Jan 28, 2015

On DVD: Joan Blondell and James Cagney Debut in Sinners' Holiday (1930)

There are many early films that I'll watch to check out a star in their debut or breakout film role. That was the case with the new Warner Archive release of Sinners' Holiday (1930). It features the one-two punch of Joan Blondell and James Cagney in their first screen appearances. I'll admit I didn't have high expectations for the movie, but it's an entertaining hour (to the minute), and the mesmerizing stage and screen actress Lucille LaVerne is one reason why.

It's based on the Broadway play Penny Arcade, which opened around the dawn of the Great Depression and quickly tanked. Al Jolson snapped up the rights, and insisted that Blondell and Cagney reprise their stage roles in the film version.

The story revolves around a penny arcade operated by the close-knit Delano family on a Coney Island amusement pier. There the tough-as-nails Ma Delano (LaVerne) presides over the business while her children, Myrtle (Evalyn Knapp), Joe (Ray Gallagher) and Harry (James Cagney) find themselves in varying degrees of drama.

As Myrtle's boyfriend Angel, Grant Withers is the nominal star, and he is adorable, but next to Blondell and Cagney he gives the impression of a goldfish flopping around on a table. You want things to turn out for him, but don't particularly care to see how it all pans out. Knapp is similarly pleasant, and even quite effective in her more dramatic scenes, but she had some powerful co-stars to play against.

Though they are billed fourth and fifth respectively, Cagney and Blondell both clearly have the charisma of stars, and it is exciting to see them so confident in their prospective styles from the beginning.

A young Lucille LaVerne
Cagney already possesses the dancing fingers and graceful, but jittery moves that would give his best performances that intoxicating crackle. He goes a bit over the top in some dramatic moments, but isn't too cringe worthy. Blondell gives the impression she has nothing to learn though. In a short brown hairdo that looks like a little furry cap, she already knows how to pop those big, round Joan eyes and race through her lines with perfect comic momentum and bubbly warmth.

As the Delano family matron, Lucille LaVerne was a pleasant surprise. She's got a marvelous face, with a pointy nose and chin and dark slashes of eyebrow. This is the kind of actress that I miss in modern films: a tough, wise, complex matron who is comfortable in her own skin. Most famous for voicing the queen/witch in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), you can see why she would later be chosen to fill that commanding role. I perked up every time she appeared.

The plot is a busy tangle of romance, crime and murder that would become tiresome if the film ran any longer. As it is, it's an entertaining bit of life among the carneys. I enjoyed it, and look forward to watching it again.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jan 26, 2015

10 New to Me Classic Movies in 2015

It took me nearly a month of the new year to decide, but I have finally selected the ten "new to me" movies that I plan to watch this year. This list is inspired by Ms. Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, who has been enjoying make annual "to watch" lists for years. I couldn't link to her January 6 post with her list for 2015, but it's worth searching out, because in addition to her own list, she has linked to lists from other bloggers inspired by her example.

On to my list!

Never Let Me Go (1953)

I searched this out because I'm watching all of the skating star Belita's films, but I'm also intrigued by the idea of Gene Tierney and Clark Gable together. 

The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933)

This is one of those flicks that I keep passing on, but I've got to get to it, because I'm all about pre-codes and this one has an amazing cast.

The Steel Trap (1952)

Years ago, I set out to watch all of Teresa Wright's films. I was sidetracked before I got to this one. It'll be interesting to see her opposite Joseph Cotten in such a dramatically different scenario.

The Unsuspected (1947)

I saw this on one of the film suggestion lists at Rupert Pupkin Speaks. I always get amazing viewing ideas from the contributors to that site. I'd never heard of this title before that, and I find the idea of Claude Rains and Audrey Totter in the same movie irresistible.

The Killer is Loose (1956)

Rhonda Fleming was my big personal discovery of 2014. I'd always enjoyed her in lighter fare, but seeing her for the first time in several crime/noir films last year was fantastic, so this seemed like a good next step. I'm a big fan.

Allotment Wives (1945)

For the most part I've steered clear of Kay Francis' post-code films, she never seemed the same once those restrictions were more firmly in place, but I really enjoyed Play Girl (1941) last year, and I think it's time I give her later work another chance.

The Learning Tree (1969)

This is an unfortunate oversight on my part. I'm a huge fan of Gordon Parks and I'm really looking forward to this one.

Wicked Woman (1953)

With a title like that...

The Mask (1961)

Years ago, I bought this book from the only cool store in the tiny town where I went to college:

The cover photo, which is from The Mask, blew my mind. I'd never seen such a bizarre thing in a film before. It inspired me to search out more unusual flicks, in addition to the classics I adored, but I somehow never saw this actual film. So this year I will.

The Golden Bat (1966)

An early superhero movie, before they got so serious. This is another recommendation from Rupert Pupkin Speaks.

Jan 25, 2015

Quote of the Week

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I love to take actors to a place where they open a vein. That's the job. The key is that I make it safe for them to open a vein.

-Mike Nichols

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Jan 18, 2015

Quotes of the Week

She had the beauty of a young goddess. The luminous color of her skin, her clear ice-blue eyes, golden hair and exuberance, joie de vivre made her into a grandiose creature, extraterrestrial and at the same time moving and irresistible.

-Federico Fellini, About Anita Ekberg


She reminded me of a German soldier of the Wehrmacht who in a round-up asked me into a truck.

-Marcello Mastroianni, Also about Anita Ekberg

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Jan 11, 2015

Quote of the Week

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When you lose your curiosity, you’re dead. There is so much in the world that one should know, or it would be marvelous to know. And I know nothing. Nothing! My God, one’s life-span is so very short.

-Luise Rainer

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Jan 7, 2015

On DVD: Bing Crosby Croons in Just for You (1952) and Here Comes the Groom (1951)

I was delighted when Warner Archive announced that it would be reissuing its duo-pack of Bing Crosby/Jane Wyman musicals. The first time I checked out Just For You and Here Comes the Groom, I was researching for an interview with Robert Arthur, one of the juvenile actors in the former, for a profile in the magazine Films of the Golden Age. Arthur had some fun things to say about the film, which like Groom, is a lovely way to pass some time, with solid, if for the most part not memorable tunes.

You run into plenty of mischievous characters in classic Hollywood films. Heck, Lee Tracy made a career out of rubbing people the wrong way. Usually I am accepting of, and maybe even amused by these troublemakers, who are only that way to give the leading lady something to work against. 

For some reason though, I don't tend to have much of a sense of humor about the Bing Crosby persona. He strikes me as a jerk, a bit a of a bully too, and not an amusing one. His charisma is potent though. He has a way making everything seem like a lark, something he just tossed together, even things that would require great effort from most men. He disarms you just enough with that loosy goosy, bumping along charm, even when he's being an ass.

In Here Comes the Groom, Crosby is a journalist who has come back from his World War II European post with a pair of orphans. He's been a dog to his girlfriend (Wyman) and she is preparing to marry an obscenely wealthy man (Tone) after waiting for far too long for a proposal. Crosby needs her to marry him though, and who knows if he really loves her that much, but he can't adopt his young charges without her. So he harasses her, and her fiancée, until he bends her to his will.

Crosby's pairings with Wyman are pleasant enough, but totally devoid of sex. When they're getting along, they seem like buddies who enjoy breaking into song together. When they're at odds, only Wyman seems like she's fighting off passion.

The best non-musical scenes in the movie are between Crosby and Tone, who have fantastic chemistry. I don't think this has anything to do with the leading lady either. Der Bingle just tended to be a lot better onscreen with other men.

For the most part it's an enjoyable film though. Crosby and Wyman perform the Oscar-winning In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening with such wholesome verve that you forgive them for the other, more lackluster tunes. Franchot Tone is amusingly sly and Alexis Smith shows off some very silly physical humor in a rare comic role as Tone's distant, and smitten, cousin.

Just for You is my favorite of the two films. The songs are a bit more fun and Crosby and Wyman are supported by the extremely likeable Natalie Wood as his teenage daughter and Ethel Barrymore as the head mistress of an exclusive school for girls. It doesn't seem like Wood ever had an awkward age and Barrymore could say totally vile things with that smooth voice and be loveable, but she gets some good quips and has an amusing rapport with Crosby. It may be one of the best interactions he's had with an actress onscreen.

I'm sure I'm being a bit biased due to my conversations with Robert Arthur, but I am especially fond of him in this film, where he plays Crosby's son. It's a shame he was not given many substantial roles, because he had a sensitivity and a way of really seeming to listen to other actors that gave his screen presence a great warmth. He reminds me a bit of Teresa Wright in that regard.

In the film, Crosby is a successful Broadway producer and Wyman is his star. This time around there's not much romantic turmoil between the leads, as most of the drama revolves around his troubled relationship with his kids. There's a smattering of musical numbers, all of which feel spontaneous to the point of seeming entirely unrehearsed, and one in particular where Crosby attempts to show a leading man how he wants a number performed while appearing perfectly polished and completely nonchalant at the same time. There's also some lively lakeside footage that opens up the movie and gives it a bit of air.

During our interview, Arthur told me that he was originally meant to sing the swoonily romantic title tune, which in the story is the first triumph of his aspiring songwriter character. Crosby knew the song was a showstopper though, and with good humor he told the young actor that he couldn't have it. It's a shame, because Arthur did have a pleasing voice, but it was also an understandable move by a star who clearly wasn't going to let a younger actor to steal his film.

I also loved Arthur's story about his encounter with Barrymore. Apparently he was studying his lines at the lakeside location when he heard her distinctive voice behind him, offering to go over his part with him. Of course he accepted with delight.

This is a good double feature for Crosby completists and devoted musical lovers and will likely hold some appeal for most other classic movie fans.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jan 4, 2015

Quote of the Week

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My main influence was dramatic radio when I was a kid. I remember listening to it in the dark. Everything was left to the imagination. It was just sound. I think of the sounds first and then the images.

-William Friedkin

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