Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CMBA Forgotten Stars Blogathon: Robert Montgomery

Robert Montgomery

"If you are lucky enough to be a success, by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it."

This post is part of the Forgotten Stars blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association where names of yesteryear come alive.

The family was watching Bewitched when my father mentioned to my mother, "She's Robert Montgomery's daughter".  The name meant nothing to me then, but by 1974 when That's Entertainment was released and Jimmy Stewart pointed out an "uncomfortable Robert Montgomery" trying his best as a vocalist in Free and Easy, Mr. Montgomery was a very familiar actor.  He was that squealer in The Big House and Joe Pendleton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, who made me cry, and Lt. Brickley in They Were Expendable

Born to privilege, Robert Montgomery exemplified the young dandies and playboys he was cast as early in his years at MGM in films such as The Divorcee, Our Blushing Brides, Private Lives and When Ladies Meet.  However, Robert Montgomery showed a lot more gumption than some of the callow youths he was asked to portray.  The family fortune was lost and Robert set about making a place for himself in the world giving it the old college try as a railroad mechanic, oil tanker deckhand, short story writer, and settling on actor as the most promising avenue for a satisfying and financially rewarding profession.  Broadway shows in the 1920s with titles like Bad Habits of 1926 and The High Hatters give some indication of the type of roles Montgomery played.  Signed by MGM in 1929 his first job at the studio was as an uncredited "Party Boy" in The Single Standard

In 1928 Robert and British born actress Elizabeth Allen (died 1992) were married.  They met during the run of the 1924 play Dawn.  Their first child, Martha, was born in 1930 and sadly passed at 14 months of spinal meningitis.  Daughter Elizabeth was born in 1933 (died 1995) and son Robert Jr. in 1936 (died 2000).  Elizabeth and Robert's marriage lasted 22 years and they divorced in 1950.

Robert Montgomery, Chester Morris, Wallace Beery
The Big House

Proving himself a more than competent supporting light comic type such as the flirty drunk with a conscious in Norma Shearer's Oscar winner The Divorcee, Montgomery lobbied for grittier stuff.  He got it in 1930s The Big House with its Oscar winning screenplay by Frances Marion.  In the granddaddy of all prison pictures, Montgomery plays another profligate youth.  "Kent" is sent to prison for vehicular manslaughter (drunk driving).  Kent is unprepared for the harshness of life behind bars and he is a coward.  The combination is dynamite behind bars and the role gave possibilities which Montgomery seized, and he delivered a memorable performance.

James Cagney, Robert Montgomery

Montgomery was a born organizer and in the 30s was one of the driving forces behind the Screen Actors Guild, first being their president from 1935 to 1938.  It was through that work that Robert Montgomery and James Cagney became lifelong, stalwart friends. From John McCabe's biography Cagney, published 1997:  The two complemented each other effectively.  Montgomery envied Cagney his elemental toughness and common touch; Cagney admired his friend's easy and natural gentility.  "They were a pair," Willie (Mrs. Cagney) said in her old age.  "One supplied the other with what he had and the other hadn't."

McCabe also quotes Cagney on Montgomery's SAG activities:  Lots of screen actors may well not know how much they owe Bob.  It's sometimes said that Republicans are anti-union.  Malarkey.  Our union, Screen Actors Guild, wouldn't have gained what it did as fast as it did without Bob.  He became our leader in the fight against the producers, and Bob fought them no holds barred, knowing full well he was putting his career right on the line.  It was Bob who bearded those all-powerful producers in their comfortable den.

Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell
Night Must Fall

During the 1930s Robert Montgomery made five films with Rosalind Russell, including the Joel and Garda Sloane mystery Fast and Loose, the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Suicide Club as Trouble for Two, and a couple of romantic comedies Forsaking All Others and Live, Love and Learn.  They made a fine screen team and the best of their features is 1937s Night Must Fall based on Emlyn Williams still popular play.  Montgomery is riveting as "Danny", a murderous psychopath who charms and seduces those in his orbit.  Hired as a handyman by a spoiled and wealthy wheelchair bound woman played by Dame May Whitty, Danny intrigues her live-in companion played by Rosalind Russell.  The psychological thriller has a tense atmosphere and bravura performances from Montgomery and Whitty which were nominated in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories.  Their final scene together in the film is unforgettable.  The awards were given that year to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous and Alice Brady in In Old Chicago.  Who am I to cast aspersion on the Academy's choices?  I have read that during filming of Night Must Fall Robert Montgomery took over the directing chores from Richard Thorpe who couldn't quite grasp the material. 

Robert Montgomery, James Gleason
Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Robert would receive another Oscar nomination as Joe Pendleton, the boxer taken before his time in the after-life fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  The film was popular with the Academy garnering seven Oscar nominations.  It won for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay, but lost in the Picture, Director, Black and White Cinematography and Supporting Actor categories to a little film called How Green Was My Valley.  Gary Cooper would take the Best Actor award for Sergeant York.  Through the years I am troubled but what seem to be logic or plot holes in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, yet retain warm feelings for the film.  The comedy still makes me laugh and the sentiment leaves me bawling.  James Gleason is a riot as trainer Max Corkle and Robert Montgomery as Joe is so single-minded and sincere that I just love him.

After that 1941 release Robert Montgomery was off screen due to involvement in the war effort.  He enlisted as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in France.  After Dunkirk he joined the Navy.  He served at Guadalcanal and off Cherbourg on D-Day.  He received the Bronze Star for meritorious service.

Ward Bond, Robert Montgomery, John Wayne
They Were Expendable

Robert Montgomery's return to motion pictures was John Ford's 1946 film They Were Expendable based on the true life story of Medal of Honor holder Lt. John Bulkeley and the book They Were Expendable by William L. White concerning the battle for Bataan.  During filming Robert Montgomery defended co-star John Wayne from Ford's perverse bullying of the actor who had not served and, once again, Montgomery took on some of the directing chores when Ford was felled by ill health.  They Were Expendable is a leisurely paced and emotional tribute to those valiantly fighting in the face of impossible odds. 

Robert Montgomery was once again president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1946-1947 and was invited to speak at the the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness.  From National Screen Actor, 1998 publication:  He stated that he had become aware, in the late 1930s, of "a very active Communist-front organization" in the film industry and "an organized minority" within SAG. He accused that minority of inciting labor strikes and then strongly opposing their settlement. Montgomery wanted to keep the Guild completely out of politics and "strictly an organization which represented the economic status of the members of our profession."

After all those times pinch-hitting, Robert Montgomery finally got the chance to direct his own feature choosing an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake.  Philip Marlowe was the perfect character to experiment with the use of the subjective camera.  We see the action unfold through Marlowe's eyes and while I can't say the device is overwhelmingly successful, it is such a game try and the story so fun and convoluted that the movie has become a holiday staple in this family.

Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez
Ride the Pink Horse

Also released in 1947 is a film I think can truly be considered a film-noir classic, Ride the Pink Horse based on Dorothy B. Hughes novel and directed by and starring Robert Montgomery.  Montgomery is "Lucky" Gagin chasing his destiny to Mexico, although he doesn't know it.  The atmospheric film of oppressive fate sticks in your gut, especially the Oscar nominated performance of Thomas Gomez which lost to Edmund Gwenn's twinkly Kris Kringle.

In 1950 Montgomery moved into television as producer and host of Robert Montgomery Presents where he gained the reputation as a frugal producer, but also a fighter.  From Cagney:  He had begun his successful series, Robert Montgomery Presents, for NBC in 1950 and was very pleased by the results.  But his future with the TV networks was seriously compromised by their establishing an unwritten law; in order to continue a series, one had to sell 50 percent of the show to the presenting network.  He appealed to the FCC, appeared before Senate committees, and denounced the networks for their monopoly tactics.  This did little good at the time, but it is generally agreed that his testimony before influential boards and committees provided an important stimulus toward freeing the television air.

Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery Presents

Robert Montgomery Presents ran from 1950 to 1957 and won one out of three Emmy nominations for Best Dramatic Program.  Montgomery acted in three of the episodes as Alan Squier in The Petrified Forest, Lucky Gagin in Ride the Pink Horse and a spy story, Mr. Top Secret co-starring daughter Elizabeth, who appeared in 30 episodes of the program.  Our producer even got James Cagney to appear in one episode, the 8th season kickoff Soldier from the Wars Returning.  Jimmy discovered that live TV was definitely not his thing.  Predating the image consultants of today, Robert Montgomery advised presidential candidate Eisenhower on how best to present an image on television.  During the 1950s Robert Montgomery turned his hand to directing on Broadway and won the Tony as Best Director for the successful melodrama The Desperate Hours in 1955.

Robert Montgomery, "Bull" Halsey, James Cagney

Robert Montgomery's last film was a labour of love with Montgomery and James Cagney co-producing, Montgomery directing and Cagney starring as Admiral "Bull" Halsey in 1960s The Gallant Hours.  An unusual war film with no battle scenes, the director and actor wanted to portray the complexities and loneliness of leadership.  The Gallant Hours succeeds in creating a memorably  emotional and thoughtful mood.

In 1950 Robert Montgomery married Elizabeth Grant and that marriage lasted until his death from cancer in 1981.  During the 1960s Robert Montgomery's energies were devoted to business, serving on corporate boards such as that of R.H. Macy.  While not a name familiar to the casual movie fan of today, classic fans retain their admiration for Robert Montgomery, a talented actor and director worth remembering or discovering. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Jack Webb Blogathon: Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

This one's about Pete Kelly. If you've ever taken the steps down to Rudy's speak over on Cherry Street to hear Kelly's Big 7, you know who I'm talking about. If you've been there, you've only gone for the music. Straight up Dixieland with soul that will divert you from the so-so food and weak liquor. Blues? Yeah, Pete Kelly's got 'em. Some say he was born that way. Some say he brought it back from the war; the one that was supposed to end them all. Pete Kelly's always in a war. 1920s Kansas City has plenty of them - band wars, mob wars. The liars, the schemers and the broken-hearted all end up on Pete Kelly's doorstep. If there's trouble he's in it up to his neck.  

Pete Kelly's Blues
Ray Heindorf and Sammy Cahn

If it's going to rain, it might as well pour and pour it does one night at Rudy's. Flighty society dish Ivy Conrad sets her sights on Pete. She's looking for kicks. She's lonely. She always gets her way. Racketeer Fran McCarg also has plans for Pete Kelly's Big 7. McCarg is a political boss/racketeer with controlling interest in bands and joints across the state and he's ever-expanding. He's cutting himself in for 25 percent. McCarg always gets his way. Nobody likes it, but most of the guys have been around long enough to know the score. Young drummer Joey Firestone is the exception. Joey shoots his drunken mouth off to McCarg. Joey gets it in the alley back of Rudy's from a Chicago typewriter. Pete goes along to get along, but long-time pal Al Gannaway can't stomach knuckling under and is off to better places out of McCarg's reach.

Surprisingly, Ivy turns out to be the one bright thing in Pete's life. McCarg brings the trouble as promised by muscling a spot on the grandstand for his alcoholic girlfriend, even though it's not that sort of band. Rose Hopkins was a singer when McCarg found her, but that was ten years and a river of booze ago. McCarg doesn't like it when Rose drinks, but doesn't seem to care that he's the reason. George Tennell, a cop with an agenda, pushes Pete from the other side looking for help in bringing down McCarg. Yeah. Pete's conscience is getting a real working over. It all leads to treachery, brutality, and a showdown. Things change and things will always be the same for Pete Kelly.

Pete Kelly's Blues was a summer 1951 radio series created by Richard Breen, Oscar and Writers Guild of America nominee/winner behind Pat Novak for Hire on radio and films such as Titanic, Niagara and A Foreign Affair. The script, particularly the narration, is brimming with the wry, cynical humour that Jack Webb puts over so well.

Than Wyenn, a welcome and familiar face to those of us who grew up watching television of the 50s, 60s and 70s, plays Rudy Shulak the bottom-line focused owner of the speakeasy. According to internet sources, still with us at 95, I hope he is enjoying good health and fine companions. 21-year-old Jayne Mansfield's first film credit is as a cigarette girl in Pete Kelly's Blues. You can't miss the pretty girl with the dark hair. Martin Milner plays the hotheaded Joey Firestone and Lee Marvin steals scenes as reedman Al Gannaway. Andy Devine is unusually chilling as a determined cop.

Jack Webb, Janet Leigh
Party like it's 1927!

Janet Leigh was a very busy actress in the 1950s appearing in comedies, musicals, costume dramas, epics, and film-noir. Pete Kelly's Blues falls in the middle of that busy time and Janet is extremely fetching in her 1920s fringed gown and cloche hats. Ivy's character is that of heiress, madcap. Ivy is an outsider in Pete Kelly's world and Janet Leigh does yeoman's work giving her character audience appeal. There are enough hints about motivation in the script to make Ivy's choices feel more organic than they ultimately do, but limiting her interactions to Pete also limits the character.

Edmond O'Brien was also very busy in the 1950s with crime pictures taking up the prime spot in his filmography. At that season's Academy Awards O'Brien won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for The Barefoot Contessa. This time around he is a nasty piece of work who bullies his way through life and "business". A master of intimidation, even whatever feeling he has or once had for his girlfriend Rose is expressed only through his brutality.

Jack Webb, Peggy Lee, Edmond O'Brien
Some nights everything goes wrong.

Singer/songwriter Peggy Lee added "Oscar-nominated actress" to her list of accomplishments with the role of Rose Hopkins in Pete Kelly's Blues. Rose is a woman at the end of her rope. She's only alive when she sings. The rest of the time she drinks to escape the torment of her lover, Fran McCarg. Eventually, she escapes into the depths of her mind and soul. Peggy is subtle and heartbreaking with the dialogue and with the emotional songs by Arthur Hamilton, He Needs Me and Sing a Rainbow. That more roles of this calibre did not come Peggy's way is a loss to audiences.

Jack Webb is Pete Kelly. Of course, he was Pete Kelly on radio and his success with Dragnet is all-encompassing and legendary. Jack looks perfectly at ease on the bandstand, having played cornet as a youngster. The tailor-made dialogue is a pleasure to hear, dripping attitude. He has some lovely moments in the movie conveying vulnerability, fear, and anger. However, solid skills are not alone in creating a memorable lead character and there have been times when I have imagined Jack not spreading himself so thin on this project. I imagine him sticking to the directing and the producing, and perhaps playing Al Gannaway and maybe (just maybe) promoting Lee Marvin to lead. A part of this could be hindsight. Perhaps Marvin wasn't quite ready to be that guy that he slowly became over his career. In all likelihood, Warners would have balked at the idea. Not let one of the biggest names in the business play the character he created? Really? Sometimes I think someone with a bit more of the old screen charisma was needed to give the movie that extra indefinable something. At any rate, I think it would have amped up the Pete and Ivy scenes. We wouldn't have cared if they made sense or not. Silly musings? Probably. Jack Webb is Pete Kelly and I guess I really wouldn't want it any other way.

My first impressions of Pete Kelly's Blues back in my teen years was of the look and the sound of the movie. Cinematographer Harold Rossen and art director Harper Goff created a nighttime world filmed in WarnerColor. The hue is almost pastel-like, yet dark and smoky where there is no smoke. I can think of no other film quite like it. The sound is the music. The lush background score by Ray Heindorf and David Buttolph utilizing Heindorf's theme and Ted Fio Rito's I Never Knew is haunting. And then there's Pete Kelly's Big Seven. Matty Matlock arranged the classic 20s tunes and doubled for Marvin on clarinet. Dick Cathcart was the cornet lead. George Van Eps, guitar. Moe Schneider, trombone. Ray Sherman, piano. Nick Fatool, drums. Jud De Naut, bass.

The original soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album. Songs from Pete Kelly's Blues featured the work of Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. An album was released featured music from the subsequent 1959 television series produced by Webb and starring William Reynolds, a garage sale find that enjoys a place of honour in my collection.

An older friend told me that he was in high school when Pete Kelly's Blues was released and it turned him and his group of friends into old-time jazz fiends who thought it would have been cool to live in the 20s. I could look up how well the movie did at the box office or with the critics, but I think my friend's story says it all.

Click on the banner to enjoy all of The Jack Webb Blogathon sponsored by Toby Roan at The Hannibal 8.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage blogathon: TITO GUIZAR

Tito Guizar
1908 - 1999

The 1935 movie Under the Pampas Moon starring Warner Baxter features a charming musical interlude set at a Paris cafe. The maitre d played by Paul Porcasi announces "Ladies and gentlemen, an internationally famous tenor is present this evening, Senor Tito Guizar." Tito, and his guitar, then regale the crowd with Fox composer Cyril Mockridge's tune Veredeta to the delight of the crowd.  How does one become an internationally famous tenor? Practice!

Tito Guizar was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. Tito's parents had different visions for his future. To please his father Tito attended Columbia University as a medical student, but encouraged by his mother also studied music. Fans are grateful that music won out, opening many doors for the young man. One of the doors in 1920s NYC led to nightclubs and speakeasies. One can well imagine the good looking fellow with the golden voice being popular with the lady customers, and his classical repertoire making him a favourite with some of the more notorious habitues. Doors to more legitimate concert halls such as Carnegie Hall also opened wide where, along with the popular classics, Tito treated audiences to his favourite ranchera songs.

Los Angeles became Tito Guizar's home base of his radio program, Tito Guizar y su Guitar. Appearances in film were the natural next step in his career. Tito's eventual record of 45 film credits began with specialty spots in Hollywood shorts such as Rambling 'Round Radio Row and The Big Casino. Eventually added to the list would be the likes of The Big Broadcast of 1938, St. Louis Blues with Dorothy Lamour, The Thrill of  Brazil with Ann Miller and Blondie Goes Latin with Penny Singleton. The majority of Tito's movies were made in Mexico beginning with 1936s Alla en el Rancho Grande. The film was extremely successful and gave Tito a place in movie history as the first big screen Mexican "singing cowboy".

For the next seven decades, Tito's career would include Mexican and American movies, television guest spots, recordings and concerts. By his side for 57 years was his wife, singer Carmen Noriega, in a marriage Tito described as "idyllic". The couple had three children and five grandchildren at the time of Tito's passing.

I first became acquainted with the talented singer through two movies he made with Roy Rogers. Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates was a fellow who knew how to stretch or find a dollar, and pairing two such popular singing cowboys could only enhance profits south of the border.  Tito was billed third in these movies, right after Trigger.

In 1947s On the Old Spanish Trail screenwriter Sloan Nibley throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Roy is on the hook for a $10,000 loan that the Sons of the Pioneers have taken out for their traveling tent show. Singing star of the show Jane Frazee has caught the eye of gypsy/outlaw Tito Guizar to the ire of his on-again-off-again girlfriend Estelita Rodriguez. The gypsies are following the tent show and are suspected of robberies that occur every place the show plays. The robberies are tainting the show's image which is why the Sons of the Pioneers can't pay back the loan which puts Roy on the hook. It just so happens that there is a $10,000 reward on the gypsy who is a suspect in the crimes. Whew! Oh, and did I forget to mention that Charles McGraw is the show's road manager? PS:  Deputy Andy Devine walks in his sleep.

I can imagine some youngsters in the audience feeling perturbed with On the Old Spanish Trail for a preponderance of singing and romance, but director William Witney still gives us plenty of chases and fisticuffs. Roy and Fred Graham, or Roy's stunt double Joe Yrigoyen and Fred, mix it up like they mean it. Personally, I'm a fool for all the singing. The title tune is melodic and Bob Nolan's Here is My Helping Hand nice and peppy. Roy and Jane do a very nice job on My Adobe Hacienda. Tito gives forth with a show stopping Guadalajara and a few bars of Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima in the jailhouse. The aria runs out of steam when, overcome with beauty, Andy Devine tries to sing along.

Estelita Rodriguez
1928 - 1966

A lot of the energy of the movie comes from Estelita Rodriguez, a talented singer/dancer/actress from Cuba. At Republic Estelita specialized in stock Hispanic females of a fiery nature. She may be most familiar to audiences today from the role of Consuelo in Rio Bravo. Estelita and Tito were featured in three films together. Her acting chops nicely complimented his appealing personality.

The old gang is reunited the following year for The Gay Ranchero. In this Nibley/Witney outing there is a little more emphasis on action and comedy. Estelita is as fiery as ever, but this character has the airs and wardrobe of a runaway heiress. Tito is her on-again-off-again bullfighter/pilot boyfriend. Jane Frazee and Andy Devine operate a small airline that transports customers to a spa run by the Sons of the Pioneers. They also transport gold which is a magnet for crooks led by George Meeker. Roy plays Sheriff Roy Rogers.

The crooks in this film mean business and even go so far as murdering two pilots. The touching tribute to lost comrades is reminiscent of the bigger budgeted flight picture Only Angels Have Wings. The final showdown between Roy and the last of the outlaws is an outstanding moment in the film. On the musical side Roy, Jane and the Pioneers have a big band style vocal of Wait'll I Get My Sunshine in the Moonlight which is quite enjoyable. Tito's showstopper is Granada, along with the popular standard You Belong to My Heart.

Tito Guizar

"El pasado es polvo, el future, no mas una brisa. Si quieres ser feliz, vive por ahorita!"
The past is dust and the future a passing breeze. If you want to be happy, live for the moment!

The Gay Ranchero is a tighter film than On the Old Spanish Trail, but I find both pleasant entertainments that have a special place in my heart for introducing me to the wonderful "internationally famous tenor" Tito Guizar.

Kay (@KayStarStyle) of Movie Star Makeover and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen host Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage blogathon, October 11th and 12th.  There is much to appreciate.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

O Canada Blogathon: ALEXANDER KNOX

Alexander Knox
1907 - 1995

Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy are the hosts of the O Canada Blogathon running from October 4 - 9.

Sharing the world's longest undefended border has given neighbours Canada and the United States a long history of sharing other things, especially people.  Entertainers, actors and singers have enjoyed plying their craft on both sides of the border in the legitimate theatre, vaudeville, movies and television for close to two centuries.

You might be surprised to learn that Oscar-nominated actor Alexander Knox is one of our nice Canadian boys.  If anything, you may have thought him a Brit due to his masterful elocution and long residence in England.  Of course, a major clue to Knox's Canadian roots would be that he played an American President on screen in 1944s Wilson.  Fellow Canucks Walter Huston and Raymond Massey had already played Abraham Lincoln in films.  Canadians make the best Americans.

Alexander Knox was born in Strathroy, Ontario on January 16, 1907.  Both his father and maternal grandfather were Presbyterian ministers.  At the age of 5, Knox's family settled in London, Ontario and eventually he would attend the University of Western Ontario in that city.  He worked at the local library and in factories to pay for his education which included elocution and journalism.  During his early school days he was praised for his public speaking.  The leading role in an amateur production of Hamlet led to an offer with the Milton Parsons repertory company in Boston.  However, this was  in 1929 when Wall Street laid its famous egg.  The theatre company was a victim of the crash and Knox took a newspaper job on the Boston Post and a return to Ontario and a night desk job on the London Advertiser.  These jobs funded a move to his hometown's namesake as Alexander Knox determined to make his name on the stage in England.

Knox made his West End debut in Smoky Cell by Edgar Wallace (Sanders of the River) directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man).  In the time between long-in-coming acting gigs he returned to writing for magazines and published a well reviewed novel set in Canada, Bride of Quietness.  He would later recall the work as "naive, enthusiastic and romantic".  During this period Knox taught mime at the Old Vic and as an actor with that company performed roles in Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and was understudy to Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier.

Doris Nolan
1916 - 1998

At the start of the War, Knox registered for the draft in Canada and the United Kingdom, but was deemed 4F.  Canadian High Commissioner Vincent Massey enlisted Alexander Knox in a scheme for propaganda work which didn't pan out, but brought him to the United States.  Laurence Olivier tapped Knox to be the Friar in a production of Romeo and Juliet which toured the country and played briefly on Broadway.  When the production played San Francisco Alexander Knox was introduced to actress Doris Nolan appearing in that city in The Man Who Came to Dinner.  Classic movie fans will know Doris best as Julia Seton, the wrong girl for Johnny Case in 1938s Holiday.  Doris and Alexander were married on December 30, 1944, a marriage that lasted 50 years.  The best man was Alexander's motorcycle riding buddy, Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way) and the maid of honour was the bride's best friend actress Edith Atwater (The Body Snatcher).

Alexander Knox, Edward G. Robinson

Alexander Knox made an auspicious Hollywood film debut in 1941s The Sea Wolf as Humphrey Van Weyden.  Van Weyden's intellectual sparring with the crazed and tyrannical Wolf Larsen played by Edward G. Robinson makes for riveting and uncomfortable viewing.  One of the finest films of the decade.

Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox

Alexander Knox is chilling as the unrepentant Nazi Wilhelm Grimm in 1944s None Shall Escape, one of four films the actor made with director Andre De Toth.  Marsha Hunt gives one of the most outstanding performances of her career as a witness at the war crimes trial of her former sweetheart.  A look at world shaking atrocities through very personal stories.


1944 also brought the role for which Knox is most well-known, his Oscar nominated performance of President Woodrow Wilson in Wilson.  The film, written by Lamar Trotti and directed by Henry King, received 10 Oscar nominations in total, winning 5 of the coveted trophies for screenplay, cinematography, art direction, recording and editing.  In the best picture, director and actor categories the awards went to Going My Way.  Wilson is beautifully shot and with meticulous attention to period details.  Despite the turbulent times of Wilson's presidency, the movie is short on action and long on thoughtfulness. Knox's immersion into the role of such a well-known public figure is nothing short of brilliant.

Wanting a change of pace after such a serious role, Knox next teamed up with Irene Dunne at Columbia for Over 21.  Alexander Knox plays an older (39!) man overcome with patriotism who quits his newspaper job to join the army.  His screenwriter wife joins him and the change in lifestyle is played for sweetly romantic laughs.

Writing was still a huge part of Alexander Knox's life.  He published several essays in The Hollywood Quarterly throughout the 1940s on performing and performers.  Some of the essays have been collected and edited by Anthony Slide in Actors and Acting, Essays by Alexander Knox.  A devotee of choral singing, he also organized friends and colleagues into what they called The Beverly Bach and Boubon Society and even made a few recordings.  

Alexander Knox is credited as collaborating with Dudley Nichols and Mary McCarthy on the screenplay for 1946s Sister Kenny in which he co-starred with Rosalind Russell, who won the Golden Globe for the film.  1948 saw Knox as the obtuse Mallory St. Aubyn, besotted and dominated by wheelchair bound wife in Susan Peters (Random Harvest) return to the screen following a paralyzing accident in The Sign of the Ram.  Knox and director Boris Ingster (Stranger on the Third Floor) co-wrote the screenplay for 1949s The Judge Steps Out.  Judge Bailey leaves behind his staid Boston existence in search of himself and finds new life and romance with charming Ann Sothern (A Letter to Three Wives).  Hays Code ethics determine an ending that reunites the Judge with wife Frieda Inescourt (Pride and Prejudice) and duty, but this fan has an alternate version of events in mind.

Knox's second movie with Andre De Toth is 1951s Man in the Saddle, a western with a noirish tinge to the relationships of the leads Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Drew and Knox.  His next Columbia release, Paula in 1952 starring Loretta Young would be his last Hollywood film.  Apparently, co-founding the Committee for the First Amendment with Philip Dunne and John Huston, siding with Unions and speaking at a memorial for FDR could get a nice Canadian boy grey-listed.

Eddie Byrne, Alexander Knox

Alexander, wife Doris and son Andrew moved to England where theatre, film work and old friends awaited.  Audiences create their own relationship with actors.  While many would think of Wilson when Knox is mentioned, my sister Paula has been known to clasp her hands in reverence over The Divided Heart.  The 1954 drama from Ealing Studios was nominated for 5 BAFTA awards, winning 2 for actresses Yvonne Mitchell and Cornell Borchers.  The Divided Heart was acclaimed one of the Top Foreign Films by the National Board of Review.  Alexander Knox plays a judge whose task it is to determine the fate of a war orphan torn between his adopted parents and refugee mother.  A sensitive and memorable film that seems to have been lost over the years.

Perhaps you have enjoyed Alexander Knox in other films of this 1950s period.  On television I have caught The Night My Number Came Up (great title!), the Douglas Bader biopic Reach for the Sky, Chase a Crooked Shadow, produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., The Wreck of the Mary Deare and his last two with Andre De Toth Hidden Fear and The Two-Headed Spy.  Knox took the role of Father Godwin in Kirk Douglas' 1958 epic The Vikings.  It was the first movie backed with American money the actor had appeared in for several years.


The 1960s would bring The Longest Day, In the Cool of the Day, Woman of Straw, Khartoum, Modesty Blaise and How I Won the War.  Big titles in the 1970s include Gorky Park and Nicholas and Alexandra.  TV also provided opportunities for Alexander Knox, actor.  Look for both Mr. and Mrs. Knox guesting on The Saint - The Latin Touch episode from 1962.  Historical characterizations include John Foster Dulles in the 1979 TV film Suez and Henry Stimson in the mini-series Oppenheimer from 1980 and Churchill and the Generals in 1981.  A personal favourite of mine is the excellent 1979 mini series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In the 1970s Knox published a series of novels set in the Canadian wilderness, Night of the White Bear, The Enemy I Kill, Raider's Moon and The Kidnapped Surgeon.  In what I find to be a charming touch of symmetry Alexander Knox's last screen appearance was in the Canadian feature 1985s Joshua Then and Now, based on Mordecai Richler's novel and directed by Ted Kotcheff.  Alexander Knox was 88 years old when he passed away in 1995 in Berwick-Upon-Tweed in Northumberland.  A creative and thoughtful professional, and one of those folks Canadians like to point to with pride as one of our own.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

O Canada Blogathon: ELWY YOST

Elwy Yost
1925 - 2011

Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy have combined to host the O Canada Blogathon running from October 4 to 9.  In her post announcing the blogathon whose time has come, Kristina said:  "You may want to write about some aspect of Canada’s impact on the movies, or something unique to the Canadian movie fan’s experience (Elwy Yost, anyone?)."  I am a proud disciple of Elwy and in May of 2011 posted a tribute to the TV host and educator.  Sadly, it was a few weeks later that Elwy Yost passed away.  Twitter and Facebook was filled with fans sharing their affection and appreciation for Elwy.  Here are some edited thoughts from that earlier post to keep the flame alive.

Beginning in 1974, TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies presented to residents of Ontario and Western New York, a double bill of classic films uncut and commercial free, along with elucidating interviews relating to the subject of movies in general and specifically to the subject of the movies being screened. Contemporary viewers used to the proliferation of specialty channels may not realize what a boon it was for film fans to see movies uncut and commercial free, but let me tell you, it was as if we had died and gone to cinema heaven.

Elwy Yost was born in Ontario in 1925. A former high school teacher who hosted for the CBC and a true film buff, he was the perfect host for Saturday Night at the Movies. Originally a producer of the program as well, he eventually handed the executive producing job to the inestimable Risa Shuman, who is held in great esteem by film fans of Ontario. However, it was Elwy who was the face of the show.

Imagine the thrill of tuning in each Saturday night for the likes of Dodsworth, I Know Where I'm Going!, Gun Crazy, Reap the Wild Wind, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Western Union, Mrs. Miniver, Act of Violence, The Informer, The Prisoner of Shark Island, Charlie Chan at the Circus, It Happens Every Spring, The Letter, Moulin Rouge and so on.

Elwy was our guide through the history of classic film. His unbridled enthusiasm for the subject made it alright for us to be movie lovers. He interviewed historians and experts, writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, set designers, composers, costumers, stunt men and foley artists.

I remember Greer Garson, both grand and twinkly, coming across as a lady who'd be pleased to put the kettle on and make you feel at home. Olivia de Havilland, all polite smiles. Bette Davis, all gruff annoyance. Joan Fontaine, trying to take charge and eventually relaxing. Vibrant and fun Betty Garrett. P.D. James discussing mysteries. A non-cooperative Robert Mitchum almost becoming human by the end of the interview. The intense and sharp Richard Widmark. Henry Fonda, cool and confident. The charm of Jimmy Stewart. Self-effacing Joel McCrea explaining that he was never anyone's first choice except for Preston Sturges, and that was enough. Keye Luke proclaiming the artistry in Warner Oland's portrayal of Charlie Chan. A friendly and seemingly shy Dana Andrews. Edward Dmytryk explaining that the lighting in his noirs was motivated by budget, not art. Jack Elam talking about playing chess with Duke Wayne and drinking too much with Sam Peckinpah. Michael Wayne taken aback and then grinning when told he was starting to look like his dad. Harry Carey Jr. getting misty talking about his dad. Noah Berry Jr. responding to Elwy's story of growing his first moustache because he was inspired by Noah Sr. with a choking "I wish I could tell him." So many fabulous and enlightening moments.  The interviews were donated to the Motion Picture Academy upon Elwy's retirement.

The sister program to Saturday Night at the Movies was Magic Shadows which ran weeknights at 7 and showed one movie per week split into four parts with a serial episode on Friday. The first movie shown was The Thing from Another World. The first part ended with the scientists and airmen at the crash site spreading out to determine the size and shape of the thing. Oooh! The number of times I have seen the movie since is lost in family legend.

Sometimes a film would run the entire five nights and we would loose out on the serial. Such a movie was Sands of Iwo Jima. One episode ended with John Agar meeting Adele Mara at a dance. When we returned to the set/movie room Elwy looked at us and said "Ah, romance rears its ugly head." An immortal line used by our family to this day for the many movies that make that misstep.  If my memory does not match Elwy's words exactly, don't tell me!

Elwy - whose name tickled a bemused Otto Preminger.

Elwy - whose shock at guest Pierre Berton's disdain for John Ford movies matched my own.

Elwy - who, if he is a packrat has a copy of a movie quiz I gave him years ago. A copy of one I had made for my dad.

Elwy - who kept his son home from school with a note of excuse explaining that he was tired because Citizen Kane had been on the late show.

Elwy - whose apparent garbled relating of the plot of the movie Runaway Train inspired his screenwriter son Graham to write Speed, which was proudly presented in 1999 on Elwy's final evening of hosting Saturday Night at the Movies before retirement.

Elwy - who was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999.

Elwy - who created an atmosphere of appreciation for film for generations of fans.

Maybe someday you will be in Toronto for a film-related event like the Toronto International Film Festival. Perhaps you will become aware that some of the attendees are native to the town and if they are "between 40 and death" (Auntie Mame), stroll over and mention the name "Elwy". Watch for the smiles on their faces.

BONUS:  Writer, producer Graham Yost (Speed, The Last Castle, TVs The Pacific, Boomtown, Falling Skies, etc.) with TCMs Scott McGee:


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