Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) rambles far afield of the original story by Edgar Allan Poe, even for a Roger Corman adaptation, but that doesn't prevent it from being an entertaining horror film. With Vincent Price and Barbara Steele both giving memorable performances and a gruesome story of adultery and torture providing the narrative thrust, The Pit and the Pendulum has plenty to offer viewers who enjoy Corman's distinctive style, and Richard Matheson's screenplay delivers a sly mix of Radcliffean Gothic and psychological suspense. While it can't really be considered as an adaptation of Poe's work, the movie stands on its own creative merits well enough to warrant the attention of horror fans, especially those who appreciate the macabre charms of Vincent Price.

Price plays Nicholas Medina, whose grief over the death of his young wife is interrupted by the arrival of her brother, Francis (John Kerr), from England. Francis insists on details about the demise of Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), forcing Nicholas and his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders), to reveal family secrets they would just as soon keep hidden. When strange events cause Nicholas to believe that Catherine was buried alive, Francis and Catherine struggle to get to the truth, but sinister machinations draw all of them to a fateful encounter in the torture chambers deep beneath the house.

Only the last ten minutes of the movie have any connection to the Poe story, but the original material is lurid enough to make for a good Gothic yarn, even if it isn't Poe. The screenplay concocts an elaborate narrative of betrayal and revenge against Poe's backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, adding romantic intrigue and a haunted house element to flesh out the brief source material. We learn that Nicholas witnessed the brutal murders of his adulterous mother and uncle at the hands of his father when he was just a child. Already psychologically fragile, he seems poised on the verge of a complete breakdown when eerie happenings suggest that his wife's angry spirit is haunting the house in order to punish Nicholas for her premature burial. His doctor (Antony Carbone) advises him to leave the house forever, but Nicholas is drawn back to his wife's tomb and the horrid torture chamber where his father carried on the bloody work of the Inquisition.

The weakest link in the picture is John Kerr as Francis, who is something of a stick and too stiff-necked for us to care much about his fate. Playing the straight man against an actor like Price is never a rewarding job, but Francis could at least react when he's about to be cut in half by a giant pendulum. Antony Carbone also plays it very low-key as the doctor, leaving Luana Anders as the most interesting member of the household after Price himself. Barbara Steele is great in her few scenes, especially in the final act, but once again Price is the main attraction, coming unglued like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944) until he finally snaps. His pursuit of the ghostly Elizabeth through the cobwebbed secret passages drips with classic Gothic atmosphere, and the finale gives him a terrific mad scene in which to cut loose.

Be sure to appreciate the dreadful irony of the picture's closing shot; it's a devilish example of poetic justice at its most perverse. For more of the Corman and Price collaborations, see House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). John Kerr worked mostly in television, but you can find him in The Cobweb (1955), Tea and Sympathy (1956), and South Pacific (1958). Catch Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's horror classic, Black Sunday (1960), and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). Luana Anders appears in Night Tide (1961), Dementia 13 (1963), and Easy Rider (1969), while Antony Carbone turns up in other Corman pictures like A Bucket of Blood (1959), Last Woman on Earth (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSE OF USHER (1960)

Roger Corman's series of Poe adaptations begins with House of Usher (1960), which sets the tone for the later films and establishes Vincent Price as Corman's ideal Gothic figure, a cultured, romantic, but fatally haunted central character entangled by strange twists of fate. Screenwriter Richard Matheson takes liberties with Poe's original tale but remains true to its essence, while Corman uses art and Price's tremendous screen presence to invest the proceedings with an air of sophistication in spite of the director's reputation for low-budget cult productions. If one doesn't insist too much on strict fidelity to the source material, the Corman Poe films are all great fun, and House of Usher makes an excellent introduction to the ghoulish thrills that follow it.

Price takes center stage as Roderick Usher, a solitary gentleman peculiarly afflicted by acute sensitivity. Roderick is not pleased when Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) intrudes on the Usher mansion looking for Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who is Roderick's sister and Philip's intended bride. Philip resolves to take Madeline away from the crumbling house and the morbid obsessions that seem to plague both siblings, but Madeline's sudden death defeats his schemes. Soon he discovers that Roderick may have buried his sister somewhat prematurely, with fatal consequences for everyone associated with the house of Usher.

There can be no spoilers in a story so well known, and House of Usher telegraphs its conclusion insistently, so that we only wait to see how the inevitable end comes and not whether it will happen. Inexorable doom descending is, after all, a favorite theme of the Poe tales. Corman and Matheson add some new wrinkles to the familiar story by making Madeline a much younger sister instead of a twin and by giving the originally anonymous narrator a more pointed identity as Madeline's love interest. The film also eschews the story's hints at incest and provides a truly sordid collection of sinners to justify the familial curse; Roderick and Madeline have quite a family tree of murderers, thieves, and madmen, and Roderick firmly believes that any future progeny will only perpetuate the crimes of their forebears. Eerie paintings by Burt Shonberg (credited as Burt Schoenberg) evoke the Ushers' perversions and add an element of nightmare to the ruined house. They also prepare us for a dream sequence straight out of German expressionist horror, in which Philip assumes the role of a Gothic heroine, fearfully searching the house only to encounter the leering ghosts of the Usher ancestors.

Damon, Fahey, and Harry Ellerbe as the old family servant all play their parts capably enough, but the movie belongs to Vincent Price from the moment he appears on screen. Price was not quite fifty when he made the picture, and he was already established as a horror star with roles in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), House of Wax (1953), and House on Haunted Hill (1959). The Corman Poe movies are perfectly tailored to Price's talents; his rich voice, aristocratic bearing, and ability to play both true horror and winking black comedy all contribute to his success as a variety of Poe protagonists, starting with the overwrought Roderick. We never know for certain if Roderick is insane or if the house really does pulse with generational evil, but Price depicts Roderick's conviction as absolute. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Price recite Roderick's poem, "The Haunted Palace," in this picture, especially since the 1963 movie of that title is actually adapted from H.P. Lovecraft and is not a Poe story at all. Luckily, we get such a bevy of great performances from Price in the later Corman films that it's ungrateful to complain too much about the small things that get left out.

For more of the best Corman collaborations with Vincent Price, see Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). For later Price horrors, try The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Theatre of Blood (1973), and Madhouse (1974). Mark Damon's other acting credits include Young and Dangerous (1957), Black Sabbath (1963), and a number of Italian horrors and Westerns, but he has also enjoyed a very successful career as a producer and is still working in 2014.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)

Robert Aldrich's quintessential example of Grande Dame Guignol is often discussed for its value as camp, but Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) offers genuine horrors as well as pitch black comedy. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, fierce rivals and determined survivors of the Hollywood fame machine, invest their characters with layers of psychological depth that lesser actresses could never achieve, and the result is a horror film that stirs the imagination long after the terrible irony of the final scene. Like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Baby Jane is a story about the fickle nature of stardom, but it's also a dark fairy tale of sibling rivalry pushed to murderous extremes. You may watch it for camp and laugh at Davis' shrieking hag, but the true genius of Baby Jane reveals itself in the quieter moments, where we witness the awful power of jealousy, love, and hate to wreak havoc on human souls.

Davis plays former child star Baby Jane Hudson, whose heyday on the Vaudeville stage gave way to failure as a screen actress once she grew up. Crawford is her sister, Blanche, once the jealous wallflower but later a huge Hollywood success. Blanche's career ended when a mysterious car accident paralyzed her legs, and years later she is confined to a wheelchair and dependent on the increasingly unstable Jane. Jane's outrageous abuse makes Blanche fear for her life, but a terrible secret binds the two sisters together in a fatal knot of guilt and resentment.

The garish white face of Baby Jane is one of the picture's most iconic elements, along with the infamous rat on a tray, and it might seem like a bizarre moment in Bette Davis' career for those unfamiliar with her particular talent for transforming herself into monstrous objects of pity and revulsion. Take it instead as part of a whole that reaches back to Of Human Bondage (1934) and Marked Woman (1937) and continues through Now, Voyager (1942) and Mr. Skeffington (1944). Davis revels in this kind of role, and it shows in her sharp, poignant performance. Her Jane is as much Blanche DuBois as Norma Desmond, not merely a crazed harridan but a broken soul that longs for acceptance and even love. In the tradition of all great monster performers, Davis works hard to make us feel the tragedy beneath the horror. Jane was young once, beautiful and beloved. If she has fallen so far, there must be dreadful reasons for it, which the film itself will only tease us with, even in the confessional moments of the closing scene. Davis invites us to consider the hidden things, the slow decline of Jane's mind and the toll of living with Blanche all those years.

Joan Crawford plays a subtler psychological game as Blanche, wearing her terrified martyr face but leaning on that buzzer with a vengeance. Without the opening scenes, where young Blanche eyes her sister and father with steely hatred, we might be inclined to believe that Blanche is merely the victim here, the sweet and tragically crippled star pining for a quiet life with her devoted maid, Elvira (Maidie Norman). Gina Gillespie, who plays Blanche as a child, gives a short but critical performance that warns us not to take Blanche's act at face value. Crawford's Blanche is consciously playing a role, but that buzzer shatters Jane's fragile mind at every opportunity, as shrill and profane as Blanche pretends to be long-suffering and refined. Only at the end do we understand the extent of Blanche's responsibility for the fate that befalls her, but then we see her own mask of virtue set aside, as much a false face as Jane's gruesome paint.

Other performances are also worth noting. Victor Buono earned an Oscar nomination for his avaricious, amoral Edwin Flagg, and he has a screen presence reminiscent of Laird Cregar in his sleazier villain roles. Maidie Norman is simply brilliant as Elvira, who distrusts crazy Jane but falls hook, line, and sinker for Blanche's assumed sweetness. Anna Lee provides some context and contrast as the neighbor, Mrs. Bates, who remembers Blanche Hudson's stardom but also reminds us of the normal life that neither sister got to have. Julie Allred, all blonde curls and bad attitude, provides a perfect introduction to Jane as the child star at the height of her career; her temper tantrum at the backstage door is quite a moment, with a deliciously dark connection to the movie's final scene. Oddly enough, Bette Davis' daughter, Barbara Merrill, appears as Mrs. Bates' teenage daughter; her scathing tell-all book about her famous mother was still more than 20 years away, but she would marry at the age of sixteen the year after Baby Jane was released.

In a rare showing of Academy enthusiasm for a horror film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, with four more nominations, including a nod for Davis as Best Actress. Ernest Haller's cinematography also picked up a well-deserved nomination. Davis and Aldrich reunited for Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), but Crawford famously dropped out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. For more from Aldrich, try Vera Cruz (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). See more Bette Davis horror in Dead Ringer (1964), The Nanny (1965), Burnt Offerings (1976), and The Watcher in the Woods (1980). Crawford's late career also includes horror films like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), and the infamous Trog (1970), which would be her final film credit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mystery and Maternity in GASLIGHT (1944)

George Cukor's 1944 version of the Patrick Hamilton play Angel Street is not the first adaptation of the material for film, but Gaslight provides a unique take on the events found in the original text. The screenplay makes a number of important changes, including the identity of the heroine as the murdered woman's family member, and it layers mystery upon mystery without feeling obligated to unravel every thread in a neat, methodical fashion. Because of that, one of the great charms of Gaslight is the way in which it tantalizes us with lingering questions long after the final scene fades. Chief among these, perhaps, although hidden in the subtext of the story, is the mystery of Paula's mother. Who was she? What happened to her? Why did Alice Alquist tell Paula so little about her biological parents? This mystery creates an important opportunity for Paula's sadistic husband, Gregory, but it also invites the viewer the consider the possibility that the answer, like Alice's priceless jewels, might be hidden in plain sight.

The 1944 adaptation of the story stars Ingrid Bergman as the naive young Paula, who interrupts the murder of her opera diva aunt and prevents the killer from obtaining the jewels for which Alice Alquist is so brutally strangled. A decade later, Paula falls into a whirlwind romance with the suave Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who convinces his bride to return to the London home where Alice Alquist died. Once they are in London, Gregory's affection rapidly transforms into menacing control, and he constantly suggests that Paula is losing her mind. Circumstances make Paula believe that her husband might be correct, but a determined Scotland Yard detective, played by Joseph Cotten, suspects that Gregory has sinister motives for his cruel, calculating behavior.

Throughout the film, Paula is described as Alice Alquist's niece, but her resemblance to her dead aunt is remarkable. "I look like her, but I don't sing like her," Paula laments early on in the film, after her mentor comments on the uncanny likeness. When Paula shows Gregory a portrait of her famous aunt, the face of the opera diva is unmistakably that of Ingrid Bergman, even though the costume shows the singer with dark hair. Brian Cameron, the Scotland Yard detective, thinks at first that he has seen a ghost when he initially spots Paula at the Tower of London. The resemblance is so powerful that Cameron breaks out the old case files on the Alquist murder and resolves to get a closer look at Paula and her secretive spouse. That fact alone makes Paula's resemblance to her aunt vital to the plot, but the likeness of the two women is far more pronounced than one might expect between an aunt and a niece. Paula seems to Cameron to be Alice Alquist herself come back from the grave, demanding that the mystery of her murder finally be solved. The two women's fates are, ultimately, inextricably linked, as Paula turns out to be married to the same man who murdered Alice. Gregory Anton, once known as Sergis Bauer, has the power to destroy both incarnations; in the attic room he wrecks Alice's possessions, the relics of her life, while downstairs he wrecks Paula's mind. Even after Alice's death, the two women are like different aspects of the same life force.

Gregory uses the mystery of Paula's mother as one of his weapons against her sanity. Paula reveals that she knows nothing at all about her biological parents, except that her mother died when she was born. She does not even carry the name of her missing mother and father; her own name before marriage appears to be the same as that of her aunt. The only person who might have told Paula about her parents is Alice, and Alice apparently chose to say nothing at all. Gregory later takes advantage of this blank history by claiming that he has been investigating Paula's mother and has discovered that she went mad and died in an insane asylum. "Your mother was mad," he tells her. "She died in an asylum when you were a year old." The news terrifies Paula and pushes her that much closer to the breaking point, but Gregory later admits that this story is a lie, something he made up as part of his attempt to drive Paula mad. Paula's mother is as much a mystery as ever, her history subject to falsification because Paula knows nothing about her. By withholding any information about her parents, Alice has left Paula vulnerable to Gregory's lies, but she must have had some reason for concealing the truth.

Alice Alquist was certainly good at concealing other vital pieces of information. She hid the very existence of her jewels from Paula, who knew nothing about them even though she lived with Alice from infancy. Alice hid them partly because of their immense value and partly because they were a gift from her royal lover, the Tzar. While opera divas lived somewhat outside the social norms of the time, Alice could not publicly admit such a scandalous relationship, even though it seems to have been something of an open secret to the police. Ironically, Alice chose to hide the stones in plain sight by having them sewn into her costume as Empress Theodora, the same character depicted in the portrait that Paula shows to Gregory. When Alice appeared on stage at the opera, only her lover would recognize his magnificent gift as part of her apparel. It was a secret between the couple that none of the adoring crowds could guess. Gregory, intent on finding the jewels, mistakes the real things for costume fakes when he first rifles through Alice's clothes. Only near the film's end does he recognize them as the object of his murderous desire. He never seems to suspect that Alice might have hidden other fruits of her romance with the Tzar in plain sight, as well.

All of these elements of the story, however, point to one conclusion: Alice Alquist was Paula's real mother, and her father was most likely the Tzar. A love child would explain the extravagance of the Tzar's gift; he wanted to give the mother of his child something priceless because he could never acknowledge either of them. Alice Alquist wanted to protect Paula from the stigma of being illegitimate and the danger of being recognized as the Tzar's offspring. As she did with the jewels, Alice hid Paula in plain sight, concocting a fictional sister who conveniently died abroad while giving birth. The closer familial relationship explains the extraordinary resemblance between the two women, but it also makes Paula's final confrontation with Gregory more poetic and significant. Paula has no idea how much she has lost because of Gregory, but she is able to seal his fate and gain vengeance for her mother's murder. Alice dies because of one hidden treasure, but another, even more precious to her, becomes the catalyst for long delayed justice.


Monday, September 29, 2014

History, Hollywood, and a Famous Train: THE GENERAL and THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE

In The General (1926), Buster Keaton plays a Confederate train engineer who doggedly pursues his beloved locomotive when Yankees make off with it. Thirty years later, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) tells basically the same story, this time with Jeffrey Hunter as the Southern engineer and Fess Parker as the Yankee spy who steals the train. Both the silent comedy and the Disney live action picture take their inspiration from a real event during the Civil War, when a group of Union spies stole a locomotive named The General in Kennesaw, Georgia, and drove it north, sabotaging rail lines and telegraph wires behind them. While both of the movies naturally take liberties with the historical record, classic movie fans can get the true story that inspired the films by visiting The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, where the famous train from the 1862 incident is the star attraction.

The museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, sits just off the railroad tracks in a quiet section of Kennesaw, not far from Interstate 75 but seemingly worlds away from the bustle of the metro Atlanta area. Trains roaring down the line are the most exciting spectacle outside the museum, where the enticing aroma of freshly cooked burgers wafts across the tracks from the nearby Burgerfi location. Around the grounds, visitors will find a handful of historical markers noting the starting point of The Great Locomotive Chase and Kennesaw's former identity as the town of Big Shanty. The General has its own marker, but inside the museum guests can see the real deal, a huge and meticulously restored locomotive that toured the country under its own power during Civil War anniversary years until it came to stay in Kennesaw.

While the engine is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the museum, other exhibits give visitors an in-depth look at the role played by railroads during the Civil War and the aftermath of Reconstruction. The Glover Machine Works section shows how industrial locomotives were assembled, while other displays reveal the Union's strategy for crippling the South by destroying the critical rail infrastructure. It's a must-see facility for train nuts of any age, but for cinephiles the engine itself and the display cases around it are the big draw.

The museum is well aware of the movie history associated with The General. Near the locomotive, cases hold posters and other items from the 1926 and 1956 movies, including the coat worn by Fess Parker in The Great Locomotive Chase. Segments of the Disney film dominate the museum's movie about the events, with local footage spliced in to tell a shorter and more historically accurate version of the adventure. Both classic movies are for sale on DVD in the small gift shop, where a television runs one or the other throughout the day. Sadly, you won't find much other merchandise related to the films, but you will find generic train items and Civil War themed gifts of all sorts.

Getting a sense of the real story gives film fans a chance to assess the two movies and their different takes on the events. Keaton's picture makes the Confederate character a true hero, battling some rather shady Yankee saboteurs who not only steal his train but also kidnap his girl. The Disney production casts the Union in a more positive light, with Fess Parker as a doomed war hero (the real James J. Andrews was captured and ultimately hanged by the South). Jeffrey Hunter, best remembered today for his role in The Searchers (1956), plays William A. Fuller, the Southern engineer determined to recover his stolen train. It's interesting to note that Hunter appeared in both the Western and the Civil War adventure in the same year. Other actors of note in the Disney film include Harry Carey, Jr., Slim Pickens, and Kenneth Tobey. As entertaining as both movies are - The General in particular is a cinematic masterpiece of the first order - the truth turns out to be just as fascinating, with a story full of courage, action, and daring risks on both sides. Fuller and Andrews both strike us as heroic characters, despite the great divide between North and South, and it's easy to see why Hollywood would find their stories so compelling.

If you happen to be traveling along I-75 at some point in the future, stop in at The Southern Museum in Kennesaw and see The General for yourself. It is definitely worth a visit for history buffs, train lovers, and classic movie fans.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Classic Movie Tourist: The Margaret Mitchell House

The Atlanta area includes several places where devotees can get their Gone with the Wind fix: the Road to Tara Museum is in Jonesboro, and Marietta is home to the Gone with the Wind Museum. In the heart of the city, however, you'll find the Margaret Mitchell House, where the author lived for a number of years and where she wrote much of the novel after an auto accident left her housebound. The restored house is part of the Atlanta History Center, and for $13 ($10 for seniors and students), visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the apartment where Mitchell lived as well as several exhibits about her life, the novel, and the blockbuster film that premiered in Atlanta in 1939.

For most people, the book and the movie are inextricably entwined. It's fair to say that more people have seen the 1939 picture than have actually read Mitchell's lengthy saga. When Scarlett O'Hara appears in the cultural consciousness, she is inevitably played by Vivien Leigh, and Clark Gable fully occupies the role of the roguish Rhett Butler. The other major actors in the film have also become part of the GWTW legacy, including Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Leslie Howard, and even Butterfly McQueen. The exhibits at the Margaret Mitchell House reflect this aspect of the story's history; many of the displays focus on the film adaptation, which makes the museum a great destination for fans of the stars involved.

"The Making of a Film Legend" section features video about the picture's production history and a large portrait of Scarlett O'Hara that was seen in the movie. Another highlight of the exhibit is the actual door to Tara used in the film; visitors can stand in front of it and imagine themselves waving from the plantation mansion's steps. In the "Stars Fall on Atlanta" exhibit, there are photographs and keepsakes from the movie premiere, which Atlanta society turned into a huge series of parties with celebrity guests.

Of course, classic movie fans will want to browse the gift shop, where GWTW items of all sorts can be found. The shop also offers prints of production stills and promo photos depicting Gable and Leigh as well as posters for the film release. Hattie McDaniel magnets, Tara Christmas ornaments, and books about a variety of GWTW related subjects are also available. I was pleased to find Kendra Bean's new book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, prominently displayed on the front table.

If you're headed to Atlanta any time in the near future, the Margaret Mitchell House is definitely worth a visit. It's located at 979 Crescent Avenue NE in Atlanta, not far from many of the city's other major tourist attractions. The museum is open 10 AM to 5:30 PM Monday through Saturday and noon to 5:30 PM on Sunday. House tours are included in admission and are offered regularly throughout the day.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE (1939)

Alice Faye and Tyrone Power appeared together in three films, with Rose of Washington Square (1939) following their collaborations for In Old Chicago (1937) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). The duo’s final pairing is typical of Fox musicals; a slender plot serves primarily as a frame on which to hang the songs, with some dance numbers added in for extra measure. As in the earlier pictures, there’s a strong element of nostalgia, this time for the days of Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies; Al Jolson plays a major supporting role, and the plot, such as it is, is based on the experiences of Follies star Fanny Brice. While both Faye and Power made better movies than Rose of Washington Square, the Ziegfeld connections merit some attention, especially from those interested in the fame and legacy of Fanny Brice, who was not amused by the studio’s appropriation of her life story.

Faye plays Rose Sargent, a young singer whose rise to fame and romantic difficulties parallel those of Brice. On a short holiday outing, Rose meets and promptly falls for the handsome but unreliable Bart Clinton (Tyrone Power), who continues to lie, swindle, and con his way through life after the two are married. All the while, Rose’s old pal, Ted (Al Jolson), tries to look out for her, even as he becomes a hugely successful star with the Ziegfeld Follies. Rose eventually gets her own break with Ziegfeld and achieves stardom, but Bart’s bad habits threaten to ruin both her personal happiness and her career.

For classic Hollywood history buffs, Rose of Washington Square is a fascinating example of art imitating life and then getting sued for it. The title song immediately connects the picture to Fanny Brice, who had one of her big hits with the tune, “Second Hand Rose.” Today, Brice would be forgotten entirely if not for Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning portrayal of her in the 1968 musical, Funny Girl. In 1939, however, Brice was still very much in the public eye. She had risen to fame with the Ziegfeld Follies and her heart-rending performance of her signature song, “My Man,” which channeled her real-life marital unhappiness. Brice was also famous for her Baby Snooks character, who appeared on radio programs in the late 30s and early 40s and eventually got her own show in 1944. The comedienne did not take Fox’s use of her personal history lightly; she sued the studio and got a settlement as a result, but the notoriety only helped the picture at the box office.

Although entertaining as a vehicle for Faye’s musical talent, the movie doesn’t really live up to the hype generated by its borrowed origins. Faye and Power have good chemistry and always deliver as reliable performers with palpable screen charisma, but Power’s character is often absent, leaving Faye as the solitary lead. Faye sings a number of songs taken from Fanny Brice’s repertoire, including “My Man,” but Al Jolson performs almost as much as she does. Jolson’s blackface minstrel act had already been immortalized in The Jazz Singer (1927), and here he more or less plays himself doing the same thing, reviving some of his most successful songs and making modern viewers distinctly uncomfortable. When he isn’t in blackface, he gives a surprisingly compelling performance, pining after Rose with an unrequited devotion that suits his sweetly sad demeanor. His character, Ted, serves as the quintessential nice guy foil to Power’s rakish crook, but the movie doesn’t really develop the possibility that Rose might recognize Ted’s potential as a better mate. Her “stand by your man” philosophy is naively sentimental; it accurately reflects Brice’s decision to stick with her imprisoned husband up to a certain point, but even Brice eventually got fed up and left. Just like Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), Power’s character might not be all bad, but he’s certainly rotten enough to warrant a restraining order and a good divorce lawyer, which makes the romantic angle of the plot rather hard to take.

Gregory Ratoff directed about forty films, including Rose of Washington Square, Intermezzo (1939), and The Corsican Brothers (1941), but he was also an actor who had his biggest screen role as Max Fabian in All About Eve (1950). See the radiant Alice Faye in Technicolor in That Night in Rio (1941), Week-End in Havana (1941), and The Gang’s All Here (1943). Tyrone Power is best remembered today for swashbuckling pictures like The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Black Swan (1942), but be sure to catch more of his dark side in Nightmare Alley (1947) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). You’ll also find Al Jolson with Alice Faye in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939). See the one and only original Fanny Brice in Be Yourself! (1930), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Ziegfeld Follies (1945).