Sunday, September 29, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for October on TCM

What makes some movies, especially 1954s sci-fi classic Them! the type of film audiences can return to with no diminishing of pleasure? There is no shock value to the story by George Worthing Yates (The Tall Target, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). First-run audiences would have read the reviews and seen the trailers and lobby cards. Later television viewers would read the TV Guide synopsis. Sixty years later, we know the legend.  

Ted Sherdeman's (The Winning Team, TVs Hazel) excellent screenplay fits the story pieces together in perfect mystery mode, ever moving forward keeping us totally involved. Director Gordon Douglas was a former child actor who started out as a gag man at the Roach studio. The IMDb has a quote from Douglas, the director of over 97 features (Come Fill the Cup, The Detective, Walk a Crooked Mile, etc):  "I have a large family to feed and it's only occasionally that I find a story that interests me."  It seems that in Them! Mr. Douglas found material which piqued his interest. It is the nuts and bolts of how the story is presented that draws us in every time.

A lot of credit is due to art director Stanley Fleischer and special effects director Ralph Ayers and their teams for the creation of the truly terrifying radiation mutated ants. Creatures capable of nothing less than the destruction of mankind. Originally planned to be filmed in colour and 3D, the atmosphere of Them! works perfectly in the black and white world from cinematographer Sid Hickox (White Heat, The Big Sleep). 

A young girl is found wandering in shock in the New Mexico desert. Three people have disappeared and are presumed dead. A storekeeper and soon a police officer will die under violent and bizarre circumstances. There are plenty of clues, but nothing adds up.

Top-billed James Whitmore plays Police Sergeant Ben Peterson. In his distinguished career Whitmore gave us a variety of characters from his Support Actor Oscar nomination as Sgt. Kinnie in Battleground, the shady Gus in The Asphalt Jungle, real-life President Harry Truman in Give 'Em Hell, Harry to The Shawshank Redemption and memorable TV appearances as in On Thursday We Leave for Home from Twilight Zone. Ben Peterson is a hero. He's not a hero with a cape and super powers, but a hero because of his compassion for the victims and dogged determination to see the case through to the end.

Peterson is teamed with FBI agent Bob Graham played by James Arness. The following year Arness would become a major television star in a 20+ year run as Matt Dillon in the TV version of Gunsmoke. Initially concerned about derailing his burgeoning movie career, Jim declined CBSs offer, but was convinced to take the role by his mentor and Batjac boss, John Wayne. In his autobiography Arness relates that the very serious Jimmy Whitmore and he would crack up when looking at bodies in the morgue that had been killed by the ants. In a case of the more you want to stop laughing, the more you can't, the actors were taken to task by studio executives and had to have their reaction shots filmed separately.

Dr. Medford and Agent Graham's first encounter with Them!
Joan Weldon, James Arness

In Them! viewers are rewarded with a plethora of future TV heroes.  23-year-old Leonard Nimoy, a hero to sci-fi fans the world over as Spock on Star Trek, is an Air Force Sergeant relaying vital information. Fess Parker, soon to be a phenomenon as Disney's Davey Crockett and later TVs Daniel Boone is a pilot whose encounter with the flying ants gets him tossed in the looney bin. One of TVs best dads, William Schallert of The Patty Duke Show plays an ambulance attendant. Baseball player turned actor, John Beradino, is a Los Angeles patrolman. For 30 years Beradino played Dr. Steve Hardy on TVs still running General Hospital.  Richard Deacon plays a reporter in the movie. As Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show Deacon was a hero to bald brothers-in-law everywhere.

The discovery of the radiation mutated ants is thanks to the Drs. Medford from the Department of Agriculture. The elder Dr. Medford is played by Supporting Actor Oscar Winner for Miracle on 34th Street Edmund Gwenn.  I have a problem with Mr. Gwenn in that every time I watch him in a film, be it The Trouble With Harry or Foreign Correspondent or Apartment for Peggy, etc. I am convinced that I have just seen his best performance. Them! is no exception to the rule. Gwenn makes me believe he's never been anything but a dedicated, myopic academic.

The younger Dr. Medford, Patricia, is played by opera singer Joan Weldon. After a disappointing sojourn in Hollywood as "the girl" in Them!, Gunsight Ridge and Riding Shotgun, she would return to the world of musical theatre. In hindsight, "the girls" of Them! are the vanguard of professional women to come. Dr. Medford is a take charge scientist who knows her business. That she gets to smile at and exchange snappy remarks with Agent Graham is all the personal story this adventure needs. Ann Doran (Meet John Doe, Roughly Speaking) plays a medical doctor in charge of the case of the traumatized girl at the beginning of the movie. Dorothy Green (The Big Heat, TVs The Young and the Restless) is a sympathetic Los Angeles police woman.

The tracking of the monsters and their murderous rampage leads to Los Angeles and two of Hollywood's most popular old coots. Dub Taylor (You Can't Take It With You, Bonnie and Clyde), father of Gunsmoke star and artist Buck Taylor, is a railway guard whose story regarding stolen sugar rings false to local authorities, but brings our team closer to their quarry. Olin Howlin (Nancy Drew - Reporter, the first victim of The Blob) is a drunk whose hallucinations are more real and deadly than he knows. Soon the entire city is under martial law as we reach the tension-filled and emotional climax in the 700 mile network of storm drains under the city. And, yes, the ending is always the same no matter how many times you've seen Them!.

TCM is screening Them! on Sunday, October 27th at 6:00 pm.  Not everything that goes bump in the night came from Universal or Val Lewton.  Happy Hallowe'en.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Breaking News: Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon - Five Star Final (1931)

Spoilers abound in this look at Warner Brothers Five Star Final for Breaking News: Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon sponsored by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay's Movie Musings.

Mervyn LeRoy
1900 - 1987

Mythologized, demonized, revered and lampooned, the gentlemen of the press make for good copy.  From real life crusader Nellie Bly who became as famous as her exposes to the fictional Charles Foster Kane who thought it would be fun to run a newspaper audiences are as fascinated with the purveyors of the news as - well, as the newsmen are with themselves.  Newsmen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur created a Broadway sensation and all-time classic with their trenchant comedy full of hard-boiled, wise-cracking reporters The Front Page which ran on Broadway in the late 1920s for 276 performances.  Reporter Louis Weitzenkorn turned his experience on the tabloid New York Evening Graphic into a popular melodrama called Five Star Final starring Arthur Byron (The Mummy) as the conflicted editor Randall and Berton Churchill (Stagecoach) as unscrupulous publisher Hinchecliffe.  Mr. Weitzenkorn obviously had a lot to get off his chest.  The show had a successful Broadway run of 175 performances between December, 1930 to June, 1931.  Before the ink was dry on the Playbill, Warner Brothers released their film version in September of 1931.  The studio and director Mervyn LeRoy had great success with the film which was one of eight nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in its year, the winner being Grand Hotel.  LeRoy directs with great verve, evident from the opening credits over the clatter of the press, the use of split screen, close-ups, wipes and interesting angles which enhance the breathless pace of the dialogue.

No one who works at the New York Gazette is satisfied in their work.  The owner, Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) is displeased with a recent drop in circulation and a conference with his circulation and advertising managers confirms his thinking that his editor Randall (Edward G. Robinson) is to blame for trying to turn the tone of the paper away from the sensational or what Hinchecliffe refers to "human interest".  Apparently, in their long and successful collaboration Randall has tried this sort of thing before, but stenographers and shop girls don't want to read about politics.  Cynical reporters who balk at assignments take the sting out of a day's work by drinking at a local speak.  The speakeasy is the main place of business for contest editor Ziggie Feinstein (George E. Stone) who also delegates the assignments of roughing up newsstands where The Gazette is not featured prominently.  Randall has developed an OCD habit of washing his hands, but they never can get clean enough.  Randall's secretary Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon) loves him and worries over him.  He complains that she sits there like a giant conscience.

Hinchecliffe, in what he thinks is a sure-fire circulation booster, decides to rehash a lurid murder case of 20 years past.  A young and pregnant stenographer, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) had murdered her boss/lover who deserted her.  Acquitted of the crime, she has disappeared into obscurity, but The Gazette is about to change all that.  They will print the case in serial format pointing out the moral aspects as a warning to young women everywhere.  They will cash in.  In the intervening years Nancy Voorhees married Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner) and together they have raised her daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh).  It is a joyous time in the Townsend household as Jenny is shortly to be married to a sterling young man of good family, Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell).

Not ones to regularly purchase The Gazette, it is brought into the Townsend home when Phillip picks up all of the evening papers and they become aware of the notice to watch for the Voorhees serial.  Jenny has never been told of her parent's background and Nancy is devastated by the news that her past is to be dredged up.  With a wedding to take place the Townsend's are not surprised to be called upon by a clergyman who is really a reporter angling for a story.  The despicable Isopod (Boris Karloff) is a two-faced lecher with no morals whatsoever and too late the Townsends find they have been confiding in an enemy.

Desperation overwhelms the unhappy Townsends as they try to keep the story out of the papers and away from Jenny and Phillip.  At The Gazette Randall digs deeper into the story giving it all the experience of years of muckraking.  In addition to Isopod, Miss Carmody (Ona Munson), a go-getter from Chicago, is put on the case.  The angle of the murderess' daughter marrying into the social register makes for a snappy lead.  At the same time he is doing his job Randall is disappearing more into the bottle as the hand washing fails to give relief.  "God gives us trouble.  The devil gives us whisky."  Disgusted he may be with himself, yet Randall persists in carrying out his duty.  "This is one newspaper man who's going to retire with some dough."  

Particularly rough to watch is a scene employing split screen technique where an anxious Nancy Townsend tries to reach Hinchecliffe to beg him not to print the story.  The callous publisher keeps transferring the call to Randall who is no more willing to speak to her.  It is only at Miss Taylor's insistence that Randall does actually get on the line only to tell Nancy that it is too late.  The story has gone to print.  The nervous and exhausted Nancy Voorhees Townsend takes her own life.  In a heartbreaking scene she is discovered by her husband who playfully interacts with his daughter and son-in-law-to-be while hiding the truth.  They are on their way to the church.  Will he be joining them soon?  He tells them that first he will be joining her mother.  The couple's lifeless bodies are then discovered by the enterprising Miss Carmody who breaks into the apartment with a photogapher in tow.  The shutterbug balks, but Carmody gets her way and the picture of the bodies for the front page.

Randall knows himself to be a murderer.  The police want to know how The Gazette got that picture.  The respectable rags jeered.  Hinchecliffe plans a trip to Europe.  Circulation, advertising and Isopod plan a follow-up on Nancy's story in her own words, now that no one is alive to contradict what they may choose to print.  They plan to offer Jenny $1,200 for the name.  Phillip's family calls off the wedding.  They should have consulted with their son first as he refuses to do so.  In a heart-wrenching scene from Ms. Marsh, Jenny, gun in hand, confronts the senior staff, and the creepy Isopod, demanding to know why they killed her mother.  She shames these insensitive men.  Only Randall will answer that it was for circulation.  It is something she cannot fathom.  Phillip takes her away with a warning that if they ever print his wife's name in their lousy paper he'll come back and kill them.

In a final showdown with Hinchecliffe, Randall eloquently and profanely quits the paper.  Miss Taylor, with a quiet happiness, follows him out the door.  "The End" appears on the screen as the story of the suicide is swept into the gutter with yesterday's flotsam and the newsboys hawk the latest love nest murder.

Warners remade Five Star Final in 1936 as Two Against the World starring Humphrey Bogart, setting the story in the world of radio.  I have yet to see the film, but can't help feeling that it will lose some of its crackle minus the pre-code innuendo.  A 1954 television presentation on Lux Video Theatre starred Edmond O'Brien as Randall and featured Joanne Woodward and Liam Sullivan as the young couple. 

In this year of "Rico" in Little Caesar and "Nick" in Smart Money, along with the tortured Randall, Edward G. Robinson cemented his place as one of Hollywood's finest acting talents.  1931 was a watershed year for the career of Boris Karloff who at the age of 44, after kicking around Hollywood for over a decade, would give outstanding performances in this film, in The Criminal Code, and as the monster in FrankensteinFive Star Final features the film debut of Aline MacMahon, the great character leading lady whose career would give audiences such treats as The Mouthpiece, One Way Passage, Heat Lightning, Ah, Wilderness!, The Man from Laramie and All the Way Home.  Thank heavens there was a place in Hollywood for her talent.

Five Star Final is worthy to stand alongside director Mervyn LeRoy's other outstanding "ripped from the headlines" pictures of this era including I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Little Caesar.  His inventiveness and energetic storytelling has held audiences for generations.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Favourite movies: The Late George Apley (1947)

John P. Marquand's popular Pulitzer prize-winning 1937 novel The Late George Apley skewered the pretentious upper-class Bostonian of the early 20th century. The deceased fictional title character is given the biographical treatment by one of his Boston Brahmin peers and through that narrow lens and the recollection of family and friends a portrait of George Apley emerges.

There is indeed much to snicker at in George Apley's exclusive existence, but as outside observers, we see much that escapes the notice of even his nearest and dearest. While the absurdity of the snobbery is rightfully put in its place, the reader also learns something about the heart of George Apley and his foibles. George Apley may be a fool, but perhaps no more so a fool than any of us.

Marquand and George S. Kaufman adapted the novel for Broadway where it had a successful run in the 1944-45 season starring Leo G. Carroll as George Apley. Since George Apley is no longer "late" as in passed on, we are left to wonder if "late" refers to the passing on of the old George Apley as he strives to adapt to the modern world of 1912 or maybe the fact that George is a late bloomer. Messrs. Marquand and Kaufman did not confide in me.

George Apley and his beloved Emerson
Ronald Colman

The 1947 Twentieth Century Fox film version was adapted by Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley) and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz (House of Strangers). Ronald Colman stars as George Apley in this movie released the same year as his Oscar-winning performance as the tormented actor Anthony John in A Double Life. George Apley's torments may be less harrowing than those of Anthony John's, but Colman's performance commitment is one hundred percent for both. As George Apley, he is initially the picture of upright, pompous certainty whose dawning bewilderment at events and people of differing ideas. George's enthusiastic attempts to set himself and all aright are a delight to behold.

George Apley has a place and standards to maintain. In his world, there is no excuse for shirt sleeves, no room in the cemetery plot for claim jumping distant relatives and no place for foreigners from Worcester. There is plenty of room for various clubs and committees. After all, someone must look after the orphaned waifs of Boston. To George's credit, an electric sign on the edge of the Common proclaiming "Grapenuts" would not add to the quality of anyone's life, but he seems almost anti-electricity. George's great love, beyond quoting Emerson, is bird watching. Of course, there is a committee for that as well.

Ronald Colman, Edna Best

Edna Best (The Man Who Knew Too Much) is charming and patient as George's wife Catherine, much softened from her novel incarnation. The Apleys have a headstrong daughter Ellie played by the vivacious Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy). Her romantic involvement with a forward-thinking young professor played by Charles Russell (The Purple Heart) is a source of friction for the family. Richard Ney (Mrs. Miniver) is John Apley, so much like his father that it often makes his mother cry.

Ronald Colman, Richard Haydn

A large part of the plot of the play is based on the idea from the novel that George Apley truly likes his daughter-in-law. In the book, she is a divorcee from New York City. In the play and film, she is a young cousin determined to live life on her own terms, and that includes her marriage to son and heir John Apley.
Vanessa Brown, Richard Ney

Vanessa Brown, five years away from becoming the toast of Broadway as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch, plays cousin Agnes Willing. Agnes' parents are Nydia Westman (The Chocolate Soldier) as Jane and Richard Hadyn (Sitting Pretty) as Horatio. Horatio is a rather Iago-like character (shades of A Double Life) who supports all that is pretentious in George's lifestyle. He is overprotective of the class to which he has aligned himself.

Percy Waram

If any of the ensemble come close to stealing the show it is the only import from the original Broadway run, Percy Waram (Ministry of Fear) as George's brother-in-law Roger Newcombe. Roger is the voice of wet wisdom (he likes to drink) and dry wit as the anti-Horatio. He is married to George's formidable "should have been born the boy" sister Amelia played like a battleship in full sail by Mildred Natwick (The Quiet Man).

Times are changing and dear Roger tries to open George's eyes to that fact while Horatio keeps dragging George back to the status quo. Life, in all its untidiness, is thrust upon George Apley when he disastrously intervenes in his daughter's romance. George's admonishment to Ellie that emotions must be kept down has forever coloured the way I will watch Star Trek. For me, Vulcan is no longer a planet of enlightened beings, but a planet inhabited by stuffed shirts.

It is a joy to watch Ronald Colman as George Apley stumble and blink at the sunlight as he rushes headlong into an unfettered future. The comedy of his situation is told with knowing wit and a warm heart. One minute you want to hug him for his ardent effort and the next you'll want to slap him for a silly ass. You'll laugh at George Apley and you'll laugh with him. You will never forget him.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for September on TCM

Odds Against Tomorrow was one of two films produced in 1959 by HarBel Productions, the other being the post-apocalyptic drama The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Producer/actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte stars in both highly personal projects. Co-produced with the film's director Robert Wise, Odds Against Tomorrow is a black and white caper story with a message filmed on location in New York. The script is by the black-listed Abraham Polonsky from a novel by William McGivern. Depending on where you place yourself on the film-noir front, it can be considered either the end of the post-war noir cycle or the beginning of a new cycle. 

Ed Begley (12 Angry Men, Sweet Bird of Youth) plays Dave Burke, a disgraced ex-cop with mob ties and a plan. He wants to make a lot of money, make it quick and get out. There's a bank in upstate New York ripe for the picking, but he needs two men with him for the job. He doesn't want pros.  He wants desperate men looking for that one big take. Men he can control. Dave thinks he has the perfect set-up.

The movie opens on an almost deserted NYC street in the autumn. In what I consider one of the best character introductions in noir, a lone man walks down the sidewalk, a grim and careworn Earle Slater played by Robert Ryan (The Set-Up, On Dangerous Ground). The street is not deserted as a group of children run in circles imitating the flock of geese above. A little girl stumbles and Earle bends and picks her up with a smile on his face and says "You're gonna break your neck trying to fly like that, you little pickaninny. Yes, you are."

Like a kick in the gut, the sense of unease begins and never lets up. Earle is a loser. He's a two-time loser from the penal system. His last stretch was for manslaughter. He's just past his prime and sees no way out of a life sustained by the hard work of his too devoted wife Lorry played by Shelley Winters (A Patch of Blue, Night of the Hunter). Slater is a man "...not made for waiting and I've been waiting all my life". Slater is a man who hates himself and turns that hate outward. He is an active and unrepentant bigot.

Robert Ryan was reluctant to take on the role of Earle Slater fearing comparisons to the anti-Semite Montgomery he portrayed in 1947s Crossfire and for which he received his only Academy Award nomination. In a 1959 interview in Ebony magazine, Ryan stated he thought it would be "a dangerous step for me to take professionally...audiences are composed of people with varying degrees of sophistication and understanding and there are many who do not separate actors from the characters they portray." Ryan relented after reading the script which he thought "says something of real significance and says it well, dramatically, without preaching."

Johnny Ingram is played by Harry Belafonte (Island in the Sun, Uptown Saturday Night). Outwardly, Johnny is everything Slater is not. Johnny is handsome and pulled together. A nightclub musician, Johnny dresses in the best and drives a flashy car. The ladies love him. He exudes confidence and goodwill. Johnny is also a hopeless gambler who is deeply in debt to gangster Bacco played by Will Kuluva (Crime in the Streets). Burke will use Bacco to convince Johnny to take part in the heist. Dave needs someone of Johnny's skin type for the job. On another level, Dave seems to have convinced himself that his actions are benevolent as he likes Johnny and Johnny really needs the money.

Johnny has one thing that means the world to him, his ex-wife Ruth played by Kim Hamilton (To Kill a Mockingbird) and daughter Edie played by young Lois Thorne. Johnny obviously adores Ruth and Edie, so why is the family broken? Johnny's gambling addiction is one reason. Ruth does not want financial instability to be a part of Edie's life. Johnny and Ruth are also world's apart emotionally. Johnny is a man who is bowed down by fate and the deck that is stacked and will always be against him. He berates Ruth that it doesn't matter how much tea she drinks with her ofay friends, the world is not going to be any better for Edie and it's time she wised up. Johnny is unwilling to consider softening his conviction even if it stands in the way of the family life he craves.

A couple of incidents convince Earle Slater to participate in the plan. One is when his self-loathing is exacerbated by cheating on Lorry with upstairs neighbour Helen played by Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place, It's a Wonderful Life). Johnny agrees to join the plan when Bacco threatens his family, but he senses doom, telling Dave  "It's suicide, man.  It's three o'clock in the morning."

Too late Dave Burke discovers that the two seemingly perfect men for the job have issues that he can't control and that threaten his plan. T'was ever thus in the caper film world. Slater is an instigator while Johnny stands his ground. The desperation and hate boil over to an explosive finish that will have a touch of familiarity for gangster film fans.

The score to Odds Against Tomorrow is by John Lewis and while jazz and film are not strangers, it is always a treat. The score, particularly Skating in Central Park remained an honoured part of the Modern Jazz Quartet repertoire for years. Legendary singer Mae Barnes is a joy trying to give the audience All Men Are Evil all the while being bedeviled by a drunk and sorrowful Johnny.

There is an interesting mix of familiar faces to watch for in Odds Against Tomorrow including Cicely Tyson, Zohra Lambert, Diana Sands, Mel Stewart, Wayne Rogers, Bill Zuckert, and Robert Earl Jones.

How well the film combines all its aspects will be up to the individual viewer. The Golden Globes nominated Odds Against Tomorrow in 1960 for its long-defunct category Best Film Promoting International Understanding.

TCM is screening Odds Against Tomorrow on Tuesday, September 10 at 6:00 am. It is well worth your time.


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