Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Early Morning

The birds of springtime

Chirping in the early morn

Wake me much too soon

Friday, May 15, 2015

National Classic Movie Day - My Favourite Classic Movie blogathon

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

Sometime in 1994 I had the following conversation with my mother.  

SHE (offhandedly as she kissed the grandchildren goodbye after a visit):  "Do you have any plans for tonight?"

ME (shocked that she appeared to be unaware of that evening's TV schedule):  "The Thing from Another World is on."

SHE (exasperated):  "Oh, you always watch that "Thing"!"

It's true.  I always watch that "Thing".  I was introduced to this favourite movie by Elwy Yost, the host of TV Ontario's Magic Shadows back in 1974.  My recollection is that it was the first movie shown on Magic Shadows.  The premise of Magic Shadows was that one movie would be shown in four or five parts throughout the week with educational aspects and background of the film provided by former teacher Elwy and guests.  There was a serial on Friday unless the movie ran over.

"We found one! We found a flying saucer!"

My first viewing of The Thing from Another World was piecemeal, but it didn't dim my enjoyment.  Elwy was an enthusiastic friend with whom to share movies.  He made the all-consuming pastime of watching classic movies "okay".  I still get shivers recalling how the first episode break came when the airmen and the scientists spread out to determine the size and shape of the thing under the ice.  Oooh!

John W. Campbell's novella Who Goes There? in which a research team in the Antarctic battles a shape-shifting, telepathic alien was the basis for the 1951 film.  Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday, Ride the Pink Horse) wrote the screenplay with uncredited input from Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Where the Sidewalk Ends) and Howard Hawks.

Robert Cornthwaite, Margaret Sheridan,  Everett Glass
Paul Frees, Norbert Schiller, George Fenneman

A team of scientists on a remote outpost near the Arctic Circle have recorded some unexplained activity which requires the attention of the Air Force.  The scientists are led by Dr. Carrington played by Robert Cornthwaite.  His fellow scientists are played by Eduard Franz, John Dierkes, Sally Creighton, Paul Frees, George Fenneman, Edmund Breon, Everett Glass and Norbert Schiller.  Radio operator Tex is played by Nicholas Byron and the cook, Lee by Lee Tung Foo.  Margaret Sheridan is Nikki, Dr. Carrington's assistant.

"Who wants some coffee?"

James Young, Robert Nichols, Douglas Spencer, Kenneth Tobey

Heading up the Air Force contingent is Kenneth Tobey as Captain Hendry.  His crew is made up of actors Dewey Martin, James Young, Robert Nichols and William Self (in charge of production).  That part in parentheses is for those of us who grew up watching television in the 60s where we read that credit at that end of many programs when Self left acting for a career as a producer.  Douglas Spencer plays "Scotty", a newspaper man hoping there is a story to be had in this expedition to the North Pole.

"I didn't belong at Alamein or Bougainville or Okinawa. I was just kibitzing. And I write a very good obit, obituary to you." 

The elements that were gleaned from Campbell's story are the isolated setting and the imminent threat to mankind.  Through misstep and chance, a humanoid creature found flash frozen under the ice is brought back to the research station where it thaws, creating death and havoc.  Communications are down so the only help for our valiant men and women is what they can do for themselves.  The sleep deprived and overly analytical Dr. Carrington proves to be an adversary to human safety with his single-minded schemes to understand the phenomena from space.

"We owe it to the brain of our species to stand here and die... without destroying a source of wisdom." 

Four years since his start in movies (Farmer's Daughter) and four years prior to the biggest break of his career (Gunsmoke), James Arness was cast as the boogeyman in The Thing from Another World.  From James Arness: An Autobiography published in 2001:

"In all honesty I would have to say that my height and size contributed to the successes I've enjoyed throughout my movie and television career.  They certainly were major factors when I was selected to play the alien monster in RKO's The Thing, produced by the famed Howard Hawks." 

"What can we learn from that thing except a quicker way to die?" 

The Thing from Another World has a look and a sound that contributes to its atmosphere of danger and siege.  The exemplary black and white cinematography is by six-time Oscar nominee (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Race, Blackboard Jungle, Hatari!, Hawaii, The Big Sky) Russell Harlan.  Harlan was a former stuntman and actor who turned to the camera in the 1930s and became the lead cinematographer on the Hopalong Cassidy series.  The quality of his work on those films are a big argument for that series popularity to this day.  Russell Harlan would collaborate with Howard Hawks on 7 pictures from 1948s Red River to 1964s Man's Favorite Sport?.

Another frequent Hawks collaborator is composer Dimitri Tiomkin (Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, The Thing from Another World, The Big Sky, Land of the Pharaohs, Rio Bravo).  Tiomkin's score for this movie is both commanding and eerie, making use of the theremin, so appropriate for the imaginative science fiction films of the time.  The score is not among Tiomkin's 17 Oscar nominations from 1939s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to 1970s Chaykovskiy.  His Academy wins are High Noon, The High and the Mighty and The Old Man and the Sea.

The Thing from Another World and The Big Sky are the only two movies from Howard Hawks' production company Winchester Pictures Corporation.  Hawks is the credited producer and, most likely, uncredited director or co-director on The Thing from Another World.  Christian Nyby, Hawks' editor on To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River and The Big Sky was given his first directing credit on this picture and subsequently directed much well-remembered television including Perry Mason, Bonanza, Wagon Train, Mayberry R.F.D. and Adam-12.  Over the years different cast members in different interviews recall different versions of who actually directed The Thing from Another World.  Perhaps it depends on which day they were working.  That the movie bears Hawks stamp is no surprise given the close working relationship of all involved.

The Thing from Another World fits the Hawks mold of competent men and women getting on with their jobs.  It is a script laced with humor in the face of risk.  The romantic subplot steers clear of mush, with both characters on an equal footing - when the girl allows it.  The acting ensemble plays together like a well-rehearsed orchestra, clearly enjoying their feisty characters and handling the overlapping dialogue with delightful surety.

The Hawks movie world as presented in The Thing from Another World is one that appeals to me.  In my imagination I would like to display such skill; to be so calm when disaster strikes and casual with my affection.  And I've come pretty close a time or two.  Inspiration and entertainment are the hallmarks of The Thing from Another World that make it my most watched favourite classic movie.

"Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!" 

Monday, May 4, 2015

SHORTS! blogathon: A Laurel and Hardy Double Bill

Your host for SHORTS! A Tiny Blogathon is the fabulous Fritzi of Movies Silently.  The blogathon dates are May 2, 3 and 4.  You won't want to miss a thing.

Beloved comic actors Laurel and Hardy became internationally successful and were, according to Stan Laurel, at their best in short films.  Working at Roach Studios, the films relied on the talents of the professionals under contract both behind the scene and onscreen.  The stock company of actors that would become familiar to audiences included James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy, Billy Gilbert, Anita Garvin, Arthur Housman, Daphne Pollard, Ben Turpin, Charlie Hall and Mae Busch.  While many of these actors were featured repeatedly in the films, they played different characters, with one notable exception.  Today we will look at a rare occurrence, a sequel in the world of Laurel and Hardy shorts co-starring Mae Busch and Charlie Hall.  Charley Rogers directed both films with Stan Laurel and H.M. Walker credited for writing 1934s Them Thar Hills and Stan Laurel and Frank Tashlin for 1935s Tit for Tat

Poor Ollie is suffering!  He has the worst case of gout that Dr. Billy Gilbert has ever seen.  Lucky for Ollie he can rely on the solicitude of his good friend Stan.  Stan draws unnecessary baths and offers the most excellent advice that since gout is caused by high living that they should move to the basement.  Dr. Gilbert has a more useful prescription, get away to the mountains and drink plenty of that fresh mountain water.  Stan knows where they can rent a trailer for next to nothing, maybe less if they pay cash.

 Val-deri, Val-dera

The mountains are lovely this time of year, but unbeknownst to our travelers it can also be a place fraught with danger.  Ahead on the trail a pitched battle between revenuers and moonshiners is in full swing with the moonshiners getting the worst of it.  Frantically they dump as much of their product as they can down a well before being carted off to the pokey.

Ollie:  "It's supposed to taste that way.  It's the iron in it.  That's why the doctor said to drink plenty of it."

It is this garden spot that Stan and Ollie choose as a place to stop and enjoy nature's bounty.  The boys are a perfect picture of domesticity as they set about preparing a supper of beans and coffee.  Water for said coffee coming from the recently topped up well.  As many of us do when going about our kitchen duties, Ollie hums a tune.  In this case the tune is Billy Hill's (The Glory of Love, Wagon Wheels) The Old Spinning Wheel.  Stan's unsolicited accompaniment turns the tune into the Pom-Pom Song.  It is a delightful and fondly remembered bit.

Lost in the wilderness.

Who is this coming down the road?  Why, it's Mr. Hall and the Missus.  He's carrying a can and she is berating him for not listening to her about keeping their car filled up.  It's a long way back to the gas station, but luckily here are some folks in a camper who can help.  Even without the mellowing influence of the "coffee" Stan and Ollie would be only to pleased to help someone in need.  When the parched Mrs. Hall has a sip of water she decides to stay with the boys while hubby returns to the car.


When Mr. Hall returns with his vehicle his ears are greeted with the braying sounds of a drunken orgy of off-key "singing" of The Old Spinning Wheel.  He is not impressed!  How dare these louts get his wife drunk!


Charlie punches Ollie in the face and dares Stan to do something about it.  Now, Stan's mind tends toward bizarre little bits of business at the best of times.  Under the influence of the "coffee" his devilish side takes over.  Each time Charlie punches Ollie, Stan comes up with another oddball method of retaliation until butter, syrup, scissors, plungers and feathers leave Mr. Hall decimated.  The coupe de grace, however, goes to Charlie Hall whose application of gasoline and a match to Ollie's backside causes that worthy gentleman to jump in the well.  The film then comes to an explosive ending.

Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, the screen creations, were characters fated to assiduously avoid success.  Many a time they set forth in the world hoping to achieve some of the ease and satisfaction they observe in others, only to have the world incomprehensibly keep them from even their tiniest aspirations.  However, this time as they are about to open their electrical supply shop (delayed by one day due to Stan's nervous breakdown), success is in the air.  Perhaps it is in the clean lines of the well-stocked store and the well-defined Art Deco signage.  Perhaps the good wishes of the cop on the beat.  This time - yes, this time good fortune will smile on the boys.

We'll Be Back Soon

Ollie decides it will be a good idea to get acquainted with their fellow shopkeepers on the street.  He and Stan place a "We'll Be Back Soon" sign next to the open door of the shop and head next door to Hall`s Groceries.  They briefly stop to acknowledge a little fellow who enters their shop.  They will see this fellow again.  Ollie is the soul of good will and bonhomie, yet the shopkeeper glares at him.  Stan suddenly remembers that fellow from the mountains.  And, brother, does Charlie remember them!  And does he tell them where to go!  Ollie is determined to be above it all.

Ollie:  "Oh, don't be like that. Let bygones be bygones. Let's help each other. You have a business, and we have a business. We'll send people to your store, and you send people to our store. What do you say?"

Ollie:  "I've never been in a position quite like that before."

You can well imagine what Charlie says, and he would say more.  You can see it in his face.  Mrs. Hall is willing to be friendly, but after all, she wasn't humiliated with features and whatnot.  Destiny turns on the foolish combination of Stan, the sidewalk delivery elevator, a ladder and some light bulbs.  Ollie is precariously placed on the ledge of the neighbouring building.  His only egress is through the bedroom window of the obliging Mrs. Hall.  It is a funny matter to Mae and Ollie.  Not so amusing to Charlie who denounces Olivier, cutting him to the quick.

Ollie:  "My reputation: It has been ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mire. Never let it be said that a Hardy's spotless reputation to be so maliciously tread upon."

Hall refuses to apologize and, of course you know, this means war.  Stan and Ollie, with a righteous lunacy awesome to behold, perform acts of anarchic vandalism on the premises and persons of Mr. Hall.  Mr. Hall retaliates in same at the business premises of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.  During these battle runs Stan and Ollie continually pass that little fellow entering and leaving their shop, but somehow ignore the fact that the stranger is carrying an armload of goods.  Eventually the brazen stranger starts using a convenient wheelbarrow for his forays into the shop.

What happened?

The campaign of destruction eventually comes to the notice of the local cop who attempts to sort things out.  One win for the boys is that the long arm of the law places the blame squarely on Mr. Hall who is forced to apologize to Oliver, and to the Missus.  The moral victory has gone to the fair name of Hardy.  The goods in the Laurel and Hardy Electrical Supply Shop go to the back of a truck driven by that little fellow.  It is the way of life.  The only thing Ollie knows for certain is that somehow it must be Stan's fault.



Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bing's Birthday Movie: East Side of Heaven (1939)

It's that time of year again.  Time to celebrate Bing Crosby's birthday.  Whether the reference book designates May 2nd or 3rd in 1903, let's bake that cake, listen to those records and watch those movies.

East Side of Heaven released in 1939 was another one of Bing's personally produced pictures (following Pennies from Heaven), this time at Universal Studios teamed with actor turned director David Butler.  It was a happy pairing and Bing and Butler would go on to make If I Had My Way, Road to Morocco and cameos in two Bob Hope flicks, They Got Me Covered and The Princess and the Pirate.

Denny Martin, the Cruising Troubadour
Bing Crosby

Bing stars as Denny Martin employed as a singer with a telegraph company.  Delivering a greeting to millionaire curmudgeon Cyrus Barrett Sr. played by the perpetually outraged C. Aubrey Smith (Four Feathers), Denny interferes in a family squabble and loses his position.  Barrett Sr's daughter-in-law Mona played by Irene Hervey (Destry Rides Again) is an old friend of Denny's and he naturally takes up her side.  Cyrus Barrett Jr. played by Robert Kent (Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo) has started drinking and generally misbehaving.  Mona plans to leave  him in hopes the shock will convince Jr. he needs to straighten up.  The father-in-law gets  a court order to keep her from taking their child.

Denny and Mary dream about married life.
Joan Blondell and Bing Crosby

Denny fortunately finds another job where he can vocalize.  He is the new cruising troubadour for the Sunbeam Taxi Company.  He needs the job especially because circumstances have caused Denny and girlfriend Mary to postpone their wedding four times already!  Mary is charmingly played by Joan Blondell (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn).  Mary is not as tough a character as Blondell's roles in the earlier part of the decade at Warners, but she's got plenty of sass and spunk, and she and Bing make a great team.  They are actually more than a pair, they are a trio.  Denny's roommate Nicky is played by Mischa Auer (And Then There Were None) and he is allowed to steal the show to the delight of all.  And it is not easy to steal a show from a baby.  That's right, a baby!

Baby Sandy

Searching for her husband will take all of Mona's time and energy so she leaves the baby with Denny (well, in his cab) while she follows up a lead on Cyrus Jr.'s whereabouts.  Here's where the fun really begins with Denny and Nicky as surrogate fathers.  Ten-month-old Baby Barrett is played by Baby Sandy, and that little girl is a cutie.  She's playing a boy in the movie because the producers didn't bother to check.  Never mind, the kid was a natural.  Her father had heard about the casting search and, using his connections as a milkman, included her picture with a delivery for music director Charles Previn.  Take that Lana Turner and the soda fountain!  Over the next three years Baby Sandy made seven more pictures and then, like Garbo, disappeared from the screen.

Claudius De Wolfe, radio personality
Jerome Cowan

Lest you think the only villain in the piece is the rich grandpapa, we have Jerome Cowan (The Maltese Falcon) as a radio gossip by the delicious name of Claudius De Wolfe.  He lives in the hotel where Mary works the switchboard and is always making unwanted plays for the gal.  De Wolfe loathes Denny's singing and takes every opportunity to knock him down.  He has his own publicity plans that include the presumed missing Baby Barrett.

Songs in the film are by James Monaco and Johnny Burke.  Monaco also has a cute cameo at the beginning of the movie.  That Sly Old Gentleman from Featherbed Lane is a lullaby for the baby.  East Side of Heaven is a love song to Mary.  Sing a Song of Sunbeams nabs the cab company job.

Mary and Nicky get in on the fun!
Joan Blondell, Mischa Auer
Hang Your Heart on a Hickory Limb

Hang Your Heart on a Hickory Limb is the biggest production number.  It is a lesson in love sung to Cyrus Jr. at the best restaurant in the movies, The Frying Pan Cafe.  Cyrus Jr. has paid some musicians to follow him around playing Melancholy Baby.  It's just possible he's feeling a little sorry for himself.  Bing sings "Hickory Limb" to liven the mood and is joined by the owner of the cafe, Mrs. Kelly played by singer Jane Jones, whom Bing knew in speakeasy days of yore.  In turn she harmonizes with Rose Valyda and Helen Warner as cooks.  The waitresses who join in the chorus are The Music Maids, about to join Bing's Kraft Music Hall radio program.  We even get some fancy stepping from Blondell and Auer.  It's a dandy!

All's well that end's well.
Bing Crosby, Baby Sandy

Here's Bing with his hated toupee on display.  In most scenes he'd rather be wearing a dashing chapeau like his little co-star.  East Side of Heaven was a hit in its day and pleasant, escapist fare for current movie fans.  You can't go wrong with the terrific cast, swell music and lots of laughs.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for May on TCM

Orson Welles' audacious 1958 noir-thriller Touch of Evil is one wild ride.  It starts with a justifiably famous tracking shot of a murder and does not let up.  Based on the novel Badge of Evil by Bob Wade and Bill Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson with an Orson Welles screenplay.  Welles was hired by Universal initially to play Police Captain Hank Quinlan, and signed to direct at the suggestion of the already cast Charlton Heston.

Orson Welles, Charlton Heston

The murder of a wealthy American businessman and his girlfriend to which we are privy is a tricky case to investigate due to jurisdiction.  The crime covers both sides of the Mexican-American border.  The tough and renowned Captain Quinlan has established his own way of doing the job and is not pleased at having to work with the Mexican authorities as represented by Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston).  Vargas is an up and comer whose fame is reaching Quinlan proportions due to his recent work in taking down a notorious crime family.

Quinlan is a mess.  An overweight, grotesque ego on legs.  Over the years his methods of dealing with criminals have become lax and illegal, although successful.  He is not above planting evidence to ease prosecution.  Quinlan is an ends justifying means fellow.  Vargas calls into question the honesty of the American police officer, starting a no holds barred battle between them.

Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff

Quinlan teams up with the head of the Grandi crime family "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), who has his own issues with Vargas.  The plan to bring down Vargas includes the virtual kidnapping of Vargas' wife (Janet Leigh) and framing her for murder.

The cast of characters that populate this time constrained story are as impossibly odd as their creator.  Tana the gypsy (Marlene Dietrich) knew Hank in the old days, and she knows him now.  Quinlan's long-time partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) idolizes and protects his friend like a mother hen.  Calleia's performance is an award-worthy understated heartbreaker.  Medium-sized and bit roles by Ray Collins, Mort Mills, John Dierkes, Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mercedes McCambridge keep the audience on their toes, ready for the next unexpected appearance.

The creepy night manager (Dennis Weaver) of the motel where Suzy Vargas is isolated and attacked should have kept Ms. Leigh away from wayside motels for the rest of her career.  Don't get the wrong idea about Suzy.  She is more than a mere damsel in distress.  Suzy is a woman who knows her own mind and can fight for herself, but what she's up against staggers the imagination.

Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia

The battle between Quinlan and Vargas takes place in a span of hours, barely more than a day, but it is the feverish stuff of nightmares.  The stakes become ever higher and Quinlan's downward spiral ever deeper.  In the end, it is love that will be his undoing.

The bold script and performances are enhanced by two of Hollywood's top craftsmen.  Cinematographer Russell Metty, whose two Oscars are for colour pictures, displays his brilliance in black and white in this mostly shot at nighttime film.  He makes you feel the heat and it gives you shivers.  The film next came under the baton of composer Henry Mancini and his jazzy, rhythmic score is such a complement to Touch of Evil that it is as if he turned what was in Orson's mind into music.

TCM's Friday Night Spotlight in May is devoted to the one and only Orson Welles and Touch of Evil has the prime-time spot on May 8 at 8:00 pm.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CMBA Fabulous Films of the 30s blogathon: Destry Rides Again (1939)

The Classic Movie Blog Association spring blogathon, The Fabulous Films of the 30s is underway.  The classic movies lauded are a perfect compliment to this fresh time of year.

"Jimmy Stewart in a western - who knew?" was the reaction of my youngest sister when I showed her 1950s Winchester '73 in her young adulthood.  It was shocking to realize how deeply I had fallen down on her movie knowledge upbringing.  Jimmy Stewart in a western is as natural a thing as is breathing.  In the 1950s he made some of the best in the genre with director Anthony Mann.  However, it all started years earlier for Stewart with the role of Tom Destry.  Released in 1939, that crowded year of Hollywood excellence, there were no Academy Awards for Destry Rides Again.  Instead of a gilded trophy, the movie won a place in the hearts of generations of audiences and deserves its true classic status as indicated by its placement on the National Film Registry in 1996.

The screen play is by Felix Jackson (Bachelor Mother, Three Smart Girls Grow Up), Gertrude Purcell (Stella Dallas, One Night in the Tropics) and Henry Myers (The Black Room, First Love), based on an original story by Felix Jackson suggested by Max Brand's novel Destry Rides Again.  Brand's 1930 novel concerns the redemption of a conceited character named Harrison Destry, who seeks vengeance against men who framed him of a crime and finds his humanity.  The popular story was filmed in 1932 starring Tom Mix.  The character's name was changed to Tom, as was the custom for most of Mix's pictures.  Jackson's story makes the character of Tom Destry the son of a famous lawman who follows in his father's footsteps with one notable difference.  The father fought lawbreakers with six guns blazing while Tom, Jr. does not believe in guns.

George Marshall

Destry Rides Again became a slyly comic western under the directing guidance of a man skilled in both genres.  Chicago born George Marshall (1891-1975) hit Hollywood at the age of 25 and for the next 50 years worked as a director/writer/actor in that industry town. In the era of learn as you go, George Marshall wrote and directed his first western short for Bison Pictures in 1916. It was called Across the Rio Grande and starred Harry Carey. For the next 15 years Marshall excelled at the short films which provided much of the entertainment of the silent era - westerns, comedies and action thrillers. He worked with western stars Neal Hart and Tom Mix, with legendary golfer Bobby Jones and with serial star Pearl White's rival, spunky Ruth Roland.

It wasn't until the 1930s that George made his first feature films including Life Begins at Forty with Will Rogers and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man starring W.C. Fields.  Action and comedy, entertainingly dished out to the public, are the hallmarks of George Marshall's pictures.  Audiences of the day, and audiences who grew up in the time when studio movie fare was prevalent on local television, have fond feelings toward such westerns as Valley of the Sun with Lucille Ball and When the Daltons Rode with Randolph Scott.  Comedies in George Marshall's resume run from the Laurel and Hardy favourites Pack Up Your Troubles, Towed in a Hole and Their First Mistake to The Ghost Breakers and Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and the zany Murder, He Says starring Fred MacMurray.  Other career highlights are the perfect little noir The Blue Dahlia starring Alan Ladd and the low-key comedy-western The Sheepman with Glenn Ford.  Marshall's output, from the silent era to TV sitcoms, bears the hallmark of consistent quality, but among his films only one can be considered a true classic, and that one is Destry Rides Again.

Bottleneck's criminal element.
Edmund MacDonald, Brian Donlevy, Warren Hymer
Marlene Dietrich, Allen Jenkins

The setting of our story is the wide open town of Bottleneck and the tale is cheekily framed.  The opening credits run over a tracking shot that starts at the shot up sign of "Welcome to Bottleneck" and travels a main street awash with mayhem.  The scene is accompanied by Frank Skinner's rousing score filled with the insistent and melodramatic motifs we would most associate with a Saturday afternoon serial.  This opening theme is repeated at the climax of the film, and the closing credits are shown over scenes of tranquility and bliss and a newly minted, much tidier "Welcome to Bottleneck" sign.

The dreamy black and white cinematography of Hal Mohr harkens to his Oscar-winning work on A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The smoky nighttime scenes and the beautiful, shimmery greys work to give the film a nostalgic quality that takes the viewer completely into the tall tale mood of the film.

Peter Bailey and son in an alternate-alternate reality.
James Stewart and Samuel S. Hinds

Bottleneck is under the thumb of the crooked Kent played by Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste, The Great McGinty).  He swindles, cheats and murders his way to the top of the heap.  His mob includes the Watson brothers, a couple of gents of the "deese, dem and doose" school played by Allen Jenkins (Dead End) and Warren Hymer (Meet John Doe).  Samuel S. Hinds (It's a Wonderful Life) is the larcenous mayor/judge who uses his brains and titles to coolly keep the masses in line.

The face of the gang, and its headquarters at The Last Chance Saloon, is entertainer "Frenchy" played by the top-billed Marlene Dietrich.  Ms. Dietrich revitalized her career with her portrayal of Frenchy. Her box office appeal had waned as it seems audiences had grown tired of the allure of the fascinating foreigner.  With her vibrant and touching Frenchy, Miss Dietrich became a relateable and earthy screen presence.  Gorgeously gowned by Vera West in glitter and feathers, and performing songs by Frank Loesser and Friedrich Hollander there is no doubt that Frenchy is the star of the show and the star of Bottleneck.  The songs, You've Got That Look, Little Joe, the Wrangler and especially See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have became popular movie tunes indelibly associated with Marlene Dietrich.

Hooray for the new sheriff!
Charles Winninger

Frenchy is as hard-boiled as they come and exceptionally skilled at duping the customers.  Her assistance proves invaluable in cheating a rancher out of his property.  The rancher, Claggett played by Tom Fadden (Moonrise) brings his troubles to the sheriff.  Sheriff Keogh played by Joe King (Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum) is summarily dispatched off screen by Kent.  The mayor announces that the sheriff has left town suddenly and appoints Washington Dimsdale as the town's number one lawman.  "Wash" is the town drunk played by Charles Winninger (Show Boat).  Wash was at one time a respected deputy to the fabled Tom Destry and although he may now be a joke, he determines to live up to his newly bestowed title.  Wash throws away the bottle and sends for Destry's son, who is garnering his own reputation after having cleaned up Tombstone, to bring and law order to Bottleneck.

Tom Destry impresses the enemy.
Brian Donlevy, Billy Gilbert, James Stewart

James Stewart, at 30 years of age, was becoming America's favourite image of itself in 1939 with his roles of the idealistic Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Tom Destry in Destry Rides Again.  Devoting much of his time at Princeton to the University Players and training in repertory, the actor paid his dues and showed his worth in roles of increasing value over the past five years in Hollywood.  He proved adept at light comedy (Vivacious Lady) and moving in drama (Of Human Hearts), now it was time to turn to a western, if an offbeat one.

Tom Destry arrives in Bottleneck subverting every expectation for a lawman.  He does not carry guns.  He doesn't believe in them.  He establishes himself in the minds of the citizens as an easy-going, yarn spinning, wood carving oddball.  Wash is shocked and humiliated.  Kent and his gang find the situation hilarious and fortunate.  Stewart as Destry plays with the hilarity, presenting himself as a fellow with a self-deprecating sense of humor, totally disarming his foes.  Watch Stewart's eyes.  He smiles shyly, joining in the joke, and while Kent is lapping it up, you can catch the briefest glimpse of disdain and determination flashing in those eyes.  It is a look that will become familiar to audiences in Stewart's 1950s output.

"All I want is to be a cowboy and to wear my own pants!"
Mischa Auer and Una Merkel steal the picture.

The first test of Destry's mettle comes in the form of a fight between two of Bottleneck's leading citizens.  One of Frenchy's dupes is a Russian named Boris played by Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey).  His surname is unpronounceable, hence Boris is called Callahan by one and all as he is the second husband of boarding house owner Lily Belle Callahan.  Boris, in what he knew in his heart of hearts to be an ill-considered bet, has lost his pants to Frenchy.

Let the games begin!
Una Merkel and Marlene Dietrich

Mrs. Callahan played by Una Merkel (42nd Street) storms the Last Chance Saloon to retrieve the trousers and get some satisfaction for the humiliation.  What she gets is this barb from Frenchy:  "But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you."  Such nerve must not go unanswered, and in one of the best remembered scenes from the film, an epic battle between the two women ensues.  Ms. Dietrich and Ms. Merkel are hundred per centers and gave their all in the unchoreographed brawl with only the proviso of no closed fists to guide them.  Tom Destry eventually puts an end to the main event by dumping a pail of water on the combatants.  Lily Belle retreats in embarrassment and Frenchy wrecks the joint in an attempt to do an injury to the deputy.

It takes a heart-to-heart, plus a demonstration that proves Tom hasn't lost his sharpshooting skills, for Tom to get Wash entirely on board with the idea of deputy sans firearms.  Most of the town is rather old-fashioned in that idea as well.  Their thoughts are voiced by a a loud-mouth cattleman named Jack Tyndall played by Jack Carson (The Strawberry Blonde).  He is the rough and tumble, always ready to rumble sort.  His sister Janice Tyndall played by Irene Hervey (Three Godfathers) has a dollop of common sense mixed in with her natural spunk.  It is clear to all that the pretty miss and the new deputy would make a charming couple.

Do you get the feeling we're intruding?
James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie is the one where everything changes for Tom and Frenchy.  Tom is questioning Frenchy at her home when he strikes a nerve on the matter of Sheriff Keogh, presumed to have left town of his own accord.  Her obvious fear for the truth to be revealed and for Tom's safety brings them close.  In a series of close-ups you sense their growing attraction and understanding.  When Tom wipes away the heavily made-up Frenchy's lipstick saying "I'll bet you've got kind of a lovely face under all that paint, huh? Why don't you wipe it off someday and have a good look - and figure out how you can live up to it." he seals their fate.  As Clara the maid, played by Lillian Yarbo (You Can't Take It With You), remarks, "That man has got personality!".

Everybody down to the Last Chance Saloon!

Concluding that Sheriff Keogh was murdered, Tom sets about investigating that possibility with the help of Wash and their new deputy, Boris.  It is now a battle of wills and strategy between the sheriff's office and the crooks as to who will rule Bottleneck.  Frenchy turns traitor to Kent in order to protect Tom, leaving Wash open to attack.  Tom retaliates a brazen nighttime raid on the jail by strapping on his guns.  Frenchy exhorts Lily Belle and the decent women of the town to action.  The men may think they are in control when they turn main street into a shooting gallery, but they are helpless in the face of a gang of females armed with everything from two by fours to rolling pins.  The Last Chance Saloon ends up the location of a rollicking free-for-all and a tragic sacrifice.

"You know, speaking of marriage, Janice..."
Irene Hervey and James Stewart

Law and order has come to Bottleneck in the form of a visionary and amiable young man named Tom Destry, who becomes the favourite son of the town; and actor James Stewart, a favourite son of the movies.

The story of Destry Rides Again is riveting and told with humour both wry and slapstick.  The action and the sentiment that are essential to the film's emotional core develops naturally.  The movie captivates audiences with its genuine heart, memorable characters and indelible performances.  Truly, one of the fabulous films of the 1930s.

A collection of essays from this blogathon series can be found here, with a click of the lovely lady's glass:


Friday, April 24, 2015

Remake Alley: Goodbye Again (1933) and Honeymoon for Three (1941)

Movie:  Goodbye Again
Genre:  Comedy
Sub-genre:  screwball, romance, trains

Allan Scott and George Haight's play Goodbye Again had a successful run of 216 performances in the Broadway season of 1931/32 starring Osgood Perkins.  Ben Markson (Gold Diggers of 1933, What Price Hollywood?) wrote the screenplay for Warner Brothers film directed by Michael Curtiz.  This screwball comedy gem from Curtiz shares its 1933 release date with the thriller classic Mystery of the Wax Museum, the outstanding Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case, and the feminist comedy-drama Female.  I am ever-impressed by Curtiz's versatility and the quality of his work.

Joan Blondell 

Joan Blondell is Ann Rogers, the attractive and efficient secretary to a successful author.  Her relationship with her boss is more than business and we see just how much more as the story progresses.  She's a cookie that is tough on the outside and all goo inside when it comes to the leading man, but she can only be pushed so far!  We like Ann and if it is Bixby she wants, then we want him for her.
Warren William 

Warren William stars as Kenneth Bixby the author of such best selling titles as A Saint in Scarlet, Ecstacy, The Woman Who Gave and Miriam.  He's going to run into trouble with Miriam.  The ladies love Kenneth Bixby.  For one thing, he looks like Warren William.  His lectures are sell-outs and bookstores can't keep copies on the shelves when Bixby shows up for autograph sessions.

Genevieve Tobin

Genevieve Tobin (No Time for Comedy) is the former Julie Clochessy, now Julie Wilson.  She and Kenneth were at college together and shared a passion divine.  Julie has never recovered from that first love.  She feels unfaithful to Kenneth ever since she married Harvey Wilson of Cleveland, and she is convinced she inspired Miriam.  Hugh Herbert plays Harvey.  He's an understanding sort.  Perhaps too understanding.  Perhaps he is just tired of constantly being compared, and found lacking, to Kenneth Bixby.

When Bixby's tour brings him to Cleveland, it brings Julie once more into his life.  At first, he doesn't quite remember the woman (after all, he's Kenneth Bixby), but Julie very easily stirs the old embers and book signings and lectures and radio broadcasts go out the window.  The couple spends the night in her country home.  Ostensibly, Kenneth was to disabuse Julie of the notion of togetherness.  Yeah, right!

Ann is left wondering and worrying.  She also has to deal with Arthur Westlake and Elizabeth Clochessy.  Arthur, a lawyer, is engaged to Julie's younger sister and they are mightily concerned about Julie's strange and socially unacceptable behavior where it concerns Kenneth Bixby.  It does not look proper.  What is Ann going to do about it?  Further, Ann must handle Harvey Wilson who shows up only wanting to take a look at the paragon that is Kenneth Bixby.  It's a mess.  Wallace Ford (T-Men) is a hoot as the uptight Arthur, as is Helen Chandler (Dracula) as the weepy Elizabeth.

Kenneth regrets his dalliance with Julie, but what's a poor fellow to do?  Won't Ann help?  Ann will not.  She may be broad-minded, tolerant and sophisticated, but she is also hurt.  Ann is determined to leave.  Julie is determined to stay.  Julie's family won't leave until Kenneth makes an honest woman of Julie.  What is to be done?

Kenneth's plan on working himself out of the Julie trouble and winning Ann back involves staying in bed and acting like a maniac as the Wilson faction pursues a legal and binding solution.  He also enlists the drollery of Hobart Cavanaugh (Margie) and his youngster at the mock Hearing.  I'll be darned if Kenneth's plan doesn't work.  The plan and the movie works for me due to Warren William's commitment to the zaniness.  Much is made by commentators in later years of the superb comedy performances of Cary Grant and his fearlessness as a handsome man not being afraid to look silly.  Well, that is just the sort of flair Warren William brings to his comedy outings and it is on fine display in Goodbye Again.

PS:  Your ears do not deceive you when watching Goodbye Again.  That is the charming melody of Harry Warren's I've Got to Sing a Torch Song from Gold Diggers of 1933, wafting appropriately throughout the score.

Movie:  Honeymoon for Three
Genre:  Comedy
Sub-genre:  screwball, romance, country inns

Eight years after Goodbye Again, Warner Brothers returned to the play, this time with a screenplay by Earl Baldwin (Wonder Bar, Brother Orchid) with additional dialogue by Philip and Julius Epstein (Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington).  The directing reins were handed to Lloyd Bacon.  Mr. Bacon directed many of my personal favourites including It Happens Every Spring, 42nd Street, Marked Woman, Action in the North Atlantic and Home, Sweet Homicide.

Osa Massen

The main triangle in this outing features Ann Sheridan as Ann, George Brent as Kenneth and Osa Massen as Julie.  Danish born Massen was a photographer turned actress whose best remembered films might be A Woman's Face, Deadline at Dawn and You'll Never Get Rich.  The multilingual Massen even coached John Wayne for his Swedish accent in the Oscar nominated The Long Voyage Home.  The premise of Honeymoon for Three sticks to the play, but it is noted that in 1941 Ann is not sharing a hotel room with her boss and Ann is pressuring Kenneth to answer her marriage proposal.

Kenneth and Julie strive to visit her country home, but get lost along the way ending up at an the Tomahawk Inn for dinner.  The couple's indiscretion is hardly that, but it will be of no consequence when they meet up with all the Wilson clan plus.  Certainly, Julie has no doubt as to the emotional connection she shares with Kenneth.

Charlie Ruggles

Charlie Ruggles was cast as the hubby Harvey.  Charlie, as always, proves himself quite adept at the comic aspects of the character.  His interplay with Ann Sheridan and George Brent is delightful.  However, at 55, Mr. Ruggles was not quite the perfect visual match as the hubby of the 27 year old Osa.  It distracted from the idea of the couple.

The interfering Arthur and Elizabeth are on hand to complicate matters.  Elizabeth is now Julie's cousin, not sister, and she is played with verve by Jane Wyman.  William T. Orr, later producer of Warner Bros. 50s TV shows, is the annoyingly officious Arthur.

Additions to this version include an array of young actors, partners of Arthur, attempting to get their foothold in the impending legal brouhaha.  Lee Patrick is an adoring fan who names her children after famous authors.  Her attempt to get Kenneth Bixby to be godfather to Kenneth Bixby Pettijohn is amusing and impactful.  Walter Catlett gets away with some great double takes at the Tomahawk Inn mentioned earlier.  Catlett is a waiter constantly befuddled by the appearance of Brent at one table with the attractive Julie and then miraculously showing up at a table filled with husbands, cousins and secretaries.

The sorting out of all this confusions occurs at Arthur Westlake's office.  Personally, I didn't find the finale as enjoyable as the shenanigans put on by Bixby in Goodbye Again.  This script benefited from the wit of the Epsteins and the game cast, from support to leads.  George Brent and Ann Sheridan had nice chemistry in their only onscreen pairing.  They would be married the following year, but the union would only last one year.  I love George Brent in comic roles, but would seek out Snowed Under and Out of the Blue before Honeymoon for Three.  Warren William owns Kenneth Bixby. 

Honeymoon for Three provides the expected chuckles, but Goodbye Again has that true anarchic screwball touch that puts it at a different level.