Monday, August 31, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for September on TCM

Okay, movie fan, you are stuck on that well-known desert island and can only have one James Cagney movie - only one, mind you. I don't know what your choice would be, but unquestionably mine is 1941s The Strawberry Blonde. As much as I love Cagney, I may love Biff Grimes even more.

James Hogan's play One Sunday Afternoon was a Broadway hit in 1933 with 322 performances. Lloyd Nolan starred as Biff Grimes, an ex-con/dentist who comes to grips with his past and his present on one fateful Sunday afternoon. Stephen Roberts (The Story of Temple Drake, Star of Midnight) directed a film version that same year of 1933 for Paramount starring Gary Cooper as Biff. I find Cooper's portrayal strangely unlikeable and it colours my attitude toward the picture.

Warner Brothers 1941 version retitled The Strawberry Blonde in honour of James Cagney's red-haired mother, Carrie (Cagney by Cagney, 1976), is just my cup of tea. The Epstein Brothers adapted the screenplay and Raoul Walsh directed his second of four Cagney films (The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, A Lion is in the Streets). 

Biff Grimes (Cagney) can't seem to make a go of his dentistry business after serving time. Biff is the sort of fellow who has always let his temper get the best of him and this lazy Sunday afternoon is one of those times. He doesn't like the college kids singing next door, and he doesn't like being called to handle an emergency when every other dentist in the book refused. However, when he learns that the patient with the aching tooth is the old pal who set him up for the prison term, Biff plots revenge. He keeps his temper at the boiling point by recalling to his pal Nick (George Tobias) what led to this Sunday afternoon.

James Cagney, Alan Hale

At 40 years of age, you may have to stretch a wee bit to accept Cagney as Biff's younger self, but not too much. He expertly conveys the younger man's odd mix of naive idealism and energetic self-confidence. His scenes with the "old man" he has had to bring up (Alan Hale) are sincere and affectionate.

Biff, to his everlasting chagrin, is pals with a smart operator named Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) who finagles his way through life to the top of the heap, letting others like Biff take the fall. Carson portrays the blowhard Hugo to perfection.

The lovely Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) is the gal of Biff's dreams, not to mention the dreams of every fellow in the neighbourhood. Hugo arranges a double date and snags Virginia for himself. Biff gets Virginia's best pal Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Rita Hayworth is gorgeous and runs with the opportunity to display some awesome comedic timing. Olivia de Havilland has never been more delightful than in the role of Amy Lind.

Barnstead and Grimes move from selling tickets for local events to big-time business enterprises. The solicitous Hugo needs someone to sign contracts and be responsible, all unknowing, for shady business deals; that's Biff's department. We can't help but root for Biff. He's a right guy who never gets the breaks - or does he? He'll find out one Sunday afternoon.

Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney, Jack Carson

The 1940s and 1950s saw a boom in turn of the 20th-century nostalgia such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Cheers for Miss Bishop, I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now, Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, Two Weeks With Love, Shine on Harvest Moon, Life With Father, On Moonlight Bay, etc.  Time had faded the ills of the era and given it a nostalgic glow untainted by the Great War, the Depression and World War 2. Biff Grimes' world was a world of invention and innovation, but still, a world where a highlight was a walk with your wife on a Sunday. It was a world where the hit parade featured When You Were Sweet Sixteen, The Bowery, In My Merry Oldsmobile, In the Evening by the Moonlight and The Band Played On.

The world of The Strawberry Blonde must have had a strong appeal to Raoul Walsh because in 1948, reverting to the original title of One Sunday Afternoon, he directed a musical version of the story. The tale of Biff, Hugo, Virginia, and Amy lends itself well to a musical, but sadly, the tunes by Ralph Blane were distinctly unmemorable.

The appealing cast had Dennis Morgan as Biff, Don De Fore as Hugo, Janis Paige as Virginia and Dorothy Malone, who was every bit Olivia's equal as Amy. Pleasant enough entertainment if one hasn't seen The Strawberry Blonde, but a disappointment to those who have. There have been various TV versions of James Hogan's play as well; in 1949 with Burgess Meredith, 1951 with Richard Carlson, 1954 with Frank Albertson, 1957 with Gordon MacRae and 1959 with David Wayne.

TCM is screening The Strawberry Blonde on Monday, September 14th at 2:45 pm. It's all the fudge!

A joyful bonus for movie fans is that we can still celebrate the birthdays of three lovely ladies, Olivia de Havilland ** (Amy Lind, 1941) on July 1, 1916, Janis Paige (Virginia Brush, 1948) on September 16, 1922 and Dorothy Malone * (Amy Lind, 1948) on January 30, 1925.

* Sadly, Dorothy Malone passed away on January 19, 2018.
** Sadly, Olivia de Havilland passed away on July 26, 2020.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

James Webb's babies: Raton Pass (1951) and The Big Country (1958)

Screenwriter James R. Webb was twice awarded the Bronze Wrangler by the Western Heritage Awards, in 1964 for How the West Was Won (also Oscar-nominated) and 1965 for Cheyenne Autumn. The Writer's Guild of America honoured him three times with the Valentine Davies Award in 1965, the Morgan Cox Award in 1974 and the Edmund J. North Award in 1975.

Webb's 32 screenplays include a great mix of entertaining westerns, adventures, and thrillers: Cape Fear, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, Pork Chop Hill and Illegal. His first foray into movies was with the Roy Rogers western Nevada City in 1941. This was followed by such titles as Jesse James at Bay, South of St. Louis, The Big Trees and The Big Country.

Dennis Morgan, Patricia Neal

TCMs Summer Under the Stars presented in the wee hours on Patricia Neal Day the 1951 western Raton Pass. A western I had yet to see meant recording was in order. The synopsis was rather convoluted about a rancher and homesteaders fighting his wife and her gunfighter, but it offered Steve Cochran as the gunfighter. Oh, boy!

The Warner Bros. fanfare announced the start of the black and white feature which went into an unmistakably Max Steiner score. The movie might not be an epic, but Steiner always gives it that feel. As a devotee of William Wyler's The Big Country I was pleased to see the name of James R. Webb as the screenwriter. Edwin L. Marin (Abilene Town, Fighting Man of the Plains) directed. This, I thought, may well be worth the time.

Patricia Neal stars as Ann Challon, an extremely ambitious woman who made no secret of the fact that she wanted land and came to town with her sights set on Marc Challon played by Dennis Morgan. Both Marc and his father Pierre, played by Basil Ruysdael, thought Ann was the perfect wife/companion and new matriarch for the huge and powerful Challon ranch. Everyone was in accord, so what could possibly go wrong?

Ann was quickly frustrated by the limited role of a woman at the ranch. Marc and his father had long done things their way and didn't want or solicit her ideas. Eventually, Ann's natural greed took over and she got her hooks into a banker, Prentice played by Scott Forbes, with a plan to divorce Marc and buy him out. Pierre, on a wrong-headed generous impulse, had given Ann title to half the ranch on her wedding day.

Marc acquiesced to Ann's demand, or so it seemed to Pierre, who packed up and left town. Marc had a long-range plan for revenge. Ann had no title to a strip of land called Raton Pass that Marc had leased from Jim Pozner played by Louis Jean Heydt. The homesteaders led by Pozner had long felt themselves under the thumb of the mighty Challons and forced to subsist on less than fertile land.

Marc sought the help of the homesteaders, combined with his own loyal forces to box the cattle away from Challon land and drive Ann to bankruptcy. The only "in" Marc had with Pozner was Pozner's niece Lena played by Dorothy Hart. Lena had had a crush on Marc since girlhood and lied to her uncle that she and Marc were in a relationship. Her lie bought Marc some semblance of co-operation from the homesteaders.  

Meanwhile, Ann had hired her own crew headed by gunfighter Cy Van Cleave (what a name!) played by Steve Cochran. They had connected when she first came to town and Ann thought she knew how to control the hot-headed fighter. Some gals were born to play with fire and Ann is at the head of the line.

Watching this project I couldn't help but notice some similarities to the almost a decade off The Big Country. Raton Pass was based on a novel by Thomas W. Blackburn, the lyricist of the popular Davey Crockett theme, published in 1950. The Big Country was based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm series. Webb's screenplays for both have some obvious similarities for those of us familiar with the films.  

Although the story of the all-powerful ranch owner sticking it to the little guy is nothing new in the western, it is the combined effect of the similarities which I found striking and more than a little endearing.

Steve Cochran, Patricia Neal

The Challons of Raton Pass rule with an iron fist and sense of entitlement similar to Major Terrill of The Big Country. Jim Pozner and his little guys living on scrubland and having to take it are easily marking time for Rufus Hannassey and the folks of Blanco Canyon. Marc Challon falling for the wrong gal when the right one is standing in front of him is a shadow of Jim McKay being engaged to Pat Terrill when Julie Maragon is right around the corner.

Near the climax of the feature, there is a scene where Lena and an injured Marc ride off to join Pierre as he and the remaining cowhands face Ann and Van Cleave. In an impassioned speech, Lena berates her fellow homesteaders for not sticking up for themselves when it counts and off she and Marc ride alone. The music swells as eventually what is left of the Pozner gang follows. In its own small way, it is a set-up for Major Terrill and Steve Leech's ride into Blanco Canyon - one of the great scenes in a western.

I'm not recommending Raton Pass as a must-see movie, but if you are a fan of The Big Country it is amusing to see parts of the epic in an embryonic stage. Patricia Neal's forceful and driven character is intriguing and Dennis Morgan's character even sings a tune on his wedding day!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Making of an Anti-Damsel: Deborah Kerr in "Vacation from Marriage"

Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In urge us to think of the "anti-damsel", empowered ladies of the silent and classic film. Here is where all the inspiring females hang out.

It is not enough to say that Robert and Catherine Wilson, the lead characters in 1945s Vacation from Marriage, directed by Alexander Korda, are an average couple. They are not. They are rather a below average couple. Robert is a perfect little automaton, a nondescript London bookkeeper and a slave to routine. Cathy, his wife, nurses a perpetual cold while fussing over the needs of her husband.

Robert Donat, the dashing star of Knight Without Armour and The 39 Steps plays Robert Wilson. Cathy is played by Deborah Kerr who had just made a great success in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and in a short time would win over the folks in Hollywood.

Cathy at home serving tea.
Deborah Kerr

Cathy Wilson, at the time we meet her, is in the unshakable throes of domestic damselhood.  However, Robert and Cathy's lives are to be changed forever. It is 1940 and Robert is off to war. Prone to seasickness, Robert is facing untold years in the Royal Navy. Whatever will poor Cathy do without his steadying influence?

Cathy  and Dizzy Clayton
Deborah Kerr, Glynis Johns

Cathy's answer to the long separation is to join the Women's Royal Navy Service (WRENS). Among new companions and with new and energizing responsibilities, Cathy gradually sheds her old cardigans and old ways. Cathy becomes a modern, self-sufficient anti-damsel!

Cathy's new pal, "Dizzy" Clayton is a confident contemporary woman. She smokes, uses lipstick and tilts her hat at a flattering angle. Dizzy also has a cousin Richard, an intriguing and conveniently located artist.

Cathy in the thick of things.

It is a matter of routine for the young woman to deliver important messages at night, alone, across the open water during a bombing raid. "A bit noisy", but no trouble at all.

Our inner selves are often at odds with the face we present to the world or the lives we lead. Sometimes all we need is a little shaking up. For Cathy, it took a worldwide conflict to embrace her inner anti-damsel.

Cathy dancing with Dizzy's cousin.

Roland Culver plays Richard, Dizzy's cousin. Richard is a man who appreciates the new Cathy, who takes her on picnics and opens her mind and heart to possibilities heretofore undreamed. Richard teaches Cathy to dance.

A most uncomfortable Cathy.

After three years Cathy and Robert finally have leave at the same time. Cathy thinks it is immoral to have to be a wife to someone you haven't known in years. She likes her new life and wants nothing to do with the old one, especially her stick-in-the-mud husband, Robert.

Cathy is surprised.

It is obvious that Cathy was under the impression that her Robert was sitting on his hands all this time. Not a bit of it! Robert has had his share of adventure and change. He's met interesting people and done his fair share of dancing. Robert may be even less thrilled about this reunion with the mousy damsel he left behind than even his spouse. The dawning light finds Robert as surprised as Cathy.

Cathy dances with Robert.
Deborah Kerr, Robert Donat

As the strangers dance, they begin to think perhaps their marriage isn't such a lost cause. After all, any anti-damsel worth her salt is allowed a change of heart and free reign to follow that heart's desire.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: Lionel stars in "Down to the Sea in Ships"

The legendary Barrymores are getting the blogathon treatment courtesy of In the Good Old Days of Classic HollywoodHere you will find all the affection and admiration accorded the family.

Lionel Barrymore's autobiography, as told to Cameron Shipp, We Barrymores cemented my regard for the actor who was loathe to follow in the family business. What shone through for me was his love for his grand sister and his tragic and misunderstood baby brother.  

Lionel's screen acting career garnered him one Oscar win for 1931s A Free Soul. Although I am a fan of Lionel's, I am not a fan of that performance and am flummoxed by the fact that he did not receive another nomination in a career that encompassed over 20 more years and many great performances. Consider:  Broken Lullaby, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, Captains Courageous, Ah, Wilderness!, Key Largo and, my special favourite, Down to the Sea in Ships.

Henry Hathaway directed the 1949 feature Down to the Sea in Ships based on a story by Sy Bartlett (Twelve O'Clock High, The Big Country) and screenplay by John Lee Mahin (Captains Courageous, Bombshell). The crisp black and white cinematography is by Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine). The stirring score is from Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won).

New Bedford, 1887 - a land of lighthouses, widow's walks, and whaling masters. Captain Bering Joy (Lionel Barrymore) is a whaling master, the son of a whaling master, the father of a whaling master, and the grandfather of a future whaling master, Jed (Dean Stockwell). Returning to port after four years at sea Captain Joy has a new record in his cargo of whale oil and a grandson who outgrew the clothes with which they started the voyage. Their next voyage is not assured. Out of concern and compassion, and the request of the insurance company, Captain Joy's friends and employers want to convince the 70-year-old to retire and live out his remaining years on land. The local school board will be testing young Jed to ensure his grandfather was diligent in maintaining educational standards.

The future hinges on Jed's exam results.
Lionel Barrymore, Dean Stockwell, Gene Lockhart

A sympathetic school superintemdent (Gene Lockhart) fudges the marks to give Jed a passing grade. The ship's owners hire, pursuant to Captain Joy's approval, an experienced, university-trained first mate in possession of master's papers. Bering Joy turns the hiring of Mister Lunceford (Richard Widmark) to his own advantage by giving him the duty of tutoring Jed.

Captain Bering Joy addresses the crew.

"The business of this vessel is the takin' o' whale. We don't go home til we've a full cargo. You'll get justice aboard with no favouritism, but I better not run into no shirkin', cowardice nor just plain meanness. I aim to bring you back better men than when I got ya. Bare and bow your heads - O Lord, we ask your blessing on this company that go down to the sea in ships; that will see and know your works and your wonders in the vast deep. Amen."

Ship's log

It is part of Captain Joy's code as master of the ship to treat Jed as he would any other member of the crew now that the lad has moved up from cabin boy. The affection a grandfather would normally show his grandson is strictly off limits. The affectionate youngster turns his hero-worshipping eyes in the direction of his new mentor, Mister Lunceford. Emotion is something Mister Lunceford strives to avoid and does not heed the cook (Cecil Kellaway) when he cautions Lunceford about Jed's attachment and the Captain's jealousy.

Life is a lesson.
Dean Stockwell, Richard Widmark

The film gives us a strong sense of the isolation and tedium broken by the backbreaking and dangerous work of "takin' whale". It includes a fascinating look at the rendering of the carcass into the important product of whale oil. The crew is comprised of a number of familiar character actors whose weathered faces look totally at home in the environment: J.C. Flippen, John McIntire, Harry Morgan, and Arthur Hohl. The crew is devoted to Captain Joy. He is strict and demanding, but fair and honest. Every man knows where they stand with the Captain who holds himself to the highest standard of all.

Avast, mateys!  Spoilers ahead.

Pride and concern as Jed is "blooded".
Lionel Barrymore

Life on a whaling vessel is filled with danger. One small mistake can cost a man his life. A crisis comes to pass when one of the longboats sent after a whale goes missing in the fog. On board is young Jed. It is against the Captain's rule to endanger a second ship by sending out a search party. Mister Lunceford disobeys orders by sending out the extra crew. The missing boat was in great distress, but thankfully they saved the sailors. Captain Joy was thrilled beyond measure to have his grandson back, yet he still had to discipline Lunceford for disobeying orders by relieving him of duty and sending him ashore at the first opportunity. Lunceford understood the necessity of his punishment. Jed, however, saw it only as a sign of meanness in his grandfather and it causes a breach between them.

Pride of New Bedford in distress.

A further tense situation occurs with Captain Joy becoming ill. Mister Lunceford is placed in charge and the ship is damaged while trying to navigate an ice field. Men are injured, men are killed and men are frightened. Captain Joy rouses himself to take charge of the situation displaying the strength of his character and reconciling with Jed.

Captain Bering Joy
Lionel Barrymore

The emotionally inspirational aspect of the story of Down to the Sea in Ships is the maturing of three generations of characters. Captain Joy appears to be a stubborn and crusty old fellow but is humble before his God and open-minded enough to admit his lack of education. When Mister Lunceford's talk is beyond Joy's ken, he secretly takes to the books to improve his knowledge.

Jed Joy and Mister Lunceford
Dean Stockwell, Richard Widmark

Mister Lunceford is bright and ambitious, but he has neglected his emotional understanding and well-being. By observing and becoming involved in the relationship between Jed and his grandfather and allowing his affection for both to grow, Lunceford becomes a more well-rounded and understanding man and master.

Jed has a youngster's large capacity for both goodwill and enmity, for quick judgments and misunderstandings. The adult influences in Jed's life guide him without pushing and he comes through his trials a more aware and thoughtful young man. Dean Stockwell's performance rates among his finest.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Colleen Gray: We will always enjoy her work.

Colleen Gray
October 23, 1922 - August 3, 2015

Film fans are mourning the loss of lovely Colleen Gray, star of classic film-noir such as Nightmare Alley, Kiss of Death, Kansas City Confidential and The Killing.  Westerns like the revered Red River, and the less revered Town Tamer, Black Whip and Arrow in the Dust.  Sci-fi fun flicks like The Leech Woman and classic television guest appearances on Perry Mason, Rawhide, 77 Sunset Strip, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and as Chief Clifford's wife on McCloud.

Red River
John Wayne, Colleen Gray

Ms. Gray's round-up of leading men includes the tops in the business:  Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, William Holden, Dana Andrews, Victor Mature, Sterling Hayden, John Payne and Dana Andrews.

Kiss of Death
Victor Mature, Colleen Gray

If I recall my Saturday Night at the Movies hosted by Elwy Yost correctly, Colleen said that "Vic" became her protector against notably grumpy director Henry Hathaway on Kiss of Death.

Ms. Gray possessed a warmth that was as sincere as any found onscreen.  She was a welcome ray of sunshine in the shadowy world of noir.  She was a lively and winning comedienne in two family comedies of 1950, Father Was a Bachelor and Frank Capra's remake of his own Broadway Bill with music, Riding High.  When I think of Ms. Gray, I always think of this spirited number:

Sunshine Cake was written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, herein performed by Mr. Bing Crosby, Mr. Clarence Muse and Ms. Colleen Gray with kibbitzing from "Broadway Bill" himself in his stall.



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