Thursday, April 30, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for May on TCM

Orson Welles' audacious 1958 noir-thriller Touch of Evil is one wild ride. It starts with a justifiably famous tracking shot of a murder and does not let up. The film is based on the novel Badge of Evil by Bob Wade and Bill Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson with an Orson Welles screenplay. Welles was hired by Universal initially to play Police Captain Hank Quinlan and signed to direct at the suggestion of the already cast Charlton Heston.

Orson Welles, Charlton Heston

The murder of a wealthy American businessman and his girlfriend to which we are privy is a tricky case to investigate due to jurisdiction. The crime covers both sides of the Mexican-American border. The tough and renowned Captain Quinlan has established his own way of doing the job and is not pleased with having to work with the Mexican authorities as represented by Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston). Vargas is an up and comer whose fame is reaching Quinlan proportions due to his recent work in taking down a notorious crime family.

Quinlan is a mess. An overweight, grotesque ego on legs. Over the years his methods of dealing with criminals have become lax and illegal, although successful. He is not above planting evidence to ease prosecution. Quinlan is an ends justifying means fellow. Vargas calls into question the honesty of the American police officer, starting a no holds barred battle between them.

Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff

Quinlan teams up with the head of the Grandi crime family "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), who has his own issues with Vargas. The plan to bring down Vargas includes the virtual kidnapping of Vargas' wife (Janet Leigh) and framing her for murder.

The cast of characters that populate this time-constrained story is as impossibly odd as their creator. Tana the gypsy (Marlene Dietrich) knew Hank in the old days, and she knows him now. Quinlan's long-time partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) idolizes and protects his friend like a mother hen. Calleia's performance is an award-worthy understated heartbreaker. Particularly when compared to the more showy efforts from the rest of the cast.

Medium-sized and bit roles by Ray Collins, Mort Mills, John Dierkes, Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge keep the audience on their toes, ready for the next unexpected appearance.

The creepy night manager (Dennis Weaver) of the motel where Suzy Vargas is isolated and attacked should have kept Ms. Leigh away from wayside motels for the rest of her career. Don't get the wrong idea about Suzy. She is more than a mere damsel in distress. Suzy is a woman who knows her own mind and can fight for herself, but what she's up against staggers the imagination.

Joseph Calleia, Orson Welles

The battle between Quinlan and Vargas takes place in a span of hours, barely more than a day, but it is the feverish stuff of nightmares. Each new twist in this out of control vengeance ride makes the stakes ever higher and Quinlan's downward spiral ever deeper. In the end, it is love that will be his undoing.

The bold script and performances are enhanced by two of Hollywood's top craftsmen. Cinematographer Russell Metty, whose two Oscars are for colour pictures, displays his brilliance in black and white in this mostly shot at the nighttime film. He makes you feel the heat and it gives you shivers. The film came under the baton of composer Henry Mancini and his jazzy, rhythmic score is such a compliment to Touch of Evil that it is as if he turned what was in Orson's mind into music.

TCM's Friday Night Spotlight in May is devoted to the one and only Orson Welles and Touch of Evil has the prime-time spot on May 8 at 8:00 pm.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CMBA Fabulous Films of the 30s blogathon: Destry Rides Again (1939)

The Classic Movie Blog Association spring blogathon, The Fabulous Films of the 30s is underway.  The classic movies lauded are a perfect compliment to this fresh time of year.

"Jimmy Stewart in a western - who knew?" was the reaction of my youngest sister when I showed her 1950s Winchester '73 in her young adulthood.  It was shocking to realize how deeply I had fallen down on her movie knowledge upbringing.  Jimmy Stewart in a western is as natural a thing as is breathing.  In the 1950s he made some of the best in the genre with director Anthony Mann.  However, it all started years earlier for Stewart with the role of Tom Destry.  Released in 1939, that crowded year of Hollywood excellence, there were no Academy Awards for Destry Rides Again.  Instead of a gilded trophy, the movie won a place in the hearts of generations of audiences and deserves its true classic status as indicated by its placement on the National Film Registry in 1996.

The screen play is by Felix Jackson (Bachelor Mother, Three Smart Girls Grow Up), Gertrude Purcell (Stella Dallas, One Night in the Tropics) and Henry Myers (The Black Room, First Love), based on an original story by Felix Jackson suggested by Max Brand's novel Destry Rides Again.  Brand's 1930 novel concerns the redemption of a conceited character named Harrison Destry, who seeks vengeance against men who framed him of a crime and finds his humanity.  The popular story was filmed in 1932 starring Tom Mix.  The character's name was changed to Tom, as was the custom for most of Mix's pictures.  Jackson's story makes the character of Tom Destry the son of a famous lawman who follows in his father's footsteps with one notable difference.  The father fought lawbreakers with six guns blazing while Tom, Jr. does not believe in guns.

George Marshall

Destry Rides Again became a slyly comic western under the directing guidance of a man skilled in both genres.  Chicago born George Marshall (1891-1975) hit Hollywood at the age of 25 and for the next 50 years worked as a director/writer/actor in that industry town. In the era of learn as you go, George Marshall wrote and directed his first western short for Bison Pictures in 1916. It was called Across the Rio Grande and starred Harry Carey. For the next 15 years Marshall excelled at the short films which provided much of the entertainment of the silent era - westerns, comedies and action thrillers. He worked with western stars Neal Hart and Tom Mix, with legendary golfer Bobby Jones and with serial star Pearl White's rival, spunky Ruth Roland.

It wasn't until the 1930s that George made his first feature films including Life Begins at Forty with Will Rogers and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man starring W.C. Fields.  Action and comedy, entertainingly dished out to the public, are the hallmarks of George Marshall's pictures.  Audiences of the day, and audiences who grew up in the time when studio movie fare was prevalent on local television, have fond feelings toward such westerns as Valley of the Sun with Lucille Ball and When the Daltons Rode with Randolph Scott.  Comedies in George Marshall's resume run from the Laurel and Hardy favourites Pack Up Your Troubles, Towed in a Hole and Their First Mistake to The Ghost Breakers and Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and the zany Murder, He Says starring Fred MacMurray.  Other career highlights are the perfect little noir The Blue Dahlia starring Alan Ladd and the low-key comedy-western The Sheepman with Glenn Ford.  Marshall's output, from the silent era to TV sitcoms, bears the hallmark of consistent quality, but among his films only one can be considered a true classic, and that one is Destry Rides Again.

Bottleneck's criminal element.
Edmund MacDonald, Brian Donlevy, Warren Hymer
Marlene Dietrich, Allen Jenkins

The setting of our story is the wide open town of Bottleneck and the tale is cheekily framed.  The opening credits run over a tracking shot that starts at the shot up sign of "Welcome to Bottleneck" and travels a main street awash with mayhem.  The scene is accompanied by Frank Skinner's rousing score filled with the insistent and melodramatic motifs we would most associate with a Saturday afternoon serial.  This opening theme is repeated at the climax of the film, and the closing credits are shown over scenes of tranquility and bliss and a newly minted, much tidier "Welcome to Bottleneck" sign.

The dreamy black and white cinematography of Hal Mohr harkens to his Oscar-winning work on A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The smoky nighttime scenes and the beautiful, shimmery greys work to give the film a nostalgic quality that takes the viewer completely into the tall tale mood of the film.

Peter Bailey and son in an alternate-alternate reality.
James Stewart and Samuel S. Hinds

Bottleneck is under the thumb of the crooked Kent played by Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste, The Great McGinty).  He swindles, cheats and murders his way to the top of the heap.  His mob includes the Watson brothers, a couple of gents of the "deese, dem and doose" school played by Allen Jenkins (Dead End) and Warren Hymer (Meet John Doe).  Samuel S. Hinds (It's a Wonderful Life) is the larcenous mayor/judge who uses his brains and titles to coolly keep the masses in line.

The face of the gang, and its headquarters at The Last Chance Saloon, is entertainer "Frenchy" played by the top-billed Marlene Dietrich.  Ms. Dietrich revitalized her career with her portrayal of Frenchy. Her box office appeal had waned as it seems audiences had grown tired of the allure of the fascinating foreigner.  With her vibrant and touching Frenchy, Miss Dietrich became a relateable and earthy screen presence.  Gorgeously gowned by Vera West in glitter and feathers, and performing songs by Frank Loesser and Friedrich Hollander there is no doubt that Frenchy is the star of the show and the star of Bottleneck.  The songs, You've Got That Look, Little Joe, the Wrangler and especially See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have became popular movie tunes indelibly associated with Marlene Dietrich.

Hooray for the new sheriff!
Charles Winninger

Frenchy is as hard-boiled as they come and exceptionally skilled at duping the customers.  Her assistance proves invaluable in cheating a rancher out of his property.  The rancher, Claggett played by Tom Fadden (Moonrise) brings his troubles to the sheriff.  Sheriff Keogh played by Joe King (Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum) is summarily dispatched off screen by Kent.  The mayor announces that the sheriff has left town suddenly and appoints Washington Dimsdale as the town's number one lawman.  "Wash" is the town drunk played by Charles Winninger (Show Boat).  Wash was at one time a respected deputy to the fabled Tom Destry and although he may now be a joke, he determines to live up to his newly bestowed title.  Wash throws away the bottle and sends for Destry's son, who is garnering his own reputation after having cleaned up Tombstone, to bring and law order to Bottleneck.

Tom Destry impresses the enemy.
Brian Donlevy, Billy Gilbert, James Stewart

James Stewart, at 30 years of age, was becoming America's favourite image of itself in 1939 with his roles of the idealistic Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Tom Destry in Destry Rides Again.  Devoting much of his time at Princeton to the University Players and training in repertory, the actor paid his dues and showed his worth in roles of increasing value over the past five years in Hollywood.  He proved adept at light comedy (Vivacious Lady) and moving in drama (Of Human Hearts), now it was time to turn to a western, if an offbeat one.

Tom Destry arrives in Bottleneck subverting every expectation for a lawman.  He does not carry guns.  He doesn't believe in them.  He establishes himself in the minds of the citizens as an easy-going, yarn spinning, wood carving oddball.  Wash is shocked and humiliated.  Kent and his gang find the situation hilarious and fortunate.  Stewart as Destry plays with the hilarity, presenting himself as a fellow with a self-deprecating sense of humor, totally disarming his foes.  Watch Stewart's eyes.  He smiles shyly, joining in the joke, and while Kent is lapping it up, you can catch the briefest glimpse of disdain and determination flashing in those eyes.  It is a look that will become familiar to audiences in Stewart's 1950s output.

"All I want is to be a cowboy and to wear my own pants!"
Mischa Auer and Una Merkel steal the picture.

The first test of Destry's mettle comes in the form of a fight between two of Bottleneck's leading citizens.  One of Frenchy's dupes is a Russian named Boris played by Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey).  His surname is unpronounceable, hence Boris is called Callahan by one and all as he is the second husband of boarding house owner Lily Belle Callahan.  Boris, in what he knew in his heart of hearts to be an ill-considered bet, has lost his pants to Frenchy.

Let the games begin!
Una Merkel and Marlene Dietrich

Mrs. Callahan played by Una Merkel (42nd Street) storms the Last Chance Saloon to retrieve the trousers and get some satisfaction for the humiliation.  What she gets is this barb from Frenchy:  "But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you."  Such nerve must not go unanswered, and in one of the best remembered scenes from the film, an epic battle between the two women ensues.  Ms. Dietrich and Ms. Merkel are hundred per centers and gave their all in the unchoreographed brawl with only the proviso of no closed fists to guide them.  Tom Destry eventually puts an end to the main event by dumping a pail of water on the combatants.  Lily Belle retreats in embarrassment and Frenchy wrecks the joint in an attempt to do an injury to the deputy.

It takes a heart-to-heart, plus a demonstration that proves Tom hasn't lost his sharpshooting skills, for Tom to get Wash entirely on board with the idea of deputy sans firearms.  Most of the town is rather old-fashioned in that idea as well.  Their thoughts are voiced by a a loud-mouth cattleman named Jack Tyndall played by Jack Carson (The Strawberry Blonde).  He is the rough and tumble, always ready to rumble sort.  His sister Janice Tyndall played by Irene Hervey (Three Godfathers) has a dollop of common sense mixed in with her natural spunk.  It is clear to all that the pretty miss and the new deputy would make a charming couple.

Do you get the feeling we're intruding?
James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie is the one where everything changes for Tom and Frenchy.  Tom is questioning Frenchy at her home when he strikes a nerve on the matter of Sheriff Keogh, presumed to have left town of his own accord.  Her obvious fear for the truth to be revealed and for Tom's safety brings them close.  In a series of close-ups you sense their growing attraction and understanding.  When Tom wipes away the heavily made-up Frenchy's lipstick saying "I'll bet you've got kind of a lovely face under all that paint, huh? Why don't you wipe it off someday and have a good look - and figure out how you can live up to it." he seals their fate.  As Clara the maid, played by Lillian Yarbo (You Can't Take It With You), remarks, "That man has got personality!".

Everybody down to the Last Chance Saloon!

Concluding that Sheriff Keogh was murdered, Tom sets about investigating that possibility with the help of Wash and their new deputy, Boris.  It is now a battle of wills and strategy between the sheriff's office and the crooks as to who will rule Bottleneck.  Frenchy turns traitor to Kent in order to protect Tom, leaving Wash open to attack.  Tom retaliates a brazen nighttime raid on the jail by strapping on his guns.  Frenchy exhorts Lily Belle and the decent women of the town to action.  The men may think they are in control when they turn main street into a shooting gallery, but they are helpless in the face of a gang of females armed with everything from two by fours to rolling pins.  The Last Chance Saloon ends up the location of a rollicking free-for-all and a tragic sacrifice.

"You know, speaking of marriage, Janice..."
Irene Hervey and James Stewart

Law and order has come to Bottleneck in the form of a visionary and amiable young man named Tom Destry, who becomes the favourite son of the town; and actor James Stewart, a favourite son of the movies.

The story of Destry Rides Again is riveting and told with humour both wry and slapstick.  The action and the sentiment that are essential to the film's emotional core develops naturally.  The movie captivates audiences with its genuine heart, memorable characters and indelible performances.  Truly, one of the fabulous films of the 1930s.

A collection of essays from this blogathon series can be found here, with a click of the lovely lady's glass. Note: all proceeds go to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Friday, April 24, 2015

REMAKE AVENUE: Goodbye Again (1933) and Honeymoon for Three (1941)

Movie:  Goodbye Again
Genre:  Comedy
Sub-genre:  screwball, romance, trains

Allan Scott and George Haight's play Goodbye Again had a successful run of 216 performances in the Broadway season of 1931/32 starring Osgood Perkins. Ben Markson (Gold Diggers of 1933, What Price Hollywood?) wrote the screenplay for Warner Brothers film directed by Michael Curtiz. This screwball comedy gem from Curtiz shares its 1933 release date with the thriller classic Mystery of the Wax Museum, the outstanding Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case, and the feminist comedy-drama Female. I am ever-impressed by Curtiz's versatility and the quality of his work.

Joan Blondell 

Joan Blondell is Ann Rogers, the attractive and efficient secretary to a successful author. Her relationship with her boss is more than business and we see just how much more as the story progresses. She's a cookie that is tough on the outside and all goo inside when it comes to the leading man, but she can only be pushed so far! We like Ann and if it is Bixby she wants, then we want him for her.

Warren William 

Warren William stars as Kenneth Bixby the author of such best selling titles as A Saint in Scarlet, Ecstacy, The Woman Who Gave and Miriam. He's going to run into trouble with Miriam. The ladies love Kenneth Bixby. For one thing, he looks like Warren William. His lectures are sell-outs and bookstores can't keep copies on the shelves when Bixby shows up for autograph sessions.

Genevieve Tobin

Genevieve Tobin (No Time for Comedy) is the former Julie Clochessy, now Julie Wilson. She and Kenneth were at college together and shared a passion divine. Julie has never recovered from that first love. She feels unfaithful to Kenneth ever since she married Harvey Wilson of Cleveland, and Julie is convinced she inspired Miriam. Hugh Herbert plays Harvey who is an understanding sort. Perhaps too understanding. Perhaps he is just tired of constantly being negatively compared to Kenneth Bixby.

When Bixby's tour brings him to Cleveland, it brings Julie once more into his life. At first, he doesn't quite remember the woman (after all, he's Kenneth Bixby), but Julie very easily stirs the old embers and book signings and lectures and radio broadcasts go out the window. The couple spends the night in her country home. Ostensibly, Kenneth was to disabuse Julie of the notion of togetherness. Yeah, right!

Ann is left wondering and worrying. She also has to deal with Arthur Westlake and Elizabeth Clochessy. Arthur, a lawyer, is engaged to Julie's younger sister and they are mightily concerned about Julie's strange and socially unacceptable behavior where it concerns Kenneth Bixby. It does not look proper. What is Ann going to do about it? Further, Ann must handle Harvey Wilson who shows up only wanting to take a look at the paragon that is Kenneth Bixby. It's a mess. Wallace Ford (T-Men) is a hoot as the uptight Arthur, as is Helen Chandler (Dracula) as the weepy Elizabeth.

Kenneth regrets his dalliance with Julie, but what's a poor fellow to do? Won't Ann help? Ann will not. She may be broad-minded, tolerant and sophisticated, but she is also hurt. Ann is determined to leave. Julie is determined to stay. Julie's family won't leave until Kenneth makes an honest woman of Julie. What is to be done?

Kenneth's plan on working himself out of the Julie trouble and winning Ann back involves staying in bed and acting like a maniac as the Wilson faction pursues a legal and binding solution. He also enlists the drollery of Hobart Cavanaugh (Margie) and his youngster at a mock Hearing. I'll be darned if Kenneth's plan doesn't work. The plan and the movie works for me due to Warren William's commitment to the zaniness. Much is made by commentators in later years of the superb comedy performances of Cary Grant and his fearlessness as a handsome man not being afraid to look silly. Well, that is just the sort of flair Warren William brings to his comedy outings and it is on fine display in Goodbye Again.

PS:  Your ears do not deceive you when watching Goodbye Again. That is the charming melody of Harry Warren's I've Got to Sing a Torch Song from Gold Diggers of 1933, wafting appropriately throughout the score.

Movie:  Honeymoon for Three
Genre:  Comedy
Sub-genre:  screwball, romance, country inns

Eight years after Goodbye Again, Warner Brothers returned to the play, this time the screenplay is by Earl Baldwin (Wonder Bar, Brother Orchid) with additional dialogue by Philip and Julius Epstein (Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington). The directing reins were handed to Lloyd Bacon. Mr. Bacon directed many of my personal favourites including It Happens Every Spring, 42nd Street, Marked Woman, Action in the North Atlantic and Home, Sweet Homicide.

Osa Massen

The main triangle in this outing features Ann Sheridan as Ann, George Brent as Kenneth and Osa Massen as Julie. DDanish-bornMassen was a photographer turned actress whose best remembered films might be A Woman's Face, Deadline at Dawn and You'll Never Get Rich. The multilingual Massen even coached John Wayne for his Swedish accent in the Oscar-nominated The Long Voyage Home. The premise of Honeymoon for Three sticks to the play, but it is noted that in 1941 Ann is not sharing a hotel room with her boss and Ann is pressuring Kenneth to answer her marriage proposal.

Kenneth and Julie strive to visit her country home, but get lost along the way ending up at a place called the Tomahawk Inn for dinner. The couple's indiscretion is hardly that, but it will be of no consequence when they meet up with all the Wilson clan plus. Certainly, Julie has no doubt as to the emotional connection she shares with Kenneth.

Charlie Ruggles

Charlie Ruggles was cast as the hubby Harvey. Charlie, as always, proves himself quite adept at the comic aspects of the character. His interplay with Ann Sheridan and George Brent is delightful. However, at 55, Mr. Ruggles was not quite the perfect visual match as the hubby of the 27 year old Osa. It distracted from the idea of the couple.

The interfering Arthur and Elizabeth are on hand to complicate matters. Elizabeth is now Julie's cousin, not sister, and she is played with verve by Jane Wyman. William T. Orr, later producer of Warner Bros. 50s TV shows, is the annoyingly officious Arthur.

Additions to this version include an array of young actors, partners of Arthur, attempting to get their foothold in the impending legal brouhaha. Lee Patrick is an adoring fan who names her children after famous authors. Her attempt to get Kenneth Bixby to be godfather to Kenneth Bixby Pettijohn is amusing and impactful. Walter Catlett gets away with some great double takes at the Tomahawk Inn as a waiter constantly befuddled by the appearance of Brent at one table with the attractive Julie and then miraculously showing up at a table filled with husbands, cousins and secretaries.

The sorting out of all these confusions occurs at Arthur Westlake's office. Personally, I didn't find the finale as enjoyable as the shenanigans put on by Bixby in Goodbye Again. This script benefited from the wit of the Epsteins and the game cast. George Brent and Ann Sheridan had nice chemistry in their only onscreen pairing. They would be married the following year, but the union would only last one year. I love George Brent in comic roles, but would seek out Snowed Under and Out of the Blue before watching Honeymoon for Three again. Warren William owns Kenneth Bixby.

Honeymoon for Three provides the expected chuckles, but Goodbye Again has that true anarchic screwball touch that puts it at a different level. 



Monday, April 13, 2015

The Great Villain Blogathon: Raymond Burr in "Pitfall" (1948)

The Great Villain Blogathon of 2015 runs from April 13th to 17th. It is hosted by the terrific trio of Kristina of Speakeasy, Karen of Shadows and Satin and Ruth of Silver Screenings. It is a do-not-miss internet event.

What motivates our great villains? Greed? The lust for power? Love? Hate? Are they born bullies or were they once the bullied? Did they just get up on the wrong side of the bed? Villains - no matter where or how they are spawned - are all around us in fact and fiction. Sometimes their viciousness is on a global scale and sometimes it is up close and personal. In the case of J.B. MacDonald "Mac" as played by Raymond Burr in 1948s Pitfall, his wrongdoing is extremely personal. Mac's single-minded purpose will lead him to cross boundaries, callously invading the physical and emotional homes of his victims.

Raymond Burr as J.B. "Mac" MacDonald

Andre de Toth directed the film based on the novel The Pitfall by Jay Dratler. Among de Toth's dark-tinged dramas and westerns are None Shall Escape, Dark Waters, and Day of the Outlaw. Dratler's noir credits include an Oscar nomination for the Laura screenplay and a Poe Award for Call Northside 777Pitfall's screenplay is by Karl Kamb (Whispering Smith) with an uncredited William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!) and Andre de Toth. Cinematographer Harry J. Wild was behind the look for such crime features as Murder, My Sweet, His Kind of Woman and The Big Steal.

Jane Wyatt, Dick Powell

Johnny:  "Whatever happened to those two people who were going to build a boat and sail around the world?"
Sue:  "Well, I had a baby. I never did hear what happened to you."

When a fellow meets an attractive girl who shows an interest, it is really incumbent upon the fellow to let the girl know that he is married. It is no excuse that he's been having one of those days when life has been wearing him down with its sameness. If you start acting like you are single things are bound to get complicated. The complications will treble when that girl is also the object of another's affection and you are aware of the same.  

In our movie, the fellow is Johnny Forbes, an insurance agent with personal and professional obligations. Dick Powell plays Johnny who uses wry humour to barely disguise his bitterness. Sue, Johnny's wife, is played by Jane Wyatt. She is good-natured and pragmatic. She may sometimes feel the stifling effects of housewifery, but doesn't let it get her down. Jimmy Hunt plays their son Tommy, a freckled faced kid with the right mix of spunk and adoration for his dad.

Lizabeth Scott as Mona Stevens

Mona:  "I liked him mostly because he was nice to me.  Very few men are.  That means a lot."

The girl in the case is one Mona Stevens played by Lizabeth Scott. She's the sort of girl men make assumptions about, and they are usually way off base. A department store and photographers model, Mona's ex-boyfriend Bill Smiley played by Byron Barr is in prison serving an embezzlement sentence. He foolishly stole money to buy Mona's affection. Johnny must repossess the gifts given to Mona as his company had bonded Smiley.

Dick Powell, Raymond Burr

Mac:  "I bet you never thought of me as a man who could fall in love."
Johnny:  "You'd be surprised how little time I have to think about you at all, Mac."

Mona was tracked down for the insurance company by a freelance private eye and a former cop named J.B. MacDonald. Johnny's secretary Maggie, played by Ann Doran, has a nickname for Mac, it is "Gruesome". The bulky Burr in this film looks slightly unkempt when we first meet him and he uses his size as a form of intimidation. Reporting on Mona to Johnny, Mac confesses that one look and he was hooked. Mona's impression of Mac is slightly different. As she tells Johnny, "That was quite a bull you sent to see me yesterday.  I've met some weird ones in my life, but that one nearly scared me to death."

Johnny and Mona get acquainted on the open sea in her motorboat (a gift from Smiley) and in a darkened cocktail bar. They don't realize that all the time they are under the watchful eyes of MacDonald. The jealous Mac switches tactics from implied intimidation to brute force. Confronting Johnny outside his home Mac gives him a beating which lays Johnny up for a couple of weeks. By this time Mona discovers that Johnny has a family and she breaks things off with no hard feelings. Johnny sheepishly apologizes.

Dick Powell

Johnny:  "It's just a warning, Mac.  If you're real smart you'll take it seriously. Leave the girl alone. Stay away from her. And if I ever hear that you've threatened to do anything about my family again I'll kill you, Mac. I mean that."

For Mona and Johnny, the incident is closed. For Mac, things are not that simple. He harasses Mona at work and follows her home at night. She tries to let him down easy before threatening him with the police. Mac, who feels he knows Mona better than she knows herself, plays the ace of threatening to hurt Johnny if she doesn't see things the MacDonald way. There is nowhere else to turn when Mona shares her troubles with Johnny. Johnny, a former boxer in college who had been taken by surprise by Mac earlier, returns the beating and, once again, walks away thinking the Big Mac problem has been solved.

Raymond Burr

Mac:  "I just don't like to see a guy getting a bad deal."

Now Mac ups the ante in his battle for Mona and against Johnny. He has tried scare tactics and drubbings, but now it is time for manipulation. Mac visits Smiley in prison and plants seeds of doubt about Mona. He mentions Forbes and needles the nervous Smiley who has been sweating out his time. On the day of his release, Mac offers solicitude and friendship to Smiley in the form of copious liquor and a gun, setting the crazed ex-con on the Forbes family. Spoiler ahead.

Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr

Mac:  "You haven't thought about it yet, but when you do you'll realize the only reason I did all this was because I  - I really love you."

Backed into a corner, Johnny has no choice but to defend his home and a shootout in the dark leaves Smiley dead. Mac later brags to Mona that he is a lucky gambler, but didn't expect such a strong payoff. He claims he expected Smiley and Johnny to frighten each other off, that he didn't expect the gunplay or murder. Mac also didn't expect the frustrated, angry and frightened Mona to shoot him. Villains, no matter how many arrows they have in their quiver, somehow never expect their victims to reach the point where they can't take it any more.

Pitfall ends - well, not really. Johnny comes clean about every nasty detail in the whole affair to his wife and the District Attorney and is spared criminal charges since Smiley was an intruder. Sue seriously considers divorce but decides she is willing to work to salvage their marriage. Will Sue and Johnny be able to make it work? We see a combination of resignation and determination on Sue's face. Mona's fate is up in the air. If Mac dies, she will be charged with murder. Mac didn't know Mona as well as he thought. All this mayhem because a wrong guy fell for a right gal.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Pre-Code blogathon: The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

They had themselves quite a time in Hollywood before the rigid enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. Join Karen of Shadows and Satin and Danny of as they host the 2015 Pre-Code Blogathon.

Where would pulp/crime fiction of the 20th century be without Chinatown? The enclave of Asian immigrants in port cities filled the niche of the exotic and the inscrutable in the imaginations of the public. Every fictional PI and B movie crime solver had to have at least one adventure in a "Chinatown". Among the ordinary citizens trying to get by in a new land you would find, as you would with any group of people, a criminal class. It was this criminal class that was the subject of freelance journalist Sax Rohmer's investigation in 1911. He wasn't interested in any random crook. Rohmer was certain readers would want to know about the top kick, the head man. As any Costa Nostra Don would let you know, an enterprise like crime works better if it is organized. It would take a special power to be the boss in Chinatown.

Rohmer did not have luck in obtaining an interview with the purported head of the Chinese underworld of Limehouse, but that didn't matter. Rohmer had his imagination, and his imagination conceived of the world's first super-villain. Fu Manchu, the holder of multiple doctorates, a man of incalculable wealth, personal magnetism and power, with a touch of megalomania. Why have all this power if you can't rule the world? The serialized stories and novels featuring the outlandish villain and his pursuer Sir Nayland Smith of British Intelligence brought Rohmer fortune and fame.

Historians and socialists can expound more fully on Dr. Fu Manchu's place in the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Observation and experience prove that there are those who take their fiction too seriously. On the other hand, there are just as many people who know how to enjoy the respite and diversion of fiction and lay it aside. We go to Chinatown in search of bargains and restaurants with nary a thought that an over-dressed egomaniac is lurking behind a beaded curtain. It is in that spirit that I look at MGM's Grand Guignol pre-code opus The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Mad scientist at work.
Karloff as Fu Manchu

Karloff fan that I am, I had not seen The Mask of Fu Manchu until a few years ago when it was screened by TCM in an early morning time slot. Making the assumption that the film would creak like an old door hinge I planned on setting about with the morning tea and toast and getting in a bit of a.m. puttering without missing much of the plot. I was wrong! The Mask of Fu Manchu is a template for pacing that should be studied by all makers of thrillers.

The most problematic aspect of the screenplay is the racial invectives that pass between and about the characters in the play. They are many and heartily delivered; "yellow beast", "fiend", "accursed white race", "sterile Christian paradise", etc. They are shocking and harsh things to hear, but the setting is so preposterous and over-the-top that it is impossible to take them seriously. Only in the days prior to rigid "code" enforcement would this sort of language and the sexually charged torture sequences and relationships pass the censor.

We start off at Whitehall where Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) informs Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) that his archeological expedition to the Gobi Desert to retrieve artifacts of Genghis Khan is of major importance to the British Government. The infamous Dr. Fu Manchu has his eyes on the treasure as a means of securing success for his current plan to rouse the East against the West for world domination. "Right ho", or words to that effect, says Sir Lionel.

The British Museum has lost its charm.

Bam!  We're in the British Museum where, before he can reach his colleagues, Sir Lionel is waylaid by three thugs and spirited away.  The thugs are disguised as mummies and hiding in the sarcophagus and they seem a part of the scenery until they come to life. You gotta admit, this Fu Manchu guy has style, but he must share the credit with director Charles Brabin.

What have we here?!
David Torrence, Charles Starrett, Karen Morley, Jean Hersholt

Bam! A week later we are in Nayland Smith's office where Sir Lionel's daughter (Karen Morley) announces her intention to join the expedition dragging her fiance Terry (Charles Starrett) with her. Bam! We view a silhouette of a caravan. Bam! We're at the end of the dig. Bam! Incredible solid gold tomb of Genghis Khan is opened and the long-sought mask and scimitar are recovered. A few of the native people get religion and are booted about.

If ever a fellow enjoyed his work, that fellow is super-villain Fu Manchu.
Boris Karloff 

Bam! We are at the opulent headquarters of Dr. Fu Manchu who is suavely entertaining his guest, Sir Lionel. Sir Lionel, stubborn cuss that he is, will not be swayed to reveal the location of the tomb - not for money and not even for Fu Manchu's daughter ("yes, even that"). Well, there's nothing for it but torture. Sir Lionel is bound beneath a booming bell, denied sleep, food and water. Fu Manchu:  "You can't move. You can't sleep. You will be frantic with thirst. You will be unspeakably foul. But here you will lie, day after day, until you tell." This cat knows his business!

Boris Karloff plays a self-satisfied villain who truly enjoys his vocation. His endearing lisp brings a subtle touch of the farcical to the grandiose pronouncements of Dr. Fu Manchu and Karloff wears the silks and headdresses with uncommon ease.

Dr. Von Berg and Nayland Smith formulate a plan.
Are reservations at Grand Hotel included?
Jean Hersholt and Lewis Stone

Bam! We're in a safe house somewhere close to Fu Manchu's location. The expedition has arrived and is greeted by Sir Nayland. Our middle-aged secret agent is everywhere! However, the spies and minions of Fu Manchu are everywhere as well. The scimitar is locked in a tower room with Dr. McLeod (David Torrance) who is promptly dispatched by Fu Manchu's gang. Bam! The next day a hand (Sir Lionel's hand!) is thrown into the yard. The gruesome sight prompts devoted fiance Terry, at Sheila's urging, to take the scimitar and bargain for her father's release. She figures Nayland can retrieve the scimitar later.

Do you like my hat?
Myrna Loy as Fah Lo See, the daughter of Dr. Fu Manchu

Bam! Terry is taken to Dr. Fu Manchu, the scimitar is proven to be a fake replace by the ever-busy Smith, and Terry is left to the tender mercies of Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy). It is a few years before the handsome Starrett will make his mark as a B cowboy star as the Durango Kid, but here he paves the way for the TV cowboys of the 1950s (Clint Walker, Robert Horton, etc.) who spent a lot of camera time being beaten with their shirts off. Such scenes do not give me the intense pleasure they seem to inspire in Fah Lo See, but I'm not complaining. 

Bam! The delivery of a corpse lets our group know that it is time to give up on poor old Sir Lionel. Nayland Smith sets out to retrieve Terry by finagling his way into an opium den, then a tavern of sorts where he follows a man through a secret entrance to the lair of Dr. Fu Manchu and is captured. Terry is drugged to do Fu Manchu's bidding and is released to lure Sheila and the verbose Dr. Van Berg (Jean Hersholt) to the evil genius.

As we come to the final moments of the movie:

- Nayland Smith is tied to a beam timed to release him into an alligator pit.

- Dr. Von Berg is about to be juliened by the world's largest veg-o-matic.

- Terry about to become the drugged sex slave of Fah Lo See.

- Sheila, gowned in virginal white is to be, as declaimed by Fu Manchu himself to his excited followers, "sacrificed to our god".  After all, there hasn't been a god going that won't bless an enterprise that starts off with a good sacrifice.

Bam! In short order, our greying Bond escapes the reptiles, frees Terry and in consort they free, just in the nick of time, Dr. Von Berg. One of Dr. Fu Manchu's own creations, some sort of electrical shock gun that would have been useful in The Thing from Another World is used to eradicate the malevolent mastermind and his followers. Bam! The saviors of the white race consign the golden treasures of Genghis Khan to the deep as they sail back to civilization.

Fu Manchu, of course, lives on. Like Conan Doyle with Holmes, Rohmer tried to kill off his creation, but the public wouldn't allow it. The character appears to be indestructible in terms of recognition, shelf life, and influence. Dozens of movies and TV programs have featured Fu Manchu. He has been intentionally spoofed by TVs Get Smart (Diplomat's Daughter) and Peter Sellers in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu and, let's face it, Fu Manchu has the aura of a spoof in his organic state.

The character of Dr. Fu Manchu could be considered the grandfather of such villains as James Bond's Dr. No and Marvel Comics the Mandarin. As recently as 2010, the BBC series Sherlock episode The Blind Banker continued the tradition of a hero dealing with an omniscient Chinese criminal organization and in 2013s Iron Man 3, the Mandarin makes an appearance. Beware! There's no telling where the dastardly villain or his progeny will pop up next.


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