FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 4

                                                       

Back in the early days of the Pandemic, I was inspired to watch a couple of films due to others’ comments on social media sites.  It also appears that the majority of the rest of what I watched, I was joined by my son, a nice but rare accompaniment.

The first film was Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) directed by one of Hollywood’s only female directors during the early talkie era, Dorothy Arzner, taking over from Roy Del Ruth when he left mid-filming over creative differences with producer Erich Pommer.  The film’s stars are Maureen O’Hara, Louis Hayward with Ralph Bellamy and Lucille Ball in “secondary” roles.  Oddly, and if I’m remembering correctly, Louis Hayward has about equal screen time as Bellamy, and at one point I begin to wonder where he’s disappeared to.  Meanwhile, O’Hara is completely miscast, and very bland to boot, as a ballerina.  In the one segment where she is showing off her classic dancing skills, you know it’s not her when it comes to anything remotely graceful or technical.  So why should you bother to watch this film?  You need to watch it for Lucy.  Bubbles (that’s her name) is so utterly gorgeous, sexy and self absorbed—yet, with an ever so slight twinge of a heart of gold—that I couldn’t wait for her to come back onto the screen whenever she was not there.  She runs away with the Hula when dance schoolmarm Maria Ouspenskaya can’t sell O’Hara’s rendition of it to a prospective customer.  But the most entertaining scene is when she performs the tame-by-burlesque-standards number “My Mother Told Me”.  Such fun!

After being sent a clip of the thinnest of women ever being told to watch their weight, in song yet, in the 1931 film Palmy Days, I realized I had it on my shelf.  Always enjoying Eddie Cantor silent and pre-Code films, I stuck it in my player.  Directed by A. Edward Sutherland (once married to Louise Brooks), the film was a whole lot of crazy, with Eddie Cantor ending up in drag near the story’s conclusion—and of course, because I hear you were wondering, there is a blackface moment.  The film opens with Eddie working for fake psychic Yolando (Charles Middleton)—with George Raft in an early role playing one of Yolando’s two henchmen.  Eddie falls for Joan (Barbara Weeks) and completely misinterprets everything she does and says with regard to being in love with a guy named Steve (Paul Page), believing these attentions are directed towards himself.  Meanwhile Helen Martin (Charlotte Greenwood, aunt of the film’s director), the exercise instructor for the girls who work at the bakery run by Joan’s father, doesn’t give up on chasing Eddie.  Who does Eddie end up with at the film’s conclusion—lovely Joan or wacky Helen?  Watch for Busby Berkeley in a bit part as a Fortune Teller, whose signature choreography always delights.  Gregg Toland is the cinematographer.

Back to my Alastair Sim fixation, I watched on Kanopy the craftily told British film An Inspector Calls (1954).  It’s a story told in flashback segments where an inspector calls on a wealthy family household to ask them about their roles that might possibly have lead to the death of a young woman.  Initially, they all deny any knowledge of her but slowly everything is rebutted by Inspector Poole (Sim).  The screenplay was adapted from the play written by the prolific but mostly forgotten playwright, essayist, British patriot and highly intellectual J.B. Priestley who wrote the novel The Old Dark House which was made into the classic 1932 film directed by James Whale.

Apparently, after Witness for the Prosecution (1957) ended, I was told that I had once shown this film to my son when he was a boy.  But since he didn’t remember any details, it was worth showing it to him again.  A couple of years ago at a Toronto Film Society (TFS) screening, he saw Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1932) and told me he thought he was a superb actor.  This thrilled me of course since my children are not remotely film buffs.  I reminded him who Laughton was and pointed out that the nurse, Miss Plimsoll, was played by his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester.  I told him that when he was a kid, he had seen Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro but it wasn’t something I expected him to remember.

For me, the biggest draw in rewatching this film was Marlene Dietrich.  I remember the first time I saw it, I was completely fooled by “the twist”.  Still, watching the film for a third or fourth time, it’s much easier to guess “the twist” just by listening.  If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean, but if you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

The basic story is about a man, Leonard Vole (Power), who is arrested for the murder of a wealthy older woman and hires barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Laughton) to defend him against the charge.  Swearing his innocence, his wife Christine (Dietrich) is the only one able to give him an alibi.  Will she and does she?  The antagonism between Roberts and Miss Plimsoll is quite toxic and highly amusing—something you feel may have been exaggerated by director and screenplay writer Billy Wilder than one might have found in Agatha Christie’s novel.

A couple of months prior to this, my son and I had watched No Highway in the Sky (1951).  I chose it because it features Jimmy Stewart who my son likes, again for Marlene Dietrich, but particularly because I had no memory of the story other than it takes place in an airplane—or some of it does as it turns out.  I didn’t recall that it also featured Glynis Johns, another actress I quite enjoy.  Stewart is excellent as the absent-minded professor, a widower and father of a young daughter, too old and serious for her twelve or so years, but a determined man when it comes to proving that his mathematical formula is correct, and has no qualms in jeopardizing his life’s work to save lives in what could become an airplane disaster.  Marlene Dietrich plays, well, a movie star.

Instead of going forward in time, this only reminds me that early on in 2020 my son and I watched Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  I have only seen this film once before, many years ago, and remembered liking it very much.  A further twig was that I had read Cari Beauchamp’s Joseph P. Kennedy Presents where he strongly iterates against the film, being in his estimation “nothing short of criminal—one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country”.  He felt that the depiction of a corrupt US Senate was so offensive that “in foreign countries this film must inevitably strengthen the mistaken impression that the US is full of graft, corruption and lawlessness.”  That stuck with me.  It’s quite interesting to become aware of another person’s view, especially from one who is so thoroughly dishonest himself.  I had always thought that politics unfortunately can be and is a corrupt business and that you needed people like Mr. Smith (do they really exist?) to keep the powerful on the straight and narrow…especially when you look at what’s been happening in the US Senate these past four years.  Now I know what a filibuster looks like.

Of course, there’s really no other way to tell this type of tale but in the simplest, lineal terms—which, off hand, reminds me of the most enjoyable 1993 Ivan Reitman film Dave for the same reason.  Oh, and don’t forget that Mr. Smith features a great cast, the ever formidable Claude Rains as the corruption-enabling Senator, the enabled Edward Arnold, husky-voiced Jean Arthur and many more actors you know and love.

Another film we watched in those early days of the Pandemic was Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946) directed by Mark Robson.  Adding the notes to the TFS website, it reminded me that I had attended the screening of this film back in March 1987; however, not because I remembered the film itself.  TFS seldom had famous guests but for this screening, Anna Lee was in attendance, and her entrance is all that I recall.

In correspondence with a friend of mine who was much more involved with TFS at that time, he told me the story of how she came to be there.  “Anna Lee’s visit was very bizarre. She had become friendly with a Toronto fan of ‘General Hospital’. This penniless would-be journalist made the mistake of inviting her to Toronto.  She accepted, provided he could arrange for various public appearances.  He contacted me at the university, a perfect stranger, to ask if I could arrange for a talk at Innis College. I invited her to my class, knowing that my classroom was on the second floor, that Innis had no elevator at that time, and that she was in a wheelchair.  She agreed nonetheless, and for the 100 dollars we were paying her, whipped up those stairs almost effortlessly.  But we were not getting away so lightly.  Miss Lee lived grandly, like the star she believed herself to be.  She had to be put up in a suite in Sutton Place Hotel and be driven everywhere in a limousine big enough to accommodate her wheelchair.  Her bewildered host pleaded with me to invite her to a lunch.  He joined us for a lunch at Sutton Place where the other diners looked on in astonishment at the grand entrance of the false eyelashes of Lila Quartermain (her character’s name in ‘General Hospital’ – Caren), followed by the lady herself seated on her throne.  I think I was the one who drew her to the attention of TFS.  I also think that her host, the writer, rented a dinner jacket to appear with her at the Danforth Music Hall.” (The TFS event)

My friend later continued, “I remember from the Anna Lee talk at Innis that she spoke of John Ford as a misogynist who, exceptionally, demanded for his films her and Maureen O’Hara and one other actress.  She also spoke of Fritz Lang as a sadist who when making Hangmen Also Die! (1943) told her that the window she was to smash with her fist was merely cellophane.  She smashed it and cut herself badly on the too real glass.  The photos you took of her at the Cinecon are precious.  In them, her eyelashes are shorter than when we took LILA Quartermain to lunch.  Interesting that the Quartermain name originated in King Solomon’s Mines.  (Cedric Hardwicke played Allan Quartermain in what is probably her most well-known film King Solomon’s Mines (1937) – Caren)  She spoke of that.  Of course, the director of that was her first husband, Robert Stevenson.”

I recall attending this event, watching Miss Lee walk down the aisle.  But I don’t remember either of the two films we showed, the other being Summer Storm (1944).  As my friend mentions, a few years later I again saw Anna Lee at Cinecon but I don’t recall what films I saw back in 1993 either, although you can see those photos of her at that event here.

But back to Bedlam.  Besides watching it for Anna Lee, I have an interest, like so many others, in films produced by Val Lewton—who just happens to be the nephew of Nazimova,—it stars Boris Karloff, and last but not necessarily least, because it also featured Elizabeth Russell.  Who is she, you might ask?  Back in the summer, I was contacted by an American publishing company to ask if I would evaluate a manuscript on Maria Montez.  I had never done anything like that before, but I figured it would be an interesting experience.  I really knew little about Montez, but I was assured that that didn’t matter.  The manuscript was well written, and one piece of information I learned was that model and actress Elizabeth Russell was good friends with Maria.  At one time, Elizabeth was married to Rosalind Russell’s brother, hence her last name, although I believe her main claim to fame was that she was the ghost in The Uninvited (1944) when the studio used her image in the painting which hung in the haunted house.  Although I thought Anna Lee was very good in her role of Nell Bowen, I wasn’t all that impressed with Elizabeth Russell who played Mistress Sims, Karloff’s character’s niece, and Nell’s cheap replacement as the fun-time girl for Lord Mortimer (Billy House).

If you don’t know the story, you certainly have heard of Bedlam, a strange but perfect name for the famous British insane asylum that was in much need of reform.  The screenplay, written by both the director and the producer, was suggested by the William Hogarth painting Bedlam Plate #8 “The Rake’s Progress”.

This reminds me as well that way back at the beginning of 2020, my son and I watched Karloff in Targets (1968), Peter Bogdanovich’s first credited film as director.  We liked it and its creepiness.  The gist of the story is about a sniper who terrorizes Los Angeles, culminating in a shooting spree of patrons at a drive-in theatre which is showing a film featuring famous horror actor Byron Orlok (Karloff)—(is that a play on names to remind us of the 1924 film The Hands of Orlac with Conrad Veidt?)  Orlok is to attend as a guest speaker, his last public performance before retiring from the screen forever.

Bogdanovich also has a feature role along with a pretty, young actress named Nancy Hsueh.  I had never heard of her and discovered, sadly, she had died relatively young from atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up on the artery walls which can then trigger a blood clot.

It is well-known that Bogdanovich was given the chance to make this film because Karloff owed studio head Roger Corman two days’ worth of work and, provided Karloff was used and Bogdanovich could stay under budget, he’d be given this opportunity.  Two clips used from Karloff’s past films were from The Terror (1963) and The Criminal Code (1930) to portray films made by Orlok.   Tim O’Kelly, who plays mass murderer Bobby Thompson is especially good.  I didn’t know the actor and noticed that his body of work was mainly done in TV series.

Afterwards, I watched a feature included on the disc which was fairly interesting, and I was not terribly surprised when Bogdanovich said that he submitted his draft screenplay to veteran director Sam Fuller for editing.  The film certainly had a Fulleresque feel to it.  Apparently, Fuller rewrote the script but insisted he receive no monetary or screen credit for this service.  Instead, what Bogdanovich did do was give the character he played the name “Sammy Michaels” as a tribute to this generous man, Samuel Michael Fuller.

Time to do something else in this never-ending lockdown.  Hope you find some of these film reviews interesting enough to watch a film or seven for yourself.  If you do, you can let me know what you thought.

4 thoughts on “FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 4

  1. Anna Lee sounds like a trip. I enjoy those prima donna stories…from afar. One of my favorite watches from last year was Sam Fuller’s THE CRIMSON KIMONO which has a very interesting performance from Ms. Lee. I seem to revisit at least one Lewton film per year, so perhaps BEDLAM should be my 2021 choice.

    I remember being fooled by WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION but it was so long ago I don’t remember the twist. If it were to fool me twice on a re-watch, I guess that would be shame on me (and my faulty memory).

    • I’ve never seen THE CRIMSON KIMONO, but I’d like to!

      Another Lewton film that I plan to mention in my next episodic writing is ISLE OF THE DEAD (which is on the same disc as BEDLAM). It may be a bit more apropos since it concerns a pandemic, but I think I liked BEDLAM better. You know how it can be hard to remember a film after a number of months, or a few days after viewing.

      Which brings me to WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. For some reason, I could always remember the basic story and main characters of this film, as well as what my mother told me with regard to “the twist” when I first viewed it in her company those many years ago. What I would like to also add is that even though Tyrone Power isn’t one of my favourite actors, I think he’s quite good here. He was particularly handsome in his youth, but in many of his movies, I find he only has a limited range, like someone who can only sing all the musical notes, but only in one octave. He can do all the emotions, but just not widely. That may even be the reason he’s so effective in this role. If it fools you again, that would also make the film just that more fun to watch for a second time!

  2. Last year, I picked up the Criterion blu-ray release of Dance, Girl, Dance and though I loved Lucille Ball’s performance in the film, I wasn’t a fan of the movie overall. I kept checking the clock the entire time, wanting it to be over already. It just seemed to drag and drag for me and I completely agree with you on O’Hara being miscast in this one. I honestly don’t know what the studio was thinking.

    • I agree! Although I can find some older films dull, I usually find something of merit in them. This one had Lucy and that’s what makes it worthwhile. Too bad, because it’s filled with good secondary actors like Maria Ouspenskaya, Edward Brophy, Walter Abel, Sidney Blackmer and extra disappointing because it’s one of less than two dozen films that were directed by Arzner. Editing was done by Robert Wise, soon to become a major director in his own right, and who knows what he had to work with.

      My copy isn’t the Criterion, which I think came out not that long ago, but it was a good print nonetheless with some bonus features which I probably watched–especially if there were cartoons 🙂

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