Sunday, June 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

Like his earlier film, The 39 Steps (1935), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) straddles the line between mystery thriller and screwball romance. The sinister elements of this disappearing act staged on a moving train are matched, if not outweighed, by a pair of bickering amateur detectives and a cast of wildly comical passengers, particularly the vanishing lady herself, played by the delightfully dotty Dame May Whitty. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave deftly manage both laughs and thrills as the picture’s leads, holding their own against the scene-stealing antics of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Filled with Hitchcock’s sly humor but still capable of real suspense, The Lady Vanishes is a highlight of the director’s British career and a must-see film for fans of his later work in Hollywood.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris, a spoiled socialite who befriends an elderly governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), while boarding a train filled with British tourists leaving a continental holiday. When Miss Froy suddenly disappears, Iris finds that nobody will admit to having seen her, and a doctor (Paul Lukas) insists that Iris imagined the whole encounter. With the help of a good-humored music scholar named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris searches the train for her missing friend, but nefarious forces conspire to prevent Miss Froy from being found. Meanwhile, the other British passengers have their own reasons for hindering Iris’ investigation, some more innocent than others.

The picture opens with a comical scene involving a holiday hotel overwhelmed by delayed train passengers, and this sequence sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. The major characters are arranged like chess pieces, or perhaps dominoes, in these introductory segments, each with defining characteristics that will play into the larger plot. Iris and Gilbert clash in their initial interaction, and their energetic attempts to irritate one another prove that they are destined to become a couple. Most of the other passengers appear in pairs or small groups: we have the adulterous lovers traveling as the Todhunters, the suspiciously foreign Signor and Signora Doppo, along with the formidable Baroness, and the cricket mad tourists Charters and Caldicott. Aside from Miss Froy, who spends much of the movie missing, the most memorable of these are the cricket fans, who impede Iris’ search for Miss Froy only because they fear that stopping the train will make them miss a much-anticipated test match back in England. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne walk off with the picture every time their hilariously obsessed characters turn up, but their best and most scandalous scenes take place early on, when they are forced to share the maid’s bedroom in the overcrowded hotel.

As funny as the movie is, it doesn’t forget that it also has a mystery to solve. Miss Froy’s disappearance propels the initial suspense, but the plot gets thicker as time passes, ultimately evolving into a tangled web of political intrigue and espionage. Paul Lukas gives his brain surgeon, Dr. Hartz, a condescending air that the audience sees as suspicious right away, which builds the dramatic irony when Iris and Gilbert keep turning to him for assistance. The foreigners also give viewers the willies with their staring eyes and repeated insistence that Miss Froy does not exist, but Iris becomes suspicious of them much sooner. Magic tricks, a nun in high heels, a mysterious patient wrapped in bandages, and a dramatic finale all keep the plot twisting and turning right up to the end, when the gathered passengers get the chance to prove their mettle.

Be sure to note well-known British actress Googie Withers in a small role as one of Iris’ friends. For more of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films, see The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Sabotage (1936). You’ll find Margaret Lockwood in Susannah of the Mounties (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940). The Lady Vanishes is the first screen appearance of Michael Redgrave, whose later career includes The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and The Innocents (1961). Don’t miss Dame May Whitty in Suspicion (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Watch on the Rhine (1943), but he also appears in Dodsworth (1936), Strange Cargo (1940), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne were such a hit with audiences that they went on to reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott in Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour (1941), and Millions Like Us (1943).

The Lady Vanishes is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion; the special features include Crook's Tour for those smitten with Radford and Wayne's comical duo. You can also see The Lady Vanishes on Hulu Plus, as part of their collection of Criterion releases.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

Long before Ghost (1990) moved audiences with its tale of supernatural romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) depicted the bittersweet love affair of a living woman and a spectral man. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz crafts a story short on special effects but bursting with sentimental ambience, including a tender score by Bernard Herrmann and Oscar-nominated cinematography from Charles Lang. Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney give memorable performances as the title characters, while the solid collection of supporting players includes George Sanders, Edna Best, and a very young Natalie Wood.

Tierney stars as young widow Lucy Muir, who defies her husband’s manipulative family by relocating to a remote coastal town with her daughter (Natalie Wood) and housekeeper (Edna Best) in tow. In Gull Cottage Lucy discovers the ghost of the previous owner, a salty sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). The two clash at first but eventually develop a deep bond; Gregg, however, cannot give the lonely widow the real companionship of a living man, and the arrival of a persuasive suitor (George Sanders) threatens to take Lucy away to a new life.

In the liminal space between land and sea, the living and the dead can meet and speak, but the film focuses on the romantic possibilities of this threshold rather than the frightening. Gull Cottage reveals itself to be not so much haunted as enchanted, since Daniel Gregg is the most solid looking specter in the history of ghost stories. Rex Harrison conveys his character’s ghostliness through his attitude as a man beyond life, resigned and sad but still capable of deep human feeling. He comes very close to Tierney’s yearning widow but never touches her; the audience experiences this separation as an almost unbearable romantic tension, which we realize torments the characters, as well. This reawakening of passion in Lucy’s heart has dangerous consequences, however, since it leaves her vulnerable to the more corporeal, if morally suspect, charms of George Sanders as the children’s book author, Miles Fairley.

Poignant performances sell the story far better than special effects. At the height of her career, Gene Tierney combines sentimental beauty with substance as Lucy, a heroine who must summon every ounce of her strength to break away from what others want for her in order to live her life on her own terms. Her abominable in-laws, played with relish by Isobel Elsom and Victoria Horne, give Lucy a chance to show her resolve early on, so that we believe in her as a woman unlikely to be deterred by a disagreeable ghost. Rex Harrison is perfectly cast as the gruff captain; known for his philandering and charismatic persona, Harrison has the roguish quality of a roving captain in spades but also reveals a touching sensibility. Natalie Wood gets very little screen time as Lucy’s daughter, Anna, but she’s convincing as a girl who might prefer tales of action and adventure to the treacly stories of “Uncle Neddy.” More significant is the contribution of Edna Best as the loyal housekeeper, Martha, whose solicitous care suggests some frailty about Lucy that is never really discussed. The friendship between Martha and Lucy transcends their professional relationship and helps to ground the picture in some real human warmth, which assures us that Lucy’s life is never as lonely as we might fear, even after Anna grows up and moves away.

Take the time to appreciate Anna Lee in a small but pivotal role as Mrs. Fairley; the hard-working character actress was a regular in John Ford’s ensembles. For more of Gene Tierney, see Heaven Can Wait (1943), Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Rex Harrison is best remembered for his roles in My Fair Lady (1964) and Doctor Dolittle (1967), but his other films from the 1940s include Night Train to Munich (1940), Blithe Spirit (1945), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948). George Sanders won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for All About Eve (1950); he also makes notable appearances in Rebecca (1940), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and Ivanhoe (1952). See more of Edna Best in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and catch young Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), but he also directed Gene Tierney in the 1946 Gothic thriller, Dragonwyck.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: RED DUST (1932)

Steamy Pre-Code sensuality drives the plot of Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), in which Clark Gable and Jean Harlow prove the powder keg appeal of their onscreen chemistry. The story unfolds against the equally heated backdrop of an exotic tropical location, where tigers and torrential rains mirror the violent natural forces at work in human hearts. Like many classic films with Eastern settings, Red Dust suffers from an Orientalist attitude toward the native workers and a horribly stereotypical Chinese domestic, but Gable and Harlow are so good that the movie works in spite of it, and Mary Astor gives an excellent performance as the married rival who loses her moral high ground by falling for Harlow’s man.

Gable stars as Dennis Carson, the head of a remote rubber plantation in Indochina. When his masculine world is invaded by streetwise Vantine (Jean Harlow), Carson complains loudly but soon takes advantage of the situation and Vantine’s considerable charms. Vantine hopes for a real relationship, but Carson throws her over when the well-heeled Barbara (Mary Astor) arrives with her naive husband, Gary (Gene Raymond). After Carson nurses Gary through a dangerous fever, he earns the younger man’s fervent admiration, which makes Carson feel guilty for his affair with Barbara. Jealousy erupts into violence as the monsoon season bears down and Gary finally begins to suspect Carson’s designs on his wife.

Red Dust was the second film in which both Gable and Harlow appeared but the first to capitalize on their sex appeal as leads; they work together so well because both have screen personalities that radiate toughness and animal lust. Gable looks like a guy whose idea of romance is a rough and tumble roll in the hay, and Harlow is just the kind of girl to like it that way. The surprise for us - and for Carson and Vantine - is that their attraction to each other becomes something more lasting and substantial. Carson chases Barbara because she appears as a rarity in his world, but it’s clear that she can never belong to it, and Gary’s boyish innocence is too pathetic and pure even for the worldly Carson to destroy. Vantine might be a woman of easy virtue, but she ultimately has more integrity than Barbara; she isn’t the one committing adultery on the heels of her honeymoon, and her lies protect both Gary and Barbara from their own foolishness. Their spontaneous acts of altruism and generosity assure us that Carson and Vantine deserve each other; whatever their faults, they’re better people than even they realize until the moment of truth arrives.

The setting for the story provides arresting images, from the tiger prowling the forest to Harlow naked in a rain barrel, but it also falls back on the usual clichés of lazy coolies and simple-minded house servants. The rubber plantation workers are represented as so much human cattle, with some pointed remarks about their eagerness to rape white women thrown in, but the most grating element for modern viewers is Willie Fung’s idiotic Hoy, who unfortunately gets the movie’s last line. Fung made a career of these kinds of roles, and it’s not his fault that parts for Asian actors were so limited in classic Hollywood, but his Chinese version of Stepin Fetchit is almost impossible to watch. Donald Crisp’s Guidon is an obnoxious drunk, but even he fares better than Hoy, who serves as the butt of a running gag that isn’t funny in the first place.

For more of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, see Hold Your Man (1933), China Seas (1935), and Harlow’s final film, Saratoga (1937). Victor Fleming, who was uncredited as the director of Red Dust, is best remembered for his work on The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939), but he also worked with Harlow on Bombshell (1933). Look for Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). John Ford remade Red Dust as Mogambo in 1953, with Clark Gable starring once more; Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly both earned Oscar nominations for their performances as the female rivals for his love.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)

Lauren Bacall got her introduction to Humphrey Bogart and the world with Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), which only vaguely resembles the novel by Ernest Hemingway but really exists as its own gloriously weird melange of Casablanca (1942), comedy, and film noir cool. Bogart and Bacall burn up the screen as jaded expatriates who fall for each other in the dangerous heat of Vichy Martinique, and their chemistry is as palpable to viewers today as it was to the wartime audiences who first watched Bacall teach Bogart how to whistle. Sexy and smart, even if it isn’t all that interested in its plot, To Have and Have Not sells its strange brew with knowing repartee, an exotic location, and Walter Brennan’s lovably daft obsession with the bite of a dead bee.

Bogart plays American fishing boat captain Harry Morgan, who has brought his boat and his alcoholic partner, Eddie (Walter Brennan), down from Key Largo to Nazi-occupied Martinique. There they eke out a living taking tourists out to fish while avoiding the local politics, even though their friend, Frenchy (Marcel Dalio), begs Harry to transport some resistance leaders wanted by the Vichy officials. When a beautiful but broke pickpocket named Marie (Lauren Bacall) arrives on the island and needs his help, Harry changes his mind about working for the resistance.

From the start there’s a lot of Casablanca being revisited here, from Bogart’s standoffish expatriate to the freedom fighters he inevitably decides to help. Instead of Dooley Wilson as Sam we get Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket, while Claude Rains’ morally ambivalent Captain Renault gets merged with Peter Lorre’s oily Ugarte in Dan Seymour’s creepy Captain Renard. The big difference is Lauren Bacall in place of Ingrid Bergman, but Bacall’s not too good girl changes the whole temperature of the picture; here is an angel already tarnished enough that Bogart doesn’t have to give her up to prove he’s an honorable guy. The resistance fighter’s wife, played by Dolores Moran, never gets the chance to choose Bogart over her heroic spouse because a jealous Marie is already on the scene, and Marie pointedly thwarts Madame de Bursac’s constant attempts to flirt with Harry.

In addition to the chemistry between the two fascinating leads, the picture gets its appeal from its crackling dialogue, in which Lauren Bacall generally has the last word. Marie always calls Harry “Steve,” while he calls her “Slim.” After they kiss for the first time, she tells him, “It’s even better when you help.” Later she says, “I’m hard to get, Steve, All you have to do is ask me.” It’s hard to believe that Bacall was only nineteen when she threw these lines at Bogart with her knowing look and been-there casual despair. Her world-weary youth makes a sharp contrast to Walter Brennan’s aging innocence as the perpetually thirsty Eddie. “Was you ever bit by a dead bee?” he asks everyone he meets, but only Bacall’s Marie has the perfect comeback to win him over.

To Have and Have Not launched Bogart and Bacall’s storied romance but also a series of costarring roles. See more of their onscreen heat in The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Howard Hawks directed a slew of classic favorites, including Bringing Up Baby (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), and Rio Bravo (1959), but he earned his only career Oscar nomination for Best Director with Sergeant York (1941). See more of Walter Brennan in My Darling Clementine (1946), Red River (1948), and Rio Bravo. Bogart is unforgettable in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca, and The African Queen (1951), but Bacall also has great solo roles in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Shootist (1976), and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).

Friday, June 20, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: 3 GODFATHERS (1948)

John Ford offers a distinctly Western take on the Christmas story in 3 Godfathers (1948), where there’s no sign of the usual snow and comfortable holiday cheer. In their place we witness the parched terrain of the desert frontier and a grueling journey by our protagonists, three not so very bad men struggling to save an orphaned newborn even though they are on the run from the law. As usual, much of the appeal of a John Ford picture stems from its cast, with John Wayne leading a collection of the usual suspects, including Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Jane Darwell, and Mildred Natwick. With Ford’s characteristic blend of toughness and sentiment and a visual style bursting with religious iconography, 3 Godfathers delivers a surprisingly soulful tribute to the original story of the three wise men, but Western devotees will find it worthwhile at any time of year.

Wayne leads a trio of cattle rustlers turned bank robbers as Robert Hightower, with the Mexican Pete (Pedro Armendáriz) and the boyish Abilene Kid (Harry Carey, Jr.) as his accomplices. The three men ride into Welcome, Arizona, and accidentally make small talk with the sheriff (Ward Bond) and his wife (Mae Marsh) before robbing the bank, and their luck only gets worse from there. As the sheriff’s posse cuts them off from all sources of water, Hightower and his gang are forced to run ever deeper into the desert, where they find a dying woman who places her newborn son under their protection. The three men put the child’s welfare before their own to fulfill their promise to his mother, but they have little hope of saving themselves, much less the helpless baby.

As he had in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) nearly a decade earlier, Wayne plays an outlaw with a sentimental side, but his tribulation in the desert suggests that Hightower still has some penance to pay for his sins. The pervasive themes of the picture deal with redemption, self-sacrifice, and the symbolic importance of water, a precious commodity in both the American wilderness and the land of the Israelites. Musical cues reinforce these elements, from the mournful lament of “Streets of Laredo” to “Shall We Gather at the River.” The camera dwells on the relentless heat of the arid frontier, the drops of water falling on the baby’s face, and the image of a derelict wagon sitting forlornly beside a hopelessly broken tank. Wayne’s best scenes occur in the extremity of these moments, especially when he returns from his first visit to the wagon and the useless water tank. The film has many dark episodes, but that is the worst of the lot, as Hightower sits contemplating the countless lives that will be lost because of one man’s foolish actions. For that man there is no redemption; even his wife rejects him by naming her baby Robert William Pedro Hightower, after the three men who arrive just in time to help the child be born. Bob Hightower, whose paternal nature has already revealed itself in his behavior toward the wounded Kid, becomes a true father in that moment, and his arc toward salvation begins.

Ford’s regular supporting players are all in fine form, with Ward Bond enjoying an especially meaty role as the sheriff, Perley Sweet. Harry Carey, Jr. is a credit to his father, to whom the picture is dedicated, with his performance as the sweet-natured William, whose outlaw title as the Abilene Kid contrasts with his inherent goodness and faith. At 43, Mildred Natwick is more than a decade too old for her character, and she only has one big scene, but she really knows how to make it count. Other reliable Ford actors in the background include Jane Darwell, Ben Johnson, and Hank Worden. In addition we get the delightful Pedro Armendáriz and silent film veteran Mae Marsh. Armendáriz proves quite the scene-stealer with his exuberant personality, while Marsh makes a good counterpart to Ward Bond as the sheriff’s wife, especially in the final scenes.

Fans of the Western are sure to appreciate the film’s opening tribute to Harry Carey, who died in 1947. For more of John Ford, John Wayne, and the Ford crowd of characters, see Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956). Ford also directed powerhouse classics like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Mae Marsh is best remembered as the doomed sister in The Birth of a Nation (1915), but she actually has uncredited roles in a number of Ford pictures, and both she and Pedro Armendáriz appear in Fort Apache. Be sure to catch the late-career performances of Harry Carey, Jr. in The Long Riders (1980), Gremlins (1984), and especially The Whales of August (1987).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the second act in John Ford’s trilogy of cavalry films, and it does indeed wave the patriotic frontier banner pretty fervently, but the title’s feminine pronoun also suggests the picture’s deep preoccupation with the familial and romantic aspects of cavalry life. With John Wayne cast in a distinctly paternal role, this narrative contemplates an older man’s relationship with his substitute children, both the younger officers under his command and a young woman who stands in for his own lost daughters. While the usual Western battles and chases, plus Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, provide the story with its excitement and grandeur, the domestic scenes form its sentimental heart. Wayne and Ford fans justly rank She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as a favorite, but fine performances from Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, and Ben Johnson also help to cement the picture’s enduring appeal.

Wayne plays Captain Nathan Brittles, a career cavalry officer facing a plethora of problems in the days just before his retirement. A massive Indian uprising is destabilizing the entire territory, even as Brittles’ commanding officer (George O’Brien) saddles his patrol with two women trying to catch the stagecoach back to the East. The tough and experienced Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) proves her mettle as a cavalry officer’s wife, but her attractive niece, Olivia (Joanne Dru), creates conflict between Brittles’ junior officers, Lieutenant Cohill (John Agar) and Lieutenant Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). With the brash younger chiefs of the tribes stirring up trouble and the women slowing his progress, Brittles must keep order within his ranks and strive to head off a deadly frontier war.

John Wayne gives a particularly sensitive performance that prefigures some of his later, more mature roles, especially those in which he takes on overtly paternal roles. In his early forties when he made this picture, Wayne is aged with a little makeup and a lot of gray hair to portray the older Captain Brittles, who dreads his retirement from the only life he has known for forty years. The usual Duke bravado is tempered by Brittles’ emotional attachment to his long dead wife, who lies buried in the fort’s cemetery along with his two small daughters. Brittles frequently visits the graves to tend to them and report on the day’s events. We understand that his fatherly interest in the headstrong Olivia has a lot to do with his yearning for his lost family; his own daughters might be about Olivia’s age had they lived, and he even tells his wife that Olivia reminds him of her. With the living he is less able to articulate his feelings; he silently pats Olivia on the shoulder and jokingly bickers with his devoted comrade, Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen), but the people around him know exactly how to interpret his behavior, and he is fiercely admired and respected by his men.

Ford stocks the supporting cast with his usual company of players, a reliable crowd of tremendously talented actors who lend both humor and gravitas to all of Ford’s films. Victor McLaglen provides comic relief as the thirsty sergeant who is following his captain into retirement, while Mildred Natwick brings great courage and warmth to her role as “Old Iron Pants,” the cavalry wife who only leaves the fort to get her niece away before the long, hard winter. John Agar and Harry Carey, Jr. both look fine in their blue uniforms, even if Carey seems a bit miscast as a privileged son of eastern wealth, but Ben Johnson steals their thunder with his charismatic, casually brave Southerner, Sgt. Tyree. It’s never clear why Olivia doesn’t set her sights on him instead of the other young men. Beautiful Joanne Dru, who had already starred with John Wayne in Red River (1948), makes an excellent Olivia; her strong chin and flashing eyes tell us that she could, in fact, “be Army” if she would just set aside her stubborn pride and settle on one of her suitors. Filling in the smaller roles are George O’Brien, Arthur Shields, and Chief John Big Tree as the elderly Pony That Walks, who laments that old men like himself and Brittles cannot stop young men from going to war.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon won an Oscar for its sweeping Technicolor cinematography, making it the only Academy Award winner or nominee of the cavalry trilogy. For the full trio, see Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950). John Ford’s best pictures with John Wayne include Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), though you’ll find Victor McLaglen and Mildred Natwick joining the director and star for memorable roles in the cherished Irish romance, The Quiet Man (1952). Catch Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, and Harry Carey, Jr. in Ford’s Wagon Master (1950). Take time to appreciate Ford’s love affair with popular songs and music; just as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” dominates the score of this film, so “Streets of Laredo” informs 3 Godfathers (1948) and “My Darling Clementine” lends its yearning theme to the 1946 film that shares its name.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: GASLIGHT (1944)

Gothic thrills get a stylish Hollywood makeover in George Cukor’s 1944 version of Gaslight, which earned Ingrid Bergman a Best Actress Oscar as a naive bride whose duplicitous husband tries to drive her insane. The top-notch cast also includes Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and Dame May Whitty, but the best is a scene-stealing screen debut by a teenaged Angela Lansbury, who picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance, as well. Mounting suspense and thrilling cinematography make this tale of psychological terror a true classic, which rewards repeat viewings with its carefully developed motifs and keen attention to detail.

Ingrid Bergman stars as Paula Alquist, whose famous aunt is strangled by an intruder when Paula is just a young girl. Ten years later, Paula returns to the home she and her aunt once shared with her new husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), but the honeymoon is short-lived, as Gregory soon turns cool and insists that Paula is losing her mind. As the evidence against her sanity mounts, Paula doubts her own senses, even though she sees and hears mysterious things every night when her husband leaves the house. Only Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), a handsome Scotland Yard detective, suspects the truth about Gregory’s motives for having his wife committed to an asylum.

The plot has a Bluebeard’s wife quality that is suggested early on by Paula’s encounter with Miss Thwaites (Dame May Whitty), a murder mystery fan who promptly tells Paula a gory story about a man who killed his wives. This is the dark side of fairy tale romance; after a whirlwind courtship, Paula’s dream becomes a nightmare, and her prince turns out to be an ogre. Bergman unravels beautifully over the course of Paula’s travails; her innocent, happy energy gives way to nervousness and doubt, then hysteria, as she comes unglued under Gregory’s baleful influence. Charles Boyer, sadistic and urbane, makes a perfect villain; he doesn’t have to smile for us to know how much he enjoys his insidious mind games. Gregory works on Paula’s mind with subtle, calculated cruelty, moving objects and undermining her confidence but also building her up with brief moments of happiness just to bring her crashing down. The audience understands his motives long before Paula even suspects, but the dramatic irony only enhances our suspense. We know it’s just a matter of time before Paula cracks under Gregory’s constant pressure.

Everyone in the cast is excellent, and Charles Boyer even got a Best Actor nod for his performance, but it’s impossible not to watch Angela Lansbury with particular fascination. Only nineteen at the time of her first film role, Lansbury commands the screen as Nancy, the pert housemaid whose presence unnerves the self-conscious Paula. With a tilt of her chin and a lazy stare, Lansbury makes Nancy insufferably vulgar and vain. She boldly propositions her master and subverts her mistress at every turn, but we can’t wait to see her again. Like the constables and even Gregory himself, we’re drawn to her undeniable charisma, no matter how forward and presumptuous she becomes. Nancy’s insubordinate behavior is yet another tool that Gregory employs to his advantage; he knows that she’s the worst possible choice of a maid to serve his wife, and that’s exactly why he hires her. Lansbury, all insolence and innuendo, would have carried off the whole picture had the leads been even a hair less skillful in their own performances.

Gaslight picked up seven Oscar nominations in all, with a second win for Best Art Direction. For comparison see the British 1940 version starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard; it’s sometimes included with DVD editions of the 1944 picture. Ingrid Bergman is best remembered for films like Casablanca (1942), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946), but she won two more Best Actress Oscars for Anastasia (1956) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Charles Boyer stars in Love Affair (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), and The Constant Nymph (1943). See Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and The Third Man (1949). For more of Angela Lansbury’s early films, try The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Harvey Girls (1946).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: KITTY FOYLE (1940)

Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940) presents a quintessential example of the women’s melodrama, or “weepie,” that enjoyed the height of its popularity throughout the 1940s. Although leading ladies like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became particularly associated with the genre, in this film it’s Ginger Rogers eliciting the sobs and sighs as the title heroine, a working class girl who has to choose between her youthful ideal and a more pragmatic suitor from her own income tax bracket. Rogers gives an Oscar-winning performance that demonstrates her ability beyond musicals and light romantic comedy, which makes Kitty Foyle essential viewing for her fans, and a handful of emotional scenes earn the movie its tearjerker reputation. The story, however, is more interested in bursting bubbles than in delivering a satisfying romantic narrative, and modern viewers, especially women, might well take issue with its insistence that women need men to give their lives meaning.

Rogers plays Kitty at various points during a decade of her life, as she grows from a starry-eyed kid in pigtails to a sadder and wiser woman of twenty-six. While still living at home with her beloved Pop (Ernest Cossart), Kitty meets the wealthy Wyn Strafford (Dennis Morgan) and promptly falls in love with him, even though her father predicts that their social differences will make them unhappy. Kitty also strikes up a cooler relationship with Mark (James Craig), a penniless doctor just beginning his career. After many ups and downs, including a brief marriage to Wyn, Kitty must finally decide which man to choose.

The opening scenes of the film declare its general opposition to progressive feminism with a lament about the way in which American women traded chivalry for jobs and the vote, so it’s no shock that Kitty Foyle sees very limited options for its heroine. Staying independent isn’t on the table; Kitty can choose adulterous passion in South America with the remarried Wyn or a conventional marriage with the lackluster Mark. Given that this is 1940, we already know which one she’ll pick, even if the movie treats it as a big secret. Neither of her suitors has much to recommend him; Wyn is a shallow Prince Charming ready to abandon his wife and child to get what he wants, while Mark comes off as a real stick in the mud whom even Kitty doesn’t like very much. This is romance between a rock and a hard place, meant to deflate the Cinderella myth of living happily ever after, but it unintentionally makes spinsterhood look pretty good in comparison.

Kitty’s most compelling relationships don’t involve either of her disappointing admirers, and the scenes without them prove far more memorable. The men in her life who really matter are her father and her unborn son, both of whom are named Tom Foyle. Determined to have the baby even after her divorce from Wyn, Kitty imagines him as “my little candidate for the year 2000,” and she says that women want the future more than they really want men. Her father’s death is the first poignant loss of the picture, but the scenes that depict her pregnancy and its aftermath really wring the viewer’s heart. So much of the rest of the story depends on this central section of the narrative, from the early scene of Kitty holding a poor woman’s newborn child to her later encounter with Wyn’s young son. Oddly enough, Kitty’s relationship with her female employer, Delphine (Odette Myrtil), also matters more than her romantic pursuits; only Delphine supports and comforts Kitty during her pregnancy, providing a much needed maternal presence through the darkest period of the heroine’s life. In a more enlightened decade, Kitty might have made a role model of the successful and apparently single Delphine, but she seems unable to imagine her future without some sort of man, even if her mood at the conclusion suggests resignation more than optimism. In the absence of a true Prince Charming, Cinderella opts for the footman, if only to avoid ending up an old maid.

In addition to Rogers’ win for Best Actress, Kitty Foyle scored four Oscar nominations, including nods for Sam Wood as Best Director and Dalton Trumbo for Best Screenplay. Enjoy more of Ginger Rogers without Fred Astaire in Bachelor Mother (1939), The Major and the Minor (1942), and Monkey Business (1952). See Dennis Morgan as a more attractive leading man in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and look for James Craig in The Human Comedy (1943). For more from director Sam Wood, try A Night at the Opera (1935), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Break out the tissues for a weepie double header with Stella Dallas (1937), Dark Victory (1939), or A Woman's Face (1941).

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: KISS OF DEATH (1947)

Henry Hathaway’s 1947 Fox film noir has much to recommend it, but Kiss of Death is most notable as the shocking debut of Richard Widmark, whose performance as the picture’s chief villain is so gripping that it scored the Hollywood newcomer an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Widmark’s giggling psychopath, Tommy Udo, ranks among the genre’s greatest heavies, but beyond his scenes of sadistic humor Kiss of Death is a surprisingly domestic noir, with Victor Mature as a hard luck case who really just wants to enjoy a normal life with his wife and kids. With no femme fatale in sight and a plot that prefigures key elements of Cape Fear (1962), Kiss of Death is a worthwhile picture that avoids many, if not all, of noir’s cliches while still existing well within its boundaries.

Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, an ex-con who returns to crime because his prison record keeps him from getting a regular job. When he’s convicted for a jewelry heist, Nick refuses to cooperate with assistant district attorney D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) because he believes his organization will look after his family, but in prison he learns that his wife has committed suicide and his two little girls have been sent to an orphanage. Nick provides information about his former cronies and manages to rebuild his life with new wife Nettie (Coleen Gray), but his testimony against the murderous Tommy Udo (Widmark) places his entire family in terrible danger.

Like Robert Mitchum, Victor Mature has a face made for noir; his heavy brow and full lips are more striking than handsome, but the shadowy cinematography of the genre plays perfectly across his features. His Nick is a lifelong loser, a product of the underbelly whose own father was shot in the street by the cops, but he still longs for working class respectability. We don’t need D’Angelo’s frequently repeated assurances to know that Nick is really a good guy who deserves as many chances as it takes to turn his life around. One thing that sets Kiss of Death apart from other noir films is the depiction of the protagonist as a devoted and loving father; children are rare in noir’s dark world, but here the two young daughters drive Nick’s actions, both good and bad. He is attracted to Nettie not only because she is young and beautiful but because she loves his children and will be a good mother to them, better even than their real mother, an adulterous alcoholic who abandoned the girls by killing herself. Once Nick has Nettie, his children, and the honest life he always yearned for, he will do anything to protect them, even if that means taking on Tommy Udo all by himself.

Widmark’s gleefully insane killer functions as Nick’s polar opposite; here is a man who desires only power and status at any cost. Tommy initially likes Nick because he perceives him as a “big man,” but Nick has no taste for Tommy’s violent pleasures. Widmark invests his character with a hyper energy that frequently erupts into his trademark giggle, a sound more chilling than most villains’ deepest growls. As a grinning psychopath who relishes his victims’ fear, Tommy clearly gets a thrill out of murdering an old woman by pushing her down a flight of stairs, but he also delights in the notoriety his crimes bring him. When he threatens Nick’s wife and kids, he doesn’t have to spell out the perverse nature of his intentions; we understand the horrific implications of Tommy’s idea of “fun.” The influence of Widmark’s performance can be seen in later deranged killers from Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962) to Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), but it also informed Widmark’s own career, leading him to play similar types in The Street with No Name (1948) and Road House (1948). Even noir aficionados who find fault with Kiss of Death overall acknowledge the brilliance of Widmark’s turn as Tommy Udo and rank him not only as one of noir’s great villains, but one of film’s most chilling psychopathic characters.

Keep an eye out for Karl Malden in a small supporting role as one of the cops working with the district attorney, and be sure to appreciate the lovely Coleen Gray as Nettie. For more of Richard Widmark’s best films, see classic noir like Night and the City (1950) and Pickup on South Street (1953) as well as the Westerns Yellow Sky (1948), Broken Lance (1954), and Warlock (1959). Victor Mature stars in I Wake Up Screaming (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), and Samson and Delilah (1949). You’ll find Coleen Gray in Nightmare Alley (1947), Red River (1948), and Kansas City Confidential (1952). Henry Hathaway’s other noir films include The Dark Corner (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), and Niagara (1953), but he is probably best remembered today for True Grit (1969).

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)

Among Walt Disney’s greatest accomplishments, rivaling even the creation of Mickey Mouse himself, stands Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which introduced Hollywood to the feature-length animated film. Disney wanted to create a visually stunning narrative that would appeal to both children and adults; he risked everything he had on the picture, and its success made possible all of the later Disney productions as well as animated movies made by other studios. Thus, the release of Snow White was truly a watershed moment in the history of film. Now, nearly 80 years after its debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does show its age in a few places, but it still shines brightly as an animated masterpiece, with gorgeous images, a gripping story, and a cast of unforgettable characters.

Disney’s version adapts the familiar fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, in which a princess is abused by her jealous stepmother for being more beautiful than the older woman. The Queen sends Snow White into the forest with a huntsman who has been ordered to kill her, but instead he warns her to run away and never return. In the forest, she is assisted by kindly animals and the assorted dwarfs, who try to protect her but cannot keep the Queen’s magic mirror from revealing that she still lives. Bent on revenge, the Queen resorts to dark magic to eliminate her competition, but true love finally arrives to save the day.

Although much has been said in the decades since about the “Disneyfication” of fairy tales, Snow White actually hews pretty close to its source material. It doesn’t balk at being scary, especially during Snow White’s flight through the forest and the Queen’s transformation. It does eliminate the repetition of the Queen’s attempts to murder Snow White, but that both improves the pace of the story and downplays the heroine’s irritating gullibility. The princess herself, as lovely as she is, is the most dated character in the picture. Her childishness makes the prince’s romantic interest seem forced, and she also displays a bothersome talent for domestic despotism when she orders the dwarfs around in their own house. Later Disney princesses have more developed and mature personalities, but Snow White sets a pattern for domesticity, passivity, and starry-eyed romanticism that takes a very long time for Disney films to break. On the plus side, the movie nails the concept of the Disney villain and paves the way for a great tradition that will include such memorable menaces as Maleficent, Cruella De Vil, Ursula, and Scar.

Snow White won a special Oscar honoring its achievement as a pioneer effort in animation, and it still shows us what brilliant traditional animation can look like. The 1937 film did for hand-drawn animation what Pixar would later do for CGI with Toy Story (1995), but along with great films using the medium both movies also opened the door for a lot of mediocre imitations. Unlike so much of the bad animation that has flooded the market over the years, Snow White lavishes detail and attention on every character and scene, using live models to give the dwarfs in particular their distinctive heft and bounce. Snow White’s innocent beauty and the Queen’s violent pride come to life thanks to teams of artists who rendered their subjects with equal measures of devotion and skill. Every element of the picture, from its uncredited voice cast to its musical score, contributes to Disney’s ambitious vision, but the animation itself is the heart and soul of the production, a revelation about the art form’s potential to tell deeply compelling stories of adventure, love, and even death.

For more of Walt Disney’s classic animated films, see Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Animation is not merely an American medium; for a global perspective on Disney’s legacy, try modern masterpieces like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Secret of Kells (2009), and The Illusionist (2010). You’ll find very different takes on the Snow White story in Ball of Fire (1941), Snow White and the Huntsman (2010), Mirror Mirror (2012), and Blancanieves (2012). The 2007 Disney feature, Enchanted, pokes loving fun at the studio’s past princess tales, especially Snow White and Cinderella (1950).

NB - Although it's gone from Orlando, you can still ride Snow White's Scary Adventures at Disneyland in California. I have vague memories of seeing the movie for the first time, but I'll never forget the sheer terror induced by this ride when the witch popped out at every turn. Scary adventures, indeed! In the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Snow White is attracting a whole new generation of fans with the opening of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.