Short Reviews 2016

May 28, 2016
While I was reading the book Fireball by Robert Matzen, I learnt about the singer Russ Columbo.  He and Carole Lombard were an item and apparently he was at the same level of fame as Bing Crosby.

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WAKE UP AND DREAM (1934) was his tenth screen role and his first to headline.  He was at the premiere to introduce the film and, I’m figuring the next morning, on September 2, 1934 he went to call on his best friend Lansing Brown to find out why he hadn’t been there as he said he would, for moral support.  With Brown’s parents in the next room, the two were conversing in the library when suddenly there was a deafening explosion.  As Lansing recounts in the book Fireball:

He (Lansing) had put a cigarette in his mouth and then struck a match on the hammer of one of two pistols on his desk.  What were the odds that there was a percussion cap on the pistol in the first place, or a slug in the barrel?  What were the odds that, even though the pistol wasn’t even pointed at Russ, that said slug, traveling at extreme low velocity, would strike the desktop and bounce into the one place that could prove lethal: Russ Columbo’s eye socket?  Had it hit him any place in the body with bone underneath, a superficial wound would have resulted and nothing more, but the lead ball punched through his eye and just far enough into his brain to cause a mortal wound.

What a bizarre and horrible accident!  And I was intrigued about the man.  I own a lot of films and the title, WAKE UP AND DREAM, stuck out as a nicely-worded phrase which helped me to remember that I had it.  I thought it would be the perfect time to watch.

Russ Columbo

Russ Columbo

The principal actors weren’t people I knew.  Roger Pryor, who had played in just over 50 films—none of which I think I’ve ever seen—reminiscent of all those actors who play nice-guys but usually don’t get the girl, and June Knight, who only had 12 film credits to her name—the only one I’d seen was DeMille’s Madame Satan (1930) where she had a bit role in the party scene and probably would be hard to recognize even if you were on the lookout for her.

Roger Pryor, June Knight and Russ Columbo

Roger Pryor, June Knight and Russ Columbo

But the supporting cast was a delight.  It featured Henry Armetta in a somewhat frenetic role;

Henry Armetta

Henry Armetta

one of my favourites, Andy Devine, as a drunken “boy toy(!)”

Studly Andy Devine

Studly Andy Devine

for Madame Rose (Catherine Doucet);

Catherine Doucet

Catherine Doucet

Wini Shaw, as the glamorous night club performer/gold digger Mae LaRue wanting to get her hooks into Paul (Columbo)

Wini Shaw

Wini Shaw

but will settle in the meantime for Roger Babcock (Richard Carle);

Richard Carle

Richard Carle

Paul Porcasi, legendary owner of ten coastal nightclubs;

Who knew this was what a young Paul Porcasi looked like!

Who knew this was what a young Paul Porcasi looked like!

The Paul Porcasi we know.

The Paul Porcasi we know.

and funny, crusty and seemingly always old Clarence Wilson.

Clarence Wilson

Clarence Wilson

The story is about a threesome, Paul Scotti (Columbo), Charlie Sullivan (Roger Pryor) and Toby Brown (June Knight), vaudevillians who are looking for a break into the big-time.  Both Paul and Toby can sing and Charlie, well, I’m not quite sure where his real talents lie, (although he does at one point perform a tightrope act) as he seems to be more of an agent for the other two rather than much of a performer himself.  He’s mushy over Toby, and eventually—and inevitably—Toby discovers she’s more into, handsome fellow crooner, Paul.

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Although this film was probably made and certainly released after the July 1st, 1934 Production Code amendment was put in place and which required all films to obtain a certificate of approval, for this said release, director Kurt Neumann still appeared able to get away with remnants of pre-Code naughtiness.  When Paul’s “adoptive” father, Giovanni Cellini (Henry Armetta) arrives on the scene, they, Toby and Charlie need to escape from their boarding house room (which it appears the three of them share!) to avoid being seen by Detective Hildebrand (Clarence Wilson).  The conversation, using the colloquialism of the day, dick, to describe Hildebrand is bantered around with the Italian-accented Cellini asking the question, “What’s a dick?” just as he bangs his head on the window frame of the fire escape before the scenes fades and the four of them are on a bus heading somewhere else.   What makes the last sentence particularly funny is the bus scene opens up with Cellini eating a banana with the follow-up line, “Nothing like a banana; it’s so good.”  Maybe it’s just my warped sense of humour, but I took delight in this.

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Paul, bartender and Mae

This is also the scene where we’re introduced to “psychic” Madame Rose and her “nephew” Joe Egbert (Andy Devine).  He’s accompanying the elder, flirty, flighty woman for her ability to keep him eternally inebriated and I can only suppose the pay-off for her is for him to keep her happy in the boudoir.  I know it’s weird that I find Devine slightly just that, but it’s an odd choice for him to be cast as a stud, even if that character trait is somewhat under the radar.  So Madame Rose sets her sights on Cellini, who’s closer to her age and appears available.  But interestingly, when Cellini is successful at thwarting her advances, he is so delighted that he breaks the fourth wall, turning to the camera–and us–to show his pleasure!  Besides, if he likes bananas as much as he claims he does, then the outcome for her may not be all that satisfying.

The ending of the film is typically hokey now that the pre-Code era was over, but the last line is of interest, with Charlie saying to Hildebrand, “Well little man, what now?”.  Universal, who produced WAKE UP AND DREAM, had released earlier that year the film, Little Man, What Now? based on the novel published in 1932 by German writer Hans Fallada, the year before Hitler’s rise to power.  It’s possible the earlier released film was still in circulation and it’s my guess that it was a cute little way for the studio to promote it.

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June Knight and Russ Columbo are both attractive people and their performances are enjoyable.  Columbo did have a wonderful voice and it’s a pleasure to listen to him every time he sings, and I’m not even a big film buff of musicals.  His first film role was in the sexy The Wolf Song (1929), which I saw at Cinefest in Syracuse, New York several years ago and which stars a gorgeous Gary Cooper and a silent Lupe Velez.  But I don’t recall the scenes with Columbo who plays Ambrosio Guiterrez.  However, that will be rectified when I see it again this August at Capitolfest in Rome, New York along with another film with their feature star Gary Cooper in The Texan (1930) where Russ Columbo also has an uncredited role in a scene at a campfire as a singing cowboy.

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I look forward to these two encounters!

May 2, 2016
It was probably about six years ago when I was sleeping over at someone’s house who had TCM.  I don’t subscribe to television at home, so when I woke up very early that morning, I turned on the TV in my room and started watching a film that had already started and where the spoken language was not English.  It caught my interest immediately.  The main question appeared to be:  Should a man from a Native culture hang for taking the life of a Western white man for breaking a promise and destroying his family?  Alaska, since 1884 was a legal district of the United States, but the people who lived there had their own “moral code” from well before that time.  Unfortunately, I fell asleep again but what was unusual was that I continued the story in my dream.  When I woke up, I found the film had ended.  But I realized how much it had affected me since I never dream about film stories, even while I fall asleep watching them which has happened to me, oh, once or twice!

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What was this film then you are also wondering?  It was ESKIMO [MALA THE MAGNIFICENT] (1933), directed by W.S. Van Dyke and I bided my time but looked forward to getting my hands on my own copy.  The cast is mainly Native, although the main characters are not played by amateur actors, only the extras, even if that’s what the opening title leads the audience to believe.  And since there are no acting credits in the titles at the beginning or end of the film, we aren’t made to realize that all the white men were actors as well.

The author of the books Der Eskimo and Die Flucht ins weisse Land (which ESKIMO was translated from to the screen by John Lee Mahin) was Peter Freuchen, a Danish explorer, notable for his part in Arctic explorations, and who later on was involved in the film industry, both in his home country and in Hollywood.  In ESKIMO, he plays the role of the despicable Captain, who has no qualms cheating the Native traders or treating their women as sex objects.  From what I read about Freuchen, he must have enjoyed playing so opposite a character to his real self.

Peter Freuchen as the Captain

Peter Freuchen as the Captain

The majority of the film was shot on location (by no less than four cinematographers) but there are definitely studio shots as well.  You can instantly recognize when the background is projected on a screen so that’s proof enough to know that the main actors, whether white or Native were brought back to Hollywood for the final shooting of details.

Mala and Youngest Son

Mala and Youngest Son

The main character, and hero of the story is Mala and played by the beautiful Ray Mala.  This was Mala’s first film but he wasn’t such a novice as people would like to think.  He was born Ray Wise in the small village of Candle, Alaska to a Russian Jewish immigrant father and a Native Alaskan (Inupiat) mother.  He actually made his acting and cinematography debut at the age of 14 in the film Primitive Love by explorer Frank Kleinschmidt.  By 1925 he made his way to Hollywood and got a job at Fox Film Corporation as a cameraman.  (Wikipedia)

Up against Cleopatra and One Night of Love, ESKIMO was the first film to win an Oscar for Best Film Editing at the seventh Academy Awards ceremony.  And off on a tangent, since Cleopatra was mentioned, I have just finished reading Scott Eyman’s biography on Cecil B. DeMille and therefore have been watching several of his films.  Earlier this week I watched Pacific Union (1939) and Ray Mala had a small role (possibly two) in DeMille’s big production, playing that of a Native Indian.

Lulu Wong Wing

Lulu Wong Wing

Back to the cast of Native Eskimos, Mala’s first wife, Aba, was played by Chinese Lulu Wong Wing who just happened to be Anna Mae Wong’s older sister!

Anna May Wong, Chinese American movie star and Lulu Wong, circa March 24, 1928. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

Anna May Wong, Chinese American movie star and Lulu Wong, circa March 24, 1928. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

His second wife, Iva, was played by American actress Lotus Long (nee Lotus Pearl Shibata—but also used the pseudonym Karen Sorrell in a couple of films) whose father was of Japanese ancestry and her mother, Hawaiian.

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Unfortunately, I don’t know who played the roles of “the Stranger”, his “Wife #1” nor the Interpreter.  I feel that of those three main characters, Wife #1 had to be a professional actress.

Mala and Iva, while the Stranger's Wife No. 1 looks happy and approving

Mala and Iva, while the Stranger’s Wife No. 1 looks happy and approving

With the other two, although they were perfect, I’m on the fence.

The Interpreter with his wife

The Interpreter with his wife

There are some very authentic hunting moments, stunning and fearsome nature scenes and beautiful animal cinematography.  There’s nothing boring here.  Although the thought at the time would be how uncivilized and child-like the Natives were, I think nowadays when watching ESKIMO, we actually think they are more insightful and genuinely inquisitive about other cultures.  They might have been laughing amongst themselves in private about the wacky things those white men do, but unlike the white men who laughed at them even when their backs weren’t turned, they certainly showed great manners when they learned a Western man’s way of doing things.   There’s a little scene where Mala and his family are eating at the Captain’s table.  Not only are they trying foreign foods, but they are attempting to use cutlery, something they have never laid eyes—or hands—on before.  Which reminds me, earlier on there is a scene where Mala is eating at home and he is looking for a “napkin”.  All I can say is I would love to have a film soiree where my guests could use a soft, very furry animal skin to wipe the food off their mouths.  And they’d be washable and reusable too!

Family Photo

Family Photo

There’s a scene that moved me with one of Mala’s children.  At this point guns weren’t a common tool used by the villagers.  But when a gun is fired, the noise, and possibly what it implies, scares the youngest child and he reacts the way any child in any part of the world would when he is frightened.  Very touching and unifying.

The Canadian Mounted Police with Inspector White

The Canadian Mounted Police with Inspector White

When the Canadian aspect of the movie takes over with the Canadian Mounted Police (CMP) sent out to look for Mala, I fleetingly wondered why.  After all, Alaska was not ever part of Canada (even though we wanted it) although ownership was disputed first between the UK and Russian and then the dispute was continued with the US when it inherited the land from Russia through the “Alaska Purchase” in 1867.  But who cares, since it was fun to see my countrymen represented in this wondrous film.  So, as I’m watching the two CMPs in action, I notice that one of them looks strikingly familiar.  Is that Joe Sawyer, I ask?  Using my IMDb app on my phone, I’m able to look it up, and lo and behold I’m right!  It is Joe Sawyer, but not a Joe Sawyer character I’ve ever seen before.  Joe Sawyer has played over 200 roles starting as a pool player in the 1931 film The Public Enemy.  And that’s a typical Joe Sawyer role, a gangster, a mug, a cop, and at many a times just a dumb boor.  Even, in one of his later roles which I watched recently, It Came From Outer Space (1953), he still looked like an older Joe Sawyer pugilist.  But in ESKIMO, Joe was actually, well, close to handsome!  And he spoke eloquent English.  I was dumbstruck!  And that’s why I love actors.  Good, amazing actors!  And he got to play against the person who played Inspector White.  And who might that have been?  The director himself, W.S. Van Dyke.  I think they had a hoot.  Especially all four actors in the scene where both CMP brought Mala in to be arrested by Inspector White.  It’s a funny, charming moment where the CMPs are laughing behind their hands, watching rigid Inspector White trying to deal with an exuberant, youthful Mala.  But knowing what they have in store for Mala, the scene also feels quite sad.

Joe Sawyer and Van Dyke

Joe Sawyer and Van Dyke

At one point, Mala has been chained to his cot and during the night when everyone is asleep he attempts to slide his hand out of the metal cuff.  It’s such an excruciating moment and we feel the tenseness of it by the powerful cinematography and the length of scene.

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The thing that director Van Dyke got very wrong, the only aspect of the film that really didn’t work, was the musical score.  The music director is composer William Axt, but since he wasn’t officially credited with a score, I wonder if the studio just used music of his from other movies and literally struck it into the film!  For instance, there’s a scene where Mala is mourning his first wife, Aba’s, death and the music is, in my humble opinion, ridiculous.  At some points I recognized it (I think) as (sing) “…me and my gal.”  Yeah, I’m sure that’s an Aboriginal favourite, especially for funerals.

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The ending, although uplifting, also doesn’t feel quite right.  And it’s not because of what has happened, it’s because of the hokey lines given to my favourite CMP officer, Joe Sawyer.  Cringe-worthy in a happy sort of way.

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But even with that little flaw, don’t let that stop you from getting hold of a copy of this remarkable film.  It’s available at Warner Archives, or other fine DVD purchasing sites.

I’d like to finish off with the always interesting notes by film historian William K. Everson.  These were written for his New School Film Series on December 15, 1972 and double-billed with Congorilla (1932):

With the last film in our current series, we come full circle by returning to W.S. Van Dyke, the director with whom we started this series, and a film from his 1928-33 period (White Shadows in the South SeasTrader Horn, Tarzan the Ape Man) in which he was still very much of a specialist in the location-filmed semi-documentary film. Our notes for Manhattan Melodrama surveyed his subsequent prolific commercial success and expertise so we need not cover that ground again here. ESKIMO is also an appropriate companion film to Congorilla in reflecting the then tremendous movie and audience interest in films of exploration and discovery, an interest sparked not only by the Lindbergh and Byrd exploits (which created a new enthusiasm for individual contemporary heroes) but also by the ability of the still new talking film to bring to the screen the authentic sounds, languages and music of far-off places and peoples. Universal’s Igloo (a notable if more melodramatic film, one that we hope to show a couple of seasons hence) had preceded ESKIMO into release by a year, but its production was probably spurred by the interest surrounding Freuchen’s books, and the knowledge that the MGM film based on them would take some time to produce.

Eskimo (4)

ESKIMO is a remarkable film, though it has its flaws. The first half is such a fascinating recital, in largely documentary fashion, of Eskimo life, not only the rigorous struggle for existence and the constant hunting of food, but also in its detailed commentary on Eskimo morality and codes of honor, that the second half – in which plot takes over – inevitably seems a let-down. There is a certain amount of racial comment and some biting reference to white exploitation of the Eskimo, but this is used to bolster plot motivation and does not become the end in itself, as in White Shadows in the South Seas. As always with Van Dyke, the authenticity is helped along by Hollywood know-how: there is nothing faked about the marvellous caribou stampede sequence, but it is certainly enhanced by overhead and pit camera positions. Today the intrusion of some back projected scenes (especially into the walrus hunt) strikes a note of artifice – but in 1933, back projection was not widely understood or recognised by audiences and they would have been less jarring then. Too, the back projection scenes are not inserted to create phoney thrills, but instead to build up and punctuate already first-class sequences. Perhaps the only real criticism one can make is of the musical score, and, again, the art of scoring for movies was still a young one in 1933. The use of “Night on a Bald Mountain” at one point rather takes one “out” of the picture, and the repetition of a lyrical love theme, belonging far more to the Rose Marie genre, works against the starkness of it all. Incidentally, it seems fairly obvious that Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents was much influenced by this film. The cast is largely Eskimo, with dialogue handled via subtitles. Mala and Lotus, then total unknowns, soon became familiar faces. In similar roles, Mala enjoyed limited stardom for some 20 years – aging not one whit in all that time. Lotus added “Long” as a surname, and specialised in Oriental villainy. Director Van Dyke and author Freuchen are, if not subtle, at least effective in their dual chores as actors.

April 28, 2016

Manhattan Tower (4)

Quite a day at the office!  Just watched MANHATTAN TOWER (1932), directed by Frank Strayer, with the dreamy female cast of Noel Francis, Nydia Westman, Mary Brian and Irene Rich.  The male cast aren’t nearly as interesting, but they’re adequate and work well enough in their roles.

And what isn’t there to recommend this pretty perfect pre-Code film?  There’s sex of course, money, swindling, attempted murder, partying, alcohol and the catalyst of it all is the drug-popping secretary who’s terrified—like everyone else—that another Crash is going to happen just three years into the Depression.

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To view a crisp, sharp copy of this film would be bliss, but to see it at all is worthwhile.  The Art Deco sets, which after some searching are attributed to set designer Chester Gore, and the New York City towers and sets are gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Ira H. Morgan.  And it’s available on-line if you don’t have a public-domain DVD copy to watch on your big-screen TV. (Here’s the “Restored” version.  It is an exact copy of the one above but is definitely sharper.  However, in some outside scenes the artwork and details become lost due to the brightness.  There’s also a little glitch around 15:00 but it rectifies itself.  It definitely gives more detail to the actor’s faces, but not always to their benefit.  But it definitely brings out more background detail)

Who are the characters that set this crazy day in motion?  It begins in the Empire State building where we meet engaged couple, secretary Mary Harper (Mary Brian) and mechanic factory supervisor Jimmy Duncan (James Hall).  They are arguing about a typical pre-Code problem.  They want to get married, but they don’t have enough finances—and, he feels the need to be bossy.  In so many early 1930 films, the male has to assert himself by telling his girlfriend or fiancée what she should and shouldn’t do.  Mary can’t help but remark that they aren’t married, so he can’t tell her what to do—yet.  He’s also jealous of the advances her slimy boss, Kenneth Burns (Clay Clement) uses to “charm” Mary, and I don’t know how either men don’t realize she’s anything but.

The cost of a house--an unimaginable $1,500--both from their 1932 point of view and from ours today

The cost of a house–an unimaginable $1,500–both from their 1932 point of view and from ours today

And Burns has a wife, Ann (Irene Rich) who he knows is visiting her boyfriend, lawyer David Witman (Hale Hamilton) a few floors below.  They are in love but she’s sophisticated and a lady, so she’s not out to do “the wrong thing.”

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Meanwhile, if Burns can’t make hay with Mary, he’s not averse to enjoying the charms of party-girl Marge Lyon (Noel Francis).

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She snuck in late to the office straight from a party that’s still going on.  She was accompanied to the building by fellow partier Crane-Eaton (Billy Dooley), both still dressed in their evening clothes.

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She’s sent him out to buy her more appropriate attire for the office, but since he’s four sheets to the wind, he can’t remember her surname or what office she works in and spends the full day going from floor to floor searching for her.  He must be carrying a bottomless flask with him as he never waivers in his drunkenness nor does the booze ever tire him out from his quest.

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And Marge is quite a hoot.  She’s got little class and knows it.  She gets away with answering company calls like she’s working on an assembly line in a brewery.  She’s happy to show off her rather attractive legs to the whole of the male staff, acting at times like she has no idea what their ogling at.

Do I look like I have a drug problem?

Do I look like I have a drug problem?

But the most enjoyable role is David Witman’s secretary, the dotty Miss Wood (Nydia Westman).  She’s got a whole drawer full of pharmaceuticals and she likes to pop pills willy-nilly, whenever the mood hits, which is about every minute and a half.  She’s nervous about all sorts of things—and we can bet that some of those pills are adding to her jitters.  One thing on her mind, which is most of the characters’ major worry, is losing her savings.  So when she overhears, incorrectly, her boss in a meeting with the head of the bank she’s put all her savings into, she pops a number of pills before running down to the main floor to withdraw all her cash.  And when she mutters what she’s doing and where she’s going inside the crowded elevator, she starts a huge panic that easily compares to what happens at the bank in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Mary Brian

Mary Brian

A conversation that gave me a laugh between Miss Wood and her boss David Witman was him exasperatedly and condescendingly assuring her that her savings are safe.  She fans herself and says with obvious relief that she thinks “she’ll take a pill.”  His response, matter-of-factly is, “I wish you would.”  And with a nod, she heads out to do just that.

Jimmy (James Hall) and satisfied boss Mr. Ramsay (Wade Boteler)

Jimmy (James Hall) and satisfied boss Mr. Ramsay (Wade Boteler)

There’s lots more drama that unfolds and you kind of wonder if there’s going to be any happy ending in store for anyone.

Jed Prouty and James Hall

Jed Prouty and James Hall

At least three characters have lost their life’s savings; at one point the poor, nebbishy accountant Mr. Hoyt (Jed Prouty) loses his job; and there’s even a life that is lost (although it’s not one any of us feel too badly about)—plus, as in true pre-Code style, the truth of the death is covered up so as to protect all the decent skyscraper souls.

March 22, 2016

Chase (9)

I watched THE CHASE (1946) a while ago and have thought about it off and on.  A noir directed by Arthur Ripley, it’s based on a book by Cornell Woolrich whose novels were the basis for such films as Phantom Lady (1944), The Leopard Man (1943), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Black Angel (1946) and Fear in the Night (1947).  The cast includes a rather interesting choice of actors: Robert Cummings, Michèle Morgan, Steve Cochran, Jack Holt and Peter Lorre.

It’s the story of two men whose lives become intertwined when one is hired by the other as his chauffeur.

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Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) is a bad man.  Gino (Peter Lorre) is his positively weirder and possibly scarier henchman.

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Just out of the army, Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) a soldier suffering from Anxiety Neurosis, or our present day terminology of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is hired as chauffeur.  A chaotic move for Roman, an unpleasant and chaotic man himself, without knowing what he just got himself into.

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Roman’s beautiful wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan), or hostage, needs someone to rescue her.  She’s not fussy.  If it takes a man, even one who suffers from hallucinations, so be it.  And what makes Robert Cummings such a perfect choice for the role in my mind is with regards to reading the book Dr. Feelgood: The Shocking Story of the Doctor Who May Have Changed History by Treating and Drugging JFK, Marilyn, Elvis, and Other Prominent Figures by Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes.

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Robert Cummings, who was widely known as a health food advocate—in 1960 he wrote the book How to Stay Young and Vital—became addicted to Dr. Max Jacobson’s “health drug cocktail”.  The cocktail’s main ingredient was speed and although Cummings was not involved with this deadly drug when making THE CHASE—he didn’t start taking it until the early 1960s—the image of what became of him haunted me.  He died on December 2nd, 1990, his body, along with the effects of Parkinson’s, was ravaged by his addiction to methamphetamines.

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Jack Holt, who had been acting in film since 1914 (and played Cash Hawkins in the 1918 version of DeMille’s THE SQUAW MAN—the version I did not see for my last review), plays Doc Davidson, a Commander in WWII and the man who connects the dots for the hero of the story, Chuck Scott.  And with that introduction, allow me to go off on a tangent which has nothing to do with this film, but the film I last reviewed on February 27th.

I have been reading a wonderful book Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman and have learned some things about the 1914 THE SQUAW MAN.  If my review is something you read before viewing the film and has intrigued you at all to watch it, then you’ll be interested to know that you should keep your eyes open for DeMille playing a faro dealer in one of the scenes.  Apparently he did this in order to save $3 for the cost of hiring an actor, one of the many things DeMille did to save money in this “first step” of a start-up film business.  To be a movie pioneer must have been such an exciting, fabulous phenomena.  Cecil, along with Jessie Lasky, Sam Goldwyn, brother William DeMille, art director Wilfred Buckman and writer Jeanie Macpherson, was such an important group of creators.  And to learn, sometimes from others but mostly as they went along with just their past theatre experiences, imagination, intelligence, drive and of course talent, they made quite amazing films.  The DeMille brothers were educated to be sure and had knowledge of the theatre pretty much from birth due to the interests of their parents but obviously there could not have been any formal film education.  And this first celluloid creation, THE SQUAW MAN—where DeMille learned how to direct by observing and working with the experienced Oscar Apfel—was the film that earned this group of early entrepreneurs enough capital to build a movie empire.  Even with the ups and downs that are part of any life, what a wonderful way to spend one’s existence!

Alright, back to the movie at hand, THE CHASE.

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I first became aware of Michèle Morgan in the wonderful French film GRIBOUILLE [HEART OF PARIS] (1937).  It was remade in 1940 as THE LADY IN QUESTION with Rita Hayworth in the same role, yet it had none of the nuance or believability of the original.  I found it as dull as I found the former thrilling.  But since being aware of Morgan, I realize I have seen her in a couple of other very good films such as HIGHER AND HIGHER (1943), where Frank Sinatra plays a character named Frank Sinatra and THE FALLEN IDOL (1948) which was her next film after THE CHASE.  She is still here with us at the age of 96.

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One of Chuck’s first lessons is the true meaning of a back seat driver.  You will love this scene.  My question is, when Gino is in the driver’s seat, why can’t he control the direction of the car?  Or is it the fact that no matter what, Roman has complete control over Gino’s psyche?  Another psychological mess.

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When Chuck is acutely suffering from Anxiety Neurosis (I like that label better than PTSD), suffer he does.  He hallucinates all sorts of scenarios.  Ones that he is in and others that he has no privy to.  The hallucinations are logical and yet never ending, going from bad to worse.  And what makes this film more thought-provoking is the ending.  Unless our hero is clairvoyant, I believe he has hallucinated the film’s final scene.  It happens in the same place with the same characters in the same way with the same dialogue as when we saw it when things weren’t real.

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A most unusual film noir, and there are a number of them to be sure.  This one definitely joins the ranks.

February 27, 2016

                  Squaw Man Covers (2)    Squaw Man Covers (3)

Something I enjoy is watching remakes.  And what makes this particular pair of films even more interesting is that both were made by the same director 17 years apart, one in the silent era and the other in the pre-Code.  Then, upon looking through a book of the director’s films, I learn that Cecil B. DeMille also remade THE SQUAW MAN in 1918, only four years after his directorial debut of the original.  I can only surmise that this story had a special significance for DeMille and that he had a strong desire to “get it right”; to get the ideas in his head on to celluloid so that we could see what he was envisioning.  Or he just liked the story, and the story made for successful filmmaking and lucrative earnings.

The 1931 version is 33 minutes longer than the 1914 film and certain scenes vary from the silent, but for all purposes those variances don’t make any change to the essence of the story.   James Wynnegate/Carston (Dustin Farnum/ Warner Baxter) and his cousin Henry (Monroe Salisbury/Paul Cavanagh) are upper class Englishmen and have been made trustees of an orphans’ fund.  Henry uses the money to place a bet on horses (1914) or loaned it out for a stock market speculation (1931) but either way he loses a large portion of it.  The other little problem is that Henry’s wife Lady Diana (Winifred Kingston/Eleanor Boardman) and James are in love.  Jim feels the best thing he can do is leave for the New Country—the State of Wyoming to be exact—killing two birds with one stone, with both deeds being somewhat too noble in my view, especially the second, to let people believe he absconded with the funds.  This is supposed to give his cousin time to repay them.

Warner Baxter and Eleanor Boardman

Warner Baxter and Eleanor Boardman

Jim buys a cattle ranch in Buzzards Pass and has trouble with land owner and outlaw Cash Hawkins (William Elmer/Charles Bickford).  Jim meets Nat-U-Ritch (Red Wing/ Lupe Velez), daughter to the chief of the Utes tribe, and stands up for her when she’s being harassed by Cash.  She’s instantly devoted and later on saves Jim’s life not once, but twice.  You can’t ignore a woman after something as providential as that!  Twice!

Meeting the Tribe

Meeting the Tribe

Eventually they have a son, Hal (‘Baby’ Carmen De Rue/Dickie Moore).  When Jim’s found by Lady Diana and Sir John (Foster Knox/Roland Young) to let him know that Henry, who in his dying breath had exonerated Jim of the theft, he is a bit too easily convinced that Hal needs to be sent off to civilized England.  You see, after Henry’s death, Jim has assumed all inheritance that goes along with the title of Earl of Kerhill.  But what’s to become of Nat-U-Ritch?  I can leave that bit for your viewing satisfaction.

I always say this, but Dickie Moore is so cute!

I always say this, but Dickie Moore is so cute!

What’s of interest is the changes made to the original filmed story.  Henry is one of those character’s whose personality has been expanded in the 1931 film.  In the 1914 film he is just obviously unlikeable.  In the 1931 version, he’s more than that.  He’s a cad and a coward who would prefer to take his own life than live with the disgrace of being considered a thief.  Even though he was openly very unhappy with just the idea that Diana and Jim were besotted with each other, he had no problems carrying on his own affair with Babs (Lillian Bond).

A little tête–à–tête

A little tête–à–tête

And interestingly, the two Henrys lose their lives in completely different scenarios; again, something I’ll leave for your own viewing pleasure.  And just a little aside: in both films, but particularly the second, Baxter and Cavanagh actually look like they are related.

Cavanagh and Baxter

Cavanagh and Baxter

In the 1914 film, for some reason Lady Diana and Sir John happen to run into Jim months before they actually need to find him.  It works better in the 1931 film where they don’t know where he is and spend quite a length of time searching for him after the death of Henry.

Winifred Kingston as Lady Diana

Winifred Kingston as Lady Diana

In the 1931 film, it was my observation that there were more prejudicial messages towards Native Indians.  Although there was one particular moment in the 1914 film where Nat-U-Ritch’s father almost struck her—which made you think that couldn’t have been the first time—she was a strong character who definitely had a mind and good sense of her own.  She almost appeared on equal footing with Jim and until he sends Hal away, you feel that she would have been included in on a lot of decisions that he had to make.

Jim owes his workers the wages but he doesn't have the cash. Instead, he gives them items of value.

Jim owes his workers the wages but he doesn’t have the cash. Instead, he gives them items of value.

But it was different in the 1931 film.  First I have to say, that I very much enjoyed Lupe Velez’s portrayal of Naturich (hyphens and “t” removed).  The most subdued role I’ve ever seen Miss Velez play in a talkie film as a matter of fact, if you understand my meaning.  There was no “cucaracha-ing” all over the place.  And I don’t mean dancing; she can be a highly verbal performer!  Once Jim stood up to Cash for tormenting her, she knew a gentleman when she saw one.  There was nothing she wouldn’t do, and stalking is one of the weapons she used to get her man.

Devotion

Devotion

I'm not going anywhere

I’m not going anywhere

But again, remember Jim was lucky she had that trait, or he wouldn’t have survived either of the two times his life had been threatened.  The death of Cash happened in exactly the same manner in both films, but the second saving of Jim’s life happened in completely different circumstances.

Almost comical in this 1914 scene, the sheriff is much more sinister in 1931

Almost comical in this 1914 scene, the sheriff is much more sinister in 1931

In the first case, Nat-U-Ritch was very capable and inventive.  In the second, she was much more “feminine” but equally determined to save him.  And afterwards, when she nurses him back to health, the 1931 Naturich may not have been quite as naïve as she’d like Jim and us to think, giving us pretty much the one pre-Code scene in the film, followed with the fluttering idea at the back of our minds that there was a possibility that a marriage, Native or otherwise, never took place.

Drying off by the fire

Drying off by the fire

There would have always been censorship laws including those with regard to miscegenation.  This would have forced DeMille to have left the romantic relationship part-of-the-story somewhat ambiguous with regard to whether a marriage ceremony took place or not even though it’s included in the original stage play.  In the United States, various state laws prohibited marriages between whites and Native Americans.  In the U.S., such laws were known as anti-miscegenation laws and from 1913 until 1948, 30 out of the then 48 states enforced such laws.  Although in the 1931 film, the hero, James Wynnegate calls Naturich his wife, we never see a marriage ceremony in either version.

Cash threatens (1914)

Cash threatens (1914)

Cash menaces (1931)

Cash menaces (1931)

While I was watching the films, I thought about the secondary theme to this story; that Naturich was double-crossed by the man she loved.  In both, but especially in the 1931 film where she’s conventionally beautiful and delicate, she proves she is highly loyal and loving.  There isn’t anything she wouldn’t do to protect her family.  But what does her husband do in the end?  It takes little time for him to be convinced that there’s nothing noble or grand about being Native, even if his son’s grandfather is the Chief.  To us, it’s obvious that alcohol is a big destroyer of Native dignity but audiences of that time wouldn’t have thought anything of this depiction and would have probably agreed that Jim was doing the right thing by his son.  And without even considering talking it over with his wife, never mind informing her what he’s going to do, he sends Hal off with his “true love” back to England.  This poor woman gets treated like she’s not quite human.

Squaw Man 1931 (8)

There’s an interesting scene in the 1931 film where Diana and Naturich first meet.  With his arm around her, she’s introduced to Lady Diana and Sir John as his wife but the looks that the two women give each other are priceless and telling.  I read into the determined but demure demeanor that was Naturich’s that if she had to protect her man from being stolen away, she wouldn’t be against doing anything!  And Diana’s look was the opposite of her polite “how do you do” and “so nice to meet you” greeting.  It suggested she thought Jim must have been out of his mind to marry this…this…woman.

Do I look pleased to meet you?

Do I look pleased to meet you?

Incidentally, I particularly enjoyed the bar scenes in the 1914 film watching a train run past several times within a yard or two of the wide open door.

Notice wide open door in the background

Notice wide open door in the background

As a notice of record, DeMille co-directed the 1914 film with Oscar Apfel.

Squaw Man 1914 (1)

In the book The Complete Films of Cecil B. DeMille by Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Bodeen (1969) they have written a biographical sketch which includes this interesting passage with regards to DeMille’s first film:

“…DeMile posted the shingle outside, THE JESSE L. LASKY FEATURE PLAY COMPANY, and here, at 6284 Selma Avenue, in a rented bucolic home, interior shooting began on THE SQUAW MAN.  Exteriors were photographed on location in the vast adjacent countryside, which all too soon became valuable real estate.  The exteriors selected approximated, and often surpassed, Wyoming terrain.

“DeMille told the whole story in his Autobiography, edited by Donald Hayne (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959), a volume which must be regarded as definitive for any reader wishing to know his full history.  But none of those involved in the making of THE SQUAW MAN had any inkling of what they were really pioneering.  Putting that six-reel feature on film and readying it for release involved as many trials and tribulations as those which afflicted Job, but it placed the Lasky Company soundly on the production program; it was responsible for the formation of Paramount Pictures, Incorporated; and, more importantly, it put Hollywood itself on the map as the film capital of the world, with Cecil B. DeMille the acknowledged father of Hollywood motion picture industry.”

These two films are available on one Warner Archives DVD.

Squaw Man Covers (1)

January 10, 2016

Power and the Glory (10)

I watched the film THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1933) directed by William K. Howard, with Spencer Tracy, Colleen Moore, Ralph Morgan and Helen Vinson.  I had wanted to see this film for quite a while after reading Colleen Moore’s autobiography Silent Star where she claims, in her opinion this was “the best picture I ever made, silent or sound”.

Power and the Glory (6)

Why Be Good? (1929) was Moore’s last silent film. In the same year, she made two talkies, Smiling Irish Eyes and Footlights and Fools and then took a four-year hiatus before making THE POWER AND THE GLORY, followed by three more films in 1934, Social Register, Success at any Price and The Scarlet Letter.  Although THE POWER AND THE GLORY was a critical success, none of her talking films did well at the box office and Colleen retired from the screen.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY was made at Fox and had some impressive credentials.  Besides directed by the prolific and talented William K. Howard, the original screenplay was written by Preston Sturges and the cinematographer was James W. Howe.  It’s the story of Tom Garner’s (Spencer Tracy) rise from ignorance and poverty to becoming a railroad magnate.  Living in a small rural town, he is a hero to his life-long friend Henry (Ralph Morgan, Frank Morgan’s brother).  Henry has just come home from Tom’s funeral and tells his unimpressed wife about why he has always loved and admired Tom Garner.  His wife (Sarah Padden) has no respect for Garner and admits disgust at every point of his life that Henry tries to explain to her.

Sarah Padden and Ralph Morgan

Sarah Padden and Ralph Morgan

It’s interesting, because it’s more than implied, it’s actually stated, that Henry and his wife have a happy marriage, yet I found it off-putting that she felt the total opposite as her husband did for his life-long friend and employer.  It’s as if they had never discussed anything about the everyday events of Henry’s life which would have always involved his association with Tom, certainly from the time he met and wed his wife until Tom’s death even if they never spoke about their childhoods.  You know he would have never spoken badly of Tom, but it’s as if he never spoke of him at all to his wife, with her only relying on other sources to learn about Tom, his many shortcomings and debatable tyranny.

It has been stated that THE POWER AND THE GLORY is the precursor to narrative-told stories, with the most famous, Citizen Kane by Orson Welles being both a narrative and a story of a life from beginning to the end.  However, it was badly used in the first American version of White Hell of Pitz Palu in 1930, directed by G.W. Pabst and Arnold Fanck starring the notorious Leni Riefenstahl.  (I had seen this film many years ago during one of Toronto Film Society’s Silent Series screenings and I was lucky enough to see the original 1929 version, if I remember correctly.  Quite epic and beautiful.)

Power and the Glory (4)

But for me, the film that came to mind while watching THE POWER AND THE GLORY was the 1944 American Romance.  Although the latter isn’t told in flashback, it’s pretty much the same basic story.  Brian Donlevy’s foreigner Stefan Dubecheck aka Steve Dangos is as unschooled as Spencer Tracy’s Tom Garner.  Sally Garner (Colleen Moore) and Anna O’Rourke Dangos (Ann Richards) are the schoolteachers who first educate their man in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and then love and marry him, helping in every way they can for him to become successful in the business world.  Walter Abel’s Howard Clinton is equal to Ralph Morgan’s Henry, both faithful friends until the end.  As well, each film involves the aging process and it’s done remarkably well in THE POWER AND THE GLORY.  Very interesting to see a youngish Spencer Tracy (born in 1900, he never looked very young even when he was) aging into a debonair, smooth-faced older man.

Power and the Glory (1)

Where these stories differ is in the personal relationship between Tom and Sally.  There’s many years that we don’t really know what goes on between the two, from the birth of their only son, Tom Jr. (Phillip Trent) to his becoming an adult.  By the time Tom Jr. is one though, we know he has been spoiled by his mother and has no understanding of where his parents, especially his father, came from.  Sally has become petty, demanding and bitter which doesn’t help her to keep her husband.  How did this happen to her?  I really wasn’t sure; maybe it was just the life-long complaint of many women that their husbands don’t have time for them.  But when Tom meets the daughter of one of his business associates, Mr. Borden (Henry Kolker), Eve Borden (Helen Vinson) knows she has the upper hand in their relationship, easily recognizing that Tom has fallen in love with her.

Helen Vinson and Spencer Tracy

Helen Vinson and Spencer Tracy

Tom has to deal with strikes, the worst one causing destruction by fire and the death of 406 workers.  This causes him to be away from home and his new wife for six weeks, but this didn’t stop his son, Tom Jr., from making sure she isn’t lonely.

Henry’s wife badgers him to tell her why, if it wasn’t Tom’s guilty conscious for all the nasty things he did in business and his personal life that led him to suicide, to tell her then, what it was.  He was able to deduce the reason when he overheard the conversation between Tom and Eve, but I’m not sure how he knew what happened between the two earlier that day.  Like so many narratives, you have to assume that the storyteller was a “fly on the wall.”  And, an unusual fact about the film is that the narrative isn’t linear.  It jumps around from the early to later life of Tom and Sally, back and forth, depending on what the storyteller wants us to know.

Power and the Glory (9)

If I can sum up the gist of the film, it appears that the message is: everyone needs the thrill of being in love.  Tom was never in love with Sally but he was with Eve.  It also breaks him and we understand he realizes at the end that what he had had earlier with Sally was the greater of the two types of loves although neither turned out to be satisfactory in the end.

Here is an interesting excerpt from Jesse Louis Lasky,:

At Fox I also made the Warrior’s Husband, I Am Suzanne, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, in which a comparatively unknown actor, Spencer Tracy, made a smash hit.

Power and the Glory (7)

I brought Hector Turnbull to Fox as my story editor and associate producer.  While in Europe scouting for material Hector found an American writer he thought had possibilities, Preston Sturges, who had authored the play Strictly Dishonorable and had an idea for a picture, though, to my knowledge, he had never written for pictures.

I sent for Sturges when he returned from abroad and asked him to tell me the story that had intrigued Hector.

“It isn’t a story I can tell very well.  It’s too episodic,” he said, “but I’ll write it.”

I raised my eyebrows at that.  He obviously wasn’t wise to the ways of Hollywood in a day when so many original stories were sold in ad-lib form over a luncheon or in a conference before being committed to paper.  But I had no objection to reading the idea instead of listening to it.  I knew that if it had any merit I could put a team of two or four or a half-dozen skilled film writers on it to develop the basic idea in a manner suitable to the film medium.

Preston Sturges went away and wrote his story.  And he didn’t even know enough about screen-writing to know that the first step is to do a treatment, or narrative story line.  That’s what I expected him to bring back, a few pages synopsizing the plot.  Instead, he brought a screen play of proper length, complete to every word of dialogue, the action of every scene blue-printed for the director, and including specific technical instructions for the cameraman and all departments.

Power and the Glory (2)

He told the story in flashback, starting with the death of his subject, an unprecedented screen technique then but later used with powerful effect by Orson Welles and others.  The manuscript crackled with its originality of conception and craftsmanship.

I was astounded.  It was the most perfect script I’d ever seen.  I dispensed with the usual practice of having other writers go over a finished script, “with a fresh mind” to make improvements.  I wouldn’t let anyone touch a word of it.  The director, William K. Howard, shot THE POWER AND THE GLORY just as Preston Sturges wrote it.

I’ve heard Spencer Tracy tell people he wouldn’t be a film star today if it hadn’t been for me.  He might not have become a star so quickly if I hadn’t given him one of the year’s choicest roles in THE POWER AND THE GLORY, but with a talent like his I’m sure he would have reached the heights just the same.  I make no claim to discovering him.  He had given a notable performance in The Last Mile on the stage and impressed the Fox people enough that they put him under contract.  I did, however, help him get his career started off on the right foot by being a little tolerant and giving him a second chance after he muffed his first one.

I had slated him for the starring role in Helldorado.  Just as the picture was ready to roll, Spence disappeared.  The studio gumshoed all the bars but couldn’t find him.

Postponing the scheduled starting date of a picture is sometimes prohibitively costly if not downright impossible because of interlocked commitments geared to a timetable.  In this case we couldn’t even shoot around our star until he showed up because he had to be in almost all the scenes.  We slapped Richard Arlen into the part, which didn’t fit him at all, but there was no time to tailor it to his personality.

The studio rounded up Tracy a few days later and I sent word to him that I would never ask him what happened but that it might have happened to me instead of him and I was glad it didn’t so I was willing to forget it.  I added that there were plenty more good parts and I wanted to see him, but not till he had taken a little vacation and pulled himself together.  He went to Honolulu and then reported back to the studio scared stiff, but not stiff.

“Spence, you look great!” I greeted him.  “I’ve got a hell of a part for you!” and we put him in THE POWER AND THE GLORY.

Power and the Glory (3)

I’m not suggesting that the best way to become a movie star overnight is to forget to report for work on your first assignment.  There are clauses in contracts by which the studio can drop a player like a hot potato over such an incident.  Holding up production is the unforgivable sin in Hollywood.  Players have been suspended, well-launched careers have been cut short by undependability and indiscretions.  And Tracy’s career was just beginning.  The studio could even have sued him for damages.

I don’t know to this day whether it was exuberance, lack of confidence, or personal problems that caused his lapse, because I never asked him.  But I knew somehow in a way I can’t explain that if I overlooked it, it wouldn’t happen again.  He’s one of those who would go out of his way for me.

A Remembrance by Jesse Lasky from his autobiography I Blow My Own Horn written with Don Weldon (1957)
[Included in The Complete Films of Spencer Tracy by Donald Deschner (1968)]

This film is available: 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives.  Enjoy!

One thought on “Short Reviews 2016

  1. Pingback: Eskimo (1933): Inuit Culture on Film | Cinema Sojourns

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