Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (1932)

Lee Tracy was a popular star during the Pre-Code era; his fast talking banter made him a hit with audiences during the early days of sound, and he had a waggish quality that perfectly suited the looser moral attitude of the times. In The Half-Naked Truth (1932), Tracy plays the kind of role for which he was made, that of a scheming carnival barker whose ambitions are as boundless as his imagination. With Lupe Velez, Eugene Pallette, and Frank Morgan along for the ride, this corker of a comedy has plenty to offer fans of the Pre-Code period, and Gregory La Cava's direction keeps the action rolling from one ridiculous publicity stunt to the next. Slightly naughty, very silly, and bursting with Tracy's frenetic energy, The Half-Naked Truth aims only to entertain, but it succeeds admirably; it also makes a perfectly good introduction to Tracy and Velez for those who are new to the Pre-Code pantheon of stars.

Tracy plays Jimmy Bates, who starts out hawking the sideshow charms of hoochie coochie dancer Teresita (Lupe Velez) at a second-rate carnival. When one of Jimmy's schemes for publicity causes trouble, the pair head for the greener pastures of New York City with their pal, Achilles (Eugene Pallette), in tow. There they pass Teresita off as a Turkish princess until Jimmy manipulates a famous Broadway show director (Frank Morgan) into making Teresita one of his stars.

As the title suggests, the characters rely mostly on sex appeal and lies to get what they want. Lupe Velez shows quite a lot of skin in her skimpy harem costumes, and Tracy's protagonist couldn't tell the truth to save his own life. Neither one of them is a model of morality, but we like them in spite of that because they have a lot of spunk. Depression era Pre-Code characters need not be exemplars of righteousness to appeal to their audience; they just need to do whatever it takes to get by and have a little fun, and both Jimmy and Teresita embody that unsinkable can-do spirit. If one is a liar and the other a tart, well, who are we to judge?The movie encourages us to see Jimmy as a trickster in the same vein as Bugs Bunny; he's sometimes too smart for his own good, but he has his better nature, too, as the third act reveals. The cartoon sensibility of the picture might not be coincidental, since Gregory La Cava had started his career as a cartoonist.

The supporting players are probably more familiar to modern viewers than the stars, since Eugene Pallette and Frank Morgan both had memorable roles in later films. Pallette, who played the father of just about every leading lady in Hollywood at some point or other, is just as grumpy and rotund as we expect him to be; his character, Achilles, gets saddled with the stigma of being the Princess Exotica's castrated guard. Jimmy tells the staff at the Savoy, "You know, they have them in all Turkish harems. He's very sensitive about it." Poor Achilles doesn't even realize what Jimmy has done until the rumor undermines his romantic overtures toward a hotel maid. Jimmy also bamboozles and frustrates Frank Morgan's overwrought Merle Farrell, giving Morgan plenty of opportunities to bluster and react with his usual comic flair. Farrell is such a self-important big shot that we enjoy watching Jimmy outfox him, and the picture scene near the end really stands out.

For Gregory La Cava's best remembered work, see My Man Godfrey (1936), which features Eugene Pallette as Carole Lombard's father. Lee Tracy also stars in Blessed Event (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Bombshell (1933). Lupe Velez starred in a series of Mexican Spitfire films beginning in 1940, but for more of her early roles see The Gaucho (1927), Where East is East (1929), and Kongo (1932). Frank Morgan is best known today as the bombastic Wizard (and several other characters) in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he earned Oscar nominations for The Affairs of Cellini (1934) and Tortilla Flat (1942). Eugene Pallette, with more than 250 screen appearances, is everywhere in classic film. Look for him in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Heaven Can Wait (1943) for starters.

The Half-Naked Truth is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLOB (1958)

Science fiction movies of the 1950s offer plenty of strange alien menaces, but The Blob (1958) features one of the very strangest. You wouldn't think an oozy sphere would provide much of a threat, but the title monster of this cult classic is as mindless and unrelenting as death itself, an utterly inhuman being with which there can be no discussion or rapport. Given that it looks a lot like a ball of strawberry jam, the blob might not evoke much terror in an audience, but the movie delights nonetheless, for its weird creature, its imaginative effects, its Burt Bacharach title song, and, last but not least, the odd attraction of Steve McQueen as the blob's chief opponent.

McQueen plays teenaged Steve Andrews, who is enjoying a date with Jane (Aneta Corsaut) when the pair spot some kind of shooting star that lands nearby. They search for the object but instead find an old man (Olin Howland) whose hand is covered in bizarre goo, and their efforts to help him unwittingly provide the blob with more victims. Every time the blob consumes another person, it grows, until it becomes big enough to threaten the entire town. Steve and Jane enlist the aid of their friends as well as local cop Dave (Earl Rowe) to warn the citizens and combat the oozing horror, but nobody knows how to fight such a strange, unstoppable foe.

The Blob has a lot in common with dozens of low-budget science fiction productions of its era, and in many ways it is indistinguishable from them. Its director, Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., made a handful of other B movies, but only The Blob enjoys much notoriety today. The acting is decent but not outstanding, and the plot depends on all of the usual genre cliches, which by 1958 were already well established as such. Why, then, is The Blob such a perpetual favorite? The answer begins with Bacharach's groovy title song, which tells the audience that the ensuing carnage is just silly fun. Then we get Steve McQueen, doing his best to act like a teenager even though he was 28 at the time. He's obviously much too old for the part but manages to be likable nonetheless. Aneta Corsaut, best remembered as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is also more mature than her character but pretty and gentle enough that we let it pass.

As the title implies, however, the monster itself is the real star of this show, and it's primarily the blob that delights audiences decade after decade. Rather than put a guy in a rubber suit, the movie presents us with a creature that never reveals its zippers or strings. Stop-motion work and other tricks bring the creature to life, although the picture wisely avoids most of the actual death scenes for the victims. We know enough to guess at their fates and squirm, especially during the middle segment when the blob consumes the old man, the local doctor, his nurse, an auto mechanic, and a handful of other unlucky folks. The highpoint of the picture comes when the blob invades a movie theater packed with patrons for a midnight horror show. The screaming mob fleeing the theater has become one of B horror's most iconic moments; the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where the segment was filmed, has re-enacted the scene many times and even hosts a Blobfest to commemorate the movie. There's an uncanny thrill in watching a movie in which people watching a movie are attacked by a hideous thing; we laugh even as we glance over our shoulders to see what might be sneaking up from behind. The Blob understands this and capitalizes on it, which makes it a much smarter picture than one might at first expect.

The Blob was remade in 1988 to celebrate the original movie's 30th anniversary, with all the added gore one might expect. Irvin Yeaworth's other cinematic efforts include 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960), while Steve McQueen is best remembered today for The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), and Papillon (1973). For more science fiction horror from the 1950s, try The Thing from Another World (1951), Donovan's Brain (1953), Them! (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: A STOLEN LIFE (1946)

Bette Davis stars as a pair of identical twins, one good and one bad, in A Stolen Life (1946), but the title grossly oversimplifies the circumstances that lead one twin to usurp the identity of the other. What we get is really a romantic drama, not a mystery or a thriller, but it's a very compelling story, nonetheless, with Davis giving her usual top-notch performance in both roles. Curtis Bernhardt directs the action with an excellent eye for the staging of this unusual set-up, which puts double the Davis onscreen a lot for a 1946 picture, and the effects still look good almost seventy years later. While Davis naturally dominates A Stolen Life with her dual role, Glenn Ford, Dane Clark, and Charlie Ruggles all make memorable appearances, and Max Steiner's music perfectly sets the tone for a story of love, loss, and unexpected second chances.

Davis first appears as Kate Bosworth, an aspiring artist who cleverly convinces a crusty old lighthouse keeper (Walter Brennan) to let her paint his portrait. The man she really wants to spend time with, however, is handsome Bill (Glenn Ford), who works at the lighthouse, as well. Despite Kate's best efforts, Bill eventually meets her more flirtatious twin sister, Pat, who pursues Bill mostly because she knows that Kate wants him. When Bill marries Pat, Kate is heartbroken, but a tragic accident gives her the chance to enjoy the life her sister had stolen.

It's hard not to imagine the dual casting of Davis as a gimmick of the Patty Duke and Hayley Mills variety, but it never feels that way onscreen. Davis plays both parts for their full melodramatic value, with introverted Kate and extroverted Pat as clearly defined, well-developed individuals. The split screen scenes give us ample opportunity to contrast the body language, tone, and expression of the two sisters. In one especially striking bit, we even see them touch, but the special effect is secondary to the moment's emotional import. Kate sincerely loves her sister, but Pat's selfish actions wound her deeply; at the wedding Kate deftly sidesteps the bouquet that Pat throws toward her, a quiet but pointed way of demonstrating her unhappiness with her thoughtless sibling. When Pat conveniently drowns, Kate assumes her identity because everyone around her believes that she is the other sister, and the deception proves a terrible strain, especially because Pat has made such a mess of the marriage that Bill wants to be divorced and done with it. Of course, Bill's unhappiness is his own fault for picking the wrong sister in the first place, but the movie suggests that Kate should have fought harder to keep man she loved. Kate has bought into Pat's selfishness and enabled it to a dangerous degree. "Must you always let that sister of yours get ahead of you?" asks her cousin, Freddie (Charlie Ruggles). Even after Pat's death Kate still lets her be the dominant sister, sacrificing "Kate" as the victim to make "Pat" the survivor. It takes Kate the whole narrative to step out from behind her sister's shadow and assert her own identity.

The men in the sisters' lives contribute to the story's effect, with particularly strong performances from Charlie Ruggles as Freddie and Dane Clark as the temperamental artist Karnock. Ruggles exudes charm and sympathy as the genial older cousin, rightly aligning himself with Kate from the very start. Clark proves a scene-stealer as the caustic, passionate Karnock, so much so that we wonder why Kate doesn't gravitate toward him and get on with her life after Bill drops her for Pat. Like Kate herself, Karnock lacks style but bursts with substance, and he's unfailingly true to himself and his art. Moreover, it's clear that he harbors some intense emotions regarding Kate, even if he's too rough to articulate them in a conventionally romantic fashion. His portrait of her, done after her supposed death, speaks volumes about his real feelings. He's quite the foil to leading man Glenn Ford, who has a less rewarding role since we understand that Bill is a dope who prefers style over substance. The early scenes, in which we watch him fall for Pat and cool toward Kate, are especially irritating. Ford has his best moments when Bill gets angry, especially after Kate takes Pat's place and learns the truth about her sister's marriage. In those scenes the hard edged intensity that Ford embodies gets some vent, and we realize that Pat was a fool to imagine a man like that would put up with her bedroom games. The ending is neat and conventional, perhaps too much so, but it's exactly what one expects from a 1940s romantic drama. Running off with Karnock is not, unfortunately, ever presented as a real option.

Be sure to note Clara Blandick and Bruce Bennett in small supporting roles. A Stolen Life earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects but lost to Blithe Spirit (1945). For more films directed by Curtis Bernhardt, see My Reputation (1946), Possessed (1947), and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953). Bette Davis also plays twins in Dead Ringer (1964); for other Davis pictures from the mid-1940s try Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Deception (1946). Look for Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946), The Big Heat (1953), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Dane Clark and Bette Davis both appear in Hollywood Canteen (1944), while Charlie Ruggles and Glenn Ford can be found in Gallant Journey (1946). For a double feature of dual roles, try pairing A Stolen Life with The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), That Night in Rio (1941), or The Dark Mirror (1946), in which Olivia de Havilland also plays identical twins.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

Humphrey Bogart successfully steps into the gumshoes of detective Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks' adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946), but in 1945 the top brass at Warner Brothers were far more concerned about Lauren Bacall, as the extensive revisions that preceded the film's release prove. It's not that the original 1945 cut of the picture and the final version are all that different; it's just that the tinkering labors to put Bacall in the best possible light, both literally and figuratively. The studio's effort paid off; Bacall, by then Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, got her career back on track after bad reviews in Confidential Agent (1945), and noir fans got a picture for the ages, with the perfectly paired leads trading zippy quips and stepping around corpses as coolly as they pour themselves drinks. As obvious as The Big Sleep is when it comes to top noir picks, the movie deserves its elevated spot in the genre pantheon, not only because of Bogart and Bacall but because of writers like Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and Leigh Brackett, as well as a seriously deranged Martha Vickers as one of the worst kid sisters in cinematic history.

The story opens when Bogart's Marlowe is hired by the elderly General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to shake off a blackmailer targeting his wild younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe immediately suspects that some other funny business is afoot when the older daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), pumps him for information but acts coy about her own interest in the blackmailer job, and she clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to say. Marlowe soon finds himself and Carmen tangled up in a murder scene, and more corpses follow, but the mystery keeps coming back to a missing man named Regan and casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).

The revisions play up the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall by giving them more lines and scenes together, although some of the changes are purely cosmetic in terms of making Bacall look as alluring as possible. More of the pair is certainly a plus, even if the cuts obscure important elements of the murder mystery plot. Bogart and Bacall fit with noir - and with each other - the way a bullet fits into the chamber of a gun. His Marlowe is smart and unsentimental, a guy who has been around the block enough to know when he's being had. Her Vivian is no debutante, either, with her gambling debts and her husky, come-on voice. Nobody ever declared her affection with such sullen resignation as Bacall's Vivian when she tells Marlowe, "I guess I'm in love with you." Marlowe falls for her even as he realizes that he can't trust her, but he correctly guesses that she's no femme fatale. If they never reach quite the level of smart-mouthed irresistible attraction that they share in To Have and Have Not (1944), they do smolder very enjoyably, especially during their conversational cat-and-mouse games.

It takes tremendous screen presence to distract our attention from such a couple, but the supporting cast is full of actors who give it their best shot. Martha Vickers plays Carmen as a crazy Lolita, so hopped up on drugs and booze she can't even walk, but dangerous nonetheless. An infantile femme fatale with her thumb in her mouth, Carmen puts the moves on every man she meets, including Marlowe. "You're cute," she tells him, but the way she says it makes the listener's blood run cold. Charles Waldron has one really wonderful scene up front that makes us wish we could see more of his character; his General Sternwood has no pity for himself and only wants a real man to sit with him a while and drink his liquor for him. Even the bit players go for broke; Elisha Cook, Jr. makes the most of his brief appearance as Harry Jones, and Sonia Darrin provides a marvelously nasty foil to Bacall as the heartless, calculating Agnes. Dorothy Malone is so good as the book shop girl that we wonder how Marlowe can resist, especially after she takes off her glasses, but Marlowe's wartime Los Angeles seems to be full of self-possessed, available girls, from Vivian Rutledge all the way down to the eager cab driver who trades innuendos with the amused detective. It's as if Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks both long to raid a jar stuffed with tough cookies, with Marlowe as the unlikely embodiment of their shared masculine fantasy. At least it gives the young actresses plenty of material, and each of them contributes to the overall appeal of the film.

For more screen versions of Raymond Chandler's detective, see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Lady in the Lake (1947), and The Long Goodbye (1973). Bogart and Bacall went on to star together in Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948), while Howard Hawks moved into Western territory with Red River (1948). Martha Vickers, sadly, did not become a great star, although she did become Mickey Rooney's third wife from 1949 to 1951. You can see more of her in The Man I Love (1947), Ruthless (1948), and Alimony (1949). Dorothy Malone, on the other hand, ended up winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Written on the Wind (1956), and she later appeared in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Warlock (1959), and even Basic Instinct (1992).


Friday, November 14, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: GILDA (1946)

Gilda (1946) would prove both the high point of Rita Hayworth's career and the bane of her personal life, since it created an enduring image of the actress as sex symbol, temptress, and femme fatale. Hayworth would later lament, "Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda... and woke up with me." Even in her own lifetime, the fictional character outshone the person, who had started out as a dancer named Margarita Cansino. Hayworth certainly provides the fuel that sets Charles Vidor's noir film on fire; she's impossibly alluring from the first moment we see her, flipping that fabulous hair to reveal a perfect face and eyes lit up with mischief. Gilda's dazzling sexuality helps to make up for a frankly bewildering plot, but it also acts as cover for the movie's more daring depiction of the passionate attraction between its two male protagonists, played with smoldering intensity by Glenn Ford and George Macready.

Ford turns up first as Johnny Farrell, a drifter who blows into Buenos Aires and strikes up a strangely intense friendship with urbane casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). They make a happy pair until Mundson brings Gilda (Hayworth) home as his wife. Johnny and Gilda have a past together, but Johnny dedicates himself to watching Gilda for Mundson's benefit, even though she seems determined to throw herself at every man in town. When Mundson's illicit business affairs end in his apparent death, Johnny takes his loyalty to extremes by marrying Gilda as a way to ensure her fidelity to the dead man.

The business end of the plot, which involves Germans, the tungsten market, and a mysterious pile of patents, merely muddies the narrative and gives Mundson a reason to act shifty and then disappear. Gilda never pays any attention to it, Johnny never understands it, and the viewer might as well ignore it, too. Mostly it makes Mundson a more sinister figure by giving him Nazi associations, but he already looks the part with his blond hair, refined features, and long facial scar. All of the really interesting scenes focus on the bizarre love triangle between the three leads; Johnny's eyes burn with a kind of crazed devotion to Mundson even as they ignite with equal hatred for the faithless Gilda. "Hate can be a very exciting emotion," Mundson observes, and that confusion of love and hate drives the picture. Johnny loves Mundson and hates Gilda, especially when Mundson gives Gilda the place that Johnny wishes to occupy himself, even though neither man would ever admit to the true nature of their mutual attraction. Gilda hates Johnny and punishes him through her marriage to Mundson; she hurts him more by pretending to cuckold the man Johnny loves. Mundson might not really love anyone except himself, but he certainly has strong feelings of some kind about both Johnny and Gilda, especially when he returns to find them married to each other and living off of his money.

Through it all, Hayworth is resplendent, a gorgeous bundle of utterly irrational femininity. Gilda's actions never make much sense except in her own mind, but the film doesn't present her as an intellect, merely an id. Mundson accurately describes her as "a beautiful, greedy child," although he doesn't add that she is the kind of child who would gleefully pull the wings off of flies. It's a sexist characterization, to be sure, but the film works because the camera loves Hayworth just as devotedly as Johnny loves Mundson. She blazes like a fiery idol; even her dubbed song numbers have a jaw-dropping effect, especially the famous "Put the Blame on Mame" segment, which ends with her threatening to strip in front of an eagerly leering audience. Her shocking behavior is all part of her scheme to hurt Johnny, but she really drives each nail in, delivering an endless stream of barbed lines. "If I'd been a ranch," she says, "they would have named me the bar nothing." The worse Gilda behaves, the more we adore her; even Johnny can't resist her electric appeal, though he might be the last person to figure that out. It's little wonder that the role became the signature moment of Hayworth's career; after all these years it's still so easy to fall under Gilda's provocative spell.

Be sure to appreciate Joseph Calleia and Steven Geray in supporting roles as Detective Obregon and Uncle Pio. For more of Rita Hayworth, see Cover Girl (1944), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Pal Joey (1957). Glenn Ford also stars in The Big Heat (1953), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). You'll find George Macready in The Big Clock (1948), Detective Story (1951), and Paths of Glory (1957). Charles Vidor directed Hayworth in both Cover Girl and The Loves of Carmen (1948); his other films include Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and the 1957 adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: TALES OF TERROR (1962)

Most of Roger Corman's Poe movies stretch the author's short stories into feature length plots, but in Tales of Terror (1962) the director opts for an anthology approach, presenting a handful of tales in three distinct segments. Vincent Price, naturally, stars in all three, but his costars change with each story; Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone make particularly memorable appearances, along with leading ladies Debra Paget, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, and Joyce Jameson. The segments vary in tone and quality, but overall Tales of Terror offers a good time for fans of Corman's unique take on the horror genre, and those who admire Vincent Price get the special pleasure of seeing him play three very different Poe characters in rapid succession.

The anthology opens with "Morella," in which Price plays a lonely widower haunted by the premature death of his beautiful wife (Leona Gage). The return of his dying daughter (Maggie Pierce) stirs him to long repressed emotion, but her presence also awakens the malevolent spirit of Morella. In "The Black Cat," Peter Lorre stars as the drunken Montresor, whom Price antagonizes in the guise of the wine critic Fortunato. When Fortunato has an affair with Montresor's wife (Joyce Jameson), Montresor decides to murder both of them, but his wife's pet cat thwarts his attempts to hide the crime. Price returns as the title character in the final segment, "The Case of M. Valdemar," in which Basil Rathbone plays a sinister mesmerist who seeks to control a dead man's will.

"Morella," the weakest of the three acts, makes for an awkward start to the collection, since it is neither seriously uncanny nor amusingly campy. Morella's grudge against her husband and daughter is never entirely clear, although the final conflagration does present an interesting spectacle. Both of the other segments, though wildly different from one another, succeed better and reward the viewer's perseverance. "The Black Cat" combines the plot of Poe's original version with that of "The Cask of Amontillado," twisting both tales into a single narrative that exploits its stars' talent for pitch black comedy. Lorre's Montresor is a drunkard and a buffoon, while Price's character is a supercilious fop, but both excel at this kind of work, and Lorre milks the part for every bit of dry, dark humor. The last story breaks in the other direction, toward the truly horrific, with Valdemar's soul held hostage in his corpse by the diabolical Carmichael. Basil Rathbone gives a chilling performance, especially toward the end, when Carmichael uses his power over the dead man to claim Valdemar's widow and fortune for himself.

Aside from Poe, whose work Corman always adapts very loosely, Vincent Price serves as the unifying element for the three vignettes, and his different roles give viewers a chance to survey his varying approaches to horror. He plays it straight in both "Morella" and "The Case of M. Valdemar," first as the haunted victim of horrors and then as the monstrous being who haunts others. In "Morella" he also displays signs of nervous decay, and Price is always reliable as a character who is rapidly coming unglued. His Valdemar does not become a ghoul willingly, but Price makes for a very unnerving animated corpse, and his climactic scene might be one of the scariest bits of the actor's career. In "The Black Cat" he indulges in the gallows humor for which he is well remembered by cult horror-comedy fans, romping through gruesome gags and hamming it up enthusiastically, especially during the wine tasting contest. Lorre makes an excellent partner in crime for this sort of macabre merriment; his short, rotund figure and dour expressions contrast Price's elegant height and overly refined manner perfectly. Price gets to work through all of these modes at greater length in the other Corman productions and in his later work during the 1970s, but the anthology of shorts provides a chance to compare and contrast his methods in each segment. Even when the material is not as good as it might be, as in the case of "Morella," Price gives it his best, and he's always fun to watch.

To see Price, Lorre, and Rathbone together again, move on to The Comedy of Terrors (1963), which also features Joyce Jameson and Boris Karloff. Corman reunites Lorre and Price for The Raven (1963), as well, and you can catch Price and Rathbone together in the much earlier Tower of London (1939). For a survey of Price's roles in other Corman Poe pictures, see House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Twice Told Tales (1963) offers a similar anthology of stories, this time from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Price again starring in every segment. Basil Rathbone is best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes, but if you like the idea of him as a horror star, check out The Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Black Cat (1941), and The Black Sleep (1956).

Friday, November 7, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HEIRESS (1949)

Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar for Best Actress for The Heiress (1949), William Wyler's dramatic adaptation of the Henry James novel, Washington Square. The awkward, naive protagonist de Havilland plays is a far cry from the unshakably sweet Melanie Wilkes, the role for which de Havilland is best known, but Catherine Sloper is a far more complicated and dynamic character, which gives de Havilland the opportunity to prove that she is every bit as talented an actress as any leading lady of her era. Romantics and sentimental types beware: The Heiress offers no salve for wounded hearts except the cold, cruel comfort of revenge, which de Havilland's heroine metes out to the men in her life with all the fury of a woman scorned. Despite its decidedly cynical perspective on love, The Heiress is a winner for classic film fans, with excellent performances from Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, and Montgomery Clift, as well as Oscar-winning work from Edith Head and Aaron Copland.

The heiress of the title is de Havilland's character, Catherine, a shy, simple girl who falls woefully short of her father's expectations in a daughter. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) constantly compares Catherine to his beautiful, accomplished wife, who died in childbirth; to Catherine he is cool and condescending, but to others he more openly complains of her faults and his own disappointment. When the penniless but handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) courts the lovestruck Catherine, Dr. Sloper assumes that he only wants her money and tries to break the match, but his heartless tactics have unintended consequences. His widowed sister, Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), encourages the young couple, but even she underestimates the extent of Catherine's resentment against those who have conspired to break her heart.

Catherine's climactic disillusionment gives de Havilland very different emotional states to play in the first and second halves of the film. When we first meet Catherine, she is not exactly plain, for de Havilland's natural beauty shines through no matter what, but she is very shy and introverted, never sure what to do with her hands or where to look during a conversation. She always leans away from the person who addresses her, shrinking with self-consciousness, but she can be clever when she speaks to her aunt, and if she is awkward it is partly because she possesses keen feelings that are easily overwhelmed. Catherine feels happiest when left alone with her embroidery, but as a young woman of the nineteenth century she is expected to be decorative, graceful, and, above all, marriageable. Dr. Sloper and Morris both make assumptions about her because of her perceived vulnerability, but cold iron waits beneath the softness that they manage to tear away. The moment of transformation is marked; everything about Catherine changes forever, even her voice, which drops from a tremulous whisper to a clear, hard snarl. In the later Catherine de Havilland gives us a fierce, sharp-edged fury of great beauty and burning eyes, feeding a bonfire of resentment beneath a calm exterior. She is absolutely terrifying, especially in the final scenes, when Morris returns after many years of separation.

The supporting players lend their characters subtlety and nuance that keep us from easily guessing their motives or their true natures. Miriam Hopkins is the most transparent and sympathetic as Aunt Lavinia, who enjoys life and the prospect of young love enough to hope for the best for Catherine, even if she also suspects that Morris is chiefly attracted to the girl's fortune. Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper, a bit devilish in his neat goatee, might actually love his daughter in some capacity but doesn't realize how deeply he wounds her until he has gone too far. He is certainly a selfish, insensitive father, who describes his only child as "an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature without a shred of poise." He never realizes how important Catherine's love for him is until he loses it forever. Montgomery Clift gives the most inscrutable performance as Morris; we never know how he really feels about Catherine. He, too, might love her, as he perpetually claims, even if he sees her wealth as necessary for his own comfort. His face never betrays him, but he does demonstrate quite a taste for the finer things in life, as well as a complete inability to work for them himself. Because the audience never knows for sure, we never know if Catherine's wrath is warranted. Is the ending terrible justice, or is it only tragedy?

The Heiress earned eight Oscar nominations in all, including a nod for Best Picture, with four wins. For de Havilland's other Oscar-nominated performances, see Gone with the Wind (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), To Each His Own (1946), and The Snake Pit (1948). William Wyler also directed Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). See more of the handsome, tragic Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), and From Here to Eternity (1953). You'll find Ralph Richardson in The Four Feathers (1939), Anna Karenina (1948), and Richard III (1955). Miriam Hopkins takes leading roles in earlier films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Becky Sharp (1935), and The Old Maid (1939). For the sake of comparison, you might try the 1997 version of Washington Square, which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine and Albert Finney as her father, but the most famous adaptation of a Henry James story is certainly the 1961 horror classic, The Innocents.