary Mentions

Harold and Maude (1971)

The Godfather (1972)

Whew! That’s it for me. What are some of your beloved films from the 1920s through the 1970s? Let me know!


This post is part of the Six Films, Six Decades Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. Click here to read the other great participants in this year’s celebration of National Classic Movie Day!

And Now For Something Completely Different: William Holden in Young and Willing (1943)

•April 18, 2021 • 10 Comments

If you’re a William Holden fan (and, really, how can you NOT be?), you may have enjoyed this handsome and talented actor in such noirs as The Dark Past (1948), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Union Station (1950), but you haven’t lived until you’ve seen him in a little-known gem called Young and Willing. Released in 1943, this low-budget comedy focuses on the lives of six struggling, would-be actors and actresses who live in the same New York apartment while hoping for their collective big break on the stage. The screenplay was written by Virginia Van Upp who, just a few years later, would be named Executive Producer of Columbia Pictures, becoming one of only three female producers at the time. But I digress.

Holden is top-billed as Norman Reese, the unspoken leader of the motley crew. The group also consists of Tony Dennison (James Brown) and Marge Benson (Barbara Britton), who are secretly married – an act that’s in direct violation of Norman’s house rule forbidding romantic entanglements; Marge’s sexy and worldly wise sister Kate (Susan Hayward); George Bodell (Eddie Bracken), who’s completely obsessed with Stanislavsky’s Method acting; and Dottie Coburn (Martha O’Driscoll), a lovable airhead with an unutterable crush on Norman and a wealthy dad whose monthly check pays the apartment’s rent.

Young and Willing is a screwball comedy of the highest order, featuring a variety of wacky characters and zany situations. George, for instance, is usually fully immersed in one character or another, from Othello, to an apple ripening in a “tree,” to Napoleon Bonaparte, complete with an accent that sounds like Charles Boyer. “It certainly never gets tiresome with George around here,” Marge remarks. “You never know when you come home who he’s going to be.”

The basic plot involves the six thespians and their efforts to perform a play for Arthur Kenny (Robert Benchley), a famous Broadway producer (Robert Benchley) who keeps an apartment in the building and occasionally pops in for a visit. Their apartment is located directly above Kenny’s, and they’re known to spontaneously crowd around a hole in the floor to spy on his comings and goings.

William Holden, Susan Hayward, and Eddie Bracken

Holden’s Norman enters about three minutes into the picture. He’s clad in a buttoned-up overcoat with a cravat – very classy, very English-upper-crusty. It’s not until later that we learn he’s only wearing an undershirt beneath the coat because the week’s laundry delivery hasn’t yet arrived. When we meet him, Norman is bemoaning the outcome of his recent audition, for a role that was given to a man who was plainly too old for it.

“You should have seen that ‘juvenile’ that got the part,” he complains. “Ye gods – they had to carry him up on the stage. He must have been 40 years old!”

Norman – who dropped out of dental school to pursue his acting career – is quick-thinking and crafty, with a take-charge personality and an unflappable demeanor. These characteristics come in handy when he’s trying to fend off the apartment’s ditzy landlady, Mrs. Garnett (played to the hilt by Mabel Paige), or keep Dottie’s father from learning about his daughter’s co-ed living situation. When Mrs. Garnett questions Norman about the late rent, he coolly conjures a tall tale, telling her that the money was used to bail Dottie’s father out of jail, where he’d been taken following a car accident he caused while rushing to the bedside of his dying brother.

The film’s first-rate cast.

In another scene, when Norman answers the apartment telephone and learns that Dottie’s father is the caller, he adopts an Irish brogue, convincing Mr. Coburn that he’s the building’s janitor. (“It’s after fixin’ a little leak in the radiator that I came up about,” he improvises. “I imagine you’ll like to be speakin’ to your little chickadee. Well, Erin go Bragh, shamrock and shillelaghs.”)

Throughout the film, Holden displays a natural acting style and a flawless sense of comedic timing, totally holding his own with the showier Eddie Bracken. With his flashing dimples and his hair frequently falling over his forehead, he’s also incredibly easy on the eyes. If you only know Holden from his better-known features, do yourself a favor and check him out in this one. It’s accessible on YouTube – in English and Spanish!

You won’t be sorry.

List o’ the Week: Movies I’ve Never Seen, Part 2

•March 12, 2021 • 20 Comments

A few years ago, I posted a list of the week that focused on famous classic movies that I hadn’t yet seen. I thought I’d revisit that idea today and serve up 20 more films that fall into this category. Some, like Make Way for Tomorrow and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are movies that I definitely plan to see. Others, like Going My Way and High Society, not so much. (I’m still irritated that Going My Way grabbed so many Oscars that should have gone to Double Indemnity, and I just can’t with High Society. I cannot.)

The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

City Lights (1931)

Metropolis (1927)

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The Invisible Man (1933)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

Going My Way (1944)

Roman Holiday (1953)

Spellbound (1945)

An American in Paris (1951)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

High Society (1956)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Cleopatra (1934)

The Rains Came (1939)

What do you think of the films on this list? Can you make a case for any that I absolutely should check out? And what are some of the well-known features that you haven’t yet gotten around to seeing?

Happy Noir Endings

•February 28, 2021 • 11 Comments

A couple of weeks back, in one of the noir-related Facebook groups that I frequent, a poster commented that film noir movies “don’t have happy endings.” This was disputed by several in the group, and I’m in agreement with them; while I love a downbeat noir ending as much as the next person, I certainly would never discount a film as noir if it didn’t have one.

Today’s post focuses on a few noirs that fall into this category – films that are indisputably noir, but don’t have an ending that sends you into a spiral of despair. Spoilers abound, so watch your step . . .

THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950)

What’s it about?

Joan Crawford stars as Esther Whitehead, who’s unhappily married and lives with her factory worker husband, her browbeaten mother, her disapproving father and, the only bright spot in her life, her young son. When her son is killed in a tragic accident, Esther sets out for the big city, finding work as a dressmaker’s model and finding companionship with an overworked accountant, Marty Blankenship (Kent Smith). Through a set of (maybe not so) fortuitous circumstances, both Esther and Marty find their fortunes improved when they become involved with a powerful mob boss, George Castleman (David Brian) – Marty becomes Castleman’s right-hand man, and Esther not only becomes his lover, but is also transformed into Texas heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes. Ultimately, though, Lorna learns that being the rich mistress of a gangster is not all it’s cracked up to be; when Castleman thinks she’s double-crossed him with one of his underlings, Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), he murders Prenta, beats up Lorna, and when she flees to her parents’ home, tracks her there and guns her down.

What’s the end?

Esther/Lorna survives the gunshot. I suspect (though we don’t know for sure) that she winds up with Marty, but the happiest part of the ending is that her cold and judgmental father is seen sitting by her bedside at the film’s end, lovingly holding her hand. (So sweet.)

CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953)

What’s it about?

Taking place on a single night in the city of Chicago, this film focuses on a mélange of characters whose lives intersect and intertwine. There’s Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), a disillusioned cop who plans to quit his job and leave his ever-so-faithful wife in order to skip town with his chick-on-the-side, Sally Connors (Mala Powers). And Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell), who has a job working as a “mechanical man” in a department store window and is also in love with Sally. And Hayes Stewart (William Talman), a former magician and current burglar, who is an increasingly bad influence on Kelly’s kid brother. And Penrod Biddell (Edward Arnold), a crooked attorney who hires Johnny to arrest Stewart (who, incidentally, is having an affair with Biddell’s wife). It’s quite the tangled web. Before it’s all over, there will be a pile of dead bodies: Biddell, his wife, Stewart, and Kelly’s father, who’s also a cop.

What’s the end?

By the time the night is over, Kelly’s experiences – which have included delivering a baby in the back seat of a car, and returning money to a group of men who were conned by an illegal gambling ring – have caused him to re-evaluate his plans. He tears up his letter of resignation and reunites with his long-suffering wife. And the voiceover narrator tells us: “Johnny Kelly’s home. Home to stay. While others are just getting up to go to work, for everywhere, every minute, of every hour in this melting pot of every race, creed, color, and religion of humanity, people are working, laughing, dying, some, like Johnny Kelly, are being born again, in the city that never sleeps.” (Wow.)

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

What’s it about?

The title character, played by Joan Crawford, is a wife and mother of two girls, who finds herself responsible for her family’s life and welfare when her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), takes a powder. Desperate to secure an income, Mildred finds a job as a waitress, earning extra cash by baking cakes and pies for her employer. Spurred by her desire to please a self-absorbed daughter who’s never satisfied, Mildred opens a restaurant that turns into a string of successful enterprises, but she learns that, in the world of noir, sometimes your best just isn’t good enough.

What’s the end?

I won’t reveal what happens in the film’s climax, but I will say that Mildred and her ex-husband stroll off into the shadows together, and there’s no doubt that they will reunite. (A’int love grand?)

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

What’s it about?

Gas station owner Jeff Bailey – who used to be a private dick named Jeff Markham – finds that his past has caught up with him after a fateful chance encounter. Instead of pumping gas alongside his deaf-mute assistant (Dickie Moore, known only as The Kid), and peaceful picnics with his girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston), he’s now ensconced in a world peopled by refined gangsters, cold-blooded killers, and a former lover who is the epitome of ruthless self-preservation.

What’s the end?

Leaving a spate of dead bodies behind, Jeff and his ex, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), set out for Mexico together, but Kathie shoots Jeff when she realizes that he is responsible for the police roadblock they encounter. In turn, she’s gunned down by the police. In the last scene of the film, Ann appeals to The Kid to find out if Jeff was still in love with Kathie and trying to run away with her. The Kid knows the truth – Jeff’s loyalties were firmly with Ann – but he indicates that Jeff had indeed planned to resume his relationship with Kathie, thus allowing Ann to permanently sever her emotional ties to Jeff. At the film’s end, we see The Kid give a salute the gas station sign bearing Jeff’s name, knowing that, by misrepresenting his employer’s intentions, he has given a future to the woman he loved. (Aw.)

99 RIVER STREET (1953)

What’s it about?

Former boxer and current taxi driver Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) finds himself in a world of trouble when his shrewish, unfaithful wife (Peggie Castle) is found dead in the back seat of his cab. As he strives to find the men responsible for the murder, while evading capture by police, he’s aided by an actress friend, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), who has her own reasons for putting her life in danger to help Ernie.

What’s the end?

Ernie is shot while wrangling the no-good-doers he’s been tracking, but his boxing prowess is used to good advantage in subduing them until Linda arrives with the cops. In the film’s last scene, we learn that Ernie and Linda are blissfully married and owners of a gas station. At the very end, Ernie whispers to Linda that it’s time that they started a family, and we fade to black on Linda’s smile of delight. (Blecch).

What noirs can you think of with happy endings?