Oct 30, 2015

On DVD: Christopher Plummer's First Leading Role in Wind Across The Everglades (1958)

In his second film role and first lead, Christopher Plummer faces off against Burl Ives in the Florida-set Wind Across the Everglades. Fascinating location shooting and an unusual cast add interest to this unusual, rambling drama, now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Plummer is Walt Murdock, an environmentalist at the turn of the century, before they had a word for it. He travels by train to Florida planning to work as a school teacher, but after yanking feathers from a hat belonging to the wife of a school board member, he finds himself under arrest instead. The passionate Murdock is spared jail when a pair of men from the Audubon Society observe his rant against using plumage for hats and decide to offer him a position as bird game warden. They arrange his release and find him a room.

Murdock's assignment is to stop the illegal killing of exotic birds whose plumage will then be sold for ladies' hats, just like those that filled the train he took to Florida.

While Walt is delighted to explore the majestic Everglades, he is warned to be wary of Cottonmouth (Burl Ives), a dangerous poacher, and his men who make their own laws. It isn't long before he meets the charismatic criminal and his filthy band of men. After a few stand offs and a drunken night of revelry during which Cottonmouth wonders if Walt is more like him than he realized, they face off in the swamp, where nature is more powerful than both of them.

Though I tend to roll my eyes when a critic refers to anything inanimate as a "character" in a movie, I can't think of a better way to describe the way the Florida location shooting brings this film to life. Beautiful, brutal scenes of nature: tracking birds eating fish, alligators eating birds and snakes slipping through the water, create a sense of mystery and, oddly, dread. There is something almost menacing about the way these animals can kill to survive without falling into excess the way the humans who hunt them do. They are quietly superior to us and in watching their graceful acceptance of nature, it is clear we can never match them.

While the color cinematography does not appear to be presented to its best advantage, it has a worn around the edges feel that enhances the lawless surroundings. That said, there are plenty of visually stunning moments.

I was surprised to be underwhelmed by Plummer's performance as Walt. He is curiously lackluster in a role that demands passion and fury. That sexy, knowing smile is there, but it's almost as if it hasn't connected to the charisma center in his brain yet. He has his powerful moments, especially in a drunken scene with Cottonmouth and his men, but for the most part he doesn't seem quite prepared to headline a film.

As the daughter of his landlord, and Plummer's love interest, Chana Eden is similarly lackluster. Her romance with Walt does nothing more than make the film lose momentum. It could have been excised completely without being missed, as it has no connection to any other part of the story. I was a bit astonished to see how little heat these two attractive and appealing actors generated.

The rest of the cast more than makes up for the lack of fire in Plummer and Eden. Burl Ives is a tall tale come to life, with his blazing read beard and terrifying smile. He's so good when he's bad, because that smooth voice and the soft twinkle in his eye charm you as much as those brief flickers of menace that flit across his face chill your blood. It's also fun to see Peter Falk in a small part, his first movie role, as one of Cottonmouth's scrubby poachers.

Even more amusing is the cast of supporting characters who are famous for anything but movie work. I would love to know who is responsible for hiring burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, heavyweight fighter Tony Galento, famed sad clown Emmett Kelly, author MacKinlay Kanter and celebrated jockey Sammy Renick. As much as the action can lag, just watching this crowd together is entertaining. It doesn't feel like stunt casting either; these are true eccentrics, and they look right at home.

Though Nicholas Ray is credited as the director of Wind Across the Everglades, the film always belonged to writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) and his brother, producer Stuart Schulberg. It was a passion project for the pair and when they found Ray's work to be unsatisfactory (there were accusations of drug abuse), Budd took over directing duties. Unfortunately, as a film director, Schulberg is definitely a writer. He never hits the right rhythm and the action flails and stutters.

The film never quite feels focused. It could have used more than the few bursts of exhilarating action it has to offer and it tends to ramble. There's a powerful lesson to be learned about the environment here, but it is too often explicitly preached by Walt, when a few potent images could have communicated just as well. In the end, it is saved by the beauty of its locations and a fascinating cast.

The disc includes a trailer for the film.

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.

Oct 28, 2015

Book Review--The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd
Chicago Review Press
Michelle Morgan, 2015
Available November 1

It's always complicated to explore the lives of stars who die young. For all they had to offer the world, actresses like Sharon Tate, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard will always be shrouded by the fog of an unfortunate demise. The talented comedienne Thelma Todd is another of those unlucky promising talents who lived briefly, if brightly. In a new book by Michelle Morgan, the actress's mysterious death is analyzed in great detail, but her eventful life and busy career are also given proper attention.

Todd packed a lifetime of achievement into twenty-nine years, though she had yet to reach her full potential as an actress and businesswoman when she died. The Lawrence, Massachusetts native had a turbulent life from the start, witnessing the death of her seven-year-old brother in a creamery machine accident when she was only four, and suddenly losing her father to a heart attack on her twentieth birthday. The family upheaval would forge a strong bond between the actress and her mother Alice, who was always a strong presence in her life.

Alice and Thelma Todd

The friendly, beautiful Todd was always popular and full of energy. Though she studied to be a teacher, a beauty contest win led to an offer to study at the Paramount Studios school of acting. There she found quickly that she enjoyed comedy. She liked devising funny ways to fall down stairs.

Thelma Todd worked hard for Hollywood success, but there was a lot that came easy to her. She was confident and charismatic, people were drawn to her beauty and she rewarded them by showing genuine interest in everyone she met. Curiously though, despite clearly having a star persona, she was usually stuck playing supporting roles.

It is in comedy shorts that Todd became a star, doing her best work with ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly in a series of buddy pics where the actress played the straight woman. Other famous screen partnerships include a series of shorts with Laurel and Hardy and perhaps the films she is best remembered for today: a pair of films with the Marx Brothers. She was so good that even her fans wanted to know why she wasn't starring in feature length films. 

Perhaps this is partly because Thelma's views were ahead of her time. Morgan reveals a woman who was a feminist before the word was commonly known; an actress disgusted by the casting couch, determined to keep her freedom by freelancing and signing short term, flexible contracts and who called her own shots in business and in love.

That mixture of confidence and practicality is what led her to enter a partnership with her one time director and married former lover Roland West. She would serve as figurehead for his Sidewalk Café, later to be known as Thelma Todd's Inn, ensuring a future for herself in the restaurant business as protection against the eventual rejection she expected from Hollywood. That never happened in her lifetime though. For the rest of her years she would be active in film and entusiastically hands on at the Café.

Ironically, the very place where Thelma sought security probably led to her death. Though it has never been proven, and it is now too late to ever be sure, there is strong evidence that mobsters had been pressuring her and West to set up gambling operations on the premises. Todd was not one to back down.

In trying to tell an 80-year-old story, Morgan is faced with significant obstacles. There is no one still alive to provide a firsthand account of what happened to Todd or what it was like to know her. She draws heavily from Todd's fan magazine reviews, which of course must be viewed to some extent for the marketing tools they are.

Still, it seems there was a great deal of truth to what the actress said to the press, because new interviews with grandchildren of the people in her life tell essentially the same story. Despite the necessity of these subjects relying on second hand accounts, their memories are for the most part consistent in their portrayal of Todd as friendly, generous woman who had her troubles, but was enjoying life immensely. They also hint at menace in her life that she for the most part concealed from her loved ones, though she could never entirely hide her anxiety.

I liked that so much of the book focused on the way Todd was in life. She had such a healthy approach to living: cultivating friendships, joining a Hollywood women's group called The Dominoes and taking care of those who didn't have her good fortune. 

That bustling, happy aspect of her life makes it all the more disturbing that the actress seemed to be a magnet for menacing characters. There are also mysterious men she referred to when talking to friends whose identities have never been revealed. It is possible that had she not been protected by the bubble of her bustling social life, she may not have even lived as long as she did.

It would have been nice to have gotten deeper insight into Thelma as a performer. While her influence on others was clear, I never got a clear sense of what she was like as an actress. Why was she such a talented comedienne? Coming to the book having seen little of her work, I didn't end up with a much clearer picture of what she had to offer, though I was very curious to see more of her films.

With its thorough description and analysis of the events surrounding Todd's death, the final section of Ice Cream Blonde is the strongest. I thought there was a remarkable amount of detail, considering the age of the case, though unfortunately there was not enough to find a definitive answer. Morgan digs into the complexities of Thelma's last night, and the events that would follow, with a strong investigative eye. She comes to as firm a conclusion as she can, and I am convinced that her theory about what happened to the actress is a good one.

As depressing as the subject matter could be, I enjoyed the book. It had an easy flow, and I found it difficult to put down. At 224 pages, it has substance, but can be an easy weekend read.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

All photos courtesy of the publisher.

Oct 26, 2015

On DVD: Ann Sothern and Zachary Scott in the Thriller Shadow on the Wall (1949)

I have adored actress Gigi Perreau ever since I saw her remarkable performance in a bit part for Enchantment (1948). She played an orphaned girl (who would incidentally grow up to be Teresa Wright) and her ability to project heartbreak, courage and charm with just a few words both touched and impressed me. For this reason I was excited to see her play a prominent role in the thriller Shadow on the Wall (1949), as a troubled child who has witnessed a murder. The film, now available on DVD from Warner Archive also features Ann Sothern, Zachary Scott and Nancy Davis.

Perreau is Susan Starrling, a young girl who lives in a luxurious New York apartment with her father David (Scott) and stepmother Celia (Kristine Miller). When Susan happily greets him as he returns from a business trip, he presents her with a Native American doll, which she names cupid because he holds a bow and arrow. Their mutual adoration is clear: David gives an entertaining shaving lesson to his daughter and a friend when she tells him his father has died in the war and he has no one to teach him, and at night he sends the Nanny home so they can have a playful chat while he finishes up her bath.

Susan doesn't feel any love for Celia though, probably because she sees through her. Her kittenish stepmother has been seeing her sister Dell's (Sothern) fiancée on the sly. It doesn't take David long to catch on to the affair as well. He exposes the lovers when the four of them spend an evening together. That night David and Celia argue, the latter striking her husband with a hand mirror and knocking him out. He has been holding a gun, though not with intent to shoot, and yet when he comes to his wife is dead, shot in the stomach.

In an interesting twist, the audience always knows who the killer is. Dell returns to argue with her sister right after the quarrel and it is she who grabs the gun and shoots while David is collapsed on the bed. What she doesn't know is that Susan has witnessed the crime.

David is arrested, and because he can't remember what happened, even he assumes that he is a killer. Though sick with guilt, and on the verge of confessing, Dell lacks the courage to come forward and her brother-in-law is put in jail to wait for execution. Susan lives in a state of blank-faced shock, unable to remember what she has seen.

The girl becomes the temporary ward of Dr. Caroline Cranford (Nancy Reagan) as she uses play therapy to try to help the girl through her pain. She is alarmed by the results of the sessions, which seem to indicate that David was not the murderer. As Cranford struggles to help Susan regain her memory, Dell tries desperately to impede her progress, even attempting to kill her young niece.

While the themes of adultery, revenge, false accusation and child endangerment are all familiar in thrillers and film noir, they all add up to something unusually intriguing in Shadow on the Wall

There are the little things: like a lightning fast cameo by Barbara Billingsly in her pre-Leave it to Beaver days as a maid, and the interesting glimpses into the medical profession of the day, including an old version of CPR that looks simply bizarre today. There's also an atmospheric, but not intrusive score by Andre Previn, and impeccable production design and costumes.

And then there's the leads, the often sunny Sothern as a villain, the typically dastardly Scott as an upright guy; it's fun to see these two break out of typecasting together, and they do it well, the contrasts working with the way they are incorrectly perceived by the other characters. Though I've never been able to stand Nancy Davis as an actress, a distaste I still don't fully understand, I thought she was delightful as the sympathetic doctor: intelligent, warm and believable.

Above all else there is Perreau, in a role tailor-made for her talents. She plays an almost unbelievably sweet child, but one who is observant and well aware of the darkness possible in people before she witnesses Dell's crime. Maybe she's sweet, but not sugar sweet; she's got an edge. Young Gigi captures all these elements in her performance. She's always good, but the actress really comes to life when she suffers. At the age of nine she could portray grief, fear and sadness with a sensitivity far beyond her years.

For a long time I couldn't understand why this fascinating actress was not a bigger star. Perreau had a decent career in film and television, gracefully making the transition to teenage roles, though not in top notch productions. The actress didn't progress to adult roles though, and would eventually leave it all behind become a stage director and drama teacher.

So why such a minor career for a solid talent? I think it is because she was almost too good at suffering. She did it a lot on screen. Audiences may have sympathized with Perreau, but it can be painful to watch her. She's cute, but not in a perky way, because she never lets you forget how vulnerable children can be. You love her, but you can't bear to see her in constant turmoil.

Susan is the ideal role for Perreau, because that vulnerability increases the tension beyond familiar thrills. When Dell begins to circle the only obstacle to her freedom, it's terrifying. You don't want this charming, tender-hearted child to suffer anymore. When the toys she has played with in early scenes, her dollhouse and the doll from David, become instruments of fear as they remind her of the crime she has witnessed, you want desperately for her innocence to be returned.

It's a sharp flick. The instructional 1940s take on psychiatry, which was all the rage in films at the time, can get tiresome. It's also hard to believe that a character as sweet as Sothern's could suddenly be so willing to kill a child, but for the most part it's a tightly-plotted film, with great performances and lots of style.

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.

Oct 25, 2015

Quote of the Week: Clark Gable on Carole Lombard

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Sometimes I wonder how Carole would take things the way they are today, and I always come up with the same answer–with a laugh. She’d get through it better than me.

- Clark Gable,in the fifties

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Oct 23, 2015

Book Review--An Epic Take on an Epic Life, Sinatra: The Chairman

Sinatra: The Chairman
Doubleday Books
James Kaplan, 2015

While reading Sinatra: The Chairman I was completely engulfed in the world of its subject, so much so that when I reached the last page, I wondered for a moment what to do with myself. This second and final volume of James Kaplan's massive biography of the singer, actor and businessman takes up the legend's life in 1954, right after he has won the supporting actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity (1953). His marriage to Ava Gardner is on the rocks, though their relationship would continue to burn hot and cold, and he is primed for a professional upswing that would carry him through the rest of his life.

Sinatra in 1957
I approached this book as a movie fan, but found that while his film career could stand on its own as a great success, it was for the most part the least thrilling aspect of his life. It was far more intriguing to learn about his commanding, self-assured presence in the studio and on stage, his relationships with the famous and powerful, and the many love affairs he had throughout his life. Which is not to say that there aren't many interesting stories in the acting life of a man who has won three Academy Awards.

With Grace Kelly on the High Society (1956) set
Though I missed reading the equally voluminous first volume of Kaplan's biography, Frank: The Voice (2010), I was most interested in picking up Sinatra's story in the fifties when, for better or worse, his acting career became more diverse. While still making musicals like Young At Heart (1954), High Society (1956) and Pal Joey (1957), the singer developed his dramatic talents in more intense films, including Suddenly (1954), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He also made a splash in lighter crime flicks like Tony Rome (1967) and the rat pack production Ocean's 11 (1960).

Sometimes Sinatra would throw himself into a role. If he respected his director, he would give more to his performance, and life on the set was happier for all involved. However, as he became more powerful in Hollywood, Frank would become increasingly demanding and would often hire less experienced directors who he expected to cave to his wishes. Even when his records weren't charting, he was a force in the entertainment industry and studios would often side with him.

Known as a one take actor, the smart directors would rehearse the cast without Sinatra and then bring him in for the one perfect take he always had in him. Trying to get more out of the restless star was usually impossible, and an issue which was exacerbated by his general boredom and restlessness with the filmmaking process. It was always a challenge to keep him on remote locations long enough to film his scenes.

The problem with giving Sinatra so much freedom, was that the quality of his film work was wildly uneven. It is impressive that any progress was made at all on the sets of rat pack movies like Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), because he would cause such a ruckus with members of his swinging clan, including Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford. The lack of discipline would show up on the screen. Audiences would become weary of the group's increasingly tiresome and arrogant act, both in film and on stage.

Stories like these pleased the movie fan in me, but I was even more absorbed by the descriptions of Sinatra's approach to the craft of singing. Kaplan captures a lot of what made this singular artist magic. Giving his all to a song was the most satisfying pursuit of a life in which he otherwise fought hard to escape a feeling of emptiness. The wild, lusty and untamed lifestyle he pursued outside the studio and away from the stage gave him sensual depth, weary complexity and a hint of humor that would disarm his audience when his rough edges became difficult to bear.

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Though he had to be in control, Frank continuously found that being the chairman of the board did not necessarily ensure satisfaction. He chased power his whole life, cultivating relationships with mobsters, politicians and successful businessmen. His lust and desire for romance was insatiable. Kaplan estimates that the singer bedded hundreds, if not thousands of women, before he finally settled into exhausted monogamy with fourth wife Barbara Marx. Though he always claimed that Ava Gardner was the love of his life, it appears that being rejected by President Kennedy because of his mob connections was what broke his heart most of all.

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While Sinatra's magnetism attracted many friends and lovers, he was not an easy person to know. Kaplan is sympathetic to the singer, and always willing to analyze why he could be so violent and cruel, but he never gives him a pass for his bad behavior, which included arrogance, verbal and physical abuse and the ability to hold a grudge for decades. Many quoted in the book describe the electricity of his presence: something that felt simultaneously dangerous and alluring.

Sinatra could also be generous, sentimental and soft-hearted, but often he would write a check instead of meeting a troubled friend face-to-face. Many times a gift would arrive in lieu of an apology. If he wanted to fire an employee, he passed it off to someone else, in one case refusing to open his bedroom door when his longtime valet repeatedly asked him to tell him what had happen to his face.

All of this astounding detail is organized into a compelling, addictive narrative. In any biography of this size there is bound to be some repetition, and some of the details of studio work, mobster drama and Sinatra's aggressiveness can become tiresome, but never for long. There's always one more amazing recording session, scandal, love affair or political twist around the corner.

Though I appreciated Kaplan's balanced perspective on Sinatra, I found I didn't agree with many of his interpretations of the singer's public appearances. I looked up several of the performances and appearances he referred to in the book and while I think he tended to make a fair assessment of his singing style, I often felt he was reading a bit too much into his speeches. In several instances, he notes that the audience chuckles uncomfortably, or certain individuals react with great enthusiasm and when I looked at the clips myself, I didn't see it as quite as dramatic. Of course, that is all a matter of interpretation, but I found my absorption of the book was enhanced by seeking out these clips for myself and drawing my own conclusions.

It is rare that a biography feels like an all-encompassing journey. Few lives would even inspire that kind of scope. Francis Albert had that epic life and Sinatra: The Chairman pays magnificent tribute.

Many thanks to Doubleday Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 20, 2015

On DVD: Helen Hayes in a Pair of Pre-Codes

In her short Hollywood career, Helen Hayes was an unusual screen presence. Though the tiny actress was understated, placid and almost entirely lacking in glamour, she was also quietly powerful, and always exuded unassuming confidence. Though she would ultimately win two Academy Awards, Haye's screen career was brief, due partly to her frustrations about not being able to control the way her performances were presented on the screen. 

I recently had the chance to check out a pair of the actress's pre-code performances, before she left Tinsel Town for decades of glory on the stage. In Another Language (1933) and What Every Woman Knows (1934) are now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

In these films Hayes demonstrates her developing skill as a screen actress. Though I prefer a little more glamour and fire in my leading ladies, it is clear that the woman famously known as First Lady of the Stage was as capable of playing to the camera with as much skill as she was the back of the theater. Here the actress is given good material, both from stage plays, the latter of which she played in a successful run on Broadway.

Another Language is an unsettling, low key, and addictively tension-filled drama about a newlywed woman (Hayes) who struggles to fit in with her husband Victor's (Robert Montgomery) family. His mother (the absolutely irritating Louise Closser Hale) is a bundle of sighs and reproaches. She disapproves of any woman taking her son from her, but particularly one who seems to have interests beyond the weekly family dinner. Her other two sons are rather indifferent to her, while their wives alternate between sympathy and taking catty swipes and the younger, more sophisticated woman. Even Victor begins to feel frustration at his inability to keep his wife in line. Only father-in-law Pop Hallam (Henry Travers) and nephew Jerry (John Beal) seem to understand her, though the latter falls quickly into uneasy puppy love for his uncle's bride.

Hayes is meant to be a free-spirited artist in Another Language, but she seems almost too practical to fit that description. The role of Stella Hallam was originally offered to Norma Shearer, but she bowed out of the film to take care of husband Irving Thalberg, who had suffered a heart attack. Though I didn't know that before I saw the movie, I did envision Shearer in the role. Whenever I see Robert Montgomery in a pre-code, I always start to look for Ms. Norma, but here he is without her, her presence only a ghostly possibility. It would have been fun to see her flighty, shimmering persona in this story.

That said, Hayes does bring an interesting, less conventional spin to the so-called screen free-spirit. Perhaps her feet seem a little too solidly on the ground for a woman who is flouting society's expectations of her, but in a way that's just the point. There's no reason why she shouldn't have other interests and it takes a sort of clear-eyed practicality to see through what is expected of her to find what she really wants.

Several of the parts are filled by actors who performed in the original Broadway production, and you can feel their cozy familiarity with the dialogue. In her film debut, Margaret Hamilton is especially pleasing. As the wife of one of the brothers, she is believably domestic, sharp-witted and complex. Instead of falling into a shrewish stereotype, her demeanor changes with the scenario, sometimes cruel, though basically kind and always observant.

It's an intriguing film, which manages to keep you off balance even though it marches towards a fairly predictable conclusion. Montgomery and Hayes can be surprisingly erotic together and there's an overall tone of honesty that is novel even for the pre-code era.

What Every Woman Knows has a lighter feel, though it also has an uneasy marriage at its center. Hayes is Maggie Wylie, a women well into marrying age who has been once again jilted on the way to the altar. Her father Alick (David Torrence) and brothers James and David (Dudley Digges and Donald Crisp) worry that she will never find a husband. She is more accepting of the situation, and well aware that she doesn't have the charm or beauty necessary to have her pick of suitors.

When politically fiery John Shand (Brian Aherne) is discovered breaking into the Wylie home in the middle of the night so he may use the family library to further his education, the men of the family make an offer: they will pay for his schooling, and when he has graduated, Maggie will have the option of marrying him. 

The pair does marry, and Shand wins a seat in the Parliament. That he manages to keep that seat and launch a brilliant political career is almost entirely due to Maggie's machinations behind the scenes. Completely ignorant of her work on his behalf, John falls in love the with the more glamorous Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), a woman whose interest in politics increased when she laid eyes on the tall, handsome MP.

Maggie observes all that happens around her with a pleasantly cool exterior, only occasionally revealing flickers of the hurt she feels. Rather than begging Shand to stay with her, she lets him find out for himself how wrong Lady Sybil is for him. She also takes several strong political stances on his behalf, which angers him until he realizes how brilliantly she has ensured his success. Maybe he doesn't deserve her, but she's going to make it look like he does.

As in Another Language, Hayes manages to dominate the action in her quiet way, no matter how much bluster or beauty swirls around her. I thought it was an admirable performance, though as in the other film, I didn't feel particularly drawn to her when she spoke. It's really her expressions that make her magnetic. While I think the actress is a solid talkie presence, I believe she would have been exceptional as a silent film star.

It would have been interesting to see how Hayes would have progressed in Hollywood had she been more enthusiastic about the way What Every Woman Knows was produced. As it was, she was unhappy and after grudgingly completing the final film of her contract, she returned to the stage for nearly twenty years. When she returned to films, she was ready for character parts. While she was clearly a star on the stage, I think she comes off better in those supporting roles, where strength, rather than glamour, is most needed. That said, the pre-code Hayes is always a pleasure to see and these films are important because they capture a great actress entering her prime.

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

Oct 9, 2015

On DVD: William Powell and a Land-Bound Esther Williams in The Hoodlum Saint (1946)

William Powell, Esther Williams and Angela Lansbury in a love triangle. Who thought up that one? I love all three of them, but I'd never put them together. It was this curious casting that led me to The Hoodlum Saint, now on DVD from Warner Archive.

Set in the years after World War I, Powell is Terry O'Neill, a veteran who returns home to find he has lost his job as a reporter. Barely missing a beat, he crashes a wedding, where with the help of socialite Kay Lorrison (Williams), he meets the right people and finds a job on another paper. Kay and Terry fall in love, but the socialite loses her beau when ambition leads him to work with an unsavory tycoon.

While Terry movies on to nightclub singer Dusty Millard (Lansbury), he never forgets Kay, much to the frustration of his chanteuse. He becomes wealthy, but not happy, and by discarding his old friends, he finds himself in more trouble.

The Hoodlum Saint is a pleasant enough experience, but it doesn't quite come together. There is never any real sense of peril. Problems are solved with relative ease, resulting in a lack of dramatic tension.

Part of the problem is a lack of unified tone. The movie starts like a comedy, and is even a little goofy , but then it makes an abrupt shift into drama. And it's not a very intense kind of drama; it just stops being lighthearted.

The leads aren't given much to work with, but they're enjoyable to watch. Powell is too old for his role, but once he starts talking in that familiar, jovial, cadence you start to feel at home. He's miscast, but not unwelcome.

While Williams could never have been a star if she'd stayed on land, she could act. That said, she's not particularly compelling here; I have to admit I made the mistake of thinking Carole Lombard would be good in her part as I watched those early comic scenes. Williams doesn't seem as happy in straight drama and that dims some of her charisma, though she is still an appealing presence.

Lansbury comes off best. I can't think of any time that she didn't. In these years she tended to play the gentle-hearted victim of love. Here she does get dumped, but rather than wilting away, she is dangerously icy in the way she'd be more often in later roles.

So about the curious casting? They're all fine together, but it never feels comfortable. I could never accept that these two women would get hot and bothered about Powell. He doesn't exude the power or sex appeal  that would inspire that reaction.

Still, it all works fine if you accept the movie on its own terms. Start comparing to other comedies and dramas and you might start to get restless. For fans of its stars though, it's worth the watch.

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.

Oct 7, 2015

Book Review--Keepers: The Greatest Films--and Personal Favorites--of a Moviegoing Lifetime

Keepers: The Greatest Films--and Personal Favorites--of a Moviegoing Lifetime
Richard Schickel
2015, Alfred A. Knopf

I hadn't intended on reviewing Richard Schickel's recent book, in which he reminisces about favorite movies he's seen over the years. However, by the time I'd read a few chapters, I knew I had to write about it. It's such a marvelous love letter to cinema, sharp-eyed, intelligent and not overly sentimental.

Longtime Time magazine film critic and documentarian Schickel shares a bit about his professional life, and the filmmakers he has met throughout his career, but for the most part he simply writes about the movies that have meant the most to him. His true love is popular cinema, but he appreciates and adores a wide range of genres and cultures when it comes to film. From mainstream Hollywood to Europe and Asia, he simply adores movies. His love of his profession is palpable.

Schickel knows a lot about film, as he should after writing about them for decades. Still, though he has strong opinions about what he has seen, he has a beautifully humble way of sharing his views. He doesn't always go with popular opinion. In fact, he often goes against it, but it's never just to be contrary. This critic hasn't just seen a lot of films, he's thought a lot about why he loves what he loves, and what has gone wrong with the flicks that don't impress him.

It's this dedication to going beyond basic critical opinion to determine his deep feelings about movies that makes Schickel's book such an enjoyable read. You've got to be original if you're going to write about Casablanca (1942) or the films of Alfred Hitchcock. As much as we've heard about titles like these, he makes fresh observations that help you to see them anew.

Though it falls short of 300 pages, I found myself taking a long time to read this book. Schickel has so much to say and I didn't want to miss a point. Even when I didn't agree with him, which was often, I applauded the way he expressed himself.

A great read for anyone in love with the movies.

Oct 5, 2015

In Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell Takes a Beating on Blu-ray (1944)

Murder, My Sweet will never sparkle on the screen. It's made of muck and sleaze, and it'll stay that way, but it is darkly grand in a sharp new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

This quintessential film noir was crooner Dick Powell's stab at another screen life. He knew he was getting too loose in the jowls to keep playing a boyish musical star--and frankly, he was tired of the unrelenting cheer of those roles. So he made a deal with RKO: he'd make the struggling studio a series of musicals if he got to make a crime picture first.

Under the title, Farewell, My Lovely, that of the original Raymond Chandler novel, audiences figured Powell was singing up sunshine again and stayed away. With the title change came success, and the actor never did make those musicals. He found a new career as one of noir's most weary leading men and found he was even better in darker roles. Even Chandler approved of him as his famous private detective Phillip Marlowe.

Powell's Marlowe is a wary guy, more observant than tough. He's always got his eyes open for danger, which makes sense. He wouldn't last long if he were just a fighter. To stay alive in these grimy surroundings, you've got to be smart.

Still, Marlowe takes his share of black jacks to the head, involuntary druggings, beatings and threats as he attempts to solve the mystery of a missing singer, a mysterious murder and the disappearance of a valuable piece of jade jewelry. He may be a survivor, but he's not invincible.

Murder, My Sweet lets you feel Marlowe's pain, the edges of the screen oozing into a black abyss as he loses consciousness, a hazy web of misty clouds across the picture indicating the detective's druggy stupor. While these gimmicks should date the film, they're only slightly corny, because they force you to feel how vulnerable he is in this dark world. They make you afraid for him.

And if it isn't an attack that threatens him, it's a dangerous woman. Claire Trevor sets the template for film femme fatales, with a slippery, insouciant performance where she manages to seduce even though she is clearly up to no good. When Marlowe first sees her, with that shapely leg seemly casually presented, you know she's going to cause trouble. Her appearance over his shoulder in a mirror, shot full length, dressed in evening black, would be as horrifying as a scare in a slasher flick if she didn't look so scrumptious.

With her haughty, sensual cadence, Trevor is the birth of dangerous noir women. Every time you hear a dame in a noir parody, she sounds like the actress in this role. Every syllable promises sex, throwing up a smoke screen around the danger within her words.

In her last role, Anne Shirley is the only character who doesn't end up grimy. She should probably stay away from Powell, but a damaged man who needs affection can have the same appeal as a shapely leg. The actress had a fresh, and unusually unsentimental appeal for a performer who specialized in good girl roles, it's a shame she decided to retire at twenty-six.

Like some of the best noirs, the plot is not worth much worry, but the dialogue is and the narration even more so. People don't speak this way; they don't think this way. You need movies so that you can hear phrases like: "My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn't feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers" or "Remarks want you to make them. They got their tongues hanging out waiting to be said". These are lines you can see; they flap in your face, demanding to be noticed.

Of all the great noirs, this one has always been essential. It got everything right and set a template that continues to be followed.

Special features include a commentary by author and film noir specialist Alain Silver.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 2, 2015

On DVD: Gene Kelly Dances in Television Extravaganza Jack and the Beanstalk (1967)

Eight-year-old Bobby Riha and Gene Kelly are a charming pair in the 1967 Hanna-Barbara television production of Jack and the Beanstalk, now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

This animation and live action hybrid musical features high spirited dance numbers and pleasing, if not especially memorable tunes written by industry veterans Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. 

To stretch out the orgin story, the old English folktale Jack the Giant Killer, to a fifty minute length, there are additional characters added to the mix, including an army of mice and a pair of dancing birds. Kelly also plays the role of Jeremy, the magical bean seller, whose part is greatly extended to give him opportunities to dance and sing.

While adding new character arcs to classic tales can be tricky, the inclusion of Gene Kelly turns the story into an agreeable buddy picture. The dancer was apparently fond of working with children, and he has a nice rapport with Riha. While understandably not as complex as Kelly's movie routines, their dances have a cheerful energy that makes up for the simplicity required by a time-intensive television production.

Bobby Riha was fairly new to the entertainment industry when he was selected to play Jack. In the decade to follow, he would have a modest career in television, appearing in several guest roles on various series. He would eventually leave acting behind to become a journalistic photographer.

Riha was clearly hired for his dancing ability (Dick Beals would cover his vocals), but that is as it should be and he is a strong partner for Kelly, matching the legendary star step for step. Considering the pair had three months of rehearsal to perfect several fast-paced routines, all of them eventually performed in front of a blank screen on which they had to imagine all sorts of amazing sights, it is remarkable what they were able to achieve.

The voice talent includes Ted Cassidy (Lurch on The Addams Family) as the giant and voiceover queen Marni Nixon (The King and I [1956], West Side Story [1961]) as an enchanted princess who has been transformed into a singing harp.

Kelly had previously worked with the Hanna-Barbera team on Anchors Away (1945), where he filmed a memorable routine with Jerry the Mouse. Two decades later, technology still had not advanced to the point where animation and live action could be easily integrated. The success of the film depended on precise performances from Riha and Kelly and frame-by-frame integration by animators.

While the special effects here are understandably not as slick to modern eyes as they were at the time, they do not significantly date the show. It is still delightful entertainment, appropriate for families and of interest for Kelly fans.

Though Kelly fretted over the loss of craft necessary to keep with a tight television filming schedule, he was able to create an enduring work. While clearly not a lavish MGM production, it never feels cheap or slapdash. In recognition of his success, the dancer won an Emmy as producer of the program.

The picture quality is good and relatively sharp and clean. There are no special features on the disc.

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.