My Week of Film – November 4 to 10, 2019

          

This particular week, I watched with pleasure, a number of films that featured unsvelte women.  This is rare, especially in early Hollywood films.  To begin with, I started out the week by attending a Toronto Film Society double-bill, where the first feature film had very few noticeable women, and certainly none who were svelt in the cast at all.

This first film of the evening was Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945).  A number of the mid-40s films where Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce played Dr. Watson were directed by Roy William Neill.  Although Bruce’s portrayal of Dr. Watson was buffoonish and far from what the narrator of Holmes’s stories was actually like, for me, Rathbone was the epitome of the perfect Holmes.  In this film version taken from the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips”, the detective and his side-kick are invited to solve a murder mystery in a castle in Scotland.  As each member of the Good Comrades Club dies in mysterious circumstances after receiving an envelope delivered to him by the laconic and morose Mrs. Monteith (Sally Shepherd) containing the same number of orange seeds equal to the number of living members, Holmes must solve the puzzle before the demise of the last man.

The second film on the bill was They Might Be Giants (1971), a somewhat different take on Sherlock Holmes.  Directed by Anthony Harvey, this film features George C. Scott as a brilliant but highly delusional middle-aged man, Justin, who believes he is Holmes and that he must continuously search for and conquer his arch enemy, Moriarty.  He finds a not-so-willing partner, at least at first, in his psychiatrist, Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward).

There are some lovely supporting roles and cameos by actors whose faces you would know, if not by name:  Jack Gilford, Oliver Clark, Al Lewis (Grandpa of The Munsters), and Rue McClanahan (Blanche of The Golden Girls).  There’s even a little scene where “Holmes” and Mr. Small (Clark) include a reference to Silent film and Rudolph Valentino, and I believe it’s just there to entertain all us film buffs in attendance!

 
Jack Gilford        Oliver Clark              Al Lewis           Rue McClanahan

The outdoor sets are the streets of Manhattan in Technicolor.  Lots of fun with both Scott and Woodward charmingly playing together with delightful chemistry.  The screenplay was written by James Goldman, based on his play.  Woodward’s husband, Paul Newman, was one of the uncredited producers of the film.

I chose to watch Castle on the Hudson (1940) because I had been thinking about the last John Garfield film I had watched, He Ran All the Way (1951), and wanted to see more of him in that type of role (which of course isn’t hard).  Here Garfield was in the early stages of his career, only 26 years of age.  By the time he played in He Ran All the Way, he was at the very end of his career due to being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. This contributed to his death only a year later at the age of 39.

Garfield plays Tommy Gordon, a cocky, tough young mobster brought up in the system, wanting the good life the easy way.  The film begins with a robbery and when he gets pinched, he doesn’t bat an eyelash since he’s got friends in his high places.  So even though he’s momentarily surprised to find he’s being sent off to Sing Sing, he believes it’s for a very short stretch and his stay will be full of perky comforts.  His political pal, Ed Crowley, is played by well-known supporting actor and staple bad guy, Jerome Cowan, who learns he can’t buy Tommy any favours or early parole.  Warden Long (Pat O’Brien) isn’t letting Tommy get away with anything.  Long lets him suffer indignities among the other inmates when he doesn’t want to wear the regular jail garb, and when he won’t take the job he’s given, Long watches him become so bored that eventually, Gordon’s willing to work at anything.   Only very occasionally does Long give an inch to get a mile.

Jerome Cowan, John Garfield and Ann Sheridan

The one good influence in Tommy’s life is his girlfriend Kay (Ann Sheridan).  She knows what Tommy is and loves him for or despite it.  The Oomph Girl had a lot of films under her belt by 1940 and she was more than a match for Garfield.  All you could think was that Tommy was sure lucky to have someone as beautiful and loving in his corner, especially because he didn’t always treat her as well as he should.  He has a jealous, suspicious mind and although she may have been a bit naive at times, but never unfaithful, he didn’t always trust her, giving her mixed messages on what she wore and how she acted.

I felt that Ann Sheridan was an odd choice for Garfield’s character.  They just didn’t go together “smoothly”.  She seemed too classy and book smart for him, and I wondered how the two had ever met and what made her fall for him.  She appeared to be from a whole different social sphere, but, heck, maybe she wasn’t, and had learned how to put across a sophisticated intelligence.

When an accident brings Kay close to death, Warden Long gives Tommy a pass to go visit her.  How she gets to this stage I won’t disclose, but I was surprised that an inmate, especially one with Tommy’s history, would not only be given a pass without an escort, but that the only stipulation is that he give his word of honour that he will return to the prison in the morning to continue his sentence.  Okay, I wondered, is this really how they did things back in those days?

About halfway through, there’s an interlude where we’re introduced to Steven Rockford (Burgess Meredith), a most interesting, intelligent inmate.  He and Tommy become friendly and a breakout is eventually planned.  Also involved is another prisoner, Mike (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams), and although he isn’t a true idiot, he’s great at pretending to be one.

Burgess Meredith, Pat O’Brien and John Garfield

Throughout the picture, Tommy’s biggest protest is that he’s no sissy, that he’s a “tough guy”.  And at the end of the film, you know in more ways than one that it’s the truth in its purest sense.

I next chose a very early pre-Code, the 1929 Broadway Babies, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, his first full Talkie and seventh film.  It stars the adorable blonde version and real-life Betty Boop-like actress, Alice White.  With a number of Silents under her garter belt, this is also her first full-length Talkie as she and LeRoy had just come off completing the same half-and-half Hot Stuff together.

Being set on Broadway, I liked the way the opening montage shows the dazzle and the lights of central New York, and my eye caught the marquee advertising Jeanne Eagels in The Letter which was released just a couple of months prior to Broadway Babies.  It may have even been a tribute to her Broadway career since Eagels died about a month later, on October 3rd, between the release of these two films.

Now, White isn’t anything if not sexy in her role as a showgirl, a character that seemed to be her forte.  Here she’s Dee Foster, head Three Muskateer, alongside her showgirl brunette buddies Navarre King (Sally Eilers) and Florine Chanler (Marion Byron, who I’ve seen this summer alone three times at three different film festivals in the 1933 short The Curse of a Broken Heart!)  Living together in one room with two beds in the same boarding house as Dee’s choreographer boyfriend Billy (Charles Delaney), the three Broadway showgirls get involved with gangsters, perform in a speakeasy and basically act like the typical good-hearted gold diggers that they feel they should be if they want to get anywhere in life.

Sally Eilers, Alice White and Marion Byron

In a very early role, Tom Dugan plays Scotty, Billy’s best buddy with a stuttering speech impediment, while Bodil Rosil had a very small part as the somewhat annoyingly sweet Durgan, another boarding house resident.

What was particularly scintillating and titillating were the definite pre-Code showgirl costumes these girls wore, including, on a separate occasion, the pajama top worn by, I believe it was Eilers, where the whole front was unbuttoned, yet discretely, but just barely, draping her breasts.

I had seen the very svelte Alice White in her second last Silent, the 1928 Show Girl at Cinecon just over two months ago and there was a definite difference in her body tone between these two films.  It was the first time (although there’s Shelley Winters in some of her 1950s films and Clara Bow in some of her early Talkies) where I had to pretend that someone who was meant to be perfectly thin, especially in early Hollywood films, was looking slightly zaftig.  Okay, this only really happened when Alice was wearing midriff-bearing outfits, where you could tell that her abs weren’t as fit as these thin young women’s midsections were always meant to be.  But mostly what surprised me was a shot or two of her sitting in her dressing room, photographed with a slight roll of fat plumping out over her waistband!  Very realistic for many of us women, but certainly a non-existing sight for the movies!  Truthfully, it was rather refreshing and made me happy.

And lastly, although there was already a fifteen-year spread between the two films, there was a silly reference made about Kipling’s poem “A Fool There Was” between (possibly) Billy and Scotty, which conjured up in my mind, as well as probably the audiences of the day, Theda Bera and her iconic film.

A couple of years ago, I saw the trailer for Patti Cake$ (2017) in the theatre and found it intriguing, but I never noticed when the film was in the theatres and perhaps it came and went in the blink of an eye.  So I was glad that I had the chance to watch it with a couple of friends on a Friday night, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It starred Danielle Macdonald as Patti and Bridget Everett as her mother, Barb.  I had recently seen both women in the Netflix series Unbelievable, so when you have the opportunity to see actors in two very different roles, you are able to judge their acting chops.  These women are good.

About 7 or 8 years ago, I was travelling with my son to an Ontario campsite and he asked me if we could listen to his rap music during the two to three-hour drive.  Knowing I wasn’t fond of that type of music, he wanted to impress upon me how good it could be.  My problem was, that all I could usually hear were the swear words and nothing much else.  But after a couple of hours of listening to different artists, I at least came away with an understanding of what it was all about and could appreciate some of the poetry.  Funnily, although it’s a black people’s creation, I thought that Eminem was one of the best artists, amazingly good in creating meaningful, rhyming phrases.  (However, I do hope that he’s stopped rapping about his past by now, and enjoying the lucrative life that sprang from all of this torment.)

Patti is an overweight young woman who’s thoughts come to her in rhyming form.  Her idol being O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), she aspires to become a someone in the Rap world along with her best pal Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay).  Patti’s messed up mother, Barb, was once an aspiring singer and still has fantasies of making it.  But Barb’s enjoyment of alcohol gets the better of her, ruining her opportunity for a doubtful relationship as well as a possible continuing part-time gig.  But entertaining she is.

Bridget Everett

Meanwhile, Patti is more of the adult in her family which also consists of her invalid, chain-smoking grandmother (Cathy Moriarty of Raging Bull fame).  Out one day, wheeling her Nana through a New Jersey park, she follows a young man she once saw perform to his studio hideaway.  This is how she meets Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a most enigmatic musician.  There was something highly alluringly attractive about this character, with his lip rings, bold contact lens, and eerie music emanating from his guitar.  And a strange sort of person he definitely was.

What makes this film exceptionally well-done and realistic, is while it leads to a satisfying ending, it’s not a predictably typical one.  Patti has a number of eye-opening and unexpected interactions with her idol O-Z, her crush Slaz (Patrick Brana), Jheri and Basterd, ending on an emotional note, both figuratively and literally, with her mother.

I don’t know if director and screenwriter Geremy Jasper also wrote the lyrics for the raps, but whoever did, they were totally relevant, fun and entertaining.  To get a glimpse of what this film is about, take a look at the trailer here.

I’ve never seen the 1925 Variety and since I had a copy in my collection, I thought it was about time I did.  This German classic directed by E.A. Dupont would have been considered the pinnacle film of his career.

The film begins with a segment of an incarcerated man being questioned by, let us say, the warden of the jail he has been housed in for the past ten years.  Apparently, he has never uttered a word in defense of the crime he’s serving time for.  Now a letter has come to the attention of the warden from the man’s wife saying she and his son still love him, forgive him and want him back.  Will he finally speak?  Yes, and so our story begins.

Maly Delschaft and Emil Jannings

Featuring Emil Jannings, he was less recognizable to me in the cleanshaven guise as Boss Huller, a former trapeze artist, married to his partner (Maly Delschaft) who had only recently given birth to their son.  He is pretty much mended after breaking his legs in a terrible work-related accident, but his wife especially is reluctant to go back to their old profession.  When Bertha-Marie (Lya De Putti), a gypsy girl, is foisted on his household, he eventually cannot control his lust for her and leaves his wife and son to begin a new life in the circus with her.  Although the camera makes a point of showing us Mrs. Huller’s girth (never mind that Jannings as her husband is built very differently from what we would imagine a trapeze artist’s physique would look like), Bertha-Marie, although more beautiful, is a far cry from svelte.  How this young seducer (who’s actually older than the actress playing the wife) transforms herself from questionable dancer to working up high on the trapeze is something to wonder about, but nothing we should bother to dwell on for very long.  Bertha-Marie may love Boss Huller, but she always has one eye open for more profitable possibilities.  This comes in the form of trapeze headliner Artinelli (Warwick Ward) who has a history of romancing his attractive female partners.  Here, the couple and Artinelli make a threesome, and we know Artinelli is a risk-taker not only from being in this dangerous profession, but for the fact that Boss is his catcher when Artinelli is doing his double and triple summersaults in the air.

Emil Jannings was a huge German star and is famous still for such films as Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) and the German and English versions of The Blue Angel (1930) which brought world-wide fame to Marlene Dietrich.

Hungarian Lya De Putti surprisingly studied ballet in Berlin (you wouldn’t know it by her dancing in her early scenes in Variety), making her last films during the Silent era in Hollywood, mostly playing vamps vis-a-vis Theda Bara.  However, unlike Bara, these films brought her little success.  She died from what sounds like a complicated series of illness-related problems going from bad to worse in a Manhattan hospital at the age of 34.

Emil Jannings and Lya De Putti

Beautifully shot by famous cinematographer Karl Freund (and Carl Hoffmann), there’s a lot going on in Variety to keep you absorbed with this story of infidelity and jealousy.

The last movie of the week for me was I Escaped from the Gestapo (1943), a B-film directed by Harold Young which is surprisingly plausible if you know that Hitler’s ideologies spread to the coast of California.  The film was first called No Escape, which is the title in the credits of the copy I was watching.  With a cast of well-known actors, Dean Jagger leads as the good-guy American Torgut Lane, even as he’s being broken out of prison by mysterious forces.  Although murders in movies of this time were depicted in the less graphic ways of today, there are still two at the beginning that are still rather brutal and hair-raising.  Just thinking about them, particularly the second one with the hobo, is pretty spine-chilling.  And this murder was done, if I’m remembering correctly, by one of my favourite villainous actors, Sidney Blackmer.

Sidney Blackmer and Dean Jagger

When Torgut (I love the name!) is incarcerated by the people who kidnapped him, his new “warden”, Fritz Martin is played by none other than baritone-voiced John Carradine.  All of these men appear tall and weighty, so it’s believable when Fritz is able to stop Torgut in his tracks from any idea of escaping.

Love interest Helen shows up about a third way through the film, making this Mary Brian’s third last film before working on TV, then retiring completely from the medium after 1954.  She’s interested in Torgut but doesn’t read his attempts at warning her about what’s really going on,and when he sends her on a date with his guard Gordon (William Henry) she becomes so confused that she decides to leave town and head back home.

William Henry, Dean Jagger and Mary Brian

Why they need Torgut Lane is for his fine forgery skills.  And without telling you how, the Nazi fascist group are able to learn military secrets through a rather simple but clever gimmick which they obtain through their cover business of running an arcade.

I Escaped from the Gestapo is just one of many films about WWII and Nazism that were made from the time Hitler became chancellor in 1933 to the end of the war.  A genre of film I find fascinating.

And so this ends a week of film-watching.

2 thoughts on “My Week of Film – November 4 to 10, 2019

  1. I saw most of them but would love to see Jannings and De Putti in their film. They made several films together and one that I brought to my Shakespeare Doctoral class was the two of them in Othello, a silent version. They were the leads. I would love to see I Escaped from the Gestapo, which I did not know, as these anti-Nazi films are usually excellent and very daring. I shall never forgive Universal for destroying that James Whale anti German film made before we entered WW2, because they were afraid to leave it alone. That cutting destroyed him inside. As always, you write so beautifully. From Laurence Lande

  2. Thank you Laurence!

    It might be hard for some people to take, but I think a collection of anti-Nazi films made during the war years would make an excellent series.

    I believe you’re talking about Whale’s THE ROAD BACK (1937) which was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel. I had seen it a few years ago at one of the film festivals without knowing it had included cuts to the final version, but still found it quite stirring. If I’m remembering the time period correctly, in 1937 Hollywood was still influenced by the money flowing in from the German movie market, and Carl Laemmle no longer ran Universal by mid-1936. I think possibly he was the only major studio head who was openly standing up against what was going on in Germany.

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