Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Friday, September 16, 2016

AGATHA CHRISTIE BLOGATHON: Hercule Poirot finds Evil Under the Sun



Little Bits of Classic and Christina Wehner are hosting The Agatha Christie Blogathon running from September 16 - 18.  Thank you to these two wonderful bloggers for this great event.

Recaps:  Day 1     Day 2     Day 3

Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in 1920 marked the introduction to the world of Hercule Poirot, the fussy and eccentric Belgian with amazing detective skills.  Evil Under the Sun published in 1941 marks about the 3/4 mark in Poirot's 35 novel appearances.  The sun in the title shines on a resort island separated from England's coast by a causeway which disappears at high tide.  The merry-makers on this isolated amalgam of sandy beaches and secretive coves may be searching for an escape from their everyday lives, but will soon have those lives laid open by a murder investigation.


Agatha Christie
(1890 - 1976)

A notorious actress, Arlena Stewart Marshall is on the island with her doting husband Kenneth and his daughter Linda.  Arlena's notoriety derives from high profile scandals and her obvious attraction to men other than her husband.  This summer Arlena is seen spending too much time with the handsome Patrick Redfern, much to the dismay of his wife Christine.  The owner of a fashion house, Rosamund Darnley is visibly perturbed by the marital woes of her old friend and sweetheart Kenneth Marshall.   The company includes a too hearty businessman, a fanatical clergyman, an outdoorsy woman and an American couple.  When Arlena's strangled body is discovered on a remote section of the island no one escapes suspicion and no one escapes the keen eye of Hercule Poirot.  

Agatha Christie's stories work not only for their puzzles, but because of her keen eye for characters.  Her ability to reveal with precise observations and deceptive dialogue the oh-so-human nature of those who populate her stories is a continual joy to generations of readers.  Evil Under the Sun is an engrossing read with an unexpected touch of pity for the foolish Arlena.




The 1982 adaption of Christie's novel by Anthony Shaffer (Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death) moves the time period to the late 30s and the British resort to one in the Adriatic with actual filming on Majorca, the home base of director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Funeral in Berlin).

Some characters from the novel are eliminated and/or combined with others for ease of storytelling.  The fashion designer is eliminated, but her connection to Arlena's stoic husband Kenneth Marshall played by Denis Quilley (Murder on the Orient Express, Life at the Top) is rolled over into the innkeeper played by Maggie Smith (Death on the Nile, The VIPs).  The hearty businessman is replaced with a bombastic aristocrat, Sir Horace Blatt played by Colin Blakely (Murder on the Orient Express, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes).



Peter Ustinov, Colin Blakely, Jane Birkin, Nichol Clay, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg
Denis Quilley, Sylvia Miles, James Mason, Emily Hone, Roddy McDowall

The clergyman and rustic female are gone, as are the American tourists.  In their stead we have an entertainment chronicler played by Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes, Man Hunt) and Sylvia Miles (Crossing Delancey, Midnight Cowboy) and James Mason (Odd Man Out, A Star is Born) as theatrical producers.  Diana Rigg (The Hospital, The Great Muppet Caper) plays the doomed Arlena, Nicholas Clay (Lady Chatterley's Lover, Zulu Dawn) her paramour Redfern and Jane Birkin (Death on the Nile, Blow-Up) his dowdy wife.  Emily Hone plays the put upon stepdaughter Linda Marshall.



Hercule Poirot takes in the sun.

Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Topkapi) stars in his second of three outings  as one of fiction's greatest detectives, Hercule Poirot.  So vain, so fussy, so overbearing and yet so endearing.  It must have something to do with that Ustinov fellow.

One of the many pleasures of Evil Under the Sun is Anthony Powell's costume design.  He is an Oscar winner for Travels With My Aunt, Death on the Nile and Tess, and a nominee for Pirates, Hook and 102 Dalmatians.  The wealthy on holiday in the 1930s allows for all manner of finery to please the eye.  We expect our rich to be slightly over-the-top, do we not? 

The stroke of genius that gives Evil Under the Sun its special oomph is the use of Cole Porter songs for the score.  Porter's music immediately evokes sophistication and the popping of champagne corks that gives this film its special effervescence.



Arlena Marshall takes the spotlight.

Arlena's talent is somewhat suspect, but her notoriety is assured and is necessary to box office success.  Thus, the producing Gardeners desire her to star in their upcoming play.  Also, she owes them since she left a previous show to hook up with Sir Horace, whom Arlena swindled out of an expensive bauble.  Apparently, he didn't feel their affair was worth it.  Arlena's current husband Kenneth seems to be suspicious of young Redfern.  Redfern's wife certainly has no doubts.  Rex Brewster has written a tell-all on Arlena, but can't get her release to publish.  Innkeeper Daphne goes way back with Arlena and it is not pretty.  Stepdaughter Linda is petulant and we all know teenagers have no boundaries.  When Arlena's corpse is discovered on an isolated beach everyone is a suspect and everyone has an alibi.  Can Hercule Poirot solve this baffling case?

Lives and the business of the inn are at stake, not to mention the reputation of M. Hercule Poirot.  Will this challenge go unmet?  Time to put those little grey cells to work.  None of us turn to our Christie to see the great detective vanquished in his endeavours and the reveal in Evil Under the Sun is an especially satisfying one.






Tuesday, September 13, 2016

THE MARGARET LOCKWOOD CENTENNIAL BLOGATHON: THE STARS LOOK DOWN (1940)



Today's post is a proud contribution to Terence Towles Canote's Margaret Lockwood Centennial Blogathon.  Click unto A Shroud of Thoughts for the tributes to this most worthy star.

A.J. Cronin (TVs Dr. Finlay's Casebook) was a Scottish physician and novelist whose popular novels did more than entertain.  The author enlightened readers to important social issues in his works.  Cronin took us on spiritual journeys as well.  If you haven't read his novels, you may be familiar with many films adapted from his works including The Citadel, Vigil in the Night, The Green Years and The Keys of the Kingdom.

The Stars Look Down was published in 1935 and the 1940 film version was adapted by J.B. Williams (We Dive at Dawn) and directed by Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Third Man).  The National Board of Review placed the movie on its top ten list of 1941.



Michael Redgrave as Davey Fenwick

Davey Fenwick played by Michel Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes, The Importance of Being Earnest) is a born idealist who learns the harsh lessons of life in his Welsh mining town.  His miner father, Robert played by Edward Rigby (The Happiest Days of Your Life) is a quiet leader who works for the safety of his fellows.  He is an inspiration to Davy who wants to use his university scholarship to go into politics and fight for public ownership of the mines, denying individual owners the right to dominate the workers.



Emlyn Williams as Joe Gowlan

Joe Gowlan played by Emlyn Williams (Night Must Fall, The Corn is Green) is a born capitalist.  Like Davey, he leaves for the bright city lights of Tynecastle, but his only goal is money, and plenty of it.  A smart lad, he is soon operating a bookie operation, but sets his sights on bigger and more legit enterprises.



Margaret Lockwood as Jenny Sunley

Jenny Sunley played by Margaret Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes, The Wicked Lady) is a young woman who knows what she wants and wants it now.  Like Joe and his aspirations, Jenny may not want to be a lady, but she wants to be treated like one.  She has accurately pegged Joe as someone who will get to the top and she assumes their long-standing relationship is going to lead to marriage.  Joe is a boarder at Jenny's place and her mother is most definitely in agreement with this assessment.

What Jenny doesn't realize is that born capitalists like Joe know how to deal with grasping young women, no matter how attractive.  Joe's ladder to success includes cozying up to the bored wife of a rich industrialist.  The couple is played by Linden Travers and Cecil Parker, who can be seen paired in The Lady Vanishes and Quartet as well.  Joe cannot very well put his plan into action with Jenny hanging around his neck and opportunely introduces her to Davey.



Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood

Born idealists like Davey are apt to look at attractive young women like Jenny and fall hopelessly in love, and that is just what happens.   Jenny can't see how Joe is manipulating the situation before it is too late.  Heartbroken and angry at being spurned, Jenny seduces Davey into leaving university a year short of his degree and the promise of a prominent parliamentarian to assist in his career to marry her and return to his hometown to work as a schoolmaster.  If Jenny had a clue in her pretty little head she would have seen where Davey's education and success in government might have taken her.  Destructively, "patience" is not part of Jenny's vocabulary.  Her needs are all immediate and Davey and his family are the ones to suffer.

Away from the domestic aspects of our story we return to the downtrodden miners whose deplorable living conditions are second only to their dangerous working conditions.  The unsafe section of mine that Davey's dad has been fighting against is opened thanks to the greedy mine owner, who is in possession of plans indicating the truth of denied claims.  Our friend Joe Gowan has brokered the deal that will result in the prophesied disaster.  While we cannot lay the blame for the mine cave in on the selfish Jenny, her actions to lead to Joe being able to discredit Davey as an advocate for the miners to the Board of Directors.

The depiction of the fate of the miners is almost heartwrenchingly unbearable as the audience suffers through the torment of living entombment with characters we have come to know including Davey's father, football mad brother, who had been given a tryout with the Tynecastle team, played by Desmond Tester (Sabotage, Drums) and a young student Davey had mentored while teaching.

Margaret Lockwood's Jenny is an unconscious villain in this piece, unlike some of her later characters  such as Hester in The Lady in Grey and Barbara Worth in The Wicked Lady, whose treachery is more well-defined and focused.  Heroine or villain, Margaret Lockwood's talent for bringing the truth of her character to the screen is always admirable and always watchable.






Wednesday, August 31, 2016

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR SEPTEMBER ON TCM


Oliver Webb (straight-faced):  "There are no headaches in the theatre."

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, looking for a hit to follow-up The Front Page adapted an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Millholland wherein he vented some pent up frustration from having worked for the famous theatrical impressario David Belasco.  Twentieth Century, staged by George Abbott, opened in December 1932 and ran for 152 performances.  Not a bad run, but not particularly great run either.  However, the 1934 film version directed by Howard Hawks is a screwball comedy classic and likely responsible for the subsequent 1950 revival starring Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer, and the 1979 musical version by Cy Coleman, Comden and Greene called On the Twentieth Century, starring Madeline Kahn and John Cullum, that racked up tons of Tony Awards.



John Barrymore

Director Hawks and writers Hecht and MacArthur show no mercy in this fast-paced, hysterical send-up of theatrical types.  John Barrymore (Counsellor-at-Law) is breathtakingly funny as Oscar Jaffe, self-proclaimed genius.  Oscar produces, writes, directs, acts, and creates stars.  He is also one of the greatest self-promoters known to mankind.  His latest creation is Lily Garland, the former Mildred Plotka, lingerie model.  Mildred wants to be an actress, and Oscar cajoles, bullies and seduces her into becoming an acclaimed and popular Broadway star.  Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey) is an amazing whirlwind of verbal and physical energy as Lily. 



Carole Lombard

The match of Oscar and Lily proves to be theatrical gold until Jaffe's possessiveness causes Lily to rebel in a big way.  She leaves him and the "theatah" for (gasp) Hollywood!  Oscar's fortunes take a drastic downturn without his Lily.  Finding they are both traveling on the famous passenger train the Twentieth Century provides Oscar with one chance to get back his career and his girl.  Remember, Oscar Jaffe is a man with no boundaries, especially when he is in the right - which is always.



John Barrymore, Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly, Etienne Girardot

Oliver is aided and abetted in all of his efforts, successful and otherwise, by the loyal employees he continually fires.  Assistant Oliver Webb is played by Walter Connolly (It Happened One Night) who is the most put-upon fellow you have ever seen.  He suffers indignities with a stoic loyalty that is accepted, but never appreciated.

Perpetually soused publicist Owen O'Malley is played with perfect off-the-cuff timing by Roscoe Karns (His Girl Friday).  He sees all, knows all, and plays the game for all its worth.  Charles Lane (You Can't Take It With You) is wryly humourous as Max Jacobs, the only one who maintains his head while in the Jaffe universe.  Stealing scenes, as he always does, is Etienne Girardot (The Whole Town's Talking) as a mysterious millionaire lunatic with an odd habit for a train passenger.

Lily has had a taste of freedom and success away from her supposed Svengali, yet she keeps a sentimental keepsake of their time together. Can it be love?  Oliver has tried creating another star in Lily's image, but has had suffered the ignominy of failure after failure.  Can it be love?  Neither Force of Nature is willing to give in to the other, so there is a lot of screaming, a lot of high jinks and a lot of confusion before the train pulls into New York.

TCM is screening Twentieth Century on Saturday, September 17th at 11:45.  It is an evening of "The Essentials" themed "All Aboard" featuring such other movie trains as The General, the escape from gangland Chicago in Some Like It Hot and Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts and a Broadway troupe taking to the rails in a 1932 short called Show Business.

Twentieth Century was placed on the National Film Registry in 2011.










Monday, August 22, 2016

SUMMER UNDER THE STARS Blogathon: Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall (1937)


Robert Montgomery
May 21, 1904 - September 27, 1981

Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film is hosting the Summer Under the Stars Blogthon of which this post is a happy submission.  Check HERE for previous and future contributions throughout the month of August.

Robert Montgomery's long and successful career as an actor, producer and director garnered him two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.  In 1941 he was nominated for the role of Joe Pendleton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, adapted from Harry Segall's play Heaven Can Wait.  Joe is a boxer whose soul was taken before its time by an overeager Heavenly emissary.  How things are sorted out is the story of this cock-eyed fantasy with a problematic ending and, like its lead character, a lot of heart.

Robert Montgomery's 1937 nomination was for the role of Danny in the film version of Emlyn Williams' (The Corn is Green, The Stars Look Down) play Night Must Fall.  Playwright/actor Williams starred as Danny in the 1935 London production of his play which ran for over 400 performances.  A 1936 Broadway production featuring original cast members Williams and Dame May Whitty ran for just over 60 performances.  MGM picked up the property and John Van Druten (I Remember Mama, Bell Book and Candle) adapted the screenplay.



Robert Montgomery

Danny is a unique character, not only in Montgomery's career, but in Hollywood films at the time as perhaps the screen's first true sociopath.  A complicated soul is Danny.  He presents himself as a fellow of rakish charm and winning ways.  People, especially women, are enchanted by his devil-may-care appeal.  What isn't apparent to the blinded eyes is that Danny is a villain.  He is a remorseless murderer whom empathy has bypassed.

A picture-perfect, rose covered cottage on an isolated English lane is the setting for our story.  This little fiefdom is ruled over with an iron fist by Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty), an invalid who bullies everyone in her sphere.  It is a tiny group over whom she rules, but she definitely rules her cook Mrs. Terrence (Kathleen Harrison), housemaid Dora (Merle Tottenham) and her unfortunate niece Olivia (Rosalind Russell) who acts as a companion/secretary under constant threat of being left out of the will.

Olivia is stifled in this environment and longs for excitement.  A way out is presented to her in the pleasant form of her aunt's solicitor Justin (Alan Marshall), but she declines his ardent proposal in lieu of something out there in the dark.

The cottage becomes less isolated when a middle-aged woman staying at a resort goes missing and is presumed dead.  The woods around the cottage are the subject of a search and the inhabitants questioned by the police.  Inspector Belsize (Matthew Boulton) is professional, sympathetic and impressed with Olivia's "flight of fancy" regarding this new situation.

Olivia:  "I often wonder on very fine mornings what it would be like for night to come, and I never can.  Yet it has to.  Silly.  Well, here we all are perfectly free English people.  We woke up this morning thinking "here's another day".  Got up, looked at the weather, talked - here we all are still talking - and all the time there may be something lying in the woods, hidden under a bush with two feet showing.  Perhaps a high heel catching the sunlight with a bird perched on the end of it.  And the other?  The other's a stockinged foot with blood that dried on the stocking.  Somewhere there's a man walking about, talking just like us.  He got up this morning.  He looked at the weather.  And he killed her."




Dame May Whitty, Robert Montgomery

"He" will soon enter this cloistered cottage.  The workhorse Dora has been having trouble with her young man who, coincidentally, is employed at the spa.  Dora's faith in the power of Mrs. Bramson extends to her being able to bring this fellow to heel in the matter of matrimony.  There will be no wedding bells for Dora, but Danny finds the situation much to his liking.  Mrs. Bramson is easy prey to his games and quickly offers him a job about the place.  Olivia, whom Danny deems "repressed", intrigues him.  Olivia is equally intrigued by the newcomer.  Olivia has great faith in her own powers of understanding and at the same time wants to dissect the charmer whom she suspects is a murderer.  Perhaps this is excitement beyond her expectations.



Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery

Danny has never yet been beaten in a contest of wills with a woman, but he doesn't realize that Olivia may be closer to his inner self than he suspects.  The sound of church bells bid a speech from the deranged stranger that is reminiscent of Olivia's thoughts.  Are Danny and Olivia two sides of the same coin?  Soulmates?

Danny:  "I forgot it was Sunday.  They're going to church down in the villages.  All done up in their Sunday best.  The organ is playing and the windows are shining, shining on holy things as holy things isn't afraid of the daylight.  And all the time the daylight is moving across the floor.  By the end of the sermon the air in the church is turning gray.  The people don't think of holy things so much any more, but only the terrible things that's goin' on outside.  Because they know it's still daylight and everything is ordinary and quiet.  The day is the same as all the other days, and it'll come to an end, and it will be night."

The scene outside the cottage becomes a circus as regular tours are made to satisfy the curiosity of the public once the murder has been definitely established by the discovery of the decapitated body.  What, precisely, does that detail have to do with the hatbox Danny brought with him?  While sensible women of the region refuse to travel alone at night Olivia can't bring herself to leave the cottage and Danny.  It is a psychological battle that tests two wills and the choice between sanity and depravity.

Robert Montgomery's outstanding performance was Oscar nominated and at the 1938 ceremony the award was given to Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous.  Dame May Whitty was nominated in the Supporting Actress category with Alice Brady receiving the trophy for In Old Chicago.

Monday, August 22nd is TCMs tribute to Robert Montgomery on Summer Under the Stars.  The line-up includes the sophisticated comedy When Ladies Meet, the P.G. Wodehouse story Piccadilly Jim, the sentimental gangster story Hide-Out, and two with Norma Shearer The Divorcee and Private Lives.  The experimental Lady in the Lake is Robert Montgomery's official directorial debut although he did direct some scenes of They Were Expendable when John Ford was ill, and I have read that Montgomery took over the same chores for Richard Thorpe during filming of Night Must Fall.  If so, that makes his accomplishment in front of the camera even more impressive.









Friday, August 12, 2016

THE FILM NOIR BLOGATHON: New York Confidential (1955)


The Film Noir Blogathon is hosted by The Midnite Drive-In from August 12-14.  Click HERE for all the dangerous dames and dirty dogs.  I can't resist those mean streets and am thrilled to contribute a look at 1955s New York Confidential.



Newspaper journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer published a series of crime books in the 1940s and 50s, the first being 1948s New York Confidential.  Follow-ups include Chicago Confidential, Washington Confidential and U.S.A. Confidential.  The books detail the night life of their respective cities and purport to blow the lid off of the workings of the crime syndicates - payoffs, rub-outs, graft, the whole dirty business.

Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene co-wrote the screenplay (D.O.A., Pillow Talk, The Well) with Rouse directing New York Confidential for Edward Small Productions.

Given the journalistic background, the movie starts off with a narration and the feel of a docudrama as a broad outline of the reach of organized crime is related and we are introduced to the suits who run the operation.  It sounds like Reed Hadley narrating, or is it that all narrators start to sound like Reed Hadley after a while?



Broderick Crawford

The big boss of the New York operation is Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford).  The suit and office can't hide the fact that this man is a hoodlum who came up through the ranks.  It is in his language and demeanour.  His right-hand man Ben Dagajanian (J. Carroll Naish) is a much calmer man, necessary for balance in this tense business.  The two men are such close friends that Charlie's daughter Kathy (Anne Bancroft) calls Dagajanian "Uncle Ben".

An unauthorized and strictly personal hit which happens to take out two innocent bystanders begins our picture.  Nobody is bigger than the syndicate (remember that).  It is voted that the errant mobster must be taken out for his transgression.  This is a tough boy so an out-of-towner is selected for the job.  Johnny Achilles (Onslow Stevens) who runs the Chicago turf sends one of his best, Nick Magellan (Richard Conte).

Magellan is confident, ambitious and loyal.  He also happens to be the son of an old friend of Lupo's, so when the NYC job is carried out to everyone's satisfaction, Achilles approves a transfer, if you will, of Nick Magellan's services from Achilles to Lupo.  Nick is immediately accepted into the inner circle, acquiring a wardrobe befitting his rarefied status and the attention of two women. 



Marilyn Maxwell, Richard Conte

Iris Palmer (Marilyn Maxwell) is Charlie Lupo's high maintenance girlfriend.  While we can't say we've ever seen her disloyal to Charlie, she has a yen for expensive things, good times and the good looking hit man.  Nick tells her "There's one thing you learn in my business.  Stick to your own territory."

Kathy Lupo (Anne Bancroft) is filled with conflict.  She loves her family, father and grandmother (Celia Lovsky), but hates her father's life.  She has been well-educated and has fallen for a man whose society-conscious family scorn her background.  She wants a simple, decent life for herself.  Kathy's longing and the steps she takes to claim a life of her own touch Nick.  He tries to get Kathy to understand the world as he sees it.

Nick:  "See that busboy?  He steals from the waiter.  The waiter steals from the boss and the boss cheats the government.  That's the way it is."

Kathy:  "If I thought that was the way it was I wouldn't want to live."





Richard Conte, Anne Bancroft


Kathy's vibrant and confused personality touches Nick's emotional core.  Keeping her secret existence from her father is Nick's only act that violates his code of ethics regarding the syndicate.  When it comes to business, Nick is a cold as ice professional and the killings mount up in the movie.

Not everyone is thrilled with Nick's rise to the top.  There is no sense of brotherhood of craftsmen between Nick and Arnie Wendler (Mike Mazurski), current go-to hitman in the Lupo organization.  Could this tension lead to trouble somewhere down the line?

On the home front Mama Lupo (Celia Lovsky) is in a constant state of worry about her boy Charlie.  "It's like the old days, hiding out and guns.  It's like the old days."  She also worries about Charlie and Kathy's relationship, advising him to let his daughter go and find the life she wants.  These touches go a small way to humanizing Charlie Lupo, along with his doctor's orders to avoid the foods he loves.  Hey, he's just like any of us with troubles at home and on the job.  Only his job involves cheating and killing.  No big deal.

The criminal business reaches all the way to Washington and billions of dollars are at stake when a bought off politician decides to spill.  Charlie complains that you can't trust the hypocritical pigs.  Ain't it the truth!

New York Confidential sometimes has difficulties combining the documentary style with the emotional story told and as a consequence both aspects suffer somewhat.  Nonetheless, I still find the criminal element of the film fascinating as the dots are connected between the syndicate and their bought politicians.  The planning of the hits and the board room meetings also capture the imagination.  The performances from Richard Conte and Anne Bancroft are a highlight as these two characters touch without touching and make an indelible impact on each other.  As in the best of film-noir, do not look for a happy ending.  In fact, when it comes to crooks, don't look for an ending at all.






Friday, August 5, 2016

CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON: Hal Roach and The "Lot" of Fun


Hal Roach
January 14, 1892 - November 2, 1992

When Horace Greeley, in an 1865 editorial, exhorted the young men of America to "go west", generations took it to heart.  Hal Roach left his hometown of Elmira, New York and worked as a wrangler and as a gold prospector in Alaska.  However, it was in California that Roach would realize his dreams of success and in a relatively new industry - motion pictures.

Of the many attempting to get a foothold in the burgeoning world of films, there was a young man named Harold Lloyd who came to California with his father and brother to get into the acting game.  Harold was stricken with stage fever and had appeared in stock companies until financial security issues forced him to look to the movies.  At the Universal lot he met a fellow "extra" in Hal Roach.  Roach's ability to ride had given him an "in" for the many westerns the studio produced.


Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach

Hal didn't remain an extra for long at Universal.  He was promoted to assistant director which opened his eyes to the many functions of a studio and the possibilities of success for an enterprising young man.  He formed the Rolin Film Company in 1914 in partnership with Dan Linthicum, a fellow actor.  During that first year the firm released four short comedies directed by Roach and featuring his friends including Harold Lloyd.  Harold at this time still considered himself a serious actor, but obliged Roach with a foray into slapstick comedy from which he would never leave.




At this time Roach became associated with film distributor Pathe, an uneasy teaming that would last until 1927. The French firm initially turned down the product from Rolin, but expressed an interest in the work of Harold Lloyd who at the time appeared as a character named Willie Work.  Eventually, his Chaplin-like Lonesome Luke would be a winner for Rolin and for Pathe.



In the second half of the decade Hollywood solidified itself as the centre of the movie business.  Roach longed to make features and every sort of film, but was finding his comedies to be his most successful product.  Lonesome Luke and Harold Lloyd had really taken off.  Comedians such as Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle and Lloyd were creating their own personas and improving the quality of their pictures with plot and characterization.  Shorts still ruled the screen with the public demanding more and better.  With Lloyd as his star and distribution assured, at least for his comedies, Roach set about creating a studio and a standardized process.  Roach also determined that the public was tiring of the purely slapstick so he, his directors and stars moved into more character-based comedy.  Hal Roach took pride in the quality of product they presented to the public.  He took equal pride in providing a working environment that brought out the best in all.  Early rental spaces for the Lot included Santa Monica Boulevard, Olive Street and the Bradbury Mansion on Court Street.  In 1920 they would find a permanent home in Culver City.



By this time Harold Lloyd, the most successful actor in the stable, was anxious to exert more control over his screen persona.  "The glasses character" was waiting to be born and would not be put off.  It took a while to take the edge off the initially hyperactive fellow, but he struck a chord with the audience.


Harold's 1919 accident with a prop bomb which caused facial burns and the loss of part of his hand and thumb meant a long convalescence.  The studio was particularly dependent on Harold's output, but in backup Roach began a series starring Snub Pollard.  He also signed Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, who was part of Lloyd's stock company.  The African-American child actor got into show business through his father who worked on the crew of film companies.  A happy, non-crying baby (hence the nickname "Sunshine") was a boon for filmmakers.  A standout in the Lloyd films, "Sunshine Sammy" received top billing in Roach pictures and was the first of the "Our Gang" kids to be signed.  Later he performed in Vaudeville, was part of the Step Brothers, the East Side Kids and led a band.  A soldier in WW2, he eventually found work in military plants after leaving show business. 

Harold Lloyd returned with perfect autonomy over his product and after successful features such as Grandma's Boy and A Sailor-Made Man, Lloyd and Roach split company, on friendly terms, in 1923.  Harold was now his own boss.  It was a double-edged sword for Roach not having the successful franchise and its profits under his banner, but now could spread his wings for the dramatic features he always envisioned.  However, the movie Fates seemed to want Hal to stick to comedies.



The next successful series for the studio was Our Gang.  Hal would often regale people with the story that one day he watched a group of kids playing in a lot and fighting over a stick.  He realized that he was fascinated with watching the interactions and - well, really, who wouldn't?  Our Gang was born, although their original title was Hal Roach's Rascals.  Roach, director Robert F. McGowan and writer Tom McNamara set about casting the series.  They already had "Sunshine Sammy" and added Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon and Joe Cobb.  The popular series would last for years with younger actors transitioning into the gang as older cast members "aged out".  Over the years fans would meet Mary Ann Jackson, Jean Darling, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins and Harry Spear.



Pete the Pup, an American Pit Bull Terrier joined in the fun.  In the talkie era audiences met Norman "Chubby" Chaney, Dorothy DeBorba, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Donald Haines and future Oscar nominee Jackie Cooper.  George "Spanky" McFarland was only three years old when he joined the group.  Scotty Beckett and Dickie Moore spent time in the gang.  In 1935 Darla Hood, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer and Eugene "Porky" Lee became stalwarts and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas took a larger role in the fun.

The series remained popular, but shorts weren't the money-maker they once were and late in the 1930s Roach considered putting an end to the series.  However, his distributor at the time, MGM, offered to buy out the series including all rights in 1938.  Roach made the deal and refocused his studio to features only.  MGM, with its glossy production values and prim view of American life, took the heart right out the freewheeling Our Gang.


Unable to find that one big star to build the studio around in the 1920s Roach took the ensemble approach producing the Roach Comedy All-Stars:  Charley Chase, James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy,  Oliver Hardy, Max Davidson, Clyde Cook, Mae Busch, Anita Garvin, Eugene Pallette, Edgar Kennedy, Noah Young, and Stan Laurel.  Somewhat faded stars such as Mabel Normand and Theda Bara would appear, along with Lionel Barrymore whose career was in transition at the time.  Something magical was about to happen at the Roach "Lot of Fun".


English-born Vaudevillian Stan Laurel had been trying to break into films as a performer for sometime.  Circumstances, opportunities and lack of a focused individual characterization had been constant obstacles in his path.  Eventually he ended up working at Roach Studios as a gag man and he had found his niche.  While working out gags for others and learning about directing film Stan found a true sense of purpose and happiness.

"There just wasn't a nicer job in the world than getting together with a great bunch of people and working your whole day so you could make people laugh, thousands of people to laugh.  I used to love going there every morning, and at night I always hated to leave."
- Stan Laurel


Georgia-born Oliver Hardy entered the movie business via Florida and New York City.  By the 1920s he was a stalwart in the Hollywood picture business as a reliable heavy or comic, and well-known scene-stealer.  He was one of Roach's All-Stars at the time Stan was phasing out the performing part of his career to concentrate on behind-the scene activities.  When a kitchen accident prevented Oliver from appearing as a butler in the 1926 production Get 'Em Young, Stan, with a raise in pay, was prevailed upon to put his mug in front of the camera once again.

Both Stan and Oliver were important components of the All-Star ensemble, but there was no bolt of lightning that paired the two.  It was a natural progression of appearing in a films here and there, such as 45 Minutes from Broadway in 1926 to Duck Soup in 1927 (based on a skit written by Stan's father) when everyone at the studio, even the actors themselves, started to accept that here was indeed a team.


Hal Roach, Leo McCarey

Hal Roach's assistant, Leo McCarey became obsessed with the fellows.  Everywhere he looked he saw story opportunities for the dimwitted, yet likable pair of characters that Stan and Ollie were creating.  The future three time Oscar winner wrote, produced and/or directed many of the shorts that made Laurel and Hardy immortal including Putting Pants on Philip, Two Tars, Big Business, Blotto and Liberty.  Before anyone realized it, audiences and exhibitors knew that the Roach All-Stars had found genuine stars in Laurel and Hardy.


The advent of sound or talking pictures was no impediment to the popular team or to Our Gang.  Roach also had popular stars like Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly under contract.  Previously silent pictures had no barrier to foreign markets.  Learning or reading their lines phonetically displayed on a chalkboard, and with different supporting casts, Laurel and Hardy remade their shorts for Spanish, German, French and Italian audiences.  This expensive, and I'm sure tiring, experiment did not last long, but perpetually endeared the stars to their worldwide fans.

Although not credited as a director on the Laurel and Hardy films, Stan was always the welcome support to James Parrott, James Horne, Leo McCarey, etc.  He knew the characters, he knew gags, he knew what worked.  The staff would preview the films within an inch of their lives, timing the laughs so they could edit to the second.  Quality tells.

The sheen was coming off the short film products as the 1930s wore on.  Animated cartoons began filling that slot in a movie night lineup.  Hal Roach moved into more feature productions, even for the masters of the short film, Laurel and Hardy.  Roach had longed to make this move for sometime.  His features of the 1920s, westerns and adventures, did not have the backing of his distributors nor the success of the shorter films.  Laurel and Hardy's features are a mixed bag.  Some of the feel of being padded the extra reels while others are classics from Babes in Toyland to Way Out West to Sons of the Desert.  Stan and Oliver, always under separate contracts to Roach, had decided to leave the studio in search of greener pastures which they would not find at Twentieth Century Fox or MGM.  Stan would later admit that it was a mistake.  Whatever issues with money or credit or interference that Stan and Hal had run into, at least Roach had always let the boys have their way.



Hal Roach, Jr.

So too are Roach's non L&H features a mixed bag, but any movie buff is sure to find a favourite from among Topper, Turnabout, One Million B.C. and Of Mice and Men.  Shortsightedly, after purchasing  the rights to Of Mice and Men from John Steinbeck, Roach turned down an option on The Grapes of Wrath.  The competition between the two motion picture versions would not work to the Roach Studio's advantage.  One Million B.C. has co-directing credits for Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., who was stepping into his father's shoes at the company, and a good thing too.  For Hal Roach Sr. was about to be drafted!  Exempted from WWI as an employee at Rolin, Roach accepted a commission into the Signal Corps. during the 1920s.  He had resigned shortly before the 1940s, but a clause of calling up members during an emergency saw the 50-year-old Hal Roach denied a deferment and transferred to the Signal Corps. base in Astoria where he ran the studio long distance.  The studio at this time made its money mostly from renting the space, catalogue availability and the loan out of valuable properties in Patsy Kelly and William Bendix.

After the war Hal Roach Jr. brought the studio into television production for syndication.  Like his father, this Hal seemed to have a sense of where the industry was going and what the audience would accept.  My Little Margie starring Gale Storm and Charles Farrell, The Stu Erwin Show, Racket Squad and Public Defender with Reed Hadley, Blondie with Arthur Lake and Pamela Britton and the horror anthology The Veil hosted by Boris Karloff are still familiar to television fans.

Sadly, what may have been his program was not to be.  Hal Roach Jr. had an agreement with Laurel and Hardy for a series of television specials setting the boys in a Fairy Tale environment.  Sadly, Stan had a stroke before they went into production and after his recovery Oliver was felled by the stroke in 1956 that left him paralyzed, and he passed in 1957.

The Roach Studio would not survive the tumultuous years of the 1950s.  Bankruptcy and sale would be the sad end.  In 1963 the site was demolished for a modern commercialization.  However, when you stop to consider that much of the output of a studio begun in 1914 and lasting almost 50 years - thousands of reels of films - have left the world with fond memories transcending centuries, it is quite an accomplishment for the adventurer from Elmira.

Hal Roach Studios at the Oscars


1932 The Music Box
Best Short Subject, Comedy

1936 Tit for Tat
Nominated: Best Short Subject, Comedy

1936 General Spanky
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse

1937 Bored of Education
Nominated:  Best Short Subject, One Reel

1937 Topper
Nominated:  Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Roland Young
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse


Marvin Hatley

1937 Way Out West
Nominated:  Best Music, Score, Marvin Hatley

1938 Block-Heads
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Score, Marvin Hatley

1938 There Goes My Heart
Nominated:  Best Music, Scoring, Marvin Hatley

1938 Merrily We Live
Nominated:  Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Billie Burke
Nominated:  Best Cinematography, Norbert Brodine
Nominated:  Best Art Direction, Charles D. Hall
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Song, Phil Charig and Arthur Quenzer, Merrily We Live


Elmer Raguse at work

1939 Of Mice and Men
Nominated:  Best Picture
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse
Nominated:  Best Music, Scoring, Aaron Copland
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Score, Aaron Copland

1940 One Million B.C.
Nominated:  Best Effects, Special Effects, Roy Seawright (photographic), Elmer Raguse (sound)
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Score, Werner R. Heymann

1940 Captain Caution
Nominated: Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse

1941 Topper Returns
Nominated: Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse
Nominated:  Best Effects, Special Effects, Elmer Raguse (sound), Roy Seawright (photographic)



1984 Honorary Oscar presented to Hal Roach
In recognition of his unparalleled record of distinguished contributions to the motion picture art form.

Hal Roach's Honorary Oscar was introduced by Our Gang alumni Jackie Cooper, presented by George "Spanky" McFarland, and the standing ovation from the audience started by Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison.

"...he (Hal Roach) was always a good man to work for."

- Charley Rogers, director
The Devil's Brother, Babes in Toyland, The Bohemian Girl 


Sources:
A History of the Hal Roach Studios, Richard Lewis Ward, 2005
Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, John McCabe, 1961
The Comedy World of Stan Laurel, John McCabe, 1974
Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy, John McCabe, 1989
Harold Lloyd - Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, 2009


The Classic Movie History Project annual blogathon runs from August 5 - 10th.
Day 1: Host, Fritzi at Movies, Silently - The Studios, The Publicity Department
Day 2: Host, Ruth at Silver Screenings - The Films - The Production Code, Animation
Day 3: Host, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen - The People - Groundbreakers, Before They Were Stars
Day 4: Host, Fritzi at Movies, Silently - The System - Technical, Costuming
Day 5: Host, Ruth at Silver Screenings - The Films - Movie Disasters, Color
Day 6: Host, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen - The People - Family Business, Foreign Affair






Saturday, July 30, 2016

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR AUGUST ON TCM



I may have mentioned this before, but my mom used to have a thing for Mark Stevens.  I knew her for over 50 years before I discovered this little fact that only came out when she asked to borrow my copy of 1946s The Dark Corner.  It still makes me shake my head.  You think you know a person!


Kathleen:  "I've never been followed before."
Brad:  "That's a terrible reflection on American manhood."

Private Investigator Brad Galt (Mark Stevens) has problems.  He can't turn around in his NYC office without some copper checking up on him due to a prison record back in California.  He has an ex-partner who framed him.  Hell, he has enemies he hasn't even met yet.  It's a good thing his secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball) is a girl with brains, a big heart and good legs.



Stauffer:  "I need two yards, powder money."

Galt learns of his current trouble when he's being tailed by hired muscle (William Bendix).  His name is Stauffer, but we'll call this character "White Suit" pursuant to his sartorial choice for following guys at night.  The ex-partner Tony Jardine (Kurt Krueger) is more than a part of Brad's shady past.  Jardine has been creating crime and deceit right here in NYC.  His less than honourable actions with wealthy women has not gone unnoticed by gallery owner Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), nor have his charms been lost on Cathcart's young and beautiful wife Mari (Cathy Downs).  How the paths of these disparate character criss and cross over the landscape and close in on the hapless Galt is the story of The Dark Corner.



Cathcart:  "The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither immoral nor illegal." 

Among the supporting cast you will enjoy Constance Collier (Stage Door) as a wealthy art patron, Reed Hadley (I Shot Jesse James) and his voice, as a police detective, and an unbilled John Russell (TVs Lawman) as a uniformed officer.

Based on a story by Leo Rosten (Captain Newman, M.D.) with a screenplay by Jay Dratler (Pitfall, Laura) and Bernard Schoenfeld (Phantom Lady, Down Three Dark Streets), The Dark Corner bristles with 1940s slang and snappy one liners.  The moody cinematography is from one of my favourite purveyors of the art, Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Panic in the Streets).

Director Henry Hathaway specialized in nifty noir during this period of his long and varied career.  Whether it be the docudrama style of The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine and Call Northside 777 or the more melodramatic crime stories like Kiss of Death and The Dark Corner, they all feature a grittiness served by location filming.

The Dark Corner takes its audiences from crowded penny arcades to exclusive art galleries, from crowded walk-ups to swanky penthouses, through nightclubs and office buildings as our story takes place.



Brad:  "There goes my last lead.  I feel all dead inside.  I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me."

For music, Cyril Mockridge reached into the 20th Century Fox vault for Alfred Newman's Street Scene for the theme.  It takes you directly where you need to be by dropping you right in the middle of the city streets.  The background music played by orchestras, radios and recordings is a mix of Harry Warren standards and, in what I think is a cheeky move considering what happens to Stauffer's white suit, Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo.

A special treat in the movie is the appearance, too briefly, of jazz pianist/composer Eddie Heywood appearing as himself in a nightclub scene playing his Heywood Blues.

   

Of Lucy's dramatic pictures, I believe this and the following year's Lured are her only mysteries.  As much as she shone in other dramas and especially in her comedies, I like her in this murky world.  She is both of it and above it - a most interesting dichotomy.



Kathleen:  "What's done to you is done to me."

Fans, you don't have to wait long for this film-noir treat.  TCM is screening The Dark Corner on Tuesday, August 2nd at 8:00 PM as part of the Summer Under the Stars salute to Lucille Ball.