Friday, January 30, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: MOROCCO (1930)

Marlene Dietrich makes her Hollywood debut in Morocco (1930), with Josef von Sternberg, her director for The Blue Angel (1930), presenting his star to the American cinema scene. True to the promise of its exotic locale, Morocco offers a feast of smoldering gazes and sexual tension, raised to a fever pitch by relentless desert heat. Dietrich, a world weary siren, stirs the blood of two leading men, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, both compelling as rival embodiments of passion and ease. Just as it did for American audiences then, Morocco provides a fine introduction to Dietrich now, giving us a chance to experience her ineffable allure at the very height of its power.

The story opens in Morocco with Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a member of the Foreign Legion who passes the time by seducing every woman he sees. The wealthy Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) and jaded singer Amy Jolly (Dietrich) soon arrive by boat, although Amy rejects La Bessiere's constant offers of service. Tom, naturally, makes a play for the cool chanteuse, but he and Amy feel drawn to each other more powerfully than either can explain. Unfortunately, Tom's previous affair with the wife of Adjutant Caesar (Ullrich Haupt) has consequences that may take him beyond Amy's reach forever.

Dietrich certainly makes an impression with her performance, especially during her first appearance at the crowded club where foreigners and natives gather. Dressed in a man's tuxedo and completely unconcerned about the rabble's reaction, she seduces with languid assurance and a knowing gaze. She compounds the sexual ambiguity of her man's clothes by kissing another woman on the lips in payment for a flower from her hair, a daring act even in a Pre-Code film. In case we miss the point of all this, Dietrich then comes out in a skimpy costume and sings "What am I bid for my apple?" Both La Bessiere and Tom buy apples, making their sexual interest clear, but only Tom ends the song with the key to Amy's room. Throughout the film, Dietrich's persona exudes experience; she knows the difference between sex and love, enough that Tom's many affairs don't trouble her at all. Real devotion, however, is new to each of the three main characters; Tom discovers decency he didn't know he possessed, while La Bessiere adores Amy so selflessly that he will even help her into the arms of his rival, if that is what it takes to makes her happy. For Amy, a woman's devotion is embodied by the small band of women who follow the Legionnaires. The camera lingers on them as she watches them shoulder their burdens and trudge across the barren sand after the men they love.

Morocco is a talking picture that retains the aura of a silent film; its characters express themselves more eloquently and honestly with looks and actions than with words. They are not given to long-winded speeches, even in response to the most complicated questions. When La Bessiere asks Amy if she loves Tom, she answers, "I don't know. I hope not." Still, when she looks at him, we have no doubt about the state of her heart. Tom presents himself as an unrepentant cad. "Anybody who has faith in me is a sucker," he says, yet we later find him carving Amy's name inside a heart, as lovestruck as any earnest boy, despite the native girl perched on his knee. Madame Caesar, played by Eve Southern, rarely speaks at all, but her burning eyes follow Tom with desperate desire. The visual quality of the picture emphasizes the symbolic, from Amy's slow destruction of La Bessiere's card to the final scene, in which Amy's action, utter madness in any real world, is the only ending imaginable.

Morocco earned four Oscar nominations, including nods for Dietrich and von Sternberg. For their later Hollywood collaborations, try Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935). Catch more of Dietrich at her best in Destry Rides Again (1939), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Gary Cooper won Best Actor Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), but he was a silent film veteran whose big break came in 1926 with The Winning of Barbara Worth. Urbane Adolphe Menjou also stars with Cooper in A Farewell to Arms (1932); his other films from the 1930s include Morning Glory (1933), Little Miss Marker (1934), and A Star is Born (1937).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BALL OF FIRE (1941)

In Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941), Barbara Stanwyck turns her tough dame persona to comedic purpose, a feat she also performed that year in the Preston Sturges comedy, The Lady Eve (1941). Both are terrific examples of the screwball genre, but while the Sturges picture relies on biblical allusions, the Hawks film ventures into the world of fairy tales. The ball of fire that Stanwyck plays in this movie is a street savvy Snow White, a little drifted perhaps, but still sweet enough to charm seven reclusive professors and one very inexperienced Prince Charming, represented to great effect by Gary Cooper. With Hawks' lively direction, a brilliant screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and winning performances from Stanwyck and Cooper, Ball of Fire has plenty to offer already, but it becomes a veritable treasure trove of delights thanks to a supporting cast that includes Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Henry Travers, Oskar Homolka, S.Z. Sakall, and an utterly unrecognizable Richard Haydn.

Stanwyck plays nightclub singer and mobster moll Sugarpuss O'Shea, who has to hide out from the district attorney's office when her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), is pinned for a murder rap. A perfect spot conveniently appears at the home of a group of professors working on an encyclopedia. The grammarian, Professor Potts (Gary Cooper), needs a consultant about modern slang, and Sugarpuss certainly knows her way around a colorful phrase. Sugarpuss takes up residence in the house, much to the delight of the seven elderly professors and the bewilderment of the much younger Potts, and soon enough the bashful scholar falls for the duplicitous dame. Joe Lilac, however, has his own plans for Sugarpuss, and the mild-mannered academics must take on a crew of gun-toting gangsters to help true love conquer all.

Cooper is surprisingly hilarious as the straight arrow Potts, but Stanwyck gets all of the best lines, thanks to a plot that hinges on her character's knowledge of slang. Always a great talker, the actress gets dialogue that really zings in this picture, although the modern viewer might sometimes be as befuddled as Professor Potts about what it all means. Slinging slang from "corny" to "yum yum," Stanwyck's character teaches Potts a previously unknown physical vocabulary, as well, making the kissing scenes especially fun. In gowns designed by Edith Head, Stanwyck is truly radiant, particularly in a spangled number that catches the light just so to throw sparkles onto the screen and stardust into Cooper's eyes. Cooper makes a perfect match for the actress; his Potts is a dynamic character, stuffy and focused at first, then suspicious and confused, and at last a head over heels romantic driven by love. He ends the picture a yodeling, boxing man on fire. It turns out that kisses can wake up Prince Charming just as well as they work on Snow White.

The supporting players are all winners, from Dana Andrews as the scheming Joe Lilac to Allen Jenkins as the garbage man, but the actors playing the professors are some of classic film's most beloved characters. They give the animated dwarfs of Snow White (1937) plenty of competition for cartoonish appeal with their quirky passions and odd bodies. Familiar faces abound. S.Z. Sakall and Leonid Kinskey are both remembered by most viewers for their roles in Casablanca (1942), while Henry Travers is best known as the bumbling angel of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Oskar Homolka, who had played the heavy in Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), proves a scene-stealer among the group, especially when his character attempts to drive. The most memorable of the bunch, however, turns out to be Richard Haydn, heavily made up as Professor Oddly and employing the same bizarre voice he would later use as the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland (1951). A widower and a botanist, Oddly trades laughs for sentimental tears in his best scene, in which he recalls his love for his long dead wife. It's almost impossible to recognize the actor known today as Max in The Sound of Music (1965), but Haydn it is, making his second big screen appearance at the age of 36, four years younger than Gary Cooper.

Take a moment to appreciate Kathleen Howard and Mary Field as the movie's other women, and be sure to notice Elisha Cook, Jr. in a bit role early on. Ball of Fire earned four Oscar nominations, including a nod for Stanwyck as Best Actress, but went home empty-handed. For more comedy from Howard Hawks, try Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Survey Barbara Stanwyck's remarkable career with Baby Face (1933), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Furies (1950). Gary Cooper won Best Actor Oscars for Sergeant York (1940) and High Noon (1952), and he also stars with Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941) and Blowing Wild (1953). Get a better view of Dana Andrews in Laura (1944), and don't miss Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street (1945).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948)

Adapted by Lucille Fletcher from her own original radio play, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) successfully translates its tale of murder and hysteria into the new medium without losing its connections to its radio roots. Anatole Litvak directs this tense noir thriller, which cranks up the suspense as Barbara Stanwyck's invalid anti-heroine becomes more and more unhinged, convinced that someone is coming to kill her at 11:15 pm on a lonely, hot night in the middle of New York. Great performances from Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster drive the film, which offers an ironic commentary on the way in which a domineering woman's constant manipulation pushes her husband toward increasingly desperate criminal acts.

Stanwyck stars as Leona Stevenson, a wealthy invalid left alone in her New York home when her servants, nurse, and husband all manage to be out at the same time. Needy and irritable, Leona hunts for husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) by repeatedly calling his office and complaining to the telephone operators, but then she stumbles into a conversation in which two men plot to kill a woman at 11:15 that very night. Leona is horrified, but her anxiety only increases as other callers begin to fill in the details of a complicated plot involving Leona, her husband, and the extent of their marital discord.

Stanwyck's performance dominates the picture, and it earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (she lost to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda). It was the fourth and final Best Actress nomination of her career, though she never actually won. Still, the role of Leona shows why Stanwyck remains such an icon among classic Hollywood's leading ladies. She can be good, she can even be funny, but she is always most delightful when she's very, very bad. Like Stanwyck's other noir characters, Leona is a combination of strength and weakness; she goes after innocent Henry like a tiger on the prowl, then blackmails him with her tantrums and physical frailty to keep him tied to her and her father's company. She discounts Henry's need to accomplish anything for himself and makes him so addicted to her upper class lifestyle that his original integrity dissolves into base, ugly greed. She loves him and destroys him; the story unfolds to us in flashbacks that reveal how she poached him from a rival (Ann Richards), made him a captive of her father's company, and drove him to crime. At the same time, Stanwyck manages to make us feel bad for Leona, whose terror is very real as the moment of the killing draws near. She wants to save the unknown victim, and she wants Henry to love her. We'd have to be heartless monsters not to pity the sick woman, hysterical and heartbroken, sobbing into the phone as her world comes apart.

The story's origins as a radio play help to explain the way the narrative is constructed, with a single character confined entirely to telephone conversations and flashbacks as actions. There are moments in Sorry, Wrong Number where you can close your eyes and experience the very auditory nature of the events. We constantly hear trains passing, phones ringing, lines disconnecting, and other sounds that add to the mounting tension. Leona communicates with people from her past through the telephone, first her father (Ed Begley), and then Sally Hunt Lord (Ann Richards), and these conversations trigger memories that fill in the years between her first meeting with Henry and their current state. A late revelation from her doctor (Wendell Corey) devastates Leona, while the mysterious calls from Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) make no sense to her but clarify the awful truth to the viewer. The last moments of the picture revel in dramatic irony, since we know something that Leona never figures out. Henry, too, has his moment of poetic justice, with the last line of the movie, "Sorry, wrong number," dripping with the implications of what has just happened. Time is up, and nobody has any more nickels. Such is the very essence of noir.

For more of Barbara Stanwyck's fatal women, see Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Burt Lancaster's other noir films include The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he won the Oscar for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) with four career nominations in all. Anatole Litvak also directed City for Conquest (1940), The Snake Pit (1948), and Anastasia (1956).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936)

Like most biographical and historical movies, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) takes liberties with its source material, but for the most part it does so in the service of a more compelling narrative. The film's director, John Ford, has always been associated with a certain kind of romanticized historical moment, and Ford's hallmarks turn up in every facet of this period drama, including its themes, its use of music, and its cast. With Ford at the helm and Nunnally Johnson on the screenplay, The Prisoner of Shark Island delivers an exciting story inspired by the experiences of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth and subsequently found himself imprisoned at Fort Jefferson on the desolate islands of Florida's Dry Tortugas. In the middle of the riveting action, classic film fans will find a number of favorite stars, including Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart, Harry Carey, and John Carradine, whose performance as a vicious prison officer is especially effective.

Warner Baxter takes the lead as Dr. Samuel Mudd, who unwittingly aids Lincoln assassin Booth one fateful night in 1865. Tried by a biased court to appease an angry public, Mudd avoids execution but is sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson, where horrific conditions make any term likely to end in death. Mudd's devoted wife, Peggy (Gloria Stuart), and father-in-law (Claude Gillingwater) strive to free him without success, even though a former slave, Buck (Ernest Whitman), serves as an inside man to assist Mudd in the prison. When yellow fever breaks out on the island, Mudd has the opportunity to save those who have treated him so cruelly and prove himself a better man.

Although most of the movie was shot on sound stages, Fort Jefferson was and is a real location, a perfect inspiration for this kind of harrowing prison tale. In its finest moments the picture captures the desperation of men trapped in such a place, especially when fever sweeps the island and critical supplies run dangerously low. Warner Baxter plays Mudd with vigor and intensity; he has particularly good scenes during his escape attempt and his bout with yellow fever. Whatever we might make of the real Samuel Mudd, this one clearly descends from the Count of Monte Cristo and the Man in the Iron Mask. Such characters require fierce antagonists, and Mudd gets a very sharp one in John Carradine's Sergeant Rankin, who delights in tormenting the doctor at every opportunity. Several shots offer Carradine's distinctively hawkish features in breathtaking closeup to make the most of every line and nuance in the actor's face, where we read his intelligence, energy, and cruelty as only a performer like Carradine can render them. Gloria Stuart makes a lovely sufferer in her scenes of anguish over Mudd's fate, while Harry Carey has a very solid role as the island's commandant, a good man who ultimately corrects the injustice done to Mudd.

Race ultimately proves a thornier problem for The Prisoner of Shark Island than historical fidelity, and the movie's depiction of black characters may explain why it is less celebrated today than other Ford films. Ford tries to show Mudd as a humane former slave owner and even a faithful friend to Buck, but at the same time he populates the screen with stereotypes who reinforce racist assumptions. In the picture's worst scene, Mudd approaches a mob of terrified black soldiers who have holed up together to avoid the yellow fever outbreak. Even though they are armed, the soldiers obey Mudd because they perceive him as a Southern master due to his voice and bearing. The encounter suggests that Mudd possesses an authority over the black soldiers that his Northern, non-slaver captors lack. It's not a particularly surprising attitude, given that Gone with the Wind (1939) and other movies about the Civil War South engage in the same tactics, but for the modern viewer such material can be very hard to take. In spite of those issues, the movie has enough going for it that it deserves some serious attention, especially from Ford fans, and it might usefully serve in a thoughtful discussion about Ford's engagements with race in his later, better known films.

Be sure to note the brief appearance of Frank McGlynn Sr. as Abraham Lincoln; the actor portrayed the president at least a dozen times, and you can also see him in the role in The Littlest Rebel (1935) and The Plainsman (1936). For contrast, try Ford films like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or the much more progressive Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Silent movie veteran Warner Baxter is not as familiar today as many other leading men of his era, but he won the Oscar for Best Actor for In Old Arizona (1928), and you'll find him in 42nd Street (1933) and the series of Crime Doctor pictures. See Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Titanic (1997). If you want to learn more about the real history of Samuel Mudd and Fort Jefferson, visit the National Park Service site for Dry Tortugas, or better yet make a special trip to see the island for yourself.

PS - I was inspired to watch The Prisoner of Shark Island by my own trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. Here are some photos of the real site that you can compare with the film's recreation of it. No, there were no sharks in the moat!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: JUPITER'S DARLING (1955)

Even the novice viewer probably knows to expect some swimming scenes in an Esther Williams picture, but Jupiter's Darling (1955) is less aquatic than the screen star's most memorable outings, and it suffers from other problems, as well. Directed by George Sidney, who certainly was capable of better work, Jupiter's Darling isn't utterly terrible but still belongs squarely in the league of second raters, thanks to a thin plot, an appallingly sexist attitude, and the misuse of Williams' best attributes. For the dedicated classic movie fan, the consolations are plenty of color, some fun dance sequences from Marge and Gower Champion, and the presence of favorites like Howard Keel, George Sanders, and William Demarest.

Williams stars as Amytis, the betrothed of the Dictator of Rome (George Sanders) during a perilous time. Hannibal (Howard Keel) and his army sit at the outskirts of the great city, ready to sack Rome and burn it to the ground. With her personal slave, Meta (Marge Champion), in tow, Amytis sneaks out for a look at the manly conqueror, but she ends up being taken prisoner. Amytis and Hannibal then engage in a frequently violent battle of the sexes, with the fate of Rome hanging in the balance.

The ancient setting provides eye-popping costumes and backgrounds, including a Roman bath where Williams indulges in watery antics, and it even justifies the presence of numerous elephants as part of Hannibal's military equipment. The pachyderms, though not very warlike, make for really unusual dance partners for Marge and Gower Champion in one of the silliest but most amusing musical scenes. Howard Keel also delivers one of his songs from atop an elephant, but that's just the kind of over-the-top moment one expects from him. Nothing about the location is meant to be realistic; this story is more mythology than history. Unfortunately, it also relies on some grossly outdated sexual politics that it wants us to wink at rather than protest. It's hard to see Keel's Hannibal as a desirable mate when he repeatedly attempts to have Amytis executed, and even when they get along their romance has a bestial, brutal quality to it. Really, between him and George Sanders' stuffy Fabius, the Vestal Virgins start to look like a good alternative.

Keel has plenty to do, though Sanders and William Demarest are sadly underused, and Williams ought to spend more time swimming and less singing (dubbed, of course). All of the best scenes really belong to the Champions, who are in their element doing energetic dance numbers that are more interesting than the songs themselves. The tired tropes of Jupiter's Darling signal the end of Williams' heyday; she starred in a drama, The Unguarded Moment (1956), a year later, but her best pictures were all behind her. The type of musical that had sustained Williams, Keel, and the Champions was on its way out, too. Even Keel, the biggest star of the bunch, moved into Westerns and TV appearances as the 1960s dawned.

Look for Richard Haydn, Norma Varden, and Douglass Dumbrille in minor supporting roles. For a proper introduction to Esther Williams, go with Neptune's Daughter (1949) or Dangerous When Wet (1953), in which William Demarest has a much better role as the heroine's dad. Howard Keel, the poster boy for musical battles of the sexes, stars in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); the first two movies are also the work of director George Sidney. Keel and Sidney team with the Champions for the 1951 version of Show Boat, but you can also find the Champions in Give a Girl a Break (1953) and Three for the Show (1955).

Jupiter's Darling is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.