Saturday, January 31, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for February on TCM

Watching a movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is like accepting an invitation to the best party in town.  Who doesn't need that in February?

RKO struck gold with the pairing of Astaire and Rogers in support in 1933s Flying Down to Rio where they were a sensation with their wisecracks and their dancing the Carioca. The pair would make nine films together for the studio before the decade was through. In 1934 they were starring in The Gay Divorcee based on the Cole Porter Broadway hit (248 performances) The Gay Divorce. The only connections from the stage to the screen were the star, Fred Astaire, and the song Night and Day.

The abundantly talented Ginger Rogers was in five films released in 1935 and two of them featured her with her most famous co-star, Fred Astaire. In Roberta they supported leads Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, stealing the show with their acting and appealing dance routines, and in Top Hat their status as one of the movies' greatest teams was established for all-time.

The story of Top Hat was written by Dwight Taylor (Pickup on South Street, I Wake Up Screaming, Follow the Fleet) and, as were five of the great Astaire and Rogers films, directed by Mark Sandrich (So Proudly We Hail, Cockeyed Cavaliers, Holiday Inn). The beautiful black and white cinematography is by David Abel who shot five of the Astaire and Rogers classics. Van Nest Polglase was the set designer on this fabulous film that is one of his six Oscar nominations. The gorgeous gowns were designed by Bernard Newman who was inducted into the Costume Designer's Hall of Fame in 2004.

Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore
Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Erik Rhodes

Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) is a model currently in London, England where she crosses paths with American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) who is starring in a stage revue being produced by his friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Jerry is the impulsive sort and falls for Dale immediately and does nothing but annoy the poor girl. You might think that their staying at the same hotel would make smooth the road to true love. Your thinking would be wrong. Through a series of misunderstandings, Dale thinks that Jerry is Horace, and Horace, whom Dale has never met, just happens to be married to Dale's best friend Madge (Helen Broderick). Finding herself attracted to who she thinks is a married man, Dale flees the city to an Italian resort with designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes).

Dale is Beddini's muse and model. She wears his designs to advertise them to the "smart set". Beddini hopes to make their relationship more permanent through marriage. Madge, already at the resort, is amused by the idea that her husband has been chasing Dale. Horace is in the dark about everything. If Horace didn't have his officious manservant Bates (Eric Blore) to look after him, he'd never get anything done. There will be more shenanigans before our mixed-up lovers get together, and we'll enjoy every antic.

The complications are intricate and silly. The dialogue is witty and delivered with panache. The acting ensemble knowingly plays with the perfect light touch to compliment the material. Ginger is a dream in one amazing outfit after another. The cast, director and plot are similar in tone to the successful The Gay Divorcee. Smart folks those movie makers. When something is this good, the audience will always want more.

Ginger Rogers, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire

Top Hat could and does work very well as a romantic comedy, but it is more than that, it is an Irving Berlin movie and the composer wrote some of his most glorious and ever-lasting songs for the film. Cheek to Cheek may be the song most associated with the Berlin-Astaires-Rogers trio. Its intricacies are beautifully interpreted by the voice of the 20th century, Fred Astaire. What else can you call a man who introduced many of the finest tunes of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Berlin? The song Top Hat jauntily encapsulates a style, a time and an immortal talent.

Top Hat's 31 Days of Oscar credentials: Nominated for Best Picture (winner - Mutiny on the Bounty), Best Art Direction (winner - The Dark Angel), Best Dance Direction (winner - Broadway Melody of 1937/Folies Bergere de Paris) and Best Original Song, Cheek to Cheek (winner - Lullaby of Broadway)

TCM is screening Top Hat on Tuesday, February 3rd at 2:30 am. It may be your first time to the party or you may be a regular guest. In either case, dust off your top hat, white tie and tails, slip on your most elegant gown - the one with the blue feathers - and enjoy!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Blogathon for RANDOLPH SCOTT: Hangman's Knot (1952)

The camera introduces us to a gang of sun-baked, desperate men in rocky terrain courtesy of filming location in Lone Pine. Weary, tough and determined, young and afraid, thoroughly absorbed in the task at hand. It is obvious that this is a dangerous business and many will die this day.  The credits alert us that we are watching Hangman's Knot, a Columbia release produced by Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott, written and directed by Roy Huggins. Hold onto your hats, once the physical and emotional action begins, it does not let up.

Scott is Confederate Major Matt Stewart and he leads his men, dressed as civilians, on a mission to rob gold being transported by Union soldiers. The Confederates are successful in their ambush only to learn that their timing is off; the war is over and theirs was the losing side. When the advance scout, Captain Peterson played by Glen Langan (Dragonwyck), admits he knew in advance of the ambush that the war was over he is shot by the volatile Rolph Bainter played by Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen).  This was the first of three movies Marvin made with Randolph Scott followed by The Stranger Wore a Gun and Seven Men from Now. Trouble always seems to come from Lee Marvin.

Frank Faylen

Frank Faylen (TVs The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) plays Cass Browne, a man of infinite stability and a wry observer. John Call (Don't Bother to Knock) plays Egan Walsh who does his duty. 18-year-old Claude Jarman Jr. (Intruder in the Dust) plays young Jamie Groves who does a lot of growing up in a short time.

Ray Teal, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams

Major Stewart agrees with his men that they have fought for the gold and it is theirs, but instead of keeping it for themselves, it should be used to help rebuild the South. The new plan is thwarted by men and events. The men are a posse led by Ray Teal (TVs Bonanza) as Quincy and they are in search of the fugitives not for retribution or a cause, but to claim the loot for themselves.

Richard Denning, Donna Reed

Circumstances force the gang to hijack a stagecoach and hold its passengers and way station keepers hostage as they battle the murderous posse and each other. Remember, trouble always seems to come from Lee Marvin.

Lee Marvin, Donna Reed, Claude Jarman Jr., Randolph Scott

The hostages which complicate the already perilous situation are a Union nurse Molly Hull played by Donna Reed. Miss Reed began her movie career at MGM and in ten years had grown from a charming ingenue to a versatile leading lady. Her professionalism and chemistry with co-star Randolph Scott add much to Hangman's Knot made a year prior to her Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity and a half dozen years before conquering television with The Donna Reed Show (four Emmy nominations, one Golden Globe win).

Jeanette Nolan, Randolph Scott

Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Glass Key) plays Lee Kemper, a schemer with little backbone, but crucial knowledge. The station agent Plunkett is played by oldtimer Clem Bevans (The Yearling), a man who has seen a thing or two. Plunkett's daughter Mrs. Harris is played by Jeanette Nolan (The Big Heat). Her character's heart has been hardened by loss.

Donna Reed, Randolph Scott

The tension builds between both sides and within the camps as the Southerners are trapped by men as daring as themselves. The interplay between the fine acting ensemble with their sparse and well-written characters is intriguing and riveting viewing. Bold action and that thing we call Fate will have to combine if there is any chance for Major Stewart and those he leads and protects.

Roy Huggins
1914 - 2002

Roy Huggins was a working screenwriter at Columbia with seven credits to his name including Too Late for Tears and The Lady Gambles. Hangman's Knot was his directorial debut. The film was well-received by critics and fans, and Huggins was offered directing contracts from Scott-Brown and Columbia which were turned down.

Huggins is quoted in Robert Nott's Last of the Cowboy Heroes (published 2000) as saying "I directed Hangman's Knot just to prove I could do it, so directors wouldn't talk down to me. I wanted to produce and write, not direct, and when I told Harry Cohn that, he said 'Every son of a bitch in this town wants to direct, and you don't'."

The well-paced adventure film shows directing promise, although one might quibble about the filming of the stunt double in the fight scene. However, it is still a good fight and the rain-drenched shootout more than makes up for it. In the long run, fans of Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, etc. are happy Mr. Huggins was true to himself.

Randolph Scott
1898 - 1987

Our star Randolph Scott devoted his screen career to westerns from 1948 on and they are a most interesting grouping of medium budgeted, well-crafted films that showcase an actor/star whose command of his abilities and persona improved with age and whose popularity as a top western star is legendary.

A click on this enticing banner will lead you to a world of Randolph Scott films and fans as hosted by Toby Roan of 50 Westerns From The 50s.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: The Stranger's Return (1933)

"Coming home to a place he's never been before"
- Rocky Mountain High, John Denver

Miriam Hopkins stars as Louise Storr in The Stranger's Return. The movie was adapted by Phil Strong (State Fair) from his novel and directed by King Vidor (The Crowd). It is the story of finding yourself and believing in who you found.

Louise was born in New York City, bred for the city, lived the life of a city girl. Louise was married and separated in the city. Worn out by the city, and the Great Depression, Louise arrives at Storr Haven, the Iowa farm her father left years ago after a fight with his own father. She's a stranger, yet she's coming home.

Lionel Barrymore, Miriam Hopkins
as Grandpa Storr and Louise

Grandpa:  "I'd rather spend two minutes doing the things I want to do than a hundred years doing the things I don't want to do."

Louise forms an immediate bond with her 85-year-old grandfather played by Lionel Barrymore. The Storr's are fighters; clear-eyed cynics who bury their sentiment deep. Louise and Grandpa are cut from the same cloth. They are two souls that were meant to be together.

Grandpa has lived on the farm for many years, only leaving once as a Union soldier in the Civil War. He spends his days among strangers, for the folks he shares the farm with are not related by blood. They are nieces by marriage as in the case of bossy Beatrice played by Beulah Bondi, a step-daughter from one of his marriages, Thelma played by Aileen Carlyle and her husband Allen played by Grant Mitchell. If they care for Grandpa it is secondary to his role as a provider.

Aileen Carlyle, Miriam Hopkins, Beulah Bondi
as Thelma Redfield, Louise Storr, Beatrice Storr

Thelma:  "If you want to go back now, dear, we would see that you had enough to begin again.  Otherwise, I think you may get invitations to leave from outsiders.

Louise:  "That's what I just had."

Louise's arrival at Storr Haven is cause for major concern among the Storr relatives, spurred by Beatrice's fear of losing her position on the farm and what she sees as her rightful inheritance. Louise makes it easy for the small town gossip mongers to malign her through her relationship with neighbouring married farmer Guy Crane played by Franchot Tone.

Guy is a graduate of Cornell University, has published papers on agriculture, and on more than one occasion has turned down the opportunity to return to the University to teach. He is happy with his life on the farm with his lovely wife Nettie played by Irene Hervey and a young son Widdie played by Tad Alexander. At the same time, Guy is immediately drawn to Louise with her vivacious looks and mind. Like Louise and Grandpa, they speak the same language, but with the added allure of romance.

Louise is discovering that her most important relationship is that with the farm. She has found her true home. Her energy and honesty win her the admiration of farmhand Simon played by Stuart Irwin. He's a bit of a rascal, and a little bit lazy, but he's Grandpa's loyal friend.

Louise also wins over the workers who help at threshing time when she shows what a good sport she is handling the hungry crowd at lunch. Winning bits of business and Hopkins' timing make the scene a joyful triumph as directed by King Vidor.

Irene Hervey, Franchot Tone, Miriam Hopkins
as Nettie Crane, Guy Crane, Louise Storr

Grandpa:  "You find a lot of couples like that.  Childhood sweethearts.  He went away to school and when he came back they didn't take the time to find out if they still liked each other."

Louise has found a home on a farm which may never be hers. She has found love with a man who never can be hers. She has found friends and she has found enemies. Can she find the strength to be true to herself? She ran away from trouble once. Is Storr Haven where Louise stops running and takes a stand?

Miriam Hopkins was 31 years old when she made this film in 1933; in her filmography, it falls between the controversial The Story of Temple Drake and the sophisticated Design for Living. Louise Storr is the most down-to-earth character of that year's output. Miriam's vitality is on full display, and her humanity is expressed sincerely. The affectionate scenes with Lionel Barrymore particularly have a genuineness that easily strikes a responsive chord with the viewer. The 1930s were a special time for Miriam Hopkins, Hollywood leading lady, with a variety of roles in which she excelled. The Stranger's Return is a gentle and thoughtful entry in Miriam's films.

Ruth of Silver Screenings and Maedez of A Small Press Life and Font and Frock are hosting The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon from January 22nd to 25th. It is a privilege to participate and to learn more about the talented actress from her many fans.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Contrary to Popular Opinion blogathon: Christmas in Connecticut - Pfui!
“This post is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, where we set the consensus on its head by defending a maligned film, performer or director or toppling a beloved one!” Check out all the excitement, nodding sagely in agreement or shaking your fist in ire, by clicking on the banner.

I love the Christmas holiday. One of the main reasons is all of the familiar old favourite movies that get dusted off and enjoyed. A perennial on television, and on the big screen this past season by Fathom Events, is Warner Brothers 1945 romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut. It is not a movie that I would switch the channel to watch, let alone pay Cineplex prices to see.

Christmas in Connecticut is the merry mix-up of a successful food writer who has been lying about her homemaking cred and is caught up in a publicity stunt to give a good old-fashioned Christmas on the farm to a Navy hero. Elizabeth Lane as played by Miss Barbara Stanwyck is quick-witted, ambitious and surrounded by willing accomplices in bringing to life her public persona to save her job. After all, all that's needed is a convenient house, a baby or two, and a most obliging husband and chef substitute. A lot is riding on this deception. Naturally, love blossoms between the writer and the war hero.  Madcap hijinks ensue with the movie ending clinch.  What's not to like?

Barbara Stanwyck and a Christmas tree

All of the ingredients are there for a good time, but Christmas in Connecticut leaves me flat. I'm not anti-romance or anti-mistaken-identity-in-a-romantic-comedy. It is a time honoured and worthy tradition in the genre, one I have enjoyed before and will again. I like babies and sleigh rides and Christmas trees and song. I like food and 1940s magazines. I'm sure I'd even like Connecticut, movie version or not, if I ever visit.

Barbara Stanwyck and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall

Warners pulled out all the stops in casting this movie. Barbara Stanwyck is my number one all-time favourite actress. I find Stanley Morner/Dennis Morgan generally adorable. I have a storehouse of fond movie memories connected with Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner, Joyce Compton, and Una O'Connor. It is true that upon occasion S.Z. Sakall has been known to grate upon my frayed nerves, but then, so has my husband and I haven't kicked him to the curb. Eventually, both "Cuddles" and my hubby do something to get back into my good graces.

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan
Bow to your partner!

I have over the years come up with various theories to explain my dislike of Christmas in Connecticut. The first is that it is not Remember the Night. When I was young Remember the Night would pop up on television during the holidays. Eventually, the movie faded from local television and while I forgot the title, I never forgot the film. It starred Barbara Stanwyck. There was a farm and a Christmas tree and a barn dance. It made me cry (in a good way). It was wonderful. Gradually I began to notice a Stanwyck movie called Christmas in Connecticut getting air time. Christmas? Barbara Stanwyck? That must be it! Well, it had Missy and a Christmas tree and a farm and a dance, and romance, but ... it sure didn't make me cry (in that good way). Christmas in Connecticut simply left me frustrated and perturbed.

Twenty years ago Universal released the Barbara Stanwyck Collection on VHS. I came across the treasure trove at Eaton's Department Store one lunch hour. Displayed in all their glory were The Lady Eve, The Great Man's Lady, Internes Can't Take Money, All I Desire and Remember the NightRemember the Night? The title didn't ring a bell, but the artwork on the case featured Barbara Stanwyck and a Christmas tree. Could it possibly be the long lost movie of my youth? It was!

After a good cry I returned that season to Christmas in Connecticut with hopes of putting the old ghosts to rest, but the nagging boredom remained giving rise to more theories. One was that I was close-minded and stubborn. I didn't particularly care for that theory and dismissed it. Another was that I had unconsciously conditioned my response in the way that I always cry at the end of Maytime or cheer when Robin Hood dispatches Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Perhaps.

Recently I have begun to wonder if it is that I simply dislike these characters. We all know that liking movie characters is not a prerequisite to enjoying a movie. Aside from Det. Hill, played by Jay Adler, I don't have any particular fondness for the characters in The Big Combo, but I love that movie! However, it is certainly important to be rooting for the characters in a romantic comedy. I have yet to witness the endearing qualities that make Elizabeth Lane's confederates so eager to assist her in the big lie. Wouldn't you agree that Jefferson Jones is a bit of sneak and Sloan is blatantly opportunistic? Sydney Greenstreet as Mr. Yardley comes perilously close to falling into "Cuddles" territory.

Perhaps I'm being too judgmental toward a frothy piece of cinema, but it is a frothy piece of cinema that has failed to enchant me the way it appears to have won over the masses, Fathom Events and TCM's publicity mill.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for January on TCM

The big news this holiday season is the release of two - count 'em - two film versions of successful Broadway musicals, Annie and Into the Woods. Once upon a time, the transfer of a popular stage hit to the screen was a given in Hollywood. In 1943 it was time for Broadway's 1940 hit Cabin in the Sky to become immortalized on celluloid. The book was by Lynn Root, based on his story Little Joe. Original songs were composed by Songwriter's Hall of Fame inductee Vernon Duke, whose classical works were published under his birth name of Vladimir Dukelesky. Taking a Chance on Love performed by Ethel Waters became a standard. The production was staged by the legendary George Ballanchine. Todd Duncan, Broadway's original Porgy in Porgy and Bess played The General. Beautiful vixen Georgia Brown was played by beautiful Katherine Dunham, the pioneering dancer and choreographer whose dance troupe enlivened the ensemble.

After a year of apprenticing at MGM, set and costume designer and stage director Vincente Minnelli directed Cabin in the Sky as the first of his remarkable films. The talent that gave us Meet Me in St. Louis, Madame Bovary, Lust for Life, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc. is mind-boggling.

Two members of the original Broadway cast made it to the screen. Ethel Waters, the great jazz artist and stage star played the pious Petunia. In her later years, Ms. Waters was born again and toured with the Billy Graham crusades. In the 1920s Harold Arlen wrote Stormy Weather for Ethel. In the 1930s Irving Berlin wrote Supper Time for Ethel to sing in the revue As Thousands Cheer. Ethel Waters also enjoyed success as a dramatic actress in the Broadway and film versions of The Member of the Wedding and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1949s Pinky.

Lucifer Jr. and his "idea men"
Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Mantan Moreland, Fletcher Rivers, Willie Best

Rex Ingram reprised the role of Lucifer Jr., adding to his round-up of supernatural characters including De Lawd in The Green Pastures and the Djinn in Thief of Bagdad.  Mr. Ingram's screen acting career began as an uncredited native in 1918s Tarzan of the Apes and included such major roles and movies as Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Talk of the Town, Sahara, Dark Waters, Moonrise, God's Little Acre, Elmer Gantry and Your Cheatin' Heart.

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson
Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson

I'm drawn to the creative optimism in after-life fantasies and the touch of humour to be found in dream sequences. Cabin in the Sky gives us both in the story of Little Joe Jackson played by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Imagine creating a character so popular, as Rochester was on The Jack Benny Program, that it becomes part of your name. A bit on Benny's radio show in 1937 turned into a lifelong happy association as the Benny and Anderson found in each other the perfect comic foil. Little Joe is married to Petunia and although he truly loves his devout spouse, Little Joe has a gambling habit and an eye for pretty girls. He is constantly getting into trouble and constantly promising to mend his ways. Petunia is constantly forgiving Little Joe's transgressions.

Lily, Reverend Green, Petunia, the Doctor, Little Joe Jackson
Butterly McQueen, Kenneth Spencer, Ethel Waters, Clinton Rosemond, Eddie Anderson

Consorting with a dangerous crowd, Little Joe is shot and as he lays on his deathbed we watch the battle for Joe's soul play out. In the righteous corner we have the strong faith of Petunia and an angel played by bass-baritone Kenneth Spencer. This heavenly emissary is the "Lawd's General" and he bears a striking resemblance to the local minister. The fire and brimstone crowd is led by Lucifer Jr. and his imps, played with comic glee by the likes of Mantan Moreland, Louis Armstrong and Willie Best. Is this a dream brought on by delirium or are these visions true?

Little Joe Jackson, Lucifer Jr., Georgia Brown
Eddie Anderson, Rex Ingram, Lena Horne

Lucifer Jr. does not fight fair. Apparently ,the worst thing you can do for someone is give them money (I've never been able to figure that one out!) and it is arranged for Little Joe to win the Irish Sweepstakes. A lot is riding on this gig for Junior, so for insurance he calls on the services of one of their best sinners, luscious Miss George Brown played by Lena Horne in her best role at MGM. Lena positively shines as the narcissistic Miss Brown. She's playful, headstrong and has a couple of fun numbers in Honey in the Honeycomb and a duet with Eddie Anderson of Life is Full of Consequence. Lena's performance of Ain't It the Truth, performed in a bubble bath, was cut from this movie but used in a 1946 short called Studio Visit.

Honey in the Honeycomb is one of three songs from the play to make it to the movie along with the title tune and Taking a Chance on Love. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote new songs for the movie including Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe, which went on to be a standard of the Great American Songbook as well as receiving an Oscar nomination.

It is a titanic struggle between the bible loving Petunia and all that would take her beloved Joe from her side. Who do you suppose will win? There are some knowing laughs and wonderful music in Cabin in the Sky, plus a few surprises in store. Fair warning: I learned from the General that you can't get into Heaven on a technicality. I found that aspect rather upsetting when I was a kid and I still keep looking for loopholes.  

The depth of talent in Cabin in the Sky is phenomenal. Along with the lead actors there are performances from Duke Ellington and his orchestra, "Bubbles" Sublett, the Father of Rhythm Tap and Broadway's original Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, Pearl Bailey's dancing brother Bill Bailey, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and the Hall Johnson Choir. Mr. Johnson and his talented choristers cornered the movie market for choirs appearing in The Green Pastures, Tales of Manhattan, Way Down South, St. Louis Blues and more. 

A hit in its day and a joy today, TCM is screening Cabin in the Sky on Thursday, January 8th at 12:30 a.m. as one of guest programmer Michael Feinstein's selections. It is essential entertainment.


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