Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for July on TCM

Satirist, columnist, short story writer Clarence Day Jr. (1875-1935) was born and raised in New York City and his most well-remembered works involve his youth in the place of his birth. A man with a quirky sense of humour and strongly liberal views (suffrage supporter), might his parents have looked at each other at one time or another and wondered where he got it? Day certainly observed his parents, and his amusing memoirs Life With Father and Life With Mother have kept their memory and the New York City of his youth alive with warm laughter to this day.

Howard Lindsay, Dorothy Stickney

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the play Life With Father which opened on Broadway November 8, 1939. The play closed (Some thought it would never close!) on July 12, 1947. Howard Lindsay and his wife Dorothy Stickney played Father and Mother. You can see Lindsay and Stickney as the King and Queen in the 1957 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella to get an idea of how they might have been as Clare and Vinnie. 20-year-old Teresa Wright played the ingenue role of Mary Skinner. The previous season on Broadway she played Emily Webb in Our Town. Soon Hollywood would call.

Life With Father came to the movies after the play closed on Broadway. Donald Ogden Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, The Barretts of Wimpole Street) adapted the screenplay. Michael Curtiz directed in glorious Technicolor and Max Steiner provided a sprightly nostalgic score. Academy Award winning (Adventures of Don Juan) costumer Marjorie Best dressed our players in the finest of 1890s attire. The Days were a well off family.

Oscar nominations for Life With Father:
Best Actor - William Powell
Best Cinematography, Color - J. Peverell Marley, William V. Skall
Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color - Robert M. Haas, George James Hopkins
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Max Steiner

Martin Milner, Jimmy Lydon, Irene Dunne
Johnny Calkins, William Powell, Derek Scott

Father:  "Madam, I am the character of my home."

Father (William Powell) is a character! A successful businessman with a comfortable home, lovely wife, Vinnie (Irene Dunne), and four fine sons; all redheads. Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) is about to go off to college and trying to find his way out of his father's shadow. John (Martin Milner) goes his own way with money-making schemes. Whitney (Johnny Calkins) takes out the pressure of his upcoming catechism by teasing the baby of the family, Harlan (Derek Scott).

Father likes life to run smoothly and the way this happens is if everybody does what Father wants and expects. He is not oblivious to opposing views, he simply discounts them. In Day Jr.'s stories we learn that in matters of good health this meant camping in the summer under conditions the family considered less than civilized, but Father knew what was best. In matters of privacy, the Days were the last family of their acquaintance to have a telephone. They could afford one well enough, but Father wouldn't have one of the damn things in the house. However, no matter how well thought out Father's plans may be, something was bound to happen to upset the apple cart. The play revolves around one of these unimaginable moments in Father's life.

Vinnie's favourite cousin, Cora (Zasu Pitts) arrives in the City for a visit bringing a young family friend Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor). Vinnie insists on putting them up for a few days. Mary is just about Clarence Jr.'s age and young romance is amusingly in the air. Father is hospitable, to a point, but people are always popping in unexpectedly. Or is it that Vinnie neglects to inform him of their imminent arrival?

As Mary and Clarence get to know each other it becomes of paramount importance to Mary to discover if the Days are Episcopalian or Methodist. Mr. Day informs her that they have always attended the Episcopal Church, but when pressed as to whether he was baptized Episcopal or Methodist, Father proudly proclaims that he has never been baptized. His own Father and Mother were free-thinkers. Mother's outrage at discovering Father's lack of baptismal status is only equaled Father's outrage at her demand that he goes through all the folderol of the ceremony. Father flat out refuses the indignity.

Father:  "Vinnie, if there's one place the Church should leave alone, it's a man's soul."

Life gets more and more complicated with and for Father including the search for a maid who will stay more than ten minutes, Mother's mysterious illness, Clarence's new suit, John's disastrous sales business, a rubber plant, and a porcelain pug dog. 

William Powell is marvelous as the bombastic, loving, confused, and bemused head of the family. Irene Dunne is sweetness personified if slightly air-headed. The bond between Clare and Vinnie is most charmingly expressed by a gentle scene with the pair reminiscing and singing. Most of Life With Father makes me smile and laugh, but the "Sweet Marie" scene makes my sentimental heart swell, and little tears escape the corners of my eyes.

The fondness that fills the stories in Life With Father and Life With Mother is evident in every whimsical and droll incident in the movie. Father's political rant and attempt to have "the talk" with Clarence are particularly funny and charming. Warning:  Do not listen to Vinnie's economic theories! They'll wreck your life; they ruined mine.

Vinnie:  "I didn't pay anything. I charged it."

TCM is screening this all-time comedy classic on Wednesday, July 29th at 2:30 pm on a day filled with eight William Powell movies to celebrate his 1892 birthdate.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Classic Movie History Project Blogathon 1950 - 1952: Westerns Thrive in a New Decade

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings, and sponsored by Flicker Alley.

Westerns have been with us since "Broncho" Billy Anderson turned his six-shooter to the camera in 1903's The Great Train Robbery. Silent filmmakers were able to make use of ample outdoor space to provide profitable entertainment for the growing movie audience. Young directors whose names would become cinema legends received on the job training - John Ford and William Wyler. From serials to epics, from the grit of William S. Hart to the glitter of Tom Mix there was a western for everyone.

Sound came to the movies and with it the singing cowboy epitomized by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, whose box office success would maintain throughout the 1940s and into television. William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy would be a phenomenon for decades beginning in this era when shoot 'em ups for the younger trade overwhelmed more adult fare such as Three Godfathers, Jesse James, Union Pacific and Stagecoach.

John Ford's return to the western and the acclaim for Stagecoach in 1939 would set the stage for his post-war foray into the genre giving us more classics such as Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine. William Wyler would give us The Westerner to begin the 1940s and The Big Country to end the 1950s.

The 1950s would prove to be a golden era for adult-themed westerns marked especially by the dark sensibilities of master film-noir director Anthony Mann (T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night). The visual darkness of collaborations with artistic cinematographers would register Mann's first westerns of the decade as something new. The psychological darkness of troublesome, threatening characters gave his films an edge. These films harkened back to such earlier pictures as William Wellman's The Ox-bow Incident and Ford's My Darling Clementine while pointing the way to a fresh expression in westerns.

Close to 300 westerns were released in the years 1950-1952. There was still a mix of series programmers and singing cowboys for the kids, but filmmakers had discovered anew the flexibility of the western to suit different tales. In the mid to elaborate budget area straight-forward action oriented pictures found themselves vying with a darker and psychologically complicated side to the western myth.  

The idea of the hero became more elastic and audiences became used to the good/bad man and, sometimes, the bad/good man. Leading men such as Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott gracefully aged out of contemporary and romantic films into career expanding westerns. James Stewart, versatile as he was, had been established in the public's mind as an affable everyman. He would turn out to be the perfect actor for the new, complicated western protagonist. You want to trust this Stewart character, but he has a violent streak and secrets. There is an uneasiness in his dangerous presence.

It is the films of Anthony Mann that historians point to as the game changers that kicked off the decade when westerns grew up. Winchester '73 is a revenge tale with a Borden Chase (Red River) script and starred James Stewart leading an excellent ensemble cast. The cinematographer was William Daniels (The Naked City), who shot Stewart in 14 films from the 1930s to the 1960s. Winchester '73 is a beautiful example of the his art. The black and white camera gloriously highlights the scenery and the faces of character actors from John McIntire to Jay C. Flippen as we follow the episodic story of the different people connected through the ownership of a single Winchester rifle.

Anthony Mann directed Devil's Doorway for MGM with a screenplay by Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz). Robert Taylor stars as Lance Poole, a decorated war veteran and Native American whose life spirals out of control due to the greed of others. Taylor gives a towering performance full of quiet dignity, pragmatism and controlled range. The film also features an interesting character in that of a female lawyer played by Paula Raymond. The stark mood of the film is enhanced by the cinematography of John Alton. This would be Alton's sixth and last last collaboration with Anthony Mann that began with T-Men.

Anthony Mann's third release of 1950 is The Furies based on a novel by Niven Busch. Barbara Stanwick, perhaps the biggest female lead in westerns at this time, is in a blood feud with her father played by Walter Huston. The battle for control between these two strong-willed characters is the stuff of Shakespeare with no one safe from their wrath. Victor Milner's (Cleopatra) cinematography was nominated for an Oscar.  Franz Waxman's (Rear Window) score adds to the emotional plot.

John Ford added two films to his impressive canon of westerns in 1950. The story for Wagon Master by Frank S. Nugent (Fort Apache, The Searchers) concerns a group of Mormons traveling by wagon train to a valley purchased sight unseen. Versatile Ward Bond stars the bombastic, yet smart, leader of the train who learns to rely on two young cowboys, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., in their treacherous journey. Along the way they befriend a troupe of stranded actors and are beset by family of pure evil, The Cleggs. Songs by Stan Jones are sung by the Sons of the Pioneers as a form of narration. The movie has a great sense of its time and place and the perils of the journey. Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk) was the cinematographer and you can taste the dust.

For Republic Pictures John Ford made Rio Grande as part of a deal to get his long-cherished project The Quiet Man to the screen. Victor Young created one of his best film scores for Rio Grande and there were songs by Stan Jones sung by the Sons of the Pioneers on screen. Bert Glennon provided the gorgeous black and white cinematography. Based on a James Warner Bellah story, Rio Grande tells the story of the reunification of a broken family and the healing of a broken country after Civil War. John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara would appear on screen for the first time and their chemistry alone would guarantee the success of this film and The Quiet Man.

Other interesting films from 1950 include Jacques Tourneur's film version of Joe David Brown's novel Stars in My Crown. This episodic tale is told in flashback through the memories of young Dean Stockwell, the adopted son of a Preacher played by Joel McCrea. The town and the family overcome many challenges with the most powerful storyline that of protecting a black landowner played by Juano Hernandez from bigoted neighbours, and protecting those bigots from themselves. Henry King directed the riveting drama The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck in an Oscar-nominated screenplay by William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!) which follows the fate of a weary gunman longing for redemption.

Westward the Women was directed by William Wellman in 1951 from a Frank Capra story and Charles Schnee (The Bad and the Beautiful) screenplay. Robert Taylor plays a wagon train scout leading a train of women from Chicago to a California valley which landowner John McIntire envisions as a land of families. The ensemble of actresses gives their all in this story of hardship and hope. Lives are lost and lives are changed. It is both a harrowing and uplifting story. Also a 1951 release is Henry Hathaway's Rawhide. Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) screenplay is a character study as Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power battle a gang of thieves holding them hostage at a way station as part of their plan to steal a gold shipment.

Nominated for Best Picture in 1952, High Noon is a film rich in drama and fine performances, seething with tension and atmosphere. If you read it as an allegory for the McCarthy political witch hunts (see 1954s Silver Lode) it only adds to the pleasure of your viewing. Gary Cooper won an Oscar as Will Kane, a newly-married sheriff who learns of the release from prison of a man who has sworn to kill him. The criminal will arrive in town at high noon. Once the citizens helped put the crook away, but a few years of relative calm have inured them to taking action. Abandoned by former friends and misunderstood by his new wife, Kane is left to deal with the threats on his own.  

Adult audiences flocked to the new westerns built with them in mind, critics sat up at took notice at this revolution and even those who handed out awards began to look at westerns differently. High Noon was nominated for 7 Oscars and won 4. The film won 4 Golden Globes out of 5 nominations. Fred Zinnemann was nominated by the Director's Guild of America, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award cited High Noon as Best Film and Zinnemann Best Director. The Academy nominated The Gunfighter for Best writing, motion picture story and The Furies for Best cinematography, black and white.

Westerns are a malleable genre allowing for versatility in the stories they tell, reflecting history or current times. Social and political ills (The Ox-Bow Incident) can be brought forward as a story; ideas and themes elaborated in the mythology. All of the crafts which come together to create a film are on display at their best in Hollywood's classic westerns. You will find glorious film scores, outstanding performances, thoughtful scripts and sure direction. If you have something to say or a certain way you want to say it, it can be told as a western - in the wide open spaces or the confines of a town, as a brooding noir or a sly comedy, with stark close-ups or a song. The 1950s provided audiences with a great variety of high-quality westerns that stand the test of time. There was room for all kinds of stories for all kinds of people in the classic westerns of this period.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"...And Scene!" blogathon: "The Searchers", a silent farewell

John Ford
Monument Valley

Sister Celluloid presents the “…And Scene!” Blogathon running June 25 - 28.  Click here for the participating posts on continually fascinating and memorable movie scenes.

The scene that deeply touches me with every viewing is from John Ford's 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers.  It is 40 seconds crucial to the film.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a wandering man.  He wandered away from his Texas home many years ago to fight in a war and stayed away for many more years involved in activities that his family can only imagine.  His return with newly minted cash hints at the sordid nature of Ethan's life.  The nuclear family of Ethan's brother Aaron, wife Martha and their children, teenagers Lucy and Ben, and young Debbie, welcome Ethan into the fold like a conquering hero.  The comforts of family will be short-lived.

Early the next morning a company of Texas Ranger volunteers led by Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) enlist the Edwards in search of presumed rustlers who ran off a neighbour's cattle.  Ethan takes Aaron's place with the Rangers advising Aaron to "stay close" in case the culprits are not rustlers, but Comanche raiders.

The bustling ranch house is cleared of family and volunteers except for Captain Clayton finishing his coffee and waiting for Ethan.  We are privy to the wordless farewell between Ethan and Martha (Dorothy Jordan).  Alone, Martha's gentle, lingering touch on Ethan's coat betrays her heart.  Their looks and actions tell us that, if not for his wandering ways, Ethan was the Edwards son that Martha should have married.  Sam Clayton knows the truth of their bond and tries to make himself invisible to their intimacy.

Knowing the depth of emotion between Ethan and Martha guides the audience through the story of The Searchers.  While we cannot and should not condone many of Ethan's actions, we understand.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Billy Wilder Blogathon: "Rhythm on the River" and "The Emperor Waltz"

Billy Wilder
June 22, 1906 - March 27, 2002

Those "Girls Gone Wilder", Kellee (Outspoken and Freckled) and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen), are hosting a birthday party/blogathon in honour of the inestimable Billy Wilder on June 22nd.  I want to bring a little music to the festivities.

BILLY WILDER was a man of great intellect and wit.  I never met the man, but I know this to be true because I am endlessly entertained and enlightened by the films he wrote and directed.  Born in Austria-Hungary, Wilder got his start as a journalist and screenwriter in Germany and did not learn English until he moved to Hollywood in the 1930s.  Yes, this man with English as a second language learned to use that language better than many born to it.  Wilder was a screenwriter for over a decade before he added directing to his list of accomplishments.  I'm going to look at two pictures from both sides of that career divide and both featuring Bing Crosby.

Wilder is credited with the story for 1940s Rhythm on the River, Paramount's musical-comedy release directed by Victor Schertzinger.  And what a story!  In Rhythm on the River we get an inkling of the oddly clear-eyed view of show business mixed with sentimentality that would go to creating the classic Sunset Boulevard.  

Rhythm on the River's "Norma" is Oliver Courtney, a high-strung and famous Broadway composer played with amusing abandon by Basil Rathbone.  Rathbone really should have done more comedies.  Sadly, he has lost his muse and  is "temporarily" and on the q.t. collaborating with composer Bob Sommers played by Bing Crosby.  Bob is willing to go along with the arrangement for the money, for the chance to work with the great Courtney and with the hope that it will be his big break.

However, Courtney is also "temporarily" collaborating with lyricist Cherry Lane played by Mary Martin.  Cherry is willing to go along with the arrangement for the money, for the chance to work with the great Courtney and with the hope that it will be her big break.  Only Courtney's transcriber and confidante Billy Starbuck played by Oscar Levant is, in his everlasting sarcastic way, in on the secret.  Once that secret breaks however, Bob and Cherry form a professional and private partnership.  The course of true love, alas, does not run smoothly.  Oliver Courtney sees to that.  Music publishers take care of scuttling the couple`s show business dreams as they already have a full catalogue of Courtney material.  It is suggested that Bob and Cherry should try being more original.

The rocky road to romance and show business success, and the comeuppance of Oliver Courtney makes Rhythm on the River a wonderfully entertaining movie with great songs, big laughs and charming quiet moment.  All of this resting on the story by Billy Wilder.

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote the script and Wilder directed 1948s The Emperor Waltz starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine.  It was Wilder's first picture since winning the Academy Award for writing and directing The Lost Weekend three years earlier.  The Emperor Waltz would receive Oscar nominations for Edith Head's costumes and Victor Young's score.

Our story is set in the long ago Austria of Emperor Franz Josef and concerns the love affair between a haughty widowed Countess Johanna Augusta Franziska (Fontaine) and a brash American salesman Virgil Smith (Crosby). Ditto her purebred poodle and his mutt. There is a lot of talk about class differences and bloodlines.  Perhaps in the aftermath of WWII Brackett and Wilder felt the need to make some sort of a statement, but it's a tad heavy handed and at times detracts from the fun - and there is fun.

The musical numbers are presented wittily and include Friendly Mountains (a yodeling song), The Emperor Waltz with Johnny Burke lyrics to Johann Strauss' melody and Jimmy Van Heusen and Burke's Get Yourself a Phonograph, the phonograph being Virgil's stock-in-trade.  The old standby I Kiss Your Hand, Madame starts with Bing's vocal, then brings in a piano, then two policemen pick up violins and then the domestic staff starts to dance. When our countess swoons after a few boo-boo-boo's, you know it's all in fun.

Billy Wilder has friendly fun with operetta and musical film conventions.  The uninspired humorist often remarks when watching a musical "where did the orchestra come from?". There is no need to ask in the enchanting The Kiss in Your Eyes as an entire village puts bow to string to accompany this most stirring of love songs with lyrics by Johnny Burke to the melody from Richard Heuberger's Im Chambre separee from his 1898 operetta Der Opernball.  It is one of the loveliest ballads Bing ever recorded and and Virgil's romantic overture is followed by a grand punchline from the Countess.

The Technicolor is sumptuous and truly befitting the operetta-like sensibility of the movie.  Location filming was done in Jasper National Park in Alberta.  Apparently Wilder had pines transplanted from California, not being satisfied with our Canadian trees.  One one hand I am mildly insulted, but on the other I am amazed at the resources of the studio and the clout of our director.

Leading lady Joan Fontaine is every inch the royal lady, looking lovely in her costumes.  The role is a nice transition from her young, vulnerable characterizations to the more confident and sophisticated females she portrayed in the 50s.

Early in the film Bing tends to shout his way through Virgil, but his character is a lone fish out of water with no kibitzing pal such as a Bob Hope or Barry Fitzgerald.  Once he starts to sing - well, like the Countess, it is easy to fall for the go-getting salesman.  Lucile Watson (The Women, The Thin Man Goes Home) delightful as a dowager princess with a penchant for storytelling.  Our Countess' profligate father played in fine style by Roland Culver (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Holly and the Ivy).

It is a genuine treat to watch Richard Haydn as Emperor F-J.  Unrecognizable under the whiskers and make-up, and foregoing his famous precise nasally delivery, Mr. Haydn gives us a very interesting Franz-Josef.  A petulant, funny, irritating, thoughtful and memorable character.

Despite the somewhat overly-preachy aspects of the script and a tendency to drag in spots, The Emperor Waltz is redeemed by the accomplished actors, lovely music, gorgeous scenery, sumptuous cinematography and grand costumes.  I especially enjoyed Billy Wilder's cheeky fun with his handling of the musical moments.  He poked fun at the conventions while taking nothing away from the beauty of song.  All-in-all a very interesting movie in Billy Wilder's extensive filmography.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

Such news!

Toronto skyline from my Mimico neighbourhood

The City of Toronto Arts Council "Cultural Hotspot" project shines a spotlight on Etobicoke from May through October 2015.  The Mimico-based (south Etobicoke) Sirius Theatrical Company is participating in the event with their project My Lakeshore - My Home running from October 1 - 4, 2015.  It will feature stories about life in the Lakeshore and Etobicoke through music, song, spoken word, rap, dance, video, theatrical scenes and more. As the audience follows the action along Lake Shore Blvd. W. from Mimico to New Toronto, performance pieces will “pop up” in the most unexpected places.

You will never guess what cozily-clad classic movie blogger's submission has been accepted as part of the Festival.  My three scene "playette" (12-15 minutes) is entitled At the Park and traces the loving relationship of a man, his daughter, and granddaughter through the years. 

There will be no living with me!


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Liebstered! At my age!

    Karen of the indispensable Shadows and Satin threw me for a loop by nominating yours truly for a Liebster.  However, I righted myself and will follow the guidelines of one so honoured.  I must answer Karen's 11 questions then come up with 11 things you might not know about me, nominate up to 11 Liebster-worthy bloggers and ask them 11 questions.  Ach, du Lieber!

    1. On your perfect viewing day, what five films would air back-to-back on TCM?
    Rio Grande, The Big Country, Bend of the River, Comanche Station, Stagecoach

    2. What's your favorite movie-related book?
    Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy by John McCabe.

    3. Name an underrated film that you'd recommend.
    The Little KidnappersA charmer set in Nova Scotia at the turn of the 20th century.  It's a difficult period of adjustment for two orphaned boys and their strict grandfather.   

    4. What movie do you watch every time it comes on TV?
    The Thing from Another World.  If I don't watch it something terrible will happen.  I know it will!

    5. What's your favorite western?
    Shane.  It's a beautiful movie and a great western.

    6. If you had Aladdin's lamp, what three wishes would you make?
    More time.  Less stress.  Bigger closets.

    7. What movie have you seen more often than any other?
    1951s A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim.  Every Christmas Eve since forever.

    8.  Name one thing you believed as a child that turned out not to be true.
    Good guys always win.

    9. What is your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
    The Greatest Show on Earth.  I love it.  Eat more popcorn than is good for me, shout at the bad guys, avert my eyes at train/car crash and cry when ... oh, I can't even talk about it.

    10. Name a movie that it seems everyone has seen but you.
    Jaws.  I didn't see it when it was first released and it just feels like the moment has passed.

    11. Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum?
    Robert Mitchum.  Can Bogie sing?

    11 things about Caftan Woman

    - Spent hours watching cartoons before my daughter began studying for her Bachelor in Animation.
    - I name cats I don't own yet.
    - Must have a stool to reach the top shelves in my kitchen.  This makes my tall children laugh.
    - My happy place is listening to old opera recordings.
    - In a couple of weeks I will have been married for 27 years!
    - Saw my first Charlie Chan movie at the age of 12.  I think it did something to me.
    - Extremely frightened of roller coasters.
    - Performed a stand-up comedy routine revolving around my cancer treatment a few years ago.
    - Worked as a secretary at police HQ.
    - Belong to the unofficial sisterhood of zaftig women who have played Aunt Abby in Arsenic and Old Lace.
    - Gravy is my favorite beverage.

    Liebster-worthy writers with blogs you should be following:

    Wide Screen World
    The Last Drive-In
    Nitrate Diva
    Critica Retro
    Phantom Empires
    Tales of the Easily Distracted
    Virtual Virago
    The Stalking Moon
    A Trip Down Memory Lane

    Should these bloggers choose to participate in the world of the Liebster, they should ponder these questions:

    1.  What is your favourite book?
    2.  Who is your desert island director?  Why?
    3.  If you had a choice, would you live in the past or the future?
    4.  Who is your favourite performer to lip-sync to?
    5.  Cats, dogs or lizards?
    6.  Where do you get the majority of your news?  Print?  Television?  Online?
    7.  Which juror are you in 12 Angry Men?
    8.  Your favourite holiday?  Why?
    9.  Do you play a musical instrument?  Sing?
    10. What are the first three films you would induct into your personal Film Registry?
    11.  Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi?

    Monday, June 8, 2015

    Beach Party Blogathon: The Black Camel (1931)

    Beach Party blogathon!  Our hostesses for this June 8 - 12 cruise along coastal cinema are Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy.  Check here for the sunny line-up.

    When I read the Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Golden Pavilion as a young girl I longed to visit Hawaii.  Later on when I read Earl Derr Bigger's The House Without a Key my fondest wish was to visit Hawaii in the 1920s.  I imagine the closest I'll ever get to that far-fetched whim is in watching the 1931 Charlie Chan feature The Black Camel.

    Bela Lugosi and Dorothy Rivier
    The lighting in this moody scene is stunning.

    Earl Derr Biggers novels are very entertaining in the Golden Age mystery mode with a strong sense of place and depth of characterizations.  The continuing popularity of the novels and the films derived from them are a testament to their audience appeal.  The Black Camel has a lot going for it in its exotic location, a backstage murder with a hint of the occult, and the beloved character of Chan.

    Quiet on the set!
    Dorothy Rivier and Hamilton MacFadden

    In Charlie Chan's film history Earl Derr Biggers novels The House Without a Key was filmed in 1926, The Chinese Parrot in 1927 and Behind That Curtain in 1929.  The Inspector was played by George Kuwa, Sojin Kamiyama and E.L. Park respectively.  Warner Oland first took on the character in 1931s Charlie Chan Carries On.  20th Century Fox showed great confidence in the success of their series when they sent the company of The Black Camel on location to Honolulu. The director of Charlie Chan Carries On and The Black Camel was Hamilton MacFadden, who cast himself as the director of the movie withinin the movie.  The veteran of seven Broadway shows had signed with the studio the previous year.


    Honolulu newspapers tout the exciting news that Hollywood star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) and an entire film company from Hollywood is filming on the island.  Adding to the allure is the story that a shipboard romance has developed between the glamorous star and young millionaire Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr.).  Shelah is desperate to marry Allan, but a secret in her past is holding her back.  She feels compelled to consult "psychic to the stars" Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi) unaware that this trusted confidante is motivated by secrets of his own.

    Robert Young and Sally Eilers
    It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

    Shelah's assistant Julie (Sally Eilers) is concerned for the star's state of mind, but is happy to be distracted by tourist board P.R. man Jimmy (Robert Young).  1931 was Young's first year in the movies.  He has a breezy naturalism and will make a strong impression as Helen Haye's son in the autumn release of The Sin of Madelon Claudet.  Shelah's entourage also includes a butler, Jessop (Dwight Frye) and a maid, Anna (Violet Dunn).  Ms. Dunn was, at the time of the filming, married to director Hamilton MacFadden.

    The gang's all here - and they're not happy about it.

    The company from Hollywood hasn't shaken the suspicion surrounding the unsolved murder case of leading man Denny Mayo.  Many in this troupe were involved in that three year old scandal including Huntley Van Horne (C. Henry Gordon), Wilkie Ballou (Richard Tucker) and his outspoken wife, Rita (Marjorie White).  Meet the Canadians:  Ms. White was born in Winnipeg and Ms. Dunn in Toronto.

    Luana causes excitement at the hotel.

    As guests await Shelah's grand entrance for dinner, her body is discovered in a beachside pavilion.  Her ex-husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi), an actor appearing at a local theatre, comes under suspicion.  Complicating the investigation is a beach bum/artist, "Smith" (Murray Kinnell) and his companion, Luana (Rita Rozelle). At the Royal Hawaiin Hotel we are also treated to tourists Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster (J. M. Kerrigan and Mary Gordon), who get to soak up the sun and provide valuable information to the authorities.

    Inspector Chan has a large and inquisitive family.

    The death of the film star Shelah Fane is of great interest to the press and to Inspector Chan's movie crazy kids.  It is a perplexing case for the Inspector as many of the principals involved have their own reasons for impeding the investigation.  However, the worst impediment may be Chan's unwanted assistant Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka).  In the book and film, Kashimo is annoying to the Nth degree.  It would not be until 1935 with the introduction of Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) that Fox would hit on the perfect Chan sidekick. 

    Hamilton MacFadden makes great use of the local scenery placing as many scenes as are logically possible on the beach or at the hotel, with great views of Diamond Head.  We even get to see Charlie's fabled home on Punch Bowl Hill.

    Dorothy Rivier in an elegant dress with draped cape.
    Sally Eilers in a fetching black one piece with geometric design cover-up.
    To die for!

    One thing I have noted in the Chan pictures at 20th Century Fox is that the fashion is divine.  The ladies always look appropriately contemporary and truly lovely.  The famous Dolly Tree is said to be the costumer in charge on The Black Camel.

    The Black Camel is a fascinating look at a screen adaption of a popular novel, plus we are treated to one of Hollywood's earliest forays into location shooting in the talkie era.  We also get to see one of Warner Oland's earliest performances in the role of the Chan character.  In the later films we will see how much he progressed and become one with the persona.  For personal wish fulfillment we are tantalizingly close to visiting Hawaii in another decade.

    Hamilton MacFadden (in white)
    Charlie Chan in Rio

    If I really could go back in time, I might have tea with Earl Derr Biggers and ask him about one of the plot points that has always bothered me concerning the clue of the ripped out newspaper photos.  If it didn't bother Biggers or his editors, it probably shouldn't bother me, but there it is.  Ten years hence when the story was reworked for Charlie Chan in Rio with Sidney Toler, they dispensed with the bothersome issue of everybody that mattered already knowing what Denny Mayo looked like.   

    Charlie Chan in Rio is a fine entry in the series with cinematography by Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine) and a song by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren (They Met in Rio).  One of its featured actors is our director of The Black Camel, Hamilton MacFadden.  However, "Rio" despite its setting is strictly studio-bound.  If we're having a beach party, the movie we want to see is The Black Camel




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