Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: OBSESSION (1949)

Released in the United States as The Hidden Room, Edward Dmytryk's Obsession (1949) is an unusual little gem of a thriller, a strangely polite and very English story of murder, jealousy, and revenge. It makes the most of its cast and its setting to craft a thoughtful tale of suspense that never becomes showy or overdone, with especially effective use of Robert Newton and post-war London. In fact, Obsession would probably have enjoyed enduring fame had it featured bigger stars or a different director, but don't let its obscurity dissuade you from spending some time with this unique film.

Robert Newton leads as psychiatrist Clive Riordan, who gets fed up with his wife's affairs and decides to murder the next man she takes on as a lover. Unfortunately for American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown), he happens to be the next man, and Clive soon has him imprisoned in a hidden room beneath a bomb damaged area of London. Clive's wife, Storm (Sally Gray), suspects that Clive has murdered Bill but can't prove anything to the police, while Clive keeps Bill alive as long as there's a chance that Scotland Yard might deduce his role in making Bill disappear. Bill, meanwhile, suffers loneliness and anxiety in his secret prison, even as he hopes that Clive's murderous plans will ultimately fall through.

The consequences and cultural shifts that followed World War II shape the subtext of the film and make it much more sophisticated than a simple murder plot. Like The Third Man (1949), Obsession takes advantage of the ruined landscapes of post-war Europe; Clive's plot hinges on the availability of abandoned and damaged buildings in which to hide his prisoner. The film also captures a strong feeling of English resentment toward American usurpation as a result of the war; not only is Bill poaching Clive's wife, but there are American sailors lolling in the streets, and at Clive's club the conversation inevitably turns to the strange colonials and their omnipotent dollars. Bill, the interloping young American, embodies all that Clive and his peers abhor about the new order of the world, but the American influence proves inescapable, even to the indubitably English Clive.

It's easy to imagine more illustrious stars in the roles, but each actor in the film delivers a compelling performance. Newton, a character actor best remembered as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950), here plays a role that would have perfectly suited Claude Rains, but Newton does such a good job that Rains' absence cannot be lamented. Newton keeps Clive in a low register throughout, so that he always seems like a perfectly reasonable human being who just happens to be dead set on murdering his wife's lover. His lethal plans aren't personal as far as Bill is concerned; in fact, he's unfailingly polite to his intended victim, even when Bill cracks under stress. With his slight build, all-American persona, and casual amiability, Phil Brown might be a stand-in for Henry Fonda as Bill, whose inherent decency becomes more apparent after he pays for his caddish dalliance with another man's wife, especially when he rescues Clive's persistent little dog, Monty, from becoming a test subject for Clive's acid bath. The beautiful but unfaithful Storm might have been played by any of the classic Hitchcock blondes, but Sally Gray has the perfect jaw and disdainful gaze to convey Storm's essential nature. Naunton Wayne arrives late in the picture as the Scotland Yard superintendent, Finsbury, but he adds another aspect of the English character to the proceedings as he corners Clive through a series of seemingly harmless exchanges. One can imagine Cecil Kellaway in the part, but Wayne is precisely right for it himself, and to English audiences he would have been quite recognizable from his appearances as the comical Caldicott in previous films.

Edward Dmytryk's directorial career suffered after he was caught up in the anti-Communist hearings of the late 1940s, but for more of his work see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). In addition to his appearances as Long John Silver in two films and a television series, Robert Newton can be found in This Happy Breed (1944), Oliver Twist (1948), and The Desert Rats (1953). Naunton Wayne turns up as Caldicott in both The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940), while Sally Gray appears in Green for Danger (1947). You might not recognize Bill Kronin as a young man, but you've certainly seen him; he had in small parts in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Superman (1978) but gained a measure of movie immortality as Luke's Uncle Owen in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: LIBELED LADY (1936)

Hollywood has always loved newspaper stories, especially when there's scandal and salacious tabloid gossip involved, and Libeled Lady (1936) delivers all that and more. Directed by Jack Conway, Libeled Lady is a screwball comedy times two, with four big stars in its leading roles, although William Powell and Myrna Loy steal the picture from Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow with their perfect comic dialogue and irresistible romantic chemistry.

Tracy opens the film as newspaper man Warren Haggerty, who has landed his publication in a huge libel suit thanks to a scandalous report about wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). Haggerty hires smooth operator Bill Chandler (William Powell) to set Connie up in a compromising situation that will derail her lawsuit. As part of the plot, Haggerty even convinces his own impatient girlfriend, Gladys (Jean Harlow), to marry Bill and then pretend outrage when Bill is caught with the unsuspecting Connie. Bill, however, throws a wrench in the plan when he actually falls for Connie, while Gladys begins to behave as if she really were Bill's jealous wife.

For classic film fans, the quadruple leads are the real draw, with Tracy and Harlow playing a rougher, more robustly hilarious pair and Powell and Loy doing their distinctively witty take on romantic comedy. The action moves along at a brisk pace. Tracy and Harlow are both very entertaining, especially when they argue, but the fireworks really go off when Powell and Loy get together. There's just something about them that the camera - and the audience - can't resist. Powell also exercises his talent for physical comedy in an especially funny scene in which Bill tries to fish his way into the good graces of Connie and her father (Walter Connolly). Much of the story is strikingly modern in the sense that it plays some rather shocking ideas for laughs; films of the 1930s often reveal a very casual attitude toward divorce, but here we also get a sham marriage and the threat of bigamy, and neither of them seems like a very big deal.

Jean Harlow gets top billing for this picture, and it's worth noting that the Harlow films - though sadly few in number - do offer some really interesting ensembles of iconic stars. Libeled Lady sets her up with two different leading men - Tracy and Powell - and gives her Loy as a female foil. In the same year, Loy also acts as a counter to Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), which presents Clark Gable and James Stewart as Harlow's two romantic opportunities. Dinner at Eight (1933), a true ensemble picture, pairs Harlow with Wallace Beery, while Bombshell (1933) sets her between Lee Tracy and Franchot Tone. Her pictures always seem to feature casts that revel in contrast, whether between Harlow and her fellow actresses or between the different men who vie for her affections. Like most of the studios of that time, MGM played mix and match with its stable of performers, but the Harlow movies almost always seem like particularly good efforts at getting the right group into the right roles.

Libeled Lady earned a Best Picture nomination at the 1937 Academy Awards, although a different Powell and Loy picture, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), took home the prize. The elegant duo gained their greatest fame playing Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) and its numerous sequels, although Powell is also justly celebrated for his performance in My Man Godfrey (1936). For more of two time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy's work in the 1930s, see Fury (1936), San Francisco (1936), and Captains Courageous (1937). Tracy and Harlow also appeared together in another 1936 picture, Riffraff, but Libeled Lady is the happier story of the two. Jean Harlow's career ended tragically in 1937, when the actress died of kidney failure at just 26 years old. See more of her with frequent costar Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932), China Seas (1935) and her last film, Saratoga (1937).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BRINGING UP BABY (1938)

Howard Hawks' quintessential screwball comedy fell flat at the box office when it first appeared in 1938, but today Bringing Up Baby is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in fine form as the unlikely couple thrown together by leopards, dinosaurs, and the relentless persistence of Hepburn's wacky heroine. The non-stop hilarity runs by so fast that it might take three or four viewings to catch all of the gags, but this is a picture that gets funnier every time you watch it. Outstanding supporting performances from Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett add to the feast of furiously funny scenes, but the animal actors, including the titular Baby and Asta as George the dog, will have even the youngest viewers in stitches.

Grant stars as David Huxley, a scientist whose dry bones life and engagement to the very professional Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) are upended when he meets flighty socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn). Both David and Susan hope to receive a million dollar gift from Susan's aunt, Elizabeth (May Robson), but Susan's interference keeps getting David into trouble. Susan loses a pet leopard meant for her aunt, David loses the last bone needed to finish his dinosaur, and everyone ends up in jail thanks to a series of misadventures and misunderstandings.

Bringing Up Baby offers enough cartoon physical comedy and sight gags to make it entertaining even to modern kids, with Grant and Hepburn romping about the Connecticut countryside and literally falling all over themselves. Grant, a vaudeville veteran, is in his natural element, with a talent for pratfalls and double takes reminiscent of the silent stars. His big round glasses, which evoke Harold Lloyd, further the comparison, especially when we see him carried off on the sideboard of a running car and stepping on the back of Hepburn's gown. As lovely and impossibly slim as she was at that age, Hepburn also dives right into the absurd antics; her "born on the side of a hill" bit is perfectly girlish, a moment of pure silly fun. More robust laughs erupt when the supporting players, especially Charlie Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald, get their chance to react to the presence of Baby, the leopard on the loose, while George the dog, played by A-list canine star Asta, wreaks plenty of havoc, as well.

Beyond the obvious high jinks, however, the film offers a more sophisticated kind of comedy that springs from verbal sparring and the rapid delivery of naughty Freudian gags. David, after all, is a man who has lost his bone, and only a wild thing like Susan can help him get it back. Susan even goes to the extent of renaming David "Mr. Bone," which underlines the point rather forcibly. He's certainly sexually confused by all the chaos that Susan creates. Sabotaged by her desire to keep him around, David ends up in a feathery negligee, at which point he exclaims that he "just went gay all of a sudden!" Later, when Susan complains about losing her heel, Walter Catlett deadpans, "Don't worry about him." The characters deliver these zingers so rapidly that the Breen Office must have missed what they were saying, but at times it's a wonder that this film got past the censors at all. In a picture where Charlie Ruggles and May Robson exchange leopard mating calls by way of flirtation, almost anything can - and does - happen. This is a movie that proves its point about the love impulse revealing itself in terms of conflict, and not just in men.

Be sure to note Walter Bond looming over the other characters in a bit part as a motorcycle cop. For more of Hepburn and Grant, see Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Howard Hawks also directs Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). If you love scene-stealing dogs, catch Asta in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels and The Awful Truth (1937), which also stars Cary Grant.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Failure of Fathers in STRANGER THINGS

Warning: This essay contains spoilers! Read at your own risk.

The Duffer Brothers' 2016 Netflix series, Stranger Things, takes its cues from a bevy of 80s movies, most notably the films of Steven Spielberg and screen adaptations of the works of Stephen King. The mix also includes iconic pictures from the horror, science fiction, and teen genres like Alien (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the films of John Hughes. The television series reflects the culture of the 1980s as seen through the lenses of these pictures, creating a strong sense of nostalgia for Gen Xers in particular, who were the same age as the show's characters during the era depicted in the series. As a kind of period piece, Stranger Things offers us a chance to look back at the 1980s and consider its essential themes, from Cold War paranoia to the initial rise of geek culture as embodied by Dungeons & Dragons. One of the most telling themes incorporated into the series is the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family and the normalization of divorce, especially as those issues relate to absent or failed father figures in the lives of the children and teens. In fact, while Stranger Things depicts a number of father characters, almost none of its fathers manage to live up to the obligations of paternity, and substitute father figures must stand in to provide guidance and protection to the four young boys who function as the show's core characters.

The series focuses on a group of 12 year old friends who stumble into a bizarre government conspiracy after one of them disappears. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) vanishes from the small town of Hawkins, but his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), soon suspects that her son is both alive and held captive in some mysterious place, where he communicates with her by flashing electric lights. While the friends conduct their own search for Will, Joyce enlists the help of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who becomes convinced that a government lab near the town is connected to Will's disappearance. The boys unexpectedly find Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl whose strange abilities and sudden appearance link her to both Will and the secretive lab. Meanwhile, the teen siblings of two of the boys discover more clues to the mystery and realize that a bloodthirsty monster is also involved.

The four boys at the center of the story are Will Byers, Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, and Lucas Sinclair. Only two of the four are shown to have fathers at all: Will has an absent, divorced father named Lonnie, while Mike has an older, sedentary father who spends a lot of his time sleeping in a Lazy Boy chair. We never see the fathers of Dustin and Lucas at all, although we can infer from the series that Lucas has a father who is a veteran of the war in Vietnam. Neither Lonnie nor Ted Wheeler can be called a good father in any meaningful sense, although Ted's failures are more sins of omission than anything else. Lonnie takes no interest in Will or older son Jonathan, and his ex-wife, Joyce, asserts that Lonnie used to deride Will as a "fag" before the parents broke up. When Lonnie does return after Will's disappearance, he turns out to be interested only in suing the quarry where Will's body was supposedly found; he doesn't actually care about his missing/dead son. Ted, who is still married to Mike's mother, Karen, and clearly has a good job, seems like a better father on the surface, but he has no emotional connection to his three children and doesn't seem to understand them at all. While Karen doggedly tries to earn the trust of both Mike and older sister Nancy while constantly caring for toddler Holly, Ted merely works and sleeps. He doesn't know how to talk to his children, doesn't seem to interact with them, and is shown in the last episode to be the only person sleeping in a hospital waiting room full of otherwise worried characters. If Lonnie is the stereotypical deadbeat dad of the 80s, then Ted is the stereotypical dad of the 50s and 60s, who leaves all the domestic and emotional work of parenting to his wife. Neither is the kind of father a child wants or needs, especially a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

Dr. Brenner with Eleven

Even worse than Lonnie and Ted is the manipulative Dr. Brenner, who adopts a paternal facade in his relationship with Eleven. Dr. Brenner is not the girl's real father, and no hint of a biological father's identity is provided, but he trains Eleven to call him "Papa" and to think of him as a parental figure. Lonnie and Ted are neglectful, emotionally distant fathers, but Brenner is actively evil and abusive. He encourages Eleven to rely on him, to obey him, and even to fear him, but he repeatedly hurts her and endangers her for his own ends. Part of Eleven's psychological journey in the series is her realization of Brenner's essentially bad nature and her ultimate decision to reject him. A stark contrast is provided for Eleven in the way that Brenner has treated her versus the way Joyce treats her in the seventh episode, "The Bathtub." Brenner has pushed Eleven to do dangerous things simply because he wants the power and knowledge, but Joyce asks Eleven to take risks to save her son. Joyce thanks Eleven for her bravery but also reassures her, holds her, and supports her, while Brenner dumps Eleven into the lab's sensory deprivation chamber and leaves her to confront the monster alone. Joyce's maternal behavior is utterly alien to Eleven; the scenes in the lab always show her surrounded by emotionally blank male scientists, with only Brenner's insidiously abusive relationship as a gross perversion of parenthood. Nonetheless, Joyce's brief relationship with Eleven clearly has a huge impact on the girl and helps her see the truth about Brenner. The last word she says to him is "bad," and the look on his face tells us that he understands that his hold over her has been broken.

Hopper and Sarah

Somewhere in the middle of the set we find Jim Hopper, the emotionally damaged police chief. Hopper has been a good father; we see that demonstrated in flashbacks of his daughter, Sarah. Tragically, Hopper's daughter contracted a terminal illness; her death destroyed his marriage, drove him to self-destructive habits, and closed him off emotionally until Will's disappearance resurrects his paternal instincts. Hopper was such a devoted father that the loss of his child wrecked him; it's clear that embracing the role means accepting the risk of loss and heartbreak. As he searches for Will, Hopper begins to revisit his grief and simultaneously regain his ability to be a strong father figure, even though the child he tries to help is generally unaware of his efforts. Trapped in the Upside Down, Will doesn't know how dedicated Hopper has become to finding him, but we see how Hopper adopts the paternal role that has been callously vacated by Lonnie, not only toward Will but toward Jonathan, as well. Hopper also takes the domestic role in relationship to Joyce, becoming her partner and emotional support. Despite his courage and resolution on Will's behalf, Hopper does not become an ideal father figure. He makes a Faustian bargain with Brenner to get Will back, one that directly endangers Eleven, so his paternal urge is limited in its scope. He is willing to trade one endangered child for another, even though he has learned that Eleven's mother never stopped trying to find her. It's ironic, on some level, that Hopper is willing to sacrifice the life of a girl to save a boy, given that he was himself the father of a daughter. He does, however, reach out to her in the series' coda, leaving food for her in a box in the woods. It might be too late - the show leaves us with a lot of questions about Eleven's fate - but at least Hopper continues to move back toward the role he once filled.

The absence of real fathers, whether physical or emotional, leaves the role to be filled by substitutes. Hopper becomes one surrogate father, albeit one with serious issues of his own, but other characters also volunteer themselves for the job. Will's older bother, Jonathan, steps in to fill the gap left by Lonnie, even though Jonathan still needs a father figure himself. Jonathan goes to school, works, helps to care for Will, and cooks for the family; he functions as a model for a newer, more invested kind of fatherhood that more closely resembles the multi-tasking required of mothers. He nurtures and supports Will, teaching him about music and bonding with him; Jonathan is the one who knows how to find Will's friends using the two-way radios. When Will goes missing, Jonathan searches for him and openly grieves; he is more in touch with his emotions than any of the previous generation of father figures. Jonathan and Nancy become younger parallels of the partnership embodied by Hopper and Joyce, both active, dedicated, and defined by their devotion to someone else. Jonathan's willingness to accept this burden makes us prefer him to Nancy's love interest, Steve, who is selfish and immature in comparison. The science teacher, Mr. Clarke, is also a surrogate father figure, although his role is less emotionally involved. All four boys have a close relationship with him; he provides them with the intellectual nurturing they cannot get at home and even tries to offer some emotional support after Will's disappearance. Ironically, Brenner's lab uses Clarke's dedication to the boys as a way to locate them; they pretend to be looking for talented science students for a fictitious state club. Clarke has no idea that he's actually betraying his favorite students to their enemies, but he - again unwittingly - makes up for it when he helps them design a sensory deprivation chamber for Eleven, even though it's Saturday night. Although the boys lack actual fathers in their lives who fulfill their parental obligations, the show depicts hope in the form of those who willingly take on such burdens, whether they are authority figures, male relatives, or teachers. If Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas become good men in their turn, it's because of characters like Hopper, Jonathan, and Mr. Clarke, not the men who sired them.

Stranger Things offers a dense narrative with many threads worth pursuing, especially in terms of its relationship to the culture of the 1980s, but the failure of fatherhood certainly seems to lie close to its heart. While mothers are generally shown as loving, dedicated figures - not only Joyce, but Karen Wheeler and even Terry Ives - fathers are seen as deeply flawed. They are absent, uninterested, clueless, or even cruel. They leave young boys to fend for themselves in a dangerous and uncertain world, even as the rules for what it means to be a man are in flux. They treat girls as things and betray them to suffering and peril. Still, there is hope. Where some men rush to vacate their roles as fathers, others step in. It will be interesting to see if Stranger Things revisits these themes with a second season or offers us a glimpse of the ways in which the four boys mature to become the fathers of another generation.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Feel It in My Bones: My Favorite Star Trek Character

With Star Trek Beyond out in theaters just in time for the 50th anniversary of the original show, I find myself thinking back about my lifetime of Trek experiences. I first saw the show as a little girl, when it was on in re-runs during the 1970s. I have been a fan ever since, seeing every movie and every new television series (although Enterprise never quite captured my attention like everything else). There's a lot to love about Treks old and new, from the progressive vision of humanity's future to the deep love of literature that balances its more obvious focus on science and engineering. Every fan, of course, has his or her favorite episode, movie, and character, and for me that character has always been the irascible Dr. Leonard McCoy, particularly as played by original series star, DeForest Kelley.

I've had some trouble adjusting to the new McCoy, played by Karl Urban, but mainly because my devotion to the original ran so deep. Urban finally won me over with his performance in Star Trek Beyond, thanks largely to his wonderful banter with Zachary Quinto's pitch-perfect Spock. Still, Kelley will always be the "real" McCoy as far as I'm concerned. His depiction of a future Southerner struck home for me as a little girl growing up in the Deep South; he was one of the only truly positive representations of Southern people I had seen. Usually Southerners were hicks on television; The Dukes of Hazzard was the worst offender, but even The Andy Griffith Show had a folksy, aw-shucks sensibility that galled me. I was a voracious reader, a bookish kid who loathed sports, but I was also defined by a distinctive drawl and a childhood spent on a farm. I never saw anybody like me on TV.

Something about Bones, though, spoke to me. He was cranky but humane, the voice of the heart to balance Spock's voice of the head. He didn't relish adventure and being transported across space, but you could rely on him in a pinch. He never gave up his drawl or his Southern manner, but he worked on an integrated starship where everyone was judged by his or her individual merits. He knew Shakespeare just as well as Kirk and Spock. He was instantly familiar but so different from any Southern TV character I had seen before. Most of all, his Southern identity felt authentic, and that's because it was. DeForest Kelley was born in Georgia, where he lived until he left for California to become an actor. His accent wasn't forced or feigned; it sounded like the people I grew up with and knew. I've talked about Southern identity in classic films and television before; it's rare to see an actual Southerner play a positively depicted Southern character. It means a lot to young people in particular to see someone like them get to be smart, forward-thinking, and part of the in-crowd of heroes and pioneers.

Bones was a doctor, damn it, as he often liked to say, but to me he's still the heart of Trek. I'm pleased to see the character continue in the new series, even if I'll always hold a special place in my heart for Kelley's original version. Do you have a favorite Star Trek actor or character? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE SPANISH MAIN (1945)

The Spanish Main (1945) revisits many of the same elements as earlier swashbucklers, especially Captain Blood (1935) and The Black Swan (1942), but this time instead of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power we get Paul Henreid as the heroic pirate, and the actor gives a perfectly winning performance in the role. The picture suffers a bit in comparison with the greatest examples of the genre, and it certainly doesn't break any new ground, but Henreid and leading lady Maureen O'Hara make The Spanish Main an entertaining way to spend an evening. Gorgeous Technicolor costumes and supporting performances from Walter Slezak, Mike Mazurki, and the very engaging Binnie Barnes also add to the appeal.

Henreid plays Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship of immigrants to the Carolinas wrecks off the coast of Cartagena. Van Horn and his passengers become the prisoners of the foppish, corrupt viceroy, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak), but Van Horn escapes from the dungeons and reinvents himself as the notorious pirate known as The Barracuda. With his crew of former prisoners, Van Horn exacts revenge on Alvarado at every opportunity, but the best chance of all comes when the pirates take the ship carrying Alvarado's intended bride, the beautiful Francesca (Maureen O'Hara). Van Horn promptly marries Francesca to gall Alvarado, but his actions anger his pirate peers, especially the jealous Anne Bonney (Binnie Barnes) and his second-in-command, Mario (John Emery). With plots rising against him at every turn, Van Horn finds that he might actually be in love with his stolen bride.

Paul Henreid is, of course, best remembered for Casablanca (1942); in The Spanish Main he gets to play a more physical, roguish role, but his refined air softens his character in comparison with Tyrone Power's protagonist in The Black Swan. The juxtaposition of the two comes naturally because both actors play pirates engaged in a war of the sexes with Maureen O'Hara, who was classic Hollywood's go-to girl for gorgeous shrews. Henreid has an air of continental class, even when he's tied to the mast and being lashed, that makes us doubt the sincerity of Van Horn's misogynist threats, but the actor looks remarkably good in the period costumes, especially with his tousled blond curls. This is a sexier, looser Henreid, who looks like he's having a lot of fun. He's exciting to watch in the sword fight sequences, too, and the audience can certainly sympathize when Francesca falls for him. O'Hara is radiantly lovely in a series of dazzling gowns, but as usual her fiery spirit serves as her chief attraction, and she has some wonderful scenes in which her character gets to prove her mettle to Van Horn, even standing to a pistol duel and organizing the pirates' escape from Alvarado's treacherous clutches.

If the miniature ships and painted backdrops look a little obvious to modern eyes, the performances of the supporting players also help to make up for it, particularly Binnie Barnes in a delightful turn as the real lady pirate Anne Bonney. She's so feisty and fun that she could have carried her own movie, although the resolution for her character is one of the places where the picture falls flat. Walter Slezak makes for a preening, pompous villain as Alvarado; he would play a very similar role in The Pirate (1948), and in both pictures he's a perfect foil for the vigorous, virile hero. John Emery rocks his roguish hair and mustache as the slippery Mario, although he doesn't really have a lot to do until the last third of the picture, while Mike Mazurki proves the standout of the minor characters without ever uttering a word. Fritz Leiber, who had also appeared in The Sea Hawk, plays yet another priest character, and naturally he looks very much at home in the role, although he disappears toward the end of the movie as the action heats up.

Frank Borzage, a two-time winner of the Oscar for Best Director, made The Spanish Main toward the end of his career, which had started out during the silent era. He is probably best remembered today for A Farewell to Arms (1932) and the wartime morale booster, Stage Door Canteen (1943). For more of Paul Henreid, see Now, Voyager (1942), Deception (1946), and Rope of Sand (1949); he returned to piracy in Last of the Buccaneers (1950) and Pirates of Tripoli (1955). Maureen O'Hara plays more beautiful firebrands in The Quiet Man (1952) and McClintock! (1963), opposite frequent costar John Wayne, but for something different see her in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Catch Binnie Barnes in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), The Last of the Mohicans (1936), and In Old California (1942). If you really want to loathe a Walter Slezak villain, see him at his worst in Lifeboat (1944).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: IVANHOE (1952)

Adapted from the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1952) makes a perfect companion to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Both are rousing Technicolor adventures set during the days of King Richard the Lionheart, and Robin even plays a critical part in the later story. Robert Taylor might lack the insouciance of Errol Flynn's roguish Robin, but his Saxon knight is a bold hero, nonetheless, and Joan Fontaine matches her sister, Olivia de Havilland, as an alluring lady love. Director Richard Thorpe oversees the lavish production, which earned three Oscar nominations, and the film benefits from memorable performances by Elizabeth Taylor, George Sanders, and Finlay Currie.

Robert Taylor leads the cast as the heroic knight, who returns from the Crusades determined to free King Richard from imprisonment and restore him to his throne. Rejected by his Saxon father, Cedric (Finlay Currie), for his loyalty to the Norman king, Ivanhoe must contend with the treachery of Prince John and his supporters, especially the knights Sir Hugh De Bracy (Robert Douglas) and De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). Ivanhoe's adventures introduce him to the beautiful young Jewess, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), who falls in love with him in spite of his long-standing romance with Rowena (Joan Fontaine). All of Ivanhoe's friends, however, are threatened by the schemes of Prince John's allies, who hope to ensure that King Richard never returns to England alive.

Location shooting heightens the atmosphere and appeal of the picture, especially in the climactic sequence at Torquilstone Castle, where Ivanhoe and his companions are held prisoner by the Norman knights. Luckily for Ivanhoe, Robin Hood leads an army of Saxon men to lay siege to the castle, although in this film Robin is called only by the less familiar name of Locksley (played by Harold Warrender). The tournament scenes are also highlights; they exude pomp and excitement but also provide opportunities for each of the key characters to reveal themselves. Ivanhoe's first tournament, where he fights in disguise as the black knight, sets the stage for later conflicts between the Saxon hero and his Norman nemesis, De Bois-Guilbert, while their final battle brings their long rivalry to its destined end. The pageantry, shot in gorgeous Technicolor, rivals that of The Adventures of Robin Hood, although the mood of the later picture is more somber.

Taylor makes for a serious and mature Ivanhoe, but his performance sells the hero's commitment to his cause. The movie downplays the love triangle between him and the two women; Taylor and Fontaine are too well matched for any real doubt that Ivanhoe will stay with Rowena, but Elizabeth Taylor is so compelling as Rebecca that she makes us wish the story could end differently. She handles her scenes with emotion and skill, especially those that address the plight of Jews in Medieval England, and Felix Aylmer is also very good as her father, Isaac. Finlay Currie provides a different model of paternity as the stubborn Cedric, and he threatens to steal his scenes with his blustering resentment and underlying affection. George Sanders, an adept at playing the heavy, adds humanity to De Bois-Guilbert with the sincerity of his passion for Rebecca, but he's most in his element as the haughty foe. The rest of the Norman knights run together, particularly when they're dressed for battle, although Guy Rolfe makes the best of his few scenes as the despicable Prince John. Be sure to appreciate Welsh actor Emlyn Williams as Womba, the lowly serf whom Ivanhoe promotes as his squire; it's a shame that he disappears without much fanfare before the picture ends.

Ivanhoe picked up Oscar nominations for Best Picture as well as cinematography and score, but it had to compete with the likes of High Noon (1952), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Director Richard Thorpe returned to the same territory the following year with Knights of the Round Table (1953), in which Robert Taylor plays Lancelot and Felix Aylmer turns up again as Merlin. For more from Thorpe and Taylor, try All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953) and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959). See Joan Fontaine and George Sanders in Rebecca (1940), and don't miss Finlay Currie in Great Expectations (1946) and People Will Talk (1951). If you want to catch Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor in different roles, see them both in Jane Eyre (1943), in which Fontaine plays the lead and Taylor appears in an important but uncredited role as Jane's friend, Helen Burns.