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.     

Monday, July 21, 2014

James Garner (1928 - 2014)

James Garner, whose great ease and charm on screen has convinced generations that he was only playing himself, does his thing in the greatest comedy-western of all time, 1969s Support Your Local Sheriff!. Written by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, the movie spoofs everything which is near and dear to my heart, My Darling Clementine, Red River, Rio Bravo, High Noon and Winchester '73, et cetera.

Jim plays Jason McCullough, a stranger in town who drifts into the sheriff's job.  Life is complicated by every character actor from every western you have ever seen including Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, Jack Elam, Willis Bouchey, Walter Burke, Bruce Dern, Gene Evans and Kathleen Freeman.  

The scene posted here for your pleasure has Jim/Jason working out his High Noon dilemma with off-kilter leading lady, Prudy, played by the extremely talented Joan Hackett.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: Ford and The Informer (1935)

"For a director there are commercial rules that it is necessary to obey. In our profession, an artistic failure is nothing; a commercial failure is a sentence. The secret is to make films that please the public and also allow the director to reveal his personality."

The "baby" of his family, 19-year-old John Feeney, Jr. followed his successful actor/director elder brother Francis Ford to Hollywood in 1914.  The son of Irish immigrants would be successful beyond imagining, growing up with an industry and helping it to grow.  At the Francis Ford serial unit at Universal, Ford learned by doing everything - stunts, extra, assisting cameramen and directors, and writing.  By the age of 22 the newly billed Jack Ford was a full-fledged director of westerns and collaborating with the great actor Harry Carey.  At 25 he became a contract director at Fox Studios where, in addition to westerns, his talents were put to use in dramas, crime pictures and comedies.  It was noticeable to the public and the studio that Ford was an able and reliable movie director.  Occasionally critics would take note as well at his unerring eye and way with a story.

"It's no use talking to me about art, I make pictures to pay the rent."

He protests too much.  John Ford continually pushed himself as a creator and that often placed him in positions of conflict with budget and time conscious officials.  While shooting backgrounds in Europe for the 1928 release Four Sons Ford met and became friends with F.W. Murnau, soon to work for Fox.  Ford studied the German filmmakers methods of pre-production and their sophisticated visual techniques, bringing those to his WWI drama.

"I'm a journeyman director, a traffic cop in front of the camera, but the best traffic cop in Hollywood."

The "traffic cop" may have been proud of his working class attitude toward the job, but obviously yearned for more control over content as his contract at Fox/20th Century Fox allowed for freelance work.  The freelance clause would prove most fortuitous for a singular project when Ford met the Irish author Liam O'Flaherty and in 1933 optioned his award winning 1925 novel The Informer.  The novel spoke to Ford's Irish soul and his artist's heart.

"It's going to be very hard to find a studio that will back this picture.  It's very different from the usual fare."

Ford knew his industry and was not welcomed when he shopped his and Dudley Nichols (The Long Voyage Home, The Lost Patrol) treatment of The Informer at the various studios.  Merian C. Cooper at RKO was fearless enough in spirit and looking for something artistic to compliment the great commercial success he had experienced with King Kong.  It was the beginning of a friendship and a business partnership resulting in Argosy Pictures.

The budget for the film as $243,000 and the soundstage a building formerly used for storage.  

"I'm going to build all the production values into the camera."

Ford and Nichols had pared the story down to its essential dialogue and Ford was excited about a stylistic approach to the shoot, giving a sense of the mystical in the fogbound night and the foggy mind of the leading character, Gypo Nolan.  Meticulous planning and storyboarding was carried out with cinematographer Joseph August (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, They Were Expendable), art director Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane, Top Hat), set decorator Julia Heron (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bishop's Wife) and composer Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone With the Wind).

Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan

It is 1920, the height of the "the troubles" in Ireland when the brutish, but loyal Gypo Nolan foolishly seizes upon an opportunity to get a little money and save his girlfriend Katie from prostitution and give them a new life.  He informs on his best friend Frankie McPhillip, wanted for murder by the British.  Gypo's love for his friend hasn't died, but he sees a way out and takes it.  Perhaps he didn't foresee Frankie's death at the hands of the police.  Gypo is not one who thinks very far ahead.  The enormity of his betrayal he both understands and denies.  While the local IRA commander Dan Gallagher hunts for the informer, Gypo wanders through the city in increasing remorse and in trying to run away from himself, he loses all his money at the prodding of a fair weather friend and drink.  Brought to trial by his former comrades the frightened Gypo struggles to divert blame and escape.  Katie pleads with the commander for the hapless soul, but what Gypo set in motion cannot be stopped.  

Victor McLaglen was the only choice Ford had for Nolan and the director constantly kept his lead off balance to achieve the performance he desired.  Often noted for over-the-top cruelty toward some actors, one wonders whether or not it was necessary, but the proof is in the performance.  The Informer was McLaglen's seventh picture with Ford and he would vow never to work with him again.  He would appear in five more Ford movies.

John Ford 
1895 - 1973

The Informer opened at Radio City Music Hall to glowing critical response, but little box office.  Surprisingly, to Hollywood brains, it was in the smaller cities throughout the country that The Informer gathered steam.  If audiences were at first taken aback by the unexpected Ford/ McLaglen collaboration, they were impressed.

Ford was awarded the first of four Oscars for Best Director for The Informer; the other titles being The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.  The nomination for Stagecoach was caught up in the Gone With the Wind juggernaut.  However, with The Informer John Ford's reputation as a director of artistic merit was now assured.  

The Informer is, to this date, the only film to win the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture by a unanimous vote on the first ballot.  John Ford was acclaimed Best Director.  The National Board of Review named The Informer Best Picture.

Oscar wins
Best Actor in a leading role, Victor McLaglen
Best Director, John Ford
Best Writing, screenplay, Dudley Nichols
Best Music, score, Max Steiner

Oscar nominations
Best Picture (winner, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Best Editing, George Hivey (winner, Ralph Dawson, A Midsummer Night's Dream)

At the time of the release of The Informer John Ford was active in the Screen Directors Guild as treasurer and fervent supporter of labor.  The Guild boycotted the Academy Awards that year and Dudley Nichols and John Ford refused their awards.  A few months after the event John Ford chose to accept his well-deserved award and his ties with the Guild were irreparably broken.

In the cyclical nature of motion picture criticism and assessment, The Informer has gone through periods where it has taken hits as "not living up to its reputation", even from its creator.  I don't know where it stands currently in the minds of the great thinkers.  Personally, the characters, the conflict and the masterfully controlled and visually exciting storytelling leaves my gut wrenched and my heart singing.

I'm very grateful that Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed are hosting The John Ford Blogathon from July 7 - 13 and so will you be when you check out the insightful articles from passionate writers.    

Pappy: The Life of John Ford by Dan Ford

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for July on TCM

Ah, summer.  Many folks long to get away from the day to day routine of life.  Maybe visit an exotic location.  Meet some interesting people.  Have an adventure!  Can't get away?  Well, that's where movies come in handy.  We can hit the road to an exotic location, meet some interesting people and have an adventure all from the comfort of our favourite chair.

Our behind-the-scenes tour guide on the trip known as The Big Steal is Don Siegel, early in his career change from editor and montage creator (The Roaring Twenties, Gentleman Jim) to director (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Charley Varrick).  Our on-screen hosts are Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, stars of 1947s Out of the Past as a couple with a twisted, angst-filled relationship that drips pure noir.  This time around the characters played by our attractive leads do not have a past, but a present filled with danger.

Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum

The Big Steal, based on crime and western writer Richard Wormser's The Road to Carmichael's, is a road picture filmed on location in Tehuacan, Pueblo and at the Iverson Ranch.  A gentleman by the name of Fisk played by Patric Knowles (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Auntie Mame) is a very popular fellow.  His former fiance played by Jane Greer is most anxious to locate him and the $2,000 he "borrowed".  Robert Mitchum is after Fisk for reasons which are initially unclear, but may parallel Ms. Greer's somewhat.  Hot on Mitchum's tail is a door crashing, gun toting, hot headed William Bendix (The Blue Dahlia, Kill the Umpire).  When there's a door crashing, gun toting, hot headed guy following you, you just want to keep moving, but watch where you're going as you might bump into a fussy art dealer played by John Qualen (The Grapes of Wrath, Casablanca). 

These visitors to Mexico may well give tourists a bad name.  They lie, cheat, speed, shoot and make general nuisances of themselves all over the countryside.  None of their actions go unobserved as a very cool and smart official in the form of Inspector General Ortega played by Ramon Navarro (The Cat and the Fiddle, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) works his own agenda.

The great fun in The Big Steal is the relationship between Greer and Mitchum that begins with outright dislike and progresses to wary admiration then trust through their masterful way with wisecracks and innuendo.  The vigorous chase scenes and characterizations make The Big Steal a joy to watch.

TCM has a day of crime pictures on tap Tuesday, July 8th.  Check out The Big Steal scheduled for 4:15 pm.  It's a dandy!

Friday, June 27, 2014

MGM Blogathon: Three Godfathers (1936)

I'm thrilled to be taking part in the MGM Blogathon sponsored by Diana and Connie of Silver Scenes and running from June 26th - 29th.

MGM is justly renowned for its epics such as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and The Big Parade, its meticulously crafted costume dramas like Camille and Marie Antoinette, and its gloriously talent-stuffed musicals like Singin' in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz.  MGM is not the first studio that leaps to mind when considering that Hollywood staple, the western.

The studio's western output of the 1920s is barely more than a dozen features, but they can boost of a genuine genre star in Tim McCoy.  The real life sharpshooter and Native expert's storied career from soldier to film star to Ringling Brothers performer would be as interesting as any of his movies.  In the 1940s MGM's westerns were mainly used as buffoonish vehicles for Wallace Beery (Jackass Mail, The Bad Man).  They stepped up during the 1950s, a golden era for the genre, releasing a small but laudable group of titles including Devil's Doorway, Stars in My Crown, Westward the Women and The Naked Spur.

MGM's western output in the 1930s was dismally sparse and included mainly musicals like the operetta The Girl of the Golden West with Jeanette MacDonald and Joan Crawford in Montana Moon, and comedies such as William Haines in Way Out West and Frank Morgan in Henry Goes Arizona.  However, in the middle of the decade MGM surprises us with a gritty and artistic version of a venerable story by Peter B. Kyne.

The timeless Christmas tale of redemption The Three Godfathers first published in 1913 is the story for which Peter Kyne is best remembered thanks to the many film versions beginning in 1916 with The Three Godfathers directed by Edward LeSaint up to television with 1974s The Godchild directed by John Badham.  William Wyler's Hell's Heroes in 1929 was the first sound version of the story.  You can read Jim Lane's excellent article on that film here.  The animated features 2002s Ice Age and 2003s Tokyo Godfathers owe more than a passing debt of gratitude to that long ago Saturday Evening Post serial.  Spoiler alert:  the discussion of the story and film here will make the bold assumption that you are familiar with The Three Godfathers either in its original form or from one of its many filmed adaption.

"Four Bad Men had ridden into Wickenburg that December afternoon, but only three rode out.  One of the three had a bullet hole through his left shoulder."

The Worst Bad Man, The Wounded Bad Man and The Youngest Bad Man make their way across a desert to elude a posse and come across a stranded and recently widowed young woman about to give birth.  The unfortunate woman asks the unholy trio to care for her child, placing most of her hope on The Youngest Bad Man.  The Wounded Bad Man is the first to realize that their young compatriot is the truest hope for the child as neither he nor The Worst Bad Man possess the strength to complete the arduous journey to civilization after the loss of their horses and potable water.  The Youngest Bad Man, a newcomer to the outlaw world, is also the purest of the trio and one The Wounded Bad Man hopes will be able to go forward and live a more blameless life for the sake of his fellows.

Richard Boleslawski, Jean and Judith Kircher, Joseph Ruttenberg

The screenplay for this 1936 film version of the story is by Edward E. Paramore Jr. (The Virginian, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Three Comrades) and Manuel Seff (Woman Chases Man, Trouble for Two, Blessed Event).  Joseph Ruttenberg, four time Academy Award winning cinematographer (Gigi, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Mrs. Miniver, The Great Waltz) here plied his trade on location at Mojave and Red Rock Canyon State Park.  The sense of desolation and weariness brings the viewer uncomfortably into the world of the story.  

Three Godfathers was directed by Richard Boleslawski (Rasputin and the Empress, Les Miserables, Theodora Goes Wild).  Director Boleslawski is described by actress Marilyn Knowlden (young Cosette, Les Miserables) in her autobiography Little Girl in Big Pictures as "a great bear of a man ... perfectly costumed in the role of director, with his leather-front sweater, pipe, and ascot tie."  Boleslawski, a student of Constantin Stanislavski, was at the forefront of bringing that "method" of acting to the 20th century theatre.  He founded the American Laboratory Theatre in 1923, and published Acting: The First Six Lessons in 1933.  Spontaneity and sincerity were the hallmarks Richard Boleslawski sought from his actors.

Chester Morris, Irene Hervey

The setting of New Jerusalem is presented as the hometown of Bob, The Worst Bad Man, played by Chester Morris (The Big House).  He takes a particular glee in robbing the "hypocrites" at Christmas.  Bob torments his former love, Molly, played by Irene Hervey (Destry Rides Again) and her betrothed, a bank clerk played by Robert Livingston (The Three Mesquiteers).  The vibrant Morris gives us a character brimming with cynicism and contempt.  Everyone is a sucker and he uses their sentimentality against them.

Chester Morris, Walter Brennan, Lewis Stone

Lewis Stone (Grand Hotel) plays the outlaw known as "Doc", The Wounded Bad Man, and by his manner and interactions with the townspeople we learn that he is an educated man from New England, a wry observer of humanity.  It is Doc who clearly sees the hopelessness of their situation, keeps Gus on the side of the angels, and uses all of his power to convince Bob to "give the kid a break".  Bob's chilling response: "I'll give him a break.  If he wants to crawl to New Jerusalem I won't stand in his way."  For it is back to New Jerusalem they must travel, the shortest way to civilization, the longest way to Bob's redemption.  Doc is the first of the trio to die.  In a quiet and unforgettable scene, Doc, alone with his books and a gun, recites Macbeth's famous soliloquy from Act 5 of that play.  We hear Stone's resonant voice as the camera follows Gus and Bob walking away with the baby, then a shot.

Walter Brennan (Red River) plays "Gus" who claims to be the world's oldest outlaw.  At first glance Gus appears to be a stock comic relief character, but he proves to be quick on his feet, adept at his trade and entirely loyal.  Gus is a man seemingly addicted to lying, but played by Brennan with a refreshing lack of artifice.  On one level he has understood the import of their task, but the only way he can continue is by trying not to think about this being his end.  When the full realization of his situation hits him Gus recites a prayer from his childhood, ashamed that he cannot recall it entirely and embarrassed by Bob's cynical derision.  While Bob and the child sleep, Gus will wander off into the desert to die.

The baby in this version of the story is a sturdy, trusting crawler starting to teeth (twins Jean and Judith Kircher), rather than a newborn.  After Gus' death Bob takes the loot and leaves the child on a blanket.  A few yards from the infant Bob turns and fires his gun.  He has shot a rattlesnake crawling perilously close to the child.  Bob admonishes the baby for making him kill the innocent critter.  The die is cast.  

Kyne's original story does not specifically state that The Youngest Bad Man dies when he reaches the next town with the baby, only that he collapses.  The extent of his privations lead his death to be a natural conclusion, but prior to arriving at the saloon he has been imagining the life he will make for himself and the baby.  In John Ford's 1948 version of 3 Godfathers (an Argosy Pictures production distributed by MGM) that dream is realized in the ending.  You can read Kevin Deany's look at that film here.  Ford had filmed the story previously in 1919 as Marked Men starring Harry Carey.  I don't know how he ended that film, but I hope that as in the 1948 film he included my favourite part of the book.  It is when the outlaws struggle to care for their helpless charge following instructions from a 19th century Dr. Spock.

The 1936 film gives us no doubt as to the fate of Bob, The Worst Bad Man.  An hour away from New Jerusalem and knowing his strength is failing, Bob drinks from a poisoned water hole.  Doc had mentioned when they had passed this way on the run that the poison would take about an hour to kill.  Bob's sacrifice is done with this knowledge.  He stumbles into New Jerusalem and, more dead than alive, drags himself to the front of the church during Christmas service.  He places the child in Molly's arms and leans against a pillar where hangs a crown of thorns before collapsing in death.  The last close-up of the film is not on the man we have journeyed with, but with his legacy as Molly resolutely leaves the church with the rescued child.  The hope of the Three Bad Men.

The Three Godfathers is an unforgettable story that works as much as an adventure as an exploration of the depths of men's souls and the ironic twists of fate.  It is understandable that it has inspired so many films.  The IMDb lists two films projects as currently under production, one with a contemporary setting.  Using the same plot different directors and screenwriters have been able to reach our hearts and minds, with audiences claiming one or more of the films as "ours".  The rugged determination in the face of destruction is what touches me most in Richard Boleslawski's Three Godfathers.