Thursday, February 26, 2015


The Madeleine Carroll blogathon is underway, hosted by our friends Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings and running on February 26th and 27th.

Madeleine Carroll began her screen acting career toward the end of the silent era.  She transitioned seamlessly to sound and became a beloved star in her native England.  Playing the role of Pamela in Alfred Hitchcock 1935 international hit The 39 Steps spread Miss Carroll's fame beyond Britain and, as was to be expected, Hollywood came calling.  Paramount Pictures secured her contract and she was quickly starred in The Case Against Mrs. Ames opposite George Brent and The General Died at Dawn with Gary Cooper.  Her next few pictures would all be on loan out to the recently formed 20th Century Fox (Lloyds of London), Columbia (It's All Yours) and David O. Selznick (The Prisoner of Zenda).

It was 20th Century Fox that cast Madeleine in her one and only musical, Irving Berlin's On the Avenue.  Her character sings a line in the reprise of a song in the film's finale, but I don't know if that is Miss Carroll's voice or not.  If it is her voice, it is charming and if it isn't - well, extra musical talent this movie didn't need.  Dick Powell from Warner Bros., Fox up-and-comer Alice Faye and The Ritz Brothers top this show business story.

Powell plays Gary Blake, the writer and star of a new Broadway revue, not dissimilar to Irving Berlin's 1933 hit As Thousands Cheer.  A popular skit in the show is a lampoon of the wealthy Caraway family, George Barbier as the Commodore and Madeleine Carroll as Mimi, the richest girl in America.  First-nighters the Caraways and Mimi's current beau, the explorer Frederick Sims played by Alan Mowbray are not amused.  The Commodore is determined to sue everyone involved in the show.  Mimi takes a more direct approach by bulldozing her way backstage and slapping Gary Blake.  However, it is she who gets the sting when Blake calls her a "poor sport".  With a start like that you can well see romance in their future.  Bad news for the show's leading lady Mona Merrick played by Alice Faye.  She's carrying the torch for Gary and is more than able to fight for what she wants.

The love story between the songwriter and the upper crust girl somewhat mirrors the love story of Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay, the Comstock Lode heiress.  Disinherited from her father's will, Ellen and Irving shared a 62 year marriage, 3 daughters, 1 son and a little something referred to as "royalties".  Take that, daddy-dear!

Madeleine Carroll

In the hands of the wrong actress or director the Mimi character could come off as just another spoiled rich girl raging against the world.  Fortunately, Roy Del Ruth's experience and taste combined with comedic chops dating back to days with Sennett and such gems as The Broadway Melody of 1936, Topper Returns and Beauty and the Boss, keep the thin plot light and breezy.  Madeleine Carroll's extraordinary beauty immediately wins her audience favour, but it is also the light of intelligence and kindness in her eyes and her gracious way of speaking that keeps us on her side.  Madeleine plays the comedy with charming nuance.  Mimi can be stubborn and petulant, but she can also be playful and loyal.

Cora Witherspoon

The supporting cast in On the Avenue is a real treat featuring Walter Catlett, Joan Davis, Douglas Fowley, Sig Ruman, Stepin Fetchit and Bess Flowers.  Yes, that's right, our Bess plays Mimi's maid and has about a half dozen lines!  Playing, seemingly, the only Caraway with a sense of humour is Cora Witherspoon as Aunt Fritz.  She's one of those eccentric moneyed women with a mania for fads and Miss Witherspoon (The Bank Dick, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise) looks like she is having as much fun as I have watching her.

Irving Berlin composed six tunes for On the Avenue and most of them are presented in the context of the Broadway Revue or show within the show.  Those numbers were performed on the stage as if we were in the audience of a theatre and filmed in one take.

The opening number He Ain't Got Rhythm is performed at first by Alice Faye and a bevy of Fox beauties including Marjorie Weaver and Lynn Bari then The Ritz Brothers take over.  Al, Harry and Jimmy (Harry is the one in the middle) give it their all with their eccentric and perfectly synchronized dancing in a memorable number.

The Girl on the Police Gazette features Dick Powell and company in Gay 90s garb pining over the picture of a lovely in tights through a revolving stage set that moves from a barber shop to a trolley car to Coney Island to a flower shop to a backstage rendezvous.

Mimi and Gary spend a date that takes them from nightclub to diner and a tour around the park in a Hansom cab.  Billy Gilbert runs the diner and E.E. Clive drives the cab.  Moonlight and a park bend is a perfect song cue and Berlin's perfect song for the spot is You're Laughing at Me.  Ah, love!

Later at the theatre we are treated to the lovelorn Mona singing what will become a Berlin standard, This Year's Kisses, to a disinterested Gary Blake.  He is only thinking about how he can soften the popular sketch to please Mimi.  Mona knows just what to do with the sketch!  The next production number we enjoy on stage is a song that has become as tied to the year-end holiday as Irving's White Christmas.  Dick Powell and Alice Faye introduce I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

A taste of Madeleine as Mimi, plus  the exuberant Slumming on Park Avenue.

Irving then spoofs his own hit Puttin' on the Ritz with the lively Slumming on Park Avenue.  Alice Faye and some talented Fox dancers give us the number relatively straight and then The Ritz Brothers take over with Harry dressed like Mona/Alice and Al and Jimmy dancing barefoot!

In its 90 minutes, On the Avenue gives us fabulous music performed by a cast of troupers, that glorious 20th Century Fox black and white sheen courtesy of cinematographer Lucien Andriot, eye-popping costumes from Gwen Wakeling, a who's who of character actors, and romance unencumbered by angst.  A treat on every level.   

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Favourite Movies: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

What sort of movie strikes your fancy these days? A period picture with glamourous costumes and well-spoken characters to take you out of the mundane present? A great love story with attractive, all-too-human individuals? A cat and mouse game between clever and evenly matched antagonists?  Adventure with the stakes nothing less than life and death? Poetry?

They seek him here, They seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven?  Is he in hell?
That demned, elusive Pimpernel.

Can you spot the Scarlet Pimpernel?

Perhaps the world's first literary "super hero", Sir Percy Blakeney encourages the world to accept his foppish behavior as his true character while masquerading as the Scarlet Pimpernel, the daring mastermind of a league of like-minded adventurers who rescue those doomed to the guillotine during the 16th century French Revolution. Baroness Orczy's play opened in London's West End with little acclaim from the critics, but great success with audiences. She followed up on that success with a novelization and sequels. Dustin Farnum starred in a 1917 version of the story and there have been many film and TV adaptions since that time, a Broadway musical, and the IMDb lists the title as currently "under production". The idea of the disguised or misunderstood daredevil or crime fighter appears to be timeless.

The 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is from London Pictures at a time when Alexander Korda and his brothers were putting British filmmaking on the world map with such popular fare as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Ghost Goes West, Things to Come and Rembrandt. The director is film editor Harold Young hired to replace the fired Rowland Brown. I don't like to be one to disparage someone's art, but despite my fondness for The Mummy's Tomb there is nothing else in Mr. Young's filmography that reaches the level of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I am led to think that the Korda attention to the quality and details of their output has more than a little to do with the virtues of this movie.

Count de Tournay's family is rescued.

The focus of the Pimpernel's latest escapade is the release of the de Tournay family. We learn that the Count de Tournay is more than just a hated Aristo in a conversation with some fellow prisoners.

Unnamed nobleman: "Thank Heavens for the game of chess. It enables us to forget the more disagreeable realities of life."

Count de Tournay: "I'm not so sure it is a good thing. We've been too detached from reality all our lives.  That's what caused the revolution."

Nobleman: "Possibly."

Count de Tournay: "Undoubtedly. If we'd only had eyes to see our own follies we shouldn't be here now waiting to be shaved by the national razor."

At a splendid ball the Prince of Wales defends the lack of action on the part of his government to Countess de Tournay: "Madam, the government does everything in its power to save those who are threatened by death in the prisons of the French Republic. But if a country goes mad, it has the right to commit every horror within its own walls."

Percy Blakeney, through misunderstanding and a lack of communication, has come to believe his wife responsible for the deaths of an aristocratic family named St. Cyr. It is partly his reason for bedeviling the French with his remarkable escapades and myriad disguises. The other, greater part of Percy's involvement is in his own nature; his audacious cleverness and natural strengths as a leader.

Lady Marguerite Blakeney is a former actress who married for love, but now finds her husband's affections turned cold and his character strangely altered. They are a very unhappy couple. The new  French ambassador to England is M. Chauvelin who must discover the Pimpernel's identity at all costs or he will join the unending line to the guillotine. He blackmails Marguerite with threats to her brother into assisting his search for the Pimpernel. Chauvelin has determined through their knowledge of the French language and entitled boldness that the Pimpernel and his gang must be among the upper class whom Marguerite can freely question and observe. 

Percy shares his poem with an amused audience.

Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy and he is magnificent. Howard had taken up acting as therapy for "shell shock" after WWI and his career covered both sides of the Atlantic on both stage and screen. It is a pleasure to watch him as Sir Percy, dandy of the court and a favourite of the Prince of Wales (George IV) commenting on fashion and other trivialities, making himself an indispensable social butterfly without a serious thought in his head. As the Pimpernel he disguises himself as a garrulous old hag and a French army officer. The Pimpernel is always one step ahead of his enemies and he enjoys the intellectual combat as much as the chase. Madly in love with Marguerite, but mistakenly disillusioned, Percy is also heartsick and wounded.

The glamorous Lady Blakeney

Merle Oberson is a beautiful Lady Blakeney, and more. She is trapped by both her marriage and by Chauvelin. She is passionate about her emotions and as quick-witted as any of the Pimpernel League, and quick to action when circumstances require bravery. Lady Blakeney does not sit in a corner looking pretty, although she does look very pretty indeed in gowns designed by Oliver Messel, multiple Tony nominee for sets and costumes. Percy and Marguerite are perfectly matched. Will they find their way back to each other?

Sir Percy teaches M. Chauvelin a thing or two about cravats.

Raymond Massey is that supreme villain, M. Chauvelin. Chauvelin has power, he knows it and uses it. No one sneers quite as sincerely as Massey and he sneers at the English, at Sir Percy, and at Lady Blakeney. He toys with them both and skillfully lays a trap from which there is no escape. To watch Chauvelin's confident arrogance pitted against Percy's slyness is like listening to a fine operatic duet. Two actors supremely good at what they do with a script to match.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a story that has enthralled generations and the Korda film production is one of its finest tellings. Leslie Howard would return to this theme in a few years when, sadly, another country went mad. In 1941s Pimpernel Smith, Howard plays Professor Horatio Smith, a mild-mannered archeologist who smuggles victims of Nazi persecution out of Germany with the help of his worshiping students. Perhaps there are some "Pimpernels" with 21st-century stories to tell.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon: Neighbors (1920)

You have to love a blogathon that is billed as "The First Annual", especially when the subject is Buster Keaton and the host is Silent-Ology! All the fun can be found by clicking here.

It ain't exactly the Montagues and the Capulets, but The Boy and The Girl in the 1920s romantic-comedy short, Neighbors, certainly have their problems.  And those troubles are told with a series of breathtaking gags that leave audiences screaming with laughter.  It was that way when I enjoyed a big screen triple bill of Neighbors, The Balloonatic and Sherlock Jr. a few years ago.  While I enjoy watching a Keaton movie in the comfort of my own home, nothing tops the camaraderie of laughing with crowd of Buster fans, the new and the old.

Edward F. Cline
(1891 - 1961)

Neighbors was written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline.  The pair of comic geniuses collaborated on 19 shorts in the years between 1920 and 1923.  They were a perfect match.  Eddie, the former keystone cope and gag man, is responsible for lots of laughs through his work with Mack Sennett through to W.C. Fields.

 Buster Keaton as The Boy

The Flower of Love could find no more romantic spot in which to blossom than in this poet's Dream Garden.
- title card

The tenement section of a big city is home to The Boy who pines for The Girl on the other side of the fence.  Her Father, played by big Joe Roberts, Buster's perfect foil in 16 movies, is the blustery type.  He doesn't approve of the romance and tosses daughters and suitors about like so much confetti.  His Father, played by Joe Keaton is the combative type who fights as he breathes.  The lengths to which The Boy goes to reach his girl using the fence between the houses, the clothes lines and telephone wires is mind-boggling.  When you watch someone in a movie today sliding down the wires, bouncing up to third story windows or balancing on a beam, you immediately think CGI.  In Neighbors it's all Buster!

Virginia Fox as The Girl

We have a black-face gag which at first was greeted with uncomfortable twitters from the audience, but eventually the crowd just relaxed and went with it.  Stuck upside down in the mud The Boy accosts a cop, played by Eddie Cline, who starts looking for the culprit with the black face.  Having washed his face, The Boy is ignored while the cop tries to take in a black man who was passing by.  The innocent bystander escapes and The Boy has now had a bucket of tar dropped on his head.  Aha!  He's spotted by the cop, but The Boy manages to wipe half his face, looking like Frank Gorshin or Lou Antonio in Star Trek: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.  The Boy confuses the heck out of the cop and makes good his escape.  Eventually though, one stunt too many sends The Boy right into the back of a Paddy Wagon.

Joe Keaton, Buster Keaton, Jack Duffy, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts

After going to court to end their troubles, they have a wedding to start more.
- title card

In court, the Judge, played by Jack Duffy, an actor and make-up man who specialized in playing old duffers, agrees to marry The Girl to The Boy in hopes of calming down these trouble-making feuding families.  The Girl is resplendent in her wedding gown.  The Boy, in a borrowed suit of the wrong size, has trouble keeping his pants up.  The dining room table displays the wedding gifts, prominent among them a copy of World Heavyweight Champion Jim Corbett's "How to Box".  Cracks me up!

Buster and the Flying Escalantes do their stuff!

The wedding has many surprises, and ups and downs, but Her Father calls the whole thing off when he sees the cheap Woolworth's ring that is being offered.  The Girl is dragged back to the other side of the fence.  The Boy and his friends (brothers?) played by the circus act The Flying Escalantes thrill with their acrobatic feats bringing true hearts together.

Neighbors may be classified a short, but in laughs and thrills it is epic.

Monday, February 2, 2015

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: Paul Lukas, Best Actor 1944

Paul Lukas
1891 - 1971

It's that time of year again! The 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen to coincide with TCM's popular annual programming schedule.

Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Lukas

Paul Lukas entered my life via television sometime in the 60s.  It was the first of many times I boarded that train in that funny little country in The Lady Vanishes.  There was something about the suave and duplicitous Dr. Hartz.  His delicious accent?  He was a most intriguing fellow.

Paul Lukas, Katharine Hepburn

The next time I came across Paul Lukas, the character was not as confident as the 1930s secret agent.  He was playing a character from the most beloved novel of my childhood, Jo March's Professor Bhaer in Little Women.  So smart, so sweet, so shy - and he sings!

The more movies I watched, the more I ran across the actor from Budapest.  I don't know if thoughts of a different career ever entered young Pal Lukacs' head, but once he determined on an acting career he prepared by attending a School of Dramatic Arts and joining a theatre company where he gained experience and acclaim as a performer of comedy.  In 1918 he made the first of 13 movies in Hungary.  And in 1928 Paul Lukas appeared in eight Hollywood features alongside the likes of Ronald Colman, Bebe Daniels, Pola Negri, Gary Cooper and Nancy Carroll.  These were all Paramount pictures and Lukas would work steadily at that studio for the next four years, steadily rising from bit roles and supporting player to lead.  One of his films was 1930s The Benson Murder Case starring William Powell as Philo Vance.  Lukas would play Vance in 1935s The Casino Murder Case for MGM.

Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas

Lukas then became quite the studio-hopper appearing as Athos in The Three Musketeers for RKO, Iselin in Dodsworth for Samuel Goldwyn, and with Janet Gaynor in Ladies in Love for Twentieth Century Fox.  Later in the decade the UK productions Dangerous Secrets, Mutiny on the Elsinore, Dinner at the Ritz and The Lady Vanishes used Mr. Lukas' talents.  In 1937-1938 Paul Lukas played Dr. Rank in a Broadway production of A Doll's House starring Ruth Gordon.  Sam Jaffe and Dennis King were also in the cast.  Ibsen's play was adapted by Thornton Wilder and the show was directed by Jed Harris.

Paul Lukas' 1940s film career is all over the place with adventure, drama, horror and comedy including  Anatole Litvak's docu-drama Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Captain Fury with Brian Aherne, Frank Borzage's intriguing Strange Cargo, the mad doctor spectacular The Monster and the Girl and the Bob Hope-George Marshall comedy classic The Ghost Breakers.

Paul Lukas, Eric Roberts, Ann Blyth, Peter Fernandez, Mady Christians

Lillian Hellman wrote her play Watch on the Rhine in 1940.  It is a drama about the evils of and the fight against Fascism.  Hellman brought into focus the danger of Germany's aggression, physically and morally, through her characters the Muller family and their American relations.  Opening on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 1, 1941, the play starred Paul Lukas as Kurt Muller, a German citizen who fought in the Underground against Hitlerism.  Along with his American born wife Sara, played by Mady Christians, and their three children played by Ann Blyth, Peter Fernandez and Eric Roberts, they have arrived at the home of Sara's family near Washington, DC.  Here they will confront their safe and somewhat smug relations with the new reality of life in Europe and the far-reaching consequences of isolationism.  The play was well reviewed at the time and ran for 378 performances and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

The New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson's review shows the play's impact"Miss Hellman's contrasting of guileless and good-humoured life in America with the bitterness and corruption of life in modern Europe is keenly perceptive. It has a special meaning for us today. But, since Miss Hellman has communicated her thoughts dramatically in terms of articulate human beings, Watch on the Rhine ought to be full of meaning a quarter of a century from now when people are beginning to wonder what life was like in America when the Nazi evil began to creep across the sea."

George Colouris, Donald Woods, Lucile Watson, Bette Davis, Paul Lukas

Warner Brothers purchased the screen rights to the play and assigned the project to producer Hal Wallis (The Life of Emile Zola, Casablanca, The Rose Tattoo, True Grit) with the play being adapted by Dashiell Hammett.  He originally wanted Charles Boyer to take the role of Kurt Muller, but Boyer declined as he rightfully thought his French accent would be all wrong for the role.  Fortunately, the right man for the job was available in Paul Lukas.  Also recreating their Broadway turns were Lucile Watson as the mother-in-law Fanny Farrelly, George Colouris as Teck de Brancovis, Frank Wilson as Joseph the butler, and Eric Roberts as Bodo, the Muller's youngest son.  Bette Davis, having recently completed Now, Voyager, took the supporting role of Sara Muller as she believed fervently in the message of the film.  Against Ms. Davis' wishes, the studio gave her top billing to ensure a measure of box office success.

The Academy Awards, March 1944
Best actor:  Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
Best actress:  Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette

Paul Lukas' performance of Kurt is masterfully subtle.  He brilliantly brought his knowledge of the character from his stage performances to the intimate forum of the cinema.  Kurt is many things - a loving husband, thoughtful parent, committed yet practical idealist; a fighter and a humanist.  Thrown into harrowing and dangerous circumstances, Kurt is truly brave in the face of loss.  In every scene and every line there is not a false note to be found and Paul Lukas' work was deservedly awarded the New York Film Critics' Circle Award, the first Golden Globe for Best Actor and the Academy Award.

The Oscars began as a glittery toy from studio executives to keep union-minded employees in line in the 1920s.  It quickly became a standard of excellence in an industry that encompasses art and technology.  For some, a goal; for others, a curse.

Today the Oscars are often looked upon as an audience sport which rarely satisfies its followers.  "The Academy", which apparently votes as one giant entity, never gets it right.  So-and-so "stole" my guy's Oscar!  Whether the statue was bestowed last year, 25 or 50 or 80 years ago, resentment reaches a fever pitch over the dinner table, water cooler or internet forum.

I generally try to take a detached view toward the awards.  After all, it is their party, not mine.  However, every once in a while I'll run across an Oscar opinion which gets my Irish up and I can't keep silent.  Examples:  I fall on the side of the Academy with the Best Picture win for How Green Was My Valley.  I admire Citizen Kane as much as the next guy, but How Green Was My Valley ain't exactly chopped liver.  I shake my head at the Academy for giving the Best Picture trophy to You Can't Take It With YouThe Adventures of Robin Hood, anyone?

Paul Lukas' win for Watch on the Rhine is one I heartily applaud and this has occasionally led to conflict with some of Humphrey Bogart's more committed fans.  Truly, Bogie's Rick Blaine is a performance for the ages and one of the reasons Casablanca is a bona fide classic, but you can't win them all and acknowledgement of Paul Lukas' art does credit to the Academy.

After his Oscar win movie fans can enjoy Paul Lukas in a number of diverse films such as the dandy film-noir Deadline at Dawn, the location filmed thriller Berlin Express or as the wandering holy man in Kim with Dean Stockwell and Errol Flynn, and Professor Aronnax in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  In 1950 Paul Lukas returned to Broadway, this time to the Imperial Theatre where he co-starred as Cosmo Constantine opposite Ethel Merman for 644 performances of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam.

Paul Lukas guested on television anthology series throughout the 1950s and on the programs, The F.B.I., The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game and It Takes a Thief in the 60s.  His movies from this era include the epic 55 Days in Peking, Richard Brooks' production of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and the Elvis Presley flick Fun in Acapulco.  Married three times and widowed once, Paul Lukas passed from heart failure at the age of 80 apparently scouting Morocco for a retirement home. 

By the way, I'm perfectly willing to go toe-to-toe with the folks who say Bogie robbed Brando in 1952.  Mr. Bogart's Charlie Allnut is a perfect performance that I place on a par with Paul Lukas' Kurt Muller.



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