Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Crystal of the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting her 3rd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. The celebration of the great theatrical family runs from August 15 - 17 and you can click HERE to read the contributions.

Lionel Barrymore as Nat Miller

I became a Lionel Barrymore fan watching him as Dr. Gillespie in the Kildare series on late night television, and annual viewings of his Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. My list of favourite performances include Broken Lullaby, Grand Hotel, On Borrowed Time, Dinner at Eight, You Can't Take It With You, Down to the Sea in Ships, Key Largo and Ah, Wilderness!. 

The great modern American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) forever changed and influenced the theatrical landscape through his thoughtful and often harrowing dramas. His posthumously produced Long Day's Journey Into Night calls on an early family life troubled by drug and alcohol addiction. Ah, Wilderness!, produced in 1933, is a nostalgic and wistful comedy that took those same early years and re-imagined them in a sweetly supportive family environment.

Eily Malyon, Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Aline MacMahon, Wallace Beery
Mickey Rooney, Bonita Granville, Eric Linden
Suppertime with the Miller family

The Millers are a typical middle class family in a small sized eastern American city. Nat (Lionel Barrymore) is a newspaper editor. His wife Essie (Spring Byington) runs a loving home. Eldest son Arthur (Frank Albertson) is a university student. Richard (Eric Linden) is about to enter Yale. Millie (Bonita Granville) is boy-crazy, and a pain to her brothers. The youngest, Tommy (Mickey Rooney) gets into as much trouble as possible. Extended family in the household include Nat's sister Aunt Lily (Aline MacMahon) and Essie's brother Uncle Sid (Wallace Beery). 

O'Neill did not preclude the presence of alcohol in his imaginary family. Uncle Sid drinks. Uncle Sid is a friendly and funny drunk, and the family, intentionally or not, enable his habit. Sid's addiction ended his long ago engagement to Lily, and that lady still holds out hope that one day he will change his ways.

Eric Linden as Richard Miller

Richard Miller is an oh-so-serious 16-year-old, and valedictorian of his 1906 high school class.  His duty in that regard is our first experience of a crisis in Richard's life. Richard reads the greats, Shaw and Swinburne, and the radical political thinkers of the day. He faces life clearly and doesn't expect to be understood, even by his timid girlfriend Muriel (Cecilia Parker).

Richard is determined to speak his mind to the fuzzy-headed students and parents awaiting his graduation speech. Quick thinking by Richard's father avoids a ruined day for the audience and lifelong embarrassment for Richard. Richard is appalled to later learn that his mother is shocked and strongly disapproves of his reading material. Richard will be surprised to learn of the amused tolerance of his father.

Mickey Rooney
Mischief on the 4th.

The young mind turns quickly from one major event to another. It is soon the 4th of July holiday and everyone has plans. Unfortunately, Richard's plans for a picnic with Muriel are scuttled by her uptight father (Charley Grapewin) who has discovered some of the poetry Richard has shared with Muriel. The outraged parent accuses the sincere young fellow of trying to corrupt his daughter. He demands Nat Miller punish his son severely. Nat responds by cancelling his neighbour's much-need advertising in his newspaper. Richard would be surprised to learn of such support and sacrifice on the part of his father.

Eric Linden, Cecilia Parker
Muriel doesn't always understand Richard, but she loves him.

It is an eventful July 4th for the Millers. Richard is absolutely dejected by a letter of good-bye that Muriel was forced to write by her father, and he intends to go out and face life! The opportunity presents itself when a friend of his brother Arthur seeks Art for a night on the town with a couple of chorus girls. Arthur not being available, and Richard having a bankroll of $11, Wint (Edward Nugent) brings Richard in on the festivities.

Eric Linden, Tom Dugan, Helen Flint
Mischief on the 4th.

A night of beer, slow gin fizzes and kisses from an overly made-up doxy make Richard ashamed and sick at heart. Not to mention the anxiety his late night causes his mother. Fortunately, Richard is the recipient of the expert attention of Uncle Sid. Eventually, Richard takes lessons learned to heart. He gains a greater appreciation for his family and his relationship with Muriel reaches a new level of understanding.

Spring Byington
Worried about Richard.

Ah, Wilderness! premiered on Broadway in 1933 with Elijah Cook Jr. as Richard, George M. Cohan as Nat and Gene Lockhart as Uncle Sid. There have been several touring companies and revivals throughout the decades. Actors such as Will Rogers and Harry Carey have played Nat Miller. I attended a lovely 1990 production at Ontario's Stratford Festival which was only marred by the fellow in the row behind complaining that "this is the olden days". Sigh!

Frank Albertson, Bonita Granville
A distraction for mother.

Take Me Along is the 1959 Broadway musical version of the play with songs by Bob Merrill which ran for 448 performances. Robert Morse (Tony nominee) played Richard. Walter Pidgeon (Tony nominee) and Una Merkel played Nat and Essie. Eileen Herlie (Tony nominee) and Jackie Gleason (Tony winner) played Aunt Lily and Uncle Sid. 

MGM's 1935 production was directed by Clarence Brown, who throughout his film career, showed a lovely knack for presenting stories of children; children who consider themselves outsiders, but around whom the entire family revolves. Consider National Velvet, The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, The Human Comedy, and Angels in the Outfield.

Lionel Barrymore, Eric Linden
The father - son talk.

Eric Linden's performance of Richard is heartfelt and unpretentious. Our fond feelings for the character are enhanced by seeing young Richard through the eyes of his father Nat, as beautifully played by Lionel Barrymore. The father-son relationship is sweet, yet unsentimental.

Wallace Beery, Aline MacMahon
Sid and Lily, always close and always apart.

The Millers became the obvious template for one of MGMs most successful franchises. Two years later much of this cast would reunite in the first of the Hardy Family pictures, A Family Affair. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington were Judge and Mrs. Hardy. Mickey Rooney, their son Andy and Ontario born Cecilia Parker, their daughter Marion. Eric Linden and Charley Grapewin also had featured roles. Aunt Lily would become Aunt Milly played by Sara Haden and her role would continue when Lewis Stone and Fay Holden became Judge and Mrs. Hardy.

Eric Linden, Spring Byington, Lionel Barrymore
Richard: "You sort of forget the moon was the same way back then, and everything."

MGM would once again visit the property in 1948s Summer Holiday, their musical version filmed in Technicolor and directed by Rouben Mamoulian with songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. The excellent cast includes Mickey Rooney stepping into the role of Richard, Walter Huston and Selma Royle as the Millers, Agnes Moorehead and Frank Morgan as Lily and Sid, and Gloria De Haven as Muriel. It's the same story, and thoroughly professional throughout, yet it does not work. Perhaps the studio should have agreed to composer Warren's idea of filming it in the mode of an opera.

Thankfully, Clarence Brown's Ah, Wilderness! is available for us today to relive the long ago past, stepping into the nostalgic never-world created by Eugene O'Neill.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Terence Towles Canote is hosting his 4th Annual British Invaders Blogathon, a celebration of the best in British films at his site A Shroud of Thoughts. The blogathon runs on August 4th, 5th and 6th. This is my first year participating (shame on me). Click HERE for contributions to the blogathon.

A British Film made at Pinewood Studios, London, England 

Could anything be more appropriate for this blogathon than a film whose title card reads as above?

Rumer Godden's (Black Narcissus, The River) 1955 novel An Episode of Sparrows is the basis of the 1958 film Innocent Sinners. Godden co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Paterson, and the movie was directed by Philip Leacock (Hand in Hand). Paterson and Leacock had collaborated previously on The Little Kidnappers and High Tide at Noon, both films set in the land of my birth, Nova Scotia.

Philip Leacock had a special touch with the emotional lives of children and outsiders in films such as The Little Kidnappers, The Spanish Gardener, Hand in Hand, Take a Giant Step and Reach for Glory. Rumer Godden was able to translate her background of being raised partly in India and partly in English schools into novels that explore those very themes of outsiders and the deep yearning of children to belong to someone. 

Angela Chesney: "Lovejoy Mason! Nobody is called Lovejoy."

Yes, someone is called Lovejoy. She lives, breathes, runs, jumps, and gets into trouble. She is cared for more than she knows, and less than she needs. Lovejoy is at that awkward age in the early teens. Lovejoy is the sort who will always be living through an awkward age. June Archer plays Lovejoy, or more to the point, she is Lovejoy.

Lovejoy's mother, Bertha Mason played by Vanda Godsell, is an actress who has left her ungainly and inconvenient daughter in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Vincent while she is on tour. Bertha is supposed to  be paying for Lovejoy's upkeep, but the money is never on time and never enough.

Mrs. Vincent, played by Barbara Mullen, is quiet, hardworking and extremely sympathetic to Lovejoy's plight. Mr. Vincent, played by David Kossoff, treats Lovejoy with much kindness and respect. He is a restaurateur who dreams of turning his house front establishment into a place of and for exclusive dining. George Vincent is considered an impractical oddball.

June Archer as Lovejoy protects her garden from an invading cat.

Lovejoy Mason is considered an oddball as well, by the neighbouring adults and the gang of kids who hang about the bombed out streets with nothing to occupy their time, but getting into trouble. Lovejoy spends her days waiting for the return of her neglectful mother until she finds a packet of seeds and gets the bright idea to grow a garden. Gardens require space and good earth, and knowledge, and money. Lovejoy goes about getting these things and as a girl with few resources, she resorts to stealing from a church collection box. Lovejoy's relationship with the Blessed Mother Mary will undergo many frightful stages for a girl who is not even Catholic.

Many of Lovejoy's ideas and philosophy probably come from George Vincent. He treats her like a cherished daughter and shares his dreams for the restaurant which, in turn, inspire her dreams for the garden. Her plans grow even more elaborate with time.

I was particularly moved by one scene which encapsulates George's understanding and fondness for Lovejoy. It is his discreet handling of Bertha's callous disregard of her daughter when she has a late night visiting gentleman. Lovejoy, in turn, expresses her affection for George in attempts to get a wealthy young couple to patronize the restaurant. Actions indeed speak louder than words.

Unexpectedly, Lovejoy finds an ally in her gardening efforts from Tip Malone, played by Christopher Hey. Tip is the leader of the kids, the one they all look up to. His interest in Lovejoy and her project will precipitate a crisis in many quarters. Not the least of which will be between the two of them.

The older Chesney sisters will be greatly affected by the actions of these youngsters. Flora Robson plays Olivia Chesney, gentle and secluded, an illness will soon rob her of life. She observes these children and their full life and becomes involved. Catherine Lacey plays Angela Chesney, entitled and bossy, she demands order, even when it is none of her business. Her involvement is unanticipated and crucial.

The inner emotional worlds of the adults and the children is not so different as they may imagine, filled with doubts, fears, and desires. Hope, and life itself, can be so easily snatched away. Hope will always return, giving life its sweetness. The chasm of the generation gap is not so wide as they perceive. They are so much the same in a world so extraordinary in its ordinariness.

Everything about the story of Innocent Sinners and its telling feels very real. Location filming in Chelsea, the whimsically jazzy score by Philip Greene, and the fine acting ensemble bring the honest dialogue to life in a way that is quietly moving and unforgettable.

Friday, August 4, 2017


Christina Wehner and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies are our hosts for En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon running on August 4th, 5th and 6th.  Film and dance were made for each other. Click HERE to enter the rehearsal and concert halls.

Charles Butterworth, John Barrymore
Karimsky, Vladimir Ivan Tsarakov

We meet our mad genius on a rainy night in a circus tent in the European countryside. Our mad genius is a puppet master, literally and figuratively. While John Barrymore as Ivan Tsarakov and his assistant Karimsky played by Charles Butterworth manipulate the marionettes in their ballet, they play to an audience of one.

Frankie Darro

Young Fedor played by Frankie Darro, looking younger than his 14 years, is an abused youngster finding solace in the pretty dancing puppets. His revere is interrupted by the arrival of his father with a whip. The boy's dexterity at running and leaping to avoid punishment intrigues Tsarakov, so he hides the boy from the brutish father played by Boris Karloff. The club-footed Tsarakov takes the boy under his wing as an adopted son. Himself, the son of a premiere ballerina, Tsarakov was blessed with a genius for dance, a desire to dance, and the inability to do so because of his disability. He will pour his ambition and knowledge into the youngster and live his dreams through Fedor.

Luis Alberni, Donald Cook, Marian Marsh
Sergei Bankieff, Fedor, Nana Carlova

The passage of time has brought the Tsarakov ballet company and its acclaimed lead dancer, Fedor success in Berlin. Karimsky still dutifully plays the role of Tsarakov's assistant. Fedor, now played by Donald Cook, idolizes his father/mentor and unquestionably follows all of his orders. The only crack in the relationship is Fedor's growing love for the sweet dancer Nana Carlova played by Marian Marsh. Nana has also caught the eye of the ballet's wealthy patron Count Renaud played by Andre Luguet. Nonetheless her heart belongs to Fedor. Life could not be more perfect for the young leading man of the company.

John Barrymore

Tsarakov, however, can see his control of Fedor slipping away. Tsarakov is of the firm, and somewhat maniacal, opinion that love has no place in the life of the true artist. If he is to be the greatest dancer the world has ever seen, Fedor's whole heart and soul must be devoted to his art. Tsarakov sees nothing wrong with flings. He enjoys working his way through the women in the corps de ballet, and sees no reason Fedor cannot emulate that attitude.

Tsarakov slyly appeals to Fedor's vanity and obligation:

"You can be one of the greatest artistes in the world. What more could anyone ask?"

Luis Alberni

Tsarakov controls his dance master Sergei played by Luis Alberni through encouraging and using Sergei's cocaine addiction. Threatening to withhold the necessities, he forces Sergei to sign a scathing rebuke of Nana's dance abilities to coerce her resignation from the company. Tsarakov suggests a change in career as the mistress of Count Renaud. Fedor overhears Tsarakov's manipulation of Nana and his cruel words: 

"If you love him at all you will go way and not murder the career of a genius." 

Tsarakov's attitude is not dissimilar to that of Lermontov, the taskmaster of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes played by Anton Walbrook. His advice to ballerina Victoria Page played by Moira Shearer in that film:

"You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never"

Donald Cook, Marian Marsh
Fedor and Nana

Fedor and Nana walk out on Tsarakov and are happy for a time in Paris. However, every job as a dancer is closed to Fedor when Tsarakov advises various managements of the exclusivity of their contract. When Fedor at last has come to working in a waterfront dive, Tsarakov takes advantage of Nana's depth of feeling to free Fedor and have him return to the fold.

Donald Cook

Once more under Tsarakov's influence, the kindly Fedor takes on the gruff manners of his mentor. Nana, who has moved on with Count Renaud finds him a more kindly "employer" than expected. He understands the plight of the young lovers and takes her to the company's opening night back in Berlin. It is at the successful premiere of a new ballet that everything comes to a violent conclusion.

Spoiler ahead:

The Tsarakov Company's triumphant return to Berlin.

The massive set includes a demon idol which sends Sergei over the edge in a drug fueled frenzy causing him to take an ax to the set. Tsarakov is as maddened as the dance master because Fedor has seen Nana in the audience and knows nothing, not even dance, is worth the loss of true love.

A shadowy showdown between Sergei and Tsarkov leads to the death of the mad genius. The curtain opens on his lifeless corpse causing panic throughout the audience. Through the uproar, Fedor and Nana find each other, and the always loyal Karmisky sits disconsolate beside the body of his friend.

Tsarakov meets his fate.

The Mad Genius was based on a play called The Idol by Canadian born Martin Brown. Brown was a successful Broadway playwright and lyricist, and a one time dancer. This melodrama was not one of his stage successes, however, it did make for a fine Barrymore vehicle as a fellow-up to the successful Svengali. The screenplay is by J. Grubb Alexander (Svengali, The Hatchet Man) and Harvey F. Thew (The Public Enemy, She Done Him Wrong).

Michael Curtiz directed his only collaboration with Barrymore. Typical of Curtiz's work, the movie is well paced with many interesting shots of characters which silently comment on their relationships. 

Art direction is from multiple Oscar nominee Anton Grot (The Sea Hawk, Anthony Adverse, etc.) and he gives us an eyeful of over-the-top theatrical sets and apartments from the lavish to the simple. Earl Luick (Springtime in the Rockies, Union Depot) is credited with designing the gowns, so I assume Grot may have been behind the ballet costumes, at least the headdresses which disguise the dance doubles for Donald Cook (Charles Weidman) and Marian Marsh.

Adolph Bolm, born in St. Petersburgh and a graduate of the Russian Imperial Ballet School became a choreographer after an injury ended his dancing career during a tour of the United States. His work on this film, and others like The Affairs of Cellini and The Corsican Brothers combined with his work for ballet and opera companies. 

Like his Svengali, only better dressed, Barrymore is mesmerizing as the single-minded Tsarakov. If the co-stars can bring themselves to his level of commitment, they have plenty of room to do so. Charles Butterworth's hesitant characterization works to almost humanize the mad genius. Luis Alberni, a lifelong second banana in second features, shows his mettle as the broken Sergei.

For me, The Mad Genius is a must-see for John Barrymore fans and a fine compliment to the earlier Barrymore/Marsh film Svengali. Perhaps, like me, you will find this even more to your taste than the famous earlier film.