FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 5

Near the beginning of this Pandemic, I recall hearing that people were tuning in to watch the 2011 Film Contagion.  I had seen it when it came out in the theatres and wasn’t interested enough to see it again.

But after viewing Val Lewton’s Bedlam, I noted that the second film on the disc was Isle of the Dead (1945) with the description,  “Boris Karloff shares a quarantined house with other strangers on a plague infested—perhaps spirit haunted—Isle of the Dead”, and figured what could be more fitting?  There is superstitious talk about a strange creature, the Vorvolaka, a vampiric-like demon in female form which preys on the living.  Boris Karloff plays curly golden locked General Nikolas Pherides, once again a very unsympathetic character who we cheer for when he gets his comeuppance.  Ellen Drew, an actress I have seen in several films and actually quite like—Christmas in July (1940), The Monster and the Girl (1941), The Night of January 16th (1941), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Stars in My Crown (1950)—for some reason I find it hard to recognize her from film to film.  Once again, Lewton gives the film over to Canadian-born director Mark Robson.

Back in the late summer, I added notes to the Toronto Film Society (TFS) website for Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931), reminding me that I had only seen the film once back in 1988 with a vague memory of the film’s pre-Code storyline about a fallen woman.  I even had this memory of Garbo and Gable ending up outside Grand Central Station, near a subway entrance in New York at the film’s ending…but as it turned out, that was not correct. The film, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, is about a young, innocent, mostly uneducated woman, Helga, who is brought up by a farm family.  It’s unclear exactly how the head of he household, Karl Ohlin (Jean Hersholt), is related to her.  She’s either a niece if her mother was Ohlin’s sister, or similar to Faye Dunaway’s character in Chinatown (1974), his daughter and niece. Regardless, her unwed mother dies in childbirth and her aunt isn’t able to protect her from the slave driving, unloving Karl. 

I found the first scenes of interest.  The wintery, outdoor opening looks like a beautiful black and white painting, albeit with a moving horse and wagon.  When the doctor arrives, too late to help the dead mother, the wind and snow are blowing, but if you look closely, the icicles hanging from the frame of the porch wiggle in a way that you can’t help but think they are made out of a rubbery material—which they probably were.  Once the baby is taken in the hopes of being revived since it appears she isn’t breathing, the scenes of Helga growing up are done in a shadow against a wall, until you recognize, even in this form, Garbo. 

Helga is told by Karl that she has no choice and will be married to Jeb Monstrum (Alan Hale), a man at least if not more than double her age.  Since it’s a stormy night, Karl insists Jeb stay the night, which gives Jeb the idea that, hey, why marry this young woman if he can take advantage of her for free. Helga escapes being raped, running away and into the stormy night, and that’s how she meets up with Rodney Spencer (Gable).  He treats her in a chivalrous manner, but I liked the moment when he reconsiders for a single second or two, if he shouldn’t just take advantage of this beautiful girl.  It’s just a hesitant look, but the meaning was obvious.  After all, whose to care…but this, I believe, makes us understand early on that Spencer may have wicked thoughts, but when he doesn’t do the right thing, he suffers.  Anyway, they fall in love and when Rodney has to go off for business, Helga agrees to keep his house running as only a woman could until he gets back so they can marry.

Of course, that doesn’t happen when she discovers that Karl and Jeb are out looking for her and she escapes them by boarding a train filled with carnival people.  She joins the group, but that only puts her into the clutches of the manager, Burlingham (John Miljan), and her innocence is lost.  When Rodney finds her and discovers this, he blames her.  What else is new?

Both Garbo and Gable are absolutely gorgeous in this, their only film, together.  They attacked their love scenes with verve, and I felt that they both thoroughly enjoyed themselves whenever they were kissing.  If that is incorrect, then they are truly great actors!  And to add to the luster of the visuals, Greta’s gowns were fabulous Adrian creations, many eye-popping.  The gist of the story seemed to be: depending on who’s at the top of the societal heap, that’s the one who can lay the deeper-cutting insult.

Being a pre-Code, there is lots of references to non-martial sex.  Helga, who morphs into sophisticated Susan, figures she may as well make what men seem to want work to her monetary advantage.  She moves on from the carnival to live the high life in Manhattan and when there is an opportunity to meet up again with Rodney, she is now in a position of power, flaunting this to Rodney’s chagrin.  Instead of taking a high paying job offer she has arranged for him due to her connections, he takes off to South America to work in the wild.  She ends up following him there. 

The scene that actually shocked me was near the end.  Susan is working in a honky-tonk where the men congregate after days, weeks or months of working in the jungle.  She is waiting for Rodney to eventually show up.  In the meantime, Susan has gotten to know nice-guy Robert Lane (Ian Keith) who wants to marry her.  When a disheveled Rodney finally appears, its his turn to insult Susan.  They end up in one of the upstairs rooms to talk more privately but when one of the dancehall girls comes up to stake her claim of “I saw him first,” Rodney picks this wee woman up and throws her over the railing to the barroom below.  There is a crashing thud, and yet the awfulness of what Spencer has done is never acknowledged–and if I was Susan, this might have been a eureka moment to marry Lane.

Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder were two Englishmen who wrote many screenplays and directed a number of films collectively and separately, bringing to mind the more famous team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  The screenplays Gilliat and Launder would be best know for are Night Train to Munich (1940) and Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) but it’s surprising to me how often one or both of their names have turned up in a number of British films I’ve watched this past year.  The two films that I viewed several months ago were Two Thousand Women (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943).  Launder was the director and screenplay writer for Two Thousand Women, while both wrote and directed Millions Like Us.  The reason these films appealed to me was due to my interest in WWII films made during the time the war was ongoing. 

The basic story of Two Thousand Women takes place in a French internment camp, specifically for women who have been fighting against the Germans.  Most of them are British, and certainly the main actresses are: Phyllis Calvert, Flora Robson and Patricia Roc.  Rosemary Brown (Roc) is the most unusual as we learn she is a nun who hasn’t yet completed all her vows (I hope I’m remembering this correctly!).  Although I didn’t mind watching it in the least, it doesn’t really quite work for two simple reasons.  Being a British film, I was surprised that the women were more glamorous than you would ever image they could be living in an internment camp, even if it was a building with relatively comfy-looking rooms and furnishings.  Where did these women get their makeup supply? 

Secondly, and very strongly contrasting with concentration camps, these women seemed to have no fear of reprisals leading to punishment or worse by the Germans whose rule they were under.

Like the men in a number of POW films, these women took chances, mostly in hiding British men amongst them, which also led to some forms of romance.

It’s been a while since I saw it, so I can’t quite recall the details, but there is some possible disappointment for the man interested in Rosemary when he learns what she really is.

I enjoyed Millions Like Us more.  It also takes place during wartime in England.  Again, it features Patricia Roc as Celia, a young, single woman who wants to feel she’s doing something worthwhile for the war effort.  Both she and her older sister, Jennifer (at least I thought it was her sister although they have different last names but it’s possible Jennifer is a widow or divorcee) end up with jobs in an aircraft-building factory.  Not exactly glamorous, which particularly bothers the cosmopolitan Jennifer who is always the centre of attention, while poor Celia was forever the designated wallflower.  Here Celia blossoms when she meets airman Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson – he was in The Captive Heart which I talked about in Part 3).  They marry, set up house and look forward to their future together. 

Meanwhile, Jennifer is noticed by—and notices him herself—Charlie Forbes (Eric Portman).  They have one of those relationships where the other is not willing to give an inch whenever the other takes a step forward in showing their interest for the other.  Frustrating, and so like how many people act when sabotaging a potential romantic relationship for fear of rejection.  Although I wasn’t planning to say anything about A Canterbury Tale (1944), I had earlier seen Portman in this film by, speaking of the devils, Powell and Pressburger.  I have a beautiful, remastered Criterion DVD of this film, and Portman made an impression—along with the film.  Even if the story doesn’t at first grab you, the cinematography and details are beautiful.  And he plays a strange sort of man.  Anyway, I was glad to see Portman back in form as the supervisor of the aircraft plant and enjoyed the “dance” he and Anne Crawford play, keeping you waiting for them to figure out their relationship.  Even at the film’s end, it’s not written in stone if they will become a couple—I think this was a metaphor emphasizing that in 1943, when this film was made, that no one quite knew how the war was going to end, which is the concluding message of this film.

I don’t want to forget to mention that there’s a somewhat comic scene when we go back to view how the young women’s widowed father is getting on at home without them.  Suffice to say, the house is in chaos. 

Pre-chaos house

And for those of you who are fans of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, they again portray Charters and Caldicott, the characters created for them by the directors Gilliat and Launder when they first appeared in the aforementioned The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich.  In an earlier post where I had mentioned that a favourite Basil Dearden film of mine was Dead of Night, there’s a vignette which also features the pair, but under different character names.

One night earlier on last year, my son and I watched High School Confidential! (1958).  I thought it was going to be an exploitation film about the merits of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll but instead it was a morality story about why all these things are bad for you—well, maybe not so much the music.  Poor Russ Tamblyn, who has been around since having an uncredited role in the 1948 film The Boy With Green Hair, played the somewhat obnoxious lead.  Of course, everyone looked way too old to be in high school.  Certainly, John Drew Barrymore did (was he a student there or just the main unschooled baddy?  I don’t remember 100% any longer.)   Jerry Lee Lewis has the smallest of moments playing away on his piano, which was a treat. 

There are all kinds of interesting names in this film: Lyle Talbot, Michael Landon, Charles Chaplin Jr. (I always enjoy seeing a Chaplin offspring pop up–just saw a granddaughter, Oona Chaplin, in The Comey Rule miniseries), Jan Sterling and Jackie Coogan as top drug dog, Mr. A.  But my favourite performance was  Auntie Gwen Dulaine played by Mamie Van Doren.

Her falling-down-drunk scene was the best!  You can’t take this movie seriously–I wonder if you could even back in 1958–and with that in mind, if you haven’t seen it, now that marijuana is legal in many places, like here in Canada, smoke a joint or two and enjoy the film.  Actually, don’t, because, as the film points out, weed is highly addictive and automatically leads to heroin use.

Back to some serious viewing now.  I watched The Actress (1953), directed by George Cukor, based on the play by and about Ruth Gordon.  Jean Simmons (interesting that an English actress was chosen to play Gordon) is a teenager who aspires to be an actress.  Her parents eventually support her whim when, at the end of the film, she heads off to New York to fulfill her dreams.  In the meantime, she has to deal with her somewhat intolerant but loving father, played by Spencer Tracy who is always worth watching, and her more lenient mother, played by Teresa Wright. 

I am not a big Wright fan, usually finding her somewhat insipid, but here she wasn’t bad at all.  Interesting to note that she is only 11 years older than Jean Simmons.

Anthony Perkins plays the thwarted love interest.  If you like plays made into film and are interested in Ruth Gordon’s early years, then you’ll probably enjoy this well-acted film.

Back to a film I watched with my son, Kansas City Confidential (1952).  Maybe I chose it because it had the word “Confidential” in it?  Nah, I just thought of that.  I chose it because it’s well known and I didn’t remember if I’d ever seen it or not.  I also thought my kid might have been interested in seeing some good actors playing gangsters acting badly.  Besides, it features Lee Van Cleef and my son grew up watching The Good, The Bad and the Ugly with his dad and I thought he’d get a kick out of seeing Cleef in a younger incarnation.  And for me, I had seen Preston Foster in a few films, Wharf Angel (1934), and more recently in Annie Oakley, so again it’s always nice to see these actors spread over different time periods.

It’s always funny to think that John Payne was first known as a song man in earlier films because I mostly think of him as a guy getting into trouble with the law.  And here he is again trying to go straight when he is framed for an armoured car robbery.  Poor guy.  But he isn’t letting the culprits–whoever they might be–get away with it.  There are some crazy fist fights, sweat practically jumping off the screen, making you feel like you need a shower when it’s all over.

I am a fan of director Phil Karlson (Wife Wanted99 River StreetThe Brothers Rico) and he even directed Elvis Presley in the remake of Kid Galahad.

I’ll leave you with these seven for now.  I’m hear that the lockdown in my neck of the woods will continue for another three weeks.  My head is shaking.  In the meantime, follow the two safety protocols and keep busy.

4 thoughts on “FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 5

  1. SUSAN LENOX is based on an absolutely massive two-volume novel that I don’t think gets read much these days. I sure haven’t, nor have I seen the movie. I was curious though and looked up the running time of the movie–a streamlined 76 minutes! Early Hollywood knew a thing or two about whittling stories down to the good parts.

    The two “CONFIDENTIALS” are right in my wheelhouse. The producer of HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL!, Albert Zugsmith, consistently made fun movies. I highly recommend the one he did the following year, GIRLS TOWN, where delinquent Mamie (as Silver Morgan..haha) gets sent to a home for troubled youths run by nuns. It also stars Mel Tormé, and Paul “Lonely Boy” Anka along with a bevy of celebrity spawn (James Mitchum, Harold Lloyd Jr., and Charles Chaplin Jr.).

    • Hey Adam, thanks for adding some interesting information about SUSAN LENOX. I’m only guessing here, but to make that story so long there must have been other (mis)adventures that befell the two before they end up living happily ever after.

      I’ll keep a look out for GIRLS TOWN. I’d especially be keen to see James Mitchum, and in a film with Mamie.

    • I personally find Gable handsome in his early film roles before he grew his mustache, and you’re right, it seems he could get away with being awful in the pre-Code era. I remember thinking he was at his scariest in NIGHT NURSE (1931), a brooding, hulking, nasty monster. I believe he was one of those actors who didn’t want to sully his image playing anyone “bad” once he became box-office.

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