Sunday, May 27, 2012

Horseathon: Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)

Not a wholesome trottin' race, no!
But a race where they sit down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy settin' on Dan Patch
Make your blood boil, well I should say.

Trouble, The Music Man
by Meredith Willson

"Professor" Harold Hill touched a nerve in his Iowan marks who did not share a reverence for the centuries old Sport of Kings.  They would be immune to track promotions highlighting the storied history, the fun to be found in gambling and developing your own system, and the thrill of a race.  The noble horses, colourful characters and high stakes of the stable background are an irresistible setting for a mystery.  Sherlock Holmes had Silver Blaze.  Jockey/author Dick Francis had international best sellers with such titles as Whip Hand and Dead Cert.  And in 1936 Charlie Chan went to the race track.  It had taken a few false starts before Earl Derr Bigger's popular fictional detective of the 1920s took off in film, but at the time of the movie we're looking at today Inspector Chan was, you should pardon the expression, riding high.

"Murder without blood stain like Amos without Andy - most unusual."

H. Bruce Humberstone directed Charlie Chan at the Race Track, the first of four including Charlie Chan at the Opera and Charlie Chan at the Olympics and the first Sidney Toler as Chan outing, Charlie Chan in Honolulu.  "Lucky" Humberstone's career began in the silent era and he assisted the likes of King Vidor and Edmund Goulding.  He was a director who had the ability to constantly entertain audiences with innovative, yet unobtrusive camera work playing to the strengths of his material and keeping the pace sharp so we don't dwell too much on any plot deficits.  Other popular Humberstone films include I Wake Up Screaming, Hello, Frisco, Hello, Wonder Man and To the Shores of Tripoli.

Warner Oland moved to America from his native Sweden with his family while in his teens, made his Broadway debut in 1902 and his screen debut in 1912.  Among his variety of roles was the pious Cantor in The Jazz Singer and the villanous Fu Manchu.  In 1931s Charlie Chan Carries On (an unfortunately "lost" film), Oland found an alter ego that touched his soul.  He approached the role of Inspector Chan through diligent study of Chinese history and philosophy and so fused his personality with that of Chan's that he became the character.  Enduring international fame was Oland's reward for such fidelity of purpose, especially in China, the land of the fictional detective's ancestors.

"Confucius say, no man is poor who has worthy son."

In a master stroke of story and casting handsome and personable artist Keye Luke joined the series in 1935s Charlie Chan in Paris as Lee Chan, number one son.  More than ably handling the action and comedy support, "Lee" also highlighted the main difference between Chan and most mystery protagonists in that he was a family man.  Keye Luke and Warner Oland developed a very close friendship that enhanced the father-son dynamic in the Chan series.  Keye Luke always spoke fondly and admiringly of Warner Oland in interviews, and refused to continue in the series after the death of his friend in 1938.


Frankie Darro

Inspector Chan first becomes aware of the case which will claim his attention through a radio transmission of the Melbourne Cup race to which the staff of the Honolulu Police is riveted.  All the world, it seems, loves a high stakes race.  At the behest of son Lee, Chan even bets 50 cents on the "schnozzola" of the favourite, Avalanche, owned by old friend Major Kent played by the aristocratic George Irving.  The 50 cents is lost when Avalanche was disqualified because of a foul committed by perennial movie jockey Frankie Darro (Wild Boys of the Road, Pinocchio).


Jonathan Hale, Helen Wood, Gloria Roy, Alan Dinehart, Thomas Beck

Although Major Kent has sold his interest in Avalanche to his son-in-law George Chester played by Alan Dinehart, Kent was determined to expose the gambling ring he felt was behind the disgrace.  He cabled Inspector Chan to meet the party as they stopped in Honolulu on their way to a meet in Los Angeles.  On shipboard Major Kent is killed and the blame placed on the high strung Avalanche.  Chan determines it is a case of murder and joins the cruise to pursue his investigation.  Lee signs on as cabin boy to assist and protect his "Pop".  The cruise provides a glamorous setting with moonlight on the water, fashionably gowned ladies, dinner jacketed gents, fires in the hold and near fatal gun attacks.

Frank Coghlin, Jr.

Our suspects include owners, trainers, jockeys, touts and stable boys and are brought to life by a pleasing and thoroughly professional cast of players. Canadian born Jonathan Hale (Mr. Dithers in the Blondie series, Inspector Fernack in The Saint) is rival horse own Warren Fenton.  His "dark horse" Gallant Lad bears a striking resemblance to the highly favoured Avalanche.  G.P. Huntley (Dressed to Kill, Charge of the Light Brigade) is a gambler who may be too smart for his own good.  Gavin Muir (Hitler's Children, Wee Willie Winkie) is a trainer with an agenda.  Frank Coghlin Jr. (Adventures of Captain Marvel) is a nice guy jockey with more heart than sense.  John Henry Allen is the stable boy "Streamline", always referred to as "Mister Streamline" by Inspector Chan.  Streamline has more to deal with than he wants with nervous horses, an overbearing owner and a rambunctious monkey named Lollipop. Paul Fix (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Rifleman), as he always played in the 30s, is a weasely gun man.  Gloria Roy, in the fourth of seven Chan appearances, plays a woman in the middle of it all as the daughter of Major Kent and wife of George Chester.  Helen Wood is our pretty ingenue, the daughter of rival horse owner Warren Fenton and romantic interest of secretary Thomas Beck (Heidi, Champagne Charlie) in the second of three Chan features, and soon to leave Hollywood after a contract dispute.

Helen Wood, Thomas Beck

Charlie Chan 101 for Newbies:  If there is a young romantic couple, and there always is a young romantic couple, you can erase them from your suspect list.  They are included only to be young and romantic.

Gavin Muir, Paul Fix, "Lucky" Humberstone behind seated Frankie Darro

Charlie Chan has dealt with dope rings, spies, maniacs, blackmailers and all sorts of criminals.  The gambling ring in Charlie Chan at the Race Track are as cold a group of birds as the Inspector ever came up against.  Director Humberstone stepped in front of the camera to become one of the gang.  Ruthless and determined, part of their plan includes switching Avalanche and the similarly built Gallant Lad in a bid to rig bets.

The inventiveness of equine appellations gives me great pleasure.

A climactic race is featured in the solution of Charlie Chan at the Race Track filmed at Santa Anita Park and Racetrack, named Santa Juanita for the movie.  So many questions must be answered.  Is the gambling syndicate behind all the evils?  Is Fenton the mastermind?  Is Chester as innocent as he seems?  Are Fenton and Chester in cahoots?  Are they cahooting with the crooks?  Will harm come to Avalanche or Gallant Lad?  Will Charlie Chan bring the criminal element to justice?  You can safely put your 50 cents on the old schnozzola.

Enjoy all the delightful looks at movies, horses and movie horses at the first ever Horseathon sponsored by Page of My Love of Old Hollywood.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Favourite movies: The Italian Straw Hat (1928)

 Albert Prejean

Un chapeau de paille d'Italie was a very successful 1851 play written by Eugene Labiche and Marc Michel. Labiche's family had intended for him to follow a career in law, but in his heart he was an author and, with the blessing of his wife, he followed his heart to succeed in the theatre. "Of all the subjects," he said, "which offered themselves to me, I have selected the bourgeois. Essentially mediocre in his vices and in his virtues, he stands half-way between the hero and the scoundrel, between the saint and the profligate." Audiences both laughed with and at the travails of Ferdinand and his various family, friends and sudden acquaintances in The Italian Straw Hat as Fate, with a capital "F", steps in to ruin his wedding day.

Rene Clair

Producer Alexandre Kamenka chose the perfect director for the 1928 production of The Italian Straw Hat in Rene Clair. Clair changed the setting of the 1851 farce to 1895 Paris and treated the audience to a peek at the foibles and pretensions of the middle class.

Olga Tschechowa, Geymond Vital

Ferdinand and Helene are to be married. Relatives are readying themselves for the ceremony and reception. Buttons refuse to be hooked. Gloves have gone missing. Shoes are too tight. Collars come loose. Gifts are scrutinized. Hopes are high. Frustrations are plentiful.

Ferdinand avails himself of the fresh air in the countryside. A lady, Madame De Beauperthuis and her lover Lt. Tavernier are also availing themselves of the, uh, fresh air. The lady's lovely straw hat has been placed delicately on the shrubbery where Ferdinand's horse finds it irresistible. The dashing lieutenant demands that Ferdinand replace the hat exactly as it is a rare and recognizable hat that was a gift from the lady's husband and should he find it missing, the lady will be compromised. And - we're off to the races.

Ferdinand must find the lady a suitable replacement. He must keep her identity a secret. He must also get married, attend his reception and keep his wife and everyone he has ever met happy and "in the dark" about his predicament.

Ferdinand's valet tries to stop the marauding relatives.

Such fun! Such wonderfully humourous scenes in this comedy! The wedding ceremony at the City Hall enjoyed most of all by the deaf uncle. The dancing at the reception with the twirling assemblage and close-ups of the nervous Ferdinand. The overwrought lieutenant threatening to destroy everything in Ferdinand's house. The befuddled and helpful stranger who turns out to be the lady's husband! The suspicions of the family and new bride who proceed to empty the home of wedding gifts. These are the sorts of situations you might think would work best through pithy dialogue delivered with a wink, after all, it is based on a stage play. However, nothing is lost and perhaps more is gained by the delightful cast and their thoroughly professional and inventive director in this treasure of a silent comedy. A highly recommended, laugh-out-loud winner. 

Presented by the Toronto Silent Film Festival 2012 at Casa Loma. Clark Wilson at the Wurlitzer.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lucky 7 X 7

It has been a couple of weeks since that eminent Man of Letters, Lee Price, honoured this corner of the blogosphere with the 7 X 7 Link Award.  I vaguely recall blushing, sharing the good news with my family and promising to follow-up with the responsibilities of the recipient.  Well, as happens with all of us, there are times when the blog is your life and times when life gets in the way of your blog. 

The first duty of the recipient is to thank the giver and that I do most happily.  Thank you, Lee, friend of my IMDb days and beyond.  If you choose to take a look at the Blog list on the right, you will find two of Lee's contributions to the blogging world to visit, 21 Essays and Art and June.  I am pleased to know that you will thank me for pointing you in their direction. 

 No. 2 encourages the recipient to share seven random facts about themselves.  H'm.
  • I consider toast and peanut butter to be a delicacy, and gravy a beverage.
  • As a child I thought that being an adult meant that your feet would touch the floor when you sat down.  This has not proven to always be the case.
Beatrice, Rosemary
  • I am the "grandmother" of two cats, Beatrice, named for the "B" in J.B. Fletcher, and Rosemary, named for Miss Clooney of musical fame.
  • I alphabetize my movie/tv show collection.
  • I am at the stage of life where I don't know who any of the major baseball players are, but I recognize the coaches.
  • Jerome Moross' theme for Wagon Train can make me cry.
  • I am afraid of heights. 

The 3rd responsibility is one that requires some thought.  It is to share seven of your posts under the following headings:

The 4th responsibility is to nominate seven other bloggers and notify them.  A click on the CMBA logo or a look at my Blog List let's you know of many of the interesting and fascinating writers I follow.  Today I will pass along the 7 X 7 Link Award to these folks, may they accept it in the spirit it is intended, and follow-up as they choose.  I will say that it is an interesting exercise to consider your own work under the  provided headings.

Happy reading, all.  Thanks again, Lee.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bing's Birthday Movie: The Emperor Waltz (1948)

We have once again come to that rolling time of the year when this corner of the internet celebrates Bing Crosby's birthday. There has long been confusion about the date. According to biographer Gary Giddins, Harry and Kate Crosby's fourth son was born on May 3rd, 1903. The proud parents had the announcement placed in a local paper, but it was published on the 5th and contained the word "yesterday" making it appear the future "Bing" was born on the 4th. A correction was asked for and received from the paper. Later Paramount Studios publicity would use May 2nd as the date and 1904 as the year at the behest of manager/brother Everett Crosby. In 1906 on May 3rd Bing's younger sister Mary Rose was born. The young lady was most put out by having to share a birthday with anyone else and her brother happily relinquished the date. Just like a kid! No consideration for future biographers, astrologers or bloggers.

Today, along with birthday cake, let's take a look at the 1948 release The Emperor Waltz. A Technicolor musical written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Wilder, The Emperor Waltz is not one of those classic Crosby movies that even non-fans recall, nonetheless I find it to have a certain charm and worth the time of the viewer. There are few writer/directors I admire more than Billy Wilder and few entertainers I enjoy more than Bing Crosby. I don't know what I expected when they got together, but I guess it wasn't The Emperor Waltz. Initial disappointment was erased on a recent viewing.

Our story is set in the long ago Austria of Emperor Franz Josef and concerns the love affair between a haughty widowed Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska played by Joan Fontaine and a brash American salesman Virgil Smith played by Bing Crosby. Ditto her purebred poodle and his mutt. There is a lot of talk about class differences and bloodlines and, through the years, this has been my major gripe with the script. Perhaps at the post-war era Brackett and Wilder felt the need to make some sort of a statement, but it's a tad heavy handed and detracts from the fun - and there is fun.

The musical numbers are presented wittily and include Friendly Mountains (a yodeling song), The Emperor Waltz with Johnny Burke lyrics to Johann Strauss' melody and Jimmy Van Heusen and Burke's Get Yourself a Phonograph, the phonograph being Virgil's stock-in-trade.  The old standby I Kiss Your Hand, Madame starts with Bing's vocal, then brings in a piano, then two policemen pick up violins and then the domestic staff starts to dance. When our countess swoons after a few boo-boo-boo's, you know Billy Wilder is poking fun at operetta and musical film conventions.

The uninspired humorist often remarks when watching a musical "where did the orchestra come from?". There is no need to ask in the enchanting The Kiss in Your Eyes as an entire village puts bow to string to accompany this most stirring of love songs with lyrics by Johnny Burke to the melody from Richard Heuberger's Im Chambre separee from his 1898 operetta Der Opernball. It is one of the loveliest ballads Bing ever recorded and and it is followed in the movie by a grand punchline from the Countess.

The Technicolor is sumptuous and truly befitting the operetta-like sensibility of the movie.  Location filming was done in Jasper National Park in Alberta.  Apparently Wilder had pines transplanted from California, not being satisfied with our Canadian trees.  On one hand I am mildly insulted, but on the other I am amazed at the resources of the studio.

Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine is every inch the royal lady, looking lovely in her costumes and easily handling the comic and dramatic portions of the script. A nice transition from her young, vulnerable characterizations to the more confident and sophisticated females she would soon portray.

Early in the film Bing tends to shout his way through Virgil, but his character is a lone fish out of water with no kibitzing pal such as a Bob Hope or Barry Fitzgerald.  Once he starts to sing - well, like the Countess, it is easy to fall for the go-getting salesman.  Lucile Watson (The Women, The Thin Man Goes Home) is an absolute delight as a dowager princess with a penchant for storytelling and for our Countess' profligate father played in fine style by Roland Culver (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Holly and the Ivy). 

Bing Crosby, Richard Haydn

The top performance comes from Richard Haydn as Emperor F-J himself.  Unrecognizable under the whiskers and make-up, and foregoing his famous precise nasally delivery, Mr. Haydn gives us a very interesting Franz-Josef. A petulant, funny, irritating, thoughtful and memorable character. You will pinch yourself to be reminded of whom you are watching. Mr. Haydn would later direct co-star Crosby in the 1950 comedy-romance Mr. Music.

Personally, the negatives I find in the movie are the somewhat overly-preachy aspects of the script, and a tendency to drag in spots. Those aspects are more than made up for by the accomplished actors and  sumptuous cinematography from George Barnes. The lovely music which garnered Victor Young a Best Scoring Oscar nomination is a treat. Oscar nominations also came the way of Edith Head and Gile Steele for the grand costumes. Perhaps if the Academy had recognized Richard Haydn, he would have received a nomination as well.

Celebrate, everyone!  Enjoy that cake and slip that Crosby disc on or in whatever music making machine is at your disposal.


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