Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Mindreader (1933) Picspam!

Warren William plays a sideshow mystic who falls in love, hits the big time and then loses it all. Good lordy, I love this movie. This is probably my favorite Warren William film so far. I could gush about William's powerful combination of roguish charm and villainous behavior, his surprisingly solid acting which leaves me feeling simultaneously attracted and repulsed. But I'll let the pictures do the talking. Just click on the pics to see the larger versions, people.

Five words to make any fan of pre-code movies swoon: Warren William in a turban.

"I've got a headache this big!"

Mick LaSalle finally realizes his dream of being on screen with Warren William.

Who's afraid of the big bad Warren?

When The Great Chandra puts his hand on his heart to show sincerity, run for cover.

Constance Cummings gives in to Chandra's charms.

Married life is the pits.

Chandra goes legit selling backscrubbers.

A fancy address, a nicer turban and our hero is ready to relieve rich patrons of their spare cash.

A blackmail scheme gone wrong ends in gunplay and Chandra flees the country, leaving the missus holding the bag. Here, he is performing in Mexico while drunk-out-of-his-mind. I think I saw this guy on a cruise ship once.

Thanks to this project, I've created a new shortcut filter for Photoshop: Warren William Scruff-- the balance of contrast and gray required to show him at his disheveled best.

Chandra begs forgiveness from his wife before turning himself in to the cops.

Like many of the best movies of this era, The Mindreader walks a thin line between farce and tragedy. Something about the times makes this combination work well.

I love this kiss. She's totally giving him crows feet.

Chandra says goodbye to his old pal Mick before heading off to jail.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tween Angst: Kathleen (1941)

I admit it. I really like Shirley Temple movies of the 1940s. They are safe. They are predictable. They are the antithesis of the kinds of movies I normally like (pre-code or screwball with lots of subtext and edge). So sue me. I'm not consistent and I don't bloody care.

I realized a couple of things while thoroughly enjoying this slight little movie. One: Shirley Temple was a really good actress. You just don't notice her acting. Most of the time she's called on to be an adorable, precocious tween which must not have been much of a stretch. In a few scenes she may be required to do dramatic acting, as well, and she handles it like a pro. The trickiest thing she does though is to appear slightly stupider than she really was. Nothing is so difficult as playing dumb in a convincing way.

Two: many of the 1940s reproduction outfits sold to us by Stop Staring and its ilk and often modeled by women with many tattoos, are actually based on outfits that Shirley Temple wore when she was 12. If you find this fact disturbing, then you are not alone.

While Herbert Marshal was the reason I watched this movie in the first place, his performance is fairly forgettable. I did like the fact that the majority of his lines in the first 40 minutes were mostly monosyllabic grunts. "Hmmm. What? Oh hello there. Hmmm. Well. Humpf." He disappears for another 20 minutes or so, and, when he resurfaces, he is wearing a hilariously ugly plaid jacket and bow tie that I was unable to screencap because my computer is acting up. Dang. Well, anyway those are the HM highlights for Kathleen, such as they are.

Lorraine Day gives a solid performance as Temple's only-in-the-movies, live-in psychiatrist. Day is likable, caring, and plucky, and she makes the perfect foil for Gail Patrick's vamping. Since Patrick was born to play the wicked stepmother type, it's great to see her excelling at it here. Herbert Marshall is torn between the two and reacts by grunting. Go, Herbert. You grunted your way into my heart in Riptide. There's no reason you should stop now!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Story of Esther Costello

It's wonderfully ironic that a movie whose villains are sleazy publicity hounds had such a ridiculously trashy publicity campaign. Posters and trailers for the film bore the words, "The management of this theater sincerely believes that "The Story of Esther Costello" will not offend any emotionally mature person of either sex. We recommend it for our adult patrons and more-informed teenagers." (Well that rules out the Nipper, surely!) And the geniuses in marketing didn't stop there. About half-way through the trailer, we get this:

I was planning to discuss this film without spoilers but when the trailer pretty much gives the whole story away, I don't feel such discretion is necessary. Please don't reveal what happens in my post. Oh, wait, I want you to so that you'll bring a crowd of more-informed teenagers to my blog.

The its first hour, this film is a pretty standard, well-acted melodrama, but about halfway through, the script jumps into Lake Whatisthiscrazyshit and doesn't come up for air till the last frame. Joan Crawford plays a rich American woman, Margaret Landi, "permanently separated" from her cheating husband, who goes to Ireland to revisit her youth. Her local priest foists a charity project on her--a deaf, blind, mute girl named Esther Costello (Heather Sears). At first, Margaret resists, but she is moved by Esther's plight and takes the girl to London to see specialists. The doctors reveal that there's nothing wrong with Esther's eyes and ears: her condition was caused by an emotional trauma she suffered in an accident. A bit of a stretch, I'd say, but we aren't in Magnificent Obsession territory--yet.

A series of montages show Esther in America making slow progress at a special school. In one scene, Esther throws a tantrum and Margaret smacks her one. (Take care if you play this movie as a drinking game. Chugging every time Joan Crawford smacks someone will likely result in a blackout). After that, Esther decides she really does know her sign language after all. She becomes a superstar on the deaf-mute inspirational lecture circuit of Catholic schools in Boston. Like an indie band out on tour for the first time, she slowly builds up buzz until she draws the attention of a newspaper reporter, Harry Grant (Lee Patterson). After Harry writes an article calling Margaret a saint, Esther starts touring the country, and a foundation is created in her name. One day, 45 minutes into the movie, the foundation gets a check from Margaret's husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), heretofore not seen in the film. Margaret decides to look Carlo up and the pair are reunited.

The next morning, we see Carlo and Margaret in bed together. Actually, it's two twin beds pushed fairly close together, because, after all, there is still a Production Code to be looked after. Emotional maturity was required to view the moment when Carlo, naked to the waist, is introduced to the young lady who will be his adopted daughter. She's blind, of course, but we're not. I confess I didn't make it through this awkward scene without some Beavis-and-Butthead-style giggling.

Carlo brings in a sleazy publicity agent to manage Esther's fundraising tour. They put together creepy, fascistic rallies in sports stadiums around the country, and begin skimming from the foundation. Nice. As if Carlo weren't enough of a dirt bag, he also begins to indulge inappropriate feelings for Esther. Meanwhile, she has a nice, innocent romance with the young reporter. They don't so much kiss as bump their faces together affectionately.

The story descends into familiar Mildred Pierce territory, as Carlo becomes jealous of the face bumping guy and Margaret increasingly jealous of Carlo. Here's where the crazy comes in. Margaret busts him deliberately under-reporting the take at a fundraising rally, and she does nothing. A few days later, she catches him watching Esther undress. Does she dump him immediately? No, she smacks Esther for forgetting to close her curtains, plans to send her away to college and gives Carlo no choice but to end the tour. Wait a sec! This is a guy you've already left once for cheating on you and you don't see these big red flags waving around! Nope.

Meanwhile, Harry the reporter starts to dig into the financial management of the foundation and doesn't like what he sees. His boss plans to print his story to coincide with Esther's big rally in Nuremberg-- I mean London.

While in London, Margaret has to go to Brighton to cancel an upcoming date on the tour. Carlo is supposed to go to Glasgow, but he decides to stay behind, realizing that this might be his last chance to get Esther alone. He walks around London trying to look evil but seems more like a trench coat advertisement. He goes back to the palatial rented digs, finds Esther asleep and rapes her. The scene isn't exactly graphic, but clever cutting away to a storm blowing in Esther's French doors leaves little doubt about what happens.

The next day, Esther wakes up--distraught about the assault but miraculously able to see and hear again. This is the biggest WTF moment in the whole shootin' match. Apparently, movie blind-deaf-muteness is cured much like movie amnesia--one trauma causes the condition, a second can magically fix everything. Hooray!

Harry arrives and confronts Margaret about the financial indiscretions . Having just found one of Carlo's cufflinks in Esther's bed, she gives Harry permission to take Esther away. They both find out that Esther is magically cured. Oh, that's gonna look good in the papers.

Margaret grabs a gun. Finally, I thought, she sees some sense. She's going to shoot her dirtbag husband. But no: she picks him up at the airport, shows him the cufflink, bundles him iton the car and then drives into oncoming traffic, killing them both. I guess that's easier than divorcing an Italian national in the 1950s.

Yo, baby have you heard? Sex with me cures blind-deaf-muteness.

The management of this blog recommends this campy, strange melodrama for those with a finely-honed sense of the ridiculous.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dangerous (1935)

At age 27 Bette Davis won an Oscar for playing a burnt-out, drunken, embittered, middle-aged actress, Joyce Heath in this film. She is magnificent as a character so full of nervous energy that even her besotted lover (Franchot Tone) recognizes that she is only bearable if she can work off her neuroses on stage. To her fans, this character is recognizable as Davis' persona, but it's important to note that in 1935 she hadn't done anything like this before. In her must-see performance Davis creates a person who is both self-centered and vulnerable, often within the same sentence.

As glorious as she is, I can't help wishing she'd made this movie in 1948. Young Davis manages to seem world weary enough, but never the frump other characters describe. Shesprings back to youthful perfection too quickly for us to believe she has weather years of hard drinking. Imagine the older Davis in the full flower of her talent inhabiting such a juicy, glorious role. She would have drop-kicked that mofo into eternity. And what if this movie had been made just 18 months earlier, in the pre-code era? Gone would be the insipid, unconvincing ending, in which marital vows are renewed with clockwork precision.

Des,pite these failings, Dangerous is still a great movie. Tone is at his best. I've always liked Franchot Tone. If there were a Tone fan club, I'd probably join it. (And I fully expect to hear of one, as soon as I post this!) Oh, it's true he played all the same sort of wealthy gadabout roles that Roberts Montgomery and Taylor did so well, but Tone brought something unique to them. Perhaps it was that he was a wealthy gadabout in real life. He was, as Mike Connor says of C. K. Dexter Haven, "born to the purple, but still a very nice guy." In Dangerous, he plays an up-and-coming young architect who must choose between his lovely, funny, rich and well-connected fiancee and Davis' washed-up, probably bi-polar, certainly manipulative actress. This seems to be a no-brainer, of course, until Tone glimpses Davis in romantic lighting, wearing his old clothes. She does more for wearing a rope as a belt than even Ellie May Clampit. In this scene Davis has a devilish, nay Satanic, smile that takes half a dozen frames to develop. I've done my best with the screencaps but I fear I've failed. Davis is just one of those stars whom still pictures can never quite capture. Enjoy.