Friday, September 25, 2020

THE 7TH ANNUAL RULE BRITANNIA BLOGATHON: I See a Dark Stranger, 1946


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting his 7th Annual Rule Britannia Blogathon on September 25, 26, and 27. It is always an informative and entertaining blogathon event in which I am pleased to participate this year with a look at I See a Dark Stranger. Enjoy the articles linked HERE.


Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, as a writing, producing, and directing team gave us dozens of films beginning with the screenplay for The Lady Vanishes, through the Inspector Hornleigh series, Will Hay comedies, Night Train to MunichGreen for Danger, The Belles of St. Trinian's, The Happiest Days of Your Life, etc.


For many of us, they presented the best of British humour or the image we have of such humour. Humour in the face of adversity and absurdity, and the ready wit to which we would like to claim ownership. I See a Dark Stranger was the first film produced under their company, Individual Pictures with Frank Launder directing from the screenplay by himself, Sidney Gilliat, and Wolfgang Wilhelm.

Deborah Kerr as Bridie Quilty

Bridie: "I'm 21; I'm me own mistress."
First Irishwoman: "That's an occupation that could change hands overnight."

Deborah Kerr stars as Bridie Quilty. Raised in a small village in the west of Ireland, Bridie took to heart her father's eloquent and frequent retelling of his feats in the Easter uprising of 1916. The people of the village listen with awe to the feats of storytelling, taking it as just that, while Bridie's heart is filled with pride for her brave father and hatred toward the English. She plans to follow in his footsteps as soon as she is of age, and on her 21st birthday, she travels London looking for a way to join the Irish Republican Army.

The Second World War is raging and brings all sorts of disparate people together. Bridie falls in with some Nazis, about whom she hasn't given much thought except that they are keeping the English busy with some other war. She was stymied in her plans to join the IRA, so Bridie is only too happy to assist these friends by virtue of being enemies of her enemy.


The town of Wynbridge Vale has a new worker at the pub and the attractive Irish girl has quite an appeal for the fellows at the local Army barracks. Also, the statue of Oliver Cromwell in the centre of town was vandalized. Something of that nature has never occurred previously. Could the arrival in town of Bridie be connected to the vandalism?

A Nazi spy is being held in a nearby prison and his compatriots must engineer a break-out to discover important information from the spy, or at the very least the whereabouts of the information. Bridie has been helpful in getting the soldiers to talk since her sojourn at the pub.

A young officer on leave checks into the pub/hotel and her Nazi friends have identified Davd Baynes played by Trevor Howard as an intelligence officer. They want to use his attraction to Bridie to keep him occupied. Bridie's handler, Mr. Miller played by Raymond Huntley informs Bridie of her new assignment to keep the officer occupied during the planned escape, and gets an argument from the headstrong girl.

Deborah Kerr as Bridie Quilty, Trevor Howard as David Bayne

Bridie: "You really mean you want me to throw myself at him like a --- I might have known this'd happen! I've half a mind to refuse. I'd never bargained for anything like this!"

It turns out that David is not the intelligence officer the Nazis assumed. He is a scholarly sort of chap who is falling for our Bridie. Meanwhile, the spy is extricated from his captors only to be shot. Also shot is Miller who passes on information to Bridie regarding a certain notebook hidden in a parliament building on the Isle of Man. Before shuffling off this mortal coil, he also instructs Bridie to get rid of his body. Bridie, the corpse, and a wheelchair is a comic movie highlight. The consequence of her actions find Bridie sneaking out of town to complete her mission on the Isle of Man.

Garry Marsh as Capt. Goodhusband and Tom Macaulay as Lt. Spanwick

The escape and the not so easily gotten rid of corpse of her handler have given the authorities a lead on Bridie's whereabouts. They have tracked her to the Isle and military personnel is ordered to pick her up. Military personnel on the Isle of Man are Garry Marsh as Captain Goodhusband and Tom Macaulay as Lieutenant Spanwick. They are amusing characters with many witty exchanges of dialogue. Goodhusband is played as a typical twit and Spanwick, if not a man of action, a man of at least some brains. Trivia has it that Launder and Gilliat wanted their old friends and ours Charters and Caldicott for these roles, but Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne held out for more money than was considered reasonable by the newly independent producers.

Bridie obtains the hidden notebook and when she realizes it contains information vital to the coming invasion of Europe, she suddenly comes face to face with the enormity of her actions. The Nazis are not to be trusted! Wisely and bravely, she burns the item sought by the villains. Assisted by David, who has followed her, they attempt to escape together. David will not shirk his duty of turning Bridie in, but he will not let her deal with the Nazis alone.

It is a wild race across porous borders that sometimes finds our heroes ahead of the Nazis and the British Army, and sometimes with them. A satisfactory ending is awaiting the viewer without bogging us down in unnecessary red tape.

I See a Dark Stranger is threaded throughout with the mystery of French street signs on the Isle of Man and the overactive imagination of Bridie Quilty. The spy story is credibly presented with wry observations from characters in the most unassuming of circumstances. The ensemble is filled with familiar faces including Joan Hickson, Katie Johnson, David Tomlinson, Torin Thatcher, Albert Sharpe, and others I may have missed.

If you think you may be in the mood for a thoughtful and amusing thriller, with the occasional laugh-out-loud moment and a young leading actress of immense talent then I See a Dark Stranger is the movie for you.












Thursday, September 17, 2020

RAY MILLAND ON THE RUN, 1944: Ministry of Fear and Till We Meet Again


Ray Milland stars as Stephen Neale, a man who thinks his long personal nightmare may be over. On the night he is released from a sanitorium, a sentence for the mercy killing of his wife, Stephen Neale faces a new and more immediate nightmare.

Graham Greene's (The Third Man) 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear was adapted to the screen and produced by Seton I. Miller (The Sea Hawk) for Paramount in 1944. Fritz Lang (You and Me) directed with crisp cinematography by Henry Sharp (The Glass Key, 1935).

Stephen was a lucky man at a charity fete with the win of a cake made with real eggs. The cake, however, was not meant for him. It contained microfilm valuable to the Nazis and they are not a group of whom one should run afoul. The train trip to London becomes something more than routine with a not-so-blind traveler, a bombing raid, an attempt on Stephen's life, and a stolen cake.


The charity fete had been held for the Mothers of Free Nations. After hiring a rather seedy private detective played by Erskine Sanford, Stephen checks out the offices of the MoFN and becomes involved with sibling Austrian refugees. Carl Esmond plays Willie Hilfe who finds Stephen's story amusing but is also willing to play along. Marjorie Reynolds plays Carla who hopes to prove their organization blameless, and who also seems to find Stephen attractive.

Stephen and Willi follow a trail that leads to Hillary Brooke as a wealthy socialite, lending her hostess duties to an incongruous seance. The medium seems to know more about Stephen than is humanly possible. A man is murdered. Stephen is on the run and he knows he is being followed. Why has that detective disappeared?

Stephen is in a waking paranoid nightmare; pursued by Nazis and the authorities, he chases the villains to clear his name. There is no one to trust and nowhere to hide. Each safe place turns more dangerous than the last. Dan Duryea, Alan Napier, and Percy Waram are among the suspicious characters that Stephen and Carla must sort out in order to be safe. Yes, our attractive leads have joined forces. Perhaps there is one person who can or must be trusted.

Ministry of Fear is a tidy thriller that puts its cast and its audience through their paces. Shocks and plot twists abound as the race against time and a clever enemy quickens to the finale. Apparently, director Lang was disappointed with this film yet he gives us an extremely accomplished entertainment.



Barbara Britton stars as Sister Clothilde, a novice at a convent in rural France during WW2. She was eight years old and came to the convent after the death of her mother. The convent was a refuge from an abusive father and a haven she never wants to leave.

Lenore Coffee's (Four Daughters) screenplay was directed by Frank Borzage (Three Comrades) with moody cinematography from Theodor Sparkuhl (The Glass Key, 1942). Some location shooting was done on Rhode Island.

Mother Superior played by Lucile Watson knows how good and kind Sister Clothilde is with the children in their care yet still worries for the young woman whom she senses takes too much pride in being safe from the outside world.


The convent is part of the "Underground" helping trapped allied soldiers to escape the Germans. Konstantin Shayne plays Major Krupp who cannot enter the convent yet plays a verbal game of cat and mouse with the brave Mother Superior. Always in the background is the Mayor played by Walter Slezak. Mayor Vitray is not an unfeeling man, but he is afraid and fear rules his actions.

An American flyer with vital information for the allies is the latest to pass through their care. Sister Clothilde knows of his presence and inadvertently makes Major Krupp aware of his presence. She could not lie but her face and actions gave it away. The Nazis make quick work of the unspoken information. The woman who was to act as the flyer's wife to get him past the authorities is arrested. Breaking with protocol, soldiers come to search the convent and kill the Mother Superior. Sister Clothilde takes the place of the underground operative. It is her duty.

During the perilous journey, the flyer and the sister share much and become close. He shares his home life; his wife and son are everything to him. She sees that life outside the walls of the cloister can be a fine thing. She has learned what Mother Superior meant when she said, referring to the cross: "This is our symbol, Sister Clothilde. Why should we be free from suffering?"

Barbara Britton gives a lovely performance of a young woman finding unforeseen courage and understanding. Ray Milland is a very human hero; dutiful toward his cause and grateful for the help that comes his way.

"Only a few days. Only a few miles, but it's been a long journey."

Frank Borzage's films always have for me a moody romanticism and a strong sense of Fate controlling all-too-human characters. 












Wednesday, September 9, 2020

REMAKE AVENUE: The Guardsman, 1931 and The Chocolate Soldier, 1941

Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt
The Guardsman, 1924

New York's Theatre Guild, the post-WWI iteration of the Washington Square Players was looking for a boost to their box office in 1924 to accompany and add to their lustre as the home of theatrical integrity and innovation. The Board's Theresa Helburn suggested Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman with the stars Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. The well-known actors were married in 1922 but were not renowned as a team as they would be after The Guardsman.

The Guardsman had not found success in New York in 1911. It needed some tweaking and some actors who could put across the light comedy. In Lunt and Fontanne the Guild found actors who put the play above themselves and were willing to work for the negligible salary afforded by the group. The work they put in with perfecting natural, overlapping dialogue and attention to costuming details paid off with great success. Alexander Woolcott in the New York Sun declared "...those who saw them last night bowing hand in hand, for the first time, may well have been witnessing a moment in theatrical history." 

The Actor, after six months of marriage, is growing suspicious of his wife The Actress. She sighs and sits alone in the dark. Is she longing for past or future lovers? The Actor must know! He works up a disguise, a Russian guardsman who woos The Actress to test her fidelity. When the ruse is discovered at the end of the play we are left to wonder if she knew all along or was his performance as perfect as he imagined. For the audience to care about these characters was up to the actor and actress behind them. The 248 performances, plus tours attest to the Lunts' achievement. Support in the production came from Dudley Digges as The Actor's friend, The Critic, and Helen Westley as The Actress's confidante, Mama.


While on tour with Elizabeth the Queen in 1931 a meeting with Irving Thalberg led to the Lunts signing with MGM to make a film of The Guardsman. The Lunts were paid $75,000, did not have to do any publicity for the film, and had their choice of director between Sidney Franklin or Robert Z. Leonard. Franklin got the assignment of directing Ernest Vajda's screenplay.

Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt

The movie opens with a scene from Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen to establish the characters of The Actor and The Actress, and then we are off to the races with the moody Actor bemoaning to his amused friend The Critic played by Roland Young that he has lost his love. Mama played by Maude Eburne encourages The Actress's melancholy by bringing up the "good old day" before her marriage.

Alfred Lunt, Roland Young

Lunt cracks me up as The Actor goes from the depths of despair to the self-satisfied autograph giver, to the manic man in disguise. Fontanne is a delight gowned by Adrian, languorously teasing along her husband's moods as she plays her winning game. Roland Young is a special treat as he discovers what The Actor is planning. Young and Lunt, in his over-the-top guardsman disguise, have a chase through the street that rivals any gallop by Keaton or Chaplin.

Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne

While Mama and the maid Liesl played by Zasu Pitts believe the old days have returned with the mysterious lover and do their best to protect what they believe are The Actress' interests, The Critic watches with interest the chess match going on between the couple. Will The Actor have his worst fears realized or will his fondest hopes come true? What does The Actress know and how long did she know what lurked behind that absurd costume and accent?

Lunt and Fontanne were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Leading Role for the 1932 Academy Awards. There were three nominees in each category with Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Wallace Beery in The Champ tied for the win. Helen Hayes won for The Sin of Madelon Claudet over Lynn Fontanne, and Marie Dressler for Emma.

Disney's Parade of Award Nominees was created for the 1932 Academy Awards with caricatures of the nominees by Disney Legend Joe Grant. Watch it HERE.



Oscar Straus' The Chocolate Soldier based on George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man was acclaimed by audiences and critics upon its debut in 1908 and has enjoyed many revivals. The only exception to the operetta's popularity was the notably grumpy (he was probably born that way) GBS.

MGM signed the Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens in 1941 and for her film debut teamed her with Nelson Eddy in The Chocolate Soldier directed by Roy Del Ruth. Retaining most of Straus' songs and tossing in some Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Saint-Saens, they used The Guardsman as their "book" in place of Shaw.

Rise Stevens, Nelson Eddy

Instead of dramatic stars, here The Actor and The Actress are Karl and Maria, operetta stars in a popular hit. In addition to Karl's suspicions regarding Maria's fidelity, he also fears she is longing to leave him for grand opera! Why else would she give musical evenings at home trilling Saint-Saens to the applause of invited guests?

Rise Stevens, Nelson Eddy

Nigel Bruce supports as the friend The Critic named Bernard. Florence Bates is Mama or Madame Helene. Liesl the maid is played by Nydia Westman in the same step-behind-the-rest-of-the-world manner of Zasu Pitts.

Driven mad by his desperation to discover a truth he doesn't really want to discover, Karl comes up with the ingenious plan of trapping Maria into doing something he doesn't want her to do. Here, perhaps due to the softening influence of the music or the behest of the production code or the studio's own sensibilities, we are left in no doubt as to Maria's knowledge of the trick being played by her foolish husband. After her first encounter with "the guardsman", she takes one of Karl's 8 x 10s and draws on the ridiculous beard to confirm her suspicions.

Nelson Eddy, Rise Stevens, Chorus

Musical production numbers are integrated into the plot by showing the couple at work. How much you enjoy that sort of thing will determine how much you enjoy this musical version of The Guardsman. I am a fan and enjoyed the playing of the witty plot and the music equally. Rise Stevens looks lovely and must have made a good impression on audiences of the time. Nelson Eddy gives a committed comic performance that is a favourite of mine. My one quibble is that Technicolor would have given the film an extra little boost in terms of zing. You may enjoy the trailer HERE.


Of note


Rise starred in a television production of the original The Chocolate Soldier on NBC opposite Eddie Albert in 1955.




Source:
The Fabulous Lunts by Jared Brown
Atheneum, 1988












Tuesday, September 1, 2020

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR SEPTEMBER ON TCM


"Sure-Alarm. It's no pushover. It's the latest model."
"It's getting harder to make a living."

Four "professionals" band together for a job. Their profession is burglary and, as mentioned, it is not an easy living. There is underlying desperation among these men that led them to this job at this time.

Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Carl Mohner as
Tony le Stephanois, Mario Ferrati, Cesar le Milanais, Jo le Suedois

Tony (Jean Servais) has just been released from prison after serving a stretch on his last job. He took the fall for his young friend Jo (Carl Mohner). Jo has a wife Louise played by Janine Darcey and kid whom they named Tonio (Dominique Maurin) after Tony. They comprise a tight family group, sharing laughs, playing with the kid, sticking up for each other.

Jo brings Tony in a job that is planned with Mario (Robert Manual), a minor mastermind with an understanding girlfriend named Ida (Claude Sylvain). Mario's plan is a smash and grab of a jewellery store. Nonetheless, both men acquiesce to Tony's idea to turn it into a bigger job; to enter the store at night and make that one last big haul that crooks dream about. A safecracker is required and Mario knows just the fellow. "Ever heard of Cesar the Milanese? They say there's not a safe that resist Cesar, and not a woman that Cesar can resist."

Once Cesar (Jules Dassin) is on board, the personnel is in place and the thorough preparation is undertaken. Timing is paramount as to police patrols and the routine of neighbouring shops. The alarm system is particularly troublesome as to its disarming. 

Marie Sabouret, Jean Servais

The nightclub L'Age d'Or and its denizens are integral to the telling of the story of Rififi. Mado (Marie Sabouret), Tony's former lover has moved on to the owner of the club, gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Tony and Mado's relationship is not over, and it is complicated. 

It is at the club that Cesar meets one of those women he can't resist. Singer Viviane (Magali Noel) entertains club patrons with Le Rififi describing the rough and tumble existence of the underworld.

Carl Mohner, Robert Manuel, Jean Servais, Jules Dassin

The job is carried off in an impressive silent 30-minute sequence. Silence is paramount to success as to avoid setting off alarms, mechanical or human. No word must be spoken, no misstep is allowed. It takes hours to gain the necessary access and the four must act as one to achieve their goal. The tension is beautifully built when the pesky police note something out of kilter in the street. The professional crook must be prepared for anything.

The big score is theirs and the London fence on board, but the victory celebration is short-lived. Cesar's fascination with Viviane and Tony's past with Mado bring the Grutter brothers into the gang's orbit in an aftermath of shocking violence and retribution.

Rififi is set in a world of grime; of blacks and whites and greys. Director Dassin and cinematographer Philippe Agostini take us through the nighttime hours and the rain-slicked streets backed by a haunting Georges Auric score.

Signed by MGM in the early 1940s, Connecticut-born Jules Dassin directed some polished entertainments such as The Canterville Ghost and A Letter for Evie. He moved into the dark world of noir with Two Smart People, Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, and Night and the City. Night and the City was filmed in London for Twentieth Century Fox in 1950 and soon Europe would become Dassin's home base after being blacklisted by HUAC. 

Jules Dassin as Cesar

Rififi was adapted from a crime novel by Auguste Le Breton adapted by Jules Dassin and Rene Wheeler. Contract difficulties with the actor originally hired to play Cesar landed the role in the lap of our director.

Rififi would win for Jules Dassin the Best Director Award at Cannes and a Palm d'Or nomination, which went to the film Marty. The French Syndicate of Film Critics named it the best film of the year. The National Board of Review, USA named it the top foreign film, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award gave a special award to director Jules Dassin. 


Tuesday, September 8th the TCM daytime lineup is devoted to heist pictures: Armored Car Robbery, The Asphalt Jungle, High Sierra, Rififi, The League of Gentlemen, Ocean's 11, and Jack of Diamonds.


Warning: Do not look upon these films as instructional.

Note: Rififi is not being shown on TCM Canada. Look for Convicts 4.












120 "SCREWBALL" YEARS OF JEAN ARTHUR BLOGATHON: If You Could Only Cook, 1935

Virginia of The Wonderful World of Cinema is hosting the 120 Screwball Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon . The October 15 - 17 tribute to t...