Monday, July 24, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

Director Peter Godfrey's modern Gothic offers two iconic stars - Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck - as its leads, which is reason enough to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) in spite of its flaws. Bogart, who played heavies off and on throughout his career, is back on the dark side as a painter who finds artistic inspiration by murdering his wives, while Stanwyck is unusually naive as his current wife and next intended victim. Supporting performers include Nigel Bruce as an atrociously incompetent doctor and Ann Carter as Bogart's beguiling daughter, while Alexis Smith is particularly memorable as a predatory seductress who might be getting more than she expects by tempting Bogart's unhinged artist to leave his wife for her. Bogart, Stanwyck, and Smith all give fine performances, but the film suffers from a lack of suspense that undermines its chilling premise.

Stanwyck plays Sally, who becomes the second wife of painter Geoffrey Carroll (Bogart) after his first wife dies. Sally doesn't suspect that her predecessor's demise was murder, and Geoffrey goes to great lengths to hide his crimes even as he contemplates a second disposal to make way for wife number three. Goaded by the offers of the beautiful Cecily (Alexis Smith), Geoffrey intends to make Sally another victim of his maniacal need for a new muse to drive his work. Geoffrey's young daughter, Bea (Ann Carter), eventually reveals some of his secrets, and Sally realizes the truth about her husband, but her revelation might come too late to save her from his murderous schemes.

The two leads are the chief attraction here, though both are somewhat out of their element. Humphrey Bogart never looks like an artist, but he does make for a credible killer, and it's great fun to watch his Geoffrey come unhinged whenever his secrets are threatened. By the end of the film he has gone right off the rails, justifying his actions with a horrifically sexist assertion that his art is more important than any woman's life. The simmering intensity that Bogart exemplifies works well for dangerous, unstable characters, and his performance here provides a parallel to his more celebrated work in The Petrified Forest (1936), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Stanwyck, normally a tough cookie and occasionally up for murder herself, here has an ingenue's role, and one of the film's frustrations is that we expect a Stanwyck character to be smarter. Stanwyck plays Sally as loyal, kind, and unsuspecting, which is what the role seems to demand of her, but it's not as good a part as the actress deserves, and Alexis Smith has the meatier role as the scheming Cecily. Stanwyck would get a much better chance to play an imperiled wife in the 1948 film, Sorry, Wrong Number, showing what she could do with a part more suited to her talent.

While the casting issues cause some obvious problems, the chief complaint about The Two Mrs. Carrolls is its inability to generate suspense. The film shows us up front that Geoffrey murders his first wife, creating dramatic irony for the audience as we wait for Sally to catch up. This approach can work well in a narrative, depending on how the unfolding events are handled as the protagonist learns the truth, but Sally stays in the dark so long that we wonder if she's paying attention. When she does finally figure it out there's a flood of information dumped into the last act so rapidly that we don't have time to savor Sally's discoveries. Even the reveal of the gruesome portrait of Sally as an Angel of Death - which ought to be a major moment - seems rushed. We see it briefly and then it's gone as Sally rushes on to the next piece of evidence. Great Gothic thrillers, whether literary or cinematic, use the slow build of rising suspicion and horror to drive the plot and the heroine forward to the inevitable confrontation with the villain. One has only to compare this movie's poisoned milk scenes with the one in Suspicion (1941) to see how differently a really suspenseful film handles the same concept. The 1940s, in fact, saw a host of excellent Gothic thrillers appear in the wake of Rebecca (1940) and the Jane Eyre inspired boom that followed, and it's a shame that The Two Mrs. Carrolls falls short in comparison with its sister films.

In spite of its failures, classic movie buffs will want to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls because it's the only picture to pair Bogart and Stanwyck. It's also worth seeing for fans of Ann Carter, the child star who so memorably plays the young protagonist of The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Peter Godfrey directs Alexis Smith again in The Woman in White (1948), which continues the Gothic trend, as does Cry Wolf (1947), which has Godfrey directing again for Stanwyck. For more of Smith and Bogart in a tale of murderous marriage, try Conflict (1945). Most of the Warner Bros. films are available as DVD on demand from the Warner Archive, including The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The First Time: Memorable Movie Introductions

In my last post I talked about the first time I saw George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which got me thinking about the other movies I remember seeing for the first time. If you're like me, you watch so many movies that a lot of the viewings run together (which is why some of us have film journals to keep track), but other experiences stand out. Perhaps it's the place where it happened, or the other people who were there, or maybe it's that the film itself made such a huge impact on you as a first-time viewer. I made an effort to think about the movies I can clearly remember seeing for the first time, and here's the list I came up with, as well as what I can recall about the circumstances in which I saw them.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

This is the first movie I distinctly remember seeing for the first time, at a drive-in in Jesup, GA, in 1981. Given my long-standing love for SF/F and special effects, it's no shock that I loved it. It also stirred my interest in mythology, which fueled a passion for all things literary.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

All seen in 1988 at the Governor's Honors Program in Valdosta, GA (see my post about that)

Alien (1979)

At a fraternity house at Georgia Tech in 1989 - the brothers were drunk, but I was sober, and I got so sucked into watching the movie that I paid no attention to the shenanigans going on around me, much to the disappointment of the guy who hoped I'd be scared by the film and need his manly protection. I think he left when I started laughing at the death scenes. (No, I don't remember now why I thought they were funny!)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

At an NC-17 film series at Emory University in late January 1991, with the man I would eventually marry. Oddly enough, this series formed the basis of most of our first week of dating, an odd start in terms of content but fitting given how many movies we have seen together since. Of the two, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover made by far the greatest impression. I can still close my eyes and see whole scenes of that film, though I have not watched it again in all these years. The ending in particular is impossible to forget. This was my first real exposure to foreign films as such, not to mention NC-17 films. I went back to Emory's little theater for a Star Trek marathon, Prospero's Books (1991), and My Own Private Idaho (1991) during my college years, all memorable in their own ways.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Talk about a weird double feature! I saw both with a large group of friends from Agnes Scott and Emory. We all went to an Atlanta theater for Silence of the Lambs, which left us feeling freaked out by the time it got over. Luckily, we came out of the theater to find a floor show of Rocky Horror recruiting an audience for their midnight screening. It turned out that Frank-N-Furter was a high school friend of some of our folks, and we all got in for free. Silence is the better movie, but Rocky Horror was more fun; it was the first time I saw the live show.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Another group trip with a different crowd of friends - this one involved a pickup truck full of freezing college students at a drive-in theater outside Atlanta. I don't know why we thought it was a good idea to sit in the back of a truck on a freakishly cold night, but nobody lost any toes. I had to watch the movie again a few years later because I was too cold to pay that much attention to it at the time, but I'll never forget the experience itself.

Easter Parade (1948)

Most of these entries have been movies that were new at the time, but I got to discover this charming musical as part of a senior colloquium on comedy in 1992. The professor who showed it was Pat Pinka, and she was obviously delighted to present it to a room full of English majors. We studied many excellent works during this seminar course, including Swift's "Modest Proposal" and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, but Easter Parade stands out as an example of the pure joy of a different kind of comedy.

Most of this list comes from my college years, a formative time, I think, for most young people, but for me especially because the town where I grew up had limited my access to so much of art and popular culture. I was lucky to get away to Atlanta and liberal arts campuses where I could explore literature, film, and my own identity. I went to museums, live theater, the ballet, and pretty much every movie theater in the greater metro area. So many of those movie experiences were memorable because it was all so new to me; even having friends with whom to see those movies was new. Now I see movies in the theater with my family all the time, but I also get to show movies to groups at libraries and lifetime learning programs, and I think the communal experience of watching and talking about a film makes a big difference.

I also talk about seeing some of these films for the first time in this post, so head over to that if you're interested in the portrait of the cinephile as a young girl theme.

What are the movies you remember seeing for the first time? Where were you and who were you with? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My First Summer of Cinema - 1988

George Romero's death this week has left me feeling nostalgic about the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was also the first time I heard of Romero, saw a zombie film, and found out that movies were something people could take seriously and discuss as forms of art. Almost thirty years later, it's an experience that still resonates as a profound influence on my life and the person I eventually became.

I was spending the summer studying Communication Arts at the Governors Honors Program, a free camp that sent qualifying Georgia high school students for six weeks of academic opportunity at the Valdosta State campus. Despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Valdosta and my dorm had no air conditioning, I was truly happy for the first time in my life. I was a lonely, bookish, skinny girl from a rural town in South Georgia. My conservative, religious parents controlled my life and frowned on my interest in becoming a writer or an artist while refusing to confront the causes of the deep depression that resulted from being trapped in such a situation. Getting away from them and out of town for the whole summer was a miracle in and of itself, but spending it with other nerdy, smart kids and having real friends for the first time while learning the most amazing stuff was almost too good to be true. I don't exaggerate when I say that Governor's Honors changed - and saved - my life.

In addition to days spent learning about literature from college professors (also my first time being around college professors!), we had a constant stream of bonus opportunities in the evenings and on weekends. One of my friends suggested that we attend a film series of social commentary shockers, and I went along, having no real concept of what that meant. I had not been allowed to see horror movies or R rated movies of any kind at home; we didn't have cable, and my parents exercised strict veto power over anything I tried to rent at the video store or see in the pitiful two screen theater downtown. During the film series we sat in desks in a dark, blessedly cool classroom, taking in these movies that I had never heard of before but would never forget seeing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was up first, horrifying us with its gruesome zombies but really punching us in the gut at the end. Next came One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); the discovery that frontal lobotomy was actually a thing that happened to people gave me nightmares for days. We finished up with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was probably my favorite of the series if only because I was instantly charmed by Donald Sutherland, whom I had never seen before. Each picture shocked, terrified, and delighted me. It felt transgressive to be watching them, and I certainly didn't mention them to my parents.

The professor who showed the films introduced them and led discussions afterwards, something I often did as an English professor and still do today as a speaker at libraries, lifetime learning programs, and retirement communities. It made the movies so much more interesting to know something about them going in and have a lively conversation afterward. I don't remember if I contributed to the discussions back then; I was probably too ashamed of my own ignorance when many of the kids around me were obviously more schooled in the issues and the films. I remember a lot more about that series, though, than the Hitchcock screenings that ran in the student center, where we didn't have introductions or discussions. The academic, engaged approach made a big difference in the overall impact of the films.

Comm Arts kids were called "Commies" - we got shirts! Yes, I kept mine.

It's strange to look back thirty years later and realize that something so minor - just a few evenings of movie screenings, led by a knowledgeable person who thought kids should know something about film - would alter me in such an enduring way. I knew from the moment I arrived at Governor's Honors that it was the single best thing that had ever happened to me. It would go on changing my life in huge ways for the next several years, but I didn't suspect then that an introduction to George Romero's zombie classic would put me on a path to decades of passionate engagement with the art of cinema. Thanks, Mr. Romero, and thanks to that professor who wanted us to see those films. I'm trying to carry on the good work.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Making a Hollywood House in Alabama: Movie Posters and Art

Errol Flynn is in the bedroom, of course.
As part of an ongoing effort to make our house a more interesting and personally relevant space (as opposed to a collection of things other people chose for us or handed down), I finally got frames for the posters I bought at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Los Angeles. If you haven't been, Larry Edmunds is a true Hollywood treasure, a place were cinephiles can revel in film posters, books, lobby cards, and other items related to cinema. If I lived in driving distance of the store I'd be in there all the time, but, sadly, it's a long haul from Alabama. Any movie buff planning a visit to L.A. should definitely put Larry Edmunds on the must-see list.

Unfortunately, the Jezebel and Adventures of Robin Hood posters I picked up are an odd size, so I never did find frames that were a perfect fit. I finally gave up and matted them, but I'll be giving that more thought if and when I manage another trip to L.A. I'm probably a little too old to just tape posters up like I did as a college student (back then my prize possession was a British quad poster for The Lost Boys). Besides, I don't want to damage them!

Wonderground Gallery postcard prints
I'm also working to frame and hang a number of pieces from the fabulous Wonderground Gallery stores at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Everyone at my house is a serious Disney fan, and the kitchen has slowly been transforming into a Wonderground Gallery tribute space over the last few years. You can find the most unusual and interesting art at the two galleries, with prints featuring classic Disney characters, attractions, and Star Wars (a LOT of Star Wars). The smallest prints - 5x7 postcards - are only $5 each, and I come home from each Disney trip with another 4 or 5 cards. I only wish I had bought some bigger pieces on my last trip! They offer a few items from the collection at the Disney Store website, but it's a pale substitute for visiting the actual stores.

For those who can't travel, there's always, where I found some good deals on a couple of classic movie posters on my most recent visit. I'm not rich enough to shop at, but if anyone wants to buy me an original Curse of the Cat People poster for $2,750.00 I'll be glad to take it!

Jezebel guards the jewelry box.
I've got a number of stills, promotional photos, and other postcard sized movie items, so I'll be working over the next few weeks and months to figure out how to get them onto the walls and out of the drawers around the house. I realize I need to stop being so cheap and go in for some larger art that will really make an impact in a room. I'm curious about how other film fans display their favorite movie posters and art, so I'd love to hear about it! Where do you buy your movie memorabilia, and what do you do with it?