Friday, March 27, 2015

The Favourite TV Show Episode blogathon: Ironside - One Hour to Kill (1970)

Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thought is hosting The Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, a brilliant idea whose contributions can be found here from March 27th to the 29th.

The television series based on Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason character was an outstanding success on CBS from its debut in 1957 to The Case of the Final Fade-Out in May of 1966.  Star Raymond Burr was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards for Leading Actor in a Series, and won the trophy in 1959.  When an actor is so successful and so identified with such a popular character, it staggers the imagination that lightning could strike with another prominent series or character, but strike it did - and in amazingly quick order.

Raymond Burr played the title character of Ironside in the pilot TV movie which aired in March of 1967.  Collier Young (Act of Violence, The Hitch-Hiker) created the series and the teleplay written by Don Mankiewicz (I Want to Live!, Trial) was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama.  Raymond Burr was nominated for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama for World Premiere, and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic SeriesIronside began its regular series run in September of 1967 and ran for eight seasons. 

The pilot introduced us to San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside, a tough-minded cop and media darling who is put in a wheelchair by a sniper.  All too used to getting his own way, the "Chief" refuses to be put out to pasture, but finagles a position through the Police Commissioner Dennis Randall played by Gene Lyons.  The Chief is now a consultant to the SFPD, with housing/offices in an unused floor of the headquarters building and a staff to help him investigate his own shooting.

Det. Sgt. Ed Brown played by Don Galloway is an ex-Serviceman and a protegee of Ironside's.  (I see him as the Archie Goodwin to Burr's Nero Wolfe.)  Episodes with an emphasis on the character of Ed Brown worth checking out are Nightmare Trip (Season 6), The Wrong Time, the Wrong Place (Season 3) and Five Days in the Death of Sgt. Brown (Season 6 with a crossover the the series The Bold Ones).  Second on the Chief's staff is Officer Eve Whitfield played by Barbara Anderson who would win one Primetime Emmy out of three nominations for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Drama.  Eve is a young women with a wealthy background whose journey to a policing career is chronicled in the episode Reprise (Season 2).  All in a Day's Work is an excellent episode written by Ed McBain which chronicles the aftermath of Eve having to shoot a fleeing suspect. 

Rounding out the Chief's team is Mark Sanger played by Don Mitchell.  Mark is a young black man who has had his troubles with the law and attempted to rob Ironside.  Seeing potential, and hating to be proved wrong, Ironside offers Mark a job as his driver/caregiver.  Mark sees the position as demeaning, but the Chief has a way of getting to people.  Eventually Mark attends law school at night and becomes a police officer.  The episode Down Two Roads (Season 6) shows us why Mark makes this career change.  An offbeat episode featuring Mark is Beware the Wiles of the Stranger (Season 3).  By the time of the 1993 TV Movie The Return of Ironside, Mark is Judge Sanger.

Throughout the series we would be reminded of the challenges faced by the Chief; the annoyances of inaccessible buildings, the reliance on Mark and others.  Sometimes comments based on pity or derision, or even empathy.  None of this, however, overrode the strength and competency of the character.  As viewers tuned in week after week, the wheelchair was accepted and put in its place.  The chair was not the man.

One Hour to Kill (Season 3) was written by Sandy Stern and directed by Richard Benedict.  It is a Thursday evening in San Francisco (coincidentally, the very night Ironside aired on NBC).  Mark Sanger is rushing to make his law class after making sure he is not needed by the Chief.  A measure of his level of independence, the Chief has the night all laid out - a nice whirlpool bath, some of his famous chili and the 49ers game on the TV.  Commissioner Randall stops by with the offer of his extra ticket to a highly touted boxing match.  For a moment, the Chief is tempted, but prefers a quiet night at home.  The extra ticket will go to Randall's chauffeur.

Not exactly the evening as planned.
Raymond Burr as Ironside

Unexpectedly, an alarm clock goes off next to the telephone which rings.  The voice on the line informs the Chief that he has one hour to live then disconnects.  People, even trained observers, see what they expect to see most of the time.  The out of place clock and the threatening phone call alert the Chief to the unexpected who begins to notice other subtle changes to his home.  Retrieving a gun from a drawer, he finds it empty.  A box of shells is filled with bolts.  Anything that could be used as a weapon has been removed including fencing foils which adorned a wall, pool cues and butcher knives.  The phone is only operable by the mysterious caller.  The building is deserted and anyone who has ever worked late hours in an office building knows there is nothing more unsettling than familiar surroundings devoid of their humanity.  A game of cat and mouse follows, but just who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Ed wants to ditch the tie.  Eve's feet are killing her.
Don Galloway and Barbara Anderson

Ed is filling in for Eve's ill date at a concert.  They sit in a box, looking like an elegant young couple enjoying an opera.  Actually, they are having difficulty following the plot, Eve's feet are killing her and Ed would like nothing better than to dump the tie and get a pizza and join the Chief watching the game.  Eve is all for it if they can add rum crunch ice cream to the menu.  Before the viewer can sigh a relief of "rescue!", they decide to wait until intermission and call ahead before leaving the theatre.

Alerted to danger, the Chief is not the worried rat in a trap that his tormentor hopes.  Fashioning booby traps out of what is available to him including electricity and aerosol cans, the Chief also fashions a signal to the outside using a lamp and rotating fan.  He continues to be pro-active by attempting to reach the elevator phone, which has also been sabotaged.  In more warning calls, the Chief gleans clues as to the perpetrator's identity.  Ironside is meant to suffer the fear and agony that someone else has experienced.  With time running out, Ironside searches his files for knowledge with which to confront his attacker.  Ironside is chair bound, but most definitely not helpless.

A pensive Mark.
Don Mitchell

The professor leading Mark's class is played by Henry Corden (The Black Castle, TVs The Flintstones) and he is interrupted by an intruder who fires a gun and rushes from the classroom.  It is part of the lesson plan.  How accurate are eye witnesses?  What do they see?  What do they imagine they see?  How are they influenced by others?  As the class continues Mark experiences flashbacks to the scene of the garage as he left for school.  Something was off.  Something about the phone box.  What was it?  Abruptly, Mark rushes from the class to get to the Chief.

Meanwhile, Ed has been having no luck getting through to the Chief and contacts the phone company who send a repairman to the site.  Eve and Ed ditch the concert hall for the pizzeria and continue attempting to contact Ironside becoming increasingly more uneasy.

Revenge or absolution?
Guest star Robert Lipton as Jimmy Chard

Ironside is face to face with the man who threatens his life.  Guest star Robert Lipton (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, TVs As the World Turns) plays Jimmy Chard, whose younger brother was convicted and executed for a robbery and killing of a police officer.  He had been arrested by Chief Ironside.  Chard presents himself as an avenging angel, but the Chief cuts through that pretense with the truth that it was Jimmy who planned the crime and backed out leaving his brother to take the fall.  It is Jimmy's guilt and various documented mental issues that have led to this attempted murder of the Chief, nothing more.

Somewhere there is a pizza with their names on it.

The Chief's psychological and physical traps pay off in a scene as tense and exciting as all that has gone before and only after having disabled his tormentor does rescue arrive in the form of his three colleagues.  The obligatory light-hearted tag releases the knot in the viewer's stomach as our favourite Thursday night crime fighters adjourn for pizza and rum crunch ice cream.  What adventure will find the Chief and the gang next week - a murder mystery, international espionage, something on the lighter side?  I can't wait!

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Luck of the Irish Blog O'Thon: George Brent stars in Out of the Blue (1947)

George Brent as Arthur Earthleigh
Oliver Jensen:  "Arthur Earthleigh.  It isn't even a name, it's a lisp."

Those darlin' girls of Silver Scenes are hosting a wee bit of a St. Paddy's Day celebration with The Luck of the Irish Blog O' Thon running from March 15 to 17.

I feel a connection to folks who share the family name of Nolan that extends to the likes of Jeanette and Kathleen and Lloyd and Bob and George.  George?  Yes, George.  The charmingly handsome lad with the winning smile and over 100 movie and television credits under the name of George Brent was actually born George Brendan Nolan in Shannonbridge, Ireland in 1899.  Orphaned at age 11, caught up in "the Troubles" and an alumni of the Abbey Theatre, George Brent made his mark in Hollywood as leading man to the greatest leading ladies of Hollywood's greatest era, Barbara Stanwyck (5 pictures), Bette Davis (11 pictures), wife Ruth Chatterton (4 pictures), Merle Oberon (2 pictures), Claudette Colbert (2 pictures), Myrna Loy (2 pictures) and one movie with wife Ann Sheridan. Among "cousin" George's best pictures are 42nd Street, Baby Face, The Rains Came, 'Til We Meet Again (a lovely remake of One Way Passage), The Spiral Staircase and Tomorrow is Forever.

How do you prefer your George Brent?  In a moving melodrama, a tidy B crime picture, an historical romance, a pre-code shocker, a comedy?  I like it when George gets to exercise his comedy chops as in Snowed Under.  Of course, he had a lovely, sly way of inserting a bit of wit into all the appropriate roles, but rarely was he given the chance to to be a flat out goof.  1947s Out of the Blue provides George Brent with an opportunity to display all of his Irish humour; the sarcasm, the love of the absurd and the offhand way of treating the outlandish as commonplace.

Julia Dean, George Brent, Elizabeth Patterson, Richard Lane, Carole Landis

The story by Laura author Vera Caspary concerns a group of Greenwich Village apartment neighbours, bedeviled by the heat and frightened by the news of a serial killer at large.  A put-upon husband steps out on his nagging wife and finds himself with a body to hide and the prime suspect in a murder.  Prime noir territory, wouldn't you say?  This story, however, is played for laughs and the director, Leigh Jason, was noted for such comedy-mystery stories as exemplified by The Mad Miss Manton (Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda), Wise Girl (Miriam Hopkins, Ray Milland) and Dangerous Blondes (Evelyn Keyes, Allyn Joslyn).

George Brent, Carole Landis

Nothing that happens in the apartment complex goes unnoticed by a couple of maiden ladies played by Elizabeth Patterson (Intruder in the Dust) and Julia Dean (The Curse of the Cat People).  From the vantage point of their terrace they can focus all their attention on the goings on on the terraces of the 10th floor.  One is occupied by a Bohemian playboy artist David Gelleo played by Turhan Bey (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) and his prize-winning German Shepherd, Rabelais played by Flame.  His next door neighbours are Arthur and Mae Earthleigh.  The hapless Arthur is completely under the thumb of the domineering Mae.  Heartthrob George Brent plays Arthur and glamourous Carole Landis (I Wake Up Screaming) is the unpleasant spouse.

Two more of Hollywood's glamourous leading ladies are thrown into the mix when debutant Deborah Tyler played by Virginia Mayo (White Heat) proposes to our artist friend that his Rabelais would be a perfect match for her own prize-winning Shepherd.  Her proposition gives David other ideas, more human in nature.  David is not the only one with romance on his mind.  Mae Earthleigh is out of town for the weekend and Arthur is on the loose and ready to howl.  At a local tavern he meets professional interior decorator and amateur souse Olive Jensen played by Ann Dvorak (Three on a Match).  Arthur flirts with Olive.  Arthur is not very good at flirting, but Olive thinks he's cute and happily returns to his abode where disapproving pictures of Mae squelch any starry-eyed notions.

Ann Dvorak, George Brent

The sorts of mishaps that only happen in screwball comedies start happening to Arthur Earthleigh.  He thinks he has gotten rid of Olive, but she is passed out in the guest room.  Olive had told Arthur about her bad ticker and her propensity for "popping off", but Arthur does not realize the truth of her statement.  An unconscious Olive appears to Arthur to be a dead Olive.  He places the body on David's terrace, more in fear of Mae than of any official condemnation.  Arthur's action compounds an ongoing feud with David over Rabelais.  In the midst of his burgeoning romance with Deborah, David uses Olive in a scheme to get even with Arthur.  Olive is quite amenable to David's plans, after all, she gave Arthur the best years of her life!

By now you have the idea that our leading actors are playing characters well removed from their usual fare and carrying it off beautifully.  Turhan Bey a sophisticate, Carole Landis a nag and Virginia Mayo the woman with class.  Mayo, who played her fair share of molls and dames is absolutely adorable in a scene where her dainty deb pretends to be a crook.  George Brent is a riot as a man buffeted by fate.  He takes one step forward in ill-conceived shenanigans and always winds up two steps back.  Ann Dvorak takes the comedy crown as Olive Jenson.  Olive has no impulse control whatsoever and her stream-of-consciousness ramblings are the highlight of a very funny screenplay.

An early release from Eagle-Lion, this comedy has a lot going for it, but has yet to achieve the acclaim that is attached to some of the studio's film-noir of that era like T-Men or Raw Deal.  To my comic ear the screenplay is that good that at one of the major studios with bigger names Out of the Blue might be looked upon as one of screwball comedies last great hurrahs.  As it stands now, it is a gem awaiting discovery, especially for the delightful Dvorak and goofy cousin George.


Friday, March 13, 2015

The Cinemascope blogathon: Gunman's Walk (1958)

Becky and Rich, the astute duo behind Classic Becky's Brain Food and Wide Screen World are hosting The Cinemascope Blogathon from March 13 to 15.  Revel in the variety of movies that entertain to this day.

The wide-screen process came of age in the 1950s as a competitive draw to what audiences could find on their tiny television screens.  It came of age in a period when the so-called adult western was at its height and many westerns benefited with the breathtaking scenic backgrounds of their stories.  Such westerns as Broken Lance, River of No Return, The Last Wagon and The Professionals told their stories of perilous landscapes and desperation through the breathtaking marvel of widescreen.  A strong influence on the 1950s westerns was film-noir and although director Phil Karlson may be better known for his crime pictures that fall under the noir purview, his half dozen or so westerns also feature tough-minded characters caught in the whirlwind of destiny.  1958s Gunman's Walk may well be Karlson's masterpiece in the genre.

Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay based on a story by Ric Hardman.  Nugent was Oscar nominated for The Quiet Man and his previous westerns include The Searchers and Fort Apache, and the Karlson directed feature They Rode West.

Van Heflin (Johnny Eager, Shane, Airport) stars as Lee Hackett, a powerful rancher who raised two sons in his own image, that of the law unto himself.  The passage of time is a theme in many westerns of this period and time weighs heavy on Lee Hackett.  He strives to be one of the boys by insisting his sons refer to him by his first name.  The longtime ranch foreman jokes about Lee's need to keep ahead of the boys when it is getting harder to keep up with them.

Both of Lee's sons are troubled.  Davy, the younger played by James Darren (The Guns of Navarone, Gidget, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) is finding his way in life more in step with times.  Davy's attitude toward the Natives from whom Lee wrestled his land is the opposite of his father's casual racism.  Davy is attracted to Cecily Chouard, who is part French and part Sioux.  Davy refuses to wear a gun.  He is more thoughtful than his father and brother appear to be.  Cecily or "Clee" is a empathetic and strong young woman as played by Kathryn Grant (Anatomy of a Murder, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) in one of five pictures she made with Phil Karlson.  Ms. Grant and James Darren can also be seen to good advantage as a couple in the previous year's Karlson noir, The Brothers Rico.

Ed Hackett is played by Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees!, Battle Cry, Track of the Cat) and it is an excellent performance of a narcissist psychopath.  Seeking to emulate his father in toughness, the changing times have given Ed little in the way of opportunity to prove himself and to best the older man.  Ed is ruthless in his dealings with underlings and toward Natives, yet often tender toward his brother.  His need to prove himself through destruction and violence has made Ed a fast draw when that skill is no longer admired.

Out on the range during a round up of wild horses the vastness of the physical background gives us a sense of what Lee Hackett has tamed for his own and the freedom of the characters.  Freedom, that in Ed's case, leads to the wanton murder of Cecily's brother witnessed only by two other Sioux working the roundup.  Once the company reaches town or civilization the Hackett family is faced with how their actions are viewed in the new reality.  The physical constraints of sidewalks and bylaws and society that actually provide freedom to many, cages Ed in and ties him in knots.

The script plays with many levels of the events, the family dynamics, the changing times, the crime and the romance.  Robert F. Simon (TVs Bewitched) represents the law.  A contemporary of Lee's, he knows the past, but he also accepts the present.  Lee feels entitled to bully the Court, but finds the hated Sioux accorded rights as well.  The Hackett pride, and fear for Ed, is ripe for the fleecing by a lying horse trader played by Ray Teal (TVs Bonanza).  Constrained by society, Ed Hackett looks for ways to explode.  Mickey Shaughnessy (Designing Woman) is a deputy assigned to keep an eye on Ed.  The character sees all and understands much.  Davy learns to stand apart from the Hackett name.  Lee Hackett ignores his own doubts about his parenting and the nature of his sons.  Eventually, thoughtlessness and violence lead to a devastating conclusion where compassion may finally have a chance to grow.

Gunman's Walk has riveting performances and an interesting story.  The Arizona filming location combined with the impressive effects of Cinemascope give to the movie a physical sense of the character's inner turmoil.  And George Duning's whistled theme will stay with you for days.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Russia in Classic Film blogathon: Maria Ouspenskaya

Maria Ouspenskaya
as featured in 1940s Beyond Tomorrow
July 29, 1876 - December 3, 1949

The Russia in Classic Film Blogathon is being hosted by Fritzi of Movies, Silently and sponsored by The House of Mystery on DVD by Flicker Alley.  This fascinating topic runs from March 8 - 10th.

International movie audiences were introduced to Maria Ouspenskaya in her 60th year.  Five feet, one and a half inches of imperious confidence with a broad, homely face wrinkled like the map of All the Russians from whence she came.  Born in the ancient city of Tula on the Upa River, a noted fortress in the middle ages and armaments centre since the time of Peter the Great at the time of the Russo-Turkish War.  Her childhood saw the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, great famine and the rise and fall of Nicholas II.  Pogroms, war with Japan, Revolution and World War 1. 

Madam Ouspenskaya shares the common beginning of trained singer with many of our favourite character actresses such as Kathleen Howard, Esther Dale and Esther Howard.  She combined her musical training at the Warsaw Conservatory with dramatic training in Moscow and became a touring stage actress.  In 1922 the actress defected to America and began her career as an Broadway actress and a renowned acting teacher.

Successive generations of performers believe themselves to be the last word on the art of acting, more "naturalistic" and accomplished than their predecessors.  In this, acting teachers are extremely significant and Madam Ouspenskaya's own teacher was one of the most of influential, Konstantin Stanislavski.  Stanislavski began molding his students to his own brand of self-reflection and discipline to achieve highly artistic and naturalistic results at the beginning of the 20th century.  When his devoted pupil, Maria, relocated to NYC in 1929 she brought his method to an eager generation of students.  Madam Ouspenskaya and actor/director Richard Boleslawski (Les Miserables, Three Godfathers) founded the American Laboratory Theatre.  Among their lauded students we find Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg who would go on to develop their own schools.  By the mid-20th century Stanislavski's method would morph into "the" method which impacts actors and audiences to this day.

Originally succumbing to the lure of Hollywood to secure funds for the school, Madam Ouspenskaya stayed to become a premier player in pictures.  Her sometimes nearly impenetrable accent became an all-purpose tool for whatever foreigner was required for a picture.

Baroness Von Obsersdorf
with Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth

Her debut picture Dodsworth secured for Madam Ouspenskaya an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actress category, the first year of its existence.  The award was given to Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse.  The other nominees were Beulah Bondi for The Gorgeous Hussy, Alice Brady for My Man Godfrey and Bonita Granville for These Three.  As Baroness Von Obersdorf played a protective aristocrat who very neatly removes from her charming, yet foolish son's life the desperate social climber Fran Dodsworth.

Love Affair

Madam Ouspenskaya would again be nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the 1939 release Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.  As Boyer's french grandmother, she is a charming elderly lady living with her memories of the past and her hopes for the future of her playboy grandson.  She is charming.  The winner of the award was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind.  The other nominees were Olivia de Havilland for Gone With the Wind, Geraldine Fitzgerald for Wuthering Heights and Edna May Oliver for Drums Along the Mohawk.

with C. Montague Shaw in The Rains Came

Switching continents for another 1939 release, Madam Ouspenskaya played the Maharani in The Rains Came, based on a Louis Bromfield novel.  The Maharani is a tough-as-nails, focused character with an almost godlike understanding of people.  She rules with passionate practicality.

Madam Tanya
with Harry Carey and C. Aubrey Smith in Beyond Tomorrow

In the charmingly sentimental 1940 release Beyond Tomorrow, Maria Ouspenskaya was cast as (gasp!) a Russian lady.  Obviously of noble birth and character, she fulfills the role of housekeeper to the three wealthy bachelors at the centre of the story.  Her character is compassionate, probably psychic, and essential to the family-like atmosphere of the living arrangement of the characters.

with Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man

"Wolf?  Gypsy woman?  Murder?  What is this?"
- Ralph Bellamy as Col. Paul Montford, The Wolf Man

In 1941 Madame Ouspenskaya played the role with which many of us associate her in a most affectionate way.  Maleva, the old gypsy woman in The Wolf Man is enduring classic movie image, even for those who don't watch horror movies.  Maleva has the wisdom of the ages and the compassion to see through pain.  Larry Talbot knows he is a werewolf because Maleva speaks the truth.  Dr. Lloyd may try to see the problem as psychological and Sir John may try to bully it away, but Maleva speaks the truth.

"The way you walked was thorny though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.  Now you will have peace for eternity."
Maria Ouspenskaya was a devote follower of astrology and relied upon the famed Astrologer to the Stars, Carroll Righter in basing many of her decisions.  Her adherence to the stars could be frustrating to producers and directors, but it would have to be tolerated if they wanted Ouspenskaya in their picture.

Let's have a look at what astrology has to tell us about Madame Ouspenskaya.  As a Leo she demanded and commanded attention.  Her chart indicated a predominance of Water signs which made her highly emotional and vulnerable.  Yet Fire was also dominant and provided much self-confidence and enthusiasm.  Always she would move forward toward her goals.  A lack of Air influences curtailed her ability to be flexible in her communications.  The admirable strength to persevere through trials, yet the introspection that would often keep people at bay.  A certain nobility of nature that could be construed as pride.  Perhaps a tendency toward over intellectualizing.  Basically kind-hearted, she may have found it difficult keeping people close.  Magnetic, mysterious and powerful Maria Ouspenskaya. 

In 25 motion picture credits this lauded actress gave us living and intriguing characters.  Be they hard-core dancing masters, benevolent and beloved grandmothers, political leaders, political exiles, nobility or outcast, the women created by the art of Stanislavski's most ardent student and disciple will stand the critical test of time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for March on TCM

Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada over-turned a 22 year ban on physician assisted suicide for patients with grievous and irremediable medical conditions.  The unanimous decision gives provincial legislatures a year to enact new laws.  According to recent polls, 85% of Canadians agree with the "dying with dignity" position and we can expect much emotional debate on the subject in the coming months.  The 1948 film An Act of Murder is an early film which tackles the subject of euthanasia and is well worth watching for its ideas and performances.

Judge Calvin Cooke

Fredric March stars as Judge Calvin Cooke, at work a stern magistrate whose view is entirely black and white.  He holds no room for the grey area of human frailty and emotions in terms of meting our justice.  At home Calvin Cooke is a devoted family man, adoring of his wife of 20 years and their daughter.  Florence Eldridge plays the patiently loving Catherine Cooke.  Geraldine Brooks is Ellie Cooke, a young law student romantically involved with David Douglas played by Edmond O'Brien.  Douglas is devoted to his clients and a strong believer in humanizing the courts.  Judge Cooke sees the younger man as a firebrand and does not take kindly to his interest in Ellie.  Soon, Calvin's mind will have other, more pressing worries. 

Stanley Ridges plays close family friend Dr. Walter Morrison.  Catherine confides in this former beau that she has been suffering from headaches and blurred vision and quietly requests a check-up.  Catherine has an inoperable brain tumor and her friend, Walter, instead of revealing the news to her, shares the diagnosis with her husband.  He explains the course of the disease and urges Calvin to keep the news from Catherine as there is nothing they can do for except relieve some of her pain.  Perhaps, in some cases, this deception would be warranted despite the lie to the patient and the strain on the relatives.  Personally, I feel each patient has the right to full disclosure and in Catherine's case, the intended kindness is in reality quite cruel.

Catherine and Calvin

Miss Eldridge is exquisite in the role of Catherine Cooke.  Her affection for her family and the subtle ways she cares for them is charming in the early part of the story.  Her fear for her health and confused relief after the check-up makes the viewer ache for her plight.  Catherine's complete joy when Calvin reverses his plans to take her on a long-awaited second honeymoon is almost girlish.  Her realization that her illness is not abating and the knowledge that attends it, raising doubts and fears and panic is heart-rending.  Now Catherine is in on the lie and the support so desperately needed is denied her.

Calvin is troubled as well as the extent of Catherine's suffering places in his mind the extreme possibility of ending her pain.  Only in the thought of comforting his beloved wife would the judge deliberately move outside of the law by which he has lived.  March makes the conflict live and breathe.

I cannot speak to the original story The Mill of the Gods by Ernest Lothar, but it is from this point in the story that the screenplay by Michael Blankfort and Robert Theoren struggles to maintain its original integrity, although still dramatically intriguing and sincerely performed by the leading players.  Judge Cooke is arrested for the murder of Catherine and is defended by David Douglas.  During the courtroom sequence, the movie becomes more of a puzzle mystery in its attempt to find its way out of a thorny subject.  It was brave of Universal at this time nearly 70 years ago to approach such a controversial matter, but bravery and box office concerns don't always go hand-in-hand.  Director Michael Gordon does have a masterful way with dramatic material and actors.  An Act of Murder is among his most watchable films including Another Part of the Forest (also with March and O'Brien), Cyrano de Bergerac, I Can Get It for You Wholesale and the 60s comedies Pillow Talk and Boys Night Out.

TCM is screening An Act of Murder on Saturday, March 7th at 8:00 a.m. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015


The Madeleine Carroll blogathon is underway, hosted by our friends Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings and running on February 26th and 27th.

Madeleine Carroll began her screen acting career toward the end of the silent era.  She transitioned seamlessly to sound and became a beloved star in her native England.  Playing the role of Pamela in Alfred Hitchcock 1935 international hit The 39 Steps spread Miss Carroll's fame beyond Britain and, as was to be expected, Hollywood came calling.  Paramount Pictures secured her contract and she was quickly starred in The Case Against Mrs. Ames opposite George Brent and The General Died at Dawn with Gary Cooper.  Her next few pictures would all be on loan out to the recently formed 20th Century Fox (Lloyds of London), Columbia (It's All Yours) and David O. Selznick (The Prisoner of Zenda).

It was 20th Century Fox that cast Madeleine in her one and only musical, Irving Berlin's On the Avenue.  Her character sings a line in the reprise of a song in the film's finale, but I don't know if that is Miss Carroll's voice or not.  If it is her voice, it is charming and if it isn't - well, extra musical talent this movie didn't need.  Dick Powell from Warner Bros., Fox up-and-comer Alice Faye and The Ritz Brothers top this show business story.

Powell plays Gary Blake, the writer and star of a new Broadway revue, not dissimilar to Irving Berlin's 1933 hit As Thousands Cheer.  A popular skit in the show is a lampoon of the wealthy Caraway family, George Barbier as the Commodore and Madeleine Carroll as Mimi, the richest girl in America.  First-nighters the Caraways and Mimi's current beau, the explorer Frederick Sims played by Alan Mowbray are not amused.  The Commodore is determined to sue everyone involved in the show.  Mimi takes a more direct approach by bulldozing her way backstage and slapping Gary Blake.  However, it is she who gets the sting when Blake calls her a "poor sport".  With a start like that you can well see romance in their future.  Bad news for the show's leading lady Mona Merrick played by Alice Faye.  She's carrying the torch for Gary and is more than able to fight for what she wants.

The love story between the songwriter and the upper crust girl somewhat mirrors the love story of Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay, the Comstock Lode heiress.  Disinherited from her father's will, Ellen and Irving shared a 62 year marriage, 3 daughters, 1 son and a little something referred to as "royalties".  Take that, daddy-dear!

Madeleine Carroll

In the hands of the wrong actress or director the Mimi character could come off as just another spoiled rich girl raging against the world.  Fortunately, Roy Del Ruth's experience and taste combined with comedic chops dating back to days with Sennett and such gems as The Broadway Melody of 1936, Topper Returns and Beauty and the Boss, keep the thin plot light and breezy.  Madeleine Carroll's extraordinary beauty immediately wins her audience favour, but it is also the light of intelligence and kindness in her eyes and her gracious way of speaking that keeps us on her side.  Madeleine plays the comedy with charming nuance.  Mimi can be stubborn and petulant, but she can also be playful and loyal.

Cora Witherspoon

The supporting cast in On the Avenue is a real treat featuring Walter Catlett, Joan Davis, Douglas Fowley, Sig Ruman, Stepin Fetchit and Bess Flowers.  Yes, that's right, our Bess plays Mimi's maid and has about a half dozen lines!  Playing, seemingly, the only Caraway with a sense of humour is Cora Witherspoon as Aunt Fritz.  She's one of those eccentric moneyed women with a mania for fads and Miss Witherspoon (The Bank Dick, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise) looks like she is having as much fun as I have watching her.

Irving Berlin composed six tunes for On the Avenue and most of them are presented in the context of the Broadway Revue or show within the show.  Those numbers were performed on the stage as if we were in the audience of a theatre and filmed in one take.

The opening number He Ain't Got Rhythm is performed at first by Alice Faye and a bevy of Fox beauties including Marjorie Weaver and Lynn Bari then The Ritz Brothers take over.  Al, Harry and Jimmy (Harry is the one in the middle) give it their all with their eccentric and perfectly synchronized dancing in a memorable number.

The Girl on the Police Gazette features Dick Powell and company in Gay 90s garb pining over the picture of a lovely in tights through a revolving stage set that moves from a barber shop to a trolley car to Coney Island to a flower shop to a backstage rendezvous.

Mimi and Gary spend a date that takes them from nightclub to diner and a tour around the park in a Hansom cab.  Billy Gilbert runs the diner and E.E. Clive drives the cab.  Moonlight and a park bend is a perfect song cue and Berlin's perfect song for the spot is You're Laughing at Me.  Ah, love!

Later at the theatre we are treated to the lovelorn Mona singing what will become a Berlin standard, This Year's Kisses, to a disinterested Gary Blake.  He is only thinking about how he can soften the popular sketch to please Mimi.  Mona knows just what to do with the sketch!  The next production number we enjoy on stage is a song that has become as tied to the year-end holiday as Irving's White Christmas.  Dick Powell and Alice Faye introduce I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

A taste of Madeleine as Mimi, plus  the exuberant Slumming on Park Avenue.

Irving then spoofs his own hit Puttin' on the Ritz with the lively Slumming on Park Avenue.  Alice Faye and some talented Fox dancers give us the number relatively straight and then The Ritz Brothers take over with Harry dressed like Mona/Alice and Al and Jimmy dancing barefoot!

In its 90 minutes, On the Avenue gives us fabulous music performed by a cast of troupers, that glorious 20th Century Fox black and white sheen courtesy of cinematographer Lucien Andriot, eye-popping costumes from Gwen Wakeling, a who's who of character actors, and romance unencumbered by angst.  A treat on every level.   

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Favourite Movies: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

What sort of movie strikes your fancy these days?  A period picture with glamourous costumes and well-spoken characters to take you out of the mundane present?  A great love story with attractive, all-too-human individuals?  A cat and mouse game between clever and evenly matched antagonists?  Adventure with the stakes nothing less than life and death?  Poetry?

They seek him here, They seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven?  Is he in hell?
That demned, elusive Pimpernel.

Can you spot the Scarlet Pimpernel?

Perhaps the world's first literary "super hero", Sir Percy Blakeney encourages the world to accept his foppish behavior as his true character while masquerading as the Scarlet Pimpernel, the daring mastermind of a league of like-minded adventurers who rescue those doomed to the guillotine during the 16th century French Revolution.  Baroness Orczy's play opened in London's West End with little acclaim from the critics, but great success with audiences.  She followed up on that success with a novelization and sequels.  Dustin Farnum starred in a 1917 version of the story and there have been many film and TV adaptions since that time, a Broadway musical, and the IMDb listing the title as currently "under production".  The idea of the disguised or misunderstood daredevil or crime fighter appears to be timeless.

The 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is from London Pictures at a time when Alexander Korda and his brothers were putting British filmmaking on the world map with such popular fare as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Ghost Goes West, Things to Come and Rembrandt.  The director is film editor Harold Young hired to replace the fired Rowland Brown.  I don't like to be one to disparage someone's art, but despite my fondness for The Mummy's Tomb there is nothing else in Mr. Young's filmography that reaches the level of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  I am led to think that the Korda attention to the quality and details of their output has more than a little to do with the virtues of this movie.
Count de Tournay's family is rescued.

The focus of the Pimpernel's latest escapade is the release of the de Tournay family.  We learn that the Count de Tournay is more than just a hated Aristo in a conversation with some fellow prisoners.

Unnamed nobleman:  "Thank Heavens for the game of chess.  It enables us to forget the more disagreeable realities of life."

Count de Tournay:  "I'm not so sure it is a good thing.  We've been too detached from reality all our lives.  That's what caused the revolution."

Nobleman:  "Possibly."

Count de Tournay:  "Undoubtedly.  If we'd only had eyes to see our own follies we shouldn't be here now waiting to be shaved by the national razor."

At a splendid ball the Prince of Wales defends the lack of action on the part of his government to Countess de Tounay:  "Madam, the government does everything in its power to save those who are threatened by death in the prisons of the French Republic.  But if a country goes mad, it has the right to commit every horror within its own walls."

Percy Blakeney, through misunderstanding and a lack of communication has come to believe his wife responsible for the deaths of an aristocratic family named St. Cyr.  It is partly his reason for bedeviling the French with his remarkable escapades and myriad disguises.  The other, greater part of Percy's involvement is in his own nature; his audacious cleverness and natural strengths as a leader.

Lady Marguerite Blakeney is a former actress who married for love, but now finds her husband's affections turned cold and his character strangely altered.  They are a very unhappy couple.  The new ambassador to England is M. Chauvelin who must discover the Pimpernel's identify at all costs or he will join the unending line to the guillotine.  He blackmails Marguerite with threats to her brother into assisting his search for the Pimpernel.  Chauvelin has determined through their knowledge of the french language and entitled boldness that the Pimpernel and his gang must be among the upper class where Marguerite can freely question and observe. 

Percy shares his poem with an amused audience.

Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy and he is magnificent.  Howard had taken up acting as therapy for "shell shock" after WWI and his career covered both sides of the Atlantic on both stage and screen.  It is a pleasure to watch him as Sir Percy, dandy of the court and a favourite of the Prince of Wales (George IV) commenting on fashion and other trivialities, making himself an indispensable social butterfly without a serious thought in his head.  As the Pimpernel he disguises himself as a garrulous old hag and a french army officer.  The Pimpernel is always one step ahead of  his enemies and he enjoys the intellectual combat as much as the chase.  Madly in love with Marguerite, but mistakenly disillusioned, Percy is also heartsick and wounded.

The glamorous Lady Blakeney

Merle Oberson is a beautiful Lady Blakeney, and more.  She is trapped by both her marriage and by Chauvelin.  She is passionate about her emotions and as quick-witted as any of the Pimpernel League, and quick to action when circumstances require bravery.  Lady Blakeney does not sit in a corner looking pretty, although she does look very pretty indeed in gowns designed by Oliver Messel, multiple Tony nominee for sets and costumes.  Percy and Marguerite are perfectly matched.  Will they find their way back to each other?

Sir Percy teaches M. Chauvelin a thing or two about cravats.

Raymond Massey is that supreme villain, M. Chauvelin.  Chauvelin has power, he knows it and uses it.  No one sneers quite as sincerely as Massey and he sneers at the English, at Sir Percy and at Lady Blakeney.  He toys with them both and skillfully lays a trap from which there is no escape.  To watch Chauvelin's confident arrogance pitted against Percy's slyness is like listening to a fine operatic duet.  Two actors supremely good at what they do with a script to match.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a story that has enthralled generations and the Korda film production is one of its finest tellings.  Leslie Howard would return to this theme in a few years when, sadly, another country went mad.  In 1941s Pimpernel Smith, Howard plays Professor Horatio Smith, a mild-mannered archeologist who smuggles victims of Nazi persecution out of Germany with the help of his worshiping students.  Perhaps there are some "Pimpernels" with 21st century stories to tell.