Friday, April 29, 2016

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR MAY ON TCM



It's time to get your goof on, ladies and gentlemen.  Four legends - I do not use the term lightly - LEGENDS of the Silver Screen join forces to asphyxiate you with laughter.  Your mirth will be so great that you will struggle to find the breath to say "Stop, you're killing me!"

The little studio put together by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (I always read that as Zarkoff.  It tickles my funny bone.), American International Pictures found its niche by catering to the young audience ignored by the big shots of the movie industry.  The drive-in crowd enjoyed the juvenille deliquency plots of Reform School Girl and Hot Rod Girl, and the contemporary music of Shake, Rattle and Rock!.  Horror added another area of success with I Was a Teenage Werewolf and his kin Frankenstein and Cave Man.

Success was found by upping the production values on a series of features produced by Roger Corman.  Stories loosely adapted from Poe had name recognition value, as did leading man Vincent Price.  Audiences flocked to House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligeia and Pit and the Pendulum.  (Ooh, it may be springtime, but I just got a Hallowe'en chill up my spine.)

1963s The Raven directed by Corman from a Richard Matheson screenplay has little to do with Poe, but everything to do with sending up the genre in fine style.  Vincent Price and Boris Karloff are rival wizards and Peter Lorre turns into a crow.  It is a hoot and was quickly followed by The Comedy of Terrors, my TCM choice for this month.  Sadly, in terms of finances my movie wasn't boffo box office so further comedy-horror ventures fermenting in Matheson's mind for the studio and these stars were scrapped.  Ah, what could have been!

Regarding The Comedy of Terrors, who better than multi Hugo and Edgar nominee Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson to spoof the genre he knew inside out?  The director is Jacques Tourneur who gave us Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Demon, also the quintessential noir Out of the Past and the charming piece of Americana Stars in My Crown.   The house cinematographer was Oscar winner for High Noon, Floyd Crosby and Les Baxter handled the musical chores.  With these guys behind the scenes and the legendary cast on the screen, The Comedy of Terrors is a treat on all levels.



Rathbone, Lorre, Karloff and Price
Promotional shot

Waldo Trumbell (Vincent Price) has married into a prosperous undertaking business and run it into the ground.  He spends his days trying to murder his father-in-law Amos Hinchley (Karloff) and arguing endlessly with his wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a frustrated opera singer.  The household is rounded out by a cat, Orangey, and Waldo's put-upon assistant Felix Gillie (Lorre).  Gillie has an unspoken and deep affection for Mrs. Trumble adding a touch of poetry to our story.  Jameson nails the role of the neglected wife.  Boris Karloff as her whiny old dad doesn't appreciate how she saves him from certain death at the hands of his son-in-law every day.  Boris is a mess, and a quiet riot as Hinchley.

The firm has but one good coffin which they retrieve after mourners have left the graveyard to recycle for the next customer.  Finances are so bleak that Trumbell and Gillie have to go out into the cold night to round up customers - the willing and the unwilling.  Even this effort does little to alleviate the pecuniary situation so when the landlord Mr. John F. Black (Rathbone) gives notice of eminent eviction Trumble plans to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by making Black their next client/victim.    


Joyce Jameson and Vincent Price
An evening at home with the Trumbles

Far from solving all of his problems, Trumble has only created more.  The penny-pinching, Shakespeare quoting landlord simply will not die!  He passes out.  His heart stops beating,  However, he will not get in the coffin and stay put!  Oh, the indignity!  It is here that Basil Rathbone picks up the movie, puts it in his back pocket and walks away.  He is incredibly funny while stealing the movie, which you must admit is quite a feat with this cast of supreme hams giving it their all.  In an interview included with the DVD release, Richard Matheson said Rathbone took to the part on the first read-through.

Supplemental viewing:  1939's Tower of London starring Basil, Boris and Vinnie.




The gang's all here!

The Comedy of Terrors cracks me up, and if you are the sort of goofs I believe you to be, then you will not want to miss it.  TCM is spotlighting American International Pictures this month on Thursdays and that is where you will find The Comedy of Terrors on May 12th at 2:30 in the morning.











Monday, April 11, 2016

CMBA SPRING BLOGATHON - WORDS! WORDS! WORDS!: FULL OF LIFE (1956)


The 2016 Classic Movie Blog Association Spring Blogathon is "Words! Words! Words!" covering movies about writers, books, librarians, publishers, and even screenwriters.  The blogathon runs from April 11 to 15 and you can click HERE for the various contributions.



Richard Conte as Nick Rocco
At the grindstone.

Nick :  "This house is full of life.  Babies to be born, books to be written."
Emily :  "How many, Nick?"
Nick :  "Well, you give me the babies and I'll give you the books.  I'll try to keep up with you."

In 1956s Full of Life Nick and Emily Rocco are a happily married couple expecting their first child.  This child is anticipated with great love and was planned for just this time.  The proceeds of Nick's novel helped with the down payment on a charming suburban house that is perfect for a family.  The advance on his current novel will have to stretch through the upcoming event.

Even the best of plans feature their own bumps in the road.  Nick is feeling slightly neglected by Emily's preoccupation with her status.  Emily's hormones are bouncing all over the place and her mood swings from jealousy of neighbourhood women's waistlines and an urge to scrub the world clean for the new arrival.

The other husbands on the street enter their garages in the morning and drive the car to work.  Nick enters the garage and stays in a small room fashioned into his office to sit at his typewriter and commence the work of imagining and realizing.  An intercom system keeps him in contact with Emily.  Once upon a time she hung on every word he wrote and was a true partner in the work.  Nowadays she nods distractedly and reads books on semantics.



Richard Conte, Judy Holliday, Amanda Randolph
Not a happy woman.

Unexpectedly the sounds of a crash and cries for help come over the intercom.  Emily Rocco has crashed through the kitchen floor.  The incident is the fault of termites, and a recently deceased so he can't be sued termite inspector, but try telling that to a woman who can no longer sleep on her stomach!  Also, try telling that to the dwindling savings account.  The only solution is to ask Nick's father, a retired stonemason, for help.  Nick and his brothers estrangement from their father is based on the natural differences between immigrant parents and modern thinking sons.  Vittorio Rocco feels abandoned by his children and Nick knows that his father does not respect his career.  Nonetheless, the older man adores his daughter-in-law and lives in hope of a grandson.  He will  fix the house for "Miss Emily".  He will also take over life in the Los Angeles house and further an agenda of his wife's, that Nick and Emily finally be married in the Catholic church.

Old Vittorio can be quite the charmer in his way and his way is to sip wine on a chaise lounge and consider the job in the kitchen.  He would much rather build a great stone fireplace to make this abominable stucco house more substantial and fitting for his grandson, but ... no "buts", that is exactly what he does.  Vittorio also heckles Nick into writing down the family legend of the great Uncle Mingo and his adventure with the bandits.  Nick has real work to be done, but he listens to the drunken, incoherent stories of his old man to please Emily.  He spends the wee hours working on a story that he thinks is really fine and is excited to share.  Papa doesn't have to read it, he lived it.  Emily tosses the manuscript on the table for later perusal - maybe.



Judy Holliday and Salvatore Baccaloni
Old Papa knows what he's doing.

Nick is fed up.  The great life he thought he was building is out of control.  Two people who should be on his side seem to be against him.  A visit from the local parish priest is the last straw.  However, Emily has been considering more than semantics and modern childbirth methods.  She has been wondering about a spiritual component in their lives now that they are about to become parents.  Nick must find a way to reconcile is feelings toward his father and his feelings toward the church.  Mama will be happy to learn that although she did not become a Catholic, Emily married Nick with Father Gondolfo presiding.  A grandson for Vittorio, with red hair and big feet like Uncle Mingo, is safely delivered.  Emily, not so distracted as Nick presumed, sent his story of Uncle Mingo and the Bandits to the Saturday Evening Post.  The Rocco's can now pay for a termite exterminator and carpenter.  Vittorio, couple united in the church and stone fireplace big enough for Santa Claus complete, can return home to Mama.



Salvatore Baccaloni and Richard Conte
Meeting the baby.

John Fante wrote the screenplay to Full of Life based on his novel of the same name.  The novel is a rawly personal account of a first time father's expectations and changing relationships with his wife, his parents, and the family about to come into existence.  In the screenplay, Fante lets his character be the bemused and exasperated support to the characters of the wife and old papa.  The transition from novel to screen maintains the same wry humour and abundant affection.  Life is not perfect.  Life isn't meant to be perfect.  Love and closeness sustain us in times of turmoil and confusion.  Family is presented respectfully and honestly.

John Fante, the author of novels Ask the Dust, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, Dreams from Bunker Hill, among others, was a screenwriter in Hollywood and his screenplay for Full of Life was nominated as Best Written American Comedy by the Writers Guild of America.  It lost to Around the World in Eighty Days.  Other nominees were Teahouse of the August Moon, Bus Stop and The Solid Gold Cadillac.

Oscar winner (Born Yesterday) Judy Holliday and Richard Conte starred as Emily and Nick Rocco.  The character of Emily is a far cry from the patented dumb blonde Billie Dawn or the quirky Gladys Glover (It Should Happen to You).  Emily is a lovely, thoughtful young woman who just happens to be going through one of the major experiences of life.  Her mood swings are nothing out of the ordinary and Holliday plays them as such.  Crime pictures occupy most of Richard Conte's resume at this period of his career.  One could be forgiven for thinking he was born wearing a fedora and carrying a gat, but should not be surprised at the versatile actors skill in this charming domestic comedy.

The find of Full of Life was the movie debut of opera bass Salvatore Baccaloni.  To this day he enjoys the reputation of having been one of the finest comic basses of the 20th century with a career that went from Milan and LaScala to the Royal Opera House, the Met, and his own company.  As Vittorio Rocco, the fount of all humour and conflict, Baccaloni is a delight.  He sings just a wee bit while enjoying his work on the fireplace, but it is enough to make you seek out recordings.



Richard Conte and Judy Holliday
Coming home.

Directed by Richard Quine (Bell Book and Candle, How to Murder Your Wife) during a most prolific time of his career at Columbia, Full of Life is a charming mix of the joyful and the sweetly melancholy abetted by a lovely, wistful original score by George Duning (3:10 to Yuma).

The semi-autobiographical Full of Life is an enjoyable movie of simple virtues that lives pleasantly in the memory.  A perhaps idealized look at a working writer with that writer's craft on display in adapting his own work.


The Classic Movie Blog Association e-book collection of essays on "Words! Words! Words!" is available free on Smashwords or $ .99 on Amazon with proceeds going to the National Film Preservation Fund.


















Friday, April 8, 2016

BEYOND THE COVER BLOGATHON: CITY FOR CONQUEST (1940)


"I worked like a dog on City for Conquest.  There were some excellent passages in Kandel's novel, passages with genuinely poetic flavor, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction.  Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise.  The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel's skeleton.  What remained was a trite melodrama.  When I realized what they had done I said to hell with it, and that cured me of seeing my pictures thenceforth.  I even wrote a letter of apology to the author.  Yet City for Conquest did well at the box office, which ought to prove something or other." 
- Cagney by Cagney, Doubleday 1976

When I first read those words in the Cagney autobiography years ago I was puzzled and disappointed.  City for Conquest was one of my favourite Cagney pictures.  I felt deeply the emotions of the characters and have come to truly love the performances and story.  Just how much better was the novel - or was it a case of, for Mr. Cagney, the novel experience surpassed that of the film.  It is often that way with fans.



"Kandel's theme in his words, was "There's no welcome in New York - no farewell ... The city is deep and high and angry.  Come in and you're swallowed.  Leave, and you're not missed."  But there was also a feeling of love for the city that gave the different stories a unique vitality."
- Cagney by John McCabe, Alfred A. Knopf 1997

I found the novel a fascinating read.  Beginning at the early part of the 20th century the different neighbourhoods of NYC are painted through strong imagery with an unblinking eye toward the tawdry lives lived in poverty and the tawdry lives lived in wealth.  Sights and smells combine with emotion and harsh realities that filled me with pity and curiosity.  The view of the characters may be in the abstract, yet in some instances there is the heavy sting of judgment; in others, a detached understanding.  So many plots and characters round out the story of City for Conquest that truly a television mini-series would be the only film form to attempt to give it full justice.

Kandel's work as a screenwriter ranges from Magnificent Obsession and They Won't Forget to I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Trog.  His novel City for Conquest was his most lauded venture.



Frank McHugh, Donald Crisp, James Cagney
George Tobias, Pat McKee

The subplots selected by Warner Bros. studio to focus on for their adaption perfectly suited the skills of their leading players and the audience's expectations of those stars.  Cagney plays a guy who grew up tough in a tough town.  His fists are his way out of the grind and up to the top.  The fight game is shown to be crooked and Cagney's Danny Kenny lacks the single-minded ambition necessary to truly succeed.  It is for others that he puts himself in the ring.



James Cagney, Arthur Kennedy

In his film debut Arthur Kennedy (5 time Oscar nominee) is Danny's brother, Eddie.  Eddie is a sensitive soul, a musician who sees the world around him not only as it is, but as a symphony that he must write.  Danny doesn't quite understand Eddie, but he loves and admires him.  He fights so Eddie can have his dream.



Ann Sheridan, James Cagney

Ann Sheridan plays Peggy Nash, a girl who loves to dance.  She loves to dance for her own pleasure and for an audience.  It is the dream of many in this town to have their name in lights.  Peggy hungers for that with all her being.  Danny fights so he can share in Peggy's dream.

The original screenplay by John Wexley (The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces), however, did not meet with the star's approval.  Again from John McCabe's Cagney quoting a memo from Jim to his brother Bill:

"It is quite apparent that Wexley knows nothing of show business, of what went on during the period covered by the script and apparently knows less about the fight business.  The dialogue throughout is completely phoney and will have to be redone if there's to be any honesty in the finished production.  The fact that it is still interesting speaks more than well for the Kandel yarn."

The shooting script was doctored by Robert Rossen (A Walk in the Sun, The Hustler).  Cagney was also disappointed that the studio replaced Raoul Walsh (The Strawberry Blonde, White Heat) with Anatole Litvak (Out of the Fog, The Snake Pit).  Cagney's no-nonsense approach to his work clashed with what he saw as Litvak's artistic pretensions, and the creation of a hierarchy on the set which placed labourers on the bottom.



Elia Kazan, Jerome Cowan

The movie follows the rise and fall of these characters scrambling to get out of desperate situations.  Lessened in attention given from the book to the movie is the character of "Googi", a poor kid who learns early that crime is the way to beat the odds.  He is important to the plot of the film and played by Elia Kazan with great verve and awareness.



Anthony Quinn, Ann Sheridan, James Cagney

The film is a nice showcase for Anthony Quinn, another younger actor starting to make his mark in increasing larger roles.  Here he plays Murray Burns, the abusive dancing partner of our heroine, Peggy.  Most of the cast is filled out with a roster of familiar and dependable character actors such as Frank McHugh in the ninth of eleven pictures with pal Jimmy.  Donald Crisp is a fatherly fight manager instrumental in Danny's success and his greatest heartbreak.  Lee Patrick, Joyce Compton, George Tobias and Jerome Cowan add much to the flavour and depth of the movie.

One conceit of the screenplay alternately annoys me on some viewings or comforts me on others.  I believe it is an attempt to capture the scope of the novel that they have given the film a narrator in the form of an "Old Timer" played by Frank Craven.  He travels the streets, introducing the characters and, apparently a timeless tramp, pops up again at the end to wrap things up for us.  The role is not dissimilar to the Stage Manager Craven so famously played in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town.

Success, at tremendous costs, comes to both Danny and to Peggy, but that success keeps them apart.  A guilt-ridden Eddie looks for shortcuts in his musical career to help his self-sacrificing older brother.  Unprincipled racketeers destroy Danny's eyesight.  Googi gets too big for his britches.  Peggy comes close to starvation.  Can you see a happy ending out of all that?  Warner Brothers could and, apparently, that may come close to explaining James Cagney's dissatisfaction with the film.  

However, from the point of view of my teenage self in front of the television at midnight or the adult choosing a DVD for an evening's entertainment, I cannot not imagine leaving Peggy and Danny (you are to blame, Mr. Cagney, for being the actor you were) without that glimmer of hope for their future happiness, no matter how small.  It catches in my throat and brings unbidden tears.  If that is trite, I will take it.


Many thanks to Liz of Now, Voyaging and Kristina of Speakeasy for hosting the Beyond the Cover blogathon running April 8th, 9th and 10th with daily updated links to contributions.    











THE DUO DOUBLE FEATURE BLOGATHON: Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power in Rawhide (1951) and Untamed (1955)

The Flapper Dame and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies have come up with a fabulous idea. It is The Duo Double Feature Blogathon , and it ...