Films I’ve Watched in 2021: Part 1

One of the people I’ve known for many years from Toronto Film Society (TFS) was Jaan Salk. He was a board member and at one time president back when I was in my late teens.  Jaan was a huge Deanna Durbin fan and began corresponding with her in the mid-70s.  You can read two of her letters to Jaan here and here.  Jaan passed away Monday, July 12, 2021 but left a legacy of film notes which can be found on the TFS website.  This post is for him.

Last night I watched the 2019 documentary The Booksellers available on Kanopy.  If you are the type of person who loved to wander through bookstores, this film would be for you.  My father collected books on a small scale and he would take me to one particular little shop in our home town when I was a child.  Watching this now, I certainly understand the love of books but it becomes strange to think of the value placed on inanimate objects.  Some are worth millions.  From book fares to women’s contribution in what was a man’s world to the end of an era for many bookstores when the internet came into being, this film covered all these aspects from the viewpoint of both dealers and collectors.  There is one particular gorgeous Escher-styled library that would just be a wonder to wander through.  Fran Lebowitz always offered entertaining bits of New York insight on this subject, having the very last word about lending a book to David Bowie which he never returned.

While adding old notes to the TFS website, the synopsis for the British Too Many Crooks (1959) piqued my interest.  A group of crooks who can’t seem to pull off a heist without bungling it up sounded like it would be humourous, especially when made by the Brits.  It’s directed by Italian-born Mario Zampi who settled in Britain during the 1930s and usually wore a second hat as producer for his films.  He started as a cutter, editor, and production manager with Warners, producing a number of American-distributed films through his and partner Filippo Del Giudice’s studio Two Cities during the war.  Zampi followed this period with some indifferent post-war thrillers and then established his own production company, Anglofilm, which was backed by a Lord Strabolgi and others.  He also brought the tradition of the family firm to British production by hiring his son Giulio who acted first as his editor and later, as in this film, as his associate producer.  Two other Zampi regulars were his art director Ivan King and band-leader Stanley Black who also both worked on Too Many Crooks

The film, which I found on YouTube, stars Terry-Thomas, George Cole, Brenda de Banzie, Sidney James and other Brits you will recognize even if you can’t place their names.  Although everyone was good in this film, Terry-Thomas as Billy Gordon was masterful.  He’s a married man who swindles his way through life any way he can.  He cheats on his wife and taxes, loving money almost more than life itself.  Certainly more than he does his wife.  His daughter comes in at a close second but he’s frantic when he discovers she’s engaged to a tax collector.  However, not as frantic as he becomes when his wife is missing and his tax-free money starts disappearing. 

The gang of crooks is headed by Fingers (George Cole).  Cole was the foster son of Alastair Sim and although he played in a number of films with Sim, you would best know him from A Christmas Carol where he plays the younger version of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Although they weren’t blood-related, its uncanny how you could see some resemblance of the two in that film.  Here Cole plays, not quite an idiot, but a guy who let us just say is a far cry from the ruthless mastermind he needs to be for his line of work.  His gang is a group of misfits with the funniest being the dimwitted, lumbering, extremely tall Snowdrop played by Bernard Bresslaw who is best known for his roles in the “Carry On” films.  Brenda de Banzie’s transformation from Gordon’s subservient housewife to a woman-in-control is an eyebrow raising surprise.

Again due to TFS note posting, I watched Stand-In (1937), a film I had seen before but only recalled that it was about the goings-on in a (fictional) Hollywood studio.  It’s directed by Tay Garnett and it features a great stable of stars:  Leslie Howard as Atterbury Dodd, the earnest, honest nerd who works for the New York bank which funds Colossal Pictures studio.  Lovely Joan Blondell plays Lester Plum, the stand-in who was once a great child actress and would have given Shirley Temple a run for her money in a parallel universe.  Humphrey Bogart is producer Douglas Quintain whose latest production is steadily going down the tubes.  The film in production is being directed by Koslofski (played by an Austrian-accented Alan Mowbray) who is definitely meant to remind you of a real-life director you know, love and hate; one who would have also insisted on real edelweiss flown in from Austria instead of using the paper-made ones created in the art department for the scenes where they are mostly hidden.  C. Henry Gordon as Ivor Nassau whose looks can’t help but let you know he’s up to some crooked deal.  Canadian Jack Carson as a big-mouthed agent who is told by director Koslofski, “You should be Gone With the Wind.”  Two years away, it was a fun foreshadowing comment although it may have already been know that Leslie Howard was going to play Ashley in that film.  Then there was Tully Marshall as the perfectly named Fowler Pettypacker, the 90-year-old miserable head of the bank that Atterbury so diligently works for. 

Last, though, is Marla Shelton, who plays movie star Thelma Cheri, the actress that Plum acts as stand-in for.  With only 26 credits to her name, this stunning actress was a “professional” beauty-pageant queen, who was disqualified due to a number of illegal entries.  She plays the shallow love interest for Bogart who is smitten with her regardless of her tactlessness and buttering up of whoever can benefit her.  You could certainly understand, just due to her looks, how she rose from cigarette-girl to the female star of Colossal.  A line that I think can be attributed from Bogart to Shelton is, “Next time, rattle before you strike.”  Regardless, it’s a good line. 

Biographer Matthew Kenney wrote in his book Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes about the film.  “Stand-in’s respect for the little people of Hollywood is reflected in its anti-capitalist, leftist ideology as rendered by original story writer Clarence Budington Kelland, the man who was also behind the 1936 populist classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  (Atterbury) Dodd is a pawn for the bankers, but he must stop treating labor as ‘cogs’ or ‘units’ if he is to win Miss Plum.  In a vivid allegory to revolution, a horde of nameless studio electricians, prop men, costumers, extras, and carpenters hoist the evil banker-saboteur over the studio walls.  And it is the stand-in, not the star, who ultimately gets the man.  At the final fade, however, Lester Plum is still a nameless face in the machinery.”

“The creators of Stand-in, director Tay Garnett, screenwriters Graham Baker and Gene Towne, and producer Walter Wanger, were not known for their leftist sympathies.  If anything, Wanger tilted in the opposite direction.  Perhaps they saw Stand-in primarily as a comedy of inside jokes.  It is as much a romantic comedy as it is an agitprop treatise.  As an exposé of the ‘real’ Hollywood, Stand-in was significantly lighter in tone than the earlier What Price Hollywood? or A Star Is Born.  Its primary delight to audiences came in taboo-shattering disclosures of trade secrets.  Then there was the witty dialogue sprinkled with aides such as ‘In Hollywood, when you turn the other cheek, they kick it.’  Joan was singled out as downright brilliant, and Stand-in may be the first lighthearted movie of her career that fully capitalized on her unforced sexual allure as well as her considerable intelligence and flawlessly timed delivery of clever lines.  As a bonus, she performed a savage travesty of Shirley Temple singing ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop.’  Joan enjoyed the working environment of Stand-in immensely, though she did not warm to Bogart, who had worked with her before in Three on a Match and Bullets or Ballots.  ‘He wasn’t a man one ever felt close to—nobody did,’ she said, ‘but I liked him.’”

Bogart and Howard were friends though.  If you don’t know the story, it’s due to Howard’s insistence that Bogart reprise his stage role of Duke Mantee in the film version of The Petrified Forest (1936), a play they were both in.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t act in the film either.  Leslie Howard was killed during the war when the aircraft he was on was attacked and shot down by German fighter planes.  Bogart named his daughter Leslie after him.  These were the only two films that they acted in together.

Barbara Bel Geddes shows off her design of a woman’s undergarment to a thoughtful James Stewart in Vertigo

One night my sister came over and having already watched one Hitchcock, she wanted to watch another.  We chose Vertigo (1958), a film I haven’t seen in a number of years.  She had never seen it, and it was interesting, even gratifying to see how she reacted to key scenes.  At one point she said that Scottie (James Stewart) was not a particularly good friend, when starting an affair with Madeleine (Kim Novak) who’s married to Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), the man who hired him to follow his wife for altruistic reasons, we think.  Little does my sister know…  The DVD we watched was a copy of the restored version, made about 25 years ago.  The colour was beautiful and with minimal or no dialogue in some of the travel scenes, you could see how a master storyteller could keep your interest.

I recall that when I saw this film years ago, I found the age differences between Kim Novak and James Stewart quite noticeable.  This time, the gap seemed to tighten up.  This has to be one of Novak’s best pieces of work, and she is elegant and sophisticated as Madeleine.  When she reverts back to being Judy Barton, she’s almost unrecognizable at first glance.  Stewart’s lanky looks helped bridge the 25-year gap between the two, appearing almost boyish when he falls in love with her. 

Novak as Madeleine

So here’s a couple of thoughts.  If the film was made today, would we be in on the fact that Judy was really Madeleine, or would we be left to figure out along with Scottie that the two were the same person?  But is it important that we know who she is so that we can then understand her angst realizing that he loves a ghost and a false personality?  I think we could have discovered why she felt defeated, having to continually transform herself, at the same moment Scottie learns the truth of her identity.  But perhaps that’s not the point.  We like this woman, but we know she’s an accomplice in a murder, even if she was unaware that death would be the final outcome for the woman she was portraying.  She did know something bad was going down and was doing it for cold cash. 

Novak as Judy Barton

The other thing that struck me was right at the opening, the rooftop chase scene which causes Scottie to develop vertigo.  Detective Scottie and a police officer are chasing a man we suppose is a criminal.  When Scottie slips and is hanging onto a roof ledge for dear life, the officer gives up his pursuit of their villain to save him.  However, the officer slips and falls to his death, several stories below.  The camera focuses in on Scottie’s face and fades into the next scene.  What I want to know is who saved Scottie?  No one else was around to even witness the fall.  How long could Scottie have hung there until his arms and fingers gave out?  Does it matter?  Is the whole film meant to be a dream?

Besides the masterful cinematography by Robert Burks, the dramatically intense score by Bernard Herrmann, Kim Novak’s fabulous wardrobe was designed by Edith Head.

Several years ago on a night I couldn’t sleep, I discovered the movie Alias Nick Beal (1949) online.  I had never heard of the film and was surprised to discover it starred Ray Milland in the title role.  I was able to purchase an imperfect copy somewhere, thinking from time to time that I would like to see it on a bigger screen than my phone.  A week or so ago, two family members came over and we watched it.  It also features Audrey Totter, Thomas Mitchell and George Macready.  A few weeks earlier I had watched The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and it was interesting to note the similarities.  Both stories are about the devil in control, but this devil is sneakier, doing his utmost best to corrupt a good man, Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) who is trying his best to make his world a better place.  Audrey Totter is the seductress, a definite human (opposed to a demon) who is not completely immoral.  George Macready who I usually think of as playing a villain, plays Reverend Thomas Garfield, the one man the devil can’t beat.  Without going into detail here about Daniel Webster, it’s just an interesting observation that it appears the devil can give you the things you want, but God can’t or won’t.  Why is that?  In this story, our protagonist Foster doesn’t much want Nick’s help, but he’s there to give it for his own nefarious purposes.  Milland had a nice edge to his Nick and the makeup department did something to his eyebrows which gave him a malevolent look.

Based on a book, the screenplay was written by Jonathan Latimer who also wrote the screenplay for another Milland film, The Big Clock (1948) as well as the unusual film They Won’t Believe Me (1947) and the 1942 version of The Glass Key, to name a few.  The film was directed by John Farrow, and although I don’t know offhand if he was assigned to make it or chose to, an interesting choice it was as he had a strong interest in the Christian religion.  Farrow had converted to Catholicism to marry Maureen O’Sullivan, wrote a history of the papacy, as well as a book on Sir Thomas More who was sainted. 

I have a couple of great-nephews, ages 4 and 7.  I remember loving the film Born Free (1966) when I was a kid and even though children these days, or the ones in my life, aren’t all that interested in movies, I coaxed them to watch this film—in three sittings.  The seven-year-old wasn’t all that interested and played with toys while the movie ran.  The four-year-old was more interested in the animals, not really following the narration, but he wanted to watch especially because I told him that there were “zombie lions” in the film.  He is fixated on zombies, something he watches at home.  I could show him Night of the Living Dead (1968) or The Last Man on Earth (1964) but I think that would make me a bad aunt.

Anyway, Born Free is still a lovely movie.  In this climate it’s a bit harder to take the killing of the lions but it’s understandable when it means protecting humans from lions who have lost their fear of village communities.  Making a number of films together, British spouses Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers are perfect as the real-life Adamsons in their favourite film.  Shot in Kenya, it’s the story of two preservationists who raise orphaned lion cub Elsa to adulthood, then teach her how to fend for herself so she doesn’t end up in a zoo.  The film was a major influence on the rest of their lives, founding The Born Free Foundation in 1984 to help stop the exploitation and suffering of individual animals living in captivity or in the wild.

A true cat fight.

It’s close to mid-July and I started back to work last week.  It feels good.  Incidentally, my new approach is to write about the latest films I watched and work backwards.  Let’s see how far I get. 

4 thoughts on “Films I’ve Watched in 2021: Part 1

  1. Really enjoyed reading your post, Caren. I was particularly thrilled with the two Durbin letters – what graciousness! Makes me proud to be a fan.

    Cheers, Leslie

    Leslie C. Smith Just Write

    http://www.smithleslie.com (www.thedogdoesntdie.com)

  2. Dear Caren, Lovely read! I enjoyed watching Alias Nick Beal with you. Thank you for a great evening.

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