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.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for August on TCM

Vacation From Marriage aka Perfect Strangers is a 1945 Academy Award Winner directed by Alexander Korda. The movie is based on a story by Clemence Dane, the British author born Winifred Ashton who took her pseudonym from the London church St. Clement Danes. Her popular works include Regiment of Women and A Bill of Divorcement. She was part of the Noel Coward set and a member of the Detection Club.

She adapted her story Perfect Strangers for the screen with actor/writer Anthony Pelissier, director/writer of The Rocking Horse Winner. The Oscar for the movie was awarded to Clemence Dane for Best Writing, Original Story.

Robert Donat, Deborah Kerr
Catherine and Robert at home

Vacation from Marriage is the story of Robert and Catherine Wilson played by Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr (it rhymes with "star"). When we first meet the couple it is Spring, 1940 and a single barrage balloon blots the skyline. It is both a typical and a not-so-typical morning in the Wilson's dreary flat. Robert, a nondescript bookkeeper in the city, is going about his routine in automaton type fashion. Catherine, nursing a perpetual cold, fusses over the eggs and her mate. The not-so-typical aspect of the day is that it is Robert's last as a civilian. He has heeded the call of King and country to join the Navy.

Shorn of the mustache grown for the sake of dignity and forced to acclimatize himself to life on the waves, Robert comes into his own. Robert's heroic actions in battle land him in a hospital where he shares a mutual attraction with an attractive nurse played by Ann Todd. Catherine would not recognize the man she married.

Robert is more than a little nonplussed to receive word that his mousy little wife has joined the Women's Royal Naval Service. Cathy is a Wren. In the Wrens, Cathy is befriended by the bright and outgoing Dizzy Clayton played by Glynis Johns. Cathy, for the first time, tries lipstick - and likes it. Cathy wears her uniform cap at a daring angle. Cathy spends too much time with and thinking of her pal Dizzy's exciting cousin played by Roland Culver. Robert would not recognize the woman he married.

 Deborah Kerr, Robert Donat
Who are these people?

Three long years of separation are about to come to an end as, finally, their leaves coincide. Robert and Cathy are returning to a home base that is no longer home. They are returning to a decimated neighbourhood with dozens of barrage balloons in the sky. They are returning, they think, to the old life, the old spouse and neither is very happy about it.  

Vacation from Marriage is funny and true and features exemplary performances. It is a love story with the lovers kept apart. It is a war story where the war just may be the best thing that ever happened to our protagonists. It is a winner in every way.

TCM is airing Vacation from Marriage aka Perfect Strangers on Monday, August 16 at 6:00 a.m. as part of a day-long tribute to Deborah Kerr (it still rhymes with "star") during their annual "Summer Under the Stars".


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