Friday, August 25, 2017

THE VAN JOHNSON BLOGATHON: State of the Union (1948)

Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting The Van Johnson Blogathon running from August 25 to 27. Click HERE for all the contributions on the popular and versatile actor.

Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The couple above are Mary and Grant Mitchell, and they are preparing for a political rally. Grant is a self-made man, a WWI pilot turned successful aircraft manufacturer. He is being manipulated by his mistress, a publisher and daughter of a political family, Kay Thorndyke played by Angela Lansbury. Mary has agreed to campaign alongside her husband with hopes of winning him back. The other newcomers to their circle include political operative Jim Conover played by Adolphe Menjou and newspaper reporter Spike McManus played by Van Johnson.

Adolphe Menjou, Angela Lansbury

State of the Union is Frank Capra's 1948 film adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Pulitzer Prize winning play which ran on Broadway for 765 performances. Ruth Hussey and Ralph Bellamy played the Mitchells on stage. Kay Johnson played Kay Thorndyke, with Minor Watson as Conover and Myron McCormick as "Spike". 

Van Johnson as reporter "Spike" McManus

Grant has fallen under Kay Thorndyke's spell, and Kay Thorndyke is a slave to her own ambition. Her late father and their publishing empire was dismissed by the Republican Party, and she intends to own them by putting the next man in the White House. Conover is more than willing to go along for the ride. For Spike McManus, this is just a paycheque.

"Spike" is not impressed with Grant's stunt flying.

When the Mitchells are together, it is easy to see that Mary's opinion means a lot to Grant, and her opinions are generally the opposite to the machinations of a political campaign. While Mary wants Grant back as her husband and father to their two children, there are a lot of opposing forces whose goal is power.

Grant starts out as someone who relates to many different people because of a straight-forward honesty. However, he soon wants whatever Kay wants and becomes convinced that the only way to get to be president is to play the game as the professionals demand.  The story becomes a battle of wills and a battle for a man's integrity.

"Spike" has put together an impressive broadcast.
Yes, that is indeed Charles Lane you see.

1948 is an interesting year of releases in Van Johnson's film career. The Bride Goes Wild is an amusing romantic comedy co-starring June Allyson, the engrossing wartime drama Command Decision is another award winning Broadway adaptation, and then there is State of the Union.

The character of Spike McManus acts more or less as a Greek Chorus, wryly commenting on the action and the characters. Van Johnson has just the right attitude and timing to get the idea behind the lines across.

The political maneuvers, which are considered so deadly serious by Kay and Conover, are joking matters for Spike. Nonetheless, he has a soft spot for Mary and will tend toward anything that is on her side.

"Spike" comforts and inspires Mary to take action.
Is the effect exactly what he envisioned?

The hoped for culmination of Grant Mitchell's ride to victory at the upcoming Convention is a live radio and television broadcast direct from his home. Mary has even agreed, very reluctantly, to the presence of Kay Thorndyke. Secrets are revealed, scales fall from eyes, hearts are broken and mended.

"Spike" is fired, but he's happy!

The cast is filled with familiar faces from Capra films of the past: Margaret Hamilton, Irving Bacon, Raymond Walburn, Charles Lane, Tom Fadden and Carl Switzer. Maidel Turner as a tipsy Judge's wife is the only cast member from Broadway to appear in the movie, and she is a hoot.

Frank Capra knew how to fill the screen with the great character actor faces, and how to pace a story to keep it fresh and interesting. State of the Union skewers the lazy voter and the cynical politicians who take advantage of them. While it looks clearly at the problems in the system, it offers no solution beyond that of honesty. The themes and the issues are as relevant today as in 1948, and I imagine if we took it backward to 1901 or 1832, audiences would nod knowingly in recognition.

Kay Thorndyke: "He's beginning to wonder if there is any difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party."

Jim Conover: "Now that's a fine question for a presidential candidate to ask. There's all the difference in the world. They're in and we're out!" 

I close with this picture of Margaret Hamilton as Norah, Conover's maid. She is beaming at Spike played by Van Johnson. It is the look shared by all of us Van Johnson fans.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WORKPLACE IN FILM AND TV BLOGATHON: Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963)

Debbie Vega of  Moon in Gemini is hosting the Workplace in Film and TV Blogathon running from August 18 - 20.  Day 1 recap    Day 2 recap    Day 3 recap       

Nat Hiken, the genius comedy mind behind The Phil Silvers Show chose as his next television project to focus on policemen; not just quirky characters, but police officers as people. These people were not the dedicated, focused, law and order at any cost, characters of TV dramas. These co-workers liked each other, fought with each other, knew each others families and foibles, and did their work as best they could without getting anybody in too much trouble.

"I worked for three geniuses in comedy writing --- George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, and Nat Hiken."  
 - Al Lewis (Officer Leo Schnauser)

807 East 107th Street in the Bronx is the real-life location of the old Biograph Studios which, in the 1960s, became home to the various homes which made up the world of the 53rd Precinct. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, hiding other dolls inside, a studio is a home to many worlds. The cock-eyed comical world of Nat Hiken's Car 54, Where Are You? came to life within these walls.

From David Everitt's King of the Half Hour, published 2001:

"By the early sixties, though, there was little about the studio that suggested movie industry glamour. More in keeping with the tone of its current project, the Biograph was now surrounded by mostly Jewish, working-class neighbors. Many of the show's company would commute to work on the subway, exiting at the 174th Street station, perhaps picking up a coffee and bagel at a corner candy store before walking to the studio entrance where neighborhood kids played on the sidewalk."

Sixty episodes of laugh-out-loud comedy served up by an impressive ensemble of acting talent with worthy material created a workplace any of us would recognize and enjoy. Friendships extend outside of the patrol car, and events like weddings and bar mitzvot bring families together. Social outings are planned, and even the hereafter is given consideration. Much of this activity is through the 53rd Precinct Brotherhood Club, and it is by looking at four of the episodes concerning that organization that we learn about the heart and soul of the precinct.

Season 1, episode 13: December 10, 1961

Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) is the new treasurer of the Brotherhood Club. The post must be on some sort of a rotation because no one, and I mean no one, is happy about the new treasurer.

Officers O'Hara, Wallace, Nicholson and Schnauser express their dissatisfaction.

Officer Wallace (Frederick O'Neal): We got over $800 in the treasury. We're going to let him handle it?

Officer Nicholson (Hank Garrett): You gotta be kidding.

Toody: Fellow members, I'm perfectly thrilled at being elected your new treasurer, but I wouldn't be honest if I said I was happy about the lousy way you guys are taking it.

Officer O'Hara (Albert Henderson): Gunther, you know we love you, but you're not the guy to be handling money like that.

Toody: Oh, yeah. Give me one reason why I won't make a good treasurer.

O'Hara: You can't count!

Toody: Besides that.

The mistrust of his fellow officers is well placed. Toody is a comic mess-up and incredibly susceptible to suggestion. When he sees guys, without even his brains, making a killing in the stock market, Toody is convinced he can make the Brotherhood Club rich. Eventually, the club agrees to take a flyer on the market. They chose a very safe, blue chip stock in International Sulphur. After all, they plan to use the money to build a summer camp for the poor kids of the neighbourhood. Toody's constant hovering over the head office of the company leads to rumors which have the head of the company, guest star John Alexander (Arsenic and Old Lace), brought before a senate committee. Upon returning from Washington, he buys back the Brotherhood Club's stocks, at a profit to the delighted officers, and advises them to "put the money in the bank."

Season 2, episode 13: December 9, 1962

A meeting of the Brotherhood Club and the Ladies Auxiliary is convened to determine the annual summer outing. If they don't reach a decision soon, it will be winter!

A civilized discussion.

Sylvia Schnauser (Charlotte Rae): I've been sitting here quietly listening to all your suggestions and I must say I am shocked. Beer parlors. Boat rides. Don't you honestly think it's time that we did something cultural?

Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett): Aww, Sylvia.

Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis): My wife is talking! Go ahead, Pussycat.

Sylvia: Thank you, Daddy Bear. Well, think of it. Here we are in the Bronx, just a stone's throw away from Broadway, the theater center of the world and not one of you has suggested that we organize a theater party and go and see a Broadway play.

Toody: That's a good idea. Let's all go and see Oklahoma!

Schnauser: Oklahoma? Oklahoma has been closed for fifteen years.

Toody: I haven't been following the papers lately.

Muldoon: Any discussion on Sylvia Shnauser's suggestion that we have a theater party?

Lucille Toody (Beatrice Pons): Mr. Chairman, I am a Hunter College graduate, and, as you know, I am one hundred and ten percent for culture. But the plays they're showing on Broadway these days - well, I certainly wouldn't want my husband to see them.

Sylvia: Lucille, stop being such a bluenose.

Lucille: Bluenose? My sister Rose saw a play by Tennessee Williams last year and she had to go to bed for two weeks with the door locked.

A bargain for something you don't want, is not a bargain.

All agree on a theatre party and the committee is charged with purchasing 142 tickets for a play from  an agreed upon list. The committee plans to take care of it on their lunch hour.

Leo Schnauser:  We want 142 seats. 106 in the center. 23 on one side, 10 on the other side and one in the balcony. That's for Officer Coogan. He's a mounted patrolman. He likes to sit up high. And two in a box for the captain and his wife, that makes 142 seats.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is sold out until next August. There's nothing until September for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Our out-of-luck committee gets the same answer at every box office until someone suggests they might have luck for a play called Little Miss PioneerLittle Miss Pioneer is a dog. Critics hated it and audiences stayed away. The producer is idealistic enough to believe his perfectly clean play will find its audience and the prospect of 142 policemen and their wives in attendance keeps his hopes alive.

When the denizens of the 53rd leave their home base and enter the outside world, something  inadvertent and unexpected always happens. In this case, it is the presence of their uniforms which leads to a rumor that Little Miss Pioneer is a lewd production that was raided by the police, and this does wonders for its box office.

Behind box office bars and the eight ball.

However, the Ladies Auxiliary is not going to be happy to discover that, once again, the Brotherhood Club is stymied at the box office by another "sold out" sign. There's always next summer!

Season 2, episode 18: January 20, 1963

Officer Nicholson cannot face the prospect of being next to a jerk like Toody for eternity.

Francis Muldoon has been the president of the Brotherhood Club for the last few terms, elected unanimously and running unopposed. This doesn't sit well with some of the brotherhood as Francis is becoming something of a dictator, especially when he starts choosing plots for fellow officers in a proposed cemetery purchase.

Officers Anderson, Schnauser and Sgt. McBride have given Toody the presidential itch.

Schnauser: You had to open up the mouth. You had to open up the mouth.

Nicholson: All I did...

Sgt. Jim McBride (Jimmy Little): All you did! Here we have a friendly Brotherhood Club, now we gotta have an election.

Officer Omar Anderson (Ossie Davis): Yeah, and nothin' will break up a nice democratic organization like an election.

Hail to the Chief!

Someone must run against Francis, but it must be someone for whom no one in their right mind would vote, to ensure Muldoon remains in the position. Toody is convinced to run and Sgt. McBride is his campaign manager. However, they didn't count on the presidential itch being so easy to catch. McBride pictures himself as a mastermind and Toody's delusions of grandeur are very grand indeed. They pull out all the stops, including lies and dirty tricks, and it is working!

Has Schnauser overestimated Captain Block's influence?

Captain Block (Paul Reed): Now, now boys, take it easy. I know you're in the heat of a political campaign, but I want you to know that as far as I'm concerned the two of you are just police officers under me. I'm absolutely neutral. Toody, button your blouse. You look like a slob. How's your mother, Francis? I want the two of you to come over to my house tonight.

Muldoon: Thank you, Captain.

Captain Block: Just like his father - honest, hard-working, courageous. Toody, pull up your pants, you're a disgrace to the Force. Yes, boys, I'm absolutely neutral.

Francis' good guy tactics are no way to win an election. Even the unabashed backing of Captain Block is not having an impact on the voters of the 53rd. It is only by miking Toody's own words of praise for his friend and partner, do the ballots reflect the sensible outcome.

Season 1, episode 15: December 24, 1961

Click on highlighted text to see the performances of the songs.

Captain Block greets guests to the annual Brotherhood Club Christmas Party.

It is a coin toss as to what holds the coziest part of my sitcom loving heart - Christmas episodes or shows highlighting the musical talents of a cast. When a series combines the two, then "Heaven, I'm in Heaven".

Officer Dave Anderson has help on the switchboard this Christmas Eve.

Dispatcher Anderson (Nipsey Russell): How's my boy (Duane Harper Grant)? Let me show you what Daddy does. Take this. Plug it right here. That's it. We'll make a policeman out of you yet. Hello? Hello?

To Mrs. Anderson (Billie Allen): Okay, have it your way. He'll be a nuclear scientist.

 Kids run amuck at the precinct on Christmas Eve.

Joe: 53rd Precinct. This is Eliot Ness.

Sergeant Feldman (Phillip Carter): Joe, will you sit down and let me get this call?

The happy audience.

Once everyone is settled, the entertainment begins including comedy bits by Mickey Deems on the well-dressed police officer, and Carl Ballantine's magic act. Ballantine plays Toody's brother-in-law Al, and he is assisted by Lucille's sister Rose played by Martha Greenhouse, pictured above next to Beatrice Pons as Lucille.


Bonita Kalsheim is not Francis' girlfriend.

Alice Ghostley returns as "pretty Bonnie Kalsheim" performing a faux chanson francais by Nat Hiken called Irving. Joe E. Ross, accompanied on guitar by Fred Gwynne, serenades Lucille with You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.

Roll call!

The big bow on top of the sitcom gift is a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan spoofs. Fred Gwynne leads the troops in contemporary version of A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One from The Pirates of Penzance. I could listen to Paul Reed all day as Captain Block proclaims I Am the Captain of the 53rd, taken from HMS Pinafore.

You really should attend all the meetings.

As the snowflakes fall gently on the 53rd precinct and its environs, we leave you with the four lambs of the Brotherhood Club and their shepherd, Leo Schnauser, recounting the all important The Golden Principles of Brotherhood.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Crystal of the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting her 3rd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. The celebration of the great theatrical family runs from August 15 - 17 and you can click HERE to read the contributions.

Lionel Barrymore as Nat Miller

I became a Lionel Barrymore fan watching him as Dr. Gillespie in the Kildare series on late night television, and annual viewings of his Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. My list of favourite performances include Broken Lullaby, Grand Hotel, On Borrowed Time, Dinner at Eight, You Can't Take It With You, Down to the Sea in Ships, Key Largo and Ah, Wilderness!. 

The great modern American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) forever changed and influenced the theatrical landscape through his thoughtful and often harrowing dramas. His posthumously produced Long Day's Journey Into Night calls on an early family life troubled by drug and alcohol addiction. Ah, Wilderness!, produced in 1933, is a nostalgic and wistful comedy that took those same early years and re-imagined them in a sweetly supportive family environment.

Eily Malyon, Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Aline MacMahon, Wallace Beery
Mickey Rooney, Bonita Granville, Eric Linden
Suppertime with the Miller family

The Millers are a typical middle class family in a small sized eastern American city. Nat (Lionel Barrymore) is a newspaper editor. His wife Essie (Spring Byington) runs a loving home. Eldest son Arthur (Frank Albertson) is a university student. Richard (Eric Linden) is about to enter Yale. Millie (Bonita Granville) is boy-crazy, and a pain to her brothers. The youngest, Tommy (Mickey Rooney) gets into as much trouble as possible. Extended family in the household include Nat's sister Aunt Lily (Aline MacMahon) and Essie's brother Uncle Sid (Wallace Beery). 

O'Neill did not preclude the presence of alcohol in his imaginary family. Uncle Sid drinks. Uncle Sid is a friendly and funny drunk, and the family, intentionally or not, enable his habit. Sid's addiction ended his long ago engagement to Lily, and that lady still holds out hope that one day he will change his ways.

Eric Linden as Richard Miller

Richard Miller is an oh-so-serious 16-year-old, and valedictorian of his 1906 high school class.  His duty in that regard is our first experience of a crisis in Richard's life. Richard reads the greats, Shaw and Swinburne, and the radical political thinkers of the day. He faces life clearly and doesn't expect to be understood, even by his timid girlfriend Muriel (Cecilia Parker).

Richard is determined to speak his mind to the fuzzy-headed students and parents awaiting his graduation speech. Quick thinking by Richard's father avoids a ruined day for the audience and lifelong embarrassment for Richard. Richard is appalled to later learn that his mother is shocked and strongly disapproves of his reading material. Richard will be surprised to learn of the amused tolerance of his father.

Mickey Rooney
Mischief on the 4th.

The young mind turns quickly from one major event to another. It is soon the 4th of July holiday and everyone has plans. Unfortunately, Richard's plans for a picnic with Muriel are scuttled by her uptight father (Charley Grapewin) who has discovered some of the poetry Richard has shared with Muriel. The outraged parent accuses the sincere young fellow of trying to corrupt his daughter. He demands Nat Miller punish his son severely. Nat responds by cancelling his neighbour's much-need advertising in his newspaper. Richard would be surprised to learn of such support and sacrifice on the part of his father.

Eric Linden, Cecilia Parker
Muriel doesn't always understand Richard, but she loves him.

It is an eventful July 4th for the Millers. Richard is absolutely dejected by a letter of good-bye that Muriel was forced to write by her father, and he intends to go out and face life! The opportunity presents itself when a friend of his brother Arthur seeks Art for a night on the town with a couple of chorus girls. Arthur not being available, and Richard having a bankroll of $11, Wint (Edward Nugent) brings Richard in on the festivities.

Eric Linden, Tom Dugan, Helen Flint
Mischief on the 4th.

A night of beer, slow gin fizzes and kisses from an overly made-up doxy make Richard ashamed and sick at heart. Not to mention the anxiety his late night causes his mother. Fortunately, Richard is the recipient of the expert attention of Uncle Sid. Eventually, Richard takes lessons learned to heart. He gains a greater appreciation for his family and his relationship with Muriel reaches a new level of understanding.

Spring Byington
Worried about Richard.

Ah, Wilderness! premiered on Broadway in 1933 with Elijah Cook Jr. as Richard, George M. Cohan as Nat and Gene Lockhart as Uncle Sid. There have been several touring companies and revivals throughout the decades. Actors such as Will Rogers and Harry Carey have played Nat Miller. I attended a lovely 1990 production at Ontario's Stratford Festival which was only marred by the fellow in the row behind complaining that "this is the olden days". Sigh!

Frank Albertson, Bonita Granville
A distraction for mother.

Take Me Along is the 1959 Broadway musical version of the play with songs by Bob Merrill which ran for 448 performances. Robert Morse (Tony nominee) played Richard. Walter Pidgeon (Tony nominee) and Una Merkel played Nat and Essie. Eileen Herlie (Tony nominee) and Jackie Gleason (Tony winner) played Aunt Lily and Uncle Sid. 

MGM's 1935 production was directed by Clarence Brown, who throughout his film career, showed a lovely knack for presenting stories of children; children who consider themselves outsiders, but around whom the entire family revolves. Consider National Velvet, The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, The Human Comedy, and Angels in the Outfield.

Lionel Barrymore, Eric Linden
The father - son talk.

Eric Linden's performance of Richard is heartfelt and unpretentious. Our fond feelings for the character are enhanced by seeing young Richard through the eyes of his father Nat, as beautifully played by Lionel Barrymore. The father-son relationship is sweet, yet unsentimental.

Wallace Beery, Aline MacMahon
Sid and Lily, always close and always apart.

The Millers became the obvious template for one of MGMs most successful franchises. Two years later much of this cast would reunite in the first of the Hardy Family pictures, A Family Affair. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington were Judge and Mrs. Hardy. Mickey Rooney, their son Andy and Ontario born Cecilia Parker, their daughter Marion. Eric Linden and Charley Grapewin also had featured roles. Aunt Lily would become Aunt Milly played by Sara Haden and her role would continue when Lewis Stone and Fay Holden became Judge and Mrs. Hardy.

Eric Linden, Spring Byington, Lionel Barrymore
Richard: "You sort of forget the moon was the same way back then, and everything."

MGM would once again visit the property in 1948s Summer Holiday, their musical version filmed in Technicolor and directed by Rouben Mamoulian with songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. The excellent cast includes Mickey Rooney stepping into the role of Richard, Walter Huston and Selma Royle as the Millers, Agnes Moorehead and Frank Morgan as Lily and Sid, and Gloria De Haven as Muriel. It's the same story, and thoroughly professional throughout, yet it does not work. Perhaps the studio should have agreed to composer Warren's idea of filming it in the mode of an opera.

Thankfully, Clarence Brown's Ah, Wilderness! is available for us today to relive the long ago past, stepping into the nostalgic never-world created by Eugene O'Neill.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Terence Towles Canote is hosting his 4th Annual British Invaders Blogathon, a celebration of the best in British films at his site A Shroud of Thoughts. The blogathon runs on August 4th, 5th and 6th. This is my first year participating (shame on me). Click HERE for contributions to the blogathon.

A British Film made at Pinewood Studios, London, England 

Could anything be more appropriate for this blogathon than a film whose title card reads as above?

Rumer Godden's (Black Narcissus, The River) 1955 novel An Episode of Sparrows is the basis of the 1958 film Innocent Sinners. Godden co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Paterson, and the movie was directed by Philip Leacock (Hand in Hand). Paterson and Leacock had collaborated previously on The Little Kidnappers and High Tide at Noon, both films set in the land of my birth, Nova Scotia.

Philip Leacock had a special touch with the emotional lives of children and outsiders in films such as The Little Kidnappers, The Spanish Gardener, Hand in Hand, Take a Giant Step and Reach for Glory. Rumer Godden was able to translate her background of being raised partly in India and partly in English schools into novels that explore those very themes of outsiders and the deep yearning of children to belong to someone. 

Angela Chesney: "Lovejoy Mason! Nobody is called Lovejoy."

Yes, someone is called Lovejoy. She lives, breathes, runs, jumps, and gets into trouble. She is cared for more than she knows, and less than she needs. Lovejoy is at that awkward age in the early teens. Lovejoy is the sort who will always be living through an awkward age. June Archer plays Lovejoy, or more to the point, she is Lovejoy.

Lovejoy's mother, Bertha Mason played by Vanda Godsell, is an actress who has left her ungainly and inconvenient daughter in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Vincent while she is on tour. Bertha is supposed to  be paying for Lovejoy's upkeep, but the money is never on time and never enough.

Mrs. Vincent, played by Barbara Mullen, is quiet, hardworking and extremely sympathetic to Lovejoy's plight. Mr. Vincent, played by David Kossoff, treats Lovejoy with much kindness and respect. He is a restaurateur who dreams of turning his house front establishment into a place of and for exclusive dining. George Vincent is considered an impractical oddball.

June Archer as Lovejoy protects her garden from an invading cat.

Lovejoy Mason is considered an oddball as well, by the neighbouring adults and the gang of kids who hang about the bombed out streets with nothing to occupy their time, but getting into trouble. Lovejoy spends her days waiting for the return of her neglectful mother until she finds a packet of seeds and gets the bright idea to grow a garden. Gardens require space and good earth, and knowledge, and money. Lovejoy goes about getting these things and as a girl with few resources, she resorts to stealing from a church collection box. Lovejoy's relationship with the Blessed Mother Mary will undergo many frightful stages for a girl who is not even Catholic.

Many of Lovejoy's ideas and philosophy probably come from George Vincent. He treats her like a cherished daughter and shares his dreams for the restaurant which, in turn, inspire her dreams for the garden. Her plans grow even more elaborate with time.

I was particularly moved by one scene which encapsulates George's understanding and fondness for Lovejoy. It is his discreet handling of Bertha's callous disregard of her daughter when she has a late night visiting gentleman. Lovejoy, in turn, expresses her affection for George in attempts to get a wealthy young couple to patronize the restaurant. Actions indeed speak louder than words.

Unexpectedly, Lovejoy finds an ally in her gardening efforts from Tip Malone, played by Christopher Hey. Tip is the leader of the kids, the one they all look up to. His interest in Lovejoy and her project will precipitate a crisis in many quarters. Not the least of which will be between the two of them.

The older Chesney sisters will be greatly affected by the actions of these youngsters. Flora Robson plays Olivia Chesney, gentle and secluded, an illness will soon rob her of life. She observes these children and their full life and becomes involved. Catherine Lacey plays Angela Chesney, entitled and bossy, she demands order, even when it is none of her business. Her involvement is unanticipated and crucial.

The inner emotional worlds of the adults and the children is not so different as they may imagine, filled with doubts, fears, and desires. Hope, and life itself, can be so easily snatched away. Hope will always return, giving life its sweetness. The chasm of the generation gap is not so wide as they perceive. They are so much the same in a world so extraordinary in its ordinariness.

Everything about the story of Innocent Sinners and its telling feels very real. Location filming in Chelsea, the whimsically jazzy score by Philip Green, and the fine acting ensemble bring the honest dialogue to life in a way that is quietly moving and unforgettable.

Friday, August 4, 2017


Christina Wehner and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies are our hosts for En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon running on August 4th, 5th and 6th.  Film and dance were made for each other. Click HERE to enter the rehearsal and concert halls.

Charles Butterworth, John Barrymore
Karimsky, Vladimir Ivan Tsarakov

We meet our mad genius on a rainy night in a circus tent in the European countryside. Our mad genius is a puppet master, literally and figuratively. While John Barrymore as Ivan Tsarakov and his assistant Karimsky played by Charles Butterworth manipulate the marionettes in their ballet, they play to an audience of one.

Frankie Darro

Young Fedor played by Frankie Darro, looking younger than his 14 years, is an abused youngster finding solace in the pretty dancing puppets. His reverie is interrupted by the arrival of his father with a whip. The boy's dexterity at running and leaping to avoid punishment intrigues Tsarakov, so he hides the boy from the brutish father played by Boris Karloff. The club-footed Tsarakov takes the boy under his wing as an adopted son. Himself, the son of a premiere ballerina, Tsarakov was blessed with a genius for dance, a desire to dance, and the inability to do so because of his disability. He will pour his ambition and knowledge into the youngster and live his dreams through Fedor.

Luis Alberni, Donald Cook, Marian Marsh
Sergei Bankieff, Fedor, Nana Carlova

The passage of time has brought the Tsarakov ballet company and its acclaimed lead dancer, Fedor success in Berlin. Karimsky still dutifully plays the role of Tsarakov's assistant. Fedor, now played by Donald Cook, idolizes his father/mentor and unquestionably follows all of his orders. The only crack in the relationship is Fedor's growing love for the sweet dancer Nana Carlova played by Marian Marsh. Nana has also caught the eye of the ballet's wealthy patron Count Renaud played by Andre Luguet. Nonetheless her heart belongs to Fedor. Life could not be more perfect for the young leading man of the company.

John Barrymore

Tsarakov, however, can see his control of Fedor slipping away. Tsarakov is of the firm, and somewhat maniacal, opinion that love has no place in the life of the true artist. If he is to be the greatest dancer the world has ever seen, Fedor's whole heart and soul must be devoted to his art. Tsarakov sees nothing wrong with flings. He enjoys working his way through the women in the corps de ballet, and sees no reason Fedor cannot emulate that attitude.

Tsarakov slyly appeals to Fedor's vanity and obligation:

"You can be one of the greatest artistes in the world. What more could anyone ask?"

Luis Alberni

Tsarakov controls his dance master Sergei played by Luis Alberni through encouraging and using Sergei's cocaine addiction. Threatening to withhold the necessities, he forces Sergei to sign a scathing rebuke of Nana's dance abilities to coerce her resignation from the company. Tsarakov suggests a change in career as the mistress of Count Renaud. Fedor overhears Tsarakov's manipulation of Nana and his cruel words: 

"If you love him at all you will go way and not murder the career of a genius." 

Tsarakov's attitude is not dissimilar to that of Lermontov, the taskmaster of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes played by Anton Walbrook. His advice to ballerina Victoria Page played by Moira Shearer in that film:

"You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never"

Donald Cook, Marian Marsh
Fedor and Nana

Fedor and Nana walk out on Tsarakov and are happy for a time in Paris. However, every job as a dancer is closed to Fedor when Tsarakov advises various managements of the exclusivity of their contract. When Fedor at last has come to working in a waterfront dive, Tsarakov takes advantage of Nana's depth of feeling to free Fedor and have him return to the fold.

Donald Cook

Once more under Tsarakov's influence, the kindly Fedor takes on the gruff manners of his mentor. Nana, who has moved on with Count Renaud finds him a more kindly "employer" than expected. He understands the plight of the young lovers and takes her to the company's opening night back in Berlin. It is at the successful premiere of a new ballet that everything comes to a violent conclusion.

Spoiler ahead:

The Tsarakov Company's triumphant return to Berlin.

The massive set includes a demon idol which sends Sergei over the edge in a drug fueled frenzy causing him to take an ax to the set. Tsarakov is as maddened as the dance master because Fedor has seen Nana in the audience and knows nothing, not even dance, is worth the loss of true love.

A shadowy showdown between Sergei and Tsarkov leads to the death of the mad genius. The curtain opens on his lifeless corpse causing panic throughout the audience. Through the uproar, Fedor and Nana find each other, and the always loyal Karmisky sits disconsolate beside the body of his friend.

Tsarakov meets his fate.

The Mad Genius was based on a play called The Idol by Canadian born Martin Brown. Brown was a successful Broadway playwright and lyricist, and a one time dancer. This melodrama was not one of his stage successes. Nonetheless, it made a fine Barrymore vehicle as a follow-up to the successful Svengali. The screenplay is by J. Grubb Alexander (Svengali, The Hatchet Man) and Harvey F. Thew (The Public Enemy, She Done Him Wrong).

Michael Curtiz directed his only collaboration with Barrymore. Typical of Curtiz's work, the movie is well paced with many interesting shots of characters which silently comment on their relationships. 

Art direction is from multiple Oscar nominee Anton Grot (The Sea Hawk, Anthony Adverse, etc.) and he gives us an eyeful of over-the-top theatrical sets and apartments from the lavish to the simple. Earl Luick (Springtime in the Rockies, Union Depot) is credited with designing the gowns, so I assume Grot may have been behind the ballet costumes, at least the headdresses which disguise the dance doubles for Donald Cook (Charles Weidman) and Marian Marsh.

Adolph Bolm, born in St. Petersburgh and a graduate of the Russian Imperial Ballet School became a choreographer after an injury ended his dancing career during a tour of the United States. His work on this film, and others like The Affairs of Cellini and The Corsican Brothers combined with his work for ballet and opera companies. 

Like his Svengali, only better dressed, Barrymore is mesmerizing as the single-minded Tsarakov. If the co-stars can bring themselves to his level of commitment, they have plenty of room to do so. Charles Butterworth's hesitant characterization works to almost humanize the mad genius. Luis Alberni, a lifelong second banana in second features, shows his mettle as the broken Sergei.

For me, The Mad Genius is a must-see for John Barrymore fans and a fine complement to the earlier Barrymore/Marsh film Svengali. Perhaps, like me, you will find this even more to your taste than the famous earlier film.


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