Monday, December 3, 2012

Caftan Woman`s Choice: One for December on TCM

In the United Kingdom a popular Christmas season entertainment is the Pantomime. The Christmas Pantomime is a play based on well-known children's stories such as Cinderella or Aladdin or Robin Hood told in a spirit of fun and irreverence. There must be a leading female character played in "drag", simpering sweethearts, and outlandish clowns. Audience participation is a must as in booing the villain and shouting helpful instructions to dimwitted heroes.

Mother Goose sets the scene with a familiar song.

British born Stan Laurel retained a fondness for the "Panto" all his life. Georgia born Oliver Hardy appreciated the team`s films which had "production". He felt that the greater the effects and cast surrounding the comics, the better for the film. Stan proposed setting the team's well-meaning but dim-witted characters in an adaptation of Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough's Broadway hit Babes in Toyland, which had enjoyed many Holiday revivals since its 1903 debut. The big boss Hal Roach was somewhat in agreement with the plan. After all, the boy's adaption of Auber's comic opera Fra Diavolo aka The Devil's Brother had been a hit in 1933. Why not another operetta?

"I wouldn`t marry you if you were young, which you can`t be, if you were honest, which you never were and if you were about to die tomorrow, which would be too much to hope for!"

The film was an expensive undertaking for the studio in terms of set, costumes, and performers. However, Roach wasn't willing to spend the extra for the Technicolor that Stan dearly wanted. Wouldn't Technicolor have been glorious? The movie has been colourized twice, in the 1990s and as recently as 2006.

However, to Mr. Roach's credit, he approached his friend and fellow studio mogul Walt Disney for the use of the image of Mickey Mouse and the popular song Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf by Frank Churchill and Ted Sears from the Oscar-winning short Three Little PigsWho's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, Marvin Hatley's The Ku-Ku Song to identify the team of Laurel and Hardy in the opening credits, and the traditional Rock-a-Bye Baby are the only non-Victor Herbert songs used in the film. Herbert's I Can't Do the Sum is not sung, but featured in the score as a delightful background whenever Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum are on screen. Stan and Roach argued over the treatment of the story with Stan prevailing and Roach forever after (and he lived to 100 years!) claiming Stan made a bad film. Generations disagree.

"I thought you said 100 soldiers, 6 foot high."

Ollie and Stannie live in Toyland and you would think that of all the places these innocents would fit in, that this would be the place. Ah, but Toyland is as fraught with danger as any other place in this world or fantasy land. There is an evil, rich man - the evilest and richest man in town - Silas Barnaby. When Barnaby's dubious charms fail to win the hand of the lovely Bo-Peep he threatens to foreclose on her family home, which happens to be a shoe. Ollie generously informs Mother Peep that he will borrow the money from the toymaker and all their troubles will be over. Sadly, Ollie hadn't reckoned on a villain we are all too familiar with - the cranky boss. It doesn't help their cause that Stan mistook Santa's order for toy soldiers reversing the request for 600 soldiers at 1 foot high. Naturally, they have a plan to set things to a right which only makes things worse for Bo-Peep and her beloved Tom-Tom (you know, the piper's son.)

He captures her heart singing.

Bo-Peep is forced to marry Barnaby. Stan and Ollie trick Barnaby. Barnaby frames Tom-Tom for pignapping. Of course, you all know the penalty for pignapping! Banishment to Bogeyland. Bogeyland?! Yes, Bogeyland. Home of the Bogeyman. "They're half man and half animal with great big mouths and great big claws and hair all over their body". They are the image of monsters that hide in the closet and under the bed. They may well be somewhat haphazardly costumed extras on the Roach lot, but they still set the butterflies searching for a way out of my belly in the same feeling I had sitting beside my sister on the floor in front of the television when were 4 and 5 years old.

"Why, that`s neither pig nor pork."

Being scared and booing the villain is a part of the delight of watching Babes in Toyland today. Laughing is the best part  It is a truly funny movie featuring the most endearing qualities of Laurel and Hardy' screen characters. On some television screenings, they would cut one or two of the songs, but this Victor Herbert fan would feel lost without the songs Toyland, Never Mind, Bo-Peep, Castle in Spain and the lullaby Go to Sleep. They have become as much a part of the season to me as Silent Night or White Christmas. When the score plays the triumphant March of the Wooden Soldiers I can`t keep the smile off my face.

Was anyone surprised to learn Barnaby is the leader of the Bogeymen?

Babes in Toyland was the first major role for Henry Kleinbach (later Brandon) as the evil Barnaby. The 21-year-old actor gives his all as the perfect ``Panto`` villain. In a career lasting until his death in 1990, Brandon was featured in hundreds of movies including The Marshal of Mesa CityDrums of Fu Manchu, Joan of Arc, Cattle Drive, The Caddy, Vera Cruz, The Searchers (Scar), and Assault on Precinct 13. Broadway child star Charlotte Henry of Charlie Chan at the Opera and Alice in Wonderland plays Bo-Peep. Tom-Tom is played by tenor Felix Knight who would have a career at the Metropolitan and as a vocal coach.

March of the Wooden Soldiers

Among the large cast of Toyland citizens is Alice Cooke as Mother Hubbard. Alice, her husband Baldy and Stan were teamed on the Vaudeville stage as the Stan Jefferson Trio from 1914 to 1917 and off-stage remained close friends. Stan found work for his friends at every opportunity. A teenaged Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma) makes her film debut as Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

The fun and the traditions of the holidays are found in abundance in Babes in Toyland. It is a movie that is an integral part of my December viewing habit. TCM is screening the movie, sometimes called March of the Wooden Soldiers, on Christmas Eve at 6:30 pm. Pop that corn and get a blanket ready for hiding under when the Bogeymen attack!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for November on TCM

In November, TCM is featuring many of the movies based on popular literary classics under the heading of "Great Adaptations". Tucked away in the schedule is The Little Princess starring Shirley Temple.

My girlhood copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess or Sara Crewe was from the Scholastic Book Club. I can't decide if the most exciting day at school was the day the teacher handed out the flyers or the day the box arrived with our orders. I do recall reading my copy of Sara Crewe sitting on the stairway in my Nana Nolan's house.

Halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit.
There isn't any other stair quite like it.
I'm not at the bottom, I'm not at the top;
So this is the stair where I always stop.

- A.A. Milne

A Little Princess is the Upstairs, Downstairs-like travails of Sara Crewe, the cherished and well-cared for daughter of a wealthy businessman who leaves her at a boarding school in London while he pursues a business venture. Sara's father dies unexpectedly leaving her a pauper at the mercy of the school's bitter headmistress and forced to work as a scullery maid. It is Sara's kind and positive personality that gives her strength until, through a fortunate happenstance, her life is turned around by her late father's business partner.

20th Century Fox's 1939 Technicolor feature The Little Princess makes some changes to the story in fashioning it as a vehicle for star Shirley Temple. Instead of a businessman, Sara's father is a British Army Captain played by Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood) who must leave her to fight in the Boer War. We are given a romantic subplot featuring Richard Greene (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and Anita Louise (A Midsummer Night's Dream) which is easy to take because the couple is so appealing.

Shirley's spunky, never-say-die personality is well suited to the character of Sara and she is more than ably abetted by Sybil Jason (Little Big Shot) as scullery maid Becky and Marcia Mae Jones (These Three) as the snobby Lavinia.

Sara finds a friend in Bertie Minchin played by Arthur Treacher (Mary Poppins). Bertie is a former music hall performer and this gives Treacher and Shirley a chance to sing and dance. Shirley enjoyed tap and in her autobiography Child Star published in 1988, writes she felt somewhat out of her depth in a dream ballet sequence included in this film.

Bertie is the sister of the school's headmistress and Miss Minchin is played with hissable relish by Mary Nash (Easy Living). Caesar Romero (Wee Willie Winkie) is a mysterious and helpful stranger.

Does your PBS station still have movie marathons?  My cross-border PBS station is Buffalo's WNED and years ago they showed A Little Princess as part of a marathon. The pledge break came at the part of the movie where Sara has learned that her father has died and Miss Minchin cruelly takes back birthday gifts and banishes Sara to below stairs. Programmer Goldie Gardner and her cohort were in tears and could barely go on with their spiel. Of course, I was bawling my eyes out in my living room, just as I sniffled on my Nana's staircase reading the book.

The Little Princess is a satisfying Cinderella story given top-flight attention by the studio with talented character actors backing up the enduring star power of Shirley Temple. Gather the kiddies and keep a box of tissues handy. Also, refresh your knowledge of Queen Victoria and the Boer War in case they ask questions.  

TCM is screening The Little Princess on Saturday, November 17th at 9:00 am.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Val Lewton Blogathon: The 7th Victim

"In case of emergency I'm grabbing the Val Lewton box set. The cats can fend for themselves." - Caftan Woman

Producer/writer Val Lewton ran his own B unit at RKO Studios for four years from 1942 to 1946 and left movie fans a slate of interesting and entertaining movies such as The Cat People, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With a Zombie. Lewton and his company creatively used low budgets, left-over sets, and studio-dictated titles in a testament to imagination.

The 1943 feature The Seventh Victim was an early directing assignment for editor Mark Robson (Champion, The Prize, My Foolish Heart, Isle of the Dead) and was another intriguing movie for the filmmakers who came to be known for their quirky tales. The story and script were written by DeWitt Bodeen (The Enchanted Cottage) and Charles O'Neal (Montana). The cinematographer was the master of moodiness, Nicholas Musuraca (I Remember Mama, The Locket).

Jean Brooks, Kim Hunter

Future Academy Award winner (A Streetcar Named Desire) Kim Hunter made her screen debut as Mary Gibson, thrown from the protective atmosphere of a boarding school to the unfamiliar streets of New York City in a search for her older sister who has mysteriously disappeared. Like Dorothy Gale in Oz some of the people Mary encounters are very nice and some ... are not, but she must search for her home and home is her only family, the mercurial Jacqueline.

What Mary learns of her sister is conflicting and disturbing. Jacqueline, played by the lovely Jean Brooks, has apparently sold her successful cosmetic business and disappeared. She has not only stopped writing to Mary and paying her tuition, but Jacqueline also refuses to see her husband. The husband is a lawyer, Gregory Ward played by Hugh Beaumont, who initially keeps the nature of his relationship with Jacqueline a secret from Mary. While drawn to Jacqueline's exotic individualism, Gregory and Mary are a more suitable match who fight their attraction for Jacqueline's sake.

Erford Gage, Tom Conway, Hugh Beaumont

Jacqueline was recently sighted at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village where she rented a room which is kept locked and contains only a chair placed under a hangman's noose. Mary becomes a boarder at the complex whose other residents include a consumptive woman played by Elizabeth Russell who calls herself Mimi (Cat People) and a poet who has lost his touch, nicely played with charm and pathos by Erford Gage. Sadly for fans of Gage, his life would be lost on Iwo Jima within two years.

Our poet, Jason, finds hope in the refreshing Mary and memories of a lost love. His circle of friends also includes psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, played by Tom Conway, who had been treating Jacqueline and knows a lot more than he lets on. Of course, Conway always had that look of superior knowledge about him. Will they help or hinder the search, and for what motives?

Kim Hunter, Lou Lubin

Lou Lubin plays Irving August, a job-hungry PI who stubbornly, and to his detriment, forgoes his usual fee to assist in the search for Jacqueline when told to mind his own business. Something about Mary's little girl lost in the big world brings out his inner white knight.

The Seventh Victim is, for me, a disquieting and subtle movie about power and the lack of it. We have a need to feel in control of our lives, yet too often the control rests with others. Jacqueline has created a thriving business and that should bring her satisfaction, but she is a thrill-seeker who wants more. She wants to control her life and the end of it. At least, that is the take Gregory and Mary have gleaned.

Gregory: "I love your sister, Mary. I love her very much. It's easy to understand now, isn't it? A man would look for her anywhere Mary. There's something... exciting and unforgettable about Jacqueline. Something you never... quite get hold of. Something that keeps a man following after her." 

Mary: "Because I loved Jacqueline I thought I knew her. Today I found out such strange things, frightening things. I saw a hangman's noose that Jacqueline had hanging... waiting."

Gregory: "Well, at least I can explain about that. Your sister had a feeling about life; that it wasn't worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get that rope."

Beautician Frances Fallon, played by Isabel Jewell, in a conversation with Mary opines that most people are lost and lonely. Deep down was Jacqueline perhaps as lost as the gullible Frances? Others have banded together as Paladists or Satan worshippers and believe their rites give them power over others and over life and death. Jacqueline has fallen in amongst them and begins her ultimate power struggle.

Kim Hunter

The divergent plotlines, the search for Jacqueline, and the struggle for power are told from the outsider Mary's point of view. Murder and cover-ups result from the efforts. The Seventh Victim unfolds with scenes of shadowy nights and doorways, murky corridors leading to danger and deception. Intrusions into the privacy of minds and even the privacy of the physical space of a washroom.

Power is misused and power is stripped away. When Dr. Judd and Jason confront the Palladists openly with their base shoddiness they are disabused of their power, perhaps only momentarily, but it is a satisfying moment in the film. Is Jacqueline free from her tormentor's influence and true master of her own fate? It is not for us to know the secrets of things that go bump in the night.

This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man and Kristina of the Speakeasy blog. See more posts at either Classic Movie Man’s Lewton page or the Speakeasy Lewton page.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mummy in the Window

Whew!  As the above picture indicates I have at long last completed the arduous task of decorating the old homestead for Hallowe'en.

My other scary tradition is to blare my big band albums while answering the door which has the effect of horrifying the should-have-stopped-trick-or-treating-already-teens who show up clamouring for candy.  

Candy conundrum:  I can't resist the itty-bitty candy bars.  They are so cute and tasty and non-caloric because of their itty-bittiness.  They have no business being in my house, but if you wait to buy the stash at the last minute you risk being the house that gives out lousy candy.  However, if the treats are in the house then they won't last until the big night.  Oh, the horror!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Favourite movies: Quartet (2012)

 Dustin Hoffman

Last month filmmakers and fans enjoyed another successful go round of the Toronto International Film Festivall (tiff).  My sister Maureen aka Twitter's @missmccrocodile is a veteran Festival attendee.  Her photographs of the annual event impart some of the excitement and her enthusiasm is contagious.  I can't help but get caught up in the fun and usually head out to one or two pictures.  This year, by design or luck, I saw a real winner in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet.

Producer/director Hoffman introduced the film with two of his stars Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly.  Their stooges act had the matinee audience in stitches and in a welcoming frame of mind for the movie to come.  Mr. Hoffman won me over with his praise of the venue, Toronto's historic Elgin/Winter Garden Theatre.  I never enter the theatre without feeling a thrill and recommend the tour when you visit our city.

Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay

Quartet is the filmization of Ronald Harwood's 1999 play with the screenplay by the author.  The story is set in a retirement home for musicians named for Sir Thomas Beecham.  Plans are underway for the annual concert fundraiser to coincide with Verdi's birthday.  Heading the gala committee is Cedric played by Michael Gambon.  Kudos to Mr. Gambon for rocking the caftan like no one since George Zucco in Tarzan and the Mermaids.  One of Cedric's committee members is soprano Cissy played by the delightful Pauline Collins.  Cissy is a "getting worse" in that her memory is failing.  Her old stage partner Wilfred is the resident naughty man of the home played by Billy Connolly in his usual raucous and welcome manner.  Wilfred delights in flirting outrageously with all the women and needling Cedric.  The more sedate Reg played by Tom Courtenay came to the home to check on Wilf who had been admitted after a slight stroke.  Here Reg found his niche in caring for his friends and holding music classes for young people.  

Into this garden spot comes a new resident - a genuine opera star - played by Maggie Smith.  Jean is known by all, but her appearance is less than appreciated by her former husband Reg.  Her arrival shakes up his whole existence.  There is also another "star" in resident brilliantly cast with Dame Gweneth Jones.  The dagger-like looks that flash between the two divas, when the term meant more than demanding behavior, is worth the price of admission.

Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins

Jean's adjustment to the retirement home and a crisis with the annual gala are the concerns of the present.  Reg's torment over the presence of his old love makes old wounds fresh.  Life is definitely not retiring in this home because, as Cissy is fond of quoting Bette Davis' remark, "old age is not for sissies". 

Director Hoffman gives us many quiet moments to observe the entire ensemble as life swirls around the preparations for the all-important concert.  We get to know the patient piano teacher/accompanist, the old song and dance men, the lifelong choristers, the pit musicians and the staff of the home, along with our "quartet".   I laughed, I cried, I laughed again, and I cared.  Highly recommended.

Congratulations Department:

"Hollywood, Calif., Oct. 15, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- The 16th Annual Hollywood Film Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Times, is pleased to announce that Dustin Hoffman will be the recipient of this year's "Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award," at this year's awards gala.
"It is a great honor to recognize Dustin Hoffman for his directorial debut for the movie 'Quartet.' His exquisite work and directorial skills are remarkable," said Carlos de Abreu , Founder and Executive Director of the Hollywood Film Awards."

Pictures of Hoffman, Connolly and Courtenay courtesy of Maureen Nolan.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for October on TCM

By gum, this is a movie for the ages! Harold Brighouse's popular play Hobson's Choice as well as being continually produced since 1915, has been presented on screen many times. It is a winning play with memorable characters. The 1954 film directed by David Lean is a gem.

Henry Horatio Hobson (Charles Laughton) is the successful manufacturer and seller of boots and shoes. He is the widowed father of three daughters, the pretty and romantically stifled Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales) and the capable old maid Maggie (Brenda De Banzie).

Maggie runs the shop and the household. Willie Mossop (John Mills) creates the product the customer's flock to buy. Well, you may ask, what is it that Henry Horatio Hobson does? He drinks. He drinks to excess. And he bellows. He bellows and throws his weight around and considers himself to be quite the grand fellow. The lord and master of all he surveys.

Daphne Anderson, Brenda De Banzie, Prunella Scales

Daughter Maggie has plans. She has plans for a life for herself and will drag her sisters into the light. Her plans do not coincide with the easy life her father has made for himself. Her plans include the painfully shy Willie Mossop. Why, oh why, is it that men since the days of the cave dwellers have failed to give a strong-minded woman her due? 

Maggie Hobson is smart and a hard worker. She is ambitious and wants a home and a business of her own. Willie Mossop figures in both of her dreams. The awkward Willie Mossop, as well as the bombastic Henry Horatio Hobson are about to have their lives turned upside down.

Charles Laughton, as always, delights with this screen characterization. His "cock of the walk" attitude while among his pals at the pub doesn't fool anybody. His annoyance with young women who don't jump to his command is real. His foolish drunk, chasing moonbeams through puddles is a treat in silent communication. His poor soul routine when confronted with failure almost gets our pity.

Brenda De Banzie makes Maggie a heroine worth rooting for. Her necessary forcefulness guards her affectionate longings, as she has to bulldoze her way through a society which mocks not only her striving but her very thought of going after what she wants. We see her heart and we see her mind as Maggie grabs a hold of life and starts to shake it up.

Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills

John Mills is an absolute treasure as Willie Mossop. We mustn't be fooled into thinking a man of few words, and most of those supplied by Maggie Hobson doesn't have a mind of his own. What happens to a shy and awkward man when success is thrust upon him?

Hobson's Choice is a comedy with heart because the characters are true and their portrayers are truthful. It is a memorable movie that will make you laugh and cheer.

In 1955, the BAFTA for Best British Film was awarded to Hobson's Choice. Brenda De Banzie, John Mills and the screenplay by David Lean, Norman Spencer and Wynyard Browne was also nominated.

TCM is screening Hobson's Choice on Sunday, October 28 at 10:00 am.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What a Character! Blogathon: Canadians in Hollywood, PART ONE: Miss Lucile Watson and PART TWO: Miss Maude Eburne

Lucile Watson
May 27, 1879 - June 24, 1962

Quebec City, the historic French settlement, trading post and sometime capitol of New France and Lower Canada, was the birthplace of Rosine Mary Lucile Watson on May 27, 1879.  Educated in one of the predominantly Catholic province's many convent schools, Lucile would retain the strong conservative values of her upbringing throughout her life.  However, the glamorous and quick-witted young lady would demand more from life than Quebec could offer.  She wanted a life on the stage so the teenaged Lucile left her old world  behind to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.  Lucile was 23 years old when she made her Broadway debut in the 1902 production of Hearts Aflame.  For the next 20 years Broadway was her home.  Lucile could play anything, but was most popular in the chic comedies of the day.  She was a particular favourite of Brooklyn born playwright Clyde Fitch after starring in the 1909 production of his The City.

Lucile Watson, young actress

Sometime during the ragtime period, Lucile was briefly married to fellow Canadian actor Rockliffe Fellowes, star of Raoul Walsh's 1915 film Regeneration, whose film career lasted through the 1930s.

Lucile appeared in two plays by Louis Evan Shipman, 1918s The Fountain of Youth and 1922s Fools Errant.  In 1928 at the age of 50, Lucile married the playwright but was sadly widowed five years later when Shipman died in France on his 64th birthday.

During her widowhood Lucile made the most of her acting career continuing to shine on Broadway in such classic roles as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  While a starring comedienne on The Great White Way, the movies generally gave Lucile heavier fare.  The overall impression of her cinematic career is one of the dominating, patrician mother.  If we look closely at some of these women we find, here and there, a kind heart and a twinkle in the eye.  These qualities are abundant in her first credited film role as La Contessa la Brierra in 1934s What Every Woman Knows from the J.M. Barrie play.  Helen Hayes as the woman behind the successful politician Brian Aherne would be lost without Lucile's kindness and mentorship.

It is difficult to find something nice to say about Harriet Mason in 1939s Made for Each Other.  Perhaps we can feel sorry for the foolishness that causes so much heartbreak in her refusal to accept surprise daughter-in-law Carole Lombard into son James Stewart's life.

Audiences in the 30s and today, like the character Mary Haines in The Women, are shocked by Mrs. Morehead's advice to her daughter to overlook her husband's affair.  Yet, she doesn't demand, she offers support.  Certainly the advice to watch out for her "friends" was right on the money.

I find no malice in Lady Cronin's treatment of Myra in Waterloo Bridge.  She is merely a tool of Fate.  A glorious, tear-soaked, heartbreaking Fate.

 Watch on the Rhine
George Colouris, Donald Woods (another Canuck), Lucile Watson
Bette Davis, Paul Lukas 

In addition to a busy Hollywood career, Broadway still had a firm claim on Lucile Watson.  In 1941 she played Fanny Farrelly in the hugely successful Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman.  the 1943 Warner Brothers production would bring Lucile and leading man Paul Lukas west to recreate their stage roles.  Lukas would win a most well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his moving performance.  Lucile Watson was nominated in the Supporting Actress category as the Washington society matron whose family is intimately impacted by world events.  The award that year was given to Katina Paxinou for For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The other nominees were Paulette Goddard for So Proudly We Hail and Gladys Cooper and Anne Revere for The Song of Bernadette.

We can add Barbara Stanwyck to the list of Lucile's big-name Hollywood children in 1946s My Reputation.  Here we have a genuine generation gap as young widow Jessica Drummond not only has to face small-minded gossips and her disapproving children but her imperious mother, a woman who has always gotten her way.

The Thin Man Goes Home
Harry Davenport, Lucile Watson
Myrna Loy, William Powell
Lucile continued to be a busy actress.  Aunt March in Little Women, the gossipy and very funny aristocrat Princess Bitotska in The Emperor Waltz and facing off against Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig.  Would you want anyone else as Nick Charles' mother in The Thin Man Goes Home?   Radio anthology programs and talk shows where Lucile Watson could speak her mind.  Broadway again as Cornelia Van Gorder in a 1953 revival of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat.  Lucile Watson would retire in her 70s remaining in her beloved NYC, passing from this life from a heart attack at age 83.

Some other movies to enjoy with Lucile include Three Smart Girls, Sweethearts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Rage in Heaven, The Great Lie, Tomorrow is Forever, The Razor's Edge and Julia Misbehaves.


 Maude Eburne
November 10, 1875 - October 15, 1960

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...".  We may be the leading lady in our own dramas and comedies, but miss the mark when it comes to public consumption.  With her low centre of gravity and non-glamorous features, Ontario's Maude Eburne was a born character actress.  Now part of the City of Oakville, Bronte-on-the-Lake was a fishing village when Maude was born there in 1875.  Currently, it is a quick commuter train ride between that spot and Toronto, but it wasn't so convenient in the days of steam and stagecoach.  However, Toronto was always a good theatre town and it was the place a determined young woman with an alternately wry and bawdy sense of humour, and elocution lessons under her belt had to go if she wanted to be an actress.

Determination and talent can take you a long way.  It can take you from a fishing village in Ontario to the lights of Broadway.  Mind you, it was a winding path of stock companies and touring every place in between, but when Maude Eburne hit the big town in 1913 at age 38, she knew how to make 'em laugh and make 'em cry.  She would appear in 14 Broadway shows between 1913 and 1930.  After all, most plays at that time would call for a maid.  One of her successes as Coddles in 1914s A Pair of Sixes would be filmed in 1918.

Along with the jobs and the applause, Maude found time to marry a stage producer named Gene Hill.  She was widowed in 1932 as her Hollywood career was beginning and Maude would stay on the west coast the rest of her days.

Maude Eburne's career in pictures was a full and busy time with bona fide film classics interspersed with cult classics, B programmers, and uncredited bits.  A featured player or bit player, Maude always gave one hundred percent.  In 1944s Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid she is billed as "homely woman".  Did it rankle or was Maude of the "if you can't fix it, feature it" mind?  I prefer her billing in the 1948 western The Plunderers as "Old Dame at Wedding".

 The Bat Whispers
Maude Eburne, Grayce Hampton

Lizzie Allen: "I stuck by you when you was a theosophist and a suffragetist.  I've seen you through socialism, Fletcherism and rheumatism.  But when it comes to spookism I'm through!"

One of Maude's early talkies is 1930s The Bat Whispers, director Roland West's re-do of his 1926 version of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat.  As domestic Lizzie Allen to the intrepid Cornelia Van Gorder, who is not afraid of things that go bump in the night, Maude gets to spout sass to Grayce Hampton.  She also gets to run around an old dark house in a nightgown with her hair in curl-papers making the most ungodly shrieks this side of Una O'Connor. 

Classic movie fans can find Maude, along with Lunt and Fontanne, in The Guardsman.  She's an incarcerated Madame with a raucous sense of humour in Ladies They Talk About.  She's Frank McHugh's chorister mother in the funny ending to Here Comes the Navy.  She positively steals the show as Gussie Schnappmann in 1933s The Vampire Bat.

 Ruggles of Red Gap
Zazu Pitts, Charles Laughton, Charles Ruggles, Maude Eburne
Just what was it Lincoln said at Gettysburg?

My favourite of Maude Eburne's roles is Ma Pettingill in Leo McCarey's 1935 version of Ruggles of Red Gap.  In this story of a third-generation valet who has independence thrust upon him Maude's "Ma" is the salt of the earth.  Unimaginably wealthy from oil, Ma indulges the snobbish whims of her daughters, but democratically treats all men the same.  It is primarily Ma Pettingill's attitude and example that guides Ruggles.  She is a dear.

Maude is the housekeeper, Mrs. Hastings, in the Dr. Christian series starring Jean Hersholt as the fictionalized doctor who delivered the Dionne quintuplet.

The Border Legion
Maude Eburne, "Gabby" Hayes

Honest John Whittaker:  "Miss Hurricane, where I come from chivalry is not dead."
Hurricane Hattie McGuire:  "Well, in this territory they got it gaspin' for breath!"

Maude had nice roles in three Roy Rogers movies, Colorado, Man from Oklahoma and The Border Legion.  These delightfully paired her with George "Gabby" Hayes with whom she could alternately spar or coyly flirt.  Talk about two old pros!

1942s The Boogie Man Will Get You is one of the goofiest movies you'll ever see, and you must see this screwy mash-up of Arsenic and Old Lace meets George Washington Slept Here plus a healthy heaping of wartime propaganda.  Impulse shopper Jeff Donnell buys a run-down farm/inn that comes complete with mad scientist Boris Karloff trying to create a Nazi fighting superman.  There's also Peter Lorre as a rival doctor with more than a few quirks of his own.  Don Beddoe is a flighty choreographer who may be a government agent.  Boxer "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom is a powder puff salesman and Frank Puglia a bomb-throwing anarchist.  In the middle of all this is solicitous landlady Maude Eburne who periodically slips into the belief that she is a chicken about to lay an egg.  Cluck.  Cluck.  I get a great kick out of The Boogie Man Will Get You.  I get a kick out of watching some of these really fine actors going for the gold of goofy.  I also get a kick out of imagining Maude at the first read-through.  "Amelia flaps her arms and clucks like a chicken about to lay an egg.  If my elocution teacher could see me now!"  Watch her - she's perfect and she's funny.  Maude Eburne was always a hundred-percenter.  Maude Eburne was a month shy of her 80th birthday when she passed away in 1960.

Some titles to keep on your "look for Maude Eburne list" are Hollywood Cowboy starring George O'Brien, The Amazing Mr. Williams with Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be and The Princess and the Pirate with Bob Hope. 

All hail Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club for hosting this wonderful tribute to character actor greats.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for September on TCM

During my formative years as a credit reading television viewer, one name above all stood for quality - Fielder Cook. The director of such classic TV movies as Earl Hamner's The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Will There Really Be a Morning? and more was always prominently featured in the TV Guide Close-Ups of yore. I later learned about that time before my own, the Golden Age of live television and discovered the basis of Mr. Cook's prominence and esteem.

Fielder Cook, Rod Serling

The former naval officer had a degree in literature from Washington and Lee University and studied Elizabethan literature in England, and in 1950 began his career in television with the popular anthology series, Lux Video Theatre. The program, which was a spin-off of NBCs Lux Radio Theater featured original teleplays along with adaptions of popular theatre fare and abridged versions of familiar movie titles. Cook's other credits in those heady days of the 1950s include The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Omnibus, Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theatre. The January 12th, 1955 live episode of Kraft Television Theatre was the Cook directed episode of Rod Serling's Patterns starring Richard Kiley, Ed Begley and Everett Sloane. The program's success led to a repeat performance on February 9th and a 1956 theatrical feature directed by Fielder Cook with Van Heflin replacing Kiley. 

Moving from television to features was a career move made by many of Cook's contemporaries such as Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Franklin Schaffner, yet Cook preferred to work in television where the word was king. "I went back to TV because I could do what I wanted to do. You learn from your mistakes with nobody telling you what to do." In an industry of so-called auteurs, the man was a radical as evidenced by his attitude, "As a director, I tell a story, but it's not my story."

One story that gave Fielder Cook a lot of pleasure was a 1962 episode of the hour-long The DuPont Show of the Week written by Sidney Carroll called Big Deal in Laredo. The story concerns an annual poker game with Zachary Scott, Roland Winters, and John McGiver as high stakes players whose leisure and life is upended by the involvement of a pioneer couple played by Teresa Wright and Walter Matthau. Carroll and Cook, under Cook's own production company Eden Productions Inc., revamped and released a feature presentation of the story renamed A Big Hand for the Little Lady.

If you have seen A Big Hand for the Little Lady, you don't need me to tell you of its many delights. If you have not seen A Big Hand for the Little Lady, you don't want me to tell you too much of the delights awaiting you. Trust me on this, if on nothing else, the discovery is a joyful one you will want to make on your own. As a bit of an incentive, I will mention that the cast features a diverse collection of familiar and fabled actors including Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bickford, Paul Ford, Burgess Meredith, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton, and John Qualen. The "little lady" in question is the mesmerizing Joanne Woodward. Ms. Woodward was nominated for a Laurel Award from the Motion Picture Exhibitors in the category of Female Comedy Performance. The award was given to Julie Andrews of Thoroughly Modern Millie and one of the other nominees was Shirley MacLaine for Gambit which was also based on a Sidney Carroll story. The script for A Big Hand for the Little Lady is funny, exciting, moving and very, very real.  

TCM is showing A Big Hand for the Little Lady on Saturday, September 8 at 6:00 pm.  I sincerely hope you find it a convenient time.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Case of the Vacuous Victim or Caftan Woman vs. Garbage Truck Part II

A long time ago - 10 months to be exact - at an intersection not far from here, some of you may recall my run-in with a garbage truck.  Physically, the fracture of my nose is but a slight bump that doesn't give me any character at all.  I have a few "Sailor Moon" scars on my forehead.  Getting up and down is an issue due to very sore knees, although I haven't detected any weather prediction capabilities.  Mentally, I have a case of mild Depression and PTSD.  After last November's accident I found sleep eluding me in that four hours at a stretch is a relief.  I stopped enjoying things that used to make me happy.  I even pulled out of the June Etobicoke Centennial Choir concert.  Safe in my own home, the sound of trucks on the street make my palms sweat and my stomach jump.  I neglected my health to the dismay of my family doctor and physicians at the kidney clinic, who felt I should speak to someone about my lack of coping skills.  I've always been proud of those coping skills which saw me through radiation, two rounds of chemo and five surgeries, but had to agree something should be done.  So, I'm chatting with a young psychiatric intern and have sleeping pills if/when necessary.  Today something happened which may do a lot toward getting me that good night's sleep.  The case of the garbage truck came to Court.


I had no idea that such a thing was occurring until last Thursday when the officer who investigated the incident phoned and asked if I could attend Court on Monday at 3:00.  I believe in the back of my mind was the thought that "Gee, I get hit by a truck and nobody cares".

The York Civic Centre is a block-like building rather stuffy and dusty.  It is filled with long lines of folks paying parking tickets and fines.  In fact, my daughter Janet and I saw so many people shelling out dough that I wonder what City Council is talking about when they go on about budget problems.  There is a wedding chapel that looks like as cheerless a place to tie the knot as you could imagine.  The courtroom resembled a small chapel with pews for seats, flags, computers and microphones that didn't seem to work.  Either my hearing is going or the acoustics in the room are terrible because I only seemed to get every second word, if that.  A number of cases came and went and they got around to the garbage truck incident. 

 Rex Reason

It is nerve wracking to take the stand.  The bailiff (I assume) spoke very quickly and I'm not sure if I was supposed to say "I do" when swearing to tell the truth, but they accepted it.  The Crown Attorney somewhat resembled one of the acting Reason brothers (must have been the curly hair), so I found that a little distracting (Does he look like Rhodes or Rex?).  I told my story pretty much as related in my blog of last November and the defendant's attorney questioned me.  Although the defendant wasn't in court, his lawyer gave 100% in trying to make me look the fool.  I'll give him marks for referring to me as a "young lady" (blush), but beyond that we are not friends.  He seemed quite stuck on the point that I didn't look for flashing lights on the truck.  Well, I told him the truck was stopped - there were no lights, no motor noises - it was stopped while the garbage was being collected.  The lawyer was also quite keen on the point that I didn't know which direction the truck was turning, north or south.  I explained vehemently that I didn't know which direction the truck was traveling because my face was in the asphalt!  In his summation, he said that "the victim claims she made eye contact, whatever that means".  Oh, it's hard to sit still for such snark when you have hundreds of classic movie quotes at your disposal.

Ambassador Trentino:  "I didn't come here to be insulted!"
Rufus T. Firefly:  "That's what you think!"

Anyway, this is where the "vacuous victim" almost caused a ruckus in Court.  When the police officer was on the stand there was a question as to the delineation of the crosswalk in question.  Nobody knew.  Was it outlined in white lines?  Was it a plain corner?  Ooh, ooh, I know.  I raised my hand and tried to get someone's attention.  The bailiff shook his finger at me like I was in kindergarten.  The Court Officer told me I had to be still.  Two little words, "red brick" could have cleared up the confusion.  Despite my genuine motivation to be of assistance I should have realized I was overstepping some sort of Courtroom etiquette.  I was chastened.  I was embarrassed.  Also, I should have recalled from my days of transcribing for a court reporting service that lawyers do NOT like to be told anything.

My late, lamented wheels

The defendant not being present his statement at the scene was read into the record.  Now, I know it was an accident and he didn't mean me any harm, but to hear his side of the story some crazy woman ran in front of the truck and fell down.  He was found guilty of some charge under the Motor Vehicle's Act and fined $125 payable in 60 days.  I would have been happy if he paid for replacing my $35 grocery/laundry cart.  Actually, I'm happy to think that it did matter that I had this accident.  I will probably sleep well tonight without the aid of a pill.  And I NEVER want to go to court again!


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Classic Movie Blog Association Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon: Black Hand (1950)

The promotional material for MGMs 1950 release Black Hand trumpeted Gene Kelly as “Sensational in his first great dramatic role”. The studio’s publicity department must have forgotten Gene as the determined POW in 1943s The Cross of Lorraine. Perhaps they overlooked his outstanding portrayal of a psychopath in the 1944 film-noir Christmas Holiday because that was for Universal, but once seen audiences could never forget the performance. MGM must also have forgotten that in his first film for the studio, 1942s For Me and My Gal, Gene’s character of Harry Palmer was more than a bit of a rat in the melancholy WWI era romance. 

Of all of the crafts, acting is the easiest to critique and dismiss as both fans and people in the profession have their own expectations and prejudices. A comedic actor? Hey, he’s just being funny. A performance in a western? The cowboy hat does the acting. The musical performer? All they’re doing is singing and dancing. As if Jeanette MacDonald singing Lover, Come Back to Me in New Moon or Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz or Gene Kelly dancing with his alter ego in Cover Girl aren’t using all their skill to communicate to the audience as persuasively as Lord Olivier with a Shakespearean soliloquy. It must be a drama, dark and heavy, and preferably with ample opportunity to shed tears before some are convinced they are seeing “real acting”.

In 1950 Gene Kelly was beginning what was probably the most creatively satisfying time in his career. He had just completed his first credited co-directing assignment with the release of On the Town. Soon to come, with the resources of MGM behind him, are Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, It’s Always Fair Weather and Invitation to the Dance. The decade begins with Gene top-billed and part of a fine ensemble of character actors in the offbeat crime drama Black Hand directed by the sturdy Richard Thorpe (The Thin Man Goes Home, The Crowd Roars, The Voice of Bugle Ann).

I call Black Hand offbeat because, for a gangster picture, it does leave the well-beaten path. By 1950 audiences could be forgiven for thinking that the gangster was solely the byproduct of the 18th Amendment giving way to the roaring twenties, the period having been glamorized in dozens of crime pictures (Scarface, The Public Enemy, etc.).

Black Hand, however, deals with the turn of the 20th century when organized extortion or the protection racket made life unbearable for countless immigrants seeking a better life in America. Along with the time period, Black Hand is unique in that its focus is not on the life of an unfortunate sucked into a life of crime through poverty and neglect, but on the victims of the criminals. The story is by Leo Townsend (It Start with Eve, Port of New York) with a screenplay by Luther Davis (Across 110th Street, The Hucksters).

We are not in the turn of the century of Two Weeks With Love with its sunshine and wide verandas. In Black Hand we are in the claustrophobic city with narrow, dark streets and airless, crowded rooms courtesy of art director Gabriel Scognamillo (Mystery Street, Act of Violence, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and cinematographer Paul Vogel (Battleground, Lady in the Lake, Dial 1119). One of the crowded rooms houses the Columbo family. The father, a lawyer from Italy, Roberto Columbo played by Peter Brocco has had enough of the intimidation of the gangsters. Despite the pleading and prayers of his wife Maria played by Eleonora Mendelssohn, Roberto keeps a late night meeting with the police to inform against the Black Hand. Before the night is over both the police officer and Roberto Columbo will lose their lives to the vicious Serpi played by Marc Lawrence. The distraught Maria will return to Italy with her children, but her eldest son, Giovanni, vows to return someday and avenge his father’s death.

 Gene Kelly as Giovanni "Johnny" Columbo

A few years pass and the grown Johnny Columbo played by Gene Kelly returns to the neighbourhood incognito hoping to find his father’s murderer. His anonymity is short-lived as frightened people who know too much put the pieces together. Johnny is befriended by police officer Louis Lorelli played by the incomparable J. Carroll Naish (Oscar-nominated for A Medal for Benny and Sahara). Lorelli was a friend of the family’s in Italy and a long-time foe of the criminals who prey on his people. Johnny also rekindles a friendship/romance with childhood friend Isabella Gomboli played by Teresa Celli. She lost all in her family except a younger brother when the Black Hand bombed their tenement. Like Johnny, she seeks revenge, but in a civilized fashion. Isabella wants to organize the neighbourhood against the gangsters as such efforts have proved successful in other cities. Teresa has the backing of Lorelli and soon they sway Johnny to their efforts. Each small inroad against their tormentors is met with a setback in the form of beatings, kidnappings and destruction. Lorelli and Teresa are made of strong stuff and persevere, encouraging Johnny to study Law to further his cause.

J. Carroll Naish, Frank Puglia

The citizen’s committee takes a case to court when shopkeeper Sabballera played by Frank Puglia agrees to testify against the mob. Puglia is inspired as a man full of bravado and happy to be in the limelight. Slowly he is overcome by fear as nonverbal threats come from the spectators, leaving the case and the man in tatters. Equally as impressive is Naish as Lorelli makes an impassioned plea to the judge to understand the pervasive fear experienced by the people in his district. Again, the committee is rebuffed in their attempt to fully prosecute the gloating gangsters.

Another avenue of investigation comes their way and this one takes Lorelli back to Italy as he and Johnny devise a plan to exploit official records to name the gangsters before the courts. This time the gangsters are worried. This time Lorelli is in danger. This time Johnny faces a night of terror and desperation as he finally comes face to face with his father’s killer.

Black Hand is a well-told tale of an under-explored area in crime pictures. The fine ensemble effortlessly convinces us with their sincere and energetic performances, including Gene Kelly “sensational in his first great dramatic role”. 

Enjoy the brief clip from Black Hand as "Johnny" returns to the old neighbourhood and indulge yourself in All Things Gene Kelly as the Classic Movie Blog Association presents the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Broadway to Hollywood: Chaney, Huston and "Kongo"

It's been quite a while since this blog has looked at the twists and turns of casting from Broadway to Hollywood. A recent screening on TCM of Tod Browning's 1928 thriller West of Zanzibar prompted this look at a two extraordinary actors.

Lon Chaney
April 1, 1883 - August 26, 1930

Lon Chaney, "The Man of a Thousand Faces", made only one sound picture before his untimely death from lung cancer at the age of 47 and that was a remake of 1925s The Unholy Three. Yet such is the power of his performances that long before I saw the 1930 movie I was convinced I had heard Chaney speak. In role after role, from The Phantom of the Opera to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from He Who Gets Slapped to Laugh, Clown, Laugh Lon Chaney possessed the talent and the skill to transcend the screen and make the audience feel and know his inner being.

Chaney early learned to communicate with his deaf parents and was born an instinctive entertainer. A vaudevillian who could sing, dance and make people laugh, today Chaney is recalled mainly for characterizations in the horror genre. Yet, he said ,"I hope I shall never be accused of striving merely for horrible effects." Lon Chaney's talents as an actor and as a make-up artist created characters that showed us many horrors and much nobility.

One of the 10 films Lon Chaney made with director Tod Browning is West of Zanzibar, 1928. It is a tale of revenge and redemption. As Phroso aka Dead Legs, he rules a territory in Africa by confounding superstitious natives with magic and fear. Phroso lives for one thing, to take revenge on the man who made him a cripple and stole his wife and her daughter. The girl is the victim of abuse which is the core of Phroso's vengeance and the victim of a cruel twist of fate which tears the soul out of her tormentor. The audience is in the hands of the master watching Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar.

Walter Huston
April 5, 1883 - April 7, 1950

Canadian born Walter Huston was enjoying success on the Broadway stage while Lon Chaney was wowing them in movies in the 1920s. One of those plays was Kongo written and directed by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon. The play ran for 135 performances in 1926 and became the 1928 movie West of Zanzibar. How often has the stage star looked west to see someone else take over "their" role?

In 1929 Huston himself headed west and began his distinguished film career.  Early on he appeared in such diverse roles as the villain Trampas in The Virginian, as Abraham Lincoln in that titled picture for D.W. Griffith and as a sympathetic prison warden in The Criminal Code for Howard Hawks.

In 1932 Huston was outstanding in Frank Capra's American Madness, as the hypocritical Davidson in Rain and as Flint, the hate-filled cripple in Kongo in the sound remake of West of Zanzibar, going back to the original title. If it is possible, the lurid story seems even more so in sound. Huston is never less than riveting and no matter how much you want to turn away, you cannot ignore the depths to which this man fell and the overwhelming remorse he experiences.

In a fortunate case of not messing with success, when Walter Huston's 1934 stage success Dodsworth was beautifully filmed by William Wyler in 1936 it starred Huston who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. However, he would have to wait until 1948s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the statue in the supporting category.

Two admirable actors and one despicable role in the winding road from Broadway to Hollywood.


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...