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I will be eager to read your opinions on this one. It has its obvious flaws, given its age. It is almost, if not quite, as good as the glossy Technicolor version with Errol Flynn.

Again, a little Wallace Beery goes a long long way...

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6 hours ago, Jlewis said:

I will be eager to read your opinions on this one. It has its obvious flaws, given its age. It is almost, if not quite, as good as the glossy Technicolor version with Errol Flynn.

Again, a little Wallace Beery goes a long long way...

I finished watching ROBIN HOOD (1922) on YouTube. The print from Kino is currently available. 

Some impressions:

My favorite performance is Sam De Grasse as Prince John. What an attractive villain. He has a sort of Zen-like approach to acting and refrains from scenery chewing. I think I prefer this emphasis on Prince John as the primary villain instead of the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Wallace Beery is not a great actor, but he has a great personality. So he works for me in the role of Richard the Lionheart because he brings the right kind of mood and flair to the part. I can see why he has a lot of screen time...mainly because everything that is happening back in England as well as away from England during the Crusades, is due to Richard's presence/absence.

This version, unlike subsequent versions, is not afraid to keep Fairbanks off screen for awhile. The Errol Flynn version and the Kevin Costner version have Robin on screen 98% of the time, which is too much. Here we get a chance to see the other characters deal with the situations without having to support the lead star at every turn. That makes this a better film in my opinion.

I wasn't particularly impressed with Enid Bennett as Marian. She seems a bit lackluster, though beautiful.

Director Allan Dwan is not doing anything revolutionary with the camera, but he certainly has the indoor scenes well-staged. And the outdoor sequences are bursting with energy. Though I would suspect much of that was down to Fairbanks.

I think Fairbanks makes a very good hero. I like the fact that he plays the Earl of Huntingdon for over an hour, and he doesn't become Robin until halfway into the story. So he really is playing both characters (sides of his personality) equally. 

The famous curtain slide occurs at the 82 minute mark, at least in this print from Kino. I didn't buy the fact that nobody else tried to go down the curtain behind him. They all give up a little too easily.

All of the actors seem to be having a good time, and that makes things more fun for the viewer. 

One notable scene is when Huntingdon is trying to send a message from France back to England for Marian. He uses a dove. As he releases the dove into the air, we see treacherous Sir Gisbourne send a falcon up to intercept it. The images of the falcon chasing the dove and bringing it down are remarkable to watch.

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Enid Bennett wasn't too impressed with Enid Bennett's performance either as I hinted above. My sense is that she didn't feel terribly challenged by her role or as infatuated with her male on screen lover like Olivia De Havilland was.

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Essential: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)

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TB: This weekend Jlewis continues his theme on silent action films starring Douglas Fairbanks. This time he has chosen the 1924 version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. Like the previous selection, ROBIN HOOD (1922), it's a title I had not yet seen. So again, thanks to Jlewis for bringing these classic tales back to the forefront of our consciousness for a thoughtful discussion.

***

JL: We do need to stretch our belief system here by accepting Douglas Fairbanks, a very muscular guy of forty who is built like Vin Diesel, as a sprightly teenage thief Ahmed. The 1940 version was more true to the various stories by casting Sabu and leaving any wooing of princesses to the older John Justin. Likewise, Disney's ALADDIN, both the animated and cgi-mixed live-action versions, used younger blood. Then again, if Fairbanks could pull it off in both age and hulk'n'bulk, so could Steve Reeves later in the '61 Italian version; both versions satisfy those who wish to see their muscle power in action shirtless.

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Fairbanks is very animated in his performance, so “animated” in fact that animators themselves often studied him methodically. There is a key moment when he rubs his tummy before stealing food and, while I am sure he was not the first actor to do this on screen, it is obvious that he is the one being imitated in quite a few golden era cartoons that I recall. (I think, but may need to be corrected, that the monkey in the Disney cartoon version does this as well.)

As with all Fairbanks, a huge chunk of the stunt work was done by him personally and choreographed with as much precision as a Fred Astaire dance number. The key opening scenes show him stealing a purse from a pedestrian by the drinking fountain, followed by him climbing up the building. It resembles a ballet in the way everything is timed perfectly. The story is quite simple, if dragged out as an epic 140 minutes... and, yes, it is dragged out longer than necessary.

We open and close with a holy man (Charles Belcher) telling a boy that happiness must be earned. In a medieval Baghdad (spelled without the “h”), Ahmed is one very happy thief whose motto is “What I want, I take.” Yet there is something missing that he can't just steal...and that is romantic luuuuv. When he successfully barges into the great palace in hopes of stealing something mighty grand, he falls smitten teenage-style for the princess (Julanne Johnston) in her slumber.

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Later he and his buddy (Snitz Edwards) steal garments from the market to pose as a prince arriving to win her affections on her royal birthday. Yet this deception is soon revealed and he confesses the truth. Then gets thrown out of the palace despite the princess sobbing herself. She is as smitten with him as he is with her since he is the only man to touch (actually fall into, thanks to a bee and a horse getting stung) a sacred rose bush that her assistant foretold her future husband would touch in a sand prophesy.

Also he has competition for her affections. There are two princes from India and Persia (Noble Johnson & Mathilde Comont) who are presented in semi-comic fashion, along with a third: the mighty evil Cham Shang from the Mongol empire, wonderfully played in sinister straight-face by Sojin Kamiyama. My guess is that Sojin was among the hardest working Japanese actors in the business with a rather long filmography that even includes a bit part in Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI. No doubt, he  inspired Disney's own Jafar since there is an eery resemblance.

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Cham is the primary villain of our piece but I am rather disappointed that we don't actually see him battle sword-to-sword or fist-to-fist with Ahmed like we see Prince John and his cahoots battle Robin Hood in Fairbanks' earlier epic. When it is decided by both the princess and the Caliph (Brandon Hurst) that the suitor who brings the rarest gift from his travels wins her, each of the trio brings, accordingly, a cure-all golden apple, a crystal ball and a flying carpet (later taken over by Ahmed in our finale). Yet that isn't enough for her, so Cham has another alternative in order to win both her and control of the city: a secret army ready to storm the palace. Like Ahmed in the opening scenes, his motto is “What I want, I take” and he also has the support of a Mongol servant girl working inside the palace. Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong is absolutely brilliant in her Machiavellian expressions.

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While the other three genuine princes find their prizes with limited effort, Ahmed has to do it the hard way in order to prove he is not a thief but a genuine prince in heart, if not heredity. (His prize, magic “powder,” allows him to zap up people and things out of nowhere.)

The second half of the film basically resembles JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS with one wild make believe adventure following another in quick succession and this is where we are constantly bombarded with special effects galore, many years ahead of their time in Hollywood sophistication. Personally I find it all an overkill and start to doze in repeated viewings when he awakens a man “tree” and sword fights a slurposaur (trade name for alligators dressed up as dinosaurs/dragons and treated in a way that the SPCA would never approve of).

The Pegasus horse looks hokey with the wings hardly flapping, but you can not help but love the seamless blending of stylized clouds and castle tops that our riding hero leaps through. The climax when Ahmed finally wins the princess gives us a satisfactory finish with the magic carpet flying out of Baghdad with no strings apparent.

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Special effects aside, this is one of the most visually appealing fantasies of the roaring twenties and no movie memorabilia book is complete without stills. William Cameron Menzies is as much the “star” as Douglas Fairbanks here, working to a lesser degree earlier in the set designs for ROBIN HOOD and continuing post-Fairbanks with so many classics we have grown to love like THINGS TO COME, GONE WITH THE WIND and, if mostly un-credited, the 1940 version of this tale as well. The Baghdad he creates looks no more like the real locale than Venice looks like Venice in TOP HAT, being that both look mopped so clean that you can eat off of the streets, but... wow!... those geometric patterns are art deco delights that linger on your cranium long after you stop watching.

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Equally important is the cinematography, mostly supervised by Arthur Edeson of THE LOST WORLD, Universal's James Whale horror cycle and CASABLANCA fame. He had worked with Fairbanks on a number of epics, but this one is his masterpiece. The daytime street scenes are shot so bright and from multiple angles that you can hardly see any shadows, while the interior shots and night time scenes are the total opposite with characters literally becoming shadows themselves.

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It is fascinating to watch this and the similar Arabian Nights saga, Lotte Reiniger's DIE ABENTEUER DES PRINZEN ACHMED, an actual animated cartoon done with literal silhouettes back to back: both films emphasize human figures often submerging with the geometric patterns of their Arabian surroundings as if they are designs themselves in some vast wallpaper. No doubt some of the German Expressionism look was also starting to seep into Hollywood by this time, just as it would in a second wave in the 1940s with film noir crime sagas; yet the UFA and Fritz Lang's DIE NIBELUNGEN, another I have on DVD that was made roughly around this same time and also features a warrior/dragon battle and castles galore, differs considerably in style.

The running time may be too long for some viewers. Nonetheless this is still a great silent epic worth introducing to a whole family of multiple ages, provided there is enough popcorn on supply to keep everybody alert and not restless during the multiple silent film title card readings.

Besides all of the fantasy elements that fit in well with our favorite fairy tale books, we also have a whole zoo displayed on screen: a chimp who is either unusually big for his species or is strategically shown only with short humans, along with tigers, camels, elephants and the usual horses and donkeys. It is advisable for a parental guardian to remind the little tykes not to repeat all that they observe on screen: thou shalt not use a venomous snake in a jeweled “egg” to test a golden apple's healing powers like Cham Shang and thou shalt not partake in pick pocketing like our hero even though it looks like so much fun. In addition, there is a shocking scene when Ahmed cuts his wrist so he can write in blood a symbol over the palace door; this may potentially result in an unnecessary trip to the ER and another mess to clean off the hallway wall.

Yet all is fantasy and fun in Fairbanks Land and how can one resist that constantly smiling face of his?

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THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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I guess watching the Alexander Korda Technicolor version of 1940 after this one is a rather pointless exercise since the only primary connections that the two share are their titles and their similar use of William Cameron Menzies. The story material is different apart from the basic setup of characters embarking on wild adventures involving beasties and flying carpets. Speaking of beasties, we do get giant spiders in both, although the underwater one Fairbanks battles is far less sophisticated in its hydraulic movements than the one Sabu battles in its own web.

Fairbanks is required in his version to be both an adventurer and a romantic. However he isn't terribly good at wooing the ladies on screen. They always look bored out of their minds waiting for him to return to them or rescue them from a fate worse than death. At least Julanne Johnston gets to contribute more to this film's overall plot than Enid Bennett  did in ROBIN HOOD.

I think Fairbanks would have preferred doing what Sabu does in the later version and leave the romantic declarations to John Justin. Not that John and Princess June Duprez make a particularly exciting pair. The reasons I enjoy the '40 version are due to Sabu's lovable personality and wonderful athletic skills (almost as good as Fairbanks despite a younger age and less training), bombastic genie Rex Ingram's booming voice and Conrad Veidt playing Jaffar in a far more sexually-obsessed and unsatisfied way than Disney's version of Jaffar.

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Again I want to take a moment to thank Jlewis for selecting those great silent swashbucklers earlier this month. I enjoyed the 1922 version of ROBIN HOOD. And probably would not have taken the time to look at it, were it not for the review Jlewis did.

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Coming up in February:

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Ingrid Bergman directed by Alfred Hitchcock

February 1: SPELLBOUND (1945) 

February 8: NOTORIOUS (1946) 

Filmed in Oregon by Andre de Toth

February 15: THE INDIAN FIGHTER (1955) 

February 22: DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959)

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Essential: SPELLBOUND (1945)

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Part 1 of 2

TB: This weekend and next weekend, our theme is Ingrid Bergman Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Star and director seemed to get along well, and they collaborated three times in Hollywood (while both were under contract to producer David Selznick). Jlewis and I will be looking at the first two pictures, SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS...though we might certainly cover UNDER CAPRICORN later.

Before we dive into Jlewis' in-depth remarks on SPELLBOUND, I wanted to ask a few questions...

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TB: In your review for SPELLBOUND, you discuss frequent Hitchcock images. Do you think Hitchcock was recycling images or was he recycling themes that required some of the same dramatic images? 

JL: Hitchcock loved to repeat visual set-ups that worked before. For example, the Statue Of Liberty (SABOTEUR) was a familiar landmark in which the unexpected happens: a villain falls off of it.

Later he did it again with Mt. Rushmore (NORTH BY NORTHWEST). A shower stabbing (PSYCHO) was followed by a prolonged strangling (TORN CURTAIN). Of course, he wasn't always gruesome, but he knew what intrigued viewers...and shocked them ever so much without over-doing it. Hitchcock and Walt Disney as a producer were alike in that they kept revisiting something familiar that could be enhanced the second time around, but doing it skillfully enough that the average viewer only subconsciously realizes this repetition. This is why they both became the two most marketable names in American entertainment after P.T. Barnum.

The average American tends to be rather conservative in tastes, wishing to be startled and shocked just  ever so much, but also have plenty of the familiar that they think...but are not quite sure... they had experienced before. Just so they can stomach the unpredictable in digestible quantities.  This is also why Americans love sports events so much, since there are only so many ways people can chase after those familiar bouncing balls or running wheels.

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TB: Interesting. SPELLBOUND was produced in 1945. It is mostly about a female shrink analyzing and helping a male patient. Why do you think psychoanalysis was trendy at this time? Due to the war and soldiers' trauma? This film has some similarity with THE OCTOBER MAN (especially the amnesia part) which we previously reviewed.

JL: At least partly due to the war and soldiers' trauma. 1944-45 was a bumper crop year for such subject matter. I was watching, right after SPELLBOUND, a vintage "Crime Does Not Pay" MGM short called DARK SHADOWS that eerily resembled it in a few scenes, including the Dali moments you question. It was made at the same time but preceded the feature in theaters.  I think the film noir detective films that were popular at this time (LAURA, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MURDER MY SWEET, etc.) were very psychological too.

The main point here is that Gregory Peck's character resembles many returning service men who were shell shocked in some way or another and the villain was hoping his amnesia would keep him in the clear for his crime. They even hinted he served in the military but I would have to re-watch to be sure.

TB: I should point out that Peck later played an amnesia victim in Edward Dmytryk's MIRAGE (1965). MIRAGE feels very much like a Hitchcock-type film. Have you seen it?

JL: I have heard a lot about MIRAGE but need to see it still.

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TB: In your comments for SPELLBOUND, you mention Salvador Dali's contribution to the film. Especially how his sequence had been cut from 20 minutes to around 3 minutes. How would a 20-minute Dali sequence have been received by critics and viewers? Wonder what other artists thought of it at the time. I think it would have been way too much at 20 minutes, like some of Welles' self-indulgent hallucinogenic imagery in THE TRIAL and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

JL: I read that Ingrid Bergman was impressed by the 20 minute version. You may be right about audiences not wanting to sit through a long sequence like that. Certainly a viewer in 2020 would not have the patience. Then again, moviegoers were different back then. Many MGM musicals of the '40s have lengthy numbers that stop the story plot in its tracks, but audiences at the time loved them all the more. Doubt an average TV and cell phone addict today could. You can also add as an example the finale to AN AMERICAN IN PARIS which runs roughly that length. The Dali sequence DID get a lot of pre-release exposure that so many coming to theaters were expecting to see it.

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TB: Last question. Do you think the glamorous/romantic angle makes the film more commercial? I wonder if a sinister treatment of the memory loss theme would have actually failed with moviegoers.

JL: I suspect that more than one ending was planned and the one chosen was the "feel good" one appropriate to post-war audiences, but I would have to research it further. STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN was released in the U.S. and Britain with slightly different endings. There is nothing pessimistic about either ending, but one ends with Ruth Roman's character on the phone getting a resolution that all is well while the U.S. version needed to make it more obvious by showing the couple together in a jokey situation not unlike the ending of SPELLBOUND.

TB: To be honest, I'm not particularly enamored with the ending of SPELLBOUND. It reminds me of the ending of SUSPICION, where the producers are afraid of bombing with the test audience and give a somber storyline a rather artificial denouement. I would have preferred it if SPELLBOUND had a much bleaker conclusion. But that's just me! Anyway, I think our readers are now sufficiently prepared for your full commentary on SPELLBOUND. And I will post it tomorrow.

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Essential: SPELLBOUND (1945)

Part 2 of 2

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Jlewis wrote:

While it may not be Alfred Hitchcock's all-time best, it was certainly among his most profitable in its initial release. Most of his films did well, but only a handful made the ranks of the top earners of their given year and SPELLBOUND competed successfully with THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Mind you, earning close to five million was a much bigger deal back then than it is today.

Timing had a lot to do with it. Psychoanalysis was trending in popular entertainment as many Americans tried to comprehend the brutality of a world war and all of the post-traumatic stress involving the returning soldiers. Stir in the novelty of Ingrid Bergman teaming up with handsome leading man Gregory Peck (younger than most of her co-stars), who admitted in his later years that the two cheated on their spouses during filming, and the inclusion of an ambitious Salvador Dali supervised dream sequence that got plenty of pre-release publicity in the periodicals of the time.

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Being produced by David O. Selznick (for United Artists) was an added plus since he too was going through some psychological therapy of his own and, in addition to pushing the story on Hitchcock, he even gave one of his own analysts, May Romm M.D., screen credit. However my sense is that he didn't want the director to get quite as dark and penetrative as Hitch would have liked on account of his own struggles of grief, brother loss included. Thus, we get the usual happy ending tacked on to the finale and many scenes much more brightly lit for a noir-ish mystery of the period.

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Despite the limitations, this was still Hitchcock's favored home turf and he would incorporate SPELLBOUND-ish elements in many of his later works. The frequent cross questioning of “try to remember” here between Bergman and Peck's characters foreshadows Jimmy Stewart's Scotty cross questioning Kim Novak's Madeleine in VERTIGO. Peck's close-up shots and later looking anguished with his face half-lit is eerily similar to how Anthony Perkins was seen in PSYCHO. One can go on with other images that got recycled later.

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The slightly implausible story involves Peck as Dr. Anthony replacing a retiring Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll, a familiar face in multiple Hitch flicks) as head of Green Acres psychiatric facility. Bergman's Dr. Constance, who is also working there, finds him fascinating psychologically in the way he reacts strongly to four line patterns in tablecloths/clothing and bright white and it is also suggested, if not completely spelled out, that he is a wartime veteran suffering from combat stress causing amnesia. Inevitably... since this is Hollywood story telling... she also becomes romantically interested in him as well. She drops her glasses and dresses more like a lady and less like the analytical nerd who drives Rhonda Fleming's sexually inhibited character bonkers in an early scene.

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Unfortunately she soon learns as others do that Dr. Anthony is not the real Dr. Anthony, but an impostor who mysteriously wound up in his place either due to or because of his amnesia. Since he can't remember what he was doing before he “became” Dr. Anthony, he also can't prove he is not responsible for the original doctor's murder when it is officially reported. This is one common theme in Hitch flicks: one man trying to prove he is innocent when he can't muster the proof of it. Another common theme of Hitch's is the woman who must decide to either defend her man or fear him. Constance trusts her instincts that he is not a killer even though she isn't 100% sure and others suspect he is; this situation reminds me of Joan Fontaine's character in SUSPICION, among others.

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Thanks to some special therapy of hers involving a dare jump on the Vermont ski slopes, she finally gets him to improve his memory and he confidently tells Constance that his real name is John Ballantyne. He also revisits the accidental death of his brother in childhood which he forever blamed himself for. This backstory is particularly interesting due to the fact that producer David O. Selznick felt equally guilty for not saving his own brother Myron from alcoholic decline and death in March 1944, just four months before principle photography began.

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In short, John and Constance realize that he is not a killer even though that is difficult to prove to the authorities. The final act involves Constance using her psychological abilities to piece puzzle pieces together and figure out who the real criminal is, one who is well within her familiar surroundings. Yes, there is an awful lot in this story that can easily be spoiled...but I won't. Let's just say that older men don't take kindly to younger blood taking over their positions. Also love conquers all.

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Like the ballet at the end of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Salvador Dali's dream sequence made in collaboration with the legendary set-designer William Cameron Menzies was intended to be a key spectacle that, according to actress Bergman, was initially 20 minutes long and then cut down to only 2-3 minutes. Its purpose is to illustrate a dream that John describes to Constance and her friend and former educator Dr. Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov). Supposedly much that got cut was either too tedious or too offensive to Selznick's tastes; one scene initially featured Bergman morphing into a statue and insects crawling out of her face.

Despite its limited running time, it is still as impressive to modern eyes as it was back then with its mix of animation (shadow winged creature chasing John), montages and double exposures, distorted shots of a gambling table and a particularly impressive shot of giant scissors cutting through a curtain image of eye balls, this key moment paying homage to Dali's earlier UN CHIEN ANDALOU. Dali was currently involved in multiple Hollywood projects during this decade, including an earlier montage sequence for 20th Century Fox's MOONTIDE and an ill-fated DESTINO project with Walt Disney.

Much has been discussed in print about the music. Miklós Rózsa's absolutely gorgeous score is justifiably famous, but I do wonder if Bernard Herrmann (the original choice) would have been better suited since he might have been more sinister and less glamorous/romantic.

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Then again, Rózsa soon successfully moved on to even darker material like THE LOST WEEKEND and THE KILLERS. The former film was, in fact, completed during the same time this one was since both were 1944 productions postponed in their release due to producer and censorship issues. A major breakthrough with both was the use of the theremin, an electronic keyboard that added other worldly effects that would later become commonplace in science fiction fare.

SPELLBOUND is a classic and highly enjoyable but, as I re-watch it every couple years or so, I am constantly reminded that it is still a forties film made in forties Hollywood. It is not just the social aspects of the people on screen (this being the era when everybody smoked even if they were in the medical profession), but also the cinematic gimmicks. The Dali dream sequence has characters “faceless” with burlap bags that are distracting and certain props like the famous distorted wheel fall clumsily. The ski scene looks especially phony with all of its rear projection. Also because no actor could hold a hand steady for that final close-up scene with a gun turning to the audience, a large model hand prop is conspicuously used.

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A special gimmick regarding the final climax is the sudden splash of red when the gun is fired. This reportedly had to be hand cut into each print with Technicolor stock even though reprints processed later tended to miss the effect and reprint it all in black and white. Peter Bogdanovich once asked Hitch if he thought audiences even noticed it in theaters. The response was “Noooh, they just felt it.” By the fifties, this Hitch-trick evolved into what is loosely called quicker-than-a-wink “subliminal messaging,” something that all TV advertisers milk relentlessly today.

After that climactic shot, we get the usual happy kissing scene with our lovebirds, prompting a second reaction take by a train worker for comic effect (since he saw them earlier kissing like he was departing on a wartime train but then boarding together). Like STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN and a few others, I do feel a bit “oh hum” about these tacked on happy endings even though I fully understand that this is what moviegoers wanted to remind themselves of when they left the theater and not the gun scene. Otherwise SPELLBOUND would not have been the big success that it was.

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Essential: NOTORIOUS (1946)

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TB: This weekend we're looking at another collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman. While SPELLBOUND had been released a year earlier through United Artists, this production was done at RKO. It seems rather obvious that producer David Selznick has a guiding hand behind the scenes. This was the first time that Bergman had been cast in a film with Cary Grant. 

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The two would be reunited in 1958 for the European flavored romantic comedy INDISCREET. Grant had already made SUSPICION with Hitch, and of course would go on to make two more films with the director in the 1950s. NOTORIOUS benefits not only from its strong cast which includes Claude Rains in a pivotal role, but from Hitchcock's direction, and from a finely crafted script.

JL: When discussing  SPELLBOUND, I failed to give credit to screenwriter Ben Hecht. Perhaps it doesn't matter because he was essentially a co-writer there with Angus MacPhail and its ventures into psychoanalysis were not “typical” Hecht. The subsequent NOTORIOUS, which Hecht wrote on his own, is a much more the expected combination of Master Screenwriter Cynic with the Master of Suspense. The screenplay for NOTORIOUS includes a few prominent juicy and subtly sexist lines like “A man doesn't tell a woman what to do... she tells herself” and “Dry your eyes, baby; it's out of character.”

TB: What do you think Hecht was trying to say with this particular story?

JL: In Hecht's view of the world affairs in 1946, those who merely sat idle while fascism destroyed a continent must now work hard to compensate for their idleness. Ingrid Bergman here plays party girl Alicia, the daughter of a Nazi spy, who has done a bit too much drinking and carrying on. Had U.S. agent “Devlin,” a diabolical name for Grant's character, not been around, she would be in jail for a DUI. Hecht kind-of/sort-of makes a parallel between her and the people of Germany who, in his personal view and those of many other Americans as well (since we revisit similar themes in later Hollywood perspectives like JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG), the Germans allowed their country to slip into the dark side without fighting as hard against it as the opposing side.

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TB: That seems like a lot of drama to hang on poor Alicia. Of course, Bergman excels at these kinds of flawed heroines who strive to become more virtuous by the end of the film.

JL: Alicia must now counter everything Daddy had done by working hard, very hard. She must now start rooting out future Nazism in areas it managed to escape to after the war. Even though she falls in love with Devlin her recruiter, she is forced to marry the best friend of her late father, Alexander Sebastian, played by Rains.

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TB: Rains does a truly superb job  here. In many ways his character leads the story, even when he is not even on screen! Plus we have the intriguing subplot of Sebastian's relationship with his mother. It sort of foreshadows the mummy-son scenarios in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and PSYCHO.

JL: Alicia and Devlin attempt to get evidence to convict Sebastian down in Rio de Janeiro. However, Sebastian isn't naive since both he and his mother Madame Anna (stoically played by Leopoldine Konstantin) decide to poison Alicia slowly to death once Alicia's plot is uncovered. As far as lady spies goes, even Mata Hari had it easier than Alicia!

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TB: Care to comment on other aspects of the storyline? Maybe specific scenes that seem to capture viewers?

JL: There isn't a whole lot of story to this one, but it doesn't matter. It is still a fan favorite of the Hitch filmography for a multitude of reasons. There are several great set-up scenes like the spectacular panoramic shot over the mansion banisters. Plus a shot through a crowd before a zoom-in to a wine cellar key that Alicia is handling under Alexander's watchful eyes. Not many classics, even among the Hitchcock films, have achieved such a stunning visual effect and this image gets discussed in the movie history books often.

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Each time I watch this scene, I am oddly reminded of those famous scenes of Jacques and Gus the mice stealing a key from stepmother Lady Tremaine in Walt Disney's adaptation of CINDERELLA. Since that film began production after this one, I have to wonder if the Disney animation staff studied it to steal a few, um, “key” ideas.

TB: It is certainly possible.

JL: Naturally this is one of Ingrid Bergman's finest performances since she has so much to do on screen. Hher face is full of emotional expression in practically every shot. Like the famous key zoom-in, the zoom-ins to her and Cary Grant kissing have been discussed almost as much as Marion Crane's shower scene. This is primarily due to the clever way Hitch's team got around the Production Code.

TB: What do you mean?

JL: The performers were only allowed a certain number of seconds for kissing so we get a lot of short kisses, stopping and starting in quick procession. Personally I feel more “heat” coming from Bergman than Grant here, although he compensates in the final act when he becomes her knight in armor saving her life and, to be fair, his character is supposed to be a bit cool and distant due to his jealousy of her marrying another man in the service of her country. The way she constantly fondles his face with her hands is pretty hot stuff for the forties. 

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TB: So while Alicia is married to Sebastian and being "romanced" by Devlin, she is desiring some sort of extra-marital affair. Again, that would violate the production code, which would technically be in favor or her making the marriage to Sebastian work...even if Sebastian is still a villain!

JL: I especially like the scene when Sebastian almost tears up in front of his mother about his discovery that his beloved wife, whom he does genuinely love at first, is betraying him. I do feel his sense of hurt after Devlin's devliish line of “I knew her before you, loved her before you, only I'm not as lucky as you.”

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We don't often feel sorry for the villains, but Rains plays his role with tremendous sympathy. One possible criticism here is that he may play his role TOO sympathetic and is, therefore, less convincing as a villain. After all, before he and Mother plan their scheme against Alicia, he is a very caring husband who demonstrates more verbal affection towards her than aloof-until-the-finale Devlin.

TB: That's an excellent point to make. Sebastian and Devlin sort of switch roles during the story, in terms of which one is meant to anchor Alicia and give her some definition in a domestic sense. Since Hitchcock, Hecht and the studio wanted the two more attractive youthful leads to end up together before the final fadeout, Sebastian's villainy needs to overtake him, and Devlin's heroism needs to become more evident.

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JL: Supposedly there were three separate endings planned, according to the DVD extra commentaries for this movie. One ending actually had Alicia die from poison and Devlin is seen alone at a cafe hearing other people discuss her as a “notorious” woman while he mourns her.

TB: I don't think that ending would have worked very well. It would have been way too somber. Audiences of the 1940s, conditioned to have romantic happy endings, would not have cared for it.

JL: There were also plans to make her character more of a “tramp” than already suggested (in lines like “You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates”), but it was decided to make Bergman more pristine and steam cleaned for the screen. This was an example of the Selznick influence still in effect since the producer made sure his star (under contract to him) remained respectable in terms of her screen persona. It was also a major reason why her scenes were edited out of the bizarre Salvador Dali dream sequence in SPELLBOUND.

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TB: Interesting. Yes, I think Selznick's financial stake in Bergman's services as an actress determined whether she played redeemable heroines. There is no way she would have been allowed to play a woman of ill-repute or a "bad girl" / villainess in any way. Not during this phase of her Hollywood career.

JL: Selznick's fingerprints are all over this movie and his name appears on the credits, but he pretty much sold it outright to RKO Radio early in production because he was burning his pockets with DUEL IN THE SUN and needed the quick cash. The resulting film does resemble a Selznick International production in feel if not reality, almost as if it was being distributed through RKO instead of the usual United Artists but somehow missing the familiar sign-and-plantation house logo. While this is a classic romantic movie with plenty of Production Code Era love making, the music score by RKO regular Roy Webb tones everything down much more than in the previous SPELLBOUND and other Selznick pictures so that it is less gushy-slushy than we expect.

TB: Despite Selznick's behind the scenes control over Bergman's performance and other aspects of the production, it is of course, still an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

JL: Being one of Hitch's most famous films, it is somewhat difficult to explain “what it is” that one likes about it. Probably because the story is simple yet presented in a complicated manner with so many special effects that you feel there is a lot more going on than you think. Sometimes the effects in themselves and the primary work of cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff is more impressive visually than functionally.

TB: Care to elaborate on that?

JL: Well, we discover that the wine bottles have uranium powder in them but there isn't much discussion on that subject like there would be on microfilm leaks in the “pumpkin” that Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint discover in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

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Yet isn't it groovy-cooly how Hitch makes sure one bottle gradually slides off the shelf in full view of the viewers while Cary Grant's Devlin is too busy studying the year labels on each bottle? As if the labels focused on were somehow important to the story as well, when they are more likely “red herrings” to distract us.

TB: That is all we have time for this weekend. Thanks Jlewis. I've enjoyed your thoughts and observations about SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS.

JL: Sure. By the way, worth listening to is a condensed half hour radio version of NOTORIOUS for The Screen Guild Theater. It was aired on NBC, January 6, 1949 and also features Ingrid Bergman.

https://ia800301.us.archive.org/31/items/ScreenGuildTheater/Sgt_49-01-06_ep408_Notorious.mp3

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Essential: THE INDIAN FIGHTER (1955)

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TB: A few weeks ago I sent a note to Jlewis, telling him I had found some interesting westerns on YouTube, directed by Andre de Toth. As you may know, de Toth is respected for his work in crime dramas and when he began to make westerns, he brought a noir-ish sensibility to the genre. Similar to how Jacques Tourneur did.

In 1955 and in 1959, there were two westerns made by de Toth that were filmed in Oregon, which is where the director had a home when he wasn't staying in California. It's clear that de Toth loved the Oregon landscapes, since he and his cinematographers capture the splendor and beauty of the terrain in a way that is unmatched. They elevated these stories and made them something the audience would want to see in the theater, when studio-bound westerns were quite plentiful on television.

Another thing I should mention is that when Jlewis and I decided to do this theme-- which we're calling "Filmed in Oregon by Andre de Toth"-- we had no idea that Kirk Douglas, the star of our first selection, would pass away at this time. So it seems highly appropriate that we begin with THE INDIAN FIGHTER as a tribute to Kirk.

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JL: This was Kirk Douglas' second feature in glorious CinemaScope (after a certain Disney submarine flick co-starring James Mason) and the first for his Bryna Productions, released through United Artists. This indy company would soon be responsible for some of the finest social commentary pieces of the fifties and sixties.

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He plays Johnny Hawk who has a tempestuous but friendly relationship with the Sioux, headed by Red Cloud (Eduard Franz) as the primary chief. The tribe warn him of what may happen between opposing races if the “whites” invade the territory for gold. Johnny later winds up assisting an Oregon bound group, but must play the role of negotiator between two cultural worlds.

TB: I am glad you started by discussing the main conflict of the story. In some ways it's a routine western drama-- the encroachment of white settlers, the displacement of natives, resisting of course. We've seen similar situations play out in other westerns of the period, most notably in RIDE OUT FOR REVENGE (1957). And like the later film which stars Rory Calhoun as a white man sympathetic to native customs, we have Kirk Douglas here in this film as a man who is not a bigot and tries to understand the differences between the opposing cultures. This is underscored by the fact he falls in love with a native woman, just like Calhoun does in the other western. Of course the villains are slightly different. In the later film, Lloyd Bridges is a corrupt sheriff with an unchecked hatred for natives. Here, we have Walter Matthau as the trouble-making white man.

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JL: Walter Matthau's Wes gets accused of murder (but we are not entirely sure if he is responsible at first) and he is brought to execution by Grey Wolf (Harry Landers). Yet Johnny saves him with a negotiating fight. Wes decides to act all-sarcastic by saying “I never felt so nervous in my life” and Johnny punches him in the face with a line of “that will settle your nerves."

TB: It's a great scene. We see at once that while Wes is a loose cannon, Johnny is quick to gain control of the situation. But Wes isn't the only problem, as you know. There are other bad white men in the story.

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JL: Lon Chaney Jr.'s Chivington is one of the heavies at the fort who is quite vocal in his racial bigotry, but he is not alone as we get plenty such talk coming from multiple characters. Even the children are easily influenced and one senses Johnny is eager to educate little Tommy (Michael Lew Winkelman) in an effort to prevent him from growing up to be the next Wes, Chivington or Grey Wolf (“There can be no friendship between Red Man and White. The fight is to the end.”).

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TB: I should point out that young Winkelman also appears in RIDE OUT FOR REVENGE. Again he has a very significant role in the similarly themed story. Winkelman was a gifted child actor who audiences probably remember more for his long-running role on the classic rural sitcom The Real McCoys. 

Okay, let's go back to the theme of THE INDIAN FIGHTER. Any thoughts on why de Toth would choose to make a story of this sort?

JL: I think a key reason quite a number of westerns of the fifties were revisiting this theme of “white” versus “red” in the 19th century was to, in a roundabout way, pick apart the contemporary problems of the mid-20th century without rocking the boat too much.

TB: Interesting theory.

JL: After all, the civil rights movement was only just getting started, with Rosa Parks making history the same month this film was released to theaters. The stories, this one being an original by Robert L. Richards, could be viewed as both quaint history lessons about the way we were back then, while also addressing the way we are now.

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TB: I agree. Though I wonder if audiences in 1955 realized the themes were connected to modern-day concerns. My guess is they probably just saw it at first as another tale of westward expansion, where the natives were in the wrong. But of course, de Toth and Richards are going to subvert the formula. 

JL: Johnny tells the photographer (the wonderfully neurotic Elisha Cook Jr.) who is eager to “open up” the west to “civilization: “To me, the west is like a beautiful woman. MY woman. I like her the way she is. I don't want her changed. I am jealous. I don't want to share her with anybody.”

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He seductively watches his main focus, Sioux maiden Onahti (Elsa Martinelli), wash herself in the river and literally grabs her for affection in another scene. Yet she likes it enough to accept him as a boyfriend...their later roll around in the creek being pretty hot even for today's viewers. No, such scenes may not be appropriate for the modern day era and, yes, I can only guess how impressionable male minds back then thought this was the proper way to “get the girl." Yet she dominates him equally by tying their legs together.

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TB: My interpretation of that scene, of the whole 'courtship' if you will, between the lead characters, is that we were supposed to see Douglas as a potent hot-blooded male. He is going to tame her and love her, the way a man is supposed to (right?)...though as you say, she gets the chance to dominate him in return. So there's a playfulness that develops. It's not quite the Taming of the Shrew, but it is still a taming nonetheless. However, he often has to leave, because his work as a scout and peacemaker means he must traverse great distances and she cannot leave her settlement.

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JL: There is the suggestion that this is an “inter-racial” relationship, despite how close their skin tones are, which causes considerable comment back at the fort. In this respect, it predates SAYONORA, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and other films covering this material.

TB: What did you think about Susan, the domesticated Civil War widow?

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JL: She is played by Diana Douglas (actually Kirk's ex!). Susan wants Johnny but she may have to settle with somebody like equally settled Will (Alan Hale). Johnny is a bit too rough and likes his women who are as jealous of him as he is of them. Onahti is fearful he will not stay committed, but Johnny already knows Susan is not the one for him when he sees her dancing with another.

TB: Anything else you want to address?

JL: I have to bring up a little censorship adjustment regarding the couple. Johnny first suggests to Red Cloud that the two are expecting a “son." Then he looks at her to say “I am sure that some day you will give me a son.” They still have not been married in a church that approves of interracial marriage yet and we can not assume that they did anything but kiss in the creek. However they do swim naked over the final credits as they watch the wagon train move forward through Oregon landscape and, well, cleanliness is next to Godliness as they say.

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TB: So to some extent, we can infer they are having a sexual relationship without the benefit of a white man's marriage. But I suppose we can say they have a spiritual union. And Johnny does love Onahti, just as much as he loves the great outdoors.

JL: There is a very “tough” love that Johnny expresses for the west. He is rather quick to blast a rattlesnake who is not causing any trouble for anybody, which I found silly and unnecessary with Tommy showing off the rattle. (Later he kills a horse, but that is done to put it out of its misery.) I guess if some killing is necessary to maintain peace and tranquility for the living, then so be it. Even if it includes getting the burning arrow in the back.

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Yet the killing needs to stop eventually. As Johnny tells a vengeful Red Cloud towards the end “Burn all at the fort. Will your brother live again? Will The Spirit be happy that another war's started?”

TB: This is where I thought the story became a bit preachy. But yeah, I do agree that while they are taming the west, these settlers have to look at the violence that is occurring. And the natives have to look at the ramifications as well.

JL: This is an ambitious production with full scale battle scenes and scrumptious cinematography that must impress in a higher definition copy. I enjoyed it overall. Franz Waxman's music is good in aiding the action on screen. By the way, I detected a borrowed rift from “Riders Of The Sky,” a popular hit in 1949.

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TB: Final thoughts?

JL: There are aspects here that constantly remind me this is a '50s film dressed up to look 1860s-ish. Everybody is well manicured, the natives hardly looking Native American with Elsa Martinelli looking more like a fashion model. There is also a short reference to Davy Crockett (who was quite the craze then), but cutie-pie Winkelman describes him as an Indian Fighter like the title while Fess Parker played him on TV and on big screens at this time as more friend than foe just like Johnny. Like the Disney series and a number of other westerns of the era, a popular comic book version was made for the younger set: Dell's Four Color version No. 687 of THE INDIAN FIGHTER was in stores by March 1, 1956.

TB: Thanks Jlewis. I appreciate your taking the time to go over this film with us today.

THE INDIAN FIGHTER may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959)

TB: This weekend we're continuing our theme of westerns directed by Andre de Toth in Oregon. What impresses me so much about THE INDIAN FIGHTER and DAY OF THE OUTLAW is how the director and his cinematographers give the landscape such reverential treatment, to where the setting is almost as much a main character as the people in these stories.

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DAY OF THE OUTLAW was shot in black-and-white in a cold wintery period of the year, which makes it bleaker than most 50s westerns. It also features more criminal elements than we typically see in the genre, indicating de Toth's predilection for noir and to some extent, horror, which he delved into with HOUSE OF WAX. So DAY OF THE OUTLAW is perhaps a bit edgier than THE INDIAN FIGHTER.

JL: One defining characteristic of his that ties these two titles together is his love of dramatic horse shootings with screaming brays on the soundtrack. Plus mountain landscapes. Russell B. Harlan's black & white cinematography includes a few morning fog scenes to add to the nice you-are-there 19th century atmosphere, this being a story about one particular winter of discontent.

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TB: I don't think de Toth could have found a better cast to tell this type of story. With the exception of TV star David Nelson in a supporting role, the cast is comprised of Method actors. In a way Nelson's naive quality and wholesome charm is a perfect contrast to the others, and since his character is a crook that is redeemed by love, it makes sense why he was chosen to play that role. But the others are much rougher...they're heavy hitters.

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JL: Robert Ryan and Burl Ives are the big names here. Ryan's character, Starrett, initially is waging a local war against homesteaders who are plopping their wired fences everywhere, when he feels he was the one who fought initially to establish this community. He even threatens to kill one particular homesteader, Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), who happened to marry his ex-girlfriend Helen (Tina Louise). Yet the arrival of some “rogue” cavalry men disrupts this mini conflict and starts up an entirely different one.

TB: I love how the story suddenly makes a sharp turn. We are lulled into this sense of complacency almost...that we have a fairly routine western on our hands, a story about a land war. But then suddenly these rogues show up, led by Ives, and there are bigger problems to deal with that make Starrett's issues with his neighbors now seem much less important. They will have to band together against these violent outsiders that have come into their community.

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JL: Burl Ives plays Jack Bruhn, a most shady former member of the “law” (U.S. Cavalry), now turned “rogue." In a way, he is no different than the corrupt cops that populated the 1970s, disobeying the system. (Let's admit the obvious fact: westerns were only phased out in the sixties and seventies merely to be replaced by inner city “easterns” with so many familiar stories recycled in a different setting.)

TB: What's interesting here is that Ives' character represents a sort of anarchy that wouldn't really be seen in American society until after Kennedy's assassination, which was at least three years off.

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JL: Ives' character keeps his men disciplined but also teases that he will allow them to take advantage of the women to their aggressive pleasure if he doesn't get his way with Starrett. Since Bruhn is suffering from a bullet wound from an earlier bank skirmish (and it tickles me just how often Ives plays characters ready to die and taking an awful loooooong time to do it), Starrett wonders if it is better to just hasten his demise to save the town.

TB: tarrett's approach seems justifiable given the circumstances. Basically Starrett has to kill Jack Bruhn, before Bruhn and his men wreck civilization as they know it.

JL: This is your standard “should we wait to see what these villains do” or “should we have a showdown?"

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TB: And it does look like a showdown will occur on the main street of town. But then that gets scuppered, since Bruhn is now in need of surgery to remove the bullet. It isn't until after Brunh's operation, which occurs at the same time his men are having a dance with the women, that Starrett convinces them to follow him into the mountains to get away.

JL: Yes, we do get some high adventure in the mountains, with horses struggling to get over giant drifts of snow and everybody but the “good” guys dying off in various ways. Although much of this makes use of gorgeous Oregon posing as the Wyoming territory, there are a few giveaway shots done in interior settings and painted backdrops late in the film that certainly would have been a little too obvious if shown in color. I must admit this works best without color like 19th century photography befitting its setting.

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TB: Let's talk some more about the supporting cast. You mentioned Alan Marshal, who plays Crane-- a cowardly, rather pitiful man. Crane is a far cry from the types of roles Marshal did earlier in his career, such as the heroic leading man opposite Irene Dunne in THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER. We also have David Nelson, whom I mentioned earlier. He plays one of Bruhn's rookies, a tender hearted guy who probably doesn't have the resolve to stay on the run with his extremely villainous, dangerous pals. As I said, I think David Nelson provides a perfect counterbalance. Then we have Tina Louise as the leading lady.

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JL: Tina Louise plays against her bubble-head Ginger role from Gilligan's Island; I think this was one of her greatest performances.

TB: She really shines in the elongated dance scene between Ives' men and the women. I love how de Toth is not in a hurry to wrap it up, so as the dance continues, we see how increasingly uncomfortable and jarring it is for the women to endure such beastly "affection." I thought for sure one of the ladies would be sexually assaulted but the film never quite goes there which adds to the tension. It's a brilliant scene.

JL: The doc here, Dabbs Greer, later played the minister in Little House on the Prairie, although his role is among the smaller ones like Elisha Cook Jr. (also seen in THE INDIAN FIGHTER). Meanwhile, Starrett's cohort is played by Nehemiah Persoff, who had guest appearances on many shows including Gilligan's Island and Little House.

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Venetia Stevenson is the ex-Brit actress getting the most lines apart from Louise...she falls for the “nice” younger member of the rogue gang (Nelson). Off screen, she pretty much retired after she married an Everly brother instead of a Nelson brother.

TB: Anything else you'd like to add?

JL: A little research reveals that the music score was done by Alexander Courage of Star Trek fame. It is highly enjoyable, if also very loud and pounding. He was a particularly talented Old Time Radio musician on many classics I listened to over the years, effectively creating that “theatre of the mind” with the right instruments and cues so we listeners can create images when there are none available.

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However, here we have horses struggling over snow with much human whipping involved and he lays the thudding orchestration on pretty thick when the visuals are probably enough to show that this is no easy-going Aspen Ski Resort experience.

TB: So it sounds like you enjoyed DAY OF THE OUTLAW...?

JL: Yeah, kinda. Mostly it is the cinematography that maintained my interest. This late fifties period made good use of rustic settings and I am reminded of other favorites of this period like ANATOMY OF A MURDER where the monochromatic widescreen adds to a certain blah working class or rural farm land setting that the characters are eager to escape from but can't.

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DAY OF THE OUTLAW may currently be viewed on YouTube and on Amazon Prime.

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We're taking a break this coming weekend, but Jlewis and I will be back with four more reviews next month.

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TEENS ON TRIAL

March 7

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March 14

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GLENN MILLER

March 21

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March 28

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  • 2 weeks later...

Essential: THE YOUNG SAVAGES (1961)

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TB: Our first theme in March is "Teens on Trial." We're starting with a John Frankenheimer picture called THE YOUNG SAVAGES. It was released in 1961. At this stage of his career, Frankenheimer was known primarily as a television director, having cut his teeth on live anthology shows. Typically, he focused on social message dramas and quickly made a name for himself. In 1957, his first feature had been released. It was a modestly budgeted tale about juvenile delinquency called THE YOUNG STRANGER. This effort was similar to Nicholas Ray's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), with teenager James MacArthur in the James Dean role. 

THE YOUNG STRANGER was a good way for Frankenheimer to demonstrate that his skills could transfer from the small screen to the large screen. In 1961 he is once again covering the topic of juvenile delinquency in THE YOUNG SAVAGES. But instead of the story focusing on just one troubled teen, there is a motley assortment of intercity gang members. In fact, there are two rival gangs. So as the story unfolds, we learn not only about a kid named Danny, but about some of the other troubled youth in his neighborhood, too. Incidentally, this was the first time Frankenheimer and producer-star Burt Lancaster worked together. They would collaborate several more times in the 1960s.

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JL: The opening shot of street hoods walking in front of cars, expecting not to get hit, reminded me of some comment a family member once made four decades ago (so you have to take that into consideration) when somebody of a different race walked in front of the car in much the same way. “It is not like I am prejudiced or anything, but sometimes *they* do such things to express their attitude.” This is the story of people who “stick to their own kind” and have plenty of attitude to spare. The guys featured have their own opinion about race too (or, as we discover, two of them do). One demonstrates this by overturning a toy carriage containing a darker skinned doll; these boys all being Caucasian.

TB: In a way, I think the actors cast to play the white gang members seem a little too old. They are probably meant to be in their last year of high school, but it is clear some of the actors are in their 20s. They look very adult, which pulls me out of the story a bit. But they are all fine performers.

JL: Released four months before WEST SIDE STORY by the same distributor (United Artists), this first collaboration between John Frankenheimer and Burt Lancaster involves a mostly Italian-American street gang known as The Thunderbirds. The boys are often fighting with Latino “Horsemen” and during a skirmish, one blind boy of the latter group gets killed.

TB: The murder happens rather swiftly. I expected to see a bit more conflict developed between the two gangs, before we were handed such a violent altercation. But the focus is really not on rival factions in the intercity, the focus is more on how "justice" will be served for the killing.

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JL: Lancaster is a much nicer variation of Officer Krumpke...well, not exactly. Hank Bell is actually a district attorney who is put on the investigation. Danny, one of the boys that is involved in the scuffle, is the son of Hank's ex-girlfriend Mary (Shelley Winters), although Hank has long since moved on with a beautiful wife, Karin (Dina Merrill). They have a teenage daughter (Roberta Shore) who is not much younger than the hoods being accused of murder.

TB: I found it a little too coincidental that of all the cases he is given to investigate, this one just so happens to revolve around the son of Hank's ex-girlfriend. There is a scene after the investigation is underway, where Hank and Mary reminisce. Of course, she can't help but mention that Danny could have been their son, not her son with another man who has long since abandoned her.

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JL: Mary is convinced her son Danny (Stanley Kristien) has moral ethics and was not involved with much of his gang's bigotry. A little boy, José, confirms this and there is a flashback involving an incident at the public pool where José was defended by Danny. Older boys were bullying José, for being "too dark to share our pool."

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TB: The flashback that occurs detailing what transpired at the city pool is rather lengthy. Though I must say I rather liked it, because I felt it gave us some background on the teens. Plus José is a rather likable kid, and it's a shame that he wasn't in very many scenes. They could have made a separate movie about him, or at least told more of this story through his eyes.

JL: Hank's first confrontation with Danny hardly presents him at his best. Danny calls Hank all kinds of names, even homophobic slurs (“You look kinda fruity to me”) and later accuses him for “shacking up” with his mother (obviously not true). The method acting here is interesting, because the under-30 youth displays a certain frustration with the older generation and, despite how sweet Lancaster as Hank is, there is a certain controlling mentality of the over-30 and in-power group who think they have the most honorable intentions.

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JL: This film does not pick sides. The residents in the Horsemen section of the city are just as uneducated and ill-informed as their strictly English speaking counterparts. One kid that Hank is interviewing even drops the “N” word without hesitation.

TB: Good point. Let's go back to Mary for a second. I found her a bit clingy. And to be honest, I felt that Shelley Winters, who is a very professional and competent actress, to be a bit miscast here. The role requires an actress who can convey vulnerability and a certain naive quality. While I think Winters has the skill to play that, I don't think she is naturally the naive type. She seems too smart to be stuck in this kind of environment. In LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH, she was playing a drug addict. But here she's a fully functioning woman, and something tells me she would have found another guy like Hank, and would have gotten herself and her son out of the ghetto. Especially since she is afraid for Danny's future and his propensity for getting into trouble.

JL: Mary to Hank: “I don't know...I always heard that a boy got into trouble because he didn't have love. I love Danny more than anything in the world. You just thank God, Hank, that you did not have to raise your kid on these streets.”

TB: That line seemed a bit over the top, to me. Aside from the quick murder scene at the beginning, we are not really given any shots of the neighborhood at night, or when seedier elements are operating.

JL: What strikes my interest here is not so much the performances but the fashion sense. All of these “older generation” men wear hats and sports coats.

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JL: The new president taking office in 1961 defied convention as the first to often refuse to wear hats and this prompted a huge change to men's fashion. Therefore, this filmed-in-1960 production catches America at a rather interesting transition period.

TB: Interesting. I feel like the film is not fully in the 1960s. A lot of what these characters are expressing, seems like leftover sentiment from the late 50s. Again, it's very much influenced by the teen angst dramas that came out a few years earlier.

JL: Aside from the film's youth social conscience angle, post-REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and the new fifties criticism of an America divided by race/culture/economics (and it is obvious that the Spanish speaking community isn't as well off as the side they are often in conflict with)...this basically boils down to your standard murder investigation drama not unlike the many preceding it over the decades.

TB: Only it's a murder investigation drama with a bit of soap opera thrown in, since Hank is in this sort of "triangle" with his wife and with Mary.

JL: We get the usual questioning like “can you tell me what you saw that night?” and “this girl said she saw something that glittered” (later proven not to be a knife but a harmonica).

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TB: One subplot that gains a bit of traction is the story involving Hank's wife Karin (Dina Merrill). Actually I found Dina Merrill a much more fascinating presence in THE YOUNG SAVAGES than most of the other cast. Even more than Winters and possibly Lancaster as well. She's playing a well-to-do, but not haughty, wife who has purpose outside the home. She is the voice of the people in a way. She demonstrates a conscience about what's not working in society. At first Hank is too busy investigating and too busy focusing on the specific activities of the gang members to see the bigger picture. But Karin's remarks eventually get through to him and focus him. And Karin is not without her own baggage, or personal drama. 

JL: At one point, Karin is tormented a bit by a trio of punks, prompting Hank to confront those whom he is sometimes trying to defend. Later Hank himself gets caught in a gang skirmish and ends up in the doctor's exam room. I find these story elements particularly interesting because we usually have the investigator as an entity separate from the world he is investigating, but Hank is physically involved in multiple ways. Even his marriage is put to the test with husband and wife bickering more than we often expect them to in these storylines; usually the wife is merely a prop supporting everything her husband does.

TB: Exactly. There is quite a bit of dimension to the Hank-Karin marriage in this movie.

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TB: Care to comment on some of the supporting cast? For instance, we have Telly Savalas in quite a few scenes with Lancaster. He doesn't have a lot of dialogue per se. He's playing a rather "quiet" police detective. Of course, this was a decade before Savalas became a household name on television as Kojak.

JL: Telly Savalas has an occasionally comical role as fellow Detective Gunderson. We also have Larry Gates as Randolph. a man investigating those on trial with Hank; he is a character mirroring Hank in his need to get to the truth. A bit later there's Pilar Seurat giving a highly emotional scene in the court room. She lashes out at the gang trio accused of murder, namely Arthur the leader (John Davis Chandler). 

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TB: What did you think of the story's political slant?

JL: Edward Andrews is a pill popping district attorney hoping for higher office and wanting Hank to get this over with soon. He is slimy enough that Hank's wife Karin expresses her opinions about him, quite eloquently, at a party. We see her opinions justified by the way he is using some of the publicity of the murder trial to his advantage.

TB: It's a "liberal" film, so of course, Karin's viewpoints have to be validated. And I am rather glad they are, because it gives the film purpose and some sense of urgency.

JL: You mention this being a “liberal” film, but I wonder if it is because the star himself tended to lean towards liberal politics, because I don't think of this film necessarily swinging one way or the other in the political spectrum. I see it more as a product of “anything can be fixed with common sense." It was obviously made before Vietnam and all of the sixties unrest eroded away at that same self confidence. It also addresses the human need to belong to a group out of a genuine fear of being alone. Danny, who sports sunglasses in his first scenes to hide his true self, is a witness to murder willing to take the rap because he is so desperate to feel wanted by others.

TB: I feel it's a "liberal" film in the way that the character of Hank reverses himself by the end. He eventually he drops the hard-line approach and adopts his wife's more compassionate viewpoints. Lancaster's personal politics are part of this, because if the story ultimately upheld a conservative view that these kids deserve what they've got coming, I don't think he would have made the film. And neither would Frankenheimer have agreed to do it.

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JL: In the end, Hank does not feel that the “eye for an eye” revenge between the opposing cultures is the answer. The mother of the victim asks “What about my son. Is this your justice? Is this your justice for a dead blind boy? What about the animals who killed my son?” Hank's response: “A lot of people killed your son, Mrs. Escalante.” In other words, a society rather than individuals is responsible.

TB: Right. And that dialogue means society is ultimately on trial, not exactly the boys who committed such a violent crime. It's a "stab" at what makes the boys in this neighborhood turn out like they do. In some regard, they are absolved of what they have done, because the system is to blame, not them specifically.

THE YOUNG SAVAGES may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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I don't want to typecast certain individuals who may live in the grittier parts of a city. Yet I have to add to your comments about Shelley Winters being miscast. She also seems a bit too glamorous and sophisticated here. She's slightly Park Avenue-ish despite living in a modest and somewhat cluttered apartment. This contrasts with some other roles of hers, particularly in the seventies, when she does act very streetwise and "earthy" in her mannerisms. Why she decided not to behave that way here is a mystery, because she seems a bit out of place with her surroundings.

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10 hours ago, Jlewis said:

I don't want to typecast certain individuals who may live in the grittier parts of a city. Yet I have to add to your comments about Shelley Winters being miscast. She also seems a bit too glamorous and sophisticated here. She's slightly Park Avenue-ish despite living in a modest and somewhat cluttered apartment. This contrasts with some other roles of hers, particularly in the seventies, when she does act very streetwise and "earthy" in her mannerisms. Why she decided not to behave that way here is a mystery, because she seems a bit out of place with her surroundings.

Yes, I don't think she made the best choices from a performance standpoint. Something about her is a bit off in this film, she does not entirely fit the character. Winters and Lancaster supposedly were involved off-camera, so maybe that's why he wanted to work with her on this project, even though she seems miscast. They would re-team for THE SCALPHUNTERS (1968) and that time they play different characters, characters that better suit their individual dispositions. 

One thing I forgot to add in my comments above is that I read somewhere how Lancaster was impressed with Frankenheimer's shooting style. Apparently Frankenheimer and his cinematographer would shoot the courtroom scenes from innovative angles, like by putting the camera crew into a hole in the floor and recording the action pointed upward. Or filming at high angles looking down. The editing is so smooth that these tricks are not very noticeable. But I think this conveys the brilliance of what Frankenheimer does. In this instance, he is saying that we can look at how justice is meted out from contrasting viewpoints. There is no one way to regard justice, at least in terms of how juvenile delinquency is to be corrected.

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Essential: THE BOYS (1962)

JL:

We open in a courtroom with four 17-22 year olds on trial for the murder of a 70 year old garage attendant named Arthur Baxter. The Shadows, a very popular rock instrumental group that often did lighter fare with England's “Elvis” a.k.a. Cliff Richard, provide a most somber mood piece to let us know this is a story of doom and gloom without the usual happy ending.

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Animated arrows pointing to each name in the cast, reminding me of Saul Bass' work in Hitchcock films and other classics, suggest that our approach will be very analytical as each name is called to provide details. We will have plenty of flashbacks interrupting our courtroom trial and quite often they will repeat in action and words so that we can view them from the perspectives of different characters involved, a clever device that works surprisingly well even if it may lengthen the running time a bit.

Two big name stars here are battling two sides of the trial-- Richard Todd and Robert Morley.

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Todd plays the accusing Victor Webster with considerable aloofness. Perhaps he plays his part with too much aloofness? I suspect that this was done on purpose because director Sidney J. Furie doesn't want us to actually like him but just accept him as part of the “justice must be served” law.

Usually in dramas involving battling lawyers, the one who gets the most to say and has the longest soliloquy in the finale is the one whom director and screenwriters tend to agree more with or at least find more interesting as a character study.

In this case, Morley's Montgomery gives a rather passionate speech about how young men don't just become cold blooded killers, but unfortunate circumstances lead them to do it. Being a naturally whimsical actor, I am not entirely sure that Morley himself is particularly well suited to his role, but he does give another great stand-out performance (besides the speech) when he counsels his foursome and, responding to the moody remark of “aren't you supposed to defend us?” he displays great exasperation: “What have you given me to defend?!! You throw a man's tail right across a bus! What are you using a knife on the top of a bus? Cleaning your nails?”

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Basically the dramatic flux consists of one eyewitness after another taking the stand as we make a trip backward in time, followed by each of the boys involved telling their stories. Not all of the witnesses are particularly memorable, but they all have familiar and memorable faces. Most notably, we get the wonderfully fussy bus conductor played by Roy Kinnera who labels the guys as “teddy boys” even though he only has time to read the Daily Mirror and isn't sure what a “teddy boy” is. Others like Wilfred Brambell (A HARD DAY'S NIGHT), Allan Cuthbertson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) and Colin Gordon (THE PINK PANTHER) have a few memorable key lines in their recollections, all representing the stuffy “older generation” that has no patience with these young punks.

What I find surprisingly odd is that we learn so little about the victim, unless he was featured and the film I saw had edited cuts. Does he have family who mourn him? No tears displayed by anybody on screen. Did I miss anything here?

***

TB:

I don't think you missed anything. They did keep the victim's situation somewhat nebulous. I don't think we were supposed to focus on the victim, but instead to focus on how the judicial system will handle it. If there had been no conviction at the end, then I think they would have been compelled to show the victim's story more, through a surviving relative or friend.

***

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JL:

Gerald Gibb's camera is mostly focused on Dudley Sutton's Stan Coulter here since he has the most at stake...and accepts his fate with little struggle. His sweaty curly hair and round crablike features make him appear quite innocent and "boy"-ish. We see him tender and caring with his mother suffering from lung cancer. I especially like how Gibb often poses him close to windows with bar-like shadows to suggest that he always felt like he was in prison.

There is considerable focus on Stan's sexual frustrations, which I find most interesting and I suspect that his need to “get off” (pardon my blue language) was a key reason he went into the dark side. In one flashback, an attendant thinks he is looking at the safe, but he is actually eyeing the nude model pin-up and wishing he could have her. As usual, he is looking for love in all the wrong places and tries to hook up with a beehive blonde more interested in dancing with her brunette girlfriend, later being observed by him going up to their shared flat window. (Lesbianism was the newest taboo “thing” in cinema by 1962: THE L-SHAPE ROOM was concurrent to this, as were U.S. imports like THE CHILDREN'S HOUR and WALK ON THE WILD SIDE.)

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This is your trademark “kitchen sink” drama with bountiful urban city sinks on display. All of these characters feel trapped by their lives much like they do in other working class gloomies that were popular on Brit screens then. As much as I love the visual aspects, the clever editing tricks and Gibb's cinéma vérité style, there is a certain shallowness to the story with more milked than necessary with razzle dazzle tricks typical of Brit's “new wave."

***

TB:

The director for THE BOYS, Sidney J. Furie, has a very interesting filmography. He would do another kitchen sink drama in 1964 called THE LEATHER BOYS.

***

JL:

There's an interesting trivia footnote on Wikipedia. A few of the boys-- Sutton and two others (Jess Conrad and Tony Garnett) had a cast reunion in 2017. The fourth boy, Ronald Lacey (the one with the pre-Brian Jones light bangs), passed away earlier. What I found strange was that these guys had not seen each other in the intervening decades. Did they not care all that much about their shared experience to want to discuss it after filming completed?

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I guess this adds to some of my...well...indifference to this film. I don't get the sense that the creators genuinely care all that much about their characters since we don't get enough evil on screen to showcase the "why" of the final verdict but also don't get a lot of emotion displayed on screen either. Maybe I was spoiled by Pilar Seurat in THE YOUNG SAVAGES and was expecting something similar in the courtroom here?  I don't think typical Brit "chip chip" keep the upper lip fortitude is to blame here.

Sometimes I thought of this as a Basil Dearden drama but lacking the trademark Deardanian focus. For example, SAPPHIRE clearly comments on Britain's racism and VICTIM pleads for fair treatment of gay men, but it isn't clear what message is being delivered here apart from a general dissatisfaction for the death penalty. Obviously we are not supposed to agree with the final verdict since we have not seen anybody behave as bloodthirsty villains deserving it.

However you may think this is what makes this film highly innovative. Sometimes movies are done as experiments that sometimes work and sometimes don't but are still interesting experiments. THE BOYS is interesting in that it dares to be a little different in its approach.

***

TB:

I want to address Morley's speech at the end. I think it wasn't to place him above Todd's character. I think it was to place him below Todd, to show that a liberal impassioned speech is futile since the boys (three of them) are still held responsible and one is going to face death.

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I feel the film is ultimately on the side of Todd's character, because it shows how Morley is duped by him into re-calling the boys to the stand after the testimony had been finished. This enables the prosecution to poke a big hole in the defense, since that final testimony becomes very incriminating. It was as if Todd's character might have, on some level, expected that to happen. Also, that he was aloof only as some sort of masquerade, since he was quite sly and determined to make sure that justice, the only Justice allowable, would prevail. At least that's how I looked at it. So Morley ends up a buffoon in court. If this is an accurate interpretation, then Morley's "light" more jovial persona works here, because he is clearly not to be taken seriously as a "real" brilliant legal talent the way Todd is.

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I should point out that the director, Sidney Furie, served as producer. But I am wondering if he was forced to give it the ending he gave it, with Todd winning, because that would have been seen as morally responsible to the establishment of law and order in Britain, in addition to this approach ensuring favorable box office returns. It was probably made for middle to upper middle class parents, not for the lower classes or the younger people whose story it tells.

The film goes out of its way to explain or give plausible reasons that the boys might be innocent and misunderstood. But then it pulls the rug out from under that false assumption of innocence. The part about the knife is most revealing. We are supposed to think that the knife is only used to clean the boy's fingernails, but a murder did occur. And later on the stand, the murder is confessed. So obviously the weapon was carried around with a possible intent to kill, not a possible need to clean under the nails.

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Interestingly, in Great Britain right now, there is an alarmingly high rate of knife crime and youths being killed by knives. So this situation has only increased since 1962.

You mentioned the actors not meeting up again until 2017. I don't quite believe that, to be honest, since most of them continued to work as actors and would have bumped into each other at various auditions over the years. They probably just didn't stay close, perhaps due to personality clashes on the set. The fact that they reunited to do commentary when the film was finally being put on DVD indicates to me that it is considered a seminal work in their respective filmographies.

At any rate, I consider THE BOYS a cleverly made "think piece" to subvert liberal politics. Your remarks about Dearden are interesting to me, because I think if he had done it, then yes it would have been more transparently in favor of the defendants. We would have been made to sympathize with the boys. But instead, we're just supposed to sit back, almost detached, see how they carry on with their pranks, their attention deficit issues, and their general clownishness and inability to fit into society properly. Then watch these boys get hauled into court, and inevitably they are carted off to prison.

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THE BOYS may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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As mentioned above, Robert Lacey's passing prevented him from attending the reunion of cast members, yet he was the one with the most substantial career. Many Baby Boomers and Generation Xers remember him as the key villain in the first RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

I have yet to see THE LEATHER BOYS, but the star here, Dudley Sutton, took a very risky move in the part he plays there. Then again, the Brits had already paved the way with VICTIM, A TASTE OF HONEY, THE L-SHAPED ROOM and others by the time that film was made in 1963. Then still more advancements were made in the coming years.

Taken as a whole, these films actually did  help influence Parliament to do away with all of those antiquated laws left over from the Victorian Age by 1967, which put that country (if not other parts of the British Empire right away) ahead of the United States. We tend to forget that certain activities that were generally done in the privacy of the bedroom were still considered illegal and subject to arrest in several states as late as 2003 regardless of how many pride marches took place by then.

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Essential: ORCHESTRA WIVES (1942)

TB: Our latest theme focuses on bandleader Glenn Miller. This weekend we are going to look at a film in which Miller and his orchestra appear, although Miller is playing a fictional character. And then next weekend, we will look at a somewhat fictionalized but still faithful music biopic about his life that was made after Miller's death.

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JL: This is a pleasant wartime follow-up to SUN VALLEY SERENADE that instantly references the earlier film's smash hit recording of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in its opening rehearsal setting. However we only get a few rifts before a new song is introduced, the boppy, if bland for the post-R&R generation, “People Like You and Me” that promotes the war effort. Mack Gordon and Harry Warren wrote this and other songs, the two big hits on the Billboard charts being “Serenade in Blue” and “I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” the latter I will get to in more detail later. “At Last,” originally written for but not used in the previous film, would be a hit for other artists over the years, including Etta James' R&B rendition in 1960.

TB: "At Last" had become Miller's signature tune by this point in his career, so it's understandable that it is used as a theme song right from the start of the movie. In fact, I am surprised it didn't appear in SUN VALLEY SERENADE but that was a Sonja Henie vehicle. This time around, we have what is for all intents and purposes a Glenn Miller picture. Even if one of the studio's handsomest actors (George Montgomery) and a starlet borrowed from MGM (Ann Rutherford) technically play the main story.

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JL: It is fascinating to see Harry Morgan of future M*A*S*H fame appear in both this movie with the real Glenn Miller (even though I can't recall seeing them together on screen) and then again later with Jimmy Stewart playing Miller in THE GLENN MILLER STORY.

TB: Yes, I found that a bit ironic. Of course when Morgan appeared in ORCHESTRA WIVES he was just starting as a contract player in Hollywood. And he had no idea Miller would die before the end of the war and that there would be a film about Miller's life ten years later where Morgan would be cast as one of the band members. But yeah, Harry Morgan is a link that connects both productions.

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JL: Equally interesting is that the real Miller looks, acts and sounds nothing like Stewart, aside from those familiar glasses. Stewart's Miller is very methodical, while Miller himself is more “oh shucks” easy going, if still playing a serious and straight-faced band leader named Gene Morrison here. Although his role is third-billed, it would have been interesting to see what his Hollywood career would have been like had he survived the war.

TB: My theory is that Fox executives didn't feel Miller was exactly leading man material. They brought Montgomery in to handle the love scenes with Rutherford. Sort of like how Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell were assigned to portray fictional lovebirds in BRIGHAM YOUNG (1940) while Dean Jagger played what should have been the lead character. If Miller had survived the war and made other pictures, my bet is he would have continued to do supporting roles like bandleader Xavier Cugat did at MGM. But this is all speculation on my part. Probably Miller would have had his own weekly TV series like Lawrence Welk did.

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JL: With Miller pretty much taking a back seat in the story, the main focus is on musical fan Connie (Rutherford) and trumpet player Bill (Montgomery). Their whirlwind marriage (and not even knowing each other's name when the decision is made) prompts her to start a brand new life as one of the characters described in the title. Initially the working title was ORCHESTRA WIFE with the focus mostly on her.

TB: I think they made the right decision to pluralize the title. It becomes more of an ensemble picture, with emphasis on all the band members and their wives without really losing the main love story. The actresses who play the catty wives are very good, especially Carole Landis who at this time was one of studio chief Daryl Zanuck's regular girlfriends. Landis easily steals the scenes she is in with the other gals, and while Rutherford is a decent enough actress she doesn't have to carry everything on her own. 

JL: Unfortunately Connie knows nothing of Bill's earlier relationship with band singer Jaynie (Lynn Barrie, whom we saw earlier in SUN VALLEY SERENADE).

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The other wives (Virginia Gilmore, Mary Beth Hughes and Landis) spill the truth during a bridge game. Thus, we get our expected obstacle to put the question of “will they live happily ever after?” in doubt. In disgust for being the last-in-the-know, Connie bolts out, then returns later to confront both Janie and Bill about their past together and responds “Perhaps it is all part of being an orchestra wife. If that is so, I don't want to be an orchestra wife."

TB: I had to laugh at some of Connie's actions, because clearly she is immature and in way over her head. The other wives make mincemeat out of her, and Connie's response seems only to become more melodramatic. I would expect this behavior from Rutherford's well-known character Polly Benedict, lashing out because boyfriend Andy Hardy fell for guest star Judy Garland or Lana Turner! But anyway, back to our story...

JL: Later Bill starts to cool off when Connie seeks forgiveness for her jealousy and she has to resort to an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder approach with more time away. This involves her kind-hearted doctor father (Grant Mitchell) in a memorable scene towards the end.

TB: What are your thoughts specifically about Rutherford?

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JL: Without a doubt, Ann Rutherford is the star here and she is easy to relate to; my favorite scene has her on the attack against the fellow wives as catty “cats,” which they obviously are, and adding “but you can take your claws out of me.” However I must confess that most of the cast is merely adequate (good but not great acting).

TB: What do you mean?

JL: Not sure if anybody gave interviews in later years recalling their experience on this film, but my overall vibe is that this was viewed by more than one as another-Fox-picture-to-do on their contract. Aside from the above mentioned Harry Morgan, we also have Fox studio familiar Cesar Romero as a fellow band performer.

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TB: You may be right that they saw this as just another studio assignment. But the music is so exceptional and the overall energy of the picture is so good, especially that outdoor number in the park near the beginning, that I think it becomes more than just routine moviemaking. They really seem to be having fun on screen, in many of the scenes. Not just the musical numbers, but all of it. I have to say I love Miller's real-life band and I am glad they are prominently featured during the performing of Miller's big hit tunes. Even though Montgomery and Romero are tossed in on the side, their stuff definitely being dubbed.

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JL: For the musical numbers with the band, we see Marion Hutton, the Modernaires, Ray Eberle, Buddy Hackett and heard-on-soundtrack is Johnny Best doing George Montgomery's trumpet playing.

Even if the performances are largely okay, the basic story is a surprisingly good one that isn't tapped enough in musicals, being true-to-life. It addresses life on the road. There is a key scene of Connie having to borrow a nightgown because of her rush marriage and inexperienced with this way of life. Also, we see the problems of infidelity among traveling entertainers. Obviously the Hayes office would have only approved the script after plenty of blue pencil scratch-outs since there is much hinting but no actual accusing here.

TB: Good points. I agree that there is much realism in this picture. In many regards it is not as corny as the 1954 biopic which is a sanitized version of Miller and his mates on the road. 

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JL: Like any good musical, it ends with a spectacular finish involving the Kalamazoo song, featuring all of the performers heard on the popular 78rpm disc. This brings me to the real scene stealers of the number: the Nicholas Brothers. Unfortunately they are not seen with Glenn Miller, as was also the case of the earlier SUN VALLEY SERENADE “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” but they certainly outperform the previous effort with twice as much gusto and are literally doing back flips. This brings our production to a rousing climax, after tidying up all of the romantic business earlier (which ultimately is a whole lot about very little).

TB: Thanks Jlewis. This film may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954)

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TB: This weekend we conclude our theme on Glenn Miller, looking at the musical biopic that Universal made about the famous bandleader's life. THE GLENN MILLER STORY was produced nine years after Miller's disappearance. (His plane had been shot down over the English Channel in December 1944, during the final year of the war.) By this point, Miller's music was being reissued and he was just as popular as ever.

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Glenn and his wife Helen are played in the movie by James Stewart and June Allyson, who previously teamed up at Metro for THE STRATTON STORY (1949). Under director Anthony Mann, they would pair up again a year later for the aviation drama STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955). But the Glenn Miller biopic is probably the one people think of most when they think of Stewart costarring with Allyson.

***

TB: Recently Jlewis had a chance to look at the film again. And as we talked about it, I thought he brought up some interesting and valid points. 

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JL: Honestly...to quote a favorite expression of June Allyson's Helen Burger Miller...I should not go on and on about the way this musical biopic takes Hollywood liberties with real life, but they do add a certain charm to the proceedings and are a key reason I have watched this fluff a couple times over the decades.

Most often discussed in print is the running joke, later part of a tearful ending, about how Helen loved “Little Brown Jug” and Jimmy Stewart's version of Glenn Miller disliked it and only had it played in his final concert.

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Yet the real Miller certainly thought highly enough of it to score a major hit in 1939. Then again, there is this peculiar arrangement in which all of the Miller hits are presented with no sense of chronology at all; a version of “Over the Rainbow” is heard in a mid-thirties scene set well ahead of THE WIZARD OF OZ introducing it. (I goofed in my earlier review of SUN VALLEY SERENADE by getting Stewart's scenes conducting of “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” mixed up in my mind since it had been a while since I watched this, but that is, again, due to the rather clumsy way the Miller discography is presented here.)

TB: I maybe think the reason they've taken such liberties with the sequence of hits is because this is supposed to be more of a general medley or 'greatest hits' feeling, instead of a detailed chronology of how the songs came to be. Though we certainly do have key scenes with Glenn and the band composing and performing the songs for audiences hearing them for what was probably the first time. It's just a rather loosely structured presentation of the songs, but it in no way interferes with the celebration of this music. For anyone expecting to get an accurate history about Glenn and his band, they will probably be a bit disappointed. In addition to the chronology of tunes being slightly 'off,' the filmmakers also take liberties with historical facts as related to Miller's military duty.

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JL: I suspect that the film received its full cooperation from the U.S. military by showcasing just how integrated it had become by 1953, the year it was filmed, rather than the way it actually was in 1942-44, more segregated. I am sure that director Anthony Mann was well aware of this anachronism but also accepted it in order to make a noble statement on the direction America should go in the mutual acceptance of all races.

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Even though Miller's band itself was strictly Caucasian, every effort is made to present him as “color blind” as possible, taking his wife to see Louis Armstrong (playing himself) on the night of their honeymoon and both in awe of his talents. By the way, that speakeasy scene is beautifully executed with a color filter wheel spinning and changing the facial appearances of the cast in a fascinating rainbow of lights. Maybe it too makes a statement about how we all are of one "color" as humanity? Oh... the wonderful subliminal messages of movies....

TB: Interesting comment. One thing I took from my viewing of this film is how much Glenn connects his music to his wife. Yes, we see him on the road with the guys in the band, and we have him interacting with Armstrong and other notable musicians, too. But Helen is always close by and his love for her is equal to his love for music. She's not one of these neglected orchestra wives like we saw in the 1942 movie from 20th Century Fox that featured him in the cast.

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TB: Let's get back to the story functioning as a sort of time capsule. Any other historical discrepancies you noticed?

JL: Well, Frances Langford and the Modernaires reportedly did not perform with Miller in wartime England (although they did in the States) but, of course, they knew that themselves when they agreed to perform with Jimmy Stewart's Miller. Again, there is an overall sense that all of the inaccuracies have been done deliberately and not accidentally.

TB: What makes you say that?

JL: There was absolutely no intention to make a straightforward documentary here. THE GLENN MILLER STORY is really a Hollywood “valentine” made to an icon who sold as many records as Elvis and the Beatles, presented in the way millions of Americans wanted to remember him. They knew they were getting something that bordered on fantasy and simply did not care, making this a huge blockbuster in its day and eagerly purchasing the LP album put out by Decca a top seller on Billboard for ten weeks…and honestly (as Allyson's Helen would say), are the more recent musical biopics like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY and ROCKETMAN any more accurate than THE GLENN MILLER STORY?

TB: I don't think so.

JL: Although Stewart is the star and Henry Morgan and George Tobias give great support (along with other familiars, like Marion Ross of Happy Days having a minor role), June Allyson is the true “heart” of this film and, honestly, I consider this the best performance I've seen of hers.

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TB: I think there's a reason why Stewart chose June Allyson to be his leading lady again, and why he would go on to make another film with her. She has a unique way of centering a story, even when she is not exactly playing the most central character. It's one of her strengths as an actress.

JL: I do love a great many of her films even if few are classics, including many earlier MGM musicals where she brings an emotional, maternal quality to her performances not unlike Judy Garland's in a way. However Stewart, when lacking a strong female support, can come across as too analytical and self-absorbed at times (even though he is capable of great performances himself as both Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock proved). Allyson's performance prevents us from thinking of him as too stiff and disciplined. We the viewers view Stewart's Miller through Allyson's Helen, through her eyes and through her view point. 

TB: I can't disagree. Let's go over the courtship scenes at the beginning, which are wonderful. If we're to believe what we're shown on screen, Glenn and Helen's early period together as a couple was not without its share of problems. Stewart and Allyson do quite well playing the bumpier stuff in the relationship. Apparently, the Millers had broken up for awhile, before they reconciled and were finally married.

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JL: When he disappears and reappears, expecting her to marry him right away, we are as shocked as she is...and we feel just like she does with a mixture of surprise and that fuzzy warmth she can't fight when he is around. We love the fact that she deliberately presents herself to him with curler ribbons in her hair at 2 AM in the morning to show how annoyed she is with his timing.

TB: Definitely a memorable scene.

JL: We want her to take that leap of faith with him and know she will. We also see how the band gets financed by her unique way of saving and balancing checkbooks (Allyson often played practical ladies like this before, aiding struggling men like klutzy Peter Lawford in GOOD NEWS).

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JL: When Glenn leaves for the military, we are again experiencing it all through her more than we do through him. Likewise, when George Tobias' Si Shribman suggests that Glenn's death is a “test,” we ask just as she does “what kind of test?”

TB: Because she is anchoring the story this way, we become more involved in the outcome. We realize that he won't return from the war and she must grapple with powerful emotions when that happens. We are experiencing all the highs and lows of her marriage to Glenn, right along with her. In this regard, it's sort of a melodrama, more than it is a musical biopic. Incidentally, I am kind of surprised that Universal didn't assign house director Douglas Sirk to this project instead of Anthony Mann who was more known for crime films, westerns and adventure flicks. Perhaps because Stewart liked working with Mann and they collaborated on other features. But I do wonder how the film's more melodramatic aspects might have been conveyed visually if Sirk had been placed in charge. Any more comments you'd like to add?

JL: All in all, this is likely a more accurate re-telling of the Miller story from a personal private-life angle than, say, THE SOUND OF MUSIC is of the Von Trapp family. My guess is that the real Helen Miller was just as pleased with June Allyson's performance as Maria Von Trapp was with Julie Andrews. In both cases prettier actresses are preserving them for posterity.

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There are some interesting candid photos online of Helen on the set, so she was well aware of how her and her late husband's lives were presented. All of the basics are there: they married in 1928 and she found out after an illness on the road that she couldn't have children so two were adopted.

TB: Incidentally, Stewart had adopted his two stepsons after he was married in 1949. So I am sure the adoption scenes in the movie meant something special to him, personally.

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JL: A couple other details are presented correctly and the great strength in any biopic is capturing the overall feel of a famous figure's life. Glenn Miller studied under Joseph Schillinger who is indirectly referenced. Ben Pollack (playing himself) was among the first major bands he performed with in 1926, followed by Red Nichols in 1930 (and Nichols got his own biopic later through Paramount, THE FIVE PENNIES).

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It was through Nichols that he became friends with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa (also appearing as himself here). Unless I missed it, no mention is made on screen about the Dorsey brothers (i.e. Miller performed with both them and Bing Crosby before he too became a household name) or Ray Noble (Miller's first movie appearance was with Noble in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936). His first band lasted several months in 1937-38, the second being the one responsible for the explosion of hits in 1938-42 pre military. Life on the road was hard and the film presents this quite well with cars breaking down in the snow and Miller showing up at a gig with muddy trousers.

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In addition to Ben Pollack, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, the Modernaires and Frances Langford, we get other big band performers playing themselves here, if much older in 1953 than they were in the '20s-40s setting of our story.

TB: Langford also played a younger version of herself in Columbia's musical drama about singers entertaining the troops during WWII, called PURPLE HEART DIARY, in 1951. She seemed to be able to continue her own movie career this way. 

JL: There aren't a lot of major feature films that feature such names as Cozy Cole (shown with Armstrong and probably the highest profile name in the credits for modern jazz enthusiasts), Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Johnny Best, Arvell Shaw and Babe Russin and I am eternally grateful that Universal-International preserved them all in living color despite their appearances basically being brief cameos.

It should also be mentioned, however, that several were already veterans of the screen, as well as veterans of the Universal studio since they appeared in Universal short subjects like the popular “Name Band” musical 2-reelers that were distributed alongside the Woody Woodpecker cartoons, “Variety Views” and other 'extras' before features like this one. The Modernaires had appeared with Woody Herman and Blue Barron in two vintage shorts of 1948 and '52.

TB: The Modernaires had also turned up in Fox's musical biopic on the life of Jane Froman, WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, in 1952. 

JL: Krupa was in DRUMMER MAN (1947) and a short film billing him outright in '49. Ben Pollack first appeared in a Universal “Meltone Brevity” way back in 1934 with future TV host Ed Sullivan. Too bad Universal didn't add any of these to the DVD of this film as Warner often does on their DVDs.

TB: Thanks Jlewis for taking the time to discuss THE GLENN MILLER STORY today. And as you noted, it's available on DVD from Universal home video.

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The above referenced WITH A SONG IN MY HEART is another interesting, if slightly bland, musical biopic too. Susan Hayward is emotionally appealing and anything with Thelma Ritter "telling it like it is" keeps me watching.

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Essential: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932)

TB: Our first theme in April is an interesting one. We're going to turn the spotlight on John Barrymore and look at two of his precodes. Both were made at RKO in the early 30s when Barrymore was still a very well-known and highly respected actor. He hadn't been totally defeated by alcohol at this point, so his performances are a bit more sober, you might say. 

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The first one we've selected is Katharine Hepburn's motion picture debut. She plays Barrymore's daughter, Sydney Fairchild. Years later, in a sit-down chat with Dick Cavett, Hepburn talked about how starstruck she was when she first met Barrymore. According to what she told Cavett, she had not met him until after she was hired and took the train west from New York to Los Angeles.

She said that while en route to L.A., she had gone out on the deck of the observation car and something sharp flew into her eye. I believe she said it was a tiny sliver of metal from the train, or some such thing. It was removed from her eye, but when she arrived at the studio the next morning, her eye was still a bit red and swollen. Barrymore mistook this for drinking and instantly bonded with Hepburn, even going so far as to recommend a certain kind of eye drop to clear up the redness!

The somewhat tragic story that plays out on screen, about an impressionable girl and her former mental patient father, requires that the actors be perfectly in sync. And fortunately for us, Barrymore and Hepburn are indeed perfectly synchronized, even if their combined acting styles are somewhat theatrical. Though I must say for Barrymore, he gives a rather subdued and tender portrayal of vulnerable Hilary Fairchild.

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***

Part 1 of 2

TB: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT is based on a British play and it had already been filmed in 1922 in England. David Selznick secured the rights for the American version at RKO and hired George Cukor to direct. Cukor is the one who discovered Hepburn by noting something unique in her screen test, though Selznick often took the credit for discovering her. Cukor and Hepburn formed a very close friendship during the making of this film, and they would work together on many more productions, up through the late 1970s. 

JL: I should start out commenting here on the title, much like THE DIVORCEE made earlier that was also tantalizing at the time. It all seems mundane today due to the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce and nobody bats an eye over it. Yet in 1932, the D-word still had some degree of “scandal” to it since most had to go to specific states like Nevada just to get one. Note too how the difficulty of getting one became a major subject in George Cukor's later THE WOMEN, made at the more conservative-minded MGM during the production code era.

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In all of these films, divorce is something to be ashamed of regardless of the circumstances or how “right” it feels to those getting one. Billie Burke's Meg comments on how church bells (symbolizing of authoritative religious teachings she may have endured in her youth) stop suddenly after a telephone rings that her more 20th century and less traditionally minded daughter Sydney answers. These sounds are also viewed by her as  “wedding bells” and that call is the first signal that Meg's husband will be back to cast any future wedding (to another suitor) in doubt. There is much hesitancy in Meg's behavior with future husband Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) that is full of guilt, a.k.a. “Is it too good to be true?," with some ominous dread of being punished by Fate from Above.

One way this film got over hangups with certain religious groups (and this was the time when Father Coughlin had one of the highest rated radio shows, often accusing Hollywood of its “sins”) are frequent religious references that make all of these characters express a willingness to atone. As John Barrymore's Hilary Fairchild states “I was in the garden lost. I could never make anyone understand. You know, I was never really like the rest of them. I was always really sane...but the face was turned away.” When asked “what face?," he responds “the face of God."

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TB: Let's talk specifically about the acting styles of Hepburn and Barrymore. There is one scene where they both become very overwrought then smartly "dial it down." As I said, this was Hepburn's motion picture debut. Her first of many films with director George Cukor. She does not seem like a neophyte or amateur at all. From her very first moment on camera, you can tell she is made for the movies.

JL: First, an observation on how each is introduced. Hepburn literally runs down a staircase in her opening shot, a signal that she is no shy wallflower. She also seems very idealistic and free spirited in her introduction, but gradually we see her “dial down” not so much as an actress but as the character of Sydney slowly unravels secrets through Elizabeth Patterson's Aunt Hester and others.

With Barrymore, our first shot is curiously a photograph that Hester is holding when Sydney apologizes after her criticism over a Christmas gift. The photo showcases the “Great Profile” that Barrymore was famous for...and the image Hollywood fans knew him for before the tabloids started leaking he was having problems in his personal life.

When Barrymore as Hilary arrives in the house unexpectedly, he is smiling with hope (since Sydney learns he left the asylum thinking he is well) and then that grin mutes to befuddlement as he notices how much change has taken place with the original house décor, a suggestion that time passed him by and he is now a stranger to the world he used to know.

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Sydney first observes him through the garland-wrapped staircase as if observing some dangerous “beast” behind leaves of foliage in a jungle.

We then cut to another shot of her head rising above the staircase rim after she sees a look of softness and sadness in his expression, making him less threatening and mysterious. I can't resist comparing the way Barrymore as Hilary touches the more familiar aspects of the house, like the bookcase and mistletoe, to Greta Garbo's most famous scene in QUEEN CHRISTINA the following year as both performers were flawless in expressing a particular emotion just with their overall movements. Likewise, Sydney asks “what are you looking for” when she is, again, behind the safety of more...you guessed it... foliage within the house. He responds “Meg, my darling” since his own daughter reminds him of her mother grown up.

Under Cukor's direction, Hepburn seems very willing to altar her performance if he felt she was coming across too dramatic or over-the-top. One minor flaw is that both she and Barrymore still occasionally get a bit “theatrical” at times. It does not cause any specific problems here since I was quite engrossed in their performances, but I sometimes felt this is a stage adaptation more than a movie. Maybe the problem is more about the dialogue than the actors since certain lines seem a bit more poetic and preachy than common everyday speech.

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TB: We should point out that this was Billie Burke's first significant movie role in the sound era. She had made silent films in the teens and early 20s, but then focused on her marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld. (Ziegfeld died during the production of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT.)

As the mother...this is a "straight dramatic" part for her...so her usual scatterbrained comedy routines are absent from this picture. She was 47 when she made A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT and is technically old enough to play Hepburn's mother (Hepburn was 24 at the time of filming). But Burke looks young, at least ten years younger than her actual age.

JL: DINNER AT EIGHT was the following year and I consider that a dramatic rather than comic role despite it being a semi-comedy. She is quite exasperated and emotional in that one. They really made her look young as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in a much later film I need not mention. She was a Leo who took great, um, pride in her appearance and performances. “Age is of no importance unless you are a cheese.”

TB: That's funny. I'll have to remember that one!

JL: An interesting curio that is irrelevant to anybody except to me-- but Burke in this film and others reminds me of my paternal grandmother when she was young, just in her overall appearance and hair style. Personality-wise, my grandmother was closer to Hester who brings down much of Meg's idealism.

TB: I have to comment on David Manners as Hepburn's love interest, Kit Humphreys. There are some very romantic scenes between them, especially at the start of the movie. A bit later there is a medium-length shot of Manners outside that has to be one of the most attractive images of a young leading man ever captured on film. He was a very handsome actor.

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JL: Remember your past observations of Leonard Whiting in ROMEO & JULIET? I am sure that the director greatly enjoyed looking at him regardless of his acting and I also noticed how the heterosexual excitement is emphasized more than usual so that nobody can question anything. One of the first in-depth discussions in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT between Sydney and Kit involves how many children they will have, with both agreeing that she must carry at least “two of each kind." Can you imagine the real Katharine Hepburn reacting the same way? (Spoiler alert: we get the real Hepburn as Sydney back in action later, concerned about a possible “herd of squalling children.”)

In their romantic scene by the fire, which I find rather interesting in that she is not looking at him and seems distracted by other thoughts, she comments after his suggestion that a son of theirs could become Canadian prime minister: “Fool. Dear fool.” At first, I was wondering if she was thinking her boyfriend was the “fool” in his idealism...or commenting on herself. Her own mother also says about ten minutes later “what a fool I am” and maybe daughter thinks like mother. Later she warns Kit, while smoking a cigarette to display her defiance to being “pawned” over as a woman, “don't be such a fool.”

TB: I think Sydney's back-and-forth nature with Kit is really dependent upon the newfound relationship Sydney has with Hilary. She doesn't seem to be able to balance both men in her lives. She feels she has to choose one over the other. So in order to let Kit down 'gently,' she mocks what he's offering as not the kind of life she wants, when I think deep inside her, she does want to marry him and have a brood of obnoxious brats.

Ultimately she chooses papa over lover boy. The movie does not have a traditional happy ending, which I think makes it stand out from other Hollywood offerings. 

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JL: Actually, 1932 had a lot of them like that (a.k.a. I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG). But I think the happy ending scenario is a stereotype many of us develop when comparing and contrasting them to another country's films or singling out some director/performer who wasn't into happy endings. For example, most French films of the 1930s involved doom and gloom with LE QUAI DES BRUMES often getting mentioned as “anti” Hollywood. Yet this logic requires you to think all Hollywood films are alike when they aren't.

TB: Fair enough.

JL: I should point out how unusually happy and over-joyed the opening scenes of this movie are, which are in sharp contrast. The setting is at Christmas with caroling outside.

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Burke's Meg commenting cheerfully about youth and Sydney is so giddy the moment she flies down the stairs to dance in her boyfriend's arms. This is the classic set-up of a things-won't-always-be-happy situation later. I guess I could reference that other '32 title again in comparison with Paul Muni's James Allen happy to finish his war service and express to everybody his happy dreams of a future career in engineering before he too faces disillusionment and plenty of doom and gloom. All classic Great Depression material that moviegoers at the time were willing to pay tickets to see since it proved that Hollywood was not ignorant to their own sufferings.

However...is the ending that unhappy? Even though she closes the curtain on the whistling, are things really over between Sydney and Kit? Is she closing the curtain on the outside world and creating a new “asylum” for her and Daddy? Note how she helps her father finish his symphony on the piano. Maybe they will finish other projects that require closure and can move on with their lives.

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TB: Let's switch gears a bit and talk about the overall look and feel of the film. For example, the furnishings, clothing and camera movements. There are some sweeping tracking shots that were clearly devised by Selznick and Cukor to show off the elaborate and rather costly set. Plus there are some very ornate knick knacks on the shelves, with photos turned not towards the camera, but towards the characters who would be looking at them. It's a grand home, but it feels like a real home.

JL: These tricks allow the film to feel a bit less stage-bound and show off Cukor's skill as a movie director.

TB: Yes, good point. Okay, let's pause here. Tomorrow we will resume our review of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT. Jlewis and I will look at the subject matter of the story, plus discuss a few other important aspects of the film. Please join us...

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Essential: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932)

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Part 2 of 2

TB: Okay, we're back with the second part of this review. Let's go over the subject of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, which is mental illness, and how Barrymore handles this delicate topic. I haven't read the original British play but assume it is about how mental illness runs in families. And how there are obligations one has to one's family. Interestingly, Burke's character (the mother) is allowed to shirk her responsibilities while Hepburn (the daughter) must step in and look after her "recovering" father.

JL: Not without a lot of effort, poor Meg. She is feeling so much guilt trying to get over her past with Hilary. I feel her daughter is the one helping her shirk her responsibility because Hilary should NOT be a responsibility. He is not a child and must learn to take care of himself. Yet Meg describes him to Gray as “a lost child."

Sydney is a take charge person while mother lets others persuade her more. Note how, just moments after Hilary responds to his daughter telling the servant that he is “staying for lunch” with “and also dinner and tea...,” she is instantly on speed dial to get Dr. Alliot (Henry Stephenson) to come retrieve Daddy right away! Sydney feels she must save her mother from this burden.

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At the same time this story's writers seem to have very strong opinions about the rules of religion as a whole but is very gingerly in how they address them so that those who want to follow all rules aren't easily offended. We see characters tormented and that is okay as long as viewers can choose sides here in accordance to their own sense of morality as to which path will lead these characters out of torment.

TB: Was there a moment that seemed to illustrate the torment more than other scenes?

JL: Yes...where Meg says "Oh Gray. I am wicked! I am wishing he (Hilary) never got well. In my heart, I am hating my husband."

TB: That's where I felt some of the dialogue was a bit over the top.

JL: Then Gray replies to Meg, "You have no husband. You are marrying ME. You're MINE." At first she seems to agree with him, but doesn't look at him when she says that, much as Sydney is not looking at Kit when he is wooing her. Another interesting detail is how Hilary confronts Meg for turning “sideways” when he talks to her and soon realizes this is a sign that she is not being honest with him, something Gray and Kit haven't quite grasped of the women they love even though the latter admits he is “not a mind reader."

This brings up another major theme to this story, one of honesty. The more honest people are with each other, the more emotionally stable they are.

TB: Interesting point. And I would certainly agree with that. Anything else you care to discuss?

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JL: Although the Production Code was not in effect yet, it is obvious some doctoring of the script was made in a few places. For instance, at one point, Meg claims "I've done nothing wrong. I've been trying to tell you. Hilary, fifteen years is a long time." Then Hilary replies, "Yes, I suppose it is a long time...for a woman to be faithful. What do you expect me to do? Forgive you?" Meg quickly stands up in defiance and answers: "There is nothing to forgive! (then relieving her intensity and sitting down by him) Oh Hilary, we have so much to forgive of each other, but not that."

Meanwhile we are given a sign that things might not be over between Sydney and Kit. She tells her mother “Don't worry about Kit and me. We will work everything out together.” After all, she was honest with Kit earlier about her phobia about becoming insane. She may temporarily shut him out but, if he truly loves her, he will keep trying...and trying...until she reopens all of the curtains in her house.

In regards to the daughter taking on the mother's role, there is a fascinating moment that springs her into action.

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Dr. Alliot says in words he intends to be helpful but are NOT helpful at all: “Face it man, one of you must suffer. Which is it to be? The whole or the maimed? The healthy woman with her life before her or the man whose children should have never been born?” Hepburn's reaction shot as Sydney is brilliantly edited here. She confronts the doctor quickly and he apologizes for his wording, but she now worries if he and the always pessimistic Aunt Hester are correct that insanity runs in their family and either she will develop it or pass it on to her offspring. (It is frightening to note how many believed this at the time and the future Nazi Germany had its own solution to the problem.)

TB: I was glad Sydney confronted the doctor after his questionable statement. In a way, I think this helps bond her to Hilary more. Even if she does not turn out to be insane later, like her father, she knows that she has to shield him from people who think like Dr. Alliot does. And if Hilary is now becoming cured of his mental illness, then it will be her job to ensure that her father continue to stay well.

JL: I also think she realizes that she must learn to fully understand herself and her own needs before falling for any man, understanding that her parents might have made a mistake even when he was “sane” before the asylum. (I am guessing she was five or six when he entered in 1917.) However her fears of being insane like daddy can either be viewed as an obstacle here or a smokescreen for her unwillingness to be married until she feels ready to give up some level of independence (note her smoking when dealing with Kit). I found the scene of Kit sobbing in her arms not wanting to lose her eerily similar to Hilary doing the same with Meg and Meg  feeling all constricted in the process.

TB: I considered that to be a deliberate plot point, where the writer wanted to connect the idea that Sydney will mother Hilary, in a way Meg cannot...to Sydney also having mothered Kit. Which shows the most tender side of the Sydney-Kit relationship.

Going back to Hilary for a moment. Would Barrymore's character ever fully recover from said mental illness? Or would he have a relapse? If he does have a relapse, then Sydney will be forever mothering him, unless Meg comes back having decided not to marry Gray.

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JL: Interesting that the smokescreen cover for possible family insanity is wartime shell-shock, a topic we've discussed in other films such as SPELLBOUND. War is also all about death, even for the living who survive it. Hilary died during the war in a way and must now adjust to a rebirth of sorts. As Aunt Hester notes, the dead returning to the living is always a shock. Yet Dr. Alliot thinks this, like anything, is something one can get through.

Interesting side note to add about Barrymore's performance. At times, his speeches do get slightly Shakespearean and lengthier than usual and there are fascinating subtle messages incorporated that only those paying close attention will notice. For example, there is a speech he makes that loosely remarks he is a war veteran who deserves more in life than he was given, even though this story is set in England rather than the United States. He does not spell everything out in a way that we viewers of 2020 can understand but I am certain 1932 viewers got it instantly since this movie was released only two months after President Hoover utilized the present U.S. army to disperse war veterans protesting unemployment outside the White House, a move that was widely condemned at the time and probably cost him the election that November.

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TB: Some have said Barrymore gives one of his most poignant portrayals in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932). After seeing the movie, would you agree or disagree?

JL:  I like a lot of his performances and feel he is as equally tender in, say, GRAND HOTEL and many other features of this period as this one. I don't think there is one particular role that is better than another. This one blends in pretty closely with so many others. Obviously he is different in DON JUAN but even that one has its tender moments too.

TB: Elizabeth Patterson plays the spinster aunt. She sort of disappears mid-way into the story but has considerable influence over family matters in the early part of our drama. There's a very amusing scene where aunty gives niece a proper Christian present for Christmas that is unwanted.

JL: Not so much unwanted but my sense is that Sydney had received the same gift before and was hoping for something different. I've discussed the religious aspects a bit already, especially in regards to divorce at the time, so... yes...it may be significant that it is a “Christian” gift as well. (A couple films of the period like the Oscar winning CAVALCADE suggest a loss of religion with That Younger Generation due to the war and that theme can be addressed here in some indirect way.)

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Hester herself is an interesting character, dressed in her old-time shawl and constantly in a worried state. I think a key reason why she is trying to stop Meg from remarrying is not so much because of her moral feelings regarding divorce but because she feels she too “died” when Hilary “died” at the asylum and thinks Meg is a key to keeping him “alive.”

TB: This is a Hollywood production. RKO bought the rights to the play, which is very British in origin and had been the basis for a British film version in 1922. Technically the action is set outside London, in the countryside somewhere. But it feels very much like an Americanized treatment of the story in many ways. I don't see why they couldn't have just had it take place in New England. Given Hepburn's east coast accent, that would have made a bit more sense.

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JL: I think the rather European setting with the house being a bit Gothic in its stone walls ties it a little with some of the crazy horror material famous at this same time period.

In closing remarks, I enjoyed this movie just as I had decades ago, but had forgotten some of the more stage-bound aspects to it, not that it suffers any more than other studio-bound productions of the era. Yes, I agree that Hepburn gives a surprisingly seasoned performance here despite it being her first on screen appearance and Cukor is definitely a major reason for this. Plus I do feel she was an actress, like Bette Davis, who was a natural for this line of work and did not require a lot of coaching.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) may currently be viewed on YouTube. It has also been released on DVD by the folks at Kino Lorber. And so has the RKO remake from 1940, starring Maureen O'Hara, Adolphe Menjou and Fay Bainter.

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Essential: TOPAZE (1933)

Last week we looked at John Barrymore's performance in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932). This week our focus will be on TOPAZE (1933). 

In the story, a schoolteacher upholds the virtue of honesty. However, he rethinks honesty being a best policy when he enters the corporate world and becomes affected by the corruption he encounters. Mostly, this is clever socialist propaganda that manages to entertain, while illuminating a few truths about capitalist society. It's also a story that gives us some insights about the way men and women "sell out."

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Again David Selznick is the executive producer, and again, he has cast one of his discoveries-- Myrna Loy-- in the lead female role. Loy's career was in a state of transition at this point. So while she is playing an unrepentant adulteress, she is not exactly a vamp; but she's still a far cry from the maternal roles she would become known for in the 1940s.

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***

TB: Okay, let's start by discussing the story's anti-capitalist thesis. We do not see Dr. Topaze totally denounce capitalism at the end...in fact, it is suggested that he starts to become corrupted or dependent upon money.

JL: He does say he supports capitalism when confronted by Baroness Hortense de La Tour-La Tour (Jobyna Howland). The accusation for being a “communist” comes from her son, fittingly given the regal name of Charlemagne and played in equally regal fashion by Jackie Searl. This is because he was graded poorly and he thinks Topaze is “against rich people” like him. Not sure how Dr. Stegg (Frank Reicher) at the school stands on the issue, firing him partly because of the Baroness and partly because he displays some curious shock (“You are a fool”).

TB: This film is based on a French play from 1928, and it was made into a French film in 1933 and was remade again in French in 1936.

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JL: Yes. One French version was directed by Louis J. Gasnier and produced by the playwright Marcel Pagnol and only released in Paris a month ahead of this version. The more “official” Pagnol-directed version was made three years later.

TB: I had said the film promotes socialist propaganda. I think it may even be a bit communist in spots.

J: The Depression years saw this word become less “dirty” than it was in other decades since many Americans struggling without jobs actually thought Stalin was doing some good in the Soviet Union compared to what was happening at home, although much was on account of the propaganda imported that made no mention of the forced-upon famines on peasants and other atrocities.

Many artistic types, even in Hollywood, were toying with the idea of communism (a key reason for the post-war HUAC investigations) even though the moguls themselves stayed in the clear with their very business-is-business mentality. What I find particularly interesting about 1930s Hollywood is that there was relatively little concern then about how “radical” an actor or screenwriter was in his political leanings as long as the more conservative studio head and censoring committee kept him or her in-check.

TB: Interesting. Let's get back to the character of Dr. Topaze. How would you say this guy differs from Hilary Fairchild in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT?

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JL: Topaze certainly does well for himself materially in the end. One curio is that he even employs bellboys who assist Dr. Topaze and are the same age as the students he taught. My guess is that these bellboys are too busy working to go to school, but who knows.

TB: How do you think Barrymore the performer responds to what the role requires him to do?

JL: Well...every role he took was taken with great seriousness. He pours into his schoolmaster as much devotion as he does playing the alternate sides of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another wonderful silent era role worth seeking out. Chameleon-like, he does get rather immersed in his roles (a bit like Vivien Leigh in a documentary I recently saw of hers, struggling to get out of Scarlet and Blanche mode when cameras weren't rolling) and may even forget who he is, which is another possible explanation as to why he never could get his off-screen life together.

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TB: I want to bring up Van Nest Polglase's elaborate set design. Polglase is somewhat overlooked, but I think he's every bit as masterful with his set pieces as Cedric Gibbons is over at MGM. For example, the set for Myrna Loy's apartment in this movie-- it is truly scrumptious.

JL: Love the art deco settings in the apartment in which Myrna Loy is introduced. She plays the Other Woman in the life of Reginald Mason's Baron de La Tour-La Tour but what is particularly interesting here is that both are introduced fully clothed and sitting opposite before the fire like an old married couple. We obviously do not see them in bed together. That scene is reserved to his wife (in equal art deco splendor) and, despite it being one king-sized bed, husband and wife are separated by the son and dog!

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TB: Yeah, let's talk about the wife for a moment. This film would be rather flat without Jobyna Howland's sharp performance as the shrew wife. The scene where she threatens to have "government forces come down" on a school where her spoiled brat son received low marks is classic. I loved her performance, though it borders on camp in many ways.

JL: At home she is quite amusing in the way she defends sonny boy against daddy, who is still a kind-hearted daddy who just happens to question all of the “zeroes” on the report card. Also we see her holding on to the Pomeranian who gets more affection than her husband, although the dog ends up sleeping right next to the husband to avoid her.  She is suffocating the poor pooch!

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Later, I love the response of hers when she sees her husband with “that woman” and is asked if she wants to “face the music” in the restaurant. “No, Philippe will face the music."

TB: Yes, I love that part! In addition to Howland, we also have Luis Alberni's scene stealing work as a hyperactive rival of Barrymore's. Barrymore seems to enjoy acting with Alberni.

JL: You may be right but it is hard to tell since their scenes together are rather brief. I did recognize him from a number of other famous features of the period, including more than one Astaire-Rogers musical.

TB: We need to mention the scene in the car where our main characters are driving through the rain, and it is increasingly clear that Topaze is falling in love with Coco (Loy's character). But they don't quite get together at the end of the movie, or do they?, which I think is interesting.

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JL: They could just become great friends too. Topaze isn't exactly “into” women until he sees “Women of Passion” with her. Intriguingly, the Baron hired Topaze because he is specifically not-into-women (which I found rather curious here and wonder what the French versions imply here with less prudishness and censorship) and he does try to re-assure the Baron that they only went to see a movie.

Coco is quite a character herself. She develops a conscience that is pronounced in the third act, but it takes a while. When Topaze first meets the Baron for his new job, she is all open-eyed and attentive to him. Then the Baron tells him that “providence sent you here...I will not take no for an answer” and mentions 4000 francs a month. She purposely closes her eyes, a character move I found rather interesting.

TB: Interestingly the Hays office refused to allow RKO to re-release the film two or three years after its initial release, because with the production code fully enforced now, they complained that Loy's character was not adequately punished for her adultery. So in that regard Coco is the cliched "other woman" but does not repent or totally correct her ways by the end. Because of this "immorality," RKO could not distribute the film again, so it basically went back into the vault all those years.

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TB: Let's discuss the slogans. During key scenes in the movie, we see several written expressions, typically posted on the walls, that indicate Dr. Topaze's philosophical approaches to life.

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JL: When the two are first shown in close proximity as he works in his lab, his slogan of “Ill gotten gains are not worth while” is strategically posted over both of them, suggesting that maybe both are “ill gotten” for each other?

TB: Or maybe Topaze and Coco the ill-gotten gains of the Baron...that's sort of how I interpreted it.

JL: Right after this scene, she tells the two curious visitors, one a 'prominent politician:' “Why don't you two go outside where you belong. We were quite happy without you." Is she hiding something from them?

TB: No. I wouldn't say she is hiding something from them. I think her comment was meant to say that the fun is in creating something, not necessarily the political or economic part of it. Though, she certainly knows that the Baron is manipulating Topaze to give a scientific seal of approval on the water they are selling to consumers, when the water is not all that is being advertised. But despite her complicity in these events, she starts to soften and shows her heart to Topaze.

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JL: The cab scene is a major point of change when she shocks even pre-Code audiences by telling him she is the Baron's "lover". I don't even think she is ashamed of it since she is a working girl in this profession...and Topaze accepts her because she is honest about it. They even use her profession as "mistress" in the key climax scene against the Baron.

TB: The laboratory scenes and the animated inserts of what Topaze sees on the slides he's examining through a microscope, are rather interesting. Also the scenes where Topaze sees messages on flashing neon signs that reveal his conscience. There are some good special effects for a 1933 motion picture.

JL: I think the former insert was likely borrowed from a vintage Pathé Pictorial on micro-organisms, but there is definite animation in the neon lights scenes. That montage sequence is brilliantly done. While the technique wasn't new at the time, it is evident that a lot of work went into it.

TB: I agree.

JL: Actually what impressed me most were the intricate matching of actual travelogue footage of Paris in precise positioning behind performers on sets and this is partly due to KING KONG being concurrently in production at the same studio (with the the same technical experts doing this film too) and fine-tuning the art of rear projection to perfection. Among the key scenes that stand out involves a public Parisian urinal (!?), which most Americans at the time and today would not recognize  unless they traveled, with the big advertising poster of “Drink Sparkling Topaze.” (Yes, but what else is sparkling?)

Even little scenes like Loy and Barrymore in the cab has both rain water dripping and rear projection of cars that is so flawless that you would think it was shot on location. Perhaps it was and I am only thinking it is a special effect?

TB: I believe it was a special effect, with rear projection. And yeah, it was edited so well that it seemed as if they were driving outside the studio, but I don't think they were.

JL: By the way, the second film the Coco and Topaze see together is “Man Woman and Sin,” shown “twice daily.” I mentioned the earlier one being “Women of Passion.” There is a rather interesting special effect gone-wrong in that last scene involving “twice daily” on a sign which eagle eyes may catch.

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TB: What was your impression of the school room scenes with Topaze's students. It all comes full-circle in the end. Does he really uphold the slogans that are posted on the walls?

JL: That the honest man is a happy man? That all ill gotten gains are not worth while? What Topaze wants in life is to just to be...somebody.

In his final speech at the school (i.e. his former boss wants him to make one since he is now a famous chemist), he admits that “in the outside world, honesty is not always rewarded." He even resorts to dishonest “blackmail” and stoops to the Baron's level to beat the Baron at his own game, even involving Coco, but she doesn't seem to mind since it allows her to participate in Topaze's “crisis."

TB: My impression of that part of the story was Coco was now switching allegiance, from the Baron to Topaze. She seems to trust Topaze more than she ever trusted the old Baron.

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JL: Topaze tells Coco after receiving honors from the French government (due to the Baron's financial ties with them): “Now I am what they call a great man. I am not Topaze. Topaze lies dead in an alley.” Then he looks in the mirror holding his medal. “Look. Can't you see how different I am? A distinguished scientist. I am a man of honor. I have been decorated by the Republic.”

TB: The scene with him looking in the mirror later was at the least a bit narcissistic. But not exactly in an Oscar Wilde sort of way. I think it was self-deprecating. That he is now something, look at what's society has made him, what success has made him, but it's meaningless. I think he's still a socialist at heart, even though he's been immersed in capitalism and the trappings of money.

JL: A common theme in comedy-dramas is to resort to actions that may go against a character's personal principles just so the common good can be achieved.

His line of “villainy receives more applause than virtue” to the students is rather ominous, even though he admits to resorting to “villainy” himself earlier. That word conjures up more than one image in my mind. Shortly later, we get this very strange, but visually impressive, tracking shot of boys at their desk listening as he says “the world that lies outside that door is a most upside-down place.” Knowing that this film was arriving in theaters just as Hitler was rising in full power in Germany is most eerie. You wonder how many of these boys will survive adulthood in the very “upside down place” that Topaze mentions.

TB: If they come from rich families, they may be protected from such military service. It's interesting to speculate what happens to them. I have a feeling that if there had been a sequel, set in the future, we would find that Charlemagne had a change of heart and instead of becoming like his father, he became like Topaze. There would have to be some great irony. Also, it is clear that the boy learns more from Topaze than from his parents or home life.

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TB: Charlemagne has an interesting moment at the end of the film, when Topaze comes back to lecture the boys. Care to elaborate on it?

JL: Topaze is harsh on him because he can't remember the three Punic Wars, but he sports a black eye suggesting he just fought one. I suspect the movie makers here want us to side with him, if also laugh at him, because it takes a fighting spirit to get through an “upside down place."

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TB: I did not expect Topaze to humiliate the boy in front of entire crowd. But I guess it was necessary in order to maintain the natural order of things. Going back to the overall theme of the movie, could something like what we see in this film, happen in 2020? How corrupt are businesses in America today? Also, how are consumers protected?

JL: Regarding the whole sparking drink slogans and a “noted chemist” approving it, it is true that deception seldom goes unnoticed these days and no government health official getting involved is one liberty taken in this movie that may not pass accordingly in any modern retelling of this story.

However it is also human nature to simply believe what many a media source or an advertising slogan pretends to be “official.” You would think in this era of our vast information highway that most would fact check, but they usually don't. The average American today (not every, but most) has too short of an attention span for that. To be fair, we are bombarded with a brain overload that our ancestors seldom dwelt with, so it could be an overall failure to adapt to a world changing too fast for human comfort.

The Baron being a “business associate” with government officials of France is most interesting and maybe even more reflective of 2020 than 1933. Back then, many were against this kind of set-up and this film is sharply critical, wanting you to side with Topaze's opinion on the matter. Today, everybody merely turns the other cheek and I have a feeling quite a few prominent politicians and business people of today would find offense to this old message.

TB: Anything else you care to add?

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JL: The character of Topaze is very complex and, as a teacher, he is shown both positively and negatively. We are not necessarily supposed to agree with his way of life, since he does display some slight cruelty in the classroom as well. There was much criticism of the French school system at this time and it is interesting that 1933 was also the year of the controversial ZERO DE CONDUITE, one of Jean Vigo's masterpieces in which the students take control over the authoritative teachers much like Lindsay Anderson's much later IF... Note too how Charlemagne is rated “zero” in his grades, which is also the title for the Vigo film.

Apparently Charlemagne isn't alone behaving in “zero for conduct” fashion. When Topaze gets fired initially, the backboard has been totally transformed from a math lesson to childlike graffiti. It is fun to study it in freeze-frame with the tic-tac-toe, mocking image of a general in uniform (?!), three separate bunny rabbits and even Mickey Mouse!

TB: Thanks Jlewis! I've enjoyed discussing this film with you. Our readers may currently find TOPAZE on YouTube.

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