Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Grant plays Tom Winters, a busy government employee whose impending divorce is derailed when his estranged wife dies in an accident. Tom returns home to claim his three children rather than let his wife's family raise them, even though the youngsters regard him with suspicion and hostility. To appease them, he engages the attractive Cinzia (Sophia Loren) as a maid, although she's really a runaway Italian socialite looking for freedom from her overbearing father (Eduardo Ciannelli). The awkward family group ends up inhabiting a dilapidated houseboat, where Tom and Cinzia develop their relationships with the children and each other.
Grant, thirty years Loren's senior, still manages to pull off the virility and charm needed to make him a credible romantic interest, not only to Cinzia but to Tom's lovestruck sister-in-law, Carolyn (Martha Hyer). Perhaps Loren's continental air narrows our sense of the divide; she might be young, but she's no ingenue, and she radiates a knowing sensuality to match her impressive figure. Cinzia knows how to handle men, even the ardent Angelo (Harry Guardino), who pursues her relentlessly until he realizes she's the kind of woman who makes a man think of marriage. The fuse to light the protagonists' flame is a slow-burning one, giving them time to size one another up and consider their options, but once it lights it blazes through the final scenes of the picture.
The supporting performances from the three children help to sell the family side of the story, with each child enjoying a few key scenes in which to shine. Charles Herbert takes the early spotlight as Robert, especially since the opening credits offer us his perspective of the world. Mimi Gibson is the most emotionally mature of the three as the daughter, Elizabeth, even though her fear of thunder sends her seeking refuge in her father's bed. Paul Peterson slowly unfolds the grief and confusion of the oldest child, David, who has taken to stealing things in the wake of his mother's death. Each of the young actors reveals the complicated emotions of children who have lost their mother and don't know what to make of the stranger their father has become. The pathos of their situation is never laid on too thick, and it doesn't weigh the lighter elements of the picture down, but it gives Houseboat more heart than other Cary Grant vehicles like Indiscreet (1958) or Charade (1963).
For more from writer and director Melville Shavelson, you might try The Seven Little Foys (1955), The Five Pennies (1959), or Yours, Mine and Ours (1968); he and Jack Rose also wrote the screenplays for films like It's a Great Feeling (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and the Cary Grant picture, Room for One More (1952). See more of Sophia Loren in Two Women (1960), El Cid (1961), and Marriage Italian Style (1964). Mimi Gibson appears in The Children's Hour (1961) and provides the voice of Lucky in 101 Dalmatians (1961), Charles Herbert has a significant role in The Fly (1958), and Paul Peterson can be found on The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). Cary Grant didn't play fathers very often, but for more familial images of the star, try Penny Serenade (1941), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and Room for One More.
Friday, April 17, 2015
Bergman plays successful stage actress Anna Kalman, who despairs of finding a worthwhile, unmarried man. Her sister, Margaret (Phyllis Calvert), and brother-in-law, Alfred (Cecil Parker), introduce her to the temptingly attractive Philip (Cary Grant), but he quickly confesses that he, too, possesses a wife. Anna enters into a romance with Philip in spite of his inability to get a divorce and soon begins to yearn for more than an illicit affair.
You'll end up scratching your head in bewilderment if you're looking for a moral to Indiscreet, and it's certainly not progressive in terms of its portrayal of Anna, a successful, celebrated star whose girlish neediness stands in strange contrast to her supposed experience and social standing. The reversals of the third act don't clarify any of these issues, although they do at least rouse Anna to action and give the lovers something to do besides make eyes at each other. Bergman is lovely, and Grant is charming, and that's sufficient for the film's modest ambitions. The problem of Anna's celebrity, hinted at when autograph seekers pursue her through every excursion, is never really developed as an aspect of the romantic relationship; Philip's employment in a sensitive NATO undertaking is also suggested but not really delved into as an issue that might complicate an adulterous affair.
As is often the case with this kind of romantic comedy, the supporting characters are more interesting than the leads, with two pairs of spouses acting as foils to the besotted lovers. Phyllis Calvert gives an especially good performance as Anna's protective older sister. Margaret is wiser and much less romantic than Anna, as her marriage to Alfred reveals; their relationship relies more on long-standing camaraderie than sexual chemistry, but they don't seem unhappy together. The more obvious comedy is left mostly to David Kossoff and Megs Jenkins as Carl and Doris, Anna's devoted servants, and they make another couple whose practical, everyday relationship provides a contrast to the perpetual Valentine of Anna and Philip's affair. The older couples sense that Anna's swooning ecstasy can't last, especially with an unobtainable man, but the film still seems to encourage us to think that the classical romance, adultery and all, is the preferred mode.
For a more exciting endeavor from Stanley Donen and Cary Grant, see Charade (1963). Donen is also remembered today for Singin' in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Funny Face (1957). For more of Cary Grant in the 1950s, try To Catch a Thief (1955), An Affair to Remember (1957), and North by Northwest (1959). Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress Oscars for Gaslight (1944) and Anastasia (1956), but she is certainly best known for her role in Casablanca (1942). You'll find Phyllis Calvert in Appointment with Danger (1951), and she and Cecil Parker both appear in The Magic Bow (1946).
Thursday, April 16, 2015
The plot resurrects Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) four years after his assumed death. Talbot, distraught at being alive and cursed by lycanthropy again, eventually makes his way to the home of Dr. Frankenstein, in the hope that the infamous doctor can end his eternal life. Unfortunately, the doctor is dead, and Larry finds and revives the monster (Bela Lugosi) instead. The unfortunate village near Frankenstein's castle falls prey to the depredations of both werewolf and monster, prompting panic and a rising mob, while Larry's doctor, Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles), and the attractive Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey) struggle to bring Larry and the monster to a peaceful end.
The plot fails to resolve itself, probably because Universal wanted to keep its monsters alive for additional sequels, and editing decisions cut much of Lugosi's role out of the final version of the picture. Technically speaking, the only Frankenstein in the film is Elsa, who is actually the granddaughter of the original mad scientist and the daughter of his son, who had taken up the family vocation in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Frank Mannering ends up being the doctor who must face the temptation of controlling life and death, and he never gets insane enough to be much fun.
Chaney continues to imbue Larry Talbot with tragic pathos, and his transformation scenes are really quite good, better even than those seen in the original film. Rejoining him on his journey to Frankenstein's castle is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, and she makes the movie worth watching all by herself. Dwight Frye has a small role as one of the villagers (you'll miss him if you aren't watching for him), and Lionel Atwill, another regular in the genre, plays the reasonable town mayor. Lugosi, sadly, has little to do; many of the scenes featuring the monster are really stunt doubles, and the monster's limited screen time makes him merely a minor character, despite the title's implication to the contrary.
I can't tell you why Patric Knowles ends up playing two different characters named Frank between The Wolf Man and this film, but it makes for a rather odd sense of deja vu if you watch both movies in rapid succession. Maybe he just makes a perfect foil to Chaney, or perhaps director Roy William Neill wanted to bring back as many of the original film's cast as possible. Even Chaney's beloved German Shepherd, Moose, who played the role of the wolf in the original movie, makes a brief appearance in the sequel. Chaney himself would bring Larry Talbot back for more suffering in House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). You can see more of Maria Ouspenskaya in Love Affair (1939), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Roy William Neill's directorial credits include many Sherlock Holmes adventures with Basil Rathbone, but he also directed Black Angel (1946).
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Bobby Driscoll stars as Jim Hawkins, a young boy thrust into adventure when a dying pirate named Billy Bones (Finlay Currie) hands him a map to buried treasure. Soon, Jim embarks as cabin boy on a voyage to discover the loot, with Squire Trelawney (Walter Fitzgerald) and Dr. Livesey (Denis O'Dea) as his companions and protectors. Jim also develops a friendship with the ship's cook, Long John Silver (Robert Newton), not suspecting that Silver is really a ruthless pirate who has his own plans for taking over the ship and claiming the buried treasure for himself.
The adaptation is not without its problems. Bobby Driscoll, best remembered as the voice of Peter Pan, is an obvious choice for Jim from the studio's perspective, since the child star had already appeared in numerous Disney pictures, but he is much too flatly American for the role, and he has an unfortunate habit of squinting, open-mouthed, at adult characters when they speak. Ben Gunn, played by Geoffrey Wilkinson, is also a weak point with his shrill, over-the-top wild man act, but his part is so truncated that he has few opportunities to offend. The other supporting players generally fare better, especially Denis O'Dea and Walter Fitzgerald, but they also get little screen time to develop their characters, and Finlay Currie is sadly underused as Billy Bones. Not a single female character appears in the picture at all, making this movie quite the boys only affair, although Stevenson's novel provides a good supporting part in Jim's hard-working, determined mother.
On the plus side, the scenery is exciting and authentic looking, even though the movie was shot in England rather than the West Indies, and the action rolls along without any slow spots. Moreover, Robert Newton takes control of every scene in which he appears, making the most of the picture's best role. In film adaptations of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins is only the nominal protagonist, and Long John Silver is always the star. Newton effectively conveys Silver's mix of geniality and calculation; we never can tell which side he really wants to be on, and when we think we know him he surprises us again. Newton's delivery of his lines informs our idea of what a pirate is supposed to sound like, while his appearance, with his one leg, his talking parrot, and his swarthy, dark looks, has become the model of the stereotypical buccaneer. Newton became so identified with the role that he reprised it for Long John Silver (1954) and the television series, The Adventures of Long John Silver (1956-1957), but neither proved as successful as the original outing, and Newton died in 1956.
For more film adaptations of Treasure Island, try the 1934 version with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper or Muppet Treasure Island (1996), with Tim Curry as Long John. See Robert Newton in The Beachcomber (1938), This Happy Breed (1944), and Oliver Twist (1948). Bobby Driscoll also stars in Song of the South (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1948), and The Window (1949). Get a better appreciation for Finlay Currie in Great Expectations (1946) and People Will Talk (1951). For something really different from director Byron Haskin, try Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).
Monday, April 13, 2015
The story follows young Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), through the more eventful moments of their childhoods in the small Alabama town of Maycomb. Scout, Jem, and their friend, Dill (John Megna), spend their free time wondering about their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), but their lives are changed when their father, Atticus (Gregory Peck), is assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Their friends and neighbors reveal the ugliness of racial prejudice as Atticus is criticized for doing his best to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in court, even though his guilt is far from certain.
Although Scout's first person narration makes her the obvious protagonist of Harper Lee's novel, the film shifts the focus to Atticus, and in some scenes Scout is not even present. The change puts the heavier acting burden on Peck but also lets him develop the character more fully. More than anything else, the film version of the story becomes a paean to the upright patriarch and champion of decency, which might help to explain why a movie about racism, rape, an egregious miscarriage of justice, an attempted lynching, and attempted murder leaves most viewers feeling uplifted instead of depressed. Atticus does not even enjoy the success of Henry Fonda's juror in 12 Angry Men (1957), but he inspires both his children and the audience to feel that the good fight is worthwhile, even when one is bound to lose it. Peck embodies these qualities perfectly, and it's fascinating to compare his idealized Atticus with the more complicated Southern lawyer family man he plays in the same year's Cape Fear. The movie also creates more conflict between Atticus and Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the man who accuses Tom Robinson of raping his daughter, partly to play up the contrast between these two fathers. Every ounce of integrity in Atticus has its equal opposite measure in Ewell's despicable, hateful character, and James Anderson, who worked mostly in television and Westerns, gives the single most memorable performance of his career.
Despite playing second fiddle to Peck, the children in the film are excellent representations of the novel's trio of youngsters, with Mary Badham especially winning as the tomboyish Scout. Her performance earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, a category that highlights Scout's diminished importance in the film. Both Badham and Phillip Alford were Alabama natives making their first screen appearances; their Southern accents are natural, not coached, which helps the picture tremendously, and they behave like real, rough and tumble children rather than Hollywood imitations. John Megna, a New Yorker, was the professional of the group, but he catches the hyperbolic, eager nature of Dill, who makes up wild tales to impress his friends and cover for his lack of a father. The children's scenes with African-American characters advance the story's underlying message about racial equality and the changing attitudes of a new generation. We see them at home with Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the only maternal figure Scout has ever known, and at the trial with the kindly Reverend Sykes (Bill Walker), with whom they sit in the balcony designated for the court's black spectators. Jem's brief scene with Tom Robinson's son, in which they wave tentatively at one another, eloquently expresses the way in which white and black children in the South were so close, and yet so far, from each other at every moment of their lives.
To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars and earned eight additional nominations, a very good performance in a year that included Lawrence of Arabia and The Miracle Worker as significant competitors. Robert Mulligan also directed Gregory Peck in The Stalking Moon (1968). For more of Peck, see Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Roman Holiday (1953), and Cape Fear (1962). Although neither Brock Peters nor Robert Duvall appears much in the film, each contributes to it powerfully; see Peters in Carmen Jones (1954), Porgy and Bess (1959), and then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) to see how his career evolved over time, and don't miss Robert Duvall's performances in The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Tender Mercies (1983).
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Broderick Crawford stumbles through the proceedings as Gil, an eager opportunist looking to arrange the sale of the Winslow estate and earn the affection of lovely Elaine (Anne Gwynne), one of the prospective heirs. After Gil turns up with loopy furniture dealer Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), the residents of the house experience a series of shocks, starting with the suspicious death of estate owner Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus). As the heirs squabble over Henrietta's will, more strange events unfold, with secret passages and an ominous black cat helping a killer eliminate anyone who gets in the way.
The plot strongly resembles those of The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932), although it has very little to do with the Edgar Allan Poe story from which it and the 1934 picture draw their titles. Its chills rely mostly on a mysterious killer who sneaks through the house using a maze of secret passages, but Gale Sondergaard is by far the scariest of the regular residents as the creepy housekeeper, Abigail. The camera angles highlight the weird angles of her face and her leering eyes to great effect, and she certainly knows how to milk the role for every bit of the audience's attention. Cecilia Loftus also benefits from creative camera work when she first appears onscreen; her eyes freakishly exaggerated by the thick spectacles she wears, she looks more like a creature from another world than a frail old lady with a harmless love for cats. Sadly, the film's most famous actors don't enjoy as much opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Basil Rathbone's Montague Hartley is a cad, but not an especially frightening one, and he doesn't really have enough to do, while Bela Lugosi's hairy groundskeeper is mostly deployed to rattle Gil and create confusion. Alan Ladd plays the sort of role one expects Elisha Cook, Jr. to fill, a minor part but fraught with anxiety and accusation. One year later he would appear in This Gun for Hire (1942) and become a true cinema star.
The comedy elements are hit or miss, with Broderick Crawford generally likable as Gil but Hugh Herbert laying it on much too thick with his trademark schtick. If you like his antics you'll love him here, but his character thwarts the action right up to the last moment, and he's too dense to understand the climactic life-or-death situation. Gil, however, manages to straddle the two genres, even though his efforts to unmask the killer repeatedly land him in ludicrous mishaps. It's an unusual role for Broderick Crawford, who would go on to win an Oscar for Best Actor in All the King's Men (1949). Here he gets to be comedian, amateur detective, and romantic lead all at once, sneezing helplessly at the omnipresent cats but persisting in uncovering the truth even when everyone else derides his claims. Crawford's Gil functions as the reliable, all-American everyman at the center of the unpredictable action; even if the assembled cast is awash in red herrings - which it certainly is - we know we can depend on Gil to be the good guy all the way through, and if he sometimes gets goofy that only serves to make him more familiar and reassuring. Lee Tracy serves a similar if more streetwise function in Doctor X (1932), and Bob Hope covers the same territory in The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940).
Director Albert Rogell made over one hundred movies but never became well known; his other pictures include Li'l Abner (1940) and In Old Oklahoma (1943). For more of Broderick Crawford, see Larceny, Inc. (1942), Black Angel (1946), and Born Yesterday (1950). Gale Sondergaard won Best Supporting Actress for Anthony Adverse (1936), but be sure to catch her in The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Letter (1940), as well. If you go for Hugh Herbert's comedy style, can find him in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Hollywood Hotel (1937), and There's One Born Every Minute (1942).
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
As Calamity, Day whoops, fights, and sings her way around Deadwood, a wild frontier town where the men pine for Chicago stage star Adelaid Adams. Calamity goes to fetch the sexy chanteuse but accidentally brings back her maid, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie), instead. After a rough start, Katie proves a hit, but Calamity is jealous when both her pal, Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), and her crush, Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey), try to court Katie.
Day is absolutely the star attraction here, and the buckskin costumes give her an opportunity to deliver an unusually physical performance as both a singer and a comedienne. As she rides, shoots, runs, and bounces through her scenes her energy is simply irresistible. Ironically, it's the slow, quintessentially feminine song, "Secret Love," that won the Oscar for Best Song, even though Day's more boisterous numbers, especially "The Deadwood Stage," are much more fun. Howard Keel is in his natural element as Day's leading man; the two sound very good together in their musical segments and have a feisty chemistry that telegraphs the inevitable ending. Allyn McLerie also makes an excellent partner and foil for Day, and the budding friendship between Katie and Calamity adds another layer to the story that Cinderella fantasies usually lack. Philip Carey has the least rewarding role of the four major players, since his Danny is no prince, and our final judgment of each character stems from his or ability to appreciate Calamity, which Danny never proves himself able to do.
The theme, the setting, and the presence of Keel recall the 1950 musical Annie Get Your Gun, in which Betty Hutton plays another Western legend, the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. In both movies, the rugged, uncultured heroines adopt conventional femininity in order to get their men, but Calamity Jane avoids the worst sins of the earlier story by having Calamity retain the essential elements of her character. Calamity doesn't give up her old identity or her scrappy frontier spirit. She adds dresses to her wardrobe but keeps pants, too, and her ability to inhabit both modes is particularly emphasized when she sings the sweetly romantic "Secret Love" while dressed in a buckskin pants outfit. The ending also promises a much more egalitarian marriage than that achieved in the Hutton film, in which Annie loses a shooting match on purpose because her man can't stand to be beaten by a woman. In both pictures, Howard Keel plays the leading man, but his Wild Bill has a far less fragile ego than his Frank Butler. While it takes a pretty dress to make Bill aware of it, his affection for Calamity has been there the whole time, and the picture's final moment makes it clear that Calamity has developed a characteristically possessive view of their new relationship.
Be sure to appreciate the very funny Dick Wesson as Francis Fryer; his drag number is a hoot. For more of Doris Day, see Romance on the High Seas (1948), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and Pillow Talk (1959). Howard Keel also stars in Show Boat (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Look for Allyn McLerie in The Way We Were (1973), and catch Philip Carey in Westerns like Cattle Town (1952) and Springfield Rifle (1952). Other films directed by David Butler include Shirley Temple vehicles like Bright Eyes (1934) and Captain January (1936) as well as the Crosby and Hope road picture, Road to Morocco (1942).