Sunday, July 26, 2015

Gelett Burgess on Remake Alley: "Two in the Dark" (1936) and "Two O'Clock Courage" (1945)

Gelett Burgess
1866 - 1951

Gaze upon the features of the man who gave us Goops, and How to Be Them, plus sequels, A Classic Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, such as "blurb", and The Purple Cow.

 I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!

The humorist, art critic, poet, author, editor (The Lark) influenced generations and continues to do so to this very day as the Gelett Burgess Center annually awards their prestigious award to the best in children's literature.

Mr. Burgess was also the author of a dandy mystery published in 1934 called Two O'Clock Courage.  The story involves an amnesiac and his attempts to prove or disprove his involvement in a high profile murder case.  Sounds perfect for the movies, doesn't it?  Well, it certainly kept the folks at RKO busy.

The 1936 version of the story is called Two in the Dark and was directed by Benjamin Stoloff, a veteran of shorts, westerns and comedies from a Seton I. Miller (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ministry of Fear, Pete's Dragon) screenplay.

Our film opens with the silhouette of a man walking out of the fog, he stops by a street scene to ascertain his whereabouts and we see he has a head injury.

Our as yet unnamed hero is played by Walter Abel (Holiday Inn, Island in the Sky).  He is next to a gated park; it is not locked and he enters and sits on a bench barely noticing the young woman sitting on an opposite bench.  However, she notices the nattily dressed stranger with the hunted look.  No matter his circumstances, I find Walter Abel always looks very neat.

Margot Grahame, Walter Abel

The woman is played by Margot Grahame (The Informer, The Arizonian).  She is an actress whose show has closed leaving her stranded in Boston and kicked out of her boarding house by a heartless landlady.  She may have her troubles, but the poor fellow on the other bench really looks like he needs help.  The pair of them are continually hustled along by the beat cop (Ward Bond) until it is daylight.  Determining the police as their best possible place for help, they are stopped outside the station house by the morning paper which indicates our man may have something to do with a murder.  Using the scant clues available to them, initials in a hat, matchsticks from a night club and ticket stubs to a play, our detective duo sets out to determine the why, the where and, most especially, the who.

Along the course of their investigation they are involved with the official lead investigator played by Alan Hale (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Strawberry Blonde) and a know-it-all reporter played by Wallace Ford (The Informer, The Man from Laramie).  Gail Patrick (Stage Door, My Man Godfrey) is a society gal who seems very tight with our hero.  Erin O'Brien-Moore (The Plough and the Stars, Peyton Place) is a glamorous actress with romantic problems.  There are great bits for Eric Blore (Top Hat) as a nervous butler and Erik Rhodes (Top Hat) as an hysterical musician.

The film starts off as a moody little thriller and manages to maintain that atmosphere even the addition of comic elements, personified by the reporter and the wisecracks between that character and our actress.  Abel conveys a true sense of the confusion of a man who doesn't even recognize his own face, coming to life when thrown into the midst of the action.  Grahame has a weary, resigned vibe to her character at the beginning that fades as she throws herself into the task at hand, and her unwavering belief in her companion, tinged with the hint of romance.

Actresses, butlers, tailors who sideline as amateur detectives, producers, gangsters - how will it all end?  There's a neat double twist at the end of the string for a very satisfying, entertaining film. 


The 1945 version of the story reverts to the title of Two O'Clock Courage and was directed by Anthony Mann (The Tall Target, T-Men) from a screenplay by Robert E. Kent (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, Where the Sidewalk Ends).

Our movie begins with the silhouette of a many walking away from us into the fog.  We follow him as he stops next to a street sign and notice he is bleeding from a head wound.  He steps into the street and avoids being run down by a taxi due to the quick thinking of its female operator.  And - we're off!

 Ann Rutherford, Tom Conway

Tom Conway (The Cat People, The Falcon series) is our man with no name, but full of determination to unravel the mystery.  Ann Rutherford (Orchestra Wives, Pride and Prejudice) is the entrepreneurial young lady who turned to cab driving (she calls her car "Harry") when her acting career didn't lead anywhere.  She is a fast and voracious talker who talks herself and her companion into and out of all sorts of situations.  Her faith in her strange passenger is strong and purely romantic.

Emory Parnell (Gildersleeve's Ghost, The Falcon in Mexico), the master of bluster, here takes the part of the inspector in charge of the case.  The loud-mouthed reporter is played by Richard Lane (Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Boston Blackie series) and, believe you me, he's cornered the market on obnoxious for this role.  The banter between he and Rutherford's character is more than sparring as it is taken up a notch from the earlier feature.

Twenty year old Bettejane Greer (the "Bette" would be dropped after this film), is a pretty, but still gawky young woman in the role of our hero's date of the previous evening.  You can still see the makings of the femme fatale that would emerge by 1947s Out of the Past.  The glamorous star role is given to Jean Brooks, so heartbreakingly mysterious in The Seventh Victim

Fun bits are contributed by Chester Clute (My Favorite Wife) as a sports-minded tailor and Almira Sessions (Sullivan's Travels) as his murder mystery loving wife.  The movie's best drunk, Jack Norton (The Bank Dick), has a great part as a man who knows more than people give him credit for.  They probably could have wrapped the whole thing up with a nice sit down.  However, we run headlong into the neat double twist at the end of the string.

Two in the Dark creates a charming atmosphere to accompany the plot.  Two O'Clock Courage is louder with a sense of non-stop action.  Both films are well worth the viewer's time.  Swallowing my fear of recrimination, I'll leave the last word to Gellet Burgess : -

 Ah, yes, I wrote the "Purple Cow"—
I'm Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I'll Kill you if you Quote it!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Leo G. Carroll Fan Club, plus

Leo G. Carroll
(1886 - 1972)

I read the most amusing story the other day, especially written to push the buttons of character actor fans.  Leo G. Carroll Fan Club by LeVar Ravel is a dollar buy for your Kindle and a nice accompaniment to a pot of tea.  

Set in 1966, our unnamed narrator becomes involved with a small and quirky set of characters who worship at the shrine of Leo G. Carroll.  Our narrator is not as enamored of the British actor as the club members with whom he becomes involved, so how did he get in so deep?  Attending a film festival his encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia, particular that of the Carroll-Hitchcock connection convinces a fellow filmgoer that here is someone destined to join the club.

The club members are not legion, but their devotion to their idol rivals my own Charlie Chan fandom.  They are male, female, old, young, rich, conservative, and hippies.  They collect memorabilia, they meet, they drink tea.  They form friendships and they fight.  Just like any normal family.  The outside world is about to intrude in the unexpected form of international crime.  Will their devotion to Leo G. Carroll help or hinder them in this life or death situation?


An actor with such a long and distinguished stage and screen career as Leo G. Carroll would find himself no stranger to crime stories.  Two of my favourites are of the B movie variety.

Sapper's international man of mystery, Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (John Howard) and his fiancee Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel) are preparing the family estate for their anticipated wedded bliss when death and mystery come to their very doorstep and comes in for a visit.  We're watching 1939s Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police.

A Professor Downie (Forrester Harvey), one of those absent-minded types comes to tea with a coded book that claims to give the location of a treasure buried right within the walls of the estate.  Phyllis sees nothing but trouble and yet another delay in their marriage, but what red-blooded boy can resist the lure of buried treasure?  The gang is all there for the fun including Inspector Nielson (H.B. Warner), Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) and the indispensable Tenny (E.E. Clive).  At least Phyllis' Aunt Blanche (Elizabeth Patterson) can be depended upon to be sensible, or can she?

Things turn nasty quite suddenly with the murder of Professor Downie.  Is it possible that the new servant sent from the employment agency could be involved?  It's good old Leo G. Carroll.  Surely he has nothing to hide.  What starts out as a rather routine story has a very exciting, action-filled ending.

Leo G. Carroll appeared in two Chan pictures, 1939s City in Darkness and 1940s Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise is based on Earl Derr Biggers' novel Charlie Chan Carries On.  The 1931 film adaption of the novel is one of the lost Chans, however the Spanish language version Eran trece, also from 1931 is available on one of the DVD box sets and currently on YouTube.

Inspector Duff (Montague Shaw) of Scotland Yard has attached himself to a cruise of suspects in a London murder.  Nearing the end of the trip, the last leg of which is from Honolulu to San Francisco, the Inspector pays a visit to his old and dear friend Inspector Chan.  Duff confides that he feels certain he will have his man soon, but before the final details are revealed he is murdered in Charlie Chan's own office.  Owing a debt to his friend, Charlie Chan, as the novel's title tells us, "carries on" with the case.
Sidney Toler, Lionel Atwill, Leo G. Carroll

The holiday-makers are a diverse group of suspects.  We meet the boisterous Don Beddoe, the wacky Cora Witherspoon and her young companion Marjorie Weaver.  And get to know the wealthy heir Robert Lowery, the secretive Kay Linaker, the forgetful Leo G. Carroll and the officious Lionel Atwill.  Will the Inspector and Number 2 son, Jimmy solve the crime in time to prevent more terror?  There's fun and games, and murder in the middle of the ocean!  Irresistible, if you ask me.  Get your ticket now.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The 1947 blogathon: Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome

"Welcome to the Coffee Pot.  Your home away from home.  The special today home style pot roast with apple pie for dessert for a dollar.  What can I get ya'?"

"The special sounds good, Miss."

"Sure thing.  One special, Cookie!  Oh, you've got the afternoon paper.  Gee, that sure is a swell picture of Dick Tracy on the front page.  Worth saving.  Reading about that business at the Wood Plastics Inc. factory last night?  Boy, some hot stuff!  Oh, would you like some coffee?"

"Thanks.  Cream and sugar."

"Cookie and me, we know all about it.  Probably more than the newspaper boys."

"You do?"

"Sure.  Being just around the corner from headquarters, we get a lot of business from the cops.  They like our coffee.  We hear a lot of the inside dope."

"Dick Tracy himself eats here?"

"Sure.  Well ... not as often as some of the guys...well, not as often as I'd like.  Ha. Ha.  But he does like our apple pie, especially when he's celebrating."

Ralph Byrd
(1909 - 1952)

Uncredited in many of his over 80 films, actor Ralph Byrd found the role he was born to play in the 1938 serial Dick Tracy Returns.  He would portray the famous comic strip detective in 2 other serials, 2 features and a television series (1950-52).  The handsome and energetic actor was felled by a heart attack at the age of 43 leaving a widow and teenaged daughter, and many fans.  

"Know anything about this business in the paper?"

"Sure.  But the thing is, it doesn't start at Wood Plastics.  No.  It starts at the University.  This Professor A. Tomic goes to the cops with a problem.  He's got the feeling he's being followed and doesn't know what to do about it.  Chief Brandon thinks he's a crackpot, but Tracy offers him protection.  What everybody doesn't know is that it's already too late.

Anyway, before the night is over Dick Tracy is sidelined by a little problem from Pat Patton.  He's Tracy's assistant.  Anyway, Patton is running in this drunk for Officer Carney, but the guy dies in Patton's car.  Or did he?"

"Are you pulling my leg, sister?"

"No, sir.  Patton says the guy was stiff as a board.  He took him to the morgue and even the police doctor thought it was a case for homicide.  That's when Tracy came into it.  Only by the time he got the morgue Patton was out for the count because whatever "killed" the drunk wasn't permanent.  He woke up, slugged Patton and hightailed it outta there."

"Sounds incredible.  More coffee, please."

"Sure thing.  Anyway, the next day - you probably read about it - was that freaky robbery at National Bank.  Tess Truehart, she's Dick Tracy's sweetie and honestly, that woman gets into more trouble...well, anyway, she was the bank during the robbery.  Something happened to everybody in that bank.  At exactly 3 o'clock everybody froze stiff!  You know, like playing statues when we were kids.  Well, everybody froze except for Tess.  She was in the phone booth and stayed alert.  Must have been a crazy thing to see.  While everybody was stiff as a board, the crooks come in and gather up the money like they was picking berries or something.  Tess - well, she's a smart one, I'll give her that - she phones HQ and gets the coppers on the job.  Only it was another bank guard that messed up the getaway and ended up getting shot for his troubles.  Sad."

Boris Karloff
(1887 - 1969)

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome ended Boris Karloff's contract with RKO which gave him some of the best roles of his film career under Val Lewton's unit with The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.  The latter part of Boris' career would see him return to Broadway for The Linden Tree, The Shop at Sly Corner, Peter Pan and The Lark (Tony nomination) along with a mix of film and television work.

"What's the bank job got to do with the "dead" drunk or the professor for that matter?"

"The professor is the brains behind the statue deal and the leader of the crooks is none other than our pal the stiff."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding.  More coffee?"


"The people at the bank were frozen by some sort of gas from some sort of unknown chemical.  One of our regulars is Fred, and he's a police analyst.  It's his job to figure out stuff like that.  Anyway, Tracy figures this leads right back to Professor A. Tomic, but when he gets to the university the Egghead is missing.  I.M. Learned, Assistant to the prof co-operates with Tracy, but only to a point.  She's a classy and smart gal, but all us gals got our weaknesses and hers, natch, is a fella."

"What fellow, the professor or the walking dead guy?"

"Someone else entirely.  Mr. L.E. Thal, the owner of Wood Plastics Inc."

"Oh, so that's where last night's business comes in."

"Yeah.  This Thal character is stepping out with Irma, the lady scientist.  He hears about the chemical the professor was working on and gets the bright idea of using it for the bank robberies."

"Hold on.  Does that explain the "dead" drunk guy?"

"You got it.  You see, Thal has these big idea, not to mention the professor on ice, but he doesn't know anything about putting his ideas into action.  He needs a real, genuine crook.  And that's this Gruesome guy.  He got knocked out by the gas before he realized what it was.  I was real close to Gruesome once and boy, does that moniker do him justice!"

"When was this?"

"Well, Fred sets me up with this cousin of his that works for the City.  He's an ambulance driver.  I'm all set for a night on the town and you know where the guy takes me?  The Hangman's Knot!  Of all the dives in this town, he takes me to The Hangman's Knot.  I'll bet ya' Dick Tracy never takes Tess Trueheart to a known spot for your underworld types.  Even the piano player, a guy called Melody, was an ex-con.  Turns out Melody is part of the Thal gang and when his buddy Gruesome gets outta the Pen, he joins the gang.  Joins it!  He takes over.

Anyway, I'm about to tell the big spender I'm with how he can spend the rest of his evening when in walks Gruesome.  Big fella.  Musta been about 7 feet tall.  Nasty lookin' face and a reach on him that could take out three or four guys.  Real weird.  I swear if I didn't know better I'd swear it was Boris Karloff.  He and Melody make themselves at home and start palavering with this creepy little guy with coke bottle glasses.  Looks suspicious and later I'm able to pass this on to the cops myself."

"Gee, you were really in the thick of things."

"I see the little fella sneaking out via a back room and the next thing you know Dick Tracy and Pat Patton show up.  They tied in Patton's weird drunk with The Hangman's Knot on Carney's beat and were checking the joint out.  When Patton gloms onto Gruesome, the lights go out and Gruesome and Melody take one quick powder with Tracy and Patton right on their tails.  There's a crack-up.  Gruesome gets away, but Melody is banged up something fierce.  Doctors don't give him much hope and they're right."

"How does that get us back to Wood Plastics Inc.?"

"The papers print a lot about Dick Tracy, but I don't think they tell half of the brave things he does.  Tracy puts himself in Melody's place, all bandaged up and let's it leak that he's gonna spill to the cops.  That's when Gruesome goes into action to silence his old pal.  It's nothing to him.  He's already offed that poor professor fella and the lady egghead.  So Gruesome puts the snatch on Melody, but it's really Dick Tracy all along.  Anyway, the whole megillah comes down to that shootout at the factory last night.  Wow!  Dick Tracy came close to buying the farm, but he got Gruesome and that guy will fry for sure."

"Thanks for the story.  Tell Cookie I liked the chow.  Keep the paper, Miss.  Just in case you want that picture of Dick Tracy."

"Thanks.  I will.  Come back any time.  The Coffee Pot is your home away from home."

The 1947 Blogathon is the brainchild of a couple of right dames called Karen (Shadows and Satin) and Kristina (Speakeasy).

Day one recap here.
Day two recap here.
Day three recap here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for July on TCM

Satirist, columnist, short story writer Clarence Day Jr. (1875-1935) was born and raised in New York City and his most well-remembered works involve his youth in the place of his birth.  A man with a quirky sense of humour and strongly liberal views (suffrage supporter), might his parents have looked at each other at one time or another and wondered where he got it?  Day certainly observed his parents, and his amusing memoirs Life With Father and Life With Mother have kept their memory and the New York City of his youth alive with warm laughter to this day.

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the play Life With Father which opened on Broadway November 8, 1939.  The play closed (Some thought it would never close!) on July 12, 1947.  Howard Lindsay and his wife Dorothy Stickney played Father and Mother.  You can see Lindsay and Stickney as the King and Queen in the 1957 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella to get an idea of how they might have been as Clare and Vinnie.  20-year-old Teresa Wright played the ingenue role of Mary Skinner.  The previous season on Broadway she played Emily Webb in Our Town.  Soon Hollywood would call.

Life With Father came to the movies after the play closed on Broadway.  Donald Ogden Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, The Barretts of Wimpole Street) adapted the screenplay.  Michael Curtiz directed in glorious Technicolor and Max Steiner provided a sprightly nostalgic score.  Academy Award winning (Adventures of Don Juan) costumer Marjorie Best dressed our players in the finest of 1890s attire.  The Days were a well off family.

Oscar nominations for Life With Father:
Best Actor - William Powell
Best Cinematography, Color - J. Peverell Marley, William V. Skall
Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color - Robert M. Haas, George James Hopkins
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Max Steiner

Father:  "Madam, I am the character of my home."

Father (William Powell) is a character!  A successful businessman with a comfortable home, lovely wife, Vinnie (Irene Dunne) and four fine sons; all red heads.  Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) is about to go off to college and trying to find his way out of his father's shadow.  John (Martin Milner) goes his own way with money-making schemes.  Whitney (Johnny Calkins) takes out the pressure of his upcoming catechism by teasing the baby of the family, Harlan (Derek Scott).

Father likes life to run smoothly and the way this happens is if everybody does what Father wants and expects.  He is not oblivious to opposing views, he simply discounts them.  In Day Jr.'s stories we learn that in matters of good health this meant camping in the summer under conditions the family considered less than civilized, but Father knew what was best.  In matters of privacy, the Days were the last family of their acquaintance to have a telephone.  They could afford one well enough, but Father wouldn't have one of the damn things in the house.  However, no matter how well thought out Father's plans may be, something was bound to happen to upset the apple cart.  The play revolves around one of these unimaginable moments in Father's life.

Vinnie's favourite cousin, Cora (Zasu Pitts) arrives in the City for a visit bringing a young family friend Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor).  Vinnie insists on putting them up for a few days.  Mary is just about Clarence Jr.'s age and young romance is amusingly in the air.  Father is hospitable, to a point, but people are always popping in unexpectedly.  Or is it that Vinnie neglects to inform him of their imminent arrival?

As Mary and Clarence get to know each other it becomes of paramount importance to Mary to discover if the Days are Episcopalian or Methodist.  Mr. Day informs her that they have always attended the Episcopal Church, but when pressed as to whether he was baptized Episcopal or Methodist, Father proudly proclaims that he has never been baptized.  His own Father and Mother were free-thinkers.  Mother's outrage at discovering Father's lack of baptismal status is only equaled Father's outrage at her demand that he go through all the folderol of the ceremony.  Father flat out refuses the indignity.

Father:  "Vinnie, if there's one place the Church should leave alone, it's a man's soul."

Life gets more and more complicated with and for Father including the search for a maid who will stay more than ten minutes, Mother's mysterious illness, Clarence's new suit, John's disastrous sales business, a rubber plant and a porcelain pug dog. 

William Powell is marvelous as the bombastic, loving, confused and bemused head of the family.  Irene Dunne is sweetness personified if slightly air-headed.  The bond between Clare and Vinnie is most charmingly expressed by a gentle scene with the pair reminiscing and singing.  Most of Life With Father makes me smile and laugh, but the "Sweet Marie" scene makes my sentimental heart swell and little tears escape the corners of my eyes.

The fondness that fills the stories in Life With Father and Life With Mother is evident in every whimsical and droll incident in the movie.  Father's political rant and attempt to have "the talk" with Clarence are particularly funny and charming.  Warning:  Do not listen to Vinnie's economic theories!  They'll wreck your life; they ruined mine.

Vinnie:  "I didn't pay anything. I charged it."

TCM is screening this all-time comedy classic on Wednesday, July 29th at 2:30 pm on a day filled with eight William Powell movies to celebrate his 1892 birthdate.   


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Classic Movie History Project Blogathon 1950 - 1952: Westerns Thrive in a New Decade

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings, and sponsored by Flicker Alley.

Westerns have been with us since "Broncho" Billy Anderson turned his six-shooter to the camera in 1903's The Great Train Robbery.  Silent filmmakers were able to make use of ample outdoor space to provide profitable entertainment for the growing movie audience.  Young directors whose names would become cinema legends received on the job training - John Ford and William Wyler.  From serials to epics, from the grit of William S. Hart to the glitter of Tom Mix there was a western for everyone.

Sound came to the movies and with it the singing cowboy epitomized by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, whose box office success would maintain throughout the 1940s and into television.  William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy would be a phenomenon for decades beginning in this era when shoot 'em ups for the younger trade overwhelmed more adult fare such as Three Godfathers, Jesse James, Union Pacific and Stagecoach.

John Ford's return to the western and the acclaim for Stagecoach in 1939 would set the stage for his post-war foray into the genre giving us more classics such as Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine.  William Wyler would give us The Westerner to begin the 1940s and The Big Country to end the 1950s.

The 1950s would prove to be a golden era for adult-themed westerns marked especially by the dark sensibilities of master film-noir director Anthony Mann (T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night).  The visual darkness of collaborations with artistic cinematographers would register Mann's first westerns of the decade as something new.  The psychological darkness of troublesome, threatening characters gave his films an edge.  These films harken back to such earlier pictures as William Wellman's The Ox-bow Incident and Ford's My Darling Clementine while pointing the way to a fresh expression in westerns.

Close to 300 westerns were released in the years 1950-1952.  There was still a mix of series programmers and singing cowboys for the kids, but filmmakers had discovered anew the flexibility of the western to suit different tales.  In the mid to elaborate budget area straight-forward action oriented pictures found themselves vying with a darker and psychologically complicated side to the western myth.  

The idea of the hero became more elastic and audiences became used to the good/bad man and, sometimes, the bad/good man.  Leading men such as Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott gracefully aged out of contemporary and romantic films into career expanding westerns. James Stewart, versatile as he was, had been established in the public's mind as an affable everyman.  He would turn out to be the perfect actor for the new, complicated western protagonist.  You want to trust this Stewart character, but he has a violent streak and secrets.  There is an uneasiness in his dangerous presence.

It is the films of Anthony Mann that historians point to as the game changers that kicked off the decade when westerns grew up.  Winchester '73 is a revenge tale with a Borden Chase (Red River) script and starred James Stewart leading an excellent ensemble cast.  The cinematographer was William Daniels (The Naked City), who shot Stewart in 14 films from the 1930s to the 1960s.  Winchester '73 is a beautiful example of the his art.  The black and white camera gloriously highlights the scenery and the faces of character actors from John McIntire to Jay C. Flippen as we follow the episodic story of the different people connected through the ownership of a single Winchester rifle.

Anthony Mann directed Devil's Doorway for MGM with a screenplay by Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz).  Robert Taylor stars as Lance Poole, a decorated war veteran and Native American whose life spirals out of control due to the greed of others.  Taylor gives a towering performance full of quiet dignity, pragmatism and controlled range.  The film also features an interesting character in that of a female lawyer played by Paula Raymond.  The stark mood of the film is enhanced by the cinematography of John Alton.  This would be Alton's sixth and last last collaboration with Anthony Mann that began with T-Men.

Anthony Mann's third release of 1950 is The Furies based on a novel by Niven Busch.  Barbara Stanwick, perhaps the biggest female lead in westerns at this time, is in a blood feud with her father played by Walter Huston.  The battle for control between these two strong-willed characters is the stuff of Shakespeare with no one safe from their wrath.  Victor Milner's (Cleopatra) cinematography was nominated for an Oscar.  Franz Waxman's (Rear Window) score adds to the emotional plot.

John Ford added two films to his impressive canon of westerns in 1950.  The story for Wagon Master by Frank S. Nugent (Fort Apache, The Searchers) concerns a group of Mormons traveling by wagon train to a valley purchased sight unseen.  Versatile Ward Bond stars the bombastic, yet smart, leader of the train who learns to rely on two young cowboys, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., in their treacherous journey.  Along the way they befriend a troupe of stranded actors and are beset by family of pure evil, The Cleggs.  Songs by Stan Jones are sung by the Sons of the Pioneers as a form of narration.  The movie has a great sense of its time and place and the perils of the journey.  Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk) was the cinematographer and you can taste the dust.

For Republic Pictures John Ford made Rio Grande as part of a deal to get his long-cherished project The Quiet Man to the screen.  Victor Young created one of his best film scores for Rio Grande and there were songs by Stan Jones sung by the Sons of the Pioneers on screen.  Bert Glennon provided the gorgeous black and white cinematography.  Based on a James Warner Bellah story, Rio Grande tells the story of the reunification of a broken family and the healing of a broken country after Civil War.  John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara would appear on screen for the first time and their chemistry alone would guarantee the success of this film and The Quiet Man.

Other interesting films from 1950 include Jacques Tourneur's film version of Joe David Brown's novel Stars in My Crown.  This episodic tale is told in flashback through the memories of young Dean Stockwell, the adopted son of a Preacher played by Joel McCrea.  The town and the family overcome many challenges with the most powerful storyline that of protecting a black landowner played by Juano Hernandez from bigoted neighbours, and protecting those bigots from themselves.  Henry King directed the riveting drama The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck in an Oscar-nominated screenplay by William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!) which follows the fate of a weary gunman longing for redemption.

Westward the Women was directed by William Wellman in 1951 from a Frank Capra story and Charles Schnee (The Bad and the Beautiful) screenplay.  Robert Taylor plays a wagon train scout leading a train of women from Chicago to a California valley which landowner John McIntire envisions as a land of families.  The ensemble of actresses gives their all in this story of hardship and hope.  Lives are lost and lives are changed.  It is both a harrowing and uplifting story.  Also a 1951 release is Henry Hathaway's Rawhide.  Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) screenplay is a character study as Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power battle a gang of thieves holding them hostage at a way station as part of their plan to steal a gold shipment.

Nominated for Best Picture in 1952, High Noon is a film rich in drama and fine performances and a western seething with tension and atmosphere.  If you read it as an allegory for the McCarthy political witch hunts (see 1954s Silver Lode) it only adds to the pleasure of your viewing.  Gary Cooper won an Oscar as Will Kane, a newly-married sheriff who learns of the release from prison of a man who has sworn to kill him.  The criminal will arrive in town at high noon.  Once the citizens helped put the crook away, but a few years of relative calm have inured them to taking action.  Abandoned by former friends and misunderstood by his new wife, Kane is left to deal with the threats on his own.  

Adult audiences flocked to the new westerns built with them in mind, critics sat up at took notice at this revolution and even those who handed out awards began to look at westerns differently.  High Noon was nominated for 7 Oscars and won 4.  The film won 4 Golden Globes out of 5 nominations.  Fred Zinnemann was nominated by the Director's Guild of America, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award cited High Noon as Best Film and Zinnemann Best Director.  The Academy nominated The Gunfighter for Best writing, motion picture story and The Furies for Best cinematography, black and white.

Westerns are a malleable genre allowing for versatility in the stories they tell, reflecting history or current times.  Social and political ills (The Ox-Bow Incident) can be brought forward as a story; ideas and themes elaborated in the mythology.  All of the crafts which come together to create a film are on display at their best in Hollywood's classic westerns.  You will find glorious film scores, outstanding performances, thoughtful scripts and sure direction.  If you have something to say or a certain way you want to say it, it can be told as a western - in the wide open spaces or the confines of a town, as a brooding noir or a sly comedy, with stark close-ups or a song.  The 1950s provided audiences with a great variety of high-quality westerns that stand the test of time.  There was room for all kinds of stories for all kinds of people in the classic westerns of this period.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

"...And Scene!" blogathon: "The Searchers", a silent farewell

John Ford
Monument Valley

Sister Celluloid presents the “…And Scene!” Blogathon running June 25 - 28.  Click here for the participating posts on continually fascinating and memorable movie scenes.

The scene that deeply touches me with every viewing is from John Ford's 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers.  It is 40 seconds crucial to the film.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a wandering man.  He wandered away from his Texas home many years ago to fight in a war and stayed away for many more years involved in activities that his family can only imagine.  His return with newly minted cash hints at the sordid nature of Ethan's life.  The nuclear family of Ethan's brother Aaron, wife Martha and their children, teenagers Lucy and Ben, and young Debbie, welcome Ethan into the fold like a conquering hero.  The comforts of family will be short-lived.

Early the next morning a company of Texas Ranger volunteers led by Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) enlist the Edwards in search of presumed rustlers who ran off a neighbour's cattle.  Ethan takes Aaron's place with the Rangers advising Aaron to "stay close" in case the culprits are not rustlers, but Comanche raiders.

The bustling ranch house is cleared of family and volunteers except for Captain Clayton finishing his coffee and waiting for Ethan.  We are privy to the wordless farewell between Ethan and Martha (Dorothy Jordan).  Alone, Martha's gentle, lingering touch on Ethan's coat betrays her heart.  Their looks and actions tell us that, if not for his wandering ways, Ethan was the Edwards son that Martha should have married.  Sam Clayton knows the truth of their bond and tries to make himself invisible to their intimacy.

Knowing the depth of emotion between Ethan and Martha guides the audience through the story of The Searchers.  While we cannot and should not condone many of Ethan's actions, we understand.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Billy Wilder Blogathon: "Rhythm on the River" and "The Emperor Waltz"

Billy Wilder
June 22, 1906 - March 27, 2002

Those "Girls Gone Wilder", Kellee (Outspoken and Freckled) and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen), are hosting a birthday party/blogathon in honour of the inestimable Billy Wilder on June 22nd.  I want to bring a little music to the festivities.

BILLY WILDER was a man of great intellect and wit.  I never met the man, but I know this to be true because I am endlessly entertained and enlightened by the films he wrote and directed.  Born in Austria-Hungary, Wilder got his start as a journalist and screenwriter in Germany and did not learn English until he moved to Hollywood in the 1930s.  Yes, this man with English as a second language learned to use that language better than many born to it.  Wilder was a screenwriter for over a decade before he added directing to his list of accomplishments.  I'm going to look at two pictures from both sides of that career divide and both featuring Bing Crosby.

Wilder is credited with the story for 1940s Rhythm on the River, Paramount's musical-comedy release directed by Victor Schertzinger.  And what a story!  In Rhythm on the River we get an inkling of the oddly clear-eyed view of show business mixed with sentimentality that would go to creating the classic Sunset Boulevard.  

Rhythm on the River's "Norma" is Oliver Courtney, a high-strung and famous Broadway composer played with amusing abandon by Basil Rathbone.  Rathbone really should have done more comedies.  Sadly, he has lost his muse and  is "temporarily" and on the q.t. collaborating with composer Bob Sommers played by Bing Crosby.  Bob is willing to go along with the arrangement for the money, for the chance to work with the great Courtney and with the hope that it will be his big break.

However, Courtney is also "temporarily" collaborating with lyricist Cherry Lane played by Mary Martin.  Cherry is willing to go along with the arrangement for the money, for the chance to work with the great Courtney and with the hope that it will be her big break.  Only Courtney's transcriber and confidante Billy Starbuck played by Oscar Levant is, in his everlasting sarcastic way, in on the secret.  Once that secret breaks however, Bob and Cherry form a professional and private partnership.  The course of true love, alas, does not run smoothly.  Oliver Courtney sees to that.  Music publishers take care of scuttling the couple`s show business dreams as they already have a full catalogue of Courtney material.  It is suggested that Bob and Cherry should try being more original.

The rocky road to romance and show business success, and the comeuppance of Oliver Courtney makes Rhythm on the River a wonderfully entertaining movie with great songs, big laughs and charming quiet moment.  All of this resting on the story by Billy Wilder.

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote the script and Wilder directed 1948s The Emperor Waltz starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine.  It was Wilder's first picture since winning the Academy Award for writing and directing The Lost Weekend three years earlier.  The Emperor Waltz would receive Oscar nominations for Edith Head's costumes and Victor Young's score.

Our story is set in the long ago Austria of Emperor Franz Josef and concerns the love affair between a haughty widowed Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska (Fontaine) and a brash American salesman Virgil Smith (Crosby). Ditto her purebred poodle and his mutt. There is a lot of talk about class differences and bloodlines.  Perhaps in the aftermath of WWII Brackett and Wilder felt the need to make some sort of a statement, but it's a tad heavy handed and at times detracts from the fun - and there is fun.

The musical numbers are presented wittily and include Friendly Mountains (a yodeling song), The Emperor Waltz with Johnny Burke lyrics to Johann Strauss' melody and Jimmy Van Heusen and Burke's Get Yourself a Phonograph, the phonograph being Virgil's stock-in-trade.  The old standby I Kiss Your Hand, Madame starts with Bing's vocal, then brings in a piano, then two policemen pick up violins and then the domestic staff starts to dance. When our countess swoons after a few boo-boo-boo's, you know it's all in fun.

Billy Wilder has friendly fun with operetta and musical film conventions.  The uninspired humorist often remarks when watching a musical "where did the orchestra come from?". There is no need to ask in the enchanting The Kiss in Your Eyes as an entire village puts bow to string to accompany this most stirring of love songs with lyrics by Johnny Burke to the melody from Richard Heuberger's Im Chambre separee from his 1898 operetta Der Opernball.  It is one of the loveliest ballads Bing ever recorded and and Virgil's romantic overture is followed by a grand punchline from the Countess.

The Technicolor is sumptuous and truly befitting the operetta-like sensibility of the movie.  Location filming was done in Jasper National Park in Alberta.  Apparently Wilder had pines transplanted from California, not being satisfied with our Canadian trees.  One one hand I am mildly insulted, but on the other I am amazed at the resources of the studio and the clout of our director.

Leading lady Joan Fontaine is every inch the royal lady, looking lovely in her costumes.  The role is a nice transition from her young, vulnerable characterizations to the more confident and sophisticated females she portrayed in the 50s.

Early in the film Bing tends to shout his way through Virgil, but his character is a lone fish out of water with no kibitzing pal such as a Bob Hope or Barry Fitzgerald.  Once he starts to sing - well, like the Countess, it is easy to fall for the go-getting salesman.  Lucile Watson (The Women, The Thin Man Goes Home) delightful as a dowager princess with a penchant for storytelling.  Our Countess' profligate father played in fine style by Roland Culver (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Holly and the Ivy).

It is a genuine treat to watch Richard Haydn as Emperor F-J.  Unrecognizable under the whiskers and make-up, and foregoing his famous precise nasally delivery, Mr. Haydn gives us a very interesting Franz-Josef.  A petulant, funny, irritating, thoughtful and memorable character.

Despite the somewhat overly-preachy aspects of the script and a tendency to drag in spots, The Emperor Waltz is redeemed by the accomplished actors, lovely music, gorgeous scenery, sumptuous cinematography and grand costumes.  I especially enjoyed Billy Wilder's cheeky fun with his handling of the musical moments.  He poked fun at the conventions while taking nothing away from the beauty of song.  All-in-all a very interesting movie in Billy Wilder's extensive filmography.