Thursday, February 4, 2016

Films of 1947

Every year of the golden age of Hollywood produced worthy films, but certain years turned out bumper crops of great classic movies. 1939 immediately comes to mind, of course, but other years also turned out scores of timeless pictures that still enthrall audiences today. Whenever I'm working on a compilation of classic film reviews for my Beyond Casablanca books, I always find that 1947 is one of those years, offering an embarrassment of cinematic riches where the worthy contenders always outnumber the space I can devote to them. It's an especially good year for film noir, but excellent dramas and comedies also abound; you can thank 1947 for as diverse a selection as Out of the Past, Miracle on 34th Street, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Egg and I. Since I can never get all the great 1947 films into a single book, here are the ones that I have, at least, posted reviews of here on Virtual Virago. Check out how many terrific pictures this one year produced!

BLACK NARCISSUS
BORN TO KILL
CROSSFIRE
DARK PASSAGE
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR
IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE
IT'S A JOKE, SON!
KISS OF DEATH
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET 
NIGHTMARE ALLEY
THE UNSUSPECTED


Here are the 1947 films that I review in Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching (which you can get for just 99 cents on Amazon Kindle, if you're so inclined).

THE EGG AND I
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
OUT OF THE PAST

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is the sole representative of the year in Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching (also 99 cents on Amazon Kindle). I had to make tough choices for that one to have room for films from the early 1960s, and the triple threat of Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, and Myrna Loy made it a choice that covered a lot of cinematic ground. It's also wonderfully funny and less familiar to many viewers than Grant's signature films.

But wait, there's more! Here are some other memorable films from 1947 that I haven't gotten around to writing about yet. This is just a partial list, but clearly there is work to be done.

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN
THE BISHOP'S WIFE
BRUTE FORCE
DAISY KENYON
DEAD RECKONING
A DOUBLE LIFE
FOREVER AMBER
GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT
POSSESSED

What's your favorite film from 1947? If you had to pick just three to include in a book, which ones would you choose? I'll be thinking about that question myself as I work on my next book-length compilation of reviews.






Classic Films in Focus: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

Although it has been remade several times, the original 1947 release of Miracle on 34th Street is still the best and most charming incarnation of this heart-warming tale of holiday faith. Its attractions include an Oscar-winning Santa Claus performance courtesy of Edmund Gwenn and a memorable early appearance from a very young Natalie Wood, as well as lovely Maureen O’Hara and the very likable John Payne as the romantic leads. With its three Oscar wins and its enduring appeal, Miracle on 34th Street thoroughly deserves its status as a holiday classic, one of those movies that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without.

The story opens at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, where Macy’s employee Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) recruits a singular Santa (Edmund Gwenn) as a last-minute replacement. Soon the kindly Kris Kringle is working at the store, where he delights customers and their children but alarms Doris by insisting that he really is Santa Claus. When Kris’ sanity is called into question, Doris’ handsome neighbor (John Payne) comes to his defense in court.

The love story between O’Hara and Payne works perfectly well, but the movie is really more interested in Kris Kringle and little Susan (Natalie Wood), Doris’ skeptical daughter. Their scenes together burst with sentimental feeling and gentle good humor as they pretend to be monkeys, blow bubble gum, and gradually build a relationship despite Susan’s doubts. For many people, Gwenn’s Kris is the quintessential Santa Claus, generous and droll with just a hint of mischief in his twinkling eyes. The story leaves it up to the viewer to decide if Kris really is the jolly old elf, but, as the Magic 8 Ball would say, “Signs point to yes.”

Behind the holiday cheer lie some serious themes, including Doris’ loss of faith following the end of her marriage to Susan’s father. Susan clearly yearns for a paternal figure, as her friendship with the neighborly Fred makes clear, but she’s also incomplete because her mother has discouraged her from believing in anything or even using her imagination. Fred and Kris must work together to heal this broken little family, an accomplishment perfectly symbolized by the film’s closing scene. Like most of the very best Christmas movies, this one balances its sweetness with melancholy and the bitterness of experience, and the spirit of Christmas is as much about acknowledging those feelings as it is about merriment and goodwill.

Director George Seaton had his other big directorial success with The Country Girl (1954), but he wrote twice as many screenplays as he directed. Maureen O’Hara can be found in How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Black Swan (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952). Look for John Payne in The Razor’s Edge (1946) and Kansas City Confidential (1952). Edmund Gwenn also stars in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Them! (1954). See a more grown-up Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Searchers (1956), and West Side Story (1961). Don’t miss memorable character actress Thelma Ritter in a brief, uncredited role as a mother who speaks to Santa.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950)

Like Mildred Pierce (1945), The Damned Don't Cry (1950) stars Joan Crawford in a story that merges the themes of melodrama and film noir. Crawford is perfectly at home in both genres, and the combination of the two had revitalized her career with Mildred Pierce, for which she won her only Best Actress Oscar. Not surprisingly, then, The Damned Don't Cry offers Crawford a juicy role for which her talents are ideally suited. Despite the title, there's actually a fair bit of crying, especially on the part of Crawford's character, an unhappy housewife who trades ethics and poverty for a chance at getting more out of the rigged game of life. Solid direction from Vincent Sherman and a particularly good performance by Kent Smith help Crawford shine, while the story offers an opportunity to consider the femme fatale as a dynamic character who doesn't necessarily set out to ruin the men whose lives she inevitably destroys.

Crawford plays working-class housewife Ethel Whitehead, who walks out on her family after a devastating tragedy, determined to have something more for herself. She finds work but quickly realizes that she can get ahead by using her sexuality as an asset, especially in the shady world of gambling dens and nightclubs. She seduces a mild but intelligent accountant, Martin Blankford (Kent Smith), and talks him into a job with a criminal organization, but by the time Martin proposes Ethel has already hooked a bigger fish, the kingpin George Castleman (David Brian). Castleman remakes Ethel into widowed oil heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes and provides her with a life of luxury, but it comes at a galling cost. The crime boss orders Lorna to head for Palm Springs and seduce a rebellious underling, Nick (Steve Cochran), so that George can find out how far Nick's treachery goes.

The Damned Don't Cry alternates between its two genres but achieves a balance that keeps the story interesting and constantly moving. The opening presents us with Nick's murder and Lorna's disappearance; it then moves backward to tell us how these characters reached that tragic climax. The violence of the first scene assures us that this story will be a gritty gangster tale as well as a women's melodrama, in spite of the long stretch that then unfolds Ethel's sad history and her first steps into a life of crime. Once George Castleman arrives on the scene, the story kicks up the noir heat; Ethel succumbs to greed and selfishness even as her actions doom the essentially decent Martin to life without his self-esteem or the woman for whom he gave it up. Everywhere she goes, Ethel brings misery to the men around her, even when she doesn't intend to do so. She abandons her husband, delivers clients to a shady casino, destroys Martin's respectability, betrays Nick, and even ends up being the ruin of Castleman. Crawford never plays Ethel as consciously evil; she can be hard, she can be determined, and she can be terribly selfish, but she has enough humanity to draw back from being involved in the murder of a man who has fallen in love with her. Unfortunately for her and everyone else, she changes course too late, but that's noir in a nutshell.

Two supporting performances stand out among the rest of the cast and help Crawford develop the complexities of her own character. Kent Smith, an actor who never quite became a star, has the best of the male roles as Martin. In a more conventional noir film Martin might be the protagonist, the good guy who falls into the abyss thanks to an ambitious woman. When we first meet him he's a real straight arrow, but over the course of the story he becomes jaded and hard; eventually he's the one pushing Ethel instead of the other way around. Martin never stops loving Ethel, as the final scenes make clear, but the life they might have had together is gone for good. Selena Royle has the other significant supporting role as Ethel's mentor and confidante, Patricia Longworth. The relationship between Ethel and Patricia is unusual; rarely do women in noir films trust each other and work together, but Patricia helps Ethel assume the worldly polish and glamour that being Lorna requires without ever seeming jealous of her or more loyal to Castleman than she is to Ethel. Ethel and Patricia collaborate so well that they can communicate volumes to each other with mere glances; they work like a pair of dancers or predators as they maneuver Nick into Ethel's arms. Royle plays her part with a subtle, quiet genius; she never upstages Crawford, but she makes her presence integral to the success of the picture. David Brian and Steve Cochran are both solid as the gangsters, one refined and the other reckless, but their characters are fairly straightforward. Cochran does, however, help us get past our initial dismissal of Nick to see why Ethel balks at betraying him, and Brian turns up the brutality for a shocking confrontation near the picture's end.

After The Damned Don't Cry, Joan Crawford and Vincent Sherman also made Harriet Craig (1950) and Goodbye, My Fancy (1951). You can compare the leading lady's work on this film with other memorable performances in A Woman's Face (1941), Torch Song (1953) and Johnny Guitar (1954), all of which feature tough, complex heroines. Kent Smith is best remembered today as the clueless husband in Cat People (1942), but he also appears in The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1945). Look for Selena Royle in supporting roles in The Harvey Girls (1946), A Date with Judy (1948), and The Heiress (1949). David Brian stars with Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949) and This Woman is Dangerous (1952), but his greatest critical success came with Intruder in the Dust (1949), which earned Brian a Golden Globe nomination. See Steve Cochran as a series of unsavory characters in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), White Heat (1949), and Storm Warning (1951).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Homes of Classic Hollywood Stars: Four Vintage Postcards


Here's Cary Grant's beach home in Santa Monica, California. The postcard was manufactured by Western Publishing & Novelty Co. of Los Angeles. The house was originally built for Norma Talmadge in 1929, but Grant lived there from 1939 to 1942 with housemate Randolph Scott. According to Wikimapia, lots of stars spent some time in this house, including Merle Oberon and David Niven. You can read all about the neighborhood and its classic stars in this article from Curbed Los Angeles.


This postcard shows Bing Crosby's Toluca Lake home in North Hollywood. Longshaw Card Co. of Los Angeles produced the card. The original house on the site burned in 1943, and the home seen above was built to replace it. Later owners included Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke. According to the LA Times, the home sold in 2009 for $10 million.


Another postcard from Longshaw shows the Beverly Hills home of Hollywood bad boy, Errol Flynn. Like the three other cards, this one includes a picture of the star resident. It's hard to imagine Flynn getting up to his usual mischief in such a stately manor! The Errol Flynn Blog has a great list of places associated with the actor; as you might expect, he got around.


This last card is the only one that lacks a photo of the star, which is a shame, since it's also the only one depicting the home of an actress. This is Irene Dunne's Holmby Hills residence; Tichnor Art Company produced the postcard. Dunne lived in the home for more than 40 years, but it was demolished after her death and replaced (such a pity!). The Irene Dune Site has a nice collection of photos showing Dunne in the home in March 1950.

Personal Notes -

I found these while sorting through some of my late mother-in-law's belongings. They lay in a heap of vintage postcards that she probably inherited from her mother or grandmother, given that many were addressed to her grandmother and were from her uncle; I don't know if she actually knew that these were among the lot. You can imagine my delight at finding them! Scans of the postcards are already available online thanks to copies for sale on Amazon and Ebay, but I thought many of my classic movie friends might not know about them and would enjoy seeing them. I think I'm going to get them framed and put them up in my study.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger deliver one of their finest collaborations in the exotic melodrama of Black Narcissus (1947), which tells the story of five British nuns who travel to the remote Himalayas to found a convent. Gorgeous scenery provides a provocative backdrop for strong, complex performances from the leads, including Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, and Kathleen Byron, with support from Flora Robson, Sabu, and teenage beauty Jean Simmons. Like a delirious fever dream, the film moves back and forth between sense and madness, quiet and chaos, past and present; it lures the viewer in with its beauty but ultimately unnerves with the power of its most memorable scenes.

Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, who leads the small group on their mission to start a convent in the mountains at the invitation of a Himalayan general (Esmond Knight). There they encounter the skeptical British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who gives them slim odds of success, as well as the old general's intellectually curious heir (Sabu). The sisters open a school and a medical dispensary, but their position in the community is tenuous at best, with crisis just around the corner. The sisters also struggle with internal strife and the psychological turmoil that results from their residence in a strange, desolate place far from home.

The theme here is how things fall apart, how reason and fortitude fail in spite of the most determined effort to maintain them. From the moment the Mother Superior gives Sister Clodagh her assignment, the mission has an air of doom, but that presentiment only grows stronger when the nuns arrive in their new abode. The convent's quarters were once the home of a previous general's harem; everywhere the nuns confront signs of a luxurious, erotic past, the very opposite of all they have sought to embrace in their chaste, well-ordered lives. Surrounded by the magnificent isolation of the Himalayas, the nuns fight a losing battle against the unfamiliar atmosphere. The Romantic experience of the sublime stirs long buried emotions in the sisters' hearts until loneliness and longing overwhelm them, especially the jealous, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Mild Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the convent's gardener, weeps over her past and plants flowers instead of produce, while Sister Clodagh succumbs to memories of the lost girlish love that drove her to become a nun. The result is a climactic collapse of sanity that teeters on the very edge of horror.

Black Narcissus relies heavily on Orientalist attitudes for its drama, which is not surprising in a British film from the 1940s, but the dated elements don't undermine the ultimate effect. This is by no means the first work of fiction to imagine the East as a place of strange temptations and tribulation; E.M. Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India, is another significant example of the type, as are the works of Rudyard Kipling. Several white actors get cast as Asians, most notably May Hallatt as the very irritating Ayah and Jean Simmons as the silent temptress Kanchi. The British characters view the natives as childlike, ignorant, and unpredictable, and the plot more or less bears out their opinion even as it ironically reveals that the Europeans can be irrational and dangerous, too. Sabu's sweet, sympathetic performance as the young general helps to counter some of those issues, and he looks glorious in his lavishly decorated costumes. If the young general falls for the charms of Kanchi, it's not really his fault, since she works hard to attract his attention, and she really is quite lovely. 

Two Oscar wins for Jack Cardiff's gorgeous cinematography and Alfred Junge's art direction highlight the sheer beauty of Black Narcissus. For more from Powell and Pressburger, see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and The Red Shoes (1948). Catch Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Jungle Book (1942); the Indian actor became a star in his early teens but died tragically young at the age of 39. Deborah Kerr has another exotic adventure in The King and I (1956), plays a nun again in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and gets to unravel in a more Gothic atmosphere in The Innocents (1961). Although Black Narcissus features Kathleen Byron's most memorable performance, you can also see her in Powell and Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Hour of Glory (1949) as well as much later movies like Emma (1996), Les Miserables (1998), and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The Criterion Collection offers excellent editions of Black Narcissus on both Blu-ray and DVD.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964)

No genre lends itself to glorious badness like classic sci-fi horror, and director Del Tenney's The Horror of Party Beach (1964) makes for an excellent example of sublimely entertaining schlock. No, it isn't scary, thanks to stilted dialogue, flat acting, and some seriously DIY monster costumes, but it does wallow in the conventions of its type with gleeful abandon. If you enjoy really bad movies of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 variety, then The Horror of Party Beach is just your cup of radioactive monster-making sludge.

John Scott heads up a cast of unknowns as Hank Green, whose troublesome girlfriend, Tina (Marilyn Clarke), is the monsters' first victim. Hank doesn't seem to miss Tina; his scientist mentor's daughter, Elaine (Alice Lyon), readily jumps in as his new romantic interest, and the two set about trying to locate the monsters and destroy them before they kill off the entire town. Unfortunately, neither the scientist, Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel), nor the local police can figure out how to defeat the creatures until dozens of residents have been killed, although the increasing body count doesn't seem to convince any of the locals to stay inside with the doors locked.

Monster movies are, of course, only as good as their monsters, and the weird ichthyoid menaces of this picture are very, very bad. Like Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and other B movies of this era, The Horror of Party Beach uses atomic age paranoia as its foundation, with plenty of pseudo-science to explain how its monsters come into existence. In this case, a boatload of radioactive waste spills over a shipwreck site, creating fish-headed freaks with human skeletons and a thirst for people's blood. The number of monsters increases over the course of the picture, but it's never clear if those are the transformed remnants of victims we see carried into the water or just more skeletons from the shipwreck. Dumping toxic waste into the ocean is definitely a bad idea, but even a ton of poisonous sludge would be hard-pressed to fuse marine life and human corpses in this fashion. The monsters have enormous fishy heads with mouths entirely unsuited to the drinking of human blood, and they're dumb enough to mistake shop mannequins for prey but smart enough to cover both exits at an ill-fated slumber party. Still, they have a certain silly charm, especially when bad actors run screaming from them in the dark.

None of the actors is good enough to warrant discussion, although the opening scenes with the biker gang are ridiculous and fun, and the obligatory beach party dancers seem to be having a good time in between murders. The Horror of Party Beach actually has enough dance numbers to qualify as a musical as well as a sci-fi horror film, with the Del-Aires performing half a dozen songs, including "Drag," "Elaine," and "The Zombie Stomp." They might actually be the most talented people involved with the whole picture, and they're certainly livelier than the wooden leads. The rest of the movie relies on cliches, casual sexism, and a very dated depiction of an African-American housemaid to keep things moving when the monsters aren't on screen. Fortunately, the creatures stay busy, attacking a slumber party, a car full of out-of-towners, a pair of drunks, and some shop girls walking home at night before anyone figures out that they're probably holed up at the deepest body of water in town.

The Horror of Party Beach has a 2.7 rating on IMDB, so let that be your warning about how bad a movie you're in for. It was, not surprisingly, the featured attraction on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but you won't need a professional peanut gallery to enjoy the absurd appeal of this film. Del Tenney's other notable contribution to cinema is The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964), which stars Roy Scheider of Jaws fame. For more mutated monsters, try Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Fiend without a Face (1958), and The Alligator People (1959).

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stars of the Stands: Classic Hollywood at the Kentucky Derby Museum

We jaunted off to Louisville, Kentucky, last week for a few days' respite from the holiday blues, hoping to recapture our enchantment with the city from a previous visit years before. While this year's trip had its hits and misses, one unexpected treat was an exhibit about classic Hollywood and the Kentucky Derby at the Kentucky Derby Museum. The exhibit, called "Stars of the Stands," included photographs and movie clips that demonstrated the long standing fascination of Tinseltown types with the glamorous gambling at Churchill Downs.

The exhibit introduced its topic by talking about the simultaneous growth of the Derby and Hollywood in the 1930s, when actors and studio heads began to flock to the Kentucky Derby in greater numbers. The allure was partly the spectacle and the chance to be seen by reporters and the public, but the interest of the stars and the moguls also led to movies being made about the Derby and horse racing in general. At the same time, the adoration of celebrities for jockeys helped to make the jockeys themselves into celebrities.


Stars featured in the exhibit included Joe E. Brown, Ann Sheridan, Bob Hope, and Jayne Mansfield, all of whom attended the Derby. According to Jim Bolus, author of the book, Derby Fever, Brown was a regular Derby attendee who liked to joke that the Kentucky Derby was his "favorite charity." Photos depicted stars watching the race, celebrating or lamenting their gambling luck, and hobnobbing with favorite jockeys, trainers, and owners.


In a small theater area, a string of newsreel clips revealed dozens of other stars at the Derby, from Claudette Colbert to Ronald Reagan (although by the time he was shown attending Reagan had already moved on to politics). Movie clips showed bits of pictures with a local racing angle like In Old Kentucky (1935), starring Will Rogers, and Kentucky (1938), starring Loretta Young, Richard Greene, and Walter Brennan, Other movies about horse racing in general also got some play, including Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. There were also shorts on display, with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen turning up for At the Races (1934). Among the featured cartoons were Gallopin' Gals (1940) and the Goofy short, They're Off (1948).


While the exhibit constituted only a small part of the Kentucky Derby Museum, it was really fascinating to see how the history of the race had influenced and been impacted by Golden Age Hollywood. It's always fun to discover a tribute to classic movies and their stars where you don't expect it, and the Stars of the Stands exhibit elevated my experience at the museum and made it even more memorable. If you happen to visit Louisville anytime soon, do drop by the Kentucky Derby Museum and enjoy the Stars of the Stands as well as the many other excellent exhibits.