Sunday, January 31, 2016

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for February on TCM

Priscilla Lane, Betty Field and Richard Whorf are top-billed in Warner's 1941 release Blues in the Night, but the real stars are Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's Oscar nominated title song and the thrilling montages by Don Siegel.

Richard Whorf (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Christmas Holiday) plays Jigger Pine, a piano player with a lot of talent and lot of dreams. He wants to form a unit that will play their own style of music, five guys who think as one. Actually, what Whorf really wants to do is direct and he will do so in features such as Champagne for Caesar and much of the classic television we enjoy: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Ann Sothern Show, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, etc.

Elia Kazan, Richard Whorf, Billy Halop, Peter Whitney
Jack Carson, Priscilla Lane

Jigger is a nice guy who draws to him equally committed musicians and friends. Elia Kazan (City for Conquest) is Nicky, a reed man, also a law student who wants to kick over the family expectations and play the blues. What gives with these actors who aren't content without telling everybody else what to do?  Kazan's impressive directing chores include On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. An uncredited Kazan also worked on the play Hot Nocturne by Edwin Gilbert that was the basis for this film. Billy Halop (Dead End) is the drummer, Peppi. Peppi's health ain't so good, but the kid has heart. Big Peter Whitney joins the gang as bassist Pete Bossett.  Pete may be the most sensible of the group, but with these starry-eyed fellows that is not saying much.

William Gillespie

A little dust-up at a joint where the boys are playing puts them behind bars and the now standard title tune is introduced by fellow inmates. William Gillespie, baritone with the Hall Johnson Choir, gives out with: -

My mama done tol' me, when I was in knee-pants
My mama don tol' me, "Son a woman'll sweet talk
And give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin's done
A woman's a two-faced, a worrisome thing who'll leave ya to sing the blues in the night...

It is the first, but not the last time we will hear the tune that inspires our fictional bandmates and imprinted itself so on audiences that the song sounds as if it was always around; that it sprang from all our deepest regrets.

Harold Arlen (1905-1986) and Johnny Mercer (1909-1976)

Arlen, the cantor's son from Buffalo, and Mercer, the Georgian gentleman, have in common with the characters in our screenplay by Robert Rossen (The Roaring Twenties, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Hustler) a love for music and a driving ambition. Arlen started playing in bands in his teens and by the 1930s, with lyricist Ted Koehler, was the staff composer for the Cotton Club in Harlem. By the end of the decade, he was in Hollywood writing the songs for The Wizard of Oz with E.Y. Harburg. 

Hollywood was very good for composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer's career, as these standards attest. Mercer and Richard Whiting wrote the immortal Hooray for Hollywood and Too Marvelous for Words. Hoagy Carmichael and Mercer won an Oscar for In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening. Johnny and Jerome Kern were nominated for an Oscar for Dearly Beloved. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's classic compositions include Blues in the Night, My Shining Hour, and One for My Baby from 1943s The Sky's the Limit, That Old Black Magic, and Come Rain or Come Shine. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were both inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971.

Blues in the Night was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song, and lost to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's The Last Time I Saw Paris. Good as that song is, it was not written for the film Lady Be Good but used as a goodwill gesture to the city of Paris recently occupied by the Nazis. Ah, the Oscars and their everlasting controversies. Rules of the category were changed as a result. Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Frank Churchill, and Gene Autry also had songs in the hunt.

Jimmie Lunceford leading his band

Blues in the Night benefits from the presence of bandleaders Jimmie Lunceford in the New Orleans segment and Will Osborne leading the Guy Heisler Band, the successful flipside of Jigger's group. Pianist Stan Wrightsman does the playing for Richard Whorf. He also doubled for Bonita Granville in the picture Syncopation.   

Our stalwart little band of dreamers rides the rails with two more joining the group. Trumpeter Leo Powell played by Jack Carson (The Strawberry Blonde, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is, you should pardon the expression, a blowhard with talent. Somewhere behind that loud mouth must be a decent sort because his wife, a pretty songbird known as "Character" played by Priscilla Lane (The Roaring Twenties, Saboteur) puts up with him.

So far we've got the makings of a decent little rags to riches showbiz tale, but here's where we take a sharp turn into film-noir territory. Del Davis played by Lloyd Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Sleepers West) is a crooked gambler who has broken out of a federal hotel and is looking for his old gang. He hops on board the same freight car as our happy-go-lucky kooks and pulls a gun on them for their measly cash and sandwiches. No biggie. Jigger is an open-hearted sort of guy who treats everyone with kindness and respect. He figures Del must be dealing with tough stuff so why make things tougher. This attitude touches Del deeply who is determined to do the group a favour.  Some favour! He takes them to The Jungle.

Betty Field, Lloyd Nolan
Del Davis:  "You're just like me, Kay.  You want what you can't have."

The Jungle is a broken down club in New Jersey wherein hides Del's old gang. The money from their previous job is gone and they are not smart enough without Del to make a go of things. There's double-dealing, double-crossing Sam played by Howard Da Silva (1776, Border Incident). There's a broken-down piano man Brad played by Wallace Ford (Freaks, T-Men). And there's a sour canary by the name of Kay Grant played by Betty Field (Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby). Kay used to be Del's girl. Actually, before that Kay used to be Brad's girl. Currently, Sam thinks Kay is his girl. Kay ... Kay is no good. Apparently, Kay has never gotten over Del, so she sets her sights on Leo (it's mutual) to make Del jealous. When that doesn't pan out Kay moves on to Jigger.

Jigger's breakdown montage
Richard Whorf

There is no earthly reason for Jigger to fall for Kay except for his deeply ingrained chivalrous nature. Jigger always sees good in people. He just cannot accept that sometimes you can put all the goodness you have out there in the world and there are some people (Kay) who will never change. For Kay's sake Jigger breaks up the unit and takes a steady job with a popular and successful dance band - wearing a white tuxedo yet! His buddies are disgusted. Kay doesn't appreciate the sacrifice. Jigger has a nervous breakdown.

Betty Field, Lloyd Nolan, Wallace Ford
We interrupt our musical program for a noirish interlude.

Blues in the Night was directed by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit, Anastasia) and the musical drama clocks in at just under 90 minutes. The fast-paced craziness is greatly enhanced by a series of montages by Don Siegel, still a few years away from his directing career (The Big Steal, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry). The imaginative sequences highlight the influence behind the song Blues in the Night, the progress of the band from town to town, Jigger's hopeless attempt to make Kay a decent vocalist, and Jigger's mental breakdown. Cinematographer Ernest Haller (Mildred Pierce, Jezebel, Lilies of the Field) deserves our applause as well.

"Here We Go Again"

If you want to hop on that freight car with Jigger, Character, and the gang, TCM is screening the movie on Wednesday, February 24th at 8:15 am.  In the network's 31 Days of Oscar chain, I believe it hooks up with the previous showing of Mr. Skeffington through the presence of actor Peter Whitney and joins up with Priscilla Lane in the following presentation of Four Daughters.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon: Bing Crosby, David Butler and Their Movies

Bing Crosby, David Butler, Bob Hope, visitor Joel McCrea
on set of Road to Morocco from Getty Images

Theresa Brown aka CineMaven has challenged us with a blogathon dedicated to those director/actor pairings that bring magic to the movies.  The Classic Symbiotic Collaborations blogathon runs on January 23/24.  Click HERE for the contributions.

"I made friends, like buddies, with my crew, with my cutters, with my actors and actresses.  I didn't want to have any feeling that I was the big boss and they were nothing.  I think that by doing that I was able to last as long as I did."

- David Butler, Honorary Life Member, Directors Guild of America

David Butler (1894-1979) was born into show business, and with the support of his stage manager father and actress mother, considered no other career.  Small stage roles combined with film work when available in his San Francisco hometown and this led to Hollywood and extra work in western films for Thomas Ince and gradually bigger things with D.W. Griffith and Maurice Tourneur.  One of the leading characters (Gobin) in the 1927 Fox film 7th Heaven would be the apex of his acting career as, like fellow Fox extra/stunt rider John Ford, David Butler ran with the opportunity to become a director.

We might call David Butler our "happy ending" man.  Coming from the theatrical background where you aim to send the audience out with a smile on their face, humming a cheerful tune, his films have that same appeal.  At Fox he directed the top studio stars such as Will Rogers in five popular films including A Connecticut Yankee and Doubting Thomas.  Five of Shirley Temple's best are Butler pictures such as Bright Eyes with the scene-stealing Jane Withers, Captain January and The Little Colonel.  In a career that never waned, by the 1950s David Butler was at Warners and directing Doris Day in six of her well-remembered movies such as Calamity Jane, By the Light of the Silvery Moon and Lullaby of Broadway.  Toward the end of that decade he moved on to television with Wagon Train, The Deputy and, most memorably, Leave It to Beaver.

Bing Crosby (1903-1977), popular as a vocalist pioneering a new and intimate style, made his initial screen appearances as a distinct personality in a series of shorts for Mack Sennett in the early 1930s.  The audience took to him and he was signed by Paramount Studios after 1932s The Big Broadcast. To get the singing star Paramount had to put up with the "Crosby clause".  Bing refused to be top-billed or singly billed above the title in any of his pictures.  His thinking was that if the movie flopped audiences would remember the big name, yet if the audience enjoyed themselves there would be plenty of good will to go around.  This was not happy news for studio publicity workers, but it certainly did well by Bing and it rather reflects David Butler's attitude toward the co-operation required to make a motion picture.

It appears that a shared work philosophy was not the only thing David Butler and Bing Crosby had in common.  They both put as much effort into their play as their work.  David Butler was an executive on the Board of the Del Mar Race Track of which Bing was the chief founding member.  They also shared a fondness for the old-time entertainments both had grown up with, such as the older Vaudeville acts.  As members of the Marching and Chowder Club, they were part of entertainment professionals who staged performances to show off and show up each other.  A printed program lists "Crackerjack, large peanuts and exceptional popcorn between the acts by David Butler, concessionaire.  Very good prizes too."

Another clause in Bing's contract gave him the opportunity to produce his own pictures and the first of these was 1936s Pennies from Heaven wat Columbia which was financially successful, Oscar-nominated for the title song and gave Bing and Louis Armstrong a chance to work together.  The things you can do when you are the boss!

David Butler approached Bing with a story idea for his next "outside picture" and East Side of Heaven was developed and the idea sold to Universal Studios.

Bing plays Denny Martin, a hyphenated singer.  First he is a singing telegrapher who loses his job after he annoys a rich man (C. Aubrey Smith).  Next he is a singing cabbie who finds an abandoned baby in the back seat of his car.  The baby actually has been left on purpose by his mother (Irene Hervey), an old friend of Denny's.  Her wealthy father-in-law (guess who?) is trying to take the baby since its father is off on a bender.  The young wife and mother intends to keep the baby out of grandpa's clutches while trying to get hubby back on the straight and narrow.

Helpful sort that he is, Denny (Bing) rises to the challenge with the help of his wacky Russian roomate Nicky (Mischa Auer) and his attractive and far too understanding fiance Mary (Joan Blondell).  The Snidely Whiplash in the piece is a radio star/columnist named Claudius De Wolfe (Jerome Cowan).  This De Wolfe character does not like Denny one bit, but he does like Denny's girl and he wants to impress the rich guy.  Comic complications ensure.

Bing Crosby, Mischa Auer, Baby Sandy
Well, where would you hide a baby from a landlord?

Three new songs by James Monaco and Johnny Burke are featured in the film.  Monaco even figures in an inside joke near the opening of the film.  The title song is lovely, lilting ballad.  Sing a Song of Sunbeams is a bouncy ditty that gets Denny his job with the Sunbeam Cab Company.  The big production number is Hang Your Heart on a Hickory Limb which is sung to the errant father of the baby in a cafe.  Singer Jane Jones, who knew Bing back in the speakeasy days, is the proprietor of the cafe and the Music Maids, about to appear weekly on Kraft Music Hall with Bing are singing waitresses.  Everybody gets into the act!

Joan Blondell may not be as sassy as in a Warners pre-code of earlier in the decade, but she never lacks for spark and spunk, and is a perfect comedic leading lady.  Mischa Auer is his usual dynamo.  The heart tugging of the cutest baby ever never overwhelms the laughs, creating a fun film to watch and a lasting fond memory.  The film was a pleasure to make, a hit with audiences and a financial success.

David Butler put together another package for Bing at Universal featuring the studio's young (14 year old) soprano, Gloria Jean.  If I Had My Way comes across as sort of an amalgam of all the things that made Crosby's movies in the 1930s so popular.  He is an independent sort, but a natural leader who draws to himself a make-shift family.  Bing as "Buzz" Blackwell works construction, in this case the Golden Gate Bridge, with his pals Fred Johnson (Donald Woods) and Axel Swenson (El Brendel).  Fred's daughter Pat (Gloria Jean) is the little mother of the group and when an accident leaves her orphaned, Buzz and Axel follow Fred's wishes and take Pat to her relatives in New York City.

The Snidely Whiplash in this piece is Pat's rich Uncle Jarvis (Allyn Joslyn).  Jarvis and his wife Brenda (Claire Dodd) have no intention of letting some little upstart intrude on their financial security and deny her as a relative.  Fortunately, the family tree has a friendlier branch in Great Uncle Joe (Charles Winninger) an old-time vaudevillian and his wife Marian (Nana Bryant).

Bing Crosby, Gloria Jean

Through blink and you miss 'em plot twists, our heroes end up owning a bankrupt restaurant which they intend to revive by cashing in on nostalgia.  Entertainers from an earlier age are booked to perform and prove to be a hit.  Jarvis is hoodwinked and learns to like it.  The finale of the film features performances by acrobatic cyclist Pat Gordon, ballad singer Blanche Ring and minstrel man Eddie Leonard.  The songs "I've Got Rings on My Fingers and Bells on My Toes" and "Ida" are backed by the contemporary swing vocalists Six Hits and a Miss.  Butler and Crosby seem to be fulfilling some longing to be old-fashioned impressarios as well as offering a kindness to the entertainers of their youth.

Gloria Jean found Bing to be a protective and easy-going co-star, who gave her a birthday party.  David Butler even helped her with her homework.  Sometimes she observed the star and director fighting about little things Bing wanted to do with a scene.  Bing would always win these arguments, but for the most part Gloria says the two got along famously.

The movie is chock full of songs from the established ones such as the title track and Gloria's solo of "Little Grey Home in the West" to new numbers by Monaco and Burke including "The Pessimistic Character" and "I Haven't Time to be a Millionaire".

If I Had My Way was more of a hit with audiences than with critics who bemoaned its old-fashioned story.  Nonetheless, Universal had success with the movie and it was part of a package sent to troops in North Africa in 1943 as a film that "exemplified typical American homelife".  Well, anything is better than Nazi propaganda!  Today, if you come across the movie on television it is a pleasant diversion and a chance to enjoy the under-seen Gloria Jean.  Also, the scene where Bing learns of his friend's death and has to tell little Pat is quite moving and gives us a glimpse of the mature dramatic actor to come.

The "Road" pictures put a new spin on the careers of their stars in the 1940s and supplied Bing Crosby and Bob Hope a special niche in film comedy history.  1940s Road to Singapore had first been planned for the team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and was later slated for for Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie.  Fate had other plans and Bing and Bob were teamed and the rest is history.  Both performers had developed an off-the-cuff style that meshed well as they knew from an unplanned New York stage performance almost a decade previously.  Audiences took to the combination and a series was born.

In Gary Giddens biography of Crosby he quotes a school pal as saying that the Bing in the "Road" movies is the real Bing - the easy banter, the primed reactions, the fast wit and easy superiority.  That is Bing's character in all of the pictures, with Bob as the put upon pal who doesn't stand a chance as they run from over-the-top villains and pursue Dotty Lamour.  Of course, there is the occasional break for a ballad and this movie features the lovely Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen standard "Moonlight Becomes You".

Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope
Hope is such an optimist!

Road to Morroco is the third of the six "Road" movies (I don't count the seventh without Dorothy Lamour as leading lady, and it's my blog), and most fans consider it the best of the lot.  There was a script, but it was augmented by Bob and Bing's radio writers and their own quick wits.  David Butler admired what he called Bing's "feeling for language" and was willing to let him have free reign.  Butler knew when to keep the camera rolling to catch gold and when to pull back.  When a camel spit at Bob, Butler didn't cut and run to take care of the star.  He watched to see what would happen and Bing didn't disappoint by patting the camel's rump and calling her a "good girl".  Of all the movies in the series, Road to Morocco capitalizes best the feeling of improvisation that makes the comedy timeless.

David Butler would go on to direct Bob Hope in three more films, 1941s Caught in the Draft, 1943s They Got Me Covered and 1944s The Princess and the Pirate, the last two featuring amusing cameos by Bing Crosby.

Bing Crosby and David Butler's careers would go in different directions from this point with Bing winning an Oscar and Butler finding a home at Warner Brothers and in television.  Their work together was successful and gave them opportunities to showcase their talents and their passion leaving a legacy of music, good-natured humour and those happy endings we all need once in a while.

Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins
Directors Guild of American Oral History Interview with David Butler by Irene Kahn Atkins
Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven by Scott MacGillivray and Jan MacGillivray

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Remembering Barbara Stanwyck blogathon: All I Desire (1953)

Crystal Kalyana Pacey of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is our hostess for the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Click HERE for the tributes to the amazing actress.

The 1953 release All I Desire, based on the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink, is the link between two distinct phases of director Douglas Sirk's career. The half dozen or so films for Universal preceding All I Desire have the flavour of comedic Americana, Week-end With Father, No Room for the Groom and the period pieces, Has Anybody Seen My Gal, Meet Me at the Fair and Take Me to Town. After All I Desire we find the opulent soapers such as Magnificent Obsession, The Tarnished Angels, Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows, a film that compares interestingly to our choice. All I Desire bridges these movies as a woman's picture, a period piece, and an excellent showcase for Barbara Stanwyck.

Barbara Stanwyck as Naomi Murdoch, actress

Vivacious Naomi Murdoch would seem to have had it all with a loving family and a secure social position, but she wanted more. She thinks she may have found it in the equally restless Dutch Heinemann played by Lyle Bettger. She thinks she will find it by following her dream of a career on the stage. Life upon the wicked stage was not all it was cracked up to be and Naomi is scraping by in bottom-of-the-barrel vaudeville and burlesque houses, too proud to return home.

Naomi's middle child, daughter Lily played by Lori Nelson (Bend of the River, Destry) is about to graduate high school and dreams of following her mother into the theatre. Lily sends an invitation to Naomi to return for the graduation ceremony and to see her play the lead in the school play. Naomi accepts the invitation and returns playing the part of the grand and successful lady.

Naomi knows how to make an entrance.
Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Carlson

The black and white photography by Carl Guthrie (Christmas in Connecticut, Storm Warning) paints a nostalgic feel for the town, with especially appealing shots of and through the windows of the family home. Barbara Stanwyck glimmers in a white gown by Rosemary Odell when she makes her grand entrance in the darkened auditorium to attend the school play. Outstanding!

The Murdoch family at home.
Lori Nelson, Marcia Henderson, Richard Carlson, Billy Gray

The role of Naomi provides much for actress Stanwyck to play with as the character faces those she abandoned, pretending that the life she chose has been a success. She is naturally reticent, but puts on the brave face and plays her part to the hilt.

All I Desire offers solid performances from supporting players including Richard Carlson as the rejected husband. I note that Carlson appears in many of my old standby favorites such as The Little Foxes, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beyond Tomorrow and his charming debut in 1938s The Young in Heart.

Marcia Henderson (Thunder Bay) plays the oldest daughter Joyce, who is the most resentful of her mother's leaving her in the role of female head of the household. Lori Nelson is ebullient as a young girl with plans. Billy Gray, probably the finest of the younger actors at this time, plays the youngest child in the family, the one most in need of sure boundaries. Lotte Stein plays the housekeeper Lena, who understands much and is the only one to honestly make Naomi's homecoming special.

Maureen O'Sullivan (Tarzan and His Mate) plays a colleague of Carlson's character, a woman whose life would be different if not for the shadow and presence of Naomi. Lyle Bettger (The Greatest Show on Earth) is Naomi's former lover "Dutch", a man with a long memory and a short fuse.  I once saw Bettger play a good guy and was in a daze for a week!

What a treat to see future The Big Valley mother and son Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Long cutting a rug in All I Desire.

Universal-International in the 1950s cornered the market on good looking, dark-haired chaps and All I Desire gave many of them a chance at a scene or a line or two:  Guy Williams (Zorro), Stuart Whitman (The Comancheros), Brett Halsey (Follow the Sun), and Richard Long (The Big Valley) as Joyce's boyfriend.

The accident.
Barbara Stanwyck, Lyle Bettger, Billy Gray

One scene in All I Desire compares interestingly to a similar scene in the later Douglas Sirk film, 1955's All That Heaven Allows.

In All I Desire Naomi accidentally shoots "Dutch" and has the following exchange with her longtime family doctor played by Thomas Jackson (Little Caesar).

Dr. Tomlin:  "I am an old man and I say what I think. I'm the doctor and I know Riverdale.  As soon as I make my report to the police - Dutch Heinemann shot by a woman - "

Naomi:  "But I told you it was an accident."

Dr. Tomlin:  "It makes no difference what you tell me. Maybe it was an accident.  Do you think that'll make any difference? Already out there those maggots have got it all over town. The whole story in the worst way. The oldest and the nastiest story in the world."

Naomi:  "What can I do?"

Dr. Tomlin:  "You can go back to Chicago, for Henry's sake and the children's."

Naomi:  "Funny, isn't it? How things work out."

In All that Heaven Allows young widow Cary Scott played by Jane Wyman consults her family doctor played by Hayden Rorke about chronic headaches. The real issue is her unresolved feelings for a younger man.

Cary:  "Well, Dan, what's the verdict?"

Dr. Hennessy:  "I was just going over the findings. There's nothing organically wrong with you, Cary."

Cary:  "Well then why do I have these headaches. It's not my imagination and they're getting worse all the time."

Dr. Hennessy:  "You're punishing yourself."

Cary:  "For what?"

Dr. Hennessy:  "For running away from life. The headaches are nature's way of making a protest."

Cary:  "Will you give me something for them?"

Dr. Hennessy:  "Do you expect me to give you a prescription to cure life?  Sit down, Cary.  I want to talk to you. Forget for a minute that I am your doctor and let me give you some advice as a friend.  Marry him."

Cary:  "Well, there's no point in discussing that. It's all over."

Dr. Hennessy:  "Apparently it isn't. You still have the headaches."

Cary:  "But that's silly. And anyway, how could I marry him. The whole thing was impossible from the beginning. Why, you know Dan in a place like Stoneingham you can't ignore conversation and ... "

Dr. Hennessy:  "So you gave up a man you were in love with because you were afraid of Mona and the others, and you have the grand satisfaction of being taken back into the fold."

Cary:  "Well, I was thinking of my children."

Dr. Hennessy:   "You're just as lonely as you were before - lonelier in fact. Kay married and Ned abroad, so what good was your noble sacrifice. Cary, marry him."

Cary:  "It's too late. And maybe he's found someone else. Anyway, if he really loved me he would have come to me."

Dr. Hennessy:  "No. If you loved him you'd have gone to him in spite of the town, the children, everything. Cary, let's face it, you were ready for a love affair but not for love."

Naomi and Henry reconnect.
Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Carlson

The two films are set half a century apart although only a couple of years by production. There is a world of difference in the attitude and advice given to the leading character in terms of understanding and empathy. How much that tells us about the times.

Barbara Stanwyck would only make one other film with Douglas Sirk, 1956s There's Always Tomorrow.  Here again, Sirk would turn down unexpected roads in a family melodrama by focusing on the dissatisfaction of a neglected husband and father. Fred MacMurray is relatable as the father, and Barbara Stanwyck adds another must-see portrayal as a single woman who rethinks her choices.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Backstage Blogathon: Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

The Backstage Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently and Janet of Sister Celluloid runs from January 15 - 18.  Day 1 recap.  Day 2 recap.  Day 3 recap.  Final day recap.

A music lover.
Boris Karloff

Intrigue, betrayal, secrets, threats of violence - all this can be found in the opera Carnival and in the San Marco Opera Company.  It has been seven years since the company and its prima donna Madame Lilli Rochelle have played Los Angeles.  Her return is front page news and fans are eager to fill the house.  Caught up in the thrill of the music and the glamour of the theatre, patrons are little aware of the complicated lives shared backstage.

Lilli and Enrico are less than discreet.
Gregory Gaye, Margaret Irving

Madame Rochelle would seem to have it all including a husband, the wealthy Mr. Whitely, to finance her dreams and ambitions.  Is that cozy arrangement threatened by her more than cozy relationship with baritone Enrico Borelli?  Does Lilli think she is keeping that a secret from Whitely, along with the secret of an earlier marriage and a daughter?  Certainly Anita Borelli, also a soprano in the company, is not blind to her husband and Lilli's relationship.

Perhaps Lilli believed all her secrets were buried in the past.  People seem to have forgotten the Chicago Opera House fire back in 1923.  That was 13 years ago when her first husband, the baritone Gravelle was lost in the flames.  Thirteen years to deny her daughter, or at least keep her age from the public.  However, Lilli is frightened enough by a threatening note to go to the police and ask for protection.  Yes, Lilli has been frightened enough.

"Gravelle sings tonight!"
You don't argue with the man.
Boris Karloff, Nedda Harrigan

The Los Angeles police have their own problems.  The publicity surrounding the escape from a sanitorium of a mental patient has the public in an uproar.  An amnesiac who lost his mind and was considered a lunatic has been in the facility for seven years.  His distinguishing characteristic is that he sits at the rec hall piano and sings every night.  He sings opera!

The famous Honolulu police inspector Charlie Chan has been in Los Angeles on another of his thrilling cases, this last one involving crooked gamblers and horse racing.  Inspector Chan stops by the office of Inspector Regan before departing for home.  The timely arrival of Madame Rochelle, an old friend, precipitates our hero's agreeing to attend to her case personally.  Sergeant Kelly, to put it mildly, does not appreciate being shown up by the visiting Inspector.  Sergeant Kelly isn't a happy man to begin with as he's been put on the spot for not capturing the maniac, and he does not approve of the show biz types strewn across his path.

"I tell ya' nobody can see Madame Rochelle tonight!"
Sergeant Kelly takes charge.
William Demarest, Charlotte Henry, Thomas Beck

Inspectors Chan and Regan, with the added resources of number one son Lee and a few of his friends, Sergeant Kelly and a squad of patrolmen attend at the opera house for the protection of the famed soprano - but from whom?  Charlie Chan has observed that Madame Lilli's picture in a torn newspaper left at the asylum bears the mark of a footprint indicating anger.  She may deny it, but is Lilli acquainted with the escaped lunatic?  A mysterious and unnerving stranger lurks in the catacomb-like hallways and cubby holes of the theatre, terrorizing the wardrobe mistress and the ensemble.  Meanwhile, annoying Sergeant Kelly no end, is a young man and a girl who are most insistent on speaking with Lilli.

Chan and Son on the case.
Keye Luke, Warner Oland

Before the first act of Carnival is over, and despite the presence of the law, two murders occur backstage.  Can the field of suspects be narrowed?  In the grand theatrical tradition, will the show go on?  Should it go on?  Sergeant Kelly bulldozes his way through the investigation, determined to make the situation fit his theory.  He is equally determined to be first across the finish line with the case solved ahead of Chan.  Inspector Chan uses scientific methods (fingerprints) and equipment (long distance photographic transfer), the assistance of his helpful son, and his own deep knowledge of the human heart to separate the obvious from the truth, many truths.

H. Bruce Humberstone

Charlie Chan at the Opera was the second of four Chan features assigned to H. Bruce Humberstone (I Wake Up Screaming, Sun Valley Serenade, Wonder Man).  The former actor had given himself the role of a gangster in the previously released Charlie Chan at the Race Track.

"Voice from back seat sometime very disconcerting to driver."
Inspector Chan tells Mr. Whitely to shut up.
Frank Conroy, Guy Usher, Warner Oland

This movie was lucky number 13 in Warner Oland's run as Inspector Chan which began with 1931s Charlie Chan Carries On, based on Earl Derr Biggers 1930 novel, the fifth in his popular series.  Other actors had played Chan in earlier adaptions of the novels, but no one caught fire in the role until Oland.  In Hollywood since the teens, Oland could and did play a variety of characters, but became particularly adept at Asian characterizations, especially those of a villainous nature, becoming associated with Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu.  The Hawaiian police officer and family man was a very different sort of fellow from the manical Fu or the power-driven Chang in Shanghai Express.  In the film series, as Chan became internationally renowned, so did his portrayer and Warner Oland was beloved the world over for his performance.

The view from the wings as a trap is set.
Nedda Harrigan, Boris Karloff onstage.
Arias dubbed by Zari Elmassian and Tudor Williams.

Boris Karloff rightfully received top billing with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at the Opera.  As the tormented Gravelle, he is the key to every mystery in the story and his horror persona, developed onscreen from 1931s Frankenstein and honed through The Mummy, The Black Cat and other moody chillers was and is always welcomed by audiences.  Karloff's performance is touching and assured.  It also lays the groundwork for Maurice Cass' line, as Mr. Arnold, "I'm stage manager here and this opera's going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in."  Corny?  Perhaps, but delivered with unabashed gusto and always gets an appreciative chuckle.

All good operas have a drinking song and a heroine named Leonora.
Joan Woodbury dances.

Oscar and Emmy nominee William Demarest plays the sorehead Sergeant Kelly, taking some spectacular pratfalls and shots to the head in his misguided attempt to solve the case before Inspector Chan.  Demarest appeared in 1927s The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson as a cantor's son lured by show business.  Warner Oland played the cantor.  Demarest's Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was for 1946s The Jolson Story.  His Emmy nomination was in 1968 for Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons.

Since the previous year's Charlie Chan in Paris, handsome illustrator turned actor Keye Luke had added immeasurably to the Chan series in his role as Lee, "Pop's" number one son and assistant.  Luke and Oland created a deep friendship that translated extremely well to the screen.

The view from the stage.

The dueling sopranos of Lilli Rochelle and Anita Borelli are played by Margaret Irving (Animal Crackers) and Nedda Harrigan (Devil's Island).  Off-screen Ms. Harrigan was widowed by actor Walter Connolly in 1940 and director Joshua Logan in 1988.  A 1957 Tony Award winner, Frank Conroy (The Ox-Bow Incident) plays Mr. Whitely.  This was the final Chan feature of four for young Fox leading man Thomas Beck (Heidi) who would leave Hollywood in 1939.  Charlotte Henry (Babes in Toyland) is the young Kitty Gravelle.  Profligate baritone Enrico Borelli is played by Gregory Gaye who had a 40 year career in pictures in smaller roles.  According to the IMDb he is the uncle of George Gaynes (Tootsie, Police Academy).  The dancer in Carnival is Joan Woodbury (Charlie Chan on Broadway, The Black Room).

Oscar Levant (Rhythm on the River) composed the short opera Carnival with a libretto by William Kernell, of which excerpts were used onscreen that add so much to the theatrical atmosphere.  In particular, the playing of the overture over backstage dialogue is a nice touch.

Director Humberstone had a way with the Chan features, keeping them nicely-paced with a fresh, contemporary feel.  The series was at the height of its popularity and the cheeky title card:  Twentieth Century Fox presents Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera is just the thing to delight fans then and now.


Friday, January 1, 2016

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for January on TCM

TCM starts 2016 with Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) taking point as Star of the Month. The reliable actor enjoyed a career of over 40 years as a leading man in movies and on television and radio. As with most things that are "reliable", we take for granted the fact that they work well and never disappoint, often overlooking the skill behind that lauded reliability.

Fred MacMurray was not trained as an actor, but I believe his natural instincts as a performer were honed through his background as a musician. While attending Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin MacMurray played saxophone in local bands and later was a professional with Gus Arnheim's big band and pit orchestras in Los Angeles. He knew how to read the notes on the lines, interpret them with the correct weights and measures; how to blend with an ensemble and how to take the solo line. These skills were deftly transferred to reading the lines of a script and interpreting them with his own knowledge, personality, and physical attractiveness.

Practically out of the gate MacMurray made his mark on the screen. Signing with Paramount in 1935, he made 7 films in which he was lead or second lead including Alice Adams with Katharine Hepburn, The Gilded Lily with Claudette Colbert (7 collaborations) and Hands Across the Table with Carole Lombard (4 teamings). He was immediately able to support and share the screen with such formidable leading ladies and make a positive impression on audiences.

MacMurray's film career also provided challenging dramatic roles in Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment, none of which, surprisingly, were acknowledged with an Oscar nomination. Fred MacMurray is purported to have said that he never felt comfortable on a horse in reference to the older leading man moves to westerns phase of his career. However, I would point to Face of a Fugitive and Good Day for a Hanging and disagree with his assessment. I can think of no roles where Fred MacMurray was not a hundred percenter and believable.

My own particular bias in performing is a great admiration for those who excel at comedy and this is where Fred MacMurray shines be it the witty banter of a screwball comedy (Honeymoon in Bali, The Egg and I) or the wacky and over-the-top physical side of things (Murder, He Said). MacMurray ranks with the best in this regard. Sure, Spencer Tracy is fine in Judgment in Nuremberg, but give me Adam's Rib or Father of the Bride. Go ahead and give Alec Guinness an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, but give me The Ladykillers or The Lavender Hill Mob. Best of all, give me Fred MacMurray in 1961s The Absent-Minded Professor.

Fred MacMurray stars as Professor Ned Brainard ("Neddy the Nut") of Medford College. The chemist is particularly single-minded in his research to the detriment of other aspects of his life, as exemplified by the picture above. Beloved betrothed Betty Carlisle played by Nancy Olson (Sunset Boulevard, Pollyanna, So Big) is a patient woman, but how many last chances can you give a guy?

Surely Ned can be forgiven for missing their latest wedding date because he was busy inventing Flubber (flying rubber), an entirely new energy source with untold benefits to mankind. I absolutely adore MacMurray in the scenes of his discovery. It is easy to believe that Flubber is flying around and the actor is not in an empty room waiting for special effects (Oscar nominated Robert Mattey and Eustace Lycett) to do their stuff. His eagerness to share the momentous news is infectious. Look at that face - the man just invented Flubber!

Flubber may indeed prove to be a great boon to humanity, but it causes a myriad of immediate problems for Professor Brainard. He must deal with Betty's chagrin, as well as a rival for Betty's affections in Elliot Reid (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Woman's World). The villain of our piece, industrialist Alonzo Hawk played by Keenan Wynn (Kiss Me Kate, Neptune's Daughter) wants to control Flubber and will stop at nothing. Alonzo Hawk as played by Wynn was such a swell villain that he makes future appearances not only in the superbly funny sequel Son of Flubber (best title ever!), but also in the 1974 sequel to The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again.

The zaniness of romantic travails, financial difficulties for the college and the dastardly doings of Alonzo Hawk culminate with a flying Model T and an incredibly bouncy basketball game. Familiar faces in support include Tommy Kirk, Leon Ames, James Westerfield and Wally Brown. The screenplay from a story by Samuel Taylor is by Disney producer/writer Bill Walsh (The Shaggy Dog, That Darn Cat!) and the director is Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, Old Yeller, Jane Ayre). Along with the special effects team, the movie was Oscar nominated for black and white cinematography for Edward Colman (TVs Dragnet, -30-) and for art direction/set decoration in black and white for  Carroll Clark (Top Hat), Emile Kuri (Shane) and Hal Gausman (The Untouchables).

The good-natured laughs and exemplary leading performance of The Absent-Minded Professor can be enjoyed on TCM on Wednesday, January 27th at 8:00 pm. Do not miss this last evening of the MacMurray salute nor the rest of the month.


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