Sunday, October 30, 2016

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR NOVEMBER ON TCM



"The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." 
- Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut


Well, Heaven bless the talented amateur!  While I find much to enjoy and admire in the 1956 version, it is the 1934 version that has retained a hold on this movie fan's imagination for many years.

Winter in the Swiss Alps shows the smart set participating in a sporting tournament.  The Lawrence family, father (Leslie Banks), Jill (Edna Best) and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) are enjoying the fresh air, fun company and Jill's chances for a trophy in the shooting.  The rambunctious Betty inadvertently help put an end to her mother's chances, but a rematch with rival Ramon (Frank Vosper) is spoken of and is most definitely in the cards.  Betty's antics also ruined chances for a charming skiing friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay).  He doesn't seem to mind much.  Perhaps he has other things on his mind.  Other things beyond his mock flirting with Jill to create mock sorrow in Lawrence.

Louis is really an agent for the British Secret Service with vital information on a planned assassination.  He is shot before he can reveal the secret, but before dying brings Jill and Lawrence in on the deal.  Foolhardily, they rush into the intrigue, but before they can relay the information, the villains kidnap Betty leaving the Lawrences in a bind.

"Say nothing of what you have found or you will never see your child again."



Edna Best

Back in England, the Secret Service is monitoring the situation despite the Lawrences following instructions not to speak to the authorities.  Lawrence and his friend Clive (Frank Wakefield) head out into the night and the neighbourhood of Wapping in East London.  The only clue they have is the information left from Louis:

WAPPING
G. BARBOR  MAKE
CONTACT  A. HALL
MARCH 21st

No points for recognizing that A. HALL stands for the Albert Hall.  The assassination scenes in both movies are equally thrilling with the Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis providing a natural and exciting soundtrack to the emotional action.



Peter Lorre, Leslie Banks, Nova Pilbeam

Peter Lorre is the boss of the anarchist group, Abbott.  It was his first English language picture and much of his dialogue was learned phonetically.  However, that is not the impression you will get from watching the actor.  The character is a leader, a sly villain and a sentimentalist.  All of that is conveyed by Lorre's handling of the role.

If you have only seen Leslie Banks as the mad Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, you owe it to yourself to see Banks as Lawrence in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  He is given much of the grand dry wit that threads through the script making the movie such a pleasure to watch.  Thank of it as Wodehouse with the dramatic bits put in.

Watching the 1934 film you can definitely see why Hitchcock would want to revisit the story, expand the family life, create that light-filled setting for the unseen danger.  The 1956 version is a commendable film indeed.  However, there is something about the brisk pace, the quick editing and, as mentioned, the use of humour that makes the 1934 film, at 75 minutes, a prime example of superb directing and a perfect entertainment.

TCM is screening The Man Who Knew Too Much on Thursday, November 3rd at 2:45 p.m. following Jamaica Inn, another Hitchcock flick featuring Leslie Banks.  No, it isn't his birthday.  If you miss it, TCM gives you another chance on Tuesday, November 29th at 7:15 a.m. in a day dedicated to Hitch.






Tuesday, October 18, 2016

CMBA FALL BLOGATHON, HOLLYWOOD ON HOLLYWOOD: Hollywood Story (1951)


"An old silent picture director was murdered.  To this day no one knows who did it.  Do his life story and all the characters that surround him.  Lots of old timers.  Sticky, nostalgic stuff about the days of silent pictures." 

Talent agent Mitch Davis (Jim Backus) is trying to dissuade his childhood friend, producer Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) from digging into a murder mystery from 1929 as the subject for his first west coast picture in 1951s Hollywood Story.  

"Backstage stories are okay. Back camera stories are absolutely no good."


Revered silent picture director Frederick Ferrara was the son of a prominent California family.  He was found murdered in his bungalow on the studio lot on a night in 1929.  Neither the murder weapon, nor bullet were ever found.  Suspects included an alluring actress, her many admirers, the director's mysterious brother and a shady assistant.



An old player piano inspires Larry to reminisce about old movies.
Houseley Stevenson, Richard Conte, Jim Backus

O'Brien's research has brought a lot of old-timers out of the woodwork such as one of actress Amanda Rousseau's lovers (Paul Cavanagh) and the blackmailing assistant (Peter Brocco).  The actress's strikingly similar looking daughter Sally (Julie Adams) wants a stop put to the production.  A police lieutenant (Richard Egan) wants in on what may be uncovered.

Larry O'Brien has gone so far as to hire the writer who worked on Ferrara's movies.  Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull) hasn't worked in as long as the murder has been a mystery.  Larry is surprised to learn that his partner and money man Sam Collyer (Fred Clark) even had ties to the long ago mystery.  Is that why Collyer originally wanted to veto the plan?

The story and screenplay for Hollywood Story is from Frederick Kohner author of the novel Gidget, Never Wave at a WAC and Oscar nominated for the Deanna Durbin film Mad About Music. Partnered in the story and screenplay is Frederick Brady who wrote Champagne for Caesar, Never Wave at a WAC and dozens of classic TV episodes.  

William Castle directed this film a few years before he began producing and directing his own brand of memorable horror films such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and 13 Ghosts.  Crime was Castle's earlier beat at RKO with such titles as The Whistler, The Crime Doctor's Warning and When Strangers Marry.  Johnny Stool Pigeon in 1949 was the first of a run of pictures Castle directed for Universal - International which includes Hollywood Story.



Actors gossip about O'Brien's project during a lunch break.
Robert Sherman, William Fawcett, Rico Alaniz

The story is narrated by the agent character Mitch.  Narration has proven to be an integral part to many movies, particular crime stories such as Double Indemnity or Raw Deal.  The narration in Hollywood Story is pleasant with the familiar voice of Jim Backus and he gets some sharp and funny lines along the way.  However, it settles the mood of the movie in a Hollywood of just regular folks with jobs and families and obligations.  I feel the story would have been better served by focusing on a Hollywood with an enticingly glamorous and mysterious past.


Larry and Sally breakfasting at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
Richard Conte, Julie Adams

Castle took advantage of the story and the location coming together by placing scenes in famous places such as Chaplin Studios, Ocean Pier Park, Ciro's Restaurant and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.  However, the use of these locations, and even part of the Hollywood Santa Claus Parade is fairly straight-forward and work-a-day, instead of imbuing these iconic locations with a sense of allure.


Betty Blythe as The Queen of Sheba
1893 - 1972

Cameos by silent film stars excited about being asked to participate in the project is a charming touch.  The actors are greeted at the studio by the old-time guard played by Houseley Stevenson.  Betty Blythe was a buxom flapper whose brief fame in the 20s includes the lead in 1921s lost film The Queen of Sheba.  Betty would switch gears to those of a character actress and appeared in almost 150 films such as Topper, The Women, Letter from an Unknown Woman and My Fair Lady.



Francis X. Bushman in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
1883 - 1966

Francis X. Bushman is most famous as the athletic Messala in 1925s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  His career in the sound era extends to The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini in 1966.  Fans of classic TV can catch Bushman performances in everything from Perry Mason to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Batman.


William Farnum
1876 - 1953

William Farnum was the son of a theatrical family who worked on stage before coming to Hollywood in the 1915s where he became a popular leading man.  Injured on a film shoot, he became a character actor busy during those years that followed in pictures such as The Spoilers, The Mummy's Curse and A Woman's Face.


Helen Gibson
1892 - 1977

Helen Gibson was a fearless star of serials starting with The Hazards of Helen in 1914.  I am intrigued by such titles as Fighting Mad, The Wolverine and The Chinatown Mystery.  Her filmography includes hundreds of shorts made between 1912 and 1920.  In the sound era Helen concentrated on stunts and extra work in such films as The Marshal of Mesa City, Horizons West and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.



Studio gatekeeper greets stars of a bygone era.
Houseley Stevenson, Betty Blyth, William Farnum, Helen Gibson, Francis X. Bushman

Tracking down clues and suspects leads our hero Larry O'Brien to a movie set where we have another cameo.  This time it is actor Joel McCrea filming a scene with the suspect played by Paul Cavanagh.  A cop would probably just haul the suspect off to the hoosegow, however producer O'Brien let's the actor finish his day's work before continuing his sideline as a detective.  Apparently professional courtesy overrides amateur detecting.



The murder occurred at the studio and the murderer will be caught in the same place.
Richard Conte as producer/director/detective Larry O'Brien

Pursuit of a good movie story brings two people into Larry O'Brien's life.  Romance develops between the producer/director and Sally Rousseau.  Initially at odds over the opening of the case, they are attracted and find their goals meshing rather than clashing.  Richard Egan plays Police Lt. Lennox with an easy-going and wry sense of humour.  The scenes featuring Lennox and O'Brien are entertaining in a way that makes me think changing the focus to a buddy picture would have worked very well.  Eventually, the secrets are revealed and, commendably, the major clue was never withheld from the audience.




The obvious inspiration for Hollywood Story is the unsolved 1922 murder of director and actor William Desmond Taylor.  The motion picture industry was receiving much attention on matters of morality at the time and a sensation murder involved well-known personalities was fresh meat for the press.  Through the years there has been much speculation on the incident.  In the 1960s director King Vidor turned gumshoe and preserved his investigation in a manuscript which was released after his death as the book Cast of Killers in which he purported to have solved the case.  Although his findings are a matter of dispute, I enjoy his account very much.  King Vidor and Colleen Moore donning the caps of Poirot and Marple?  How can you not be on their side?

A good, solid mystery is the best description for Hollywood Story.  It entertains and gives pleasant glimpses into studio life and those who inhabit that world.  However, I do think the premise could have been the basis for a much more compelling and exciting look at that world.

The Classic Movie Blog Association Fall Blogathon, Hollywood on Hollywood runs from October 17 to the 21st.

The Classic Movie Blog Association e-book Hollywood on Hollywood is available for free on Smashwords or $ .99 on Amazon with proceeds going to the National Film Preservation Foundation.



















Friday, October 14, 2016

THINGS I LEARNED FROM THE MOVIES BLOGATHON: The Domestic Arts as Practiced in The Egg and I



Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings are hosting the clever blogathon Things I Learned from the Movies which runs from October 14 to 17. A cornucopia of movie fans/bloggers are on board with some fun and interesting reading.  Day 1 recap.  Day 2 recap.  Day 3 recap.  Wrap-up.

Author Betty MacDonald's (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series) first and greatest success was the humorous semi-autobiographical novel The Egg and I published in 1945. In 1947 Universal brought the book to the screen starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray as a couple transported from city life to a chicken farm in the mountains of Washington state.

Apparently, time spent in a foxhole in Okinawa gets a guy to thinking about the real things in life. For Bob (Fred MacMurray) these real things include his own little chicken ranch. Presumably, one of the other real things he thought about were love and marriage. Probably expecting his intended, Betty (Claudette Colbert) to understand him through telepathy, he waits until after they are married to announce that he has purchased the chicken ranch of his dreams and she's going to love it.



THE LOVE NEST

Betty, whose hands are used to twice weekly manicures and have never done anything rougher than play the piano, is a good sport and truly supportive of Bob, so off they go to live in the country. The ranch is nothing more than a ramshackle group of buildings in desperate need of repair. Bob views the whole thing through possibilities and rose-colored glasses. Betty is not so optimistic, especially when she first meets the resident stove.



BETTY MEETS STOVE
"I don't think it likes me."



BETTY BEFRIENDS STOVE
"There! I bet you never looked better in your life."



STOVE THANKS BETTY!



BETTY'S WEARY TRIUMPH!
The victory of a well scrubbed floor.



BETTY'S FAILURE
You follow the instructions, it should work.



Maybe Betty should talk to her friend Ma Kettle. Ma, Pa and their census taker's delight of a brood live down the road in a place no one would mistake for a photo spread in House Beautiful.



MA'S PHILOSOPHY

"When I was first married, Dearie, I was as neat as the next one. I tried to keep my house and kids clean. But Pa was an awful lazy so-and-so and it was fight, fight, fight all the time. So I finally give it up. I says I can't make Pa change and be neat so I'll have to change and be dirty. Been peace in this house ever since."



MA'S TABLE CLEARING ROUTINE...


...GETS NO COMPLAINTS FROM THE FAMILY.



MA KETTLE'S GUIDE TO BAKING

"Just a drop of this and a drop of that, mix it together and shove it in the oven."



MA HAS AN ARTISTIC SOUL

"I made one of these here quilts every year since we was married. Got 'em in the closet in the spare room. I figure it will be somethin' real nice to leave the kids when I die."



BETTY INDULGES HER INNER ARTIST!


Don't worry, folks. Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray co-starred in seven films. They have the happy ending bit down pat.

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride would play Ma and Pa Kettle in seven welcome sequels. Marjorie would star as Ma in two more Kettle pictures after Kilbride's retirement. Breakout stars!

What did I learn from the examples of housewifery set before me in this movie? Well ... let's just say that I'm not as neat as Betty nor as messy as Ma, but I tend toward the casual line when it comes to tending to the old homestead and its occupants. Yes indeed, very casual.










Sunday, October 2, 2016

DUAL ROLE BLOGATHON: The Whole Town's Talking (1935)



Ruth of Silver Screenings and Christina Wehner are hosting the DUAL ROLE BLOGATHON running from September 30th to October 2nd.  Fascinating actors and performances are highlighted and recaps of contributions can be found here:  Day 1   Day 2   Day 3.

"What about the McIntire account?!"

Edward G. Robinson and Edward G. Robinson star in this 1935 release from Columbia pictures based on a story by W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar).  The screenplay is by Jo Swerling (It's a Wonderful Life) and Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night) and the leading lady is Jean Arthur (You Can't Take It With You).  We may be forgiven for expecting Frank Capra's name attached to that pedigree, along with his being the Columbia lot big shot at that time.  John Ford was the man in charge working with frequent collaborator, cinematographer Joseph August (The Informer).  Ford's output for Columbia also includes later pictures The Last Hurrah, The Long Gray Line, Gideon's Day and Two Rode Together.

Eddie G. looked back at the film in his autobiography All My Yesterdays published in 1974:

"As for the director, John Ford, from my first meeting with him to the day the picture was completed I knew I was in the hands of the consummate professional.  I felt safe and secure with him.  If I argued a line of dialogue with him or objected to a bit of business, I can now assure you it was more to assert my ego than it was to attack him.  It turned out he was right and I was wrong.  The main point to be made is that he would sit me down and show me where I was wrong.  He is a totally remarkable director and one of the few deserving a place in the Pantheon.  I'm told he's aging now, and cranky; well, I'm aging now, and cranky, but I bet if the right script came along (and Jo Swerling were still around to write it), John Ford and I could knock the shit out of it."

Robinson is introduced to us as a clerk in the J.G. Carpenter Corporation (don't ask me what they do).  He toils away by day in their accounting department.  He is a dependably loyal employee who hasn't been late to work in his entire eight year career with the company.  By night Arthur Ferguson Jones cuts loose on his typewriter writing stories of adventure in faraway lands.  By day night this Jonesy character pines for the love of his "Cymbaline", his co-worker the quintessential modern gal Miss Clark played by Jean Arthur.  While he barely says "boo" to the girl, Ferguson has gone so far as to steal a photograph of her to frame in honour on his wall.  Arthur Ferguson Jones life is about to become a roller coaster ride.



Jean Arthur, Edward G. Robinson

The notorious gangster "Killer" Mannion has escaped the penitentiary.  It is not warm blood that courses through his veins, but the ice cold kind that allows him to commit mayhem and kill with impunity.  A $25,000 reward on his head has police and civilians alike itching to catch Mannion.  Mild mannered demeanour aside, our shy little clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones bears an uncanny resemblance to the notorious Mannion.  Miss Clark and his co-workers have noted it, and a fellow customer at a diner played by Donald Meek notices the resemblance as well.  He calls the police in hopes of receiving the reward.  About a hundred cops and two hundred sirens descent on the diner and the befuddled Jones and his "moll", Miss Clark are hustled into custody.  Jones is distraught, confused and, by golly, at one point he even faints.  Clark takes it all in stride as a great joke.

Once the turmoil is sorted it, the authorities decide to give Jones a "passport" in the form of a letter on official stationery to avoid his being hassled by the police.  J.G. Carpenter (head of the mysterious to me corporation) played by Paul Harvey (The Horn Blows at Midnight), urged by newspaper report Healy played by Wallace Ford (The Lost Patrol) encourage a lubricated with scotch for the first time in life Jonesy to attach his byline to a phony life story of Mannion.  Good for the paper.  Good for the corporation which will be liberally mentioned.  Good for Jonesy?  Robinson as Jones tasting his first cigar and liquor is a comic delight as his face registers distaste, apprehension and finally succumbs to the Bacchanalia.



Our stars!

It is at this point that we meet Edward G. Robinson as "Killer" Mannion confronting Arthur when he returns home from work.  I will confess at this point that when I first saw this film in my youth and Mannion made his appearance, in the back my mind a little voice said "Here's the real Edward G. Robinson".  Of course, I know and knew he was an actor and in all of his films I probably never saw the real Edward G. Robinson, but my reaction goes to show how pervasive was his gangster persona, despite the number of times (A Slight Case of Murder, Brother Orchid, Larceny, Inc.) he would spoof that image.

The intimidating Mannion has Jonesy shaking in his boots as he is forced to share is lodgings and that official "passport".  It appears that Mannion has Jones and the authorities buffaloed, but he may go too far.  When those he cares for are threatened even a milquetoast like Arthur Ferguson Jones will find a spine.  Or, as Miss Clark says:  "I told you that rabbit had something."

Edward G. Robinson reminds us in this film of his versatility, not only in characterizations, but in an ability to handle comedy.  Cinematographer Joseph August, Oscar nominated for Portrait of Jennie and Gunga Din, gives the film a moody gloss that works well for the split screen scenes of Robinson playing off of Robinson.  Jean Arthur came into her own as the fast-talking, independent professional woman of the 1930s in this film.  The next year would see her light up the screen in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

The supporting cast of character actors are perfectly cast and a delight for the audience.  

Arthur Hohl (The Island of Lost Souls) and James Donlan (Belle of the Nineties) are a couple of cops with a gag line I won't spoil for you here.  Arthur Byron (The Mummy) plays a frustrated police chief.  Byron played the role of newspaper editor Randall in the Broadway production of Five Star Final which Edward G. Robinson played in the 1931 film.  J. Farrell MacDonald (Topper) is the prison warden who is never sure when he's confronting Mannion or Jones.  Wallace Ford is Healy, a newspaper reporter of the hard-drinking, don't let the truth get in the way of a good story variety.  Edward Brophy (G Men) is Slugs Martin, a squealer with plenty of reason to be afraid of Mannion.  You'll also spot Joe Sawyer (Christmas Eve) as a henchman, Francis Ford (The Quiet Man) as a reporter, and the ever-popular Bess Flowers in office attire as a secretary.

Despite all of the leading lights in this movie, it is a toss up as to whether it is completely stolen by Donald Meek or Etienne Girardot.



Donald Meek

Donald Meek (Stagecoach) is Hoyt, the man cheated of the reward when the Mannion he spotted at lunch turned out to be Jones.  He dogs the footsteps of the suddenly famous clerk waiting for his chance to become wealthy and famous.  He's the most nervous shamus you ever saw!



Etienne Girardot

Etienne Girardot (Twentieth Century) is Mr. Seaver, the fussy office manager at the J.G. Carpenter Corporation.  Seaver is a fellow who sweats the small stuff and his concern is not entirely for his employee Jones' well-being, but the status of the oft-mentioned McIntire account.  Oh, dear!

Ford has fun with the diminutive stature of the two character actors, and it appears the actors themselves are having great fun with their roles in The Whole Town's Talking

Fans of Edward G. Robinson is not be disappointed by his work in this film as two disparate characters.  Fans of Jean Arthur will enjoy her display of spunk.  Supporting player mavens have almost too much to enjoy.  John Ford fans will appreciate the knack he displays for the wild-paced comedy.  A dual role may be a delightful change of pace for an actor, but it is also an extra kick for fans.






THE LUCY AND DESI BLOGATHON: Lucy's Summer Vacation (1959)

Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting The Lucy and Desi blogathon running on December 1 - 3. Click HERE for all the ...