Friday, November 16, 2018

The End of FilmStruck

For the last six months my movie watching and review writing have been severely curtailed due to pressing work on other efforts, but I always comforted myself with the thought that FilmStruck would be there waiting for me after November 6 passed. Now, alas, the cruel corporate gods at AT&T have declared that FilmStruck is to end this month, and my comforting hope has evaporated. I only have two weeks left to enjoy the best movie streaming service ever to grace my television with its presence, and I can't seem to get through my long watchlist fast enough.

Originally I had doubts about FilmStruck because they seemed more interested in being an art house service than one with a robust catalog of classics, but once they teamed up with TCM they really took off as a platform for serious classic film fans. It was an especially welcome pairing to me because I love TCM but don't watch it at home, where we don't have cable. I was also annoyed by their lack of availability on Roku during their early rollout, but I signed up as soon as that became an option. Once I started using FilmStruck, I fell in love with its ever expanding catalog and delightful curation of spotlight collections.

When FilmStruck leaves us, we'll be stuck with the lame offerings of Hulu and Netflix once again, and many of the movies I enjoy won't be available except as expensive made-to-order DVDs. I don't know where Criterion will go with its films, given that it ended its partnership with Hulu to move over to FilmStruck (and thus made Hulu practically useless except for watching Saturday Night Live without the commercials). Many actors and film directors are joining with fans to call for FilmStruck to be saved, but I doubt AT&T cares, which means that this holiday season is one that the Grinch is stealing from classic movie lovers. It's going to be a blue Christmas for all of us when we watch our last Lon Chaney silent or Ernst Lubitsch comedy at the end of November, and I'm thinking of telling my in-laws that I'm sick just so I can stay home on Thanksgiving and watch movies all day instead of putting up with small talk over the turkey.

With so many movies and only two weeks left, I'm trying to concentrate my viewing time on the hardest to find films, things I haven't seen before and am unlikely to be able to see another way. For me that means digging into the silents, especially the Chaney offerings like HE Who Gets Slapped (1924) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). I'm not going to bet on any future platform being willing to give so much space to silents. Warner is reportedly going to roll out some kind of new streaming service at the end of 2019, but given the way things have gone since the end of 2016 we could all be living in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic hellscape by then.

So, fellow FilmStruck fans, what movies are on your list for the last two weeks of streaming? Offer your suggestions in the comments below!

UPDATE: Later on the same day that I made this post, Criterion announced that they will launch their own streaming platform starting in Spring 2019. This is good news for folks who particularly value the Criterion titles, although we'll have to wait to see if the now also promised upcoming Warner service will cater to the classic movie fans who were more drawn to the Warner and TCM offerings. The standalone Criterion Channel will be $11 a month, and you can sign up now to become a charter member on their website.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

High School Movies, Then and Now

Netflix recently released a handful of romantic comedies set in high schools, including To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and their arrival has provided an opportunity to watch a new generation of high school movies and reflect on those that came before, particularly the iconic 80s films of John Hughes. A lot has changed since The Breakfast Club made its debut in 1985, but the basic anxieties of middle class American high school students seem to be the same: fear of rejection, longing for love/acceptance, frustration with parents, and a combination of both hope and fear at the prospect of growing up, whatever that means. At the same time, modern high school movies have opened up in terms of characters - and who gets to be a protagonist - in ways many of us Gen Xers could never have imagined when we were teens, and that's a heartening evolution even when the new movies have problems of their own in terms of representation or execution.

I admit to being mystified by many of the situations depicted in high school movies. My own high school experience was so catastrophically miserable that I escaped to college a year early and never looked back. I didn't see myself in the high school pictures of the 1980s - I was an aggressively nerdy girl who devoured books whole and got kicked out of class for asking too many questions (no, really; I spent 10th grade doing "independent study" for World History because I showed up to class having already read every damn book about Ancient Egypt in the school library and went full Hermione Granger on the subject until the teacher got sick of me, which took all of three days). However, thanks to the gendered roles in movies like The Breakfast Club, I got pegged as the Ally Sheedy "weirdo" instead of the Anthony Michael Hall "nerd" type, although to be fair I probably would have been beaten up and bullied equally often under either label. At any rate, I didn't see myself in the movies then and still don't see much of that younger me in the movies now (thank you forever, J.K. Rowling, for giving me both Hermione AND Luna Lovegood as variations of the girl I once was). My own teenager, now a high school senior, also doesn't "get" high school movies thanks to being homeschooled. She tried 9th grade at a local school and quickly decided it wasn't for her. We're neither of us the people for whom these movies get made.

On some level I find high school movies interesting precisely because most of them seem like stories about alien worlds to me. What is this thing called popularity? What's with the wild parties? Did my peers actually do stuff like that and I was just oblivious? (Spoiler: They did, and I was.) The new Netflix high school movies have a sweetness about them that I also find appealing; there's less sex and a lot more focus on girls' complex emotional lives and their relationships with other girls. We didn't see a lot of that in the 80s, and it's encouraging to see it now, even in the darker Netflix TV show, Stranger Things, where Nancy's whole vengeance and truth-finding arc is driven by her love for and guilt about Barb. Speaking of Barb, Shannon Purser's brief but compelling performance on Stranger Things made me delighted to see her as the protagonist in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and even if the film gets into trouble with its Cyrano de Bergerac revision it's still worth watching because Shannon Purser is so good and so authentic as the kind of girl we didn't see in high school movies before. I'd like more movies with Shannon Purser, please.

I do think high school movies have come a long way in terms of how they depict adolescent experience and whose stories they're willing to tell, but there's still plenty of ground yet to be covered. I have no idea if the Andy Hardy pictures resonated with the real lives of teenagers in the 1930s, but they certainly glossed over the darker realities of youth in the Great Depression. Now we get a wider range of views, from the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Love, Simon (2018) and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which blends its rom-com setup with explorations of what it means to belong to two cultures and what's like to grow up with an absent or deceased parent. Browsing through the posters for high school movies I do think we could use more young people of color in leading roles and more stories about lesbian, trans, and non-binary teens that aren't dark dramas or tragedies because those kids need to see themselves in hopeful, romantic, and light-hearted comedies, too. If I'm still pleased in my mid-40s to see high school movies include more characters I can identify with, then imagine how important it is to today's 16 and 17 year olds to get that in the high school movies they're watching.

There's a 99% chance that your high school experience was really different from mine (but more likely that it was also catastrophically miserable in its own special way). What do you make of high school movies now that you look back at the ones you saw when you were a teen? What do you see in the new ones being made today? Feel free to share in the comments!

PS - I can't end this post without a special shout out to Sky High (2005), a live action Disney film that has long been a favorite high school movie in my house of dedicated comic book nerds. It's goofy and even absurd but pitches the high school experience in a way that my husband, kid, and I all find immensely appealing. It offers diverse characters, lots of self-aware humor, and some very entertaining action scenes that take school fights to a whole new level. Plus, it has Bruce Campbell, Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter, and Cloris Leachman in it!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

Blonde Crazy (1931) is a Pre-Code cracker that really puts the slap in its slapstick, with Joan Blondell regularly smacking costar James Cagney as the pair make their way through a series of scams and double crosses. Cagney's conman deserves Blondell's tough love; his Bert is too smart for his own good and always on the make, especially when attractive women turn up, but Cagney works the flawed charm of the character for all he's worth, and he and Blondell have excellent chemistry. Director Roy Del Ruth skillfully handles the mix of comedy and drama in this Depression Era tale of likable schemers, which also features Louis Calhern, Ray Milland, and Guy Kibbee.

Cagney plays enterprising hotel bellhop Bert, who uses his job primarily as an opportunity to run crooked schemes. He helps Anne (Joan Blondell) get a position at the hotel in order to chat her up, but when she forcefully rejects his smooth talk he ends up making her his partner instead. The pair work their way up and out of the hotel, but in the city they become entangled with big time conman Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern) and his partner, Helen (Noel Francis). Anne eventually tires of Bert's relentless schemes and falls for the seemingly straight arrow Joe (Ray Milland), but Joe turns out to have a few crooked angles of his own.

There's plenty of tantalizing Pre-Code action in Blonde Crazy, with illicit booze, gambling, adultery, honey traps, robbery, and Joan Blondell's brassiere stuffed full of cash. It's a world of moral relativity that Blondell's character enters somewhat by accident; she's not naturally crooked but is tough enough to handle herself in spite of constant sexual harassment. Anne isn't much bothered by Bert's scams because he usually swindles other swindlers, but she draws the line at outright robbery. When she decides to get out of the game and marry Joe, Bert realizes that he's missed out on his opportunity for a better life with Anne by his side, and he quits, too. Bert's inclination to go straight is then ironically thwarted by Anne's distress when Joe is revealed as the worst crook of them all.

Cagney and Blondell carry the picture with their performances, with Cagney clearly relishing the wolfish energy of his character and Blondell striking just the right balance between cynicism and vulnerability. Bert's favorite endearment, a drawled "Hoooney!" that he often directs at Anne, rolls out of Cagney's mouth with a cocksure smirk that perfectly sums up his personality. Supporting the pair most notably are Louis Calhern and Noel Francis as con artists who make a mark of Bert and cheat him out of his own ill-gotten cash. Their ruthless efficiency makes our protagonists look like angels, but Anne figures out a way to get even with them. Guy Kibbee makes a memorable appearance as one of Bert and Anne's early marks, while Ray Milland pops up fairly late in the picture as the rival for Anne's affections. We don't really see enough of Milland's Joe to form opinions about him until the very end, and it's kind of a shame that Milland doesn't get to work that shifty glint in Joe's eye a little more before his final act of selfish betrayal.

Roy Del Ruth, who started in the silent era, directed a wide variety of pictures, including Born to Dance (1936), It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), and The Alligator People (1959). For more of Cagney and Blondell together, see The Public Enemy (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933), and He Was Her Man (1934). Ray Milland is just a young up-and-comer in Blonde Crazy; catch him in his prime in the 1940s in The Major and the Minor (1942), The Uninvited (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945).

Blonde Crazy is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Movie Log for June 2018

I've been unusually busy this summer, which means that my movie viewing has been fairly limited. In spite of that, I've been enjoying the summer blockbuster fare and classics on FilmStruck, which has a wonderfully robust collection that changes frequently (the subscription is definitely worth it, so check out FilmStruck if you don't already use it!).

Because my new, unpaid "day job" is pretty stressful, I'm gravitating toward comedies more than ever, especially English ones that provide me with an escape from the concerns of the day. Filmstruck has been happy to provide exactly what I'm looking for, with Ealing comedies, Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple films, and other light romps.

My spouse, ever eager to suggest movies that appeal more to his own tastes, has introduced some horror into the mix, which explains the presence of Found Footage 3D (although I have to say it was quite funny and worth your time if you enjoy horror comedies). Shudder continues to be our go-to streaming service for horror, although I would still like to see more silent, classic, and B horror selections there. The "Foundations of Horror" category needs more entries to live up to its name, and I'd love to have access to more Hammer and drive-in sci-fi horror.

Here's the movie log for May and June of 2018 -


After the Thin Man (1936)
Found Footage 3D (2016)
Another Thin Man (1939)
All This And Heaven, Too (1940)
Black Panther (2018)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)


Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Oceans 8 (2018)
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Queen Christina (1933)
Murder, She Said (1961)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Game Night (2018)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)

What are you watching this summer? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948)

Directed by Jack Conway, Julia Misbehaves (1948) is a charming, frothy romantic comedy that reunites the stars of Mrs. Miniver (1942) for a rather different look at the ups and downs of marriage. Greer Garson kicks up her heels as a bohemian performer long estranged, but not divorced, from husband Walter Pidgeon. The picture also features a host of familiar faces, including Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford as a young pair with romantic issues of their own and great character actors like Cesar Romero, Nigel Bruce, Mary Boland, Reginald Owen, and Henry Stephenson. The cast alone makes the film worth seeing, but Garson and Pidgeon share a delightful chemistry that enriches their scenes together even when their characters are being most ridiculous.

Garson stars as Julia Packett, who long ago left her husband and infant daughter and returned to the stage to make her own way. Broke but persevering on pluck and a steady stream of schemes, Julia is surprised by an invitation to her daughter's wedding and decides to attend. Her mother-in-law (Lucile Watson) hopes to eject Julia from the nuptials, but husband William (Walter Pidgeon) quickly falls for her all over again, much to his mother's dismay. Meanwhile, daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor) is preparing to marry an unseen groom while fighting her attraction to the handsome young Ritchie (Peter Lawford).

Julia Misbehaves resolutely focuses on the comedic aspects of its material, but there's a lot of heartache lurking beneath the bubbly surface. Over the course of the picture we learn that Julia married William when she was only seventeen and he was a young soldier abroad. They had happy days together at first, but we get the distinct sense that their separation was orchestrated by William's mother, who disapproves of Julia and schemes to divide them once more by inviting Julia's acrobatic admirer, Fred (Cesar Romero), into the Packett family home. Several scenes touch on the longing Julia has felt to be reunited with Susan all these years, and the conversations between Julia and Mrs. Packett suggest that Julia was forbidden that contact. These details matter because we're supposed to like Julia and understand that she didn't just abandon her family for life on the stage; she was pushed out against her will when she was still very young. When she returns, Julia has become a force in her own right, no longer vulnerable to Mrs. Packett's intimidation.

The story, therefore, is essentially a comeback comedy, with Julia regaining the things she lost so many years ago. In order to survive and become a match for the scheming Mrs. Packett, Julia has learned to be quite a schemer herself. She wheels and deals to get the money she needs; we first see her in a bathtub threatening to commit suicide in order to induce her friend Benji (Reginald Owen) to pay off her debts. She later bamboozles an old gambler (Nigel Bruce) so that she can buy gifts for Susan. The men in the picture also resort to underhanded plots for good causes; William turns out to be just as crafty as his mother and his wife, especially as he works to rekindle the flame of his marriage, while Ritchie hatches plans to frighten Susan into his arms with some help from a friendly bear. Even sweet Susan turns out to have a few schemes up her sleeve at the story's close, much to the surprise of her parents. Everybody, it seems, has to be a trickster sometimes in order to make happy endings happen.

Julia Misbehaves is the final film directed by Jack Conway, who had started in the silent era and gone on to direct a number of Jean Harlow comedies, including Red-Headed Woman (1932), Libeled Lady (1936), and Saratoga (1937). Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon star in eight movies together, with Julia Misbehaves as their fifth pairing and a rare foray into comedic territory. More typical of their collaborations are Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), and Mrs. Parkington (1944). For another film featuring both Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor, see the 1949 adaptation of Little Women, or move on to Father of the Bride (1950) for more of young Liz in a wedding dress.

WHERE TO WATCH: Julia Misbehaves is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) reunites director W.S. Van Dyke and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy for a sequel to the 1934 hit, The Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles first cracked wise and drank heavily through a crime-solving adventure. We pick up right where we left off at the end of the first movie, with Nick, Nora, and Asta on a train to California, which makes the first two films a great double bill, even though they were released two years apart. After the Thin Man offers more of everything that made the first picture such a success, with the wealthy couple boozing their way through the new year and a series of homicides. Along for the ride are a number of familiar classic stars, including James Stewart, Joseph Calleia, and George Zucco, as well as Elissa Landi as Nora's troubled cousin, Selma.

Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy) arrive in San Francisco for New Year's Eve only to find that Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi), is in distress after the disappearance of her faithless husband, Robert (Alan Marshal). Nick has no trouble locating Robert and his mistress at a crowded hot spot, but then Robert turns up dead in front of Selma's house, and it looks like Selma might have killed him. Her longtime admirer, David (James Stewart), arrives on the scene to help, but Robert is just the first corpse of the mystery, and two more rapidly follow. With plenty of suspects on hand, including sketchy businessman Dancer (Joseph Calleia), jealous loser Phil (Paul Fix), and sinister Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), the police have their work cut out for them, even with Nick and Nora's help.

Much of the comedy of this outing lies in the contrast between Nick and Nora's social sets, whom we first see set against each other and then brought together thanks to Robert's shady habits. Nick knows every low-life, ex-con, and purse snatcher in town, and even the guys he sent to prison seem to like him. When Nora is greeted by a well-heeled couple in a passing car, she wryly tells Nick, "Oh, you wouldn't know them, darling. They're respectable." It turns out, however, that Nora's relations are not all that respectable themselves; they merely preserve the appearance of respectability while engaging in coercion, blackmail, adultery, and obstruction of justice. Selma's philandering husband is up to his neck in self-made trouble, but Selma's mother (Jessie Ralph) bullies and manipulates Selma into keeping quiet about his disappearance and his behavior. The rest of Nora's relatives are just antiquated bores; poor Nick has to make up both sides of the conversation when he's left alone with a table full of snoring, elderly gents after a family dinner party. It's little wonder that both he and Nora prefer Nick's more exciting acquaintances.

Asta's domestic woes feature as an odd running gag throughout the film, creating a canine version of the plot's themes of adultery, betrayal, and romance gone wrong. Asta returns from his Christmas travels to find that Mrs. Asta has produced a litter of puppies, but one of the bunch looks suspiciously like the Scottish Terrier who keeps sneaking onto the property. Asta chases his rival off repeatedly but never seems to get rid of him for good. Perhaps it's the stress of his romantic frustrations that makes Asta snatch and then eat part of a vital clue. Nick and Nora, who lavish attention on Asta, never seem to give the slightest thought to Mrs. Asta and her children, which might explain why the neglected pup, shut up in her backyard pen, has gone looking for affection elsewhere. At least the dogs don't resort to murder to solve their problems with each other, and on the whole they're better behaved than most of the movie's humans.

Powell and Loy continue the series with Van Dyke in Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) before moving to other directors for The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). For more of a very young Jimmy Stewart, see Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Born to Dance (1936). Look for Elissa Landi in The Sign of the Cross (1932), By Candlelight (1933), and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Penny Singleton, billed as Dorothy McNulty, proves quite a scene stealer as nightclub singer Polly; she would go on to play the title character in more than two dozen Blondie films and provide the voice for Jane Jetson in the cartoon TV series, so be sure to appreciate her early appearance here.

Want to watch The Thin Man series? All of the films are currently available for streaming on FilmStruck.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

FilmStruck! Finally!

I'm delighted to announce that FilmStruck has finally arrived at our house. While I have been watching the development of this new streaming service since its early days, I had to wait for it to be available for Roku devices to enjoy it myself. Travel and commitment schedules made the first few months of 2018 too busy to take full advantage of the free trial period, but now that I'm finally signed up I look forward to watching lots of TCM Selects and Criterion Channel films through the long, hot summer.

I hope that FilmStruck will fill a gap that mainstream services have left yawning of late. I haven't been able to get my classic movie fix from Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. (Prime is the worst in some ways; it tantalizes and then disappoints with its muddy, unwatchable copies of public domain fare.) The spouse will also be able to watch his fill of Godzilla movies and cult horror, which ought to make him happy to pay for me to indulge in my own favorite genres.

Now that we've joined the FilmStruck family, let me know what you've been watching there and what you think I ought to add to my watchlist. It's already bursting, but there's room for more!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: THE WRONG ARM OF THE LAW (1963)

Directed by Cliff Owen, The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) provides a genial, humorous look at the symbiotic relationship of cops and crooks in mid-century London, with Peter Sellers appearing to great effect as a criminal gang boss and Lionel Jeffries co-starring as an ambitious officer of the law. The picture is primarily a heist plot with plenty of comic twists, including the disruption of the "natural order" by a group of Australian interlopers who pose as coppers to make off with the bandits' boodle. Sellers gives a delightful performance that puts his chameleon talents on display, while Jeffries bumbles hilariously behind and beside Sellers' quick-thinking crook. Bernard Cribbins also makes a memorable appearance as one of Sellers' partners in crime, while the lovely Nanette Newman plays Sellers' duplicitous girlfriend.

Sellers stars as Cockney crime boss Pearly Gates, who masquerades by day as a legitimate French businessman who makes ladies' dresses. When his criminal jobs are repeatedly upended by a trio of "cops" who make off with the haul and leave the crooks behind, Pearly realizes that a new gang is using police uniforms to rob the robbers. Meanwhile, the determined but incompetent Inspector Parker (Lionel Jeffries), tries to nab Pearly's men but can't find any of the stolen goods. Pearly and his fellow crime boss, Nervous O'Toole (Bernard Cribbins), propose a collaborative effort with the police to shut down the fake cops once and for all, but Pearly doesn't suspect that the interlopers' inside informant is his own girlfriend, Valerie (Nanette Newman).

It's great fun to watch Sellers shift between his refined French persona and the Cockney patter of Pearly Gates, especially when other characters force him to switch gears quickly. Pearly is clearly the smartest person in the room, except when Valerie is around, and then he discloses all his plots and jobs without ever suspecting that he himself is being played. Inspector Parker, inevitably teased as "Nosy" by everyone else, is a bumbling foil and eventual sidekick to Pearly, with Sellers and Jeffries playing off each other in several key scenes, especially in the third act.

Most entertaining, however, is the absurdly orderly world of London's criminal gangs, an inoffensive set, really, who surrender without a fuss when caught and never hold a grudge against the police for arresting them. Cops and robbers is just a game here, without real danger or consequences, and thus a cat burglar can enter the room of a sleeping young woman and steal only her valuables and perhaps a secret kiss (one that also slips her earring from her ear!). The London thieves are easy pickings for the fake cops because it doesn't occur to any of the crooks to fight back against men in uniform, and when given the opportunity the thieves simply make their escape. Their adherence to order reaches its ridiculous height in the scene where Pearly calls a meeting of all of London's criminal elements, and the gathered crooks and cons religiously observe Robert's Rules of Order. They are, in fact, much more organized and effective than the police, a fact that becomes clear when the cops botch their parts of the plan to catch the Australian gang in the act.

The action in The Wrong Arm of the Law zips along and keeps the viewer guessing about where all of these shenanigans will lead, and if you've exhausted the available stock of Ealing comedies this film makes a great follow-up. Peter Sellers is best remembered today for the Pink Panther films, Being There (1979), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), but you can also see him with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955). Watch for John Le Mesurier as the Assistant Commissioner, along with Dennis Price and a young Michael Caine in uncredited roles. Cliff Owen went on to direct The Vengeance of She (1968) and No Sex, Please: We're British (1973). Catch Lionel Jeffries in Camelot (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); Jeffries also directed Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children (1970). Nanette Newman appears in The Stepford Wives (1975) and as the adult Velvet Brown in International Velvet, a 1978 sequel to the original film starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

FLASH GORDON and Sam Jones in Huntsville

The 2018 Huntsville Comic Con opened with a screening of the 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon with a Q&A featuring special guest Sam Jones, who played the title character in the film. An excited audience gathered on Thursday, March 29th, to see the movie on the big screen and ask its star a few questions.

The screening itself was a big success, with a good crowd for a town like Huntsville and an excellent sound system that blasted the Queen soundtrack in all its glory. The vibrant colors of the sets and costumes still pop, and the audience cheered as Flash played football with a giant egg, fought future 007 Timothy Dalton on a hazardous tilting platform, and saved the Earth from Max von Sydow's sneering Emperor Ming.

Nearly forty years after its original release, Flash Gordon continues to be a campy sci-fi delight, with stand out performances from Dalton, von Sydow, Brian Blessed, and Topol. Other memorable actors in the cast include Melody Anderson as Dale, Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, Peter Wyngarde as Klytus, and Richard O'Brien as Fico. Along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov, Flash travels to an alien world and fights to save his own planet after Ming the Merciless makes Earth his latest plaything. While Ming lusts after Dale, Flash struggles to unite the warring factions of Ming's court in a rebellion against the tyrant, but his efforts are complicated by Princess Aura's attraction to him and Prince Barin's resulting jealousy. The heroic adventures conclude in a grand battle to take down Ming and rescue Dale from her forced marriage to him. Queen's earworm theme for the film punctuates key moments with campy enthusiasm, while Danilo Donati's costume designs fill the eye with vivid color and quite a bit of female flesh. The final effect is more Barbarella than Star Wars, full of S&M undertones and visual hyperbole, but clearly reveling in both.

After the screening, Sam Jones took the stage to answer questions from the audience, but he was less interested in talking about the making of the film and more focused on his personal life, later career, and thoughts about acting in general. He discussed his appearance in Ted (2012) and his current film project, The Silent Natural, which does not yet have a release date. Those looking forward to an in-depth talk about the origins of Flash Gordon, its history as a comic strip and serial, and personal anecdotes about Timothy Dalton, Max von Sydow, and Brian Blessed were disappointed, but the audience was treated to Jones' positive opinion of Steven Seagal and lingering grudge against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For those who really want to learn more about Flash Gordon, the Blu-ray release features an interview with Alex Ross and the first episode of the 1936 serial starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. You can also explore the history of the comic strip online. Empire Online has a detailed article about the 1980 film called "Gordon's alive! The untold story of Flash Gordon."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DECOY (1946)

Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy (1946) is one of those film noir gems that lacks the glitter of a big budget and A-list stars but nonetheless shines with its own devilish light. Jean Gillie makes her penultimate screen appearance as a femme fatale so fixated on claiming a stolen fortune that she'll literally bring a man back from the dead to get it, with Robert Armstrong, Edward Norris, and Herbert Rudley as the men who will kill and die in service to her schemes. Those who love a twisted tale of murder and greed will relish this dark delight, which begins at the finale and then rewinds to unfold its sordid story. We know from the start that this is going to end badly.

Gillie plays the beautiful but deadly Margot, the girlfriend of death row inmate Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong). Margot knows that Frankie is sitting on a pile of stolen cash, but she doesn't know where it is, so she arranges for Frankie to be resurrected after his date with the gas chamber. Gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) helps her because he wants to recoup the costs he incurred paying for Frankie's defense, while Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) is seduced into the plot by Margot's charms. Once Lloyd resuscitates Frankie, avarice drives both Margot and Vincent to extremes, while Lloyd is drawn ever deeper into their crimes.

There's no budget or time for fancy flourishes, but Decoy works with the materials at hand, especially Gillie's mesmerizing performance as one of the coldest, most ruthless dames to grace the noir genre. She doesn't love any of the men she uses; she will happily see every one of them dead twice over if it means the bag of cash belongs to her alone. Plotting to resurrect Frankie just to betray him is mean even for a femme fatale, but Gillie does it with a grim determination that never veers into hysteria or camp. She approaches the elimination of the equally faithless Vincent the same way, running him over with their car and then coolly collecting the tools he had been using to fix a flat tire. Lloyd, horrified into a frozen stupor, can only hiss, "I'd like to kill you," as Margot carries on with her single-minded quest. She finally cracks up when she thinks she has the cash at last, laughing maniacally while Lloyd digs up the box in Frankie's hiding spot. Frankie, however, will have the last laugh, and the ending is a gut punch of irony that knocks the viewer flat.

The film is a pitch black study in the ways a man can be ruined by a woman like Margot, a siren so powerful and deadly that she lures even men who don't trust her to a horrible fate. Frankie is a criminal but not a monster; he adores Margot and wants money only to lavish gifts on his girl, but he's smart enough to take steps against an inevitable betrayal. Vincent is a cold-blooded snake; he clearly means to get the upper hand, but he doesn't realize that Margot is a python in comparison until it's too late. Tragic Lloyd is a good man undone by this serpentine beauty; he loses everything because of Margot until all that's left is a dying wish to take her out with him, which is where the picture begins. The only man who survives contact with Margot is Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), a cop with a gangster's face who feels an attraction to Margot even though he knows what she is. "People who use pretty faces like you use yours," he tells her, "don't live very long anyway." The film opens and closes with the fulfillment of his prediction.

Jean Gillie made only one additional film, The Macomber Affair (1947), before her premature death in 1949, but she can be found in earlier pictures like The Gentle Sex (1943) and Flight from Folly (1945). She was married to director Jack Bernhard when Decoy was made, but they divorced in 1947, and Bernhard went on to direct Blonde Ice (1948) and Appointment with Murder (1948). Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for King Kong (1933), and you can also see him in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Herbert Rudley found success primarily in television, but he makes appearances in Brewster's Millions (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), while Sheldon Leonard earned numerous Emmy nominations and two wins for his work behind the camera on Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964). You might also recognize Leonard as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) offers a chance to see the directorial talents of Dorothy Arzner, one of very few women to direct films during the classic sound era. Not surprisingly, the movies Arzner directed were mostly "women's pictures," but quite a few iconic classics fall squarely into that category, and Dance, Girl, Dance has plenty to recommend it besides a nod to women's cinema history. Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball star as the two dancing girls, the first an aspiring ballerina and the second an opportunistic burlesque queen, and each gives a compelling performance that mixes humor, drama and musical numbers. Along for the ups and downs are Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy as potential romantic leads, with Virginia Field and Maria Ouspenskaya appearing in supporting roles.

O'Hara has the more sympathetic heroine in Judy, who gets by as part of a nightclub dancing troop but longs to join the ranks of serious performers. Her mentor, Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), hopes to help by introducing her to ballet producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), but a tragic twist of fate prevents the meeting. Meanwhile, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is happy to climb a different kind of ladder, embracing burlesque stardom for the money and comfort it brings. Bubbles sometimes helps her former troop mate and sometimes betrays her, depending on what Bubbles herself can get out of it. That includes poaching unhappy playboy Jimmy (Louis Hayward) and setting Judy up as a stooge in the burlesque show, where leering patrons boo her ballet routine.

It's important to note that, although the movie makes Judy and Bubbles foils for one another, it never really paints Bubbles as the villain of the piece. She can be generous and forgiving, but she is clearly a student of the hard knocks school who has learned to look out for herself. Judy is more naive, but even she is realistic enough to keep the stooge job and endure the humiliation if it means paying the rent. No character is really a bad person; even the drunken Jimmy misbehaves mostly because he misses his ex-wife, Elinor (Virginia Field), whom he really does love. Ironically, the only person Judy shuns turns out to be the one who can help her achieve her dream, and poor Steve spends most of the picture trying to get Judy to realize that he isn't another masher looking for a date. In a movie without actual antagonists, Judy is often her own worst enemy, although she and Bubbles ultimately have to resolve their differences with a spectacular fight that lands Judy in court.

O'Hara is lovely and sweet as Judy, and we feel for her struggle to preserve her dignity, especially during the excruciating stooge performances. She finally triumphs over her tendency to be a human door mat when she tells off the abusive audience in grand style and then flattens Bubbles with a couple of punches. A blonde Lucille Ball is having more fun, though, as saucy, selfish Bubbles, who has the oomph that gets gigs for the troop. The film doesn't deride Bubbles for her professional choices; she's good at burlesque and clearly enjoys it, and the role gives Ball a chance to demonstrate the comedy talent that would eventually make her a television legend. Both actresses play characters who aren't primarily interested in romance but are dedicated to pursuing their careers, and that shifts the focus of the narrative toward a feminist sense of self separate from male protection and domesticity. It leaves Louis Hayward's Jimmy as something of a red herring, to be sure, but Hayward does a fine job balancing the charm and dissolution of his character, and Jimmy's troubled romance with Elinor gives us a different perspective on the choices a woman might make about her life.

Dorothy Arzner's other films include Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Christopher Strong (1933), and The Bride Wore Red (1937). For more of Maureen O'Hara's work from this era, see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Try noir films like The Dark Corner (1946) and Lured (1947) for a different side of Lucille Ball before Lucy. Catch Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday (1940). Maria Ouspenskaya, a truly great character actress, earned two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), but most people will remember her as Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941).

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966)

With its lurid title and eerie opening credits, Queen of Blood (1966) promises a delirious sci-fi phantasmagoria that, sadly, it never delivers. Even Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper get bogged down in the picture's ponderous pace and refusal to pivot away from the pseudo-science that typically fills the slow parts of 50s and 60s science fiction films. It's a shame, too, because writer and director Curtis Harrington's ideas might have made for a truly unnerving narrative; the last third of the movie, with the predatory title character and her secret intentions, has a lot in common with Alien (1979), but you'll never worry about whether they can hear you scream in space when you're watching Queen of Blood.

Rathbone plays Dr. Farraday, the lead scientist for a space exploration group that mounts a rescue mission to Mars when an alien ship crashes there. Among the astronauts are alpha male Allan Brenner (John Saxon), his girlfriend, Laura James (Judi Meredith), and Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper). Once the astronauts locate the sole survivor of the alien wreck, they attempt to bring her to Earth, but the small crew gets smaller each day the alien stays on board. The remaining astronauts struggle to complete their mission without becoming the vampiric stranger's next meal.

Queen of Blood is set in the far future of 1990, where women finally get to be astronauts but still wear 60s hairstyles. Lots of references to moon bases and science are meant to show how far humans have come since 1966, but the movie is in no hurry to introduce its title character or even get its astronauts to Mars to look for her, and most of the scenes take place in small control rooms or the sterile, confined space of the rescue ship. The flashes we see of the aliens, who sport clear plastic crowns that look a bit like rabbit ears, are intriguing and vaguely disturbing, but they also remind us how deadly dull the humans are in comparison. It's never really clear if the aliens are the same species as the bloodthirsty queen; Dr. Farraday speculates about their intentions but doesn't give us solid answers. That ambiguity persists right to the end, when we're left with the distinctly unpleasant expectation that the humans are making a colossal mistake, but there's no effective build up of dread that would have given the ending a truly horrific punch.

The slow pace, closed spaces, and dry dialogue don't allow Basil Rathbone or the other actors to shine, and they rarely do anything except talk. Judi Meredith is more or less the lead as Laura James, and as the only woman Laura stands out among the very typical masculine characters who make up the rest of the crew. We don't get much sense of the individual personalities of the astronauts played by John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Robert Boon, and Don Eitner, and as a result we don't really care if they live or die. When she finally does appear, the Queen of Blood, played by Florence Marly, has no lines and never even makes a sound, yet she still manages to be the most interesting character in the whole film. The male characters blithely assume that she isn't dangerous because she is so obviously female, and they treat her with patronizing kindness until they realize that she sees them as tasty snacks. Laura has to come to the rescue against this seductive predator, but it's a disappointing confrontation that wraps up much too quickly.

Curtis Harrington also wrote and directed Night Tide (1961), which handles its slow burn horror with more skill and gives young Dennis Hopper a more interesting role. For better late career performances from Basil Rathbone, see Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). John Saxon, who is still working in 2018, is known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series but can also be seen in Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965). You'll find both Saxon and Judi Meredith in Summer Love (1958). Be sure to note sci-fi icon and superfan Forrest J. Ackerman in a small role in Queen of Blood as Dr. Farraday's assistant.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: FALLEN ANGEL (1945)

Otto Preminger directs this top-notch noir tale of misplaced love and murder, which stars Dana Andrews as a small-time grifter who falls for luscious Linda Darnell but woos wealthy Alice Faye. It's a love triangle with a couple of kinks thrown into it, and the title, Fallen Angel, might equally apply to Andrews or Darnell, both of whom exhibit the cynical worldview born of hard knocks and bitter disappointment. In addition to the trio of excellent leads, the picture boasts an impressive supporting cast that includes Anne Revere, Percy Kilbride, Bruce Cabot, Charles Bickford, and the always entertaining John Carradine as a traveling spiritualist who pretends to talk to the dead.

Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) blows into town on his last dollar and promptly gets an eyeful of Linda Darnell's sultry Stella, sometime waitress at the diner run by Pop (Percy Kilbride). Like every other mook in the joint, Eric goes for the dark-haired beauty but can't convince her that he's not just another two-bit loser. In order to get enough money to marry Stella, Eric courts the maidenly June Mills (Alice Faye), much to the consternation of her elder sister, Clara (Anne Revere). Eric intends to marry and divorce June, but when Stella turns up dead on his wedding night, Eric finds himself on the list of suspects being pursued by Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), another of Stella's admirers who happens to be a cop.

Harry Kleiner's screenplay is adapted from the novel by Marty Holland, who also wrote the story of The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), and it shades Stella in particular with more nuance than we often see in a femme fatale. She never encourages Eric or any of the other men who hang around her like flies, and she makes it clear that she wants a wedding ring and a home before she'll take any guy into her arms. She steals a little cash from Pop's till, but she's no monster; Eric is the one who hatches the plan to seduce and betray June, not Stella. Nonetheless, the film sets Stella up as the fallen angel, the beautiful but bad girl, especially in the way it introduces her. We're encouraged to think of her that way even as the picture slowly reveals how little Stella deserves her fate and how much more fallen Eric is than Stella has ever been.

Andrews is in fine noir form as Eric; it's the kind of role that lets him use both his charm and his edge of jaded ruthlessness. He talks his way into Professor Madley's spiritualist racket and then into June's good graces, but he has a lot more trouble sweet-talking the justly skeptical Stella. Perhaps that's why he likes her so much in the first place. The audience is left to wonder if June's virtuous love is enough to reform Eric, especially when we know he only marries her for the cash. Alice Faye, of course, is perfect as June; if Eric and Stella are both fallen angels, June is still wearing her halo in Heaven. Faye is one of the few actresses who can make such a good girl role appealing, and late in the film she gets a chance to reveal the sturdy spirit that Junes possesses in addition to her virtue. June might have married a man she barely knows, but when she takes a vow she means it, and that comes as quite a revelation to Eric.

Take time to savor the performances by Carradine, Revere, and Kilbride in their supporting roles; Kilbride has a particularly fine moment right at the end, when the depth of Pop's devotion finally transcends the pathetic. For more Otto Preminger noir with Dana Andrews, see Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Preminger also directs Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947) and The 13th Letter (1951). Alice Faye is remembered more for films like In Old Chicago (1938), That Night in Rio (1941), and the colorful wartime musical, The Gang's All Here (1943). You'll find Charles Bickford and Anne Revere in The Song of Bernadette (1943), while Percy Kilbride is best known today for his starring role as Pa Kettle in the Ma and Pa Kettle films, starting with The Egg and I (1947).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: ANOTHER MAN'S POISON (1951)

Adapted from a stage play by Leslie Sands, Another Man's Poison (1951) offers a wickedly ironic title and a chance for Bette Davis to sink her teeth into another maneater role, this time as the femme fatale protagonist of a devious noir plot. Irving Rapper directs Davis and her real-life husband at the time, Gary Merrill, as two unscrupulous people entangled in their own lies, and they do have a palpable - if violent - chemistry. Despite the location shoot at the brooding Malham Tarn Estate, the movie never quite shakes its stage roots, but Davis and Merrill make up for that in spades with their knack for driving each other into a rage. The lies and violence build to a pitch-black finale that will satisfy the most cynical film noir fan.

Davis schemes as Janet Frobisher, a mystery novelist occupying a grand home in a remote English village. When bank robber George Bates (Gary Merrill) comes looking for Janet's long absent husband, he finds that Janet has already dispatched her criminal spouse. George decides to fill the vacancy by pretending to be the man of the house, a plan Janet doesn't appreciate, especially when George suggests it's a permanent arrangement. Janet has her own plans regarding her secretary's handsome fiance, Larry (Anthony Steel), and she worries about keeping up the deception with her neighbor, Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams), who is constantly dropping by.

It quickly becomes apparent that Janet has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which enables Davis to play her villainous nature to the hilt. There's no moral gray area here; the only thing Janet gives a damn about is her horse, Fury, and everyone else in the world can go to Hell for all she cares. She has no pity for her innocent secretary, Chris (Barbara Murray), from whom she steals the attractive Larry simply because she can. She poisons her husband not because he's a criminal and a terrible person but because she just doesn't want him around, and then she gets George to dump his corpse into the tarn. Later, she works hard to get rid of George, too. When karma catches up with Janet, it's a delicious bit of payback that the audience relishes, and Davis knows exactly how to exploit our loathing for her character.

Merrill's George is also reprehensible, especially in his sexist assumption that he can outfox Janet, but he's never as clever as she is. He develops a strange jealousy of Larry, seemingly buying into his own usurped rights as Janet's husband; he's furious that she keeps the door joining their bedrooms locked even though he's a total stranger. George is not quite as cold-hearted as Janet when it comes to murder; he first shows up because Janet's husband shot the policeman in the bank heist that went wrong, and George wants his name cleared in the killing. He pales when Janet suggests that her husband was actually alive when George pitched him into the tarn, and he's shocked when he realizes that Janet is trying to kill him, too. He even offers a little romantic advice to Chris to help her hold onto Larry, but that doesn't make him a good guy. When he takes out his anger on Janet's horse, he crosses a line with her and the audience's sympathy. We all know from there that there's no going back.

Enjoy the more subtle twists of Emlyn Williams' performance as the neighborly vet who keeps asking for his deadly horse medicine back; he's as close as we get to a detective in this film. Davis and Merrill made three pictures together; the other two are All About Eve (1950) and Phone Call from a Stranger (1952). Irving Rapper also directed Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), The Corn is Green (1945), and Deception (1946). Look for Emlyn Williams in I, Claudius (1937) and Ivanhoe (1952), and see Anthony Steel in The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DODGE CITY (1939)

Michael Curtiz directs Errol Flynn in Dodge City (1939), the first of the swashbuckling star's forays into Western territory, with frequent costars Olivia de Havilland and Alan Hale along for the action, as well. Briskly paced and packed with excitement, Dodge City forgoes elegaic musings on the closing of the West and instead celebrates its taming as Flynn's cattle driver turned lawman fights to bring civilization to lawless Dodge. Flynn and de Havilland spark against a bright Technicolor backdrop while an excellent supporting cast fills out the archetypes of the genre, including Bruce Cabot as the ruthless villain and Ann Sheridan as his saloon singer girlfriend.

Flynn stars as Wade Hatton, a roving Irishman whose latest American adventure is running cattle from Texas to Dodge City. He meets Abbie (Olivia de Havilland) as a wagon passenger accompanying the drive, but the death of her feckless brother on the trail sours their budding romance. In Dodge Hatton finds an old enemy, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot), running the town with the help of his murderous lackeys, and Hatton eventually agrees to take up the sheriff's badge in order to beat Surrett and make Dodge safe for frontier families. Surrett, however, will stop at nothing to hang on to his power; numerous innocent people die as a result of his corruption and greed.

Flynn's accent marks him as a recent arrival to the West even if he doesn't sound a bit like an Irishman, but the good looks and vigor that make him so compelling in derring-do serve him just as well in a cattle driver's saddle. His character pursues romance and justice in equal measure, leaving the dirty work of a huge, comic brawl to sidekicks Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn Williams). The heroic Hatton is well-matched by the villainous Surrett, played to cool effect by Bruce Cabot, who always looks at home in a Western setting. The women, sadly, have less to do. Olivia de Havilland's Abbie endures some egregiously sexist chatter from Flynn in a wrong-headed attempt at flirtation, but we still get the sense that she has a durable, pioneer spirit that attracts him just as much as her luminous beauty. Ann Sheridan turns up for a couple of song numbers but seems to be missing the good girl/bad girl subplot that would give her character more development. In Destry Rides Again (1939) and Stagecoach (1939), both released in the same year, Sheridan's type of character shines, but there's just no room left to explore her motivations or even her fate in the bustling pace of Dodge City.

Small roles in the film feature a number of memorable actors turning in fine performances, most notably Victor Jory as Surrett's saturnine henchman, Yancey. The sympathetic characters tend toward tragedy, but adversity gives the performers an opportunity to make their scenes resonate with the audience. Frank McHugh is excellent as the feisty crusading journalist Joe Clemens, whom Surrett hates for daring to expose murder and corruption in the local headlines. Amiable Henry Travers appears as Abbie's uncle, Dr. Irving, a figure of respectability and the kind of man Dodge needs more of instead of the wild ruffians who roam the streets. The tragic Cole family includes John Litel as the father, Bobs Watson as the precocious Harry, and Gloria Holden as the grieving Mrs. Cole. Holden makes the most of her one big scene in the newspaper office, investing her few lines with all the suppressed suffering and resignation we imagine she would feel. Also making the most of a limited role is William Lundigan as Abbie's wastrel brother, Lee, who is too young and stupid to understand the danger of his actions until it's too late.

Santa Fe Trail (1940) reunites director Curtiz with Flynn, de Havilland, and Hale, along with a number of the supporting players, for another Western adventure, but for the best of the Flynn-Curtiz collaborations see Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940). For more of Flynn in Western wear, try Virginia City (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Ann Sheridan has bigger roles in Kings Row (1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), and Nora Prentiss (1947). Look for Bobs Watson in Boys Town (1938) and Men of Boys Town (1941), and see Bruce Cabot in King Kong (1933) and The Flame of New Orleans (1941). In later years Cabot became a regular in John Wayne Westerns, with supporting roles in The Comancheros (1961), McLintock! (1963), and The War Wagon (1967).

More posts about Errol Flynn:

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Friday, February 2, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940)

My Favorite Wife (1940) reunites stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant after their first pairing as a comedic couple in The Awful Truth (1937), and once again there's both love and trouble. Grant plays a husband flummoxed by the return of his supposedly dead first wife on the very day that he marries his second, a situation that creates plenty of laughs as the original pair try to account for themselves and straighten out the mess that fate has handed them. While The Awful Truth might be the more perfect example of screwball comedy, My Favorite Wife has its own peculiar charms, especially in Grant's hilarious jealousy of Randolph Scott, who plays a rival for Dunne's affections.

Grant stars as accidental bigamist Nick Arden, who has his first wife declared legally dead seven years after her ship wrecked so that he can marry second wife, Bianca (Gail Patrick). The original Mrs. Arden, Ellen (Irene Dunne), is very much alive, however, and promptly turns up looking to resume her old life. Chaos reigns as Nick tries to figure out how to break the news to Bianca, who begins to think that Nick is suffering from psychological problems. Ellen, meanwhile, has neglected to tell Nick that she wasn't alone on that island for seven years, or that her companion, Stephen (Randolph Scott), is a paragon of masculinity who also has a romantic interest in Ellen.

The story focuses on the comedic opportunities in this setup, so we get only the faintest hints at the grief Nick must have endured after Ellen's disappearance or the heartache Ellen feels at missing seven years of her children's lives. It can't have been all bad, though, since Ellen and Stephen look more like they spent those years at some cushy island resort rather than scrounging for coconuts on a deserted scrap of sand. It was such a nice island, in fact, that Stephen wants to go back and take Ellen with him. Most of the suffering we really see in the movie is meant to be laughed at, with Nick and his new bride, Bianca, enduring the worst torments. Ellen worries about telling the children that she is their long-lost mother, but she primarily functions as a chaos agent to upend Nick's life and push Bianca out of her usurped position.

Dunne dives into a series of zany antics while Grant reacts to them, and the arrangement serves both of them quite well. Nick's reaction on first seeing Ellen alive is a quintessential bit of Grant hilarity, as is Nick's final bumbling effort to bed down in an uncomfortable attic room when he wants to be in the bedroom with his wife. Nick's jealousy of Stephen is especially funny if you know that Grant and Randolph Scott were great friends who lived together off and on for twelve years (there is some speculation that they were lovers). It's therefore rather provocative, and also truly delightful, to see the image of the scantily clad Scott somersaulting around Grant's head as Nick obsesses over the "Adam" to his wife's "Eve." The only weak link in the quartet is Gail Patrick as Bianca, who isn't nice to enough to feel really sorry for but isn't mean enough to hate, either. We need to see her threaten the Arden children with boarding school or flirt with another man in order to feel that she deserves her humiliation and defeat, but she comes across as a rather ordinary girl baffled by her groom's mad behavior. She never has a chance against Ellen, but it would be nice to see the competition at least be interesting.

My Favorite Wife picked up three Oscar nominations for writing, art direction, and score. Garson Kanin, who directed the picture, was primarily a writer but also directed the very funny Bachelor Mother (1939). For more of Irene Dunne, see Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948) as well as her third and final collaboration with Grant, Penny Serenade (1941). Grant was busy in 1940; his other films that year include His Girl Friday and, of course, The Philadelphia Story. Rugged Randolph Scott is best remembered as the star of many Westerns, especially 7 Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride the High Country (1962). Look for Alabama native Gail Patrick in My Man Godfrey (1936). Scotty Beckett, who plays young Tim Arden, was a popular child star whose other films include Kings Row (1942) and A Date with Judy (1948), but his biography is another tragic tale of early stardom's awful price.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949)

Adapted from the novel by Marcia Davenport, East Side, West Side (1949) is more melodrama than murder mystery, although there always seems to be a noir plot lurking beneath its surface. Surprisingly, star Barbara Stanwyck appears in good girl mode as a wronged wife enduring domestic discord. It's not one of Stanwyck's greatest performances - her heroine is too nice even to reproach her philandering husband for most of the film - but the solid cast makes the movie worth watching, most notably Ava Gardner as the truly ruthless siren who woos James Mason away from Stanwyck. Mervyn Leroy directs a cast that also includes Van Heflin, Cyd Charisse, Gale Sondergaard, and future First Lady Nancy Reagan, as Nancy Davis, making one of her earliest appearances on the big screen.

Stanwyck plays Jessie Bourne, a wealthy socialite who has already forgiven her husband, Brandon (James Mason), for a previous affair as the story begins. Jessie is dismayed, however, when the seductive Isabel (Ava Gardner) returns and immediately pursues Brandon again, refusing to believe his assertion that he has turned over a new leaf. As a result of Brandon's scuffle with Isabel's jealous boyfriend, Jessie begins a friendship with a young model named Rosa (Cyd Charisse) and her childhood crush, Mark (Van Heflin). Soon Mark reveals that his feelings for Jessie are more than platonic, but when Isabel is murdered Mark helps Jessie by working to clear Brandon from blame.

The murder and subsequent investigation occupy only the third act, while the majority of the story focuses on Jessie's misplaced loyalty to Brandon in spite of all the evidence that he's a faithless cad who relies on her presumed forgiveness to keep up his shenanigans. It only takes Rosa two minutes to figure out that Brandon is no good; "If I were your wife, I'd cut your heart out," she says, and the audience agrees with her. Jessie, however, clings to her optimism. "He'll change, you'll see. He'll change," she tells her friend, Helen (Nancy Davis), but even Jessie doesn't sound like she believes it. Jessie's mother (Gale Sondergaard) is polite to Brandon in front of Jessie but fervently hopes that her daughter will leave him. With every other character both overtly and covertly urging Jessie to dump her cheating spouse, it's frustrating to watch the heroine stick by him for so long, especially because we aren't used to seeing Stanwyck play doormats.

The bad characters have more fun, particularly Ava Gardner, whose Isabel prowls the Del Rio like a panther in a backless gown. She's a true femme fatale, and she knows it; she taunts Jessie with her power over Brandon, bragging that she can disrupt any effort to extricate him from her clutches. James Mason, handsome but too cosmopolitan to be trustworthy, has a smoldering, debauched look whenever he's in a scene with Gardner. His Brandon glares at Isabel with equal measures of lust and loathing, and we know she's right that the two of them are more alike than Brandon cares to admit. Isabel's circle includes much rougher characters, too; her boyfriend, Alec (Douglas Kennedy) is a bruiser who resents Isabel's interest in Brandon but has his own jealous side piece, Felice (Beverly Michaels), to amuse him when Isabel isn't around. This dangerous crew threatens to push the story into noir territory, and the audience perhaps hopes that they will, but Jessie and Mark are so resolutely moral that we know they'll never be pulled into anything so shady.

If you want to see Stanwyck and Heflin together in really heated noir, try The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Catch James Mason in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), A Star is Born (1954), and North by Northwest (1959). Ava Gardner burns up the screen in The Killers (1946), Mogambo (1953), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Cyd Charisse also starred in Tension in 1949, but she's best remembered for musicals like Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and Brigadoon (1954). Mervyn Leroy's other films from the 1940s include Random Harvest (1940), Madame Curie (1943), and Little Women (1949). The Valley of Decision (1945), starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, was also adapted from a novel by Marcia Davenport.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Mrs. Miniver's English Rose

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for the film.  

The English rose features prominently in William Wyler's Oscar-winning 1942 film, Mrs. Miniver, where its symbolic value is, at first glance, fairly straightforward. The rose functions as a symbol for England; when the title character allows her name to be given to a rose, she also becomes a symbol for her native land. Mrs. Miniver is a rose, and Mrs. Miniver is England, for England is itself a rose. Through the connection with the rose, the heroine becomes the embodiment of her country, graceful and kind but possessing great resolve and courage, too. The rose has long held a special place in English national sentiment and symbolism, so its significance in Mrs. Miniver comes as no surprise. There is, however, a lot more going on in the film's use of this particular symbol than the suggestive syllogism that equates Kay Miniver, her country, and the flower that grows in the station master's garden. The rose is also a symbol of the dual truths of mortality and permanence, themes that the film works out in characters like Carol Beldon and James Ballard, both of whom have their own connections to Mrs. Miniver's namesake bloom.

The Mrs. Miniver rose and the flower show for which it was grown are major narrative elements in the film. The rose takes center stage as the most important flower in the village's annual show; Lady Beldon does not care who wins the prizes for the other flowers because only the rose is significant enough to matter to her. In fact, she associates herself with the rose in her aristocratic assumption that only she can even enter the competition for the rose category, much less win. Lady Beldon's appropriation of the rose harks back to the Great Chain of Being, a medieval worldview that places everything in a strict correlating hierarchy, with highborn people like Lady Beldon and roses ruling at the top. When the lowly Mr. Ballard enters his own rose, named for a middle-class housewife, he upsets Lady Beldon's old-fashioned ideas about the world in which she lives. England, to her, is a queen, an aristocrat, embodied by the white rose with which she wins the flower show each year. Mr. Ballard's red rose represents a new England, more egalitarian and approachable, grown with devotion but belonging to the people. As Mr. Ballard tells Kay, a rose requires breeding and budding but also horse manure; it can't exist without some earthiness in it. It might seem odd to an American film audience that the flower show goes on even when the village is being bombed, but the rose competition in particular symbolizes the cultural changes that are taking place all over the country and in the socially mismatched love affair between Vin Miniver and Lady Beldon's granddaughter, Carol.

Carol is herself another image of the English rose, just as she becomes another "Mrs. Miniver" when she marries Vin. A fresh and blooming girl, Carol has youthful vitality and great sweetness, qualities often associated with the "English rose" as it describes a lovely woman. Her first appearance in the film also connects her to the symbolic bloom; she comes to the Miniver home to ask Kay if she will try to talk Mr. Ballard out of competing with Lady Beldon in the flower show. Carol recognizes the contest as another sort of war of the roses for her grandmother, but she quickly decides that Lady Beldon is in the wrong for expecting her social position to entitle her to victory. She and Vin meet because of this visit and soon fall in love, but Carol is always keenly aware of the fleeting nature of life and happiness. She knows that Vin could be killed at any time, but she refuses to let that danger prevent a moment of joy. Ironically, it is Carol herself who is killed when she is struck by a stray bullet from an aerial battle. She becomes the rose that symbolizes transience and brevity, the same rose spoken of by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene, by Robert Herrick in "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," and by William Blake in "The Sick Rose." Fortunately, Carol understands the theme of carpe diem and makes the most of her short life, enjoying two weeks of married bliss with Vin before tragedy overtakes her.

While Carol embodies the rose as a figure of impermanence, the flower also appears as a symbol of endurance, something that lives on after its creator is gone. James Ballard dies the same day as Carol, just an hour after his moment of glory at the flower contest. He is an old man, a modest station master without much claim to importance, and the triumph in the rose contest is the high point of his life. His death after the show makes Lady Beldon's decision to award him the prize, in spite of her cowed judges having named her the winner, deeply meaningful, for Ballard's name and rose will live on after him in the annals of village history. The individual bloom lasts but a few days, and the gardener who grew it dies, but the Mrs. Miniver rose lives on in the memories of those who survive. Mrs. Miniver herself, the original, also lives on to remember both Carol and Mr. Ballard, for she is England, and England cannot die. Thus the rose is both fleeting and immortal; individual roses wither and fade, just as English men and women fall beneath the bombs, but the idea of the rose, which is also the idea of England, lasts forever. The connection is driven home when someone suggests to Mr. Ballard that "if war comes, it's goodbye roses." Mr. Ballard replies, "Don't talk silly. You might as well say goodbye England. There will always be roses." So there will also always be Mrs. Minivers, even after Kay Miniver lies sleeping in her grave.

In his or her own way, each of the film's most emotionally powerful characters is associated with the rose, and each embodies a different aspect of the English character. Within the context of the film, each of them must die sooner or later, but as characters they live forever, still unfolding their joys and sorrows to audiences some 75 years after the picture's original release. There is still Mrs. Miniver, there is still an England, and there are still roses growing in village gardens. Ironically, the film inspired the creation of a real Mrs. Miniver rose that was itself almost extinct by 2015, save for one plant surviving, in all places, in Germany. Now it is being brought back for fans of Mrs. Miniver and roses to enjoy. Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Ballard might be fictional, but the rose is real, and that seems a fitting conclusion to a story that invests so much of its narrative energy in the symbolic power of a lovely, fragile bloom.

Classic Films in Focus: MRS. MINIVER (1942)

As its twelve Oscar nominations and six wins attest, Mrs. Miniver was the right film at the right moment in 1942. Americans newly engaged in World War II flocked to the theater and took away a sense that they were fighting for people like the Minivers and their quaint English village. Even to director William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver later seemed naive in its depiction of wartime experience, but it remains an effective and emotional appeal to our sense of country, liberty, and the sweet fragility of life. The famous Wilcoxon speech, which ends the picture, is an especially stirring call to arms; it proved so powerful that President Roosevelt had copies of it dropped over Nazi-occupied Europe. For Americans looking for a reason to fight, Mrs. Miniver provided motivation in abundance, along with films like The Great Dictator (1940), Casablanca (1942), and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

Greer Garson stars as the title character, a comfortable English housewife whose domestic bliss is shattered by the arrival of the war. Her oldest child, Vin (Richard Ney), joins the RAF and flies into danger while falling in love with sweet Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright). Husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) patrols the river and makes the journey to Dunkirk while Mrs. Miniver and her younger children endure air raids and the appearance of a downed German pilot. Village life goes on even as the bombs fall, culminating in a flower show where Mrs. Miniver has a prize rose named after her by the station master, Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers). When tragedy strikes, the family and their community must hold to their values in defiance of all they have lost.

Garson is very much the glamorous star in spite of her maternal role; she never looks dirty or bedraggled, and she certainly doesn't look old enough to be the mother of Vin. In real life Garson was only twelve years older than Richard Ney and actually ended up marrying him, though the union lasted just a few years. Garson's glamour is part of what makes Mrs. Miniver seem a little artificial and dated to a modern audience, but the actress does have tremendous screen presence, especially in closeup. Walter Pidgeon's Clem looks somewhat rougher after his valiant excursion to Dunkirk, but gritty realism is never the picture's aim. We get glimpses of that in the damage to the Minivers' house and the village church, but the most powerful scene of wartime fear takes place in the family's bunker, where the parents clutch their screaming children as the bombs rain down destruction from above. Wyler makes a point of showing us that war's victims are not just the soldiers who fight, but the women and children and old men, too. Youth and innocence offer no protection against such devastation.

A number of supporting performances deserve particular mention, including Teresa Wright's moving portrayal of Carol, who loves Vin even though she knows how easily he could be killed. Wright won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, but she had competition for it in Dame May Whitty, who plays her starchy grandmother, Lady Beldon. These two women, at opposite ends of life, create bookends around Mrs. Miniver and offer subtler commentaries on what is won and what is lost in war. Lady Beldon might, in fact, be the story's most dynamic character; she starts as an unlikable snob but slowly unbends to reveal her generous heart, and Vin's last scene with her shows how far they've come. Henry Travers is as genial as ever in the role of Mr. Ballard, the rose gardener who admires Mrs. Miniver's kindness and grace, and Henry Wilcoxon owns the final scene as the village vicar.

Mrs. Miniver won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography. William Wyler, who was overseas with the Signal Corps when his picture had its big night, came back from the war to direct The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which reunited him with Teresa Wright and took another look at the toll of wartime experience. For more of Greer Garson see Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Random Harvest (1942). Walter Pidgeon starred with Garson in a number of films, but today he is probably best remembered for How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Forbidden Planet (1956). For more of the delightful Dame May Whitty, see Night Must Fall (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). A sequel, The Miniver Story, appeared in 1950 with Garson and Pidgeon back in their original roles but with Vin cut out of the story following Richard Ney's divorce from Garson.