Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maximum Strength Mick

Mick LaSalle obsession, Norma Shearer, in Riptide. TCM will show Shearer's pre-code movie Let Us Be Gay, next Monday. They are also showing Double Harness a pre-code movie with another LaSalle favorite, Ann Harding, this afternoon!

After recently enjoying Mick LaSalle's books on Pre-code Hollywood ("Complicated Women" and "Dangerous Men") I found a bunch of raw interview footage of him talking about many of his favorite subjects. Mick is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and he taught a class on the subject at Berkeley which makes me actually want to go back to school. He also maintains a blog called Maximum Strength Mick with podcasts and book reviews.

I think LaSalles books are a great place to start with the pre-code era. His explanation of the "code" itself is the best I've read. LaSalle argues convincingly that the code did more harm than good for movies as a whole. I have a hard time reconciling this emotionally because my favorite films, screwball comedies of the late 1930s, probably wouldn't have existed without the code. It doesn't help that my favorite movie star, Cary Grant, was still learning how to act in the pre-code era. While this was pretty common actually, and bless the studio system for continuing to give these people room to grow and steady work, it is more instructive at times than actually enjoyable.

He talks a lot about Barbara Stanwyck, one of my favorite actresses. This is a great time to watch this and warm up those Tivos because TCM will be showing almost an entire day of pre-code Stanwyck films on August 19th.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Women of Rear Window

I've been wondering what I could possibly have to add to the mountains of analysis that have been written about Hitchcock's Rear Window. Critics tend to focus on the theme of voyeurism which is a recurrent one in his work. But Rear Window deals heavily with another of Hitch's recurring themes: the plight of the unmarried woman. He comes back to this theme over and over and yet, it is almost always seen as part of the romance, which is not always taken seriously by film critics. Now that I've sufficiently beaten up on film critics in general, I'll name some names. Roger Ebert in his excellent essay on Rear Window sees the romance part of the film merely as a way to expose Jeffries' psychological problems, his assumed impotence and obsession with voyeurism. This is pretty typical and I think what Ebert does best is distill that mountain down to a concise readable version of what has come before. Seeing the romance as the "b-storyline" in Hitchcock is completely wrong-headed. Not only is the romance element enjoyable in and of itself, it is almost always the heart of the theme, driving the action forward.

Rear Window is the story of a photographer, L. B. "Jeff" Jeffries, (Jimmy Stewart) who is injured on the job and spends his time convalescing in a hot Greenwich Village apartment, watching his neighbors out his window. After the initial set-up of the apartment complex, and its cast of characters, Jeffries' nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) arrives and gives him some rather plain spoken advice about his weird hobby. She keeps this in a light teasing tone, and Jeffries' response is that of an errant child who is so cute he can continue to get away with his misbehavior. Stella moves on to the topic of Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), Jeffries' girlfriend. Having established this maternal role, she goes on to give him much unsolicited advice about his love life. Stella thinks he is an idiot for not marrying Lisa Fremont who is beautiful, talented and in love with him. He accuses her of being on Lisa's payroll. This is a joke, of course, but it spells out his attitude toward women.

Where women are concerned Jeffries is always distanced an cynical. Marriage is a trap laid out for all single men. This is first illustrated by Mrs. Thorwald, who will eventually be the victim of a murder, but before that, she is a nagging, unhappy invalid who requires constant care by her husband. We also witness the start of a marriage as a pair of newly weds move and their exploits are dramatized through a drawn shade and the comical attempts of the young husband to gain a reprieve from his amorous wife. These are familiar tropes, but the effect of placing them here, with Jeff's fear of marriage clearly spelled out is to show, supposedly why, he dislikes the institution so much. Jeffries is most comfortable with Stella perhaps, because she is happily married. When she cooks him a nice meal, he says that he knows why her husband still loves her. Stella, though down to earth and practical reveals herself as a romantic. She says that people should come together like two taxis on Broadway.

Two more characters in the apartment complex have important things to say about marriage and they are Miss Lonelyhearts and Miss Torso. Miss Lonelyhearts is a woman in her early forties who dresses up and has pretend dates with imaginary gentlemen. Jeffries laughs at her at first and then feels sorry for her as she ends her evenings alone, crying and drinking. Miss Torso is appropriately named for she represents a big part of voyeurism and male view of women. She is merely a torso, a piece of a whole person, the most interesting part for a man watching across a courtyard, to be sure, but Hitchcock, before the end of the movie will show us more than just her torso.

Lisa is introduced with one of those showy Hitchcock camera moves. She is in extreme close-up and looms over Jeffries in a way that makes the audience uncomfortable as we've grown comfortable along with him watching people at a distance. As Lisa moves about Jeff's apartment preparing dinner, Jeff watches Miss Lonelyhearts making dinner for her imaginary date. Lisa comes in at the end of her preparations as she's crying. Jeffries tries to cheer Lisa by saying that she'll never be like Miss Lonelyhearts. Lisa replies "oh, you can see my apartement from here, too?" Perhaps it is impossible to imagine her in the same desperate corner, but it's pretty clear that Lisa feels a real connection with Miss Lonelyhearts, er, loneliness. Next they turn their attention to Miss Torso's apartment where the "bikini bombshell" is entertaining three men with cocktails and flirtation. Jeffries says that this is much closer to Lisa's apartment. Lisa comments that Miss Torso is doing woman's most difficult job: juggling wolves. Jeff adds cynically that she's picked the most prosperous looking wolf, but Lisa argues that she doesn't love any of them and hints that she knows about this from experience.

Lisa is charming and sympathetic and lovely. She's everything that Stella said and more. She's also a walking wound of insecurity. She reads disinterest, distance and dislike in almost everything she does that night and she's not far off. What follows is a fairly civilized break-up which ends with Lisa flopped casually in the seat opposite Jeffries' wheelchair. They argue, they go round and round the same topics: he's an adventurous photographer who spends most of his time abroad and she's a fashion model who lives in the world of lunches at 21. This is a familiar scene for anyone whose spent anytime in the dating world. Perhaps the details are more glamourous, but the net result is the same. Two people love one another, but not quite enough to change their lives. It's painful to watch someone go through it and yet, it's kind of comforting to see "perfect" Lisa have to live through it too. After a long tedious discussion that finally comes to the conclusion that the worlds in which Lisa and Jeff live can never be brought together, he maddeningly asks when he will see her again! His implication is that though there is no future for them together he wants to continue to have her company as long as he's in his cast. Am I the only woman watching this who wants to pull a Raymond Burr and throw him out the window an hour early?!

After Lisa leaves, the murder is committed which takes Jeffries hobby into a deep obsession. He spends the rest of the movie trying to prove what he saw and eventually Stella and Lisa join him in the belief that Thorwald has murdered his wife. When Lisa begins to watch alongside Jeff, there is a change of sympathy toward women. Watching Miss Lonelyhearts' first date with an actual man, Jeffries comment is "he looks a little young for her." (Ironically Stewart was five years older than Judith Evleyn, the actress who played Miss Lonleyhearts). Lisa says nothing but reacts in horror when the man attacks Miss Lonelyhearts who throws him out of her apartment. Lisa rings down the blinds on their voyeuristic activities for the night.

As the movie goes on, Lisa's pluck and resourcefulness in smoking out Thorwald prove her mettle to Jeffries. In one critical scene she enters Thorwald's apartment to search for evidence. Thorwald returns and Jeff and Stella are supposed to phone the apartment to warn her to get out. They are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts who is about to commit suicide by taking too many sleeping pills. It would seem that Hitchcock is trying to show us that in her way, Lisa is as fragile and vulnerable as the pathetic Miss Lonelyhearts.

Ultimately Lisa prevails. She gets her man. She has to risk getting her neck wrung by a murderer but that would seem a small price to pay to win the heart of the man she loves. The whole action of the second half of the fillm serve as an audition in which she proves that she's adventurous enough to be his mate. It is not till Jeffries views her at a distance in Thorwald's apartment, when she becomes part of his voyeuristic fantasy life, that he falls for her. Strangely enough, this doesn't seem to be a problem for her. Though Stewart is the hero of the film, he is trumped by the heroine who sits in control at the end (literally wearing the pants) happily reading a fashion magazine while he doses in his now double cast. Miss Lonelyhearts too triumphs in the end. She hooks up with the composer whose music distracted her and prevented her from killing herself. They seem to be soul mates as his romantic theme wafts down from his studio to Jeff and Lisa together. Hitchcock throws out a final bit of comic irony when Miss Torso's boyfriend returns home from the army. He is a good head shorter than she is and certainly isn't the most prosperous looking wolf. And yet she adores him.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: The Quiet Man

John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara just seconds before one of my all-time favorite screen kisses, in The Quiet Man. Thanks to Doctor Macro for the image.

As one of my late father's favorite films, The Quiet Man is a movie that I have watched at least once a year, possibly more, for the last three decades. I don't need to wait till the traditional St. Patrick's Day trot out the films about Ireland fest, either. July, for example, is as good a time as any other to watch this movie.

For my money this is one of the most staggeringly romantic movies ever made. John Wayne, who was not known for romance had amazing chemistry with his co-star Maureen O'Hara. There is haunting, Bronte-esque quality to the love scenes, as if the atmosphere itself was being effected by the cloud of pheromones swirling around the stars. As a counterweight, the film bristles with fine comic performances from the supporting actors Barry Fitzgerald, and Ward Bond and a whole village full of "Irish" extras. (The movie was filmed in Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, but is mostly acted by Americans and Irish -Americans who were part of Ford's regular company.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Four from Russell and Montgomery

This must be the week I "discover" Robert Montgomery. After enjoying Mr and Mrs. Smith and particularly Montgomery as David Smith, I went on to watch four films from Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery that were shown on TCM late last night. I can thank a summer cold for my inability to sleep and stay up through four movies in a row. It was either guzzle Dimetapp or watch a Russell/Montgomery-athon. Ever the dedicated blogger, I decided to forgo the cough syrup and enjoy Roz and Monty.

The screen couple were paired together for five films: Forsaking all Others (1934) in which they had second billing to Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, Trouble for Two (1936), Night Must Fall (1937), Live Love and Learn (1937) and Fast and Loose (1939).

The most well-known and best-regarded of these movies, is Night Must Fall which casts Montgomery against type as Danny, a charming but deadly sociopath and Russell as Olivia, a neurotic spinster who is attracted to him despite suspecting him of murder. Night Must Fall was not a box-office hit when it was produced but has gone on to be frequently shown on late night television and the like. This is probably owing far more to the fact that its a taught thriller along the lines of Wait until Dark, than the fame or accomplishments of the leads. Montgomery uses the incredible charm that was his meal-ticket throughout most of his career and turns it against the audience. The viewer finds themselves, like Olivia, drawn to him against all reason and judgement. Montgomery was nominated for an Oscar for the film, but lost to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous. Russell's job in the film was no less difficult. She frequently acts against all reason when she chooses to risk being Danny's next victim rather than lean too heavily on her long-suffering boyfriend, played by adorable Olivier-look-alike, Alan Marshal. Dame May Whitty is great as usual as Olivia's crochety old aunt who falls for Danny's charms. Montgomery is wonderful in his scenes with Whitty, and though you know their friendship is all play-acting on Danny's part, you can't help but feel anyone who has that great a talent in making an unbearable person bearable must have some redeeming qualities.

Trouble for Two is the first movie that paired Russell and Montgomery together as leads and it was one of Russell's first starring roles. The movie is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Suicide Club" which makes for a fun, costume drama twist on the romantic couple as sleuths. Think of it as the The Thin Man with riding boots and corsets. Montgomery is dashing as a disguised prince on the loose in London sowing his wild oats who gets caught up in a suicide club. Russell plays a mysterious, noirish siren for the first third of the film, a role in which she's a bit clumsy, but she aquits herself nicely when she falls into her more familiar Gal Friday persona when she teams up with Montgomery.

Fast and Loose is the last pairing of Russell and Montgomery and if Trouble for Two references The Thin Man slightly, than this movie is an out and out rip off. The Thin Man formula is evident from the opening scene which shows the couple hung over in their elegantly upholstered twin beds to the final scene in which Mrs. Sloane takes potshots at the killer and winds up hitting her husband right in the classified ads. Yet, despite its derivative nature, the movie is still entertaining.

My favorite of the Russell/Montgomery pairings was the lamely-titled Live, Love and Learn. This was a fun screwball comedy about a bohemian painter who marries a society dame. It was again overshadowed by another Loy/Powell film which came out two weeks earlier called Double Wedding. It was also about, you guessed it a bohemian painter who marries a society dame. Both films even have bit parts for character actor Barnett Parker. It's a small world over there at the MGM lot apparently. As much as I love Double Wedding, I'd have to choose Live, Love and Learn simply because it has Monty Woolley and really, pretty much every movie with Monty Woolley rocks.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Topaze: A sparkling pre-code meditation on integrity

This comedy follows scrupulously honest Professor Topaze (John Barrymore) who is fired from a boy's academy because he refuses to give good marks to a rich pupil. Topaze unwittingly becomes the name behind a brand of dodgy tonic water called "Sparkling Topaze." Lulled into complacency by financial, scientific and the glimmerings of romantic success, Topaze goes through a major moral crisis when he discovers his research has been a sham that's been used to dupe the public into buying over-priced tap water.

Myrna Loy is suprisingly ineffectual as the vamp turned lab assistant who helps Topaze switch careers from chemistry to blackmail. It is hard to believe that Loy was less than a year away from The Thin Man and that a supposed comedy would make so little use of her talents in that genre. As the notorious Coco, she's mostly required to look worldly in Chinese pajamas (Loy got her start in Hollywood playing the "Asian" exotic) which she trades in for a rather chic lab coat for the second half of the film. She develops a sweet platonic friendship with Professor Topaze and eventually chooses to go to afternoon matinees of tawdry movies with him over more lucrative meetings with her married lover.

The film rests mostly with Barrymore who manages to be both charmingly naive and funny at the same time. At times his mannerisms dip across the line into caricature, but for the most part it is a surprising performance that departed from Barrymore's more usually serious material.

That the film ends with no calamities befalling calculating Coco or the unrepentant Topaze, will surprise movie fans who've mostly been schooled on the cinema after 1934. Instead Topaze delivers a moving speech at his old academy again refusing to reward the same rich pupil, giving honors instead to all the boys who will soon be turned out in the real world armed only with maxims about the value of honesty and that ill-gotten gains never satisfy. Within these walls, Topaze says, justice can for once be done, even though it can not be in the real world. Then he and Coco go take in a movie called Man, Woman and Sin. It is as if the filmmakers foresaw the coming of the Production Code reinforcement that a year later would have made Topaze impossible. By summer of 1934, censors would drop a similar screen between the public and the storyteller. Within the walls of movie houses around the country, crime could never pay and justice was always meted out in the final minutes of the movie.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mr and Mrs Smith: Hitchcock goes Screwball

Mr and Mrs Smith (1941) is best remembered as Alfred Hitchcok's only foray into screwball comedy. Sandwiched between Foreign Correspondent and Suspicion in Hitchcock's oeuvre the movie is mostly glossed over by those who are trying to piece together a careful analysis of his devlopment as an auteur. That is somewhat beside the point of this piece of dream factory fluff. It's a quickly-made comedic star vehicle for glamorous Carole Lombard that covers the familiar ground of her earlier hit My Man Godfrey (1936). There is nothing-like authorship in the direction which lacks the Master's usual camera gimmicks and obsessive themes. Hitchock does his cameo, but his own lack of enthusiasm for the material shows a bit. He doesn't go out of his way to imprint his style on it.

This may be Hitch phoning it in, but it still stands up with the era's best in this genre. Screwball had peaked well before 1941 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one of the best late offerings. Though not as brilliant as the Grant and Dunne's follow up to The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, which came out the year before, this follow up to My Man Godfrey is consistently funny throughout and is a more evenly paced film. Where My Favorite Wife runs out of gas by the third act, Mr and Mrs. Smith is still going strong as curtain falls.

As in My Man Godfrey, the principal characters let violent argument stand in for passion. Audiences today frequently comment that the characters in these films are shrill or unlikeable as they throw bits of art deco furnishings at one another. And unlike Godfrey, there is no moral object lesson behind the bluster. No one learns to be a better human being through the proceedings. In fact, just the opposite occurs. The characters unapologetically learn nothing and are reunited simply because they are both such miserable people they can't really live with anyone else. If all this sounds loathsome, it's not. It's actually quite funny and charming. In this sort of role Carol Lombard could do no wrong. She's at once attractive and repulsive in her extremes and Robert Montgomery handles his role deftly as well.

David Smith is a fairly dispicable guy on the surface of things, he drinks too much, ignores his work, and hides the fact that he and his wife are not married simply to indulge the lurid idea that his wife will be like a mistress for a night or two. "Mrs." Smith isn't much better. After throwing her husband out, she lies about her marital status, goes on a date with her new boss and begins courting her "husband's" law partner. When the later refuses to physically defend her honor, she walks out on both saying that they should get a pair of girl guides and go camping together.

Mr and Mrs. Smith is a classic "comedy of remarriage" and pays homage to that genre in slight but telling way at the beginning of the movie. The clerk sent to inform the Smiths that their nuptuals weren't on the up and up repeatedly announces that all marriages since 1936 are invalid. I wonder if it was coincidence that 1936 was the year My Man Godfrey was made and the year in which the word "screwball" came into the lexicon?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Westerner: If only Judge Bean had a blog

Left: "Judge" Bean surrounded by his impressive Langtree memorabilia collection. Below: Coop and his neckerchief, which can scarcely be contained within any given frame of the film.

The Westerner (1940) was one of the most important films Gary Cooper ever made. It was the follow-up film for the team that made Wuthering Heights: director William Wyler, producer Samuel Goldwyn and cinematographer Greg Toland. I first came to the movie because of the dream team and of course, Coop doesn't hurt either. Billed as a straight-forward western--the posters looked like the cover of a dime Zane Gray novel--The Westerner marks a turning point in the genre. There is ambiguity in heroes and villains alike as well as some very anti-social behavior on the part of cowboys. The opening scene shows cattle ranchers destroying a fence and herding their animals across farmer's fields. When one of the farmers tries to interfere, he is shot at by a cowboy. The Westerner proves itself different from everything that came before it with that brief opening scene.

Gary Cooper, with his enormous neckerchief and buckskin fringe coat would seem to be the obvious candidate for the "hero" but he arrives a very ambiguous character. He may or may not have stolen a horse, which is a crime punishable by death in this part of Texas. Apparently almost everything is punishable by death in this part of Texas, as it is under the control of a self-appointed "judge" named Roy Bean (Walter Brennan). As a villain, Bean is a mixed bag. He's funny, he's pathetic and occiasionally sympathetic. It's hard to hate him. It is particularly hard to hate him as a classic movie fanatic, since Bean is driven by his obsession with the famous English actress Lily Langtree.

The first half hour of the film shows the workings of Bean's "court". After the hapless farmer from the opening scene is given a brief trial, he is hanged. Then Bean and his boys go into the bar to toast to Lilly Langtree. Bean is maniacal, surrounded by dozens of portraits of his idol. One wonders without the benefit of Ebay, how he managed to get a hold of so many pictures of her. Indeed I think if Bean had access to the relatively healthy outlet of a blog, he might not have hanged so many men for so little reason. As it stands, his obsession with Langtree is both funny and frightening and he reveals that he has killed men for disagreeing with his opinion about her. Who can blame him? The guy was probably just a troll anyway.

Cooper is brought in to the midst of this insanity, accused of stealing a horse. He is given a quick trial and about to be hanged. In desperation, Cooper keys in on Bean's obsession with Langtree and uses it to bide for time. He claims to know Langtree and even to have a lock of her hair. Bean becomes obsessed with the idea of buying the lock of hair, which Cooper claims is "with his stuff in Pecos." Bean postpones his hanging until Cooper can retrieve the lock by post. Again, if Judge Bean had a blog, or some other internet outlet for his obsession, he would have already met plenty of other Langtree fans and he wouldn't fall for the tricks of a smooth talking cowboy.

While Cooper is describing Langtree's beauty in intricate detail a man named Evans comes in. Cooper claims that this is the man who sold him the stolen horse. There is a brawl, Cooper wins, and he takes 60 dollars from Evans who has been knocked out in the fight. This robbery is justified with a claim that is what Evans charged him for the stolen horse. Evans wakes up, reaches for his gun and is shot and killed by Bean. Bean fines the corpse the remaining money in his purse, rules him guilty and then orders his men to hang him for theft.

Cooper and Bean head back into the bar to toast again to Lily Langtree, each pouring an entire bottle of whiskey into a beer mug and then downing it quickly. Amazingly neither dies of alcohol poisoning and the next scene is them waking up in Bean's bed together with Lily's picture gazing down at them. Cooper wakes up first and washes his face by waterboarding himself in a bucket of water. He makes enough noise doing this to wake up the judge who doesn't remember him. Cooper tells him that he was the man who won Chickenfoot's horse at cards. Bean doesn't ask why he is in room dunking his head in a bucket. Maybe this kind of thing happens all the time at the Lily of Jersey. Bean asks Cooper to fix his neck which has a crick in it from a hanging mishap a few years back. Cooper obliges then high-tails it out of town on Chickenfoot's horse.

Bean staggers into the bar to get some hair of the dog. He suddenly remembers something about the night before and takes off after Cooper. In an exciting chase he catches Cooper (Chickenfoot's horse probably was tired from being stolen so many times), leaps off his horse and knocks Cooper to the ground. He immediately begins questioning Cooper about the lock of Langtree's hair and Cooper puts him off saying he was just riding to the post office to see about that. Though the sequence is done in a wide shot, with the figures in sillhouette, it's easy enough for me to believe that a 60 year old man would make a leap like that off a moving horse to get a lock of a star's hair. We've all been in serious memorabilia bidding wars at one time or another. I would do the same myself if another fan came between me and a vintage one-sheet that I had my eye on.

So ends one of the most darkly funny sequences in any film to date, and certainly one of the most unconventional openings to a Western, ever put on film. Bean sinks deeper into madness and delusion and throughout Cooper is always able to use his friendship and seeming devotion to Langtree to his advantage. There is a lot more to the plot involving a range war between farmers and ranchers, the love of a good woman and the inevitable confrontation between Bean and real justice. It's that opening sequences which plays oddly like the first-ever Lily Langtree fan convention, complete with drunkeness, awkward accomodation sharing and fisticuffs over memorabilia that makes The Westerner such an apt subject for this blog.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fun with Youtube!

Left: Barbara Stanwyck in the delightful "Lady of Burlesque" just one of the many classic movie clips available on Youtube.

Recently I was working on a piece for this blog about my all-time favorite classic screen kisses and I couldn't decide which of the kisses from Notorious to choose. No problem. Youtube to the rescue.

I know what you're thinking. "Youtube? Soooo 2006. it's all just Two Girls and a Cup parodies now. But, hey, I'm writing a Blog here people. If that doesn't scream the year six, than I don't know what does.

Let me just say upfront that I'm a Youtube junky. I can't get through the day without at least one playlist. I have a list built around a single obscure U2 song and another compiling my favorite musical moments from The O.C. But it is as a classic film fanatic that I go to Youtube with complete awe almost every day. I can't believe the rarities that would take years of expensive and painstaking collection, available for all to see with a quick search term or two. Want to see Gary Cooper's star-making scene in Wings without sitting through the whole movie? No problem. A lovingly edited tribute video featuring scenes from every Cary Grant movie where his hair gets messed up, set to "Lend me your comb?" They've got that. How about Barbara Stanwyck inventing break dancing in Lady of Burlesque? Yup. That's there too.

No matter how obscure your obsession you can be sure someone out there shares it and has probably uploaded an under-ten minute video about it. Of course there are whole movies, sliced into a dozen or so chunks if you want to waste your morning at work watching, say, The Quiet Man. You can do so. There are even movie of the week style "shows" like the Cinemated Man where films are introduced and discussed in a clever way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: Summer Under the Stars

When TCM touts their "Summer Under the Stars," why do I always imagine it to be something like the first image? Oh well, I can always dream that they will show this movie.

Perfect Understanding (1933) with Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier is another pre-code movie I've been dying to see. These pictures make it all the more interesting, don't they?

When most Americans think of "Young Olivier" they think of Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940). But Olivier had already been in movies for a decade before he became a hit in America. He worked in movies from 1930 onward, while he continued to act on the London stage. In 1935 his performance of Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet" gained him some notice. After that his film career picked up as well. He was offered better movie roles such as Orlando in the film version of As You Like It. He made his first film with his wife to be, Vivian Leigh, Fire Over England in 1937 and a rather fun comedy with Merle Oberon, The Divorce of Lady X in 1938.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: Wolf Song

Take a dip in Pre-code Hollywood!

Rumor has it that this 1929 film starring off-screen lovers Lupe Valez and Gary Cooper contains a complete nude scene, some of which is glimpsed here.

I've never seen Wolf Song but what survives of this lost classic looks interesting. You can see a clip of disheveled Gary Cooper and Lupe Valez cutting a rug on Youtube. I would really appreciate hearing from anyone who knows how to get a copy of this film, has any images from it or any other information on it. So c'mon and share your Wolf Song.

Extra special Thanks to Coops Girl for the image and info.

This silent movie is billed as a "partial talkie" because it has three musical numbers including, "Yo te amo."

Monday, July 14, 2008

When obsessions collide: Cary Grant and Bill Murray

Separated at birth?

Walter Ecklund (Cary Grant) and Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) are both alcoholic sea captains with emotional baggage and silly hats. Bill Murray will be on Turner Classic Movies "Under the Influence" tonight talking with Elvis Mitchell about his role model, Cary Grant. My obsessions have not collided in such an interstellar way since Murray got on stage at a Bob Dylan concert.

Edit: well the interview was dull as paste, but I am usually bored with interviews with my favorite actors. On top of that Bill seemed a little spaced out and he roundly denied taking any influence from His Girl Friday, though he talked about North By Northwest. This puzzled me since Cary Grant's character, Walter Burns in HGF, is a prototype for the half heel/half hero types that Murray occasionally plays. (See Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters and Phil Connors in Groundhog Day).

One bright spot in that Bill looks more like his brother Brian Doyle did in the 80s, which made me want to re-watch the Razor's Edge. "Ohhh Piedmont. Fresh meat!"

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Trouble with the Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry is great fun. Though I've known the basic plot outline for years, in its incarnation as one of the best episodes of my favorite show, Remington Steele, I only took the trouble to watch the Trouble with Harry today. (And if you think that's the last time I'm going to use that overburdened sentence construction, honey, you just don't know me!)

It fits in perfectly with the other two Hitchcock films I've been talking about this week, Notorious and The Lady Vanishes. Those two movies balance comedy, romance and thrills with Notorious being heavier on the romance and thrills and The Lady Vanishes being more about the funny. The trouble with Harry upends the balance much more toward comed. There is very little suspense, no horror and nary a thrill in sight. Audiences responded by staying home in droves and Hitchock, I guess felt he'd learned his lesson and returned to more conventionally Hitchcockian plots. Only Mr and Mrs. Smith, is further from feeling like a Hitchcock picture.

The story follows a long day in the life of a sleepy New England town after a body is discovered in the woods. The main joke of the film, which gets told in the first five minutes and then is simply repeated in variation throughout, is that no one gets too bent out of shape about the body. The victim's wife, played by Shirley MacLaine, seems overjoyed, but not in a ghoulish, murderous way. The man who discovered the body, Captain Wiles, (Edmund Gwen, whom I know best from his role as Mr. Bennet in the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice) assumes that he accidentally shot the man, and seems only bothered that he might get mixed up in a police inquiry. Sam Marlowe, the local extroverted bohemiam painter played by John Forsyth, decides to help hide the body out a growing romantic interest in the widow. A local spinster, Miss Gravely, played by Midred Natwick (Widow Trillane from The Quiet Man) also finds romance by being bound up in the conspiracy.

Hitchcock is always sympathetic to the plight of single women. It's one of the reasons I've continued to love him over the years. I've always wondered if that was the influence of his wife and writing partner, Alma Reville. At any rate, Shirley MacLaine plays a single mother with a complicated back story that just skirts the edge of Fifties family content and her son, played by none other than Jerry Mathers, "the Beaver," is the product of her brief first marriage that inexplicably also ended in death. Maclaine in her debut film role plays Jennifer Rogers as breezy and nonchalant despite her bad luck with husbands. Her answer to every crisis is to make lemonade. As a parent, I can appreciate this. There's almost nothing that a nice glass of lemonade can't fix. Hitchcock doesn't push Ms. Roger's sexuality. There are few close-ups, Edith Head's costumes are uncharacteristically restrained and the kisses are all well-chaperoned. In short, he does everything he can to keep her from becoming a stereotypical Black Widow.

Miss Gravely is my favorite character in the film. Seen by the town as an uptight spinster, Sam Marlowe gets his kicks by giving her a make-over in the general store after humiliating her by guessing her age as 50. She tells him, clearly stung, that she is 42, and perhaps out of guilt, he proceeds to arrange a haircut and make-up for her to "take ten years off her birth certificate." Ironically, Natwick was 50 when she played the role and her character has already done the job of attracting Capt. Wiles long before her make-over. Gravely maintains her dignity throughout and Hitchcock never turns the romance of the older couple into a cheap joke. Consequently they are simply a less glamorous counterpoint to the more worldly youngsters who frequently make-out in their presence.

The dilemma about what to do with the body is the Macguffin which drives forward most of the plot. It's hardly the uranium ore of Notorious and even the town cop is more concerned about maintaining his old jalopy than proving foul play. This lack of urgency is what gives the movie such a pleasant, leisurely pace. One has plenty of time to enjoy the technicolor autumn in New England as the conspirators mosey up and down the picturesque lanes burying and exhuming the titular character. The comedy is loose and laid back, too. There are no Week-end at Bernie's antics and the corpse is allowed to maintain his dignity mostly by being seen only in wide-shots that don't ever dwell on his face. I suppose, that audiences found with the Trouble with Harry to be too out of character and too light-hearted. The trouble with the Trouble with Harry is that there's really no trouble at all.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: Michael Redgrave

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave get about as down and dirty as you could on an English train in 1937. As always click on the pic to see the hotties in all their bow-tied glory, high rez!

Sexy, but non threatening.

Film critic Bruce Edder called The Lady Vanishes, "sexy" and "non-threatening" (like a boy band?) in his brilliant commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD. Because of the newly-instituted production code in the US, the Americans had suddenly gone from unfettered pre-code naughtiness three years earlier to "no sex, please, we're Yanks." Consequently British films showed more skin (don't miss Margaret Lockwood and friends completely gratuitous pajama party, early in the movie) and made more blatant inuendo than Hollywood dared. Edder suggests that it owes partly to Redgrave's swift dulcet delivery that perhaps censors missed any sex joke that was not accompanied by a leer and the vocal equivalent of a rim shot.

For whatever reason we get the benefit as The Lady Vanishes holds up as one of Hitch's funniest, frothiest movies. He still plies us with thrills, camera gimmicks and macguffins, but more importantly in this movie he perfected that delicate balance of comedy, romance and danger that he used later in his best American films.

Addendum: I just found this brilliant video on Youtube that uses the ubiquitous Brokeback Mountain Trailer to spoof Caldicott and Charters in the Lady Vanishes. Edder talks at length about the English cricket fans who just happen to share a pair of pajamas and a very tiny bed and dismisses the idea that their is anything other perfect innocence in their relatiohship. I invite you to decide for yourself.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day

It's not all haircuts and scooters. Sure they look happy now, but what about the next morning? The couple falling in love on vacation theme has been handled in several movies, but never so well or so bravely as in Roman Holiday. I dare you to get through this movie without at least three hankies. I dare you!

As always with this feature, click on the pic for high rez hotties! Image courtesy of Doctor Macro

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Notorious: by the ticking of the champagne clock

I first glimpsed Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Notorious in college. A journalism professor showed us the scene at the party with the key and the device I've come to call the "champagne clock." I don't remember what the teacher's point was, I just remembered the bliss of seeing my beautiful Cary on the big screen in class. After that, I sought out the movie in the library, marveling at the obsessive craftsmanship of the director in balancing the tension of scenes like the champagne clock with the moments of humor and the swooning romance.

Notorious is a sophisticated movie. It acknowledges that there is such a thing as sex and that it doesn't always happen in marriage. The title at first seems to refer to Ingrid Bergman's character Alicia and her bad reputation, but as the film goes on it becomes increasingly ironic. Alicia grows ever more vulnerable and desperate, and is the victim surrounded by playboy spies, murderers and mother-in-laws. Even the supposed bad guy, Alex Sebastian, played by Claude Raines is to be admired for his good taste in women and pitied for his over-bearing mother, who is the real villain of the piece.

Bergman's performance is wonderful. She is achingly insecure one minute and quite funny in the next. My favorite scene is the one in which Cary Grant's Devlin returns from the meeting where he's gotten the assignment to have Alicia seduce the evil Nazi played by Claude Raines. He is suddenly cold toward her, but she doesn't realize right away and chatters on happily about how her chicken caught fire once while it was cooking. How could any man resist her sweetly amusing Swedish sing-song love patter? How come Devlin doesn't just drop to his knees, declare his love and tell his bosses to go drink some of Mrs. Sebastian's delicious coffee? I guess there wouldn't be a movie if he weren't such a fat-headed guy full of pain.

Cary Grant also gives a layered performance. He is tough, and glib in all his interactions with Alicia, but there is just a glint of sentimentality in him that comes gushing out in genuine sentiment in the final love scene with Alicia. The famously long embrace looks so passionate in stills, but is quite gentle and sweet in the context of the film. Cary's voice is hushed, his dialog almost rushed as he must quickly declare his love, keep Alicia alive and moving out the door, all the while planning an exit strategy for his rescue. When Claude Raines appears he turns back into the Iceman, giving him that same hard side that he always showed Alicia, all the while continuing to whisper encouragements in her ear. When he guides her slowly down the stairs he looks as if he were balancing on a tightrope (or on the roof of a French Chalet, perhaps?) . Cary Grant got his start in show business as an acrobat and once you know that fact it's difficult not to see him as a stilt walker pulling off the illusion of ease in an uncomfortable situation.

Hitchcock indulges in plenty of camera "gimmicks" showing Devlin only from the rear in the first scene, turning his image upside down when Alicia has a hangover and using strange lighting and focus effects to dramatize Alicia's illness. Some of these experiments work (the upside down Devlin) and some fail and become distracting (filming Devlin from behind.) I don't think Hitchcock's importance as a director lies necessarily in those innovations of his. I think it has to do with the overall incorporations of his obsessions (and I know a thing or two about those!) into his art. The mother-in-law is a variation on Mrs. Danver's from Rebecca and like Danver's, Hitchock hints that she has some kind of unhealthy sexual obsession, in this case with her son. In Bergman, Hitchcock found the first of his cool, but passionate blondes. When Bergman left Hollywood she was replaced first with Grace Kelly and then with Eva marie Saint and Kim Novak. Yes, Notorious is definitely a good place to start for a blog that is about Cinema obsessions.

Eye Candy of the Day

Click on the pic for High Rez Hotties

I'm Obsessed Thank You Very Much

Quick 80's movie nerds, (aka Neoclasicists), what movie is the headline a quote from? Hint: a booga, booga, ah, ah ah!

I've been obsessed with movies since I was a kid. Star Wars was probably my first true obsession, but my disorder didn't fully kick into high gear until I hit puberty. The year was 1985 and I found myself working in a video store checking out three movies a night and watching HBO and WTBS whenever I had the chance. I fell in love with Cary Grant. I became obsessed with Bill Murray. I went completely bonkers for Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, so much so that I recorded dialog from the movie onto a cassette which I played in my Walkman. (That was sorta like a big clunky iPod, kids. Ask your folks.)

I began to kick old school in a big way in college, taking film classes and occasionally ditching out of work and real-life to watch movies in the library basement. I built the first iteration of my Shrine to Cary Grant. After college I started working a desk job and began to play around building web pages. In 1995, I launched the first ever web site devoted to Cary Grant and a few years later I was contracted to write a book about him called "Cary Grant: A Life in Pictures." Two more books followed on Grace Kelly and Bob Hope and I became a founding member of the E-mail Warbrides, the first mailing list devoted to Cary Grant. Since then, I have attended Caryventions and even hosted one in Minneapolis.

In 2002 I got married and began a new obsession shortly thereafter: Jane Austen and more importantly, film adaptations of her books. Sci Fi was not forgotten and the Star Wars pre-quels loomed large in this time in my life. My love of Old Hollywood of the Turner Classics variety has never waned and new obsessions have been added almost yearly to now include: Michael Redgrave, Gary Cooper, Powell and Loy, Irene Dunne, Gregory Peck, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock and the list goes on. I'm always on the look-out for the obscure from those stars that I follow, so if anyone hears of a showing of early and out of print films with these stars, I'd be much obliged if you'd let me know in the comments section.

I plan to post regularly on the films I'm currently watching and especially provide goodies, like "The Eye Candy of the Day" with awesome photos of pretty people in the movies.