Friday, June 27, 2014

MGM Blogathon: Three Godfathers (1936)

I'm thrilled to be taking part in the MGM Blogathon sponsored by Diana and Connie of Silver Scenes and running from June 26th - 29th.

MGM is justly renowned for its epics such as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and The Big Parade, its meticulously crafted costume dramas like Camille and Marie Antoinette, and its gloriously talent-stuffed musicals like Singin' in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz. MGM is not the first studio that leaps to mind when considering that Hollywood staple, the western.

The studio's western output of the 1920s is barely more than a dozen features, but they can boast of a genuine genre star in Tim McCoy. The real-life sharpshooter and Native expert's storied career from soldier to film star to Ringling Brothers performer would be as interesting as any of his movies. In the 1940s MGM's westerns were mainly used as buffoonish vehicles for Wallace Beery (Jackass Mail, The Bad Man). They stepped up during the 1950s, a golden era for the genre, releasing a small but laudable group of titles including Devil's Doorway, Stars in My Crown, Westward the Women and The Naked Spur.

MGM's western output in the 1930s was dismally sparse and included mainly musicals like the operetta The Girl of the Golden West with Jeanette MacDonald and Joan Crawford in Montana Moon, and comedies such as William Haines in Way Out West and Frank Morgan in Henry Goes Arizona. However, in the middle of the decade, MGM surprises us with a gritty and artistic version of a venerable story by Peter B. Kyne.

The timeless Christmas tale of redemption The Three Godfathers first published in 1913 is the story for which Peter Kyne is best remembered thanks to the many film versions beginning in 1916 with The Three Godfathers directed by Edward LeSaint up to television with 1974s The Godchild directed by John Badham. William Wyler's Hell's Heroes in 1929 was the first sound version of the story. You can read Jim Lane's excellent article on that film here. The animated features 2002s Ice Age and 2003s Tokyo Godfathers owe more than a passing debt of gratitude to that long-ago Saturday Evening Post serial.

Spoiler alert:  the discussion of the story and film here will make the bold assumption that you are familiar with The Three Godfathers either in its original form or from one of its many filmed adaptions.

"Four Bad Men had ridden into Wickenburg that December afternoon, but only three rode out.  One of the three had a bullet hole through his left shoulder."
- Peter B. Kyne

The Worst Bad Man, The Wounded Bad Man, and The Youngest Bad Man make their way across a desert to elude a posse and come across a stranded and recently widowed young woman about to give birth. The unfortunate woman asks the unholy trio to care for her child, placing most of her hope on The Youngest Bad Man. The Wounded Bad Man is the first to realize that their young compatriot is the truest hope for the child as neither he nor The Worst Bad Man possesses the strength to complete the arduous journey to civilization after the loss of their horses and potable water. The Youngest Bad Man, a newcomer to the outlaw world, is also the purest of the trio and one The Wounded Bad Man hopes will be able to go forward and live a more blameless life for the sake of his fellows.

Richard Boleslawski, Jean and Judith Kircher, Joseph Ruttenberg

The screenplay for this 1936 film version of the story is by Edward E. Paramore Jr. (The Virginian, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Three Comrades) and Manuel Seff (Woman Chases Man, Trouble for Two, Blessed Event). Joseph Ruttenberg, four-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Gigi, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Mrs. Miniver, The Great Waltz) here plied his trade on location at Mojave and Red Rock Canyon State Park. The sense of desolation and weariness brings the viewer uncomfortably into the world of the story.  

Three Godfathers was directed by Richard Boleslawski (Rasputin and the Empress, Les Miserables, Theodora Goes Wild). Director Boleslawski is described by actress Marilyn Knowlden (young Cosette, Les Miserables) in her autobiography Little Girl in Big Pictures as "a great bear of a man ... perfectly costumed in the role of director, with his leather-front sweater, pipe, and ascot tie." Boleslawski, a student of Constantin Stanislavski, was at the forefront of bringing that "method" of acting to the 20th-century theatre. He founded the American Laboratory Theatre in 1923 and published Acting: The First Six Lessons in 1933. Spontaneity and sincerity were the hallmarks Richard Boleslawski sought from his actors.

Chester Morris, Irene Hervey

The setting of New Jerusalem is presented as the hometown of Bob, The Worst Bad Man, played by Chester Morris (The Big House). He takes particular glee in robbing the "hypocrites" at Christmas. Bob torments his former love, Molly, played by Irene Hervey (Destry Rides Again), and her betrothed, a bank clerk played by Robert Livingston (The Three Mesquiteers). The vibrant Morris gives us a character brimming with cynicism and contempt. Everyone is a sucker and he uses their sentimentality against them.

Chester Morris, Walter Brennan, Lewis Stone

Lewis Stone (Grand Hotel) plays the outlaw known as "Doc", The Wounded Bad Man, and by his manner and interactions with the townspeople, we learn that he is an educated man from New England, a wry observer of humanity. It is Doc who clearly sees the hopelessness of their situation, keeps Gus on the side of the angels, and uses all of his power to convince Bob to "give the kid a break". Bob's chilling response: "I'll give him a break.  If he wants to crawl to New Jerusalem I won't stand in his way." For it is back to New Jerusalem they must travel, the shortest way to civilization, the longest way to Bob's redemption.

Doc is the first of the trio to die. In a quiet and unforgettable scene, Doc, alone with his books and a gun, recites Macbeth's famous soliloquy from Act 5 of that play. We hear Stone's resonant voice as the camera follows Gus and Bob walking away with the baby, then a single shot.

Walter Brennan (Red River) plays "Gus" who claims to be the world's oldest outlaw. At first glance, Gus appears to be a stock comic relief character, but he proves to be quick on his feet, adept at his trade, and entirely loyal. Gus is a man seemingly addicted to lying yet played by Brennan with a refreshing lack of artifice. On one level he has understood the import of their task, but the only way he can continue is by trying not to think about this being his end. When the full realization of his situation hits him Gus recites a prayer from his childhood, ashamed that he cannot recall it entirely and embarrassed by Bob's cynical derision. While Bob and the child sleep, Gus will wander off into the desert to die.

The baby in this version of the story is a sturdy, trusting crawler starting to teeth (twins Jean and Judith Kircher), rather than a newborn. After Gus' death, Bob takes the loot and leaves the child on a blanket. A few yards from the infant Bob turns and fires his gun. He has shot a rattlesnake crawling perilously close to the child. Bob admonishes the baby for making him kill the innocent critter. The die is cast.  

Kyne's original story does not specifically state that The Youngest Bad Man dies when he reaches the next town with the baby, only that he collapses. The extent of his privations lead death to be a natural conclusion, but prior to arriving at the saloon, he has been imagining the life he will make for himself and the baby. In John Ford's 1948 version of 3 Godfathers (an Argosy Pictures production distributed by MGM) that dream is realized in the ending. You can read Kevin Deany's look at that film here. Ford had filmed the story previously in 1919 as Marked Men starring Harry Carey. I don't know how he ended that film, but I hope that as in the 1948 film he included my favourite part of the book. It is when the outlaws struggle to care for their helpless charge following instructions found in a book by a 19th century Dr. Spock.

The 1936 film gives us no doubt as to the fate of Bob, The Worst Bad Man. An hour away from New Jerusalem and knowing his strength is failing, Bob drinks from a poisoned water hole. Doc had mentioned when they had passed this way on the run that the poison would take about an hour to kill. Bob's sacrifice is done with this knowledge. He stumbles into New Jerusalem and, more dead than alive, drags himself to the front of the church during Christmas service. He places the child in Molly's arms and leans against a pillar where hangs a crown of thorns before collapsing in death. The last close-up of the film is not on the man we have journeyed with, but with his legacy as Molly resolutely leaves the church with the rescued child. The hope of the Three Bad Men.

The Three Godfathers is an unforgettable story that works as much as an adventure as an exploration of the depths of men's souls and the ironic twists of fate. It is understandable that it has inspired so many films. The IMDb lists two films projects as currently under production, one with a contemporary setting. Using the same plot different directors and screenwriters have been able to reach our hearts and minds, with audiences claiming one or more of the films as "ours". The rugged determination in the face of destruction is what touches me most in Richard Boleslawski's Three Godfathers.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

1967 in Film Blogathon: Who's Minding the Mint?

Today we travel to 1967 in Film for a blogathon co-sponsored by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema.

Canada celebrated its Centennial in 1967 and the most successful World's Fair of the 20th century, Expo '67, made Montreal a happening destination. I received my first wristwatch for my 10th birthday. Little Women was my favourite book, The Jungle Book my favourite movie and my favourite pop groups were The Seekers and The 5th Dimension. I loved to snack on Humpty Dumpty Potato Chips and Buried Treasure ice cream treats. All my TV crushes wore cowboy hats.

My observations of adults in general, and the goings on on Search for Tomorrow in particular, led me to the conclusion that grown-ups were a screwy and emotional lot, and I feared for my impending journey into adulthood. It was all downhill from here! It is perhaps a good thing that I didn't see Who's Minding the Mint? as a serious-minded 10-year-old. Talk about your screwballs!
Walter Brennan, Jim Hutton

Harry Lucas (Jim Hutton) is a man with a plan. By day he is an average, fairly disgruntled wage slave at the U.S. Mint. He draws to himself the unwanted friendship of old coots (Walter Brennan) and pups, the unlooked-for romantic attentions of nice girls (Dorothy Provine), and the suspicions of officious middle management types (David J. Stewart). By night, courtesy of sample promotions and installment plans, Harry lives the high life with snazzy cars, snazzy apartments, snazzy suits and snazzier dames. Life is good until fate places Harry in a sticky situation making him responsible for the loss of 50,000 samples of his employer's product.

Harry needs another plan. Somehow he must replace what has been lost before the long arm of the law puts the kibosh on all that is snazzy. His pal Pop can help as he wants one more kick at the presses before his retirement forced by a soon to be implemented automated system. Verna, whose affection is behind the trouble, can access necessary plates and would do anything for Harry. It's a start.

The services of a safecracker are required and Pop knows just the man. Avery Dugan (Jack Gilford) is about to get out of the Pen. He's down on his luck and hard of hearing. Every gang needs a deaf safecracker! Armies march on their stomachs and crooks on a big job need backing and supplies. Meet Luther Burton (Milton Berle), a pawnbroker with a generous streak of larceny.

Entering such a visible edifice as the Mint in the dead of night requires stealth and knowledge of the city's underground tunnel system. Meet the sewer guy, Ralph Randazzo (Joey Bishop) who is always short of funds. For lookout there is Ralph's cousin Mario (Jamie Farr). English is his second language, or would be if he had a second language. Their entry to and exit from the underground tunnel system is located under a most inconvenient window. There must be a way to keep the apartment's occupant occupied. Awkward ice cream peddler Willie Owens (Bob Denver) is like catnip to kooky artist Imogene (Jackie Joseph).  He'll keep her occupied!

Jim Hutton, Dorothy Provine, Jack Gilford
Milton Berle, Walter Brennan, Joey Bishop, Victor Buono

The atmosphere of sewers being somewhat damp, it is determined that watercraft of some description be obtained for the reverse raid. You will never meet a more stalwart and focused mariner than "Captain" (Victor Buono). Perhaps as a fan of the movie you have your favourite from among the zanies in the cast.  Mine is Victor Buono as "Captain".  I have only to think about his accent and his single-intentioned performance to lapse into convulsions.  

Harry is a man with a gang or does the gang have Harry? What's a few minutes more in the Mint? What's a few more runs of the press for a few dollars more evenly split among the worthies? It is the way of all heist flicks that one thing interferes with the strength of a well-rehearsed plan and so it is with ours when the Mint moves up the date of automation. You know how it is when you've planned something one way and suddenly it's not how you expect. There will be glitches and these glitches in Who's Minding the Mint? are hysterically and impeccably funny as these mismatched misfits of mayhem doggedly carry out "the plan".

Howard Morris, genius

Who's Minding the Mint? is my idea of the perfect 1960s comedy. How can it fail being directed by a certifiable genius in the comedy line, Howard Morris of TVs Caesar's Hour, and immortal as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show? Under Morris' direction the consummate ensemble plays the witty lines and sight-gags for maximum effect. The score by Lalo Schrifin has the driving insistence of his Mission Impossible theme, but with a goofy, off-kilter bounce. The sights and sounds of Who's Minding the Mint? bring me back to the world of yesterday and makes today just that much more amusing with its all or nothing wackiness.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Let's Go to the Movies: The Navigator (1924)

What's better than a Sunday afternoon at the movies? How about Silent Sundays at the Revue Cinema. Throughout the year, Silent Sundays gives Toronto movie fans the chance to enjoy silent era shorts and features at the saved-from-the-brink charming Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles Avenue in west end Toronto. Nolan girls of various ages and shapes can often be found in attendance. One of us, Maureen, is the official tweeter (@SilentRevue) for the group.

Real movie theatre popcorn.
It's what they munch in Asgard.

It was with unspoken assent that Nolan girls planned to attend The Navigator on June 8th, but it turned into something even more special than a regular #TeamBuster outing. It was niece Lenny's first at-the-movies movie experience! Her first movie theatre popcorn! Her first Buster movie!

I have had the opportunity to see many of Buster's films in theatres in recent years and never have I shared more laughs with an audience be it a short like The Neighbors or an acclaimed feature like The Cameraman. When the lights go up you can actually feel the ache of stomach muscles.

Girls Go Wild!
Lenny with her cousin Janet, Aunt Paddy, Aunt Maureen, mom Tracey, Aunt Paula
(dad Jim was the photographer)

1924s The Navigator co-directed by Buster and Donald Crisp is one of Keaton's most popular features. A rich young sap and the rich young lady who spurned his marriage proposal are trapped on a luxury liner set adrift by spies. Her father sold the ship, spies bought it and other spies want to wreck it. It's the MacGuffin. The fun begins when these two babes at sea have to fend for themselves far away from civilization. Among the biggest laughs at yesterdays screening was the scene where Rollo (Buster) and Betsy (Kathryn McGuire) are running around the ship and keep missing each other, and the clever cameo from director Donald Crisp. Lenny, an aficionado of Margaret and H.A. Rey's Curious George was particularly fond of the scene where the monkey showed up.

It is especially heartwarming at silent film screenings to see families attending with their children. Kids laugh the loudest and it is wonderfully contagious. Lenny's excitement in the lobby when she saw the poster, "Look!  It's the picture of Buster in his underwater outfit!" caused a ripple of smiles down the queue of ticket buyers.

Makia Matsumura and Lenny
Not the usual "first movie" experience.

Here's Lenny with accompanist Makia Matz, a large part of the wonderful experience of enjoying Buster's The Navigator. A great time was had by all, and we want more. Silent Sundays curator Alicia Fletcher mentioned that before the summer is over they will have a screening in Lenny's east end neighbourhood. We're there! The fall season will start off with Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, which has long been on my wish list. It's not exactly a Lenny movie, but Janet has already committed. Toronto is lucky to have Silent Sundays at the Revue.


Monday, June 2, 2014

SNOOPATHON: "Bulldog" Drummond

Fritzi of Movies, Silently is hosting the SNOOPATHON running June 1, 2 and 3 which celebrates all things spy-related in classic film. Check out all the intrepid sneaks and the bloggers who love them.

H.C. (Sapper) McNeile's "Bulldog" Drummond captured reader's imaginations with the release of the 1920 novel Bulldog Drummond. Captain Hugh Drummond has too much energy and moxie to adjust totally to post-war life and advertises his brawny and brainy skills as an adventurer. Adventures he has - and plenty! Romance he finds with Phyllis Clavering. Arch-enemies and stalwart pals populate Bulldog Drummond's universe whether it is a private mission or one for Mother England.

Readers followed the character to the stage and the movies. Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood) once played Drummond on stage. The first movies based on the stories were filmed as early as 1922 and 1925. In his first talkie, Ronald Colman was nominated for an Oscar as Bulldog Drummond in 1929. Eighteen-year-old Joan Bennett was his Phyllis. In 1934 British International Pictures released The Return of Bulldog Drummond starring Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd and 20th Century gave us Colman in Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back.

Reginald Denny, John Howard, E.E. Clive, John Barrymore.  A clue?

Paramount's busy young leading man Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) starred in the January 1937 release of Bulldog Drummond Escapes. Hugh (the character never refers to himself as "Bulldog" nor do any of his friends) falls in love with damsel in distress Phyllis played by Heather Angel (The Last of the Mohicans). Also in place are Hugh's Bertie Wooster-like pal Algy Longworth played by Reginald Denny (Private Lives) and the indispensable manservant Tenny played by E.E. Clive (The Invisible Man). Inspector Nielson of The Yard is played by Sir Guy Standing (Death Takes a Holiday).

Over the next two years, seven movies would be made in the Bulldog Drummond series starring John Howard as Hugh. If you only know John Howard as the impatient younger brother of Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon or as stuffy George Kittredge in The Philadelphia Story you might look askance at the casting. No need to worry as John Howard brought a great sense of fun to the oft-times far-out adventures, all the while maintaining an honest relationship with the other characters.

Heather Angel and John Howard face danger.

It may a contradiction in terms, but I find these movies to be the most "cozy" of thrillers. It is the relationship among the three main characters that gives the series that "family" feeling. Howard, Denny, and Clive make a perfect team as the devil-may-care Hugh, the lovably buffoonish Algy, and the ingenious Tenny. These actors are the constant among all of the titles.

The role of Phyllis alternated between Heather Angel and Louise Campbell (The Star Maker). The gist of most of the movies was that just as Hugh and Phyllis are about to march down the aisle, there is a murder, a robbery, a murder and a robbery, or a mystery of national import requiring Hugh's undivided attention. Often times Phyllis is kidnapped. Often times Hugh and company underestimate Phyllis' resolve and usefulness.

Frank Puglia in Bulldog Drummond's Revenge.  Honest!

Among the great character actors determined to keep Hugh a bachelor throughout the series are J. Carroll Naish, Frank Puglia, Porter Hall, Anthony Quinn, and Eduardo Ciannelli.

Elizabeth Patterson (Intruder in the Dust,) was featured as Phyllis' Aunt Blanche in three of the series titles and Zeffie Tilbury (The Grapes of Wrath) as Aunt Meg once and as different characters in two other outings. Nydia Westman (The Late George Apley) was Algy's wife Gwen in two of the features before disappearing into the nursery to care for the couples' also never mentioned again child.

The role of Colonel Nielson was played by John Barrymore (Counsellor at Law) in the series launch and for three of the movies in which he was top billed, Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, Bulldog Drummond's Revenge, and Bulldog Drummond's Peril.

H.B. Warner (It's a Wonderful Life) took over the Nielson role in Bulldog Drummond in Africa and continued through Arrest Bulldog Drummond, Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police and Bulldog Drummond's Bride. Barrymore's Nielson was a master of disguise who dug right into the case at hand. Warner's Nielson was more of a fatherly desk jockey but had moments of true quiet bravery.  John Sutton (A Yank in the R.A.F.) is uncredited as a Scotland Yard's Inspector or assistant in five of the seven movies.

In 1939s Arrest Bulldog Drummond Leonard Mudie (The Mummy) is an electrical engineer who has invented a ray that destroys ammunition. The crackpot inventor believes he has found a way to stop war and shows his creation to one he believes to be in sympathy with the cause. The interested party turns out to be the great George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) sporting coke bottle lenses and a poisoned dart in his walking stick.

Lights go out, bodies are discovered and things start exploding all over London on the night of Hugh's bachelor dinner. Drummond is right in the middle of things. Why is he always there when a body turns up? He'll be the death of Colonel Nielson and Phyllis is definitely not going to be happy. We can see Tenny aging before our eyes.

H.C. McNeile's The Final Count was the basis for this installment adapted by Stuart Palmer, creator of Hildegarde Withers. James P. Hogan, director of four of the Drummond flicks, was in charge of this story and, like each of the series, it moves along briskly so you don't have time to stop and think about things too deeply. You shouldn't be thinking. You should just be enjoying the solid entertainment. We go from murky London nights to sunny Caribbean days following thrill-seeking aristocrats and greedy mercenaries. These spy types never do anything by halves. The world is always in danger from crackpot inventors and George Zucco. We are lucky that there's always a Bulldog Drummond and his pals and gals around to save us.


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