Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Book Review: A Treasure from Dan Van Neste

Claire Dodd, Nancy Carroll, Gloria Stuart
Zachary Scott, Gloria Dickson, John Hodiak
Paula Raymond, Edward Norris, Karen Morley
Marian Marsh, Richard Greene, Jean Parker

Our friend Dan Van Neste, author of The Whistler: Stepping into the Shadows and The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Times of Ricardo Cortez, reviewed here, has been thinking of us this festive season.

If you have been wondering what to get the film aficionado in your life, be they burgeoning or fans of long-standing, wonder no longer! That unique and interesting book with a unique and interesting angle has just fallen into your lap. They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars, published by Bear Manor Media also works as the answer when someone asks you what you would like for a gift.

The visions of a successful Hollywood career brought many talented people to the studios. The vagaries of luck, of timing, of "a break" kept many an actor spinning their wheels in the industry; of just coming short of their goal. Decent and respectable careers may have resulted, but they didn't become household names. Known, of course, to fans of the Golden Era of film, we would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the morning bus stop willing to engage in a conversation about Edward Norris or Claire Dodd.

Dan's extensive knowledge along with his respect and admiration for his fascinating subjects is on display in this fascinating page-turner. His thorough research which includes many interviews fills in the blanks and adds to our knowledge of these many actors who command our attention and our curiosity.

They Coulda Been Contenders focuses on the twelve actors pictured on the book cover with biographical details and features a second section with detailed filmographies for our ever-lengthening "must watch" lists. The only problem you will have is how to enjoy the book. Do you skip right to John Hodiak or start on page one and immerse yourself? All problems should be this difficult!

Note: My review copy was received from Bear Manor Media.
They Coulda Been Contenders is available in 3 formats: Kindle, Paperback and Hardcover

Happy shopping!

Friday, November 15, 2019

WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon: George Zucco

The annual What a Character! blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Once Upon A Screen, and Outspoken And Freckled runs from November 15th to 17th. Thanks, Paula, Aurora, and Kellee for this 8th annual edition of the blogathon!  Day 1  Day 2  Day 3

George Zucco
January 11, 1886 - May 28, 1960

Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor's life for me *

George Desylli Zucco was born in Manchester, England the son of a Greek immigrant and a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. George was raised in London where his mother took her young family after the death of her husband. During his student years, George was an excellent mathematician and played on cricket and soccer teams. In his late teens, George emigrated to the Canadian prairies, eventually working as a clerk in Winnipeg where he pursued an interest in acting. He joined a touring repertory company and made his professional debut in Regina in 1908. By 1913 he had made his way to New York and was appearing in a Vaudeville sketched entitled The Suffragette.

History intervened in the young actor's career and in 1914 George Zucco returned to England and joined the West Yorkshire Regiment, 7th Batallion. Private George Zucco was sent to the frontlines in France where his right arm was wounded, losing the use of two fingers. At war's end, Lieutenant Zucco returned to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy as a means of reviving his theatrical career.

The London stage kept the actor busy for the next decade, including a well-received turn in R.C. Sherriff's World War One drama Journey's End directed by James Whale. During the play's run, George met and eventually married actress Stella Francis (1900-1999). George was 43 at the time and the 29-year-old actress required some convincing. Their marriage would endure for the next 30 years until George's passing in 1960. The couple would have one daughter, Frances (1931-1962).

George began appearing in films in 1931 and his final British film The Man Who Could Work Miracles was released in 1936. By that time George was making an impression on Broadway as Benjamin Disraeli opposite Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina. During the run of the play, George accepted an offer from MGM studios in Hollywood. He and Stella sold their home in England, moved to California, and he became a naturalized United States citizen.

George Zucco's Hollywood career would encompass 90 feature films. The talented actor's filmography is one that never bores the fan. From prestigious productions to poverty row quickies, the actor delights in a variety of roles and genres. Let's look at some of my favourites. First up is a slate of mysteries.

William Powell, George Zucco, Myrna Loy

The first sequel to The Thin Man, aptly named After the Thin Man, 1936 finds society detectives Nick and Nora Charles dealing with family dynamics and history following a New Year's Eve murder on their home turf of San Francisco. George Zucco plays alienist and expert witness Dr. Kammer. "Good heavens, I was right. The man is crazy."

From the MGM B side of mysteries, we find the fast-paced and entertaining London by Night, 1937. George Murphy is a newsman and Rita Johnson is a socialite who thinks it will be fun to track down a murderer in foggy London town. George Zucco is Inspector Jefferson, a professional investigator. George next shows up on the wrong side of the law and Captain Hugh Drummond in 1938 entry in the Paramount series, Arrest Bulldog Drummond.

Phyllis Brooks, Sidney Toler, George Zucco

Charlie Chan in Honolulu, 1938 introduced fans of the 20th Century Fox series to the new father/son team of Sidney Toler as Inspector Chan and Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan. Passengers on a freighter are all murder suspects and Jimmy wants to prove to "Pop" that he can solve the case. You can ask for no more suspicious suspect than George Zucco as Dr. Cardigan. He skulks around the ship pretending to be hard of hearing, looking quite jaunty in a peak cap, and being far more mysterious than he ought.

Basil Rathbone, George Zucco

The following year George has one of his best roles, one for an actor to lick his chops over; Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1939 for 20th Century Fox. Adapted from William Gillette's play, the movie is a mash of plot lines and plot holes. Nonetheless, the atmosphere, the cast, and the production values are top-notch.

George Zucco, Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce

George Zucco as the nefarious professor is perfect in every way. His masterful arrogance and delight in using Holmes' own obsessive personality against him is a joy to behold. The fun the professor takes in his Sgt. Bullfinch disguise equals Holmes' glee in similar forays. The disdain with which Moriarty treats his underlings is befitting to their station be it teasing his butler Dawes played by Frank Dawson or threatening his criminal cohort Bassick played by Arthur Hohl. Moriarty's contempt is controlled but never less than dangerous.

Let's move into the realm of horror where George careened between budgets and scripts, always bringing a touch of class to the proceedings.

Tom Tyler, George Zucco

George plays Andoheb in The Mummy's Hand, 1940 who becomes obsessed with the back-from-the-dead properties of tana leaves and the continued existence of the rampaging mummy, Kharis. Andoheb causes a lot of trouble and although he is shot at the end of this movie, shows up again in two of the three sequels for Universal, The Mummy's Tomb, 1942 and The Mummy's Ghost, 1944. That's what happens when you replace Eduardo Ciannelli as the High Priest of Karnak. Hey, it's a living!

George Zucco, George Zucco

Sam Newfield directed Dead Men Walk, 1943 for PRC and his brother the producer Sigmund Neufeld. This movie gave George Zucco a dual role, which surely is on many actor's bucket list. Kindly Dr. Lloyd Clayton is beloved by all, except for the brother he murdered! Dr. Elwyn Clayton was a practitioner of the satanic arts who is now a vampire out to destroy his good-hearted twin. Dwight Frye as Zolarr helps his evil master in a plan to turn townsfolk against kindly Lloyd. At stake is the soul of the town and the life, not to mention romance of lovely Gayle Clayton played by Mary Carlisle and pragmatic (no imagination) Dr. David Bentley played by Nedrick Young. How will it all end? Will the powers of evil be defeated? What sacrifice must be made by our hero? I would have enjoyed a more prestigious production for George's kick at the twin can, but you can't have everything in this life -- or the next.

George Zucco, David Bruce

The Mad Ghoul, 1943 for Universal finds George as a scientist experimenting with a nerve gas used by ancient Mayans. George is assisted by David Bruce in these experiments, but things get complicated when they both fall for Evelyn Ankers. Bruce becomes expendable and, believe it or not, a ghoul under the influence of the gas. They both become killers and grave robbers and, as in the best of film noir, neither gets the girl!

It's back to PRC for Fog Island, 1945 where Zucco brings to an isolated island a group of folks who've done him wrong. Will anyone escape the booby traps of revenge? Lionel Atwill, Jerome Cowan, Veda Ann Borg, and Ian Keith are among the victims. Serves them right!

George Zucco, Lucille Ball

The 1947 crime picture Lured, directed by Douglas Sirk is a special favourite of mine. Lucille Ball stars as Sandra Carpenter, a stranded American dancer in London who agrees to work undercover with Scotland Yard to ferret out the murderer of a friend.

The "Poet Killer" leaves clues to taunt the police and the trail our leading lady must follow is filled with adventure and romance, along with Joseph Calleia, Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, and Alan Mowbray. George Sanders is a prime suspect and prime romantic material. The Chief Inspector played by Charles Coburn gives one of the Yard's men, Officer Barrett played by George Zucco, the duty of keeping our undercover rookie safe.

Zucco is delightful as Officer Barrett and his chemistry with Lucy makes them a crimefighting team made in movie heaven. I enjoy Lured most often on rainy weekends and I help but wish for more. How I would have loved a sequel or two with Lucy and George Zucco running around London solving crimes. Put the kettle on - it's time for the Sandra Carpenter Mysteries and the spin-off, Officer Barrett: On the Job.

George Zucco

George Zucco's last completed film role was for Henry King at Twentieth Century Fox in David and Bathsheba, 1951. While at work on The Desert Fox for Henry Hathaway, strange behavior on the part of the actor led to the diagnosis that he had suffered a severe stroke. After some time caring for George at home, Stella had to place him in the Monterey Sanitarium. He continued to recognize his family and dream of someday performing again. Pneumonia took George Zucco's life in 1960.

My imagination and the film work left by George Zucco makes me believe that it would have been a wonderful theatrical experience to have seen him do Shakespeare or see him in Journey's End or Victoria Regina. We must content ourselves with The Secret Garden, The Black Swan, and The First Legion, and whatever other surprising treats our journey in classic movies will send our way.

Check it out:

Linda Christian, Johnny Weissmuller, George Zucco

George rocks the caftan in Tarzan and the Mermaids, 1948.

* Leigh Harline, Ned Washington

Biographical source:
Sherlock Holmes and the Fabulous Faces, The Universal Pictures Repertory Company
by Michael A. Hoey - Bear Manor Media, 2011

Sunday, November 10, 2019

THE SEND IN THE MARINES BLOG-A-THON: Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944

In celebration of the November 10, 1775 founding of the U.S. Marine Corps. the websites Dubsism and RealWeegieMidget Reviews are hosting The Send in the Marines Blog-a-thon. Click HERE  or HERE to begin reading. 

Aunt Martha (Elizabeth Patterson): "Well, that's the war for you. It's always hard on women. Either they take your men away and never send them back at all, or they send them back unexpectedly just to embarrass you. No consideration at all." 

Only the genius that was writer/director Preston Sturges could successfully spoof heroism, motherhood, romance, and democracy in the middle of a war, moving the audience from cynical laughter to sentimental tears.

From the opening tracking shot that leads from a bouncy up tune and an energetic tap dancer to an elegant singer and backup quartet unironically singing Home to the Arms of Mother, through a crowded nightclub to a dejected civilian, Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) kibbitzing with a bartender (George Anderson) we are given a glimpse at the ride Sturges has planned.

Waiter: "Yes, Gentlemen."
Sgt. Heppelfinger: "One Beer."
Waiter: "One beer?"
Sgt. Heppelfinger: "One beer and no cracks." 

Out of the fog come six Marines. Down to their last 15 cents, they try to wrangle eats from the nightclub Manager (Paul Porcasi). He has been through this sort of thing before. Woodrow pays for their food and libations so naturally, they want to thank him. Nothing will be the same.

Woodrow was raised to be a Marine, having been born almost at the moment his father was killed at the Battle of Belleau Wood in WWI, receiving a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. Woodrow's new friend, Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest) had been in the same battle and now feels an obligation to his old Sarge's son. One month after enlisting, Woodrow was medically discharged for chronic hayfever. Out of shame, he has delayed his homecoming. Working at a shipyard, Woodrow has let everyone thing he has been on active duty the past year.

Bugsy (Freddie Steele) is one of the Marines befriending Woodrow. Bugsy is an orphan and thinks Woodrow has acted shamefully toward his mother (Georgia Caine). Bugsy phones Mrs. Truesmith at home in Oakridge, California and tells her Woodrow is returning the very next day.

SgtHeppelfinger: "You gotta wear something. You can't come back from the Solomons with nothing. Not the son of Sergeant Truesmith." ... "I don't even remember what I got it for. I think it was for pulling a Frenchman out of a creek."

Sergeant Heppelfinger and the others come up with an ingenious plan to save Woodrow's face. He will be loaned a uniform with medals, and sneak home - mom will be happy and no one will be any the wiser. Woodrow is helpless in the face of this gung-ho's group desire to do him some good.

SgtHeppelfinger: "Lies! Those ain't lies! Those are campaign promises! They expect 'em!" 

Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men! The entire town is at the railway station. Bands are playing. The mayor (Raymond Walburn) makes a speech. Woodrow's girl Libby (Ella Raines) pretends not to be engaged to the mayor's son Forrest (Bill Edwards). His mother's mortgage is forgiven, a statue is being planned, and the opposition party presses Woodrow to run for mayor. Sergeant Heppelfinger and crew perpetuate the fiction of Woodrow's heroism.

Jake (Al Bridge): "This is a free country. They can vote for whoever they like."
Mayor Noble: "But, that's disgraceful!"

The Sturges stock company of Demarest, Walburn, Bridge, Jimmy Conlon, Esther Howard, et al, are out in full force. Whether he fashioned his dialogue for their talents or it was the other way around or a bit of both, a Sturges film guarantees a myriad delight of language and acting.

Whether it is an intimate scene such as one between the mayor, his campaign manager and a dinner tray or a crowded railway station with four bands and an opera singer (Ida Kitaeva), Sturges is in full control of the movie and what he wants it to say. One viewing is hardly enough to capture all of the wit and the layers in the performances.

The comedy of misunderstanding is Sturges' forte and the misunderstandings and complications, plus the contrasting intentions keep mounting until the expected blowout and the unexpected lump in the throat end. Hail the Conquering Hero is a wild ride.

SgtHeppelfinger: "Give me those six tickets, will you? We still got a little work to do in our own line. So long, kid."
MrsTruesmith (to Bugsy): "Goodbye, dear."
Woodrow: "Will you come back?"
SgtHeppelfinger: "Well, we always come back before. So long, everybody. See youse in church."

The world is full of all types of heroes. Some of them wear uniforms. The raucous and foolhardy marines in our movie are soft enough to help out the son of an old pal. I'm sure their counterparts can be found in real life.

Of note

Freddie Steele, 1936 and 1937 World Middleweight Boxing Champion who played "Bugsy" was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1989.

Veterans Day note

The following members of the Hail the Conquering Hero company served with the United States Army during World War One: Preston Sturges, Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest, Al Bridge, and Robert Warwick.

Friday, November 1, 2019


Perhaps the movies didn't like Clifton Webb or Clifton Webb didn't like the movies, but after a few film appearances ending in 1925, Mr. Webb confined his career to the stage. He made a triumphant return to the screen at the age of 55 as Waldo Lydecker in the 20th Century Fox 1944 production of Laura based on Vera Caspary's novel. The character of the acerbic writer was a role Webb was born to play, and he basically played it again in his follow-up feature The Dark Corner. He then played the snobbish and shallow Elliot Templeton in the film version of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge.

The question now seemed to be whether Clifton Webb's disdainful and witty delivery could be translated into a comedy. Gwen Davenport's 1947 hit novel Belvedere provided just the character test for the actor and his audience.

"Mrs. King, I happen to dislike all children intensely. But I can assure you that I can readily attend to their necessary though unpleasant wants."

Lynn Belvedere is a genius. The King family needs a genius. They simply don't realize it yet. Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara star as Harry and Tacey King. He is a fledgling lawyer and she's a busy housewife. They have three rambunctious children played by Anthony Sydes (Tony), Larry Olsen (Larry) and Raymond C. Hair Jr. (Ronny, the baby). These energetic youngsters have frightened away babysitters and their latest housekeeper is leaving in a huff.

Through correspondence only, Lynn Belvedere is engaged in the position of housekeeper/childcare provider. Mrs. King is shocked to realize her new hirer is not a woman. Of course, it is ridiculous! Whoever heard of such a thing! It can't last, but it does. Mr. Belvedere proves to be perfection in the role of "nanny". Still, questions arise. Why would a genius want to move to ---

"Hummingbird Hill which is a typical suburban community ... where everybody knows a little more than a little about everybody."

Aha, could it be that insight into the life of the typical suburbanite is necessary for Mr. Belvedere's upcoming book? In the course of completing his own goal, Mr. Belvedere becomes an essential and beloved member of the family, and Hummingbird Hill will never be the same.

Maureen O'Hara, Robert Young, Clifton Webb

Sitting Pretty is Domestic Comedy at its most delightful with just a touch of food for thought; not enough to cause indigestion. F. Hugh Herbert was awarded the Writers Guild of America prize for Best Written American Comedy in adapting Ms. Daveport's novel.

You might go into it thinking that Clifton Webb is the whole show, and he is, but don't overlook the rest of the cast. Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara handle their roles with their customary ease which belies the work.

Richard Hadyn, Maureen O'Hara

You'll get a kick out of Ed Begley as Harry's boss, and Louise Allbritton and John Russell as the King's friends. Betty Lynn is a teenager crushing hard on Harry and will be a treat for fans of her work as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show. If the rest of the cast hadn't stayed on their toes, the whole shebang would have been stolen out from under their noses by Richard Hadyn as the neighborhood snoop, Clarence Appleton.

There would be more comedies in Clifton Webb's movie future (Dreamboat, Mister Scoutmaster), including the sequels Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, 1949 and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell, 1951. Walter Lang, the director of our movie and Mr. Webb would work together again in Cheaper by the Dozen, 1950.

Gwen Davenport's character has legs that carried him to a 1985-1990 television sitcom starring Christopher Hewett. Earlier attempts to bring the character to television featured Reginald Gardiner, Hans Conreid, and Victor Buono. Will the genius be revived in the 21st century?

TCM is screening Sitting Pretty on Thursday, November 28th at 8:00 PM on a day devoted to Family Favorites. I think you will find it a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, and you will adore Lynn Aloysius Belvedere.

Bonus:  Lux Radio Theatre, Mr. Bevedere Goes to College, 1950


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