Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Classic Movies Helped Me Write My Novel

So, my first novel is now available on Amazon Kindle, and I'm about as proud as a new parent handing out cigars. Two years of working, writing, and thinking will hopefully pay off in a story that people enjoy reading. As always, my ongoing love affair with classic movies has been a big part of the process.

That won't be obvious to everyone who reads the book, and it might not even be apparent to other classic movie fans. The novel is a YA fantasy about a boy raised by a dragon. Its relationship to fairy tales and other fantasy novels is certainly more marked, and it also draws from literary classics like The Jungle Book. I have been a voracious and constant reader since I was 3, and everything I have ever read swims around in my imagination and seeps into my own work. Hopefully English majors will appreciate the many allusions and influences.

However, my brain also teems with classic films, and those, too, permeate the novel, especially when it comes to creating characters. My roguish dragon, Willais, is always a Tyrone Power type in my mind, especially when he is magically transformed into a man. I even gave him Ty's distinctive eyebrows. Lanky, sweet-natured Bert is inspired by Ray Bolger, especially as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz but also in The Harvey Girls. Bert's wife, Magda, is a mix of Mary Boland and Spring Byington types, with a little extra temper thrown in (a touch, perhaps, of Alice's Queen of Hearts as voiced by Verna Felton). Whenever I needed a pop-up character for a single scene, I imagined a classic movie character actor who might have played the part. Victor McLaglen is in there, and Frank Morgan, too. I doubt many people will notice, if any, but it really helped me see the characters in my own mind when I was writing about them.

Of course, many of the characters have very different family trees, but I don't think the novel would be the same if not for all of those classic movies I have enjoyed so over the years. Once again I'm grateful for a passion that has not only entertained me but has made me think that much more about narratives, characters, and the way in which a good story comes together!

If you're actually interested in the novel, it's called Wierm's Egg. You can find it on Amazon by clicking the link. Of course the Beyond Casablanca books and the two Jim Henson anthologies are there, too.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

Adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) delivers all of the classic noir conventions, with a special emphasis on the ironic workings of fate. Tay Garnett directs this MGM contribution to film noir, which features an iconic performance from Lana Turner as the resident femme fatale, along with John Garfield and Cecil Kellaway as the doomed flies caught in her attractive web. Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn also make memorable appearances as a pair of lawyers who care more about competition than actual justice. Modern critical opinion of Postman goes both ways; David Thomson applauds it, while David N. Meyer derides it, but it's still required viewing for any serious noir fan.

Garfield is drifter Frank Chambers, who takes a "Man Wanted" position at a roadside station because of the owner's seductive wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Frank and Cora begin an affair, but Nick (Cecil Kellaway) seems like an impossible obstacle to their happiness, and they start to imagine their lives without him standing in the way. When Nick announces his plan to sell the station and take Cora away to Canada, the lovers rush into desperate action, but the district attorney (Leon Ames) has his eye on the murderous pair, and their plot becomes far more complicated than they intended.

Each of the three main characters is a loser in his or her own way, but Postman presents them in shades of gray that slowly slip toward black. Kellaway's Nick seems jovial and kindly at first, until we realize how tight-fisted and dictatorial he is, especially where Cora is concerned. When Frank and Cora first think of killing him, we feel bad for the old man, but his abrupt decision to force Cora to Canada to play nurse for his invalid sister goes a long way toward justifying the second attempt. Cora just wants to make something of the diner. She isn't afraid of hard work, and at first she resists Frank's advances. "You won't find anything cheap around here," she tells him. As her spotless white outfits shift to black, however, she reveals a dangerous jealousy and even mental instability. What kind of mother would such a woman have made? We get the feeling that Junior might have grown up to be the Norman Bates of the Twin Oaks establishment, had fate not conveniently stepped in. Frank himself is the first to blame; he only takes the job to chase Cora, and he doesn't let up until it finally dawns on him that he might be in over his head. He does try, at least, to walk out, but by then he has already set the dominoes in motion.

Oddly enough, the most despicable people in the film are the lawyers, played with predatory cunning by Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn. Ames' district attorney pretends to be on the side of justice, but he seems perfectly content to let Frank and Cora commit murder so that he can prosecute them, when he actually has plenty of opportunity to stop the murder from happening in the first place. His moral posturing at the movie's end reeks of irony, given his cavalier bet with the opposition about the earlier trial's outcome and his willingness to make plea deals. Cronyn's Arthur Keats lacks even the veneer of morality; he's a sharper, as crooked as they come, and ready to do everything but commit murder himself to control the verdict in Cora's trial. Cronyn is so gloriously sleazy that he more or less steals the movie every time he shows up, and that's quite a feat when Lana Turner's ample charms are on display.

Audrey Totter, another notable femme fatale, adds an extra touch of irony as the girl Frank runs off with when he gets mad at Cora; he clearly has a thing for dangerous curves. Take note of Fred Flintstone voice actor Alan Reed as the lumbering crook, Kennedy. For more from Tay Garnett, try China Seas (1935), The Cross of Lorraine (1943), and The Valley of Decision (1945). Cain's novel was also adapted in Italy as Ossessione (1943), which makes a provocative double feature with Postman. See John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Tortilla Flat (1942), and Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Lana Turner turns heads in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and The Three Musketeers (1948). Don't miss Cecil Kellaway in Harvey (1950) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and be sure to appreciate Hume Cronyn in Lifeboat (1944). Leon Ames is probably best remembered today as the Smith family patriarch in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but you'll also find him in Lady in the Lake (1947) and Little Women (1949).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1939)

Among adaptations of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel, this 1939 version is certainly a lightweight, and not nearly as elaborate an affair as the 1948 MGM production starring Gene Kelly. The Fox incarnation, directed by Allan Dwan, revises the original tale as a musical comedy vehicle for The Ritz Brothers, who had a brief film career in the late 1930s and early 40s. They never really took off, and here they prove more of a distraction than a feature. If you like Don Ameche, however, The Three Musketeers has its charms, since the movie provides the amiable star with the kind of swashbuckling role usually reserved for his Fox peer Tyrone Power. It also features worthwhile performances from Gloria Stuart, Binnie Barnes, and Lionel Atwill, as well as brief appearances by John Carradine and Douglass Dumbrille.

Ameche plays D'Artagnan, who arrives in Paris to become a Musketeer, only to pick quarrels with Athos, Aramis, and Porthos on his very first day. The heroic trio, however, succumb to a drinking contest with The Ritz Brothers, who assume their outfits and identities before D'Artagnan arrives to fight his duels with them. Along with D'Artagnan, the fake Musketeers are then swept along into a dangerous political plot involving Queen Anne (Gloria Stuart) and her lady-in-waiting, Constance (Pauline Moore). Their adventures bring them into direct conflict with the devious Milady De Winter (Binnie Barnes) and the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Miles Mander) as they try to retrieve the queen's brooch before its absence sparks an international scandal and war.

The Ritz Brothers get some modest laughs, but the movie shows why they never really took off as screen stars. They are neither as violent as the Stooges nor as cerebral as The Marx Brothers. The "Chicken Soup" song that introduces them sums up their comedy style; there's a lot of winking and silliness but not much thought to the act. Kids might find them sufficiently entertaining, but most adults will wonder how they manage to merit top billing with Ameche. The movie also falters by wasting Douglass Dumbrille and John Carradine, both terrific character actors, in very small roles; Dumbrille barely has a single scene, and Carradine disappears after just a few minutes. Instead we get lots of shenanigans with The Ritz Brothers as they stumble through one mishap after another, never really varying their gags or developing their characters as anything more than props.

Ameche is the real attraction; he looks quite dashing in his period hair and costumes, and his infectious charm goes a long way to make up for the movie's failings. His D'Artagnan is a gleeful combatant and an energetic romancer, and he really seems to be having a good time waving his sword and playing the swashbuckling hero. Even if the songs are not that memorable, Ameche sings them with zest, especially the "Voila" number. His leading ladies also help to move the picture along. Pauline Moore makes a lovely Constance, and Gloria Stuart is beautifully regal as the imperiled Anne. Binnie Barnes doesn't vamp as much as some Milady actresses, and she has to endure a really awful search scene with the Ritz Brothers, but she sells the character's smiling menace to great effect. Sadly, Milady's worst crimes - and best scenes - are cut to keep the picture firmly in comedy territory. Lionel Atwill, another great character actor and a reliable heavy, gets a heftier part than Carradine and Dumbrille as De Rochefort, one of the schemers working against the queen.

The 1939 adaptation is by no means the place to start with Musketeer films, but it's worth visiting for fans of Ameche's charismatic persona. Try the 1948 version for a more developed, but still imperfect, classic adaptation. Allan Dwan, a prolific director and silent film veteran, also made The Iron Mask (1929) and Heidi (1937). See more of Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), That Night in Rio (1941), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). Gloria Stuart is probably best remembered today as old Rose in Titanic (1997), but her early career included The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). If you really get into The Ritz Brothers, you'll find them in One in a Million (1936), The Gorilla (1939), and Argentine Nights (1940).

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Build-Your-Own-Blogathon: Bad Apples in BEND OF THE RIVER (1952)

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own-Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. It follows Caftan Woman's discussion of T-Men (1947), which shares its director, Anthony Mann, with Bend of the River (1952). Visit the Classic Film and TV Cafe for a complete list of the blogs participating in this blogathon!

"That kind can't change. When an apple's rotten, there's nothing you can do except throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel." - Jeremy Baile

Director Anthony Mann collaborated with Jimmy Stewart on a number of excellent Westerns, including the 1952 film, Bend of the River, which takes the rugged country of the Pacific Northwest as its frontier territory. It's a story about gold fever, moral decay, and second chances, with Stewart as a former outlaw trying to turn over a new leaf as an honest man. Stewart's Glyn McLyntock is, of course, a good apple, no matter how shady his past, but the movie also presents us with a parade of foils and variations on the same theme. Jay C. Flippen and Chubby Johnson play for the angels as the movie's older good men, with Flippen especially crucial to Stewart's character as the leader of the Oregon settlers, but the less exemplary characters prove far more numerous. Arthur Kennedy and Rock Hudson play men whose moral compasses need more recalibration than Stewart's, while Howard Petrie depicts the rapid transformation of a good man gone wrong over gold, and Harry Morgan plays one of the dirtiest little apples ever seen in a Western barrel. These slippery, complicated performances help make Bend of the River a smart study of psychology as well as an exciting frontier adventure, and the bad apples inform our understanding of the hero's own inner struggle.

"$100,000 is a lot of money." - Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy)

Glyn's primary counterpart throughout the picture is Kennedy's Emerson Cole, a man who has so much in common with Glyn that Glyn tends to think of their destinies as inextricably linked. Cole shares Glyn's past as a raider, and he has enough integrity to appreciate it when Glyn saves his life, but Cole lacks the essential strength of character that sets Glyn apart. Cole likes fast living and violence; he's quick to draw his gun, even when lesser measures would suffice. Kennedy plays Cole as an enigma at first, encouraging us to like him even when we don't trust him, but the lure of wealth proves too much for him to resist. Even the love of Laura (Julie Adams) means nothing to him once a fortune comes within reach. Glyn offers him multiple chances at true redemption, but Cole succumbs to greed.

"You're real fast with that gun, kid, but you're soft." - Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy)

Hudson's handsome young gambler, Trey Wilson, makes the relationship between Glyn and Cole into a triangle. His essential nature is ambiguous early on; as a gambler, he is clearly a man who values money, but he doesn't like to kill. Cole even scolds him for being too soft-hearted. Trey throws in with Glyn and Cole without much thought, and he doesn't have to choose between them until it becomes clear that the two older men are moving in starkly different directions. Even then, Trey keeps his cards hidden, so that we're never quite sure which side he's on until the very end of the film. Trey actually fills two Western character types at once. Despite his worldly demeanor and flashy clothes, he is also this film's version of the Kid who has to decide which model of masculinity he wants to embrace; he can chase wealth and become like Cole, or he can do the right thing and emulate Glyn.

"I could get fifty times what you paid for that food. It's gold, do you understand, gold!" - Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie)

Howard Petrie plays Tom Hendricks, the Portland official who first welcomes the settlers with open arms but later betrays their trust by reselling their winter supplies at wildly inflated prices. If Hendricks seems a little too friendly at first, that merely sets the stage for his later corruption, when we see him at his overflowing money table with a mad gleam in his eyes. Hendricks' fall mirrors that of the entire community; when Glyn and Jeremy (Jay C. Flippen) return to Portland looking for their supplies, they find the formerly pleasant town transformed into a filthy den of violence, greed, and lust. Hendricks is so far gone that he doesn't care if his double dealing costs the settlers their lives; he is even willing to kill Glyn and Jeremy to protect his financial interest. Tellingly, Cole doesn't seem to process the warning of Hendricks' fate; he's too busy shooting Hendricks' men while they try to run away.

"We're going to the gold camp with this food." - Shorty (Harry Morgan)

While most of the other flawed men in the film have some good qualities, Harry Morgan's Shorty is about as rotten as they come. Along with Red (Jack Lambert) and Long Tom (Royal Dano), Shorty never makes any move unless he's going to get paid for it. Shorty is a far cry from the uncertain but good-hearted character Morgan played in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). He's a dirty, narrow-eyed sneak, always watching for the opportunity to take advantage of the others. He and the other workers conspire to hijack the food supply and sell it at the highest possible price in the gold mining camp; like Hendricks, they don't care if the settlers starve to death as a result. Unlike Hendricks, Shorty and his pals were never good in the first place. Their worst scene comes when they intentionally drop a wagon on Jeremy, Glyn, and Cole in an effort to murder all three at once.

"Any man can make a mistake." - Laura (Julie Adams)

These men run the gamut in terms of moral character, and each one shapes his own fate through his choices. The corruption of the weaker men reminds us how much is at stake in Glyn's struggle for redemption. Glyn knows that the kind of life he once led can only end badly, but his determination to do right and take a harder path makes him a hero in this story more than any skill with a rifle or knife. While there are plenty of bad apples in Bend of the River, they only make the good ones look that much better.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)

James Stewart and Kim Novak starred in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) the same year they made Vertigo (1958), and both films illustrate the hazards of becoming obsessed with someone you don't really know. Bell, Book and Candle plays this set-up as fodder for supernatural comedy rather than psychological suspense, but there's still an air of menace about the proceedings. The fun depends mostly on sly, offbeat performances from Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold, and Ernie Kovacs, with Stewart and Novak perfectly serious about their magical game of cat and mouse. The result is an odd film, engaging but troublesome, especially in its insistence on an ending that enforces conformity and outdated notions of gender-driven power.

Stewart plays middle-aged publisher Shep Henderson, who becomes entangled with his strange neighbors, the attractive Gil (Novak) and her mischievous aunt, Queenie (Elsa Lanchester). Despite their unusual habits, Shep never suspects that the women are actually witches, living in modern day New York and more or less hiding in plain sight. Shep's fiancee, Merle (Janice Rule), turns out to be Gil's old school nemesis, which inspires Gil to steal Shep for herself by using her magic, even though she insists that she doesn't really care about him. Gil also casts a spell to bring occult author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovaks) to Shep's office, but his arrival complicates matters when he enlists the help of Gil's feckless brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon), to write about the modern witches of New York.

There is plenty to like about this picture, especially the unconventional community of witches and warlocks, who even have their own night club and generally seem intent on having a good time. They're a bohemian crowd, weird but not really ambitious enough to play more than pranks. Nicky bangs the bongos and switches off street lights, while Aunt Queenie enjoys breaking into Shep's apartment and snooping around. Only Gil is serious and talented enough to do real harm; she terrifies Merle with a conjured thunderstorm and turns Shep's life upside down. Lanchester and Lemmon are delightful and perfectly cast, while Hermione Gingold revels in her matriarchal character, the powerful Bianca de Passe. She has her best scene when Shep comes to her for help in breaking Gil's love spell, in which she mixes a horrific potion and commands the poor victim to drink it. Rumpled Ernie Kovaks also fits in like a natural; the existence of witches in New York is great news for Redlitch and his next book, and his enthusiasm for the community contrasts Shep's growing horror.

The breakdown of the fun happens in the third act, when it becomes clear that Gil's power is deemed unnatural and antithetical to her femininity. Having it all is not an option; she can be a witch and never love, or she can lose her power to become the kind of girl Shep might want to marry. This is similar to the premise set forth in the earlier I Married a Witch (1942), in which Veronica Lake's supernatural heroine becomes a mortal for the love of Fredric March, but Bell, Book and Candle is much more heavy-handed about its disapproval of the powerful, unconventional woman. When we first meet Gil, she wears black, goes barefoot, and sells bizarre tribal masks in her shop, but in order to win Shep for real she has to give up all of those things and conform to his rather narrow expectations. Is Shep really worth it? Would it be so terrible to end up like Aunt Queenie and Madame de Passe? Given the glaring age difference between Stewart and Novak, many modern women might well decide that Gil would have been better off keeping her magic and her cat instead of surrendering to middle-class values for a man old enough to be her father. One suspects that Nicky and the witches will be having a good time long after Gil has gotten tired of seashells, shoes, and a kitchen full of dirty dishes.

Bell, Book and Candle earned two Oscar nominations, for art direction and costume design. Director Richard Quine also worked with Jack Lemmon in It Happened to Jane (1959) and How to Murder Your Wife (1965), and Lemmon and Novak both appear in his 1962 film, The Notorious Landlady. For more of Kim Novak, see Picnic (1955), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Jimmy Stewart's other pictures from the late 1950s include Night Passage (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Don't miss Hermione Gingold in The Music Man (1962), and be sure to appreciate Elsa Lanchester's Oscar-nominated performance in Witness for the Prosecution (1957), in which she antagonizes her real-life husband, Charles Laughton.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Tribute to Lauren Bacall

I'm not tough. In fact, I'm really kind of a powder puff, the type of person who apologizes at the drop of a hat and can be made to feel bad for months with just a sharp word or a reproving look. Maybe that's why I have always loved the tough dames of classic Hollywood; they exude strength and a "Hell if I care" attitude that I can only dream of having. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Lauren Bacall could all cut a man dead with one hard look. Today we lost Bacall, the last of the great noir dames, and the world seems a sadder place without her.

What can you say about an actress who was known as "The Look"? Whatever IT was, she had it in spades. From her very first picture, To Have and Have Not (1944), she was great, feeding Bogart seductive lines and that comeback stare. No wonder he fell hard. Every man on earth must have learned to whistle in 1944, even if he wasn't named Steve (which, by the way, Bogart's character wasn't). Bacall was launched into noir legend and the arms of Humphrey Bogart at the tender age of 19, but you would never have guessed how young she was from the way she carried herself on screen.

She went on acting for the rest of her life. She did voice work, earned an Oscar nomination, went forward, and aged well. She survived the loss of Bogart in 1957, remarried, divorced, raised three children, and wrote multiple memoirs of her life in Hollywood. She was tough, yes, but elegant, too, and into her 80s she was more beautiful than most people can ever hope to be.

Tonight the classic movie fan community - and the world at large - join her family in mourning the loss of Lauren Bacall, but I'm so grateful that she was with us for such a long time, to show us not only how to be tough and 20, but how to be great at every age.

Thanks for everything, Betty Joan Perske. We'll never forget you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PIRATE (1948)

In the same year that she starred with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), Judy Garland partnered with Hollywood’s other reigning hoofer, Gene Kelly, in the Caribbean musical romance, The Pirate (1948). Garland and Kelly had already starred together in For Me and My Gal (1942), and they make a very lively pair in this odd, boisterous romp, which also benefits from Cole Porter’s songs and Vincente Minnelli’s direction. With its tropical setting and heated dance numbers, The Pirate pulses with sexual energy, but it moderates its plot about a young girl’s bedroom fantasies of kidnap and ravishment with liberal doses of comedy. Supporting appearances from Walter Slezak, Gladys Cooper, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers also make this picture worthwhile for musical and comedy fans.

Garland stars as Manuela, whose arranged marriage to the much older Don Pedro (Walter Slezak) threatens to extinguish her hope for a life of romance and adventure. Her beauty attracts the admiration of Serafin (Gene Kelly), a traveling actor who pursues Manuela to her hometown and disrupts the wedding by claiming to be the infamous pirate, Mack the Black Macoco. Serafin’s ruse backfires, however, when the real Macoco connives to have the actor executed for the outlaw’s crimes.

The plot of the story is surprisingly lusty, with Manuela as both desired object and desiring subject. She yearns for the rough embrace of Macoco the pirate, primarily because she is bored with her conventional, sheltered upbringing and has no idea what an encounter with a real pirate would be like. Don Pedro, fat, rich, and determined to live a quiet life, represents the very opposite of everything that Manuela thinks she wants, but Serafin doesn’t live up to her ideal, either, since he’s merely a rakish entertainer. Manuela gets to live her fantasy, even if it’s just pretend, when Serafin poses as Macoco and demands that Manuela be delivered to him as a sacrifice to save the town. This is kinky stuff for 1948 and sweet-faced Judy Garland, but the movie treats the subject with such ironic humor that it gets passed off as a harmless lark. Still, it’s hard to imagine the production heaving with the same urgency without Gene Kelly in those delightfully tight pants, even if his wig looks a bit silly.

Several of the musical numbers contribute to the heady sexual atmosphere. Louis B. Mayer might have destroyed the alarmingly sexy “Voodoo” number that was meant to be in the picture, but the songs that remain give the audience plenty of heat. Kelly’s “Nina” number has him trying to make out with every girl in port, and the pirate ballet sequence shows off both his dancing ability and his naked legs. Garland waxes rhapsodically about “Mack the Black” and literally lets her hair down to fantasize about being carried off by the buccaneer. Other songs moderate the prevailing mood of the picture with comedy or more traditional romance; the best of the lot is the first performance of “Be a Clown,” which features Kelly with the incredibly talented Nicholas Brothers.

The Pirate succeeds at balancing sensuality with comedy thanks to its cast. Kelly is obviously having a ball as the waggish Serafin; he plays at being a swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks and hams up his theatrical bits like John Barrymore. Garland, already fragile and edging toward the end of her MGM career, still looks lovely and has the strength to hold her own against Kelly. The scene in which she throws a roomful of breakable objects at him is quite a spectacle. Gladys Cooper is both maternal and mercenary as Manuela’s Aunt Inez, while Walter Slezak has some very good scenes as the dour Don Pedro. George Zucco makes a brief but memorable appearance as the Viceroy who wants to hang Macoco, and Reginald Owen also turns up in a small supporting role.

For more of Garland and Kelly, see their third and final film together, Summer Stock (1950). Vincente Minnelli also directed Garland, who was his wife from 1945 to 1951, in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945); he directed Kelly again in An American in Paris (1951) and Brigadoon (1954). For more of Walter Slezak, see Lifeboat (1944) and People Will Talk (1951). Don’t miss the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943), which offers a better and more extended example of their amazing technique.