Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for October on TCM

There's a blurb in one of the copies of Christianna Brand's Green for Danger floating around my family that mentions that Ms. Brand was inspired to write her first mystery novel when she imagined bumping off an annoying co-worker.  It is not easy living or working with some people.  Close quarters can often inspire intense feelings.  In Green for Danger, published 1944, the close quarters are a military hospital and nerves are frayed by overwork, German bombs and murder.

The 1946 film based on the novel was adapted by Sidney Gilliat and Claude Guerney, and directed by Gilliat whose usual partner, Frank Launder, was producer.  The setting is a rural emergency hospital outside of London in 1944.  A Tudor mansion has been refurbished to care for patients with outbuildings rigged up as operating theatres.  Staff sleep in old coach houses and towers.  The intense working hours are not the only reason for stress among staff.  German buzz bombs or V1 rockets are a constant threat.  One of the local postmen is wounded when a bomb falls on a shelter and he requires an operation.  Mr. Higgins dies on the table before the cutting begins under troubling circumstances.  He had made some comment about the anesthetist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard, The Third Man) having some nerve to be doing the job.  And whose voice did Higgins recognize before being wheeled into surgery?  The new head of administration, Dr. White (Ronald Adam, The Haunting) would like the whole thing to go away, but Dr. Barnes will not co-operate by resigning. 

Sally Gray, Leo Genn, Rosamund John, Megs Jenkins
We discover more about the staff at a jolly party arranged for the good of morale.  The surgeon, Mr. Eden (Leo Genn, Quo Vadis), has a reputation with the ladies.  Barne's fiance Freddie Linley (Sally Gray, The Saint in London) is being swept off her feet by the dashing fellow from Harley Street.  Sister Carter (Wendy Thompson, Stairway to Heaven) is a former flame of Eden's who has been swept aside.  Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John, Spitfire) and Mr. Eden go away back.  Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins, Oliver!) is honest to the point of bluntness.  There may be some who don't appreciate that characteristic.

A dumped and distraught Sister Carter informs all gathered at the party that murder is afoot and she knows who has done what and can prove it.  Poor Sister doesn't get the opportunity.  Her stabbed body is found in the operating theatre and it is now a job for Scotland Yard.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill
"My presence lay over the hospital like a pall – I found it all tremendously enjoyable."

Scotland Yard in Green for Danger is represented by Inspector Cockrill as played by Alastair Sim (Stage Fright, A Christmas Carol, The Belles of St. Trinian's).  While the plot, the setting and the fine ensemble of actors make for a excellent whodunnit viewing, it is Sim's droll portrayal that places Green for Danger at the very top.  Sim would work for/with Gilliat and Launder in 13 films altogether starting with 1939s Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday through to 1959s Left Right and Centre.

The story unfolds through the unobtrusive narration of Cockrill's report to his superior at the Yard.  We hear the good Inspector's point of view and we see the Inspector in action.  No one is more confident than our Inspector Cockrill.  No one more observant.  No one more able to strike fear into the hearts of foes.  No one is so able at wrapping up a murder case in a matter of days or of outrunning doodlebugs than Inspector Cockrill.  The puzzle pieces are all there for you.  Will you be able to fit them together as neatly as the Inspector?  Green for Danger is a perfect mystery movie full of delights.  Like a perfect solitaire diamond it stands alone, but how you will wish there were sequels filled with Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill.

TCM is screening Green for Danger on Sunday, October 5th at 8:15 am and is a great way to start your day.  I only hope it is a nice, rainy day for you wherever you are.  It will enhance the mysterious atmosphere and the slyly humourous dialogue.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mickey Rooney is The Comedian (1957)

Opening night.  The butterflies.  Checking those lines that refuse to stick in your brain.  Focus.  Focus.  Stop thinking about those fifty chores that have to wait.  Concentrate on the blocking.  You mustn't be an inch out of line.  It's not opening night on Broadway.  It's opening - and closing - night on television.  Live television.  Television's Golden Age.  Kraft Television TheaterArmstrong Circle TheaterThe Philco Television PlayhouseThe United States Steel Hour.  This week, Playhouse 90.

Back:  Edmond O'Brien, Mel Torme
Front:  Constance Ford, Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter

Announcer:  "From Television City in Hollywood, Playhouse 90.  Tonight starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O'Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Torme, Constance Ford.  To introduce tonight's show, Miss Claudette Colbert."

Claudette Colbert:  "Good Evening.  Tonight's Playhouse 90 presents The Comedian.  The story of a ruthless, but fascinating entertainer.  The Comedian is the work of two distinguished writers.  The author of the original story Ernest Lehman, who has written the screenplays for such popular motion pictures as The King and I, Somebody Up There Likes Me and Executive Suite.  The adapter, Rod Serling whose long list of original television dramas includes the award winning Patterns, Forbidden Area and Requiem for a Heavyweight."

AND - away we go.  The director of The Comedian was John Frankenheim (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Iceman Cometh).  At 27, he was the youngest of the directors associated with Playhouse 90, and its most prolific.  At 37, playing the title character was Mickey Rooney, already a stage and screen veteran of 30 years.  It was early in the TV portion of Mickey's career which would include 76 credits, 5 Emmy nominations and a win in 1982 for Bill.  His first Emmy nomination would be for Actor - Best Single Performance - Lead or Support for playing Sammy Hogarth in The Comedian.  John Frankenheimer was nominated for Best Direction - One Hour or More and Rod Serling would win for Best Teleplay Writing - One Hour or More for Rod Serling.

The door to the studio reminds everyone who's boss.

Sammy Hogarth, described in the introduction as "ruthless, but fascinating" is indeed all that and it took an actor with Mickey Rooney's legendary brand of energy to bring that character to life.  Sammy Hogarth is a star with a star's outsized ego.  He's a bully with power.  He may have had to struggle to get to the top.  He may have buried loneliness and self doubt.  However, the day-to-day Sammy is not a nice man.

A special 90 minute comedy special is in the works and the skits don't work.  Sammy is not happy, and when Sammy is not happy nobody is happy.  A couple of days before air and the only thing working is the monlogue.  Sammy's monologues always work.  Some guys do wife jokes.  Some guys do mothers-in-law jokes.  Sammy has a brother, and that kid brother is a joke.  Mel Torme plays Lester, Sammy's devoted lackey.  One thing Lester has that Sammy hasn't is Julie played by Kim Hunter.  It's not that Sammy hasn't made a play for his sister-in-law, or that she isn't as attracted as she is repulsed, but Julie loves Lester.  She wants this constant publicly whipping of her husband to stop.  If it doesn't stop, she will leave.  Lester is desperate.

Head writer Al Preston is played by Edmond O'Brien.  O'Brien is the heart of our story and the actor with most of the screen time.  Al is just about dried up as a comedy writer.  Secretary Connie played by Constance Ford doesn't care what Al does, she just cares about Al.  Al knows his stuff is gone, but out of sentimentality he has kept in his drawer the work of a young writer who died in the war.  It's good stuff.  Maybe he should pass it off as his own.  Anything to make Sammy happy and get him off his back.  Al is desperate.

Is Sammy oblivious to how those in his circle really feel or does he like being top dog too much to care?  Someone who really irks Sammy is a columnist named Otis Elwell played by Whit Bissell like Addison De Witt with a dash of Waldo Lydecker.  Elwell is looking for a story on Sammy.  He doesn't care what it is as long as it's juicy enough to hopefully be a career breaker.  No love is lost between these two.

All of this heightened emotion and these secrets swirl around the blustering and magnetic Sammy Hogarth as rehearsals go on and show night nears.  King Donovan is The Director and it is a fascinating aspect of the program that we get a glimpse of the backstage atmosphere of live television while enjoying the drama.  Who will survive, and how?  You might be surprised.

We can see Mickey Rooney at all stages of his career thanks to film.  Some of us have the memory of seeing him on stage.  It is the same with his castmates in this Playhouse 90 production.  Each time we watch a film performance or TV guest spot, these departed performers are alive for us once more, giving us their art and creativity.  A performance captured on a night of live television is something extra special, something we can share in a way that is denied us in a movie.  We get to share that opening night.

“This post is part of The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September.  Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries.”


Sunday, September 7, 2014

World War One in Classic Film: Ever in My Heart (1933)

Silent-ology and Movies Silently host World War One in Classic Film, a historical blogathon, on September 6 and 7, 2014.

Byzantine political alliances and colonialism led to the first global conflict in 1914 and today we are still intrigued and horrified by the senseless drama.  The 1932 release Ever in My Heart looks at the domino effect of WWI on those who personally or politically clung to isolationism.  Beulah Marie Dix (The Squaw Man, The Life of Jimmy Dolan) and Bertram Millhauser (The Perils of Pauline, The Spider Woman) wrote the story and screenplay, and the movie was directed by Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Black Legion).  Spoilers abound in this look at Ever in My Heart.

Mary Archer comes from a family with deep pride in their American roots, if little else.  There has long been an understanding between Mary and her cousin Jeff (Ralph Bellamy) and everyone is anticipating a wedding now that Jeff is returning from studies in Europe.  Jeff has brought home a friend from German, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger) and for Mary and Hugo it is love at first sight.  We don't see fireworks and hear a choir of angels.  Mary and Hugo look at each other and come together as two halves of a heart that was meant to be one.  The family, including brother Sam (Frank Albertson) and various aunts, are scandalized at Mary's attraction and quick engagement to the stranger.  To the foreigner.  Jeff graciously drops his romantic designs assuring Mary that she will be very happy as Hugo is "a grand fellow".  Jeff will be, for a time, their closest friend.

Gentle and loving vignettes show us the passing of time and the growing of the Wilbrandt's love.  Their courtship and marriage is defined by "their" song, Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, in English You, you are in my heart.  Here is a lovely version of the song on YouTube by Erich Kunz.  Stanwyck and Kruger are often filmed with their faces close together heightening our sense of their oneness.

You, you are in my heart
you, you are in my mind.
You, you cause me much pain,
You don't know how good I am for you.
Yes, yes, yes, yes you don't know how good I am for you.

So, as I love you
So, so love me too.
The most tender desires
I alone feel only for you.
Yes, yes, yes, yes I alone feel only for you.

But, but may I trust you
You, you with a light heart?
You, you know you can rely on me
You do know how good I am!
Yes, yes, yes, yes you do know how good I am!

And, and if in the distance,
it seems to me like your picture, 
Then then I wish so much
that we were united in love.
Yes, yes, yes, yes that we were united in love.

Hugo finds a job as a respected and well-liked college professor in chemistry.  He and Mary share a comfortable home with a precocious bi-lingual son, Teddy (Ronnie Crosby), a pet dachshund, and a devoted housekeeper (Clara Blandick).  The Wilbrandt's share with their friends the joyous occasion when Hugo becomes an American citizen, and those loving friends and colleagues present an engraved loving cup as a gift.

Hugo Wilbrandt
In Commemoration of
His Oath of allegiance
The United States
His Friends and Associates
Rossmore College

The incident in the Balkans and ensuing battles fill the newspapers and the public's appetite for gory details and propaganda is insatiable turning neighbour against neighbour, if that neighbour happens to be of German heritage.  When America officially enters the war Hugo loses his position at the college and the loving friends, even family turn out to be of the fair weather brand.  The loving cup is empty.  Illness and starvation come to the little family, and the tragic death of their beloved son.  Even the pet is set upon and killed by youngsters no doubt aping the attitude of their parents.

Eventually Mary's family step in to return her to her rightful place.  They will even find a job for Hugo in the family-run factory if he agrees to change his name.  It is too much for the beaten man who blames their lack of compassion for Teddy's death.  He sends Mary off with the Archers for her own good, but Hugo returns to Germany.  He writes to Mary:

"Think of me and remember that what I do is forced upon me.  They let me be a citizen, but they won't let me be an American.

When you get this, I will be on the ocean.  I am going where I belong - to fight for my people.


Heartbroken Mary eventually moves forward by joining the Red Cross as a canteen worker/organizer.  Sam and Jeff are also in the military.  Most telling is a conversation with Jeff in which he expresses the hope that after the conflict they can resume their earlier relationship.  His tone and words are so different from his attitude before the war.  Were these ideas buried or were they created anew by circumstance and propaganda?

Jeff:  "You came out of it just the way I thought you would."
Mary: "Had to."
Jeff:  "And now, here we are again just as before."
Mary:  "Just as before.  With time out for a dream."
Jeff:  "Dream is right.  It never would have worked out, Mary."
Mary:  "Why not?"
Jeff:  "Because you're American and he was German.  Don't forget there was 300 years of Archers behind you before Hugo ever came along.  Folks don't get away from what's bred in their blood and bones."
Mary:  "Maybe you're right."
Jeff:  "I know I'm right."


Mary is in charge of a canteen at a major gathering point for reinforcements.  Sam is somewhere on the line.  Jeff is in charge of the area and wary of German spies.  Mary sees a lone soldier, a familiar back and neck seated at a table.  The years, the disappointment and hate drift away as she walks as through a haze to Hugo.  When Jeff enters the canteen Mary succeeds in diverting his attention from the spy he seeks.  It was natural.  It was instinct.  Hugo comes to Mary's quarters and their reunion is bitter and sweet.  She claims to regret her earlier actions. 

Hugo:  "Have you forgotten everything we had together?  The tears and the laughs."
Mary:  "I won't remember.  I mustn't."

Mary remembers.  She also has a picture of Sam on her dresser and the sight of American soldiers marching outside her window.  Hugo will not be returning to his base with information that night.  That night he and Mary rekindle their dream.  They toast that lost dream in the morning with wine and with poison.  The poison Mary confiscated from canteen volunteers intimidated by propaganda.  Mary can't let Hugo carry out his military duty and she can't live without him.  As Hugo unknowingly drifts away from life, they share their love and their song.  One last time we see those faces close together.

Ever in My Heart works as a quiet domestic drama with a calamitous historical background and a lesson for us all.  The melodramatic finale works as well because of the sensitive and sincere work of actors Stanwyck and Kruger who make us feel their hopelessness in the face of overwhelming circumstances.  It also works because there was nothing subtle about World War One.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for September on TCM

 "It is always up there, close to the clouds, on the topmost floors of the sky-reaching towers of big business. And because it is high in the sky, you may think that those who work there are somehow above and beyond the tensions and temptations of the lower floors. This is to say that it isn't so."

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go.  Work takes up a large portion of all of our lives.  Even away from the salt mines, whether we are a boss or a nameless cog in the wheel of industry, its influence is pervasive.  The subject of the corporate life is endlessly fascinating to explore, and entertainment in the 1950s gave us many interesting takes on business power, how to obtain it, how to use it, as well as the struggle to balance work and home life.  Rod Serling's 1956 teleplay Patterns examines personal responsibility in a power struggle.  Broadway (1953) and Hollywood's (1956) comedy of a shareholders revolt, The Solid Gold Cadillac brings a romantic comedy to the boardroom.  Jean Negulesco directed 20th Century Fox's glossy Woman's World from 1954 and soapy The Best of Everything in 1959.

MGM assembled one of their all-star ensembles for Ernest Lehman's character study, Executive Suite in 1954 directed by Robert Wise.  Each actor in the cast was familiar to the audience and exceedingly skilled.  We get to know these people over the course of a 24 hour period when the charismatic chairman of the Tredway Corporation, a large furniture manufacturing concern, is felled by a heart attack.  Initially, the body of Avery Bullard is unidentified leading to an attempt at stock manipulation by Board member George Caswell (Louis Calhern) who witnessed the body being removed by ambulance.

A note here about blonde babe Lucy Knoch who plays the bored and ignored, and much younger than her spouse, Mrs. George Nyle Caswell.  I had for many years, since my first viewing, considered this character as Caswell's live-in girlfriend.  It was only on a recent viewing that I noticed the character's billing as "Mrs.".  Was this censor appeasement or was I a particularly cynical teenager?  Consider this exchange:

George Caswell:  "Do me a favor, will you?  Read the funnies."
Mrs. Caswell:  "There aren't any in The Times.  Don't you know that?"
George Caswell:  "Then read "Situations Wanted".  You may need one."

The relationship could be read either way.

Fredric March, Paul Douglas, William Holden

Prior to succumbing to the attack, Bullard had telegraphed his head office to call a meeting at which he would name an executive vice president as the position had been vacant for several years.  Assumed to be the first in line is dyed-in-the-wool company man Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon).  His ambitious wife (Virginia Brissac) certainly feels entitled to the promotion.  Long-time head of production Jesse Grim (Dean Jagger) views it all with the detachment of a man who has decided to retire.  Loren Shaw (Fredric March) is a bean counter with one eye on the bottom line and the other on a corner office.

Glad handing salesman Jos Dudley (Paul Douglas) is in the running, but only by virtue of his status as a vice president, not his suitability.  If his affair with his secretary Eva (Shelley Winters) was known, Dudley would be counted out.  Research and development ace Mcdonald Walling's (William Holden) focus is purely on design.  Don's wife Mary (June Allyson) thinks the toxic atmosphere at the company is harmful to her husband and their family (Tim Considine).  Two women in Bullard's life face an extra emotional upheaval at his death.  Executive secretary Erica Martin (Nina Foch) only shows the cracks in her professional facade to Don Walling, who instinctively understands.  Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck) the daughter of the founder of the company, who was used and perhaps loved by Bullard in his rise to the top also finds a level of understanding from Walling.

Ernest Lehman's screenplay was his first of ten nominations (six wins) from the Writers Guild of America.  The movie is filled with idea, but little "speechifying", until it is necessary and appropriate in Walling/Holden's plea to the Board of Directors.  The ideas of dreams vs. power, innovation vs. stagnation, personal life vs. professional are all expressed in the lines and attitude of the characters. 

Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters
We learn about Shaw/March's struggle from a disadvantaged background when Caswell refers to Shaw as a "Night School CPA".  We see Shaw's nervous wiping of his hands as his reach exceeds his grasp.  We learn of Old Man Tredway's suicide and Julia Tredway's affair with Bullard in throwaway lines from newspapermen "Be careful what you write about Tredway.  We don't want to get sued for libel."  Mary recalls when Don first came to the company how he and Bullard would plan and talk for hours, but how it all changed.  Dudley/Douglas as a philandering salesman may be the character most easy to relate to as he's not a mastermind, just a henpecked and overworked slob caught up in other's schemes.  Alderson/Pidgeon has moments of epiphany as to his place in the grand scheme of Tredway Industries moments of spite against Shaw and moments of great character as he soldiers on.  It is a quiet performance that sneaks up on the audience.  There is no musical score to bring attention to these matters, it all comes from the actors and their words, and their sure-handed direction.

Robert Wise was nominated Best Director by the Directors Guild of America.  The Black and White cinematography (George Folsey), art direction-set decoration (Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Edwin Willis, Emile Kuri) and costume design (Helen Rose) were also nominated.

Nina Foch, William Holden
Nina Foch's bereft secretary tells so much with a look, a tone and her proprietary handling of the late executive's office.  Ms. Foch mentioned in interviews that the role, as written, showed little to her, but Robert Wise convinced her that she could bring Miss Martin to life.  Nina Foch was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress and won Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review.

The cast of Executive Suite was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Best Ensemble Acting.  Fredric March was nominated for a BAFTA as was the film.  The outstanding ensemble and the still relevant problems faced by the characters make Executive Suite a movie well worth classic status and multiple viewings.  There will always be a new performance to enjoy and a thoughtful perspective on an old problem.

TCM is showing Executive Suite on Tuesday, September 2nd at 1:00 pm. 



Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Build Your Own Blogathon: T-Men (1947)

The Build Your Own Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe is successfully underway.  Today's post links to Paul's (Lasso the Movies) through Wallace Ford, the actor who philosophically reminded us what stinkers normal human beings can be in Harvey.

Wallace Ford, the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, was an actor whose long career included ten Broadway shows, with a highlight being the role of George in Of Mice and Men.  We are fortunate to be able to share in his four decade Hollywood career through such titles as Freaks, The Beast and the City, Lost Patrol, The Informer, Blues in the Night, The Mummy's Tomb, Shadow of a Doubt, Black Angel, The Set-Up, The Furies, The Man from Laramie, The Rainmaker, The Matchmaker, A Patch of Blue, and your favourite that I may have missed.  He gives an award worthy performance in T-Men

Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder star as Treasury Department agents who go undercover to bust up a counterfeit ring in Anthony Mann's 1947 crime-noir-docudrama T-Men.  Beginning in 1944 and throughout the decade Mann honed his considerable skill on a number of intense crime dramas that speak "noir" to generations with such titles as The Great Flamarion, Raw Deal and Border Incident.  In the 50s he would bring that dark sensibility to the adult western with Winchester '73 and The Man from Laramie, etc. before tackling epics including El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.  The Mann I like best is whichever Mann I happen to be watching.

William Malten, Dennis O'Keefe

Virginia Kellogg's (White Heat, Caged) story and John Higgins' (Raw Deal, Big House, USA) screenplay follows in the docucrama tradition of The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang! featuring a voice over narration (Gayne Whitman) that takes us through the procedure of the investigation.  The field officers, the lab technicians, informants and supervisors all play vital roles in penetrating the underworld.  Like actors preparing a back story for a character, Agents O'Brien and Genaro create criminal personas to give them access to a Detroit based mob.  Information links the criminals in Detroit to brazen counterfeiters in Los Angeles.  An informant was brutally gunned down by an enforcer who enjoys his work too well played by cold-eyed Charles McGraw.  It will be a long and dangerous road that leads from Detroit to L.A.

Our sharp and resourceful agents discover a link between the two mobs in the form of a character known as The Schemer played by Wally Ford.  The physical description is about 5'9" and stout, smokes cigars and takes Chinese herbs.  While there are probably more than a few stout, 5'9" smokers in Los Angeles, the Chinese herbs is something to go on.  Agent O'Brien, now known as Harrigan, heads to California to track the lead, leaving Genaro, now Galvani, with the Vantucci mob in Detroit.

Did you ever spend ten nights in a Turkish bath looking for a man? Don't.

When a herbalist complains of the customer fitting the agent's description taking too many unhealthy steam baths, Harrigan has a further lead.  It's not the most comfortable of assignments, and it's going to get worse.  In order to get The Schemer to open doors to the gang, Harrigan poses as a would be rival in the counterfeiting game, receiving lots of bumps and bruises for his trouble, not to mention losing eight pounds in the Turkish baths. 

Dennis O'Keefe, Wally Ford

The Schemer is one of those roles where, in the hands of the right actor, the character can steal the movie.  Wally Ford was the right actor.  Once involved in the higher echelon of the gang, The Schemer has fallen from grace and fallen far.  He has the nerve to keep up the pretense of being a main player despite the disdain heaped upon him by the muscle men and messenger boys.  Knowing he is only tolerated by the boss because of the threat of revealing inside details through a hidden book, The Schemer's bravado only thinly covers his constant fear.  Initially, Schemer hopes Harrigan's promise of exceptional plates to compliment his gang's high quality paper will put him back in a position of trust.  However, he is not above looking for a way to hijack the entire business.  When an unfortunate meeting puts a crack in Genaro's cover, a doomed Schemer will use that information in an effort to save his own skin.  The Schemer's demise at the hands of McGraw is one of the most memorable in all film-noir.

Alfred Ryder
Dennis O'Keefe, Charles McGraw in reflection

A further murder may be one of the most heart-breaking in 40s crime pictures and serves to illustrate the commitment of the agents and the depravity of their quarry.  While the narration serves to keep the viewer grounded in the routine of the work, the human factor is filled with tension, suspense and brutality.  We are kept in a beautiful yet suffocating world of black and white images, of choking close-ups, upward angles and deceiving distances.  Director Mann and cinematographer John Alton create a world and a mood removed from our own that is frightening and inviting.  Their collaborations are impressive:  T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, Reign of Terror, Border Incident and Devil's Doorway.

Jane Randolph

Three women perform essential roles in the unfolding drama of what is labeled "The Shanghai Paper Case".  Glamorous nightclub singer Mary Meade plays Evangeline, a go-between for the LA mob who knows enough to know when to be frightened.  Lovely and expressive June Lockhart has an important cameo that is a prelude to tragedy.  Strangely uncredited, Jane Randolph of The Curse of the Cat People, Railroaded! and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein exudes power as the face of the mob kingpin. 

T-Men is an outstanding example of the crime docudrama, a true "noir", and a movie that can place the viewer in another time while retaining the freshness of genuine interest and emotion.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Let's Go to the Theatre: FringeKids and Geri Paige Gans

Toronto's Fringe Festival ran this year from July 2 - 13.  Like Fringe Festivals everywhere, the theatre scene crackles with creativity and the joy of discovery.  This year, the "Nolan Girls" got together to enjoy FringeKids, plays with an appeal to the younger set (get 'em while they're young).  Specifically, we were keen to see, for the first time since the 80s, writer/composer Geri Gans take on Rapunzel.
Rapunzel author/composer Geri Gans with my niece Lenny, a fan
note: Lenny doesn't need glasses, she just likes them

The show was a success (nobody got rich, but nobody went broke) playing to sold out audiences throughout the run.  The very funny play filled with memorable tunes and wacky characters won over its audience in all age brackets.  The sheltered and silly Rapunzel, the sarcastically wicked witch, the friendly frog, the put-upon crow (minion to witch) and the befuddled prince will live long the memories of many.  It was a shorter version than the production last seen in Toronto back in 1986 to fit Fringe requirements, but still a vivid presentation.

Geri Gans, Paddy (Caftan Woman) and Judy Gans
FringeKids 2014

One of the great things for me about getting out to FringeKids was seeing Geri.  Oh, we chat on e-mail these days, but a real, honest-to-goodness face to face has been sorely lacking.  As an actress, teacher, writer and composer Geri Paige Gans is someone who makes Toronto the swell theatre town that it is.  I wanted you to meet her and she graciously shared some memories with us.  You will find funny stories and familiar names.  And you'll find that, like most of us, the theatre bug bites early!


My father died and he left me a cow
With a wing wang waddle-oh
Jack sing saddle-oh
Blowsy boys bubble-oh
Under the moon

I am 4 years old, sitting on my father's lap and he is reading a nonsense poem to me from the Book of Knowledge.  It went on for several more verses and choruses, and the first line always upset me.


The teacher gave us a very interesting project called What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.  You had to write "I want to be" and fill in the blank.  I knew right away.  I wanted to be an actress.  I put it in book form complete with a table of contents.

Title page:  I Want to Be an Actress
Page 1:  Great Actresses.  I listed everyone I could think of from Sarah Bernhardt to my favourite at the time, Ginger Rogers.
Page 2:  Great plays.  Peter Pan and whatever Shirley Temple had been in, even though she only made movies.
Page 3:  Plays I have been in.  Completely blank.  I hadn't been in anything yet.

My mother bought me a Big Little Book that summer called My Life and Times by Shirley Temple.  She was only 6 years old and had written a whole book!  It included a picture of Will Rogers reading Life Begins at 40 to her.


The greatest influence in my life was my sister, Sylvia.  Shirley Temple sang a song When I Grow Up in a movie.  In Toronto at that time there was a radio show called The Ken Sobel Amateur Hour.  My sister thought it would be fun if I went on the show and sang When I Grow Up.  Since our father's store was on Yonge Street near Dundas, it would just be a short walk to the radio station.  Mr. Sobel asked people in the audience if they wanted to perform.  My sister put my hand up and I was escorted onto the stage.  A pianist played for me and I sang using all the stupid gestures I had seen in the movie.  Polite applause then I was escorted back to my seat whereupon Mr. Sobel noticed my sister Sylvia who was a stunning 18-year-old, "Do you do anything?"  She said, "Yes, I sing."  He said, "Would you like to sing for us?".  She said, "I'd love to."  He said, "What is your name?".  She said, "Sally Smith."  I said, "It is not!!!"  But he obviously wasn't listening to me.  "What would you like to sing, Sally?"  She said Goody Goody.  He led her to the stage and announced "Miss Sally Smith will sing Goody Goody."  Audience applause determined the winner.  No contest.  Sally Smith won hands down (together?) and returned to the stage to receive her prize, a Bulova watch.  And our dad owned a jewelry store.


My best friend Clara and I would write little plays.  At closing time on Friday or Saturday the poor staff at my father's store would have to sit around in the large repair area in the back and watch our "performances".  They were very gracious about it.

One skit I remember was called Dr. Picklepuss and Dr. Hicklepuss.  The dialogue had to sound very mysterious and sinister.

Dr. P:  Is everything ready, Dr. Hicklepuss?
Dr. H:  All Ready, Dr. Picklepuss.
Dr. P:  Equipment all in place, Dr. Hicklepuss?
Dr. H:  All in place, Dr. Picklepuss.
Dr. P:  And no one is about?
Dr. H:  No one is about.
Dr. P:  You sure?
Dr. H:  Very sure.
Dr. P:  Then shall we begin?
Dr. H:  Yes.  Let us being.

They turn on the equipment and start waltzing to the Minuet in "G".  What is interesting about this is that years later I saw a couple of comics doing a similar route on television.


When I was 10, and because of my interest in acting, my sister thought it would be a good idea to take elocution lessons from a friend of hers named Mildred.  Every week she drove me to Mildred's house for my hour.  My lessons consisted of reading some paragraphs or speeches and then looking up a bunch of words in the dictionary for proper pronunciation.  That was my homework.  I remember "profile" was supposed to be pronounced either "profeel" or "proful".  At the end of the year we did a play and I got the lead!  I was to play "Corinna" in Beyond the Gate.  I wore a beautiful white satin dress and drove the dressmaker crazy wanting a fuller skirt.  I would only answer to Corinna and I'm sure I was unbearably obnoxious.  I also had dreadfully phony speech and my sister pulled me out of those classes immediately after the play.  One interesting highlight was that on a streetcar one day a little girl came over to me and asked if I was "Corinna" in Beyond the Gate.  When I said I was, she asked for my autograph!


My sister had taken piano lessons and composed a very dramatic piece of music which she called Melancholia.  I thought it was wonderful and wanted to learn it.  I couldn't read music so she taught it to me by memory.  When my parents asked me if I would like to take piano lessons too I said yes.  They called my sister's piano teacher, Mr. Adelmo Melecci.  I played Melancholia for him and he was very impressed.  I was ten years old and was much more impressed with the fact that my sister could actually compose beautiful music like that!  Playing it was easy for me.  I liked learning new pieces, but hated thepractice sessions which, of course, became longer as the music became more difficult.  Mr. Melecci would come to the house Saturday morning or sometimes I would be taken to the Toronto Conservatory of Music.  When that happened my treat was to sit on one of the two lion statues in front of the building after my lesson.

Mr. Melecci had perfect pitch and the first few minutes of every lesson were spent in trying to fool him.  He would cover his eyes and I would play sharps or flats, but he guessed the right note every time.  He brought over a metronome at my first lesson, but I never really learned proper timing.  He would play pieces from each new grade and I would pick the ones I liked.  Because he had played them I knew how they should sound so I never had to figure out the timing for myself.  I completed 7 grades in a year and a half.  Did OK at my exams at the Conservatory and played in one recital.  My piece was Boccherini's Minuet.  My friend Clara was also studying with Mr. Melecci, so her father had recital dresses made for us in his little clothing manufacturing factory, which was relaly a couple of rooms at the back of his house occupied by ladies sitting at machines and sewing.  The "Hammer Garment Company" dresses were exactly the same except that Clara's was wine taffeta and mine was blue.

I wanted to stop taking lessons because I was nearly 12 and knew everything and I would be going into high school in the fall and was sure I'd have way too much work to practice piano.  Mr. Melecci would come over to the store once or twice a month for a whole year and say he'd teach me for $1.00 a lesson.  Then he said for free!!  He could have me in Carnegie Hall by thetime I was 16!!!  But I was stubborn and stupid.  I was going to be an actress!  Who needed piano lessons?  Little did I know how much those lessons lessons would have helped me when I started teaching acting and composing music.


I am 10 years old.  My brother, age 12, and I are composing a song.  It's called Sitting Alone in the Moonlight.  I'm music, Ned is words.  He was very proud ofone line:  "You are a perfect gem.  You're in my arms again".  "Get it?" he asked.  "Perfect gem!  And we have a jewelry store."  "But it doesn't rhyme!"  "Doesn't matter."  From that day on my lyrics had to rhyme.


My sister was cast as the mother in a play called The World We Make by Sydney Kingsley and they needed a kid to play her daughter.  There was never any question.  She just brought me to a rehearsal and that was that.  Lou Jacobi played my father.  I became the resident kid when Sylvia and Ben (Lennick) formed The Belmont Group Theatre with Leo Orenstein and his wife Lucille Kallen.  Lucille later became one of the writers of the Sid Caesar Show and got Ben (Gans) and I tickets to the show on our honeymoon.


It was at The Belmont that I first met Sarah.  She wanted to work backstage and learn theatre.  She was 3 years older than me and a brilliant writer.  We suddenly found ourselves composing songs.  It worked this way.  She would say "Give me a title." then she would come back the next day with a whole page of lyrics and I would try to compose a melody that would mesh with her words.  Some of the stuff was not too shabby.

After high school (2 years at Jarvis Collegiate and 3 years Central Tech Art Department) Sarah and I went to New York for a month (my graduation present).  You could line up at 6 am and guy standing room only theatre tickets for $1.00.  We went to every musical we could.  I remember vividly standing at the back of the theatre and it seemed that only an hour had elapsed for the entire production of Guys and Dolls.  It just flew by!  And we were flying too!


Back home again, worked at the store as a cashier, played "Hennie" in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing with the Belmont.  One day my sister said, "Why don't you try out for summer stock at the Royal Alex.  You'll get to work with Ferrer."  Good idea.

Jose Ferrer

I had read about Jose Ferrer doing Charley's Aunt with a caption under his picture that read "Brazil:  Where the nuts come from".  He was going to do Richard III and The Green Goddess that summer in Toronto.  Sylvia's husband Ben took me to the Royal York Hotel to meet with the director Robert Henderson and told him I was very talented.  I was asked if I could sing.  (Yes.)  Could I dance?  (Like a rock, but I told him yes.)  Mr. Henderson liked me (he said that I "sparkled" on the stage) and gave me a small bit in "Richard" as Mistress Shore.  I had to walk up the stairs with Ferrer and laugh lustily.  Unfortunately, at 18, I looked cute, not lusty, so the part went to a hefty, bosomy gal instead.  But it did begin a friendship with Jose that lasted for many years.

In the fall I was cashiering at the Rio Theatre up the street from my dad's store and got to know a group of young musicians who were looking for a vocalist.  That was fun!  We still had the piano at the store so that's where we rehearsed.  Ralph, the pianist, taught me a little about chords, but I can still only write in the key of C.  Timing?  Pathetic.

Lorne Greene

One day, my sister said that Lorne Greene had started a marvelous school that she thought would be good for me.  She was right.  The Academy of Radio Arts was a wonderful, wonderful experience.  I couldn't wait to get to class every day.  I won the acting scholarship.

My sister had always wanted to go to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and was very happy that my scholarship and a word from Lorne Greene would allow me to go there.  But for the summer Greene wanted me to be a councilor at Arowhon Camp as well as Director of Evening Program and Arts and Crafts.  Before I left his office he told me to look up a councilor there by the name of Ben Gans.  At the door he said "Paige*, I met my wife at Arowhon."  Great matchmaker.


Married Ben in 1951.  Worked to help save for a house.  Bought Don Mills (north Toronto) home in 1954.  Had two beautiful little girls, Judy in 1955 and Debi in 1957.  Started teaching acting in 1963 in rec room, the "Downstairs Studio".  Wrote a short year-end play based on children's stories and alternated between the four plays and a demonstration script for the year-end production which was held in the studio or the Don Mills library.  After 25 years teaching bit the dust and I began adding music to the studio plays.  The Emperor's New Clothes is finished and I'm starting to work on Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin and The Pied Piper are waiting in the wings.  Got back to performing in Community Theatre.  Won a Thea for Torch Song Trilogy.  Loved doing Cabaret.  Did Social Security (twice) with Ben and am trying to get back to painting.  I would hate those three years in the art department go to waste.


One day my sister asked me to write a musical based on Rapunzel as it was very rarely done.  She would like to produce it and present it at the old Eaton's College Street Theatre.  I spent a very enjoyable summer working on that project, but when it was finally finished it turned out that the cost of producing it was prohibitive.  Sylvia was very upset but suggested that I offer it to Young People's Theatre, which I did.  Susan Rubes loved it and held onto it for a year and a half, but finally had to return it.  It had only six characters and their productions usually had large casts.  Rapunzel / The Girl in the Tower did find a home with Scarborough Music Theatre for a 6 performance Christmas weekend in 1986.  Remember, Paddy?

Rapunzel aka The Girl in the Tower
The original cast

Paddy (Caftan Woman) remembers.  I was on the Board of Directors of Scarborough Music Theatre at that time when we decided to produce Geri's wonderful show.  I acted as stage manager on the production and later performed on a demo tape of the songs with leading lady Judy Gans, the author's daughter.  It's something I recall with great fondness and pride.

And a mere 28 years later when two friends of Judy wanted to do a children's musical for the Fringe Festival, Rapunzel was ready once again to let her hair down.  When I think about it I realize that without my sister Sylvia there would be no Rapunzel.

I've never stopped composing music.  I'm very lucky.  Melodies just seem to come into my head all by themselves.  Writing them down on sheet music is a different story, but I think I'm getting the hang of it ... almost.

There are so many wonderful memories.  The people I worked with at the Royal Alex, some great Ferrer stories, my buddy at the Academy who ended up as president of CTV, the brilliant young student who played piano for me at the Neighborhood Playhouse and is a big-time director in Hollywood, doing a scene with Eddie Robinson Jr. and meeting his dad, Edward G., later.  Seeing friends on TV and being able to say "I want to school with him or her."  Good stuff.

Rapunzel follow-up.  My sister Tracey relates that daughter Lenny has been playing Rapunzel for the last 3 weeks. It's a sequel of sorts - Lenny meets Rapunzel on the subway and invites her to come move in with us.  Melody (the frog) too.   



Friday, August 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for August on TCM

I'm a sucker for an after-life fantasy.  As an impressionable youngster I saw The Green Pastures on television and I'll certainly be surprised if I get past those Pearly Gates and the head guy doesn't look like Rex Ingram.  Of course, in Cabin in the Sky Mr. Ingram was in charge of that other place, which impressed me because of the presence of Louis Armstrong ("You gotta get hot to play real cool.").  However, in that movie Ethel Waters was so adamant about Heaven being THE place to go that she made me feel guilty about liking the music.  

In Powell and Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven an angelic emissary opines that "Many people would consider it heaven to be a clerk (as in office worker)".  That's for me!  I can find heaven browsing in a stationery shop.

Someone else who was a sucker for after-life fantasies was writer Harry Segall whose play Heaven Can Wait aka The Wonderful Journey was filmed in 1941 as Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  The Jordan of the title was played by stylish Claude Rains.  As the angel in charge, his unflappability could be either comforting or annoying as the mood strikes you.  Most of us, I imagine, would retain our human fallibility as Messenger 7013 played by Edward Everett Horton exhibits when he causes all the fuss in the plot.

Like Mr. Ingram mentioned previously, Claude Rains covered both realms of Forever-after on screen.  Also written by Harry Segall, in Angel on My Shoulder Rains plays Nick, the harried manager of the repository of soiled souls.  The 1946 film directed by Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Orchestra Wives, Moontide) tells the tale of his experiences with bumped off mobster Eddie Kagel played by Paul Muni.

Paul Muni
1895 - 1967

In his time Mr. Muni was a highly respected actor of stage and screen.  He received a Tony as Henry Drummond in the 1956 Broadway production of Inherit the Wind and won an Oscar for 1937s The Story of Louis Pasteur.  His five other Oscar nominations were for 1929s The Valiant, 1934s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 1936s Black Fury, 1938s The Life of Emile Zola and 1959s The Last Angry Man.  Paul Muni's reputation has diminished as tastes in acting have changed, but I believe audiences do themselves a disservice in dismissing Muni's range and commitment.

Paul Muni Day during TCM's August Summer Under the Stars salute is the perfect opportunity to judge anew the man who seamlessly immersed himself in the roles of intellectuals and brutes, labourers and gangsters.

 Paul Muni, Claude Rains 

Angel on My Shoulder's Eddie Kagle is a kid of the streets, a self-made man who used his instincts and his strength to gain power.  After doing a stretch in prison and expecting due consideration from his partner in crime, Smiley Williams played by Hardy Albright, Kagle gets what's coming to him.  Shot with his own rod and sent straight to ... well, where the "H" is he?  The place is a hellhole, suffocatingly hot and smelling of sulphur.  Guards or no guards, nothing will stand in Eddie's way.  He has to crash out and make Smiley pay for his betrayal. 

Nick or Mephistopheles or whatever you want to call him, has a use for Eddie.  It seems our boy is the spitting image of a crusading judge named Parker.  Nick has got to stop Parker from cleaning up the streets and helping disadvantaged kids.  If he plants Eddie's body in Judge Parker's, Eddie will have the means to get even with Smiley and the thick-headed lout will ruin Judge Parker's reputation in time to keep him from becoming Governor.  Win-Win as far as old Beelzebub is concerned.  Eddie's willing to go along, even though he senses that Nick is a con man of the highest order.  Revenge is the engine moving his actions.

Anne Baxter, Paul Muni

You'll be able to see the plot coming a mile away, but the fun is in the journey.  Judge Parker's pretty secretary, Barbara, played by Anne Baxter (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Razor's Edge, All About Eve) has a softening influence on Eddie's heart and Eddie's impetuosity turns each misstep into something favourable on the Judge's behalf.  The screenplay is a delight to my ears.  Nick speaks as if he had swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary while Eddie's speech is a jumble of blunt and colourful 1940s slang.

The fun and philosophy can be found on Wednesday, August 6th at 4 p.m.  Let's spend Summer Under the Stars with Paul Muni.