Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: The Many Faces of Casper Gutman


Private eye Sam Spade may be author Hammett's greatest creation. The moody anti-hero set the framework for all the hard-boiled fictional detectives that followed. In the byzantine tale of The Maltese Falcon Spade deals with the murder of his partner and a duplicitous client. The lies never stop and the oddball characters Spade encounters in the hunt for a bejeweled statue of a falcon include a neurotic gunman, a foppish go-between and a mysterious boss known as "the fat man".

"I'm not a man that's easily discouraged when I want something."
- Casper Gutman

The acquisitive fat man, Casper Gutman, in pursuit of fabled riches, sets in motion a global criminal enterprise that does not stop short of murder. The character looms large (pun possibly intended) before his first appearance in chapter 11 of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon in the fear and awe he inspires in those who know him. Readers are ready to be impressed and are not disappointed in Gutman's overbearing physicality and personality quirks. Actors of experience and talent would relish such a role.




The 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon directed by Roy Del Ruth, produced two years after the serialization and publication of Hammett's story has a sense of immediacy and the thrill of actors bringing the outrageous characters to life for the first time.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy, as played by Bebe Daniels, is top-billed and she glories in her role as a deceitful vamp. If all of detective Sam Spade's clients lie as much as she, it is a wonder he gets any work done. Fashion note: Daniels' wardrobe is to die for. Thelma Todd is a glamourously needy Thelma, married to one partner of the Spade and Archer detective partnership while fooling around with the other. Una O'Connor is a treasure who stepped right off the page as the far too understanding secretary Effie Perine.

Ricardo Cortez brings the necessary equipment of a wicked grin and nervy nonchalance to Spade. Audiences would be anxious to see the wackadoodles on their treasure hunt. I feel Otto Matieson as Joel Cairo should have added more flamboyance to his characterization. What we know of him comes more from the reactions of others. Dwight Frye is delightfully distraught as that put-upon tough guy.  And then there is Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman.



Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman

Dublin born Dudley Digges (1879 - 1947) arrived in America with the George Arliss Company. He enjoyed a successful stage career prior to entering films at the age of 50. In a Broadway career encompassing the years 1906 to 1947 Digges directed and performed in Shaw, Wilde, Ibsen, Dosteyevsky, and the original productions of On Borrowed Time, George Washington Slept Here and O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. He was among the 1924 Broadway cast of Outward Bound who recreated their roles in the 1930 film, along with Leslie Howard and Beryl Mercer.



Recognizing the Russian's hand.

Casper Gutman as played by Dudley Digges is not a "fat" man, but an egotistical dandy who displays a narcissistic temperment and an almost maniacal steadfastness in his goal of obtaining the black bird. Our eyes cannot escape his fancy dress appearance with a prominent spit curl, his old-fashioned tail coat, exceedingly wide tie, jeweled stick pin and pinky ring. This character needs props and uses a lace handkerchief to steady his nerves and a fan to cool his excitement.

Digges twists his mouth and speaks with a guttural emphasis when describing the betrayal of his agents and the wonders of the treasure. Spade and the audience cannot help but think that here is a fellow not quite playing with a full deck. Such a fellow can be dangerous indeed.





Brown Holmes, who worked in the 1931 picture, wrote the screenplay for this version of Hammett's classic as well. Perhaps Warners was hoping to create another "Thin Man" with this comic treatment. It's not a bad idea as the dark humour in the story is one of the elements that makes The Maltese Falcon such a classic. Whether it works or not is up to the viewer. Stripped of its noirish atmosphere the preposterous plot and eccentric characters run wild.

Warren William's Shane (Spade) is a goofy playboy deftly hiding his private eye smarts. Top-billed Bette Davis as Purvis (O'Shaughnessy) is elegant, tough and cheeky. Marie Wilson plays Murgatroyd (Effie), and her adorable ditzy blonde seems to have a lot of fun with the outlandish goings-on and her handsome boss.

William and Porter Hall as the detective partners are a perfect comedic tag team and it is a shame that Hall's Ames (Archer) has to leave the film so soon, but c'est la vie. The Cairo stand-in is a "big, tall Englishman", Travers played by Arthur Treacher. William and Treacher are a treat with their dry by-play in a scene where the detective's apartment is torn apart in the search for a legendary horn filled with jewels (encrusted falcon). Wilmer has been morphed into Kenneth, a tubby mama's boy played by Maynard Holmes. Mama's boy? Yes. Meet Madam Barabbas.



Alison Skipworth as Madam Barabbas

London born Alison Skipworth (1863 - 1952) was an artist's model turned actress who began a stage career in America in the 1890s. Many successful years touring and lean years on the Great White Way eventually led to her talkie film debut at age 67. She was a film character actress much in demand and much appreciated until her retirement 10 years after entering the screen arena. Popular  film titles with fun roles for Ms. Skipworth include Outward Bound, Raffles, Night After Night with Mae West, If I Had a Million, Tillie and Gus with W.C. Fields, The Captain Hates the Sea, Becky Sharp and The Princess Comes Across with Carole Lombard. 

Madam Barabbas is an internationally known jewel thief, not an unscrupulous private collector. She is known to Shane and they meet with that surface cordiality shared by professionals. The meeting is a "cards on the table" sharing of information and plans for disposition of spoils. Of course there is a trifling matter of trying to put one over with knock-out drops, but it is all very friendly. After all, what could be threatening about a refined senior citizen obviously used to her comforts? A fur-trimmed gown and sparkly jewels are no harbinger of chicanery. She has taken a charming apartment and even has a pet kitten to keep Kenneth company.  Surely Shane would never suspect that she plans to kill him after the horn is retrieved. Of course he does.



A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

The well-prepared internationally known jewel thief always dresses appropriately for the situation.  I love this look worn with ease by "aunty" in a rain soaked showdown on the docks. The shootout and treasure hunt conclusion almost wraps up the story of Satan Met a Lady. The "I won't play the sap for you" bit occurs on a train where the whole affair began only 74 minutes earlier.





Only one thing keeps me from calling 1941s The Maltese Falcon a perfect movie. The unnecessary prologue with the misspelling (knight templars) makes me purse my lips and shake my head every time. After that all is marvelous. Here we have Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade creating an indelible character for the ages with his appealing mix of weariness and energy.

I do not know which was the final scene of the shoot for Mary Astor, but whether it was the last scene of the movie or not, I wish I could travel through time and give her a wordless hug of appreciation for her stellar performance of Brigid "honesty is the best policy" O'Shaughnessy. If that is her real name.

Peter Lorre is the Joel Cairo movie fans didn't know they were waiting for. Elisha Cook Jr.'s nervous energy truly fits the role of Wilmer. And then there is Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman.



Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman

Born in Sandwich, England Sydney Greenstreet (1879 - 1954) began his stage career at the turn of the 20th century. His career led him to America, the Broadway stage and the famous Theatre Guild. Like his fellow Gutmans, Greenstreet came to the screen at a respectable age, his being 62. His debut netted him an Oscar nomination in the supporting category. Until his retirement in 1949 Sydney Greenstreet gave us a host of memorable film performances from the entrepreneur of Casablanca to a Columbo-like police detective in The Velvet Touch.



"Here's to plain speaking and clear understanding."

The first thing to appreciate about the casting of Sydney Greenstreet is that he is big as befits someone playing a character described as "the fat man". Also, thankfully, this fat man is not the grotesquery as described by Hammett. Certainly, anyone as close to Jabba the Hut as described would be distracting, and nothing must distract from the sheer delight of Greenstreet's performance. Often shot from low angles to take advantage of the actor's bulk we are given an intimidating view of this villain.

Gutman himself is an actor who enjoys his turn in the spotlight. Watch as he relishes sharing the story of the falcon with Spade. How many times in his quest has he brought agents into his fold with the telling? Is it the same every time or does he embellish a touch here and a touch there? Watch the eyes as he measures his potential partner or victim. Will he continue with the jovial masquerade or let his cunning nature take center stage? He decides in an instant what will work best and carries on.



"It's a fake!"

You should expect that someone who considers himself a mastermind, who employs others for the grunt work, would be leery of the act of violence, but not our Gutman. He carries guns, he employs drugs and he displays none of that loyalty he expects from his underlings. The self-love of the true villain.

What lingers in the mind and imagination about Sydney Greenstreet's performance is the voice. The voice Hammett described as "purring". Those memorable lines and the faultless delivery often imitated by fans (admit it) as an affectionate tribute to a great performance of a great villain.





On Monday, February 8, 1943 devotees of Lux Radio Theatre on CBS were treated to a version of The Maltese Falcon based on the John Huston adaption starring Edward G. Robinson as Spade, Gail Patrick as O'Shaughnessy and Laird Cregar as Gutman. Bea Benaderet is Effie, Eddie Marr is Wilmer and Charlie Lung played Cairo.



Laird Cregar

Born in Philadelphia (1914-1944), Laird Cregar was introduced to the theatre while attending school in England. A summer job as a page boy at Stratford-on-Avon set his foot on the path of an actor, and that is the way he continued. Training at the Pasadena Playhouse and stage successes led to a contract at Twentieth Century Fox. A big man at 6'3" and 300 pounds, Cregar's talent was as outsized as his frame. Unconventional villains became his specialty in such films as I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Black Swan and as His Excellency, the devil, in Heaven Can Wait.

Cregar's size was not necessary in his radio interpretation of Casper Gutman, but it would certainly have added to the audience's perception of the character. Cregar's "fat man" is a suave villain, relying on his phony joviality to control events and people. His smooth baritone and perfect enunciation of a high class British accent sets him above the mayhem he has created. His breakdown upon finding the falcon is a fake takes him to the edge, and back again. Gutman plans to continue his quest.

The IMDb features this Cregar quote from an interview upon the release of The Lodger:

"Lots of people get a great kick out of evil efficiently wrought, and they write in and pat me on the back. Then, too, there are the righteous people who think I'm actually the kind of person I portray on the screen, and who enumerate the various ways in which they would like to eliminate me. The only ones I really like are the letters from the few kind souls who realize that I'm only an actor trying to make a living."

Perhaps that was the way with all of our actors who portrayed Hammett's legendary "fat man".



The ladies of SpeakeasyShadows and Satin and Silver Screenings are once again hosting that yearly treat The Great Villain Blogathon taking place from April 25th to April 29th. Thank you Kristina, Karen and Ruth.  Day 1   Day 2   Day 3   Day 4   Day 5










Thursday, April 20, 2017

FAVOURITE MOVIES: Speedy (1928)


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been continually tweaking their mandate and categories ever since they came into existence. The initial ceremony included the immediately dropped category of Best Director, Comedy Picture. The award was given to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights. The only other nominee was Ted Wilde for Speedy. Wilde had been a longtime gagman and collaborator of star Harold Lloyd. Lloyd is acknowledged for being the directing force behind his films, but always shared or gave credit to valued collaborators on the staff. The awards were presented in May of 1929 and Ted Wilde died of a stroke at age 40 in December of that year.

Speedy is the first Harold Lloyd feature I recall seeing, and is the Lloyd movie I have seen the most often. Do I love it because of the familiarity? Perhaps, but love it I do.

Set in New York City and partially filmed on location, the "time capsule" aspect of Speedy certainly adds to its overall charm and I know that this was a strong draw to my earliest viewings. The black and white jazz age world is not the NYC of my 1980s tourist trips, but it is a place I feel privileged to visit through cinema. Here we pause for a polite round of applause for Harold Lloyd's longtime cinematographer Walter Lundin, who filmed projects with the star from 1915 to 1934. 

Harold Swift, known to one and all as "Speedy", is an energetic, go-getter. Speedy focuses most of his energy toward his passion for baseball and, in particular, for the New York Yankees. The rest of that energy is divided between his love for Jane Dillon and his search for the perfect job. The perfect job for Speedy would be one that doesn't interfere with the Yankees games.



Babe Ruth has a wild ride with Speedy.

Something always seems to happen to wreck Harold's chances with a new employer, whether it be from his own distraction or the combined action of the fates. Is Harold an excellent counter man? He is, and he even finds ingenious ways to relay information about the ballgame to other enthusiasts.

Will Harold be a perfect cab driver? He certainly would be if cops and mechanical glitches didn't get in the way. Nonetheless, it is as a cabbie that Harold enjoys the thrill of a lifetime. He has the opportunity to do the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth himself, the favour of getting him to Yankee Stadium in time for the afternoon game. Truly, one of the greatest celebrities of the era and a name known to this day, Babe is very funny as the eminent ballplayer barely holding on to his nerves as Speedy takes him on a wild ride through the streets of NYC.

A lot of fun is had when Speedy takes his girl, Jane played by Ann Christy, for a day of fun at Coney Island. This was the biggest role Ann Christy had in films before retiring in the early 30s. I think she is a delight. The crowded subway trip is not just a sign of the times, it is something we lifestyle transit users cope with daily. We can't always laugh at it, but we certainly can when Harold finds a myriad of methods to obtain seats.



Ann Christy, Harold Lloyd

Harold and Jane's day at the amusement park with its games, rides and food looks like such fun. Laughs and good times abound. Even when things go wrong, such as a stain on a new suit, the good nature of our couple shines through. However, things are not always sunny when it is back to the workaday. 

Jane's grandfather, "Pop" Dillon is played by Bert Woodruff and he's a hoot as the old fellow. Pop is the owner and operator of a horse drawn trolley car that is under siege by a transit conglomerate. They are desperate to get his piece of track, but aren't dealing fair with Dillon. In fact, they will go so far as to cheat the old man out of his business. Pop's contract calls for a complete run of his trolley every 24 hours. Well, he won't be able to live up to that contract if his property is stolen, can he?

Harold has become privvy to the plans of the crooks involved in the transportation deal and devises a plan to project Pop from harm and get him the money he is due. It is not something one man can handle on his own. The neighbourhood merchants are all gentlemen of Pop's generation with combat experience. Alright, it was the civil war, but nonetheless it is experience. They are itching for a fight and, brother, there is a free-for-all with some of the wackiest tactics you are ever likely to witness. It's a funny thing, but the older I get, the more my favourite part of the Speedy involves these stalwart senior citizen vigilantes.



A race against time.

Speedy's frantic and exciting finale is a gag-filled race through the streets of the city with Pop's purloined trolley car in order to fulfill the contract. The scene is classic! Ben-Hur's chariot race is a three-legged race at a picnic in comparison. Personally, I will always lean toward the scene that will make me laugh.

I recommend Speedy to all who are looking for laughs, thrills and audacious filmmaking from an adept practitioner at the top of his craft.







Saturday, April 15, 2017

THE 2ND GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON, A CELEBRATION OF WILLIAM HOLDEN: Boots Malone (1952)


Virginie Pronovost, our host at The Wonderful World of Cinema, is giving us her 2nd Annual Golden Boy Blogathon, A William Holden Celebration. HERE is where you will find all the tributes.

"A year ago they'd be calling him at the Ritz."

Jockey's agent Boots Malone played by William Holden is down on his luck. Three years ago, his jockey and friend died in a race. It was a complicated relationship and Boots, not being particularly good at interpersonal relationships, hasn't picked himself up from the hurt, which was piled on another long ago hurt.

The deeply buried heart of the character is surrounded by a layer of prickly cynicism. He is respected as a track man and his friends know just how close they are allowed to get. Boots is living in a stable at the Dellington Park racetrack with training rider Stash played by Stanley Clements (Going My Way, Canon City) and horse owner Preacher played by Basil Ruysdael (Raton Pass, The Horse Soldiers). Each act of kindness that Boots, almost subconsciously, makes is quickly followed by a quip or snarky remark.

Into this tight, yet informal group comes a runaway they call The Kid. The teenager played by a baby-faced Johnny Stewart is well-mannered, bright and somewhat out of place. Nonetheless, the boy loves horses and yearns for life on the track. The Kid is even willing to pay Boots to train him as a jockey which Boots takes on grudgingly, alternately using and being kind to the youngster, whose name he eventually discovers is Tommy.



Johnny Stewart, William Holden

Major conflict arises when Howard Whitehead, a businessman played by Ed Begley (12 Angry Men, Sweet Bird of Youth), who is hungry for wins, takes Preacher's beloved mare "Mother" in a claiming race. This goes against an unwritten law about taking a one horse owner's one horse away from him. The stable workers band together in a complicated plan to teach the wealthy interloper a lesson.

The plan involves Whitehead's trainer helping convince Whitehead that a "sleeper" in his stable is actually not worth keeping and to put him up for auction. The stable hands have pooled their resources to buy the horse on the prospect that Preacher is the owner of record. Boots and Stash will take on the job of training the horse to take down Whitehead in a big race at the end of the season.

The character actor faces of the stable hands match the fanciful character names, as colourful as those given to horses.  Goofy Gordon, Quarter Horse Henry, Louis the Louse, Foxy Farrow, Hancock and Spaniard. Taking the horse out of state to train, Boots, Preacher and Stash discover that the jockey they have been lacking has been under their very noses. Boots starts to train Tommy in earnest.

The training is a fascinating part of the picture as the many intricacies of riding a race horse are drilled into the boy until they become second nature. Just as they are about to cap off the plan back at Dellington Park the life that Tommy has been running from catches up with them. The culmination of Tommy and Boots emotional journey, and the exciting horse race finish of the film is both sensitive and thrilling filmmaking.

William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Portrait of Jennie), the German actor turned director was in charge of this and Holden's next picture, the crime drama The Turning Point. There is not a slow or draggy part in this story, yet none of it feels rushed. We are given every opportunity to soak up the racetrack atmosphere and the interesting characters who inhabit that life.

William Holden, being the actor that he was, who always holds the viewer in the palm of his hand with his pent up emotions and offhand manner, wears the character of Boots Malone like a well-tailored glove. Boots Malone has long been one of my favourites among his roles and filmography. Time has only added a lustre to my nostalgic glow.










Saturday, April 1, 2017

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR APRIL ON TCM



It is usually the case with anthology films that the various segments are directed by a corresponding number of directors. 1942s Tales of Manhattan is different in that regard as the sole director is the esteemed gentleman from France, Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko).  The audience will appreciate that M. Duvivier was a deft handler of many moods and genres. A fine suit of tails is the item that ties together all of our stories.



The new suit of tails is taken to the dressing room.
Tailor Robert Greig and butler Eugene Pallette lead the parade.

A set of tails is delivered to the home of actor Paul Orman played by Charles Boyer. Due to some trouble at the tailor's the cutter was discharged, but prior to leaving he placed a curse on the suit. Bad luck will befall all who wear it.



Charles Boyer, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth

The first story concerns a love triangle among Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth and Thomas Mitchell. The on-again, off-again affair of Boyer and Hayworth has been off for the past year since she married Mitchell. On the night of the successful opening of his new show Boyer intends a showdown with the woman of his dreams and the man of his nightmares. A wry little tale and a perfect showcase for the noirish side of cinematographer Joseph Walker (It Happened One Night).



Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers

Our next story finds the tails in the home of a soon to be married playboy. The valet from our previous story is played by Eugene Pallette. For a small stipend, he is loaning his master's suit to the playboy's valet played by Roland Young to wear on the occasion of his master's wedding. His master is played by Cesar Romero and Romero's fiance, played by Ginger Rogers, finds a love letter in the inside pocket. The playboy's best friend played by Henry Fonda attempts to cover for his pal by claiming the coat and letter as his own. Romantic and comic complications abound. Rogers and Fonda display great chemistry in this story and it is a shame they were never cast together in a full-length feature.



Charles Laughton

The two valets, hoping to split the funds, take the coat next to a second-hand shop where it is purchased by the wife of an impoverished composer to wear at his concert hall debut. Oh, this story always breaks my heart. Laughton can do that, you know. Tears and laughs both fill this little story. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester are the downtrodden couple dreaming all these years of success.



George Sanders, Don Douglas, Edward G. Robinson

A Chinatown mission is the next home for the tails where kindly James Gleason tries to help down and outer Edward G. Robinson back on his feet. The tails are heading uptown once more to the 25th class reunion of some Ivy League lawyers and businessmen. Will the chance at redemption come true or will it be snatched from his fingertips? George Sanders will have something to say about how things turn out. He knows things about Robinson that would be better kept secret. The grudge runs deep.



J. Carroll Naish

J. Carroll Naish is the next to wear the tails. He steals it from another second-hand joint so he can wear it into a swank gambling joint and rob the fancy patrons of their ill-gotten gain. His flying getaway takes him over rural land and a fire forces him to dump the coat overboard - with the money!



Paul Robeson, Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters

The money is manna from Heaven according to Ethel Waters character. It is God's answer to the many prayers of this poor community. She is quick to advise her husband played by Paul Robeson that wishing is not the same as praying. Look, I love Ethel Waters as much as the next guy, but she certainly can be a stick in the mud when it comes to that bible (see Cabin in the Sky). Rounding out the cast are Eddie Anderson, Clarence Muse and the Hall Johnson Choir. 

Mr. Robeson objected to the stereotypes present in the script and the producers acquiesced to demands for changes. Robeson's character makes a plea for communal farming and sharing, with no rich or poor. On the other hand, Clarence Muse thought the picture was an opportunity to show the poor living conditions under which people suffered. Nonetheless, this film is the last Paul Robeson would make. I lean toward Robeson on this one, but I'm a sucker for the Hall Johnson Choir so it is not a choice as to whether I watch or skip this segment.

A further sequence was excised for time constraints or perhaps jealousy because it is said that W.C. Fields absolutely steals the picture as a temperance lecturer.

TCM is screening Tales of Manhattan on Monday, April 10th at 8:00 pm. Like the short story collection you curl up with on a dark evening, watch the movie and see what speaks to you. Perhaps the Fields bit will be included. 

Note: keep your eyes peeled on the schedule for Flesh and Fantasy, a horror anthology made the following year, directed by Duvivier and produced by Boyer.

NOTE: Among the billed "46 featured players" there is an Esther Howard sighting.  Also, Morris Ankrum, Christian Rub and Don Douglas for fans.








Friday, March 31, 2017

THE APRIL SHOWERS BLOGATHON: Shane (1953)



MovieMovieBlogBlog is hosting The April Showers blogathon running from March 31st to April 2nd. Filmmakers have used rain to great effect in motion pictures since beginning of the art form. Click HERE to read about some of the most memorable scenes and films.

The title character of George Stevens' 1953 classic Shane, based on Jack Schaefer's novella, is a weary gunfighter running from his past. When he rides into a valley beset by conflict between old-time rancher Ryker and the farmers settling into the valley, Shane experiences a life he seeks, but can never obtain.  Shane's outsider status is most evident one rainy night at the Starrett homestead.

Joe Starrett, his wife Marian, and their boy Joey have accepted Shane into their family. He is a friend and a co-worker to Joe. For young Joey, Shane is an object of childish admiration. For Marian, he reminds her that she is more than a wife and mother.

Shane is cautious around the folks of the valley. He does not want his past as a gunfighter to be known. His forbearance when facing opposing forces from the Ryker ranch while in town has made a less than an approving impression on many of the farmers.



The homesteaders have braved a rainstorm to meet at Starrett's place to discuss their troubles with Ryker. The small cabin creates a cozy atmosphere with the sound of the rain falling on the roof and the sight of the rain through the window.



A sopping Shane enters. The look on his face shows a relaxed happiness at his inclusion.



Shane is put on the spot as the tale of his backing down from Ryker's men while at the general store is recounted.


Despite Joe's urging Shane to remain, the gunfighter leaves the meeting.

Shane:  "I figured you could talk freer if I weren't around."



The rain falls on Shane as he passes Joey's room where Marian has been reading him a bedtime story. A simple, homely scene that further highlights the loneliness of Shane's existence.



Marian and Joey speak to Shane through the window. 

Joey: "I know you ain't afraid."
Shane: "It's a long story, Joey."
Marian: "I think we know ... Shane, don't stand in the rain. You'll catch your death of cold."



The story of Shane is encapsulated in Marian's final words of the night to her son, and to herself.

Marian:  "Don't get to liking Shane too much."
Joey:  "Why not?"
Marian:  "I don't want you to."
Joey:  "Is there anything wrong with him?"
Marian:  "No."
Joey:  "Then what, mother?"
Marian:  "He'll be moving on one day, Joey. You'll be upset if you get to liking him too much."

The rain continues to fall.










Thursday, March 30, 2017

THE JACK LEMMON BLOGATHON: Avanti! (1972)


The good folks who bring us Critica Retro and Wide Screen World are hosting The Jack Lemmon Blogathon on March 30th and 31st. Thank you to Le and Rich for the opportunity.  Day 1  Day 2

Sabrina Fair was a Broadway hit for playwright Samuel Taylor in 1953 starring Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten. In 1954 Taylor collaborated with Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman on the Oscar nominated screenplay for the film adaption, Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

A scant 18 years later, Wilder took a flyer on another Taylor play, this time collaborating with I.A.L. Diamond on a film version of a less successful play mounted during the 1968 Broadway season called Avanti! aka A Touch of Spring.

Avanti! is romantic, caustic, satirical, screwball and a travelogue. The travelogue is courtesy of the location shooting on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. The screwball aspects are courtesy of the outrageous characters and sight gags. The satirical cannot be withheld from a Wilder picture and here we poke fun at American business, American politicians, class conscious sensibilities and funerals.



Juliet Mills as Pamela Piggott

The romantic is courtesy of Miss Pamela Piggott of London. She has come to a beautiful resort for the unhappy task of escorting her mother's remains back home after a fatal car accident. Soft-hearted and open to her surroundings, Pamela gets swept up in the beauty around her and the vibrations of a love affair.



Jack Lemmon as Wendell Armbruster Jr.

The caustic is courtesy of Wendell Armbruster Jr. of Baltimore. Vice President of Armbruster Industries and son of that company's founder, Wendell has come to a beautiful resort for the unhappy task of escorting his father's remains back home after a fatal car accident. On top of the loss, Wendell is feeling imposed upon and that feeling is about to double and redouble during his time in Italy.

Wendell's conception of his father's life is about to take a sudden and wild left-hand turn. Armbruster Sr. has not been making trips to this health resort for the last decade purely for its healing mud baths. Armbruster Sr. was spending each summer with his lover, Miss Piggott's mother.



Wendell: You can dig up a couple of coffins.
Carlucci: You want second-hand coffins?

Pamela is not faced with shock such as that which faces Wendell. She knew all about "Willy and Kate", as the lovebirds referred to each other. Sad as she is at the loss, Pamela finds comfort in the idea that the couple were with each other at the end and suggests they should remain that way by being buried here in Italy. After all, the red tape is so cumbersome.

Wendell is aghast. His father may have been a philanderer, but that philanderer will be buried in three days time in Baltimore with high ranking politicians in attendance and plants all over the country shut down so employees can see the funeral on closed-circuit television, in color! Except for Puerto Rico. They get black and white.



Clive Revill as Carlo Carlucci

I love the shot above where Jack Lemmon's face is hidden by the flower display. It sends me into fits of giggles as the director of the hotel, Carlo Carlucci is explaining to Wendell that the bodies (both of them) have disappeared from the morgue. The owners of the vineyard desecrated by the car accident require compensation. It is a well-known Italian saying that if there is death in the vineyard, the wine will be sour. No checks. No American money. They want German francs. You can't argue with aggrieved vintners.



Pamela tries the green pasta "for colour".

Above, Pamela throws caution to the wind and dives into a dish of pasta. A running gag in the screenplay is that Pamela (all 133 lbs of her) constantly obsesses about her weight. Even other people obsess about her weight. It is silly. Juliet Mills is gorgeous. Nonetheless, there it is. We don't always see ourselves as others see us.

Management and staff at the hotel were very fond of "Willy and Kate" and are sentimentally pleased when Wendell and Pamela, in their parents clothes, come to dinner to enjoy the food and the music. Wendell is beginning to understand this secret life his father enjoyed.



Wendell: Miss Piggot, please keep in mind that it's Sunday and this is a Catholic country!

Early the next morning, after wine and liquor she was not used to, Pamela gets Wendell to follow another tradition of their parents. A naked swim in the clear waters followed by sun bathing on the rocks. Wendell is not as comfortable as Pamela in this activity. However, he is just as photogenic.

Bruno, the hotel valet, has a camera. He has pictures of "Willy and Kate" in the all-together and now he has pictures of Wendell and Pamela to make a complete set. Bruno wants something from Wendell. Bruno wants to return to the United States from which he was deported. He wants to get away from the Sicilian maid who is expecting his child. Bruno really should know better than to cross a pregnant Sicilian woman.



Wendell: Permesso?
Pamela: Avanti.

Complications, misunderstandings and character growth lead to ... well, it leads to what we've been expecting since this story began. Should they? Shouldn't they? Maybe there are lessons here to be learned from the past. Maybe it simply says something about the present.



You will not believe what has just happened in this scene.

Confusion ensues when the State Department, in the form of an old chum played by Edward Andrews gets involved. Pronouncements on the Middle East, disdain for foreigners and a general bluster accompany Andrews character's bulldozing his way into the hotel and into the middle of Wendell's affairs.

At 140 mintues, Avanti! is longer than I usually like my comedies.  However, Avanti! does not drag; it has instead a deliberate and leisurely pace. Funny and endearing incidents pull the audience into the situations and reactions from funny and touching characters. Laugh-out-loud moments abound in the wry dialogue and the amusing sight gags. All the while we learn to care for our leads.

Jack Lemmon's role in Avanti! is responsible for one of the six Golden Globe wins out of 20 nominations that he received in his film career. Juliet Mills and Clive Revill were nominated in the Actress and Supporting Actor (Musical or Comedy) categories. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay and for Best Picture.

I find Avanti! one of the true comedy gems of its time, a hidden treasure in Billy Wilder's deep filmography and a joyful part of his work with his favourite actor, and ours, Jack Lemmon.







Monday, March 27, 2017

EARLY WOMEN FILMMAKERS BLOGATHON: Dorothy Arzner and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)



Fritzi of Movies Silently is hosting the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon sponsored by the Flicker Alley release Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology. The blogathon is running from March 27th to 29th and you can click HERE for the contributions.



Meet Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney). She's the sweet and somewhat sheltered daughter of a wealthy manufacturer who has succumbed to Cupid's ironic marksmanship.



Jerry's favourite toast, "Merrily we go to Hell".

And meet Jerry Corbett (Fredric March), the object of Joan's affection. He's a newspaperman who writes plays on the side. He is going to give up drinking next Tuesday afternoon at three o'clock.



The happy couple.

Everybody knows Joan is too good for Jerry. Joan, deep down inside senses it, but she loves the guy. Her love is strong enough to convince her doubting father (George Irving) that he will gain nothing by standing in the way of the marriage. Jerry is running from his drinking habit and the memory of the actress Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen) who broke his heart. Joan is his cure.



Esther Howard and Skeets Gallagher as Vi and Buck

The marriage begins well with Jerry off the wagon and sticking to his plays despite the number of early rejections. Joan is the perfect companion and inspiration. Pals Buck (Skeets Gallagher) and Vi (Esther Howard) are steadfast, clear-eyed and endeavour to help keep things on an even keel. When Jerry's satirical romantic comedy is picked up by a Broadway producer the world belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Corbett.



Back in Claire's web with a drink in his hand.
Adrianne Allen as Claire Hempstead

Enter stage right, the star of Jerry's play, his old flame Claire Hempstead. As if on cue, Jerry once again has a drink in his hand and a tormented heart. The night of the successful opening a showdown between Mr. and Mrs. Corbett finds Jerry beating a path to the perfidious Claire. In a moment of misplaced assertiveness Joan decides theirs will be a "modern" marriage.



Joan parties with a young actor playing a young actor, Cary Grant.
Joan's toast, "Gentlemen, I give you the holy state of matrimony - modern style. Single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning."

Joan takes to the drinking and party scene like she was born to it. Who are we kidding? She's heartsick over Jerry, but keeps up the pretense because once started on this path she finds no way to stop. There's an age-old issue that usually comes, sooner or later, to young wives. It is not merely the thick atmosphere of smoke at a penthouse party that leaves Joan feeling ill, and a doctor confirms her  delicate condition.



Home at last.

Unable to get Jerry to listen to her news, Joan leaves him and returns to her father in Chicago. At least he always loved her. Jerry has never said those words. Months (nine) apart have forced Jerry to take a long look at what he has done with his life and to Joan's. He is back at his old Chicago newspaper job and back on the wagon. Joan's months have passed differently and, we learn, with great difficulty. Her father tries to keep Jerry from her, but Joan's love is steadfast.



Dorothy Arzner
(1897 - 1979)

The insightful and involving screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer is based on a novel called I Jerry, Take You Joan by Cleo Lucas. The 1932 Paramount release was directed by Dorothy Arzner. Dorothy Arzner appears to be to see her films as a whole which rely on all of its components to tell the story properly. As a viewer, there is a sense that hers is a sure hand that knows where to guide our movie watching experience.

In the framing of her actors in close-ups to highlight emotional scenes I see a respect for her stars and an appreciation of the dialogue from Ms. Arzner. There is a lovely dissolve when Joan has been disappointed by Jerry, but the determination on her face fades to wedding bells indicating the character's state of mind as well as the passage of time and events.

Women were important and established founders and members of the early film industry, handling creative and administrative chores both behind and on the screen. In the period following the First World War young Dorothy Arzner made her way into that industry first as a typist for William De Mille, then a story synopsis writer. Her eye was on the prize of directing and she was given the opportunity at Paramount to move into editing and assistant director. Mentored by James Cruze on The Covered Wagon her skills were recognized and her opportunity arrived.

Success with features began for Ms. Arzner at the end of the silent era and continued into that of sound. Our picture, Merrily We Go to Hell, would be her final picture made at Paramount. Apparently it was a salary dispute that caused the parting of the ways. The following year at RKO she would direct Christopher Strong starring Katharine Hepburn and the year after, Nana for Samuel Goldwyn's European import Anna Sten. In 1936 Rosalind Russell would star in Arzner's Craig's Wife based on George Kelly's play.

A turn at MGM would yield The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and The Bride Wore Red starring Joan Crawford. Back at RKO in 1940 would bring the interesting Dance, Girl, Dance with Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball. Her final credited feature is the wartime suspense drama First Comes Courage for Columbia starring Merle Oberon.

During a time when women were cut out of their rightful place in the film industry we are lucky to have Dorothy Arzner's output to enjoy and to study. We are fortunate also in the fact that she passed on her knowledge and skill to future generations of film professionals as a teacher at the Pasadena Playhouse and UCLA. Dorothy Arzner led an inspiring career during a time when the difficulties in doing so are only beginning to be surmounted now in the 21st century.