Saturday, December 2, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE CHEAT (1931)

I decided to watch The Cheat (1931) knowing that other classic movie bloggers have found the picture merely mediocre, but with Huntsville native Tallulah Bankhead in the starring role I felt obligated to give it a try and see for myself. Sadly, this Pre-Code drama deserves the lukewarm reviews others have given it. Despite the shocking act that serves as its focal moment, The Cheat drags through its hour and 14 minutes and fails to make the most of its stars or themes. Despite its problematic use of Japanese culture, it's not so bad as to be unwatchable, but it isn't good enough to hold your full attention, either.

Bankhead stars as gambling addict Elsa Carlyle, whose husband, Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens), futilely asks his wife to rein in her expensive habits. When Elsa loses a huge sum of money on a frivolous bet, she steals from a charity fund to pay it off so that her husband doesn't find out about her debts, but she ends up in even worse shape because her investment of the pilfered cash crashes. Sensing an opportunity, the lecherous Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel) offers to give her the money in exchange for sexual submission, and the desperate Elsa agrees. A change of luck seems to offer an escape from her adulterous bargain, but Elsa discovers Hardy's deeply sadistic nature when she attempts to back out of their deal.

With its Faustian bargain, its climatic scenes of torture and public exposure, and Bankhead's tremendous presence, The Cheat ought to be a provocative Pre-Code shocker, but the end result falls sadly flat. Bankhead certainly has the persona to play a debauched gambler, but it's impossible to believe in her as an otherwise loving and faithful wife. Her husky, rich voice and world weary stare radiate carnal knowledge and experience, and as a giddy fool who doesn't realize her peril she's simply miscast. The happy ending, which insists on Elsa's reform and return to marital propriety, seems bizarre and out of joint with the events that have come before, especially the chaotic trial scene. Jeffrey himself is a bore, and Stephens has zero chemistry onscreen with Bankhead to make us believe these two people actually love each other. Irving Pichel provides moments of menace, but he's not equal to the lavish trappings of his character, which revel in a troublesome Orientialist vision of Japanese culture and people. 

Part of the problem with Pichel's villain reveals itself when we look back at Cecil B. DeMille's original 1915 version of The Cheat, which cast Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa as the vindictive seducer. In the 1931 remake, a white character replaces the Asian one but keeps all of his cultural context, which alters the racial stereotyping without dispelling it. Pichel's Hardy Livingstone is yellowface casting in disguise, but without the screen charisma of Fu Manchu stars Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, or Christopher Lee to make it interesting (although still offensive). I have yet to see the silent version, but I imagine that the smoldering good looks of Hayakawa at least make the villain's seduction more exciting, and, according to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's discussion of the picture, the role brought Hayakawa instant - and controversial - fame. If Pichel sits awkwardly in the role, that might not be entirely his fault, given the ways in which the altered character obscures racial stereotyping without actually erasing it.

The best place to see Tallulah Bankhead on film remains Alfred Hitchcock's excellent WWII story, Lifeboat (1944), so start there if you're looking for the scandalous Broadway star's Hollywood work. George Abbott is the credited director for The Cheat (with uncredited assistance from Berthold Viertel); Abbott also directed Bankhead in My Sin (1931), but his best known pictures are The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). The Cheat marked the film debut of stage actor Harvey Stephens, who continued to appear in movies and television but in smaller supporting roles. Irving Pichel is probably better remembered as a director whose work includes The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Man I Married (1940, and They Won't Believe Me (1947), as well as the charming romantic fantasy Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and the Technicolor sci-fi classic Destination Moon (1950).

See also: A Tallulah Tribute in CRUELLA (2021)

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)

On paper, Universal's 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue sounds terrific; it adapts a chilling story from Edgar Allan Poe, stars Bela Lugosi, and offers Expressionist cinematography by Karl Freund, complete with all the lurid sensibility that Pre-Code horror can provide. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't work as well in practice, especially for viewers who know and appreciate Poe's original tale. While Lugosi is truly terrifying as the menacing Dr. Mirakle, the picture suffers from a weak leading man, creaky monster effects, and too much deviation from its source material that also leads it into some extremely thorny issues regarding racist tropes. Fans of Pre-Code horror and/or Edgar Allan Poe might be willing to forgive some of its failings for Lugosi's sake, but overall this is a far less successful picture than stand-out classics like The Black Cat (1934) and Roger Corman's Poe cycle.

Lugosi plays a character who doesn't exist in the original tale, a mad scientist obsessed with proving evolution by injecting the blood of his captive gorilla into beautiful young women. His experiments have inevitably proved fatal to the women, but Dr. Mirakle blames the failure on the women's "impure" blood instead of his own mad theory. When the gorilla takes a particular shine to lovely Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), Dr. Mirakle plans to kidnap her as his next test subject, but Camille's suitor, Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames), rightly suspects the doctor of having sinister motives.  

Deviations from the source create more problems than opportunities here. Poe's tale focuses on the murders of two women and the clever detective, C. Auguste Dupin, an important forerunner of and inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Weirdly, the Universal picture isn't a detective mystery at all, even though Poe's story is widely considered the original example of the genre. Instead, Leon Ames plays a medical student named Pierre Dupin, who already knows who did it when his sweetheart, Camille, disappears and her mother's corpse is found stuffed up a chimney. Ames is not particularly effective in this role, and the problems are all the more noticeable because Pierre is such a ho-hum hero compared to Poe's brilliant detective. The locked room mystery of the short story gives way to a bizarre mad scientist plot that draws on deeply racist imagery about gorillas as substitutes for Black men and their supposed desire for White women. Mirakle's experiment is a thinly veiled take on miscegenation that results in the deaths of the women whose blood has been "contaminated" by that of the gorilla. None of this comes from Poe's story, in which a pet orangutan gets loose from its owner and cannot really be held responsible for its actions. On a more practical level, the gorilla who replaces Poe's orangutan is very obviously a guy in a bad gorilla suit, except during closeups, when he transforms into an actual chimpanzee. It's a jarring and absurd switch every time it happens, but the movie does it repeatedly, even recycling the same shot of the chimp pressing against the bars of its cage.

All of these problems detract from a fine performance by Lugosi, who certainly knows how to leer menacingly at an audience and deliver a chilling monologue. His face is by far the scariest thing in the movie; its signature feature is an impressive monobrow that sprouts over his trademark burning gaze. The Expressionist influence reaches it high point during the experiment scene with Lugosi's only onscreen victim, a kidnapped streetwalker played by Arlene Francis. Tied to a huge wooden X like a martyr or a witch at the stake, Mirakle's victim exposes a lot of pretty flesh and casts a striking shadow on the laboratory wall. When she dies as a result of his injections, he seems surprised, even though he has her positioned over a convenient trapdoor that drops her body directly into the river. These effective scenes connect Murders in the Rue Morgue to German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) as well as better Universal horrors like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), reflecting the influence of cinematographer and occasional director Karl Freund after his relocation from Germany to Hollywood.

Robert Florey, who directed Murders in the Rue Morgue, eventually moved to television work, but before that he directed the 1946 horror, The Beast with Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. Karl Freund also directed Lorre in another Expressionist horror feature, Mad Love (1935), and I would recommend either Lorre picture over Murders in the Rue Morgue. Leon Ames is much more in his element in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Date with Judy (1948), and Little Women (1949); Murders in the Rue Morgue was one of his first screen appearances, and it's not really his fault that he's miscast. Poe adaptations and loose retellings abound, with the most recent being the 2023 Netflix miniseries, The Fall of the House of Usher. Roger Corman, however, still reigns as the king of Poe on film, with Vincent Price as his star of choice. Start with Corman's House of Usher (1960) and proceed to Tales of Terror (1962) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) for a sample of their best efforts.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: BLANCHE FURY (1948)

Of all the films I have watched so far in the Criterion Channel's Gaslight Noir collection, Blanche Fury (1948) is the darkest, even though it's also the brightest thanks to its use of gorgeous Technicolor. This adaptation of the 1939 novel by Marjorie Bowen (under the pseudonym Joseph Shearing) employs many of the familiar elements of Victorian Gothic fiction, including the governess heroine and the upper class's obsessions with legitimacy and inheritance, but it has more in common with Wuthering Heights than Jane Eyre in the romance department, with doomed lovers who are both far from innocent in their desires. Without spoiling the ending too much, let me at least warn you that Blanche Fury is true noir in Victorian dress, and no happy endings should be expected for any of the central characters. That said, it's a fascinating example of the overlap between traditional Gothic and noir, with a complex anti-heroine whose better angels are as dangerous to her as her demons.

Valerie Hobson takes the lead as the title character, a penniless young woman named Blanche Fuller who changes her surname to Fury when she joins her wealthy uncle (Walter Fitzgerald) and his household as a governess to the uncle's granddaughter, Lavinia (Suzanne Gibbs). Soon Blanche is married to her cousin, Lawrence (Michael Gough), but also engaged in a passionate affair with Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), the illegitimate son of the estate's previous owners, who is now reduced to a servant in his own childhood home. The embittered Philip is obsessed with reclaiming the property for himself, even to the point of plotting to murder everyone who stands in his way. When Philip decides that Lavinia is just another obstacle to his plans, Blanche must choose between the man she loves and the innocent stepchild she longs to protect.

Hobson nimbly walks the fine line required for Blanche, who possesses both good and bad qualities that dominate her nature at different times. We first see her as a Becky Sharp type of adventuress, chafing under her subservient role as a paid companion and eager to improve her situation through marriage to the weak-willed but unfeeling Lawrence. At the Fury estate, her immediate kindness to Lavinia softens her, and her courage in retrieving stolen horses proves her fortitude. What seems at first like mere carnal lust for Philip develops into real love, which makes her choices in the third act all the more difficult, and she evokes our sympathy even as we recognize her complicity in the events that have brought her so much suffering. In addition, Hobson looks divine in the costumes and elaborate hairstyles worn by Blanche, with a finely made face that conveys hatred, love, and grief equally well in her many closeups. As the title suggests, this story belongs to Blanche and therefore to Hobson, but Stewart Granger has fantastic energy as Philip that evokes shades of Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff in his intensity and dark, brooding sex appeal. Their scenes together don't really need the confirmation of a closing door to tell us the nature of their relationship, while doors repeatedly closing against Gough's character symbolize the contrasting coldness of Blanche's marriage to Lawrence.

The real darkness and noir mood of Blanche Fury stem from the relentless sense of fate bearing down over the unfolding events, starting with the opening scene, which is actually the end of the story being told. The legend of the fierce ape who defends the Fury name and fortune serves to remind us constantly that the current family are interlopers who have usurped both the name and estate from the biological - if not legal - heir, Philip. Fate, as embodied by the figure of the ape, will not spare any of the usurpers as it works to restore the line of the rightful owners. Blanche's uncle and husband are too dim to sense the doom that hangs over them, but Blanche and the old Italian nurse (Sybilla Binder) both feel it. Fate wields a Shakespearean level of power here, so much so that neither Blanche nor even Philip can be considered free agents; they are pulled by forces they cannot fathom or resist. Blanche attempts to moderate the scorched earth tactics of Fate, but like many noir protagonists she suffers more for her good actions than she does for her evil ones, and Fate still wins in the end. 

The Gaslight Noir collection includes two other movies adapted from novels by Marjorie Bowen: Moss Rose (1947) and So Evil My Love (1948). Her 1943 novel, Airing in a Closed Carriage, was adapted as The Mark of Cain (1947). Valerie Hobson also stars in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Great Expectations (1946), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). See more of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), and Footsteps in the Fog (1955). If you enjoy melodramatic tales of governesses and forbidden love, try All This and Heaven Too (1940), Adam Had Four Sons (1941), and, of course, Jane Eyre (1943) or any of the other adaptations of the classic novel.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

My Criterion Closet Wish List

I really enjoy watching the Criterion Closet Picks videos where various actors and filmmakers get to choose movies to take home with them. Their selections reveal interesting details about their tastes and experience with film, although they do tend to favor certain genres, decades, and directors, partly because of the generational range of the guests themselves and partly because of the cinematic tastes cultivated by being in the film business. I don't own a lot of Criterion Collection discs because I spent many years building up a classic movie DVD collection back when they were more widely available and fairly cheap, but now that DVDs and Blu-rays of classic movies are much harder to acquire I am increasingly turning to Criterion and Kino Lorber to expand my collection.

The Closet Picks videos always make me wish I could afford a full scale Criterion shopping spree, but if, by magic or divine intervention, I got to be a guest on Closet Picks, what movies would I choose? I'd want to pick films I don't already own and that I have seen at least once and know I would enjoy owning. I'm limiting myself to eight movies because the Closet Picks videos only show a handful being selected, which means I spent a lot of time narrowing my list! 

Here's my fantasy Criterion Closet list:

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) - I absolutely adore this comic gem from Powell and Pressburger, with Wendy Hiller as a headstrong young woman determined to marry a rich, older man in spite of the handsome Scottish laird fate suddenly throws her way. The location cinematography, the delightful visual style, and the wonderful characters make this movie truly special. 

Nightmare Alley (1947) - As much as I love the romantic swashbuckling version of Tyrone Power, I can't deny his brilliance as the scheming carny in this original movie adaptation of the novel. It's one of the weirder noir classics, but the carnival sideshow makes a perfect setting for noir's favorite themes. The Criterion Blu-ray has been in my Amazon wish list for ages, but other items keep taking precedence.

The Third Man (1949) - Carol Reed's fantastic post-war noir is such a great use of Orson Welles' sinister charisma. Who can resist Harry Lime? Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli are also terrific, and the musical score really gets into your head. I've seen this movie several times, but somehow I haven't managed to own it yet, even though I love it enough to build LEGO tributes to its more iconic scenes.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - I would love to own all of the Ealing Studios films, but this one is especially hilarious thanks to Alec Guinness playing eight different characters. It's currently listed as out of print on the Criterion website, but I bet they still have copies in that closet. (It looks like Kino Lorber might have this and some other Ealing pictures available for those of us who can't get invited to raid the closet or launch a daring Ladykillers style heist.)  

Stagecoach (1939) - Along with My Darling Clementine (1946), this is one of my favorite John Ford Westerns, thanks to its amazing ensemble cast. John Wayne doesn't show up right away, but he has a tender romance with Claire Trevor that works beautifully and allows him to be sweet and vulnerable. I'm a sucker for great character actors, and this movie just bursts with them  - John Carradine, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, and Donald Meek all have significant roles.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) - I don't have an actual Boris Karloff movie on this list, but he's present in spirit for this wacky Capra adaptation of the stage play, in which Karloff played the role taken by Raymond Massey for the movie version. This is one my top Halloween favorites, so it's a shame I don't own it yet, but I went with the Criterion edition of I Married a Witch (1942) the last time I had to pick which Halloween comedy to buy.

Beauty and the Beast (1946) - Jean Cocteau's dreamy fairy tale is a great starter choice for kids and people just venturing into foreign classics. It's both deeply familiar and hauntingly strange, and Disney borrowed heavily from it for their own animated version of the old story. Every frame is just gorgeous, and I'd love to be able to revisit it whenever I want.

Mildred Pierce (1945) - This Joan Crawford tour de force is another one I've seen several times but haven't managed to pick up yet for my personal collection. It's packed with so many of the things I love in classic movies - female narratives, noir style, romance and melodrama, great cinematography and costumes. Women's noir fascinates me, and this is one of the very best of the genre. I especially appreciate the way it focuses on Mildred's relationship with her poisonous daughter and the lengths to which the guilt-stricken Mildred will go to protect her.

Two Criterion films I already own (both great!).

That's my wish list! Some of the movies that almost made the final eight are To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Hobson's Choice (1954), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and The Heiress (1949), but there are dozens of others in the Criterion catalog that I would love to own. What movies would you pick from the Criterion Closet if you had the opportunity?*

* Reminder! If, like me, you enjoy classic movies on a more modest budget, you can get access to a wide selection of Criterion titles by subscribing to the Criterion Channel, which is a great bargain at $11 a month.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Gaslight Noir on the Criterion Channel

While many of the Criterion Channel's featured categories highlight newer or international films, the lineup for September 2023 also includes one of my favorite classic sub-genres, "Gaslight Noir." If you love films like Gaslight (whether the 1940 or 1944 version), this is a collection sure to send delicious chills up and down your corseted spine.

Most of the iconic noir classics take place in their own present day, usually the 1940s and 1950s, but gaslight noir sets the action in an earlier age, usually the 19th century and often in London or elsewhere in the UK or Europe, although looming manor houses in America can also provide a suitably sinister location. The protagonist is most often a young woman who is both victim and de facto detective, striving to solve a mystery before she meets a tragic end. The films provide a heady mix of Gothic sensibility, noir style, and romance, and many of them appeared in the wake of the success of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre, the Gothic masterpiece that Daphne du Maurier's original novel of Rebecca uses as a thematic touchstone. 

Here is the full list of films available this month on the Criterion Channel as part of the Gaslight Noir collection (use the links to read my discussions of these films):

Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Gaslight (1944)

The Suspect (1944)

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Hangover Square (1945)

Dragonwyck (1946)

Ivy (1947)

Moss Rose (1947)

Blanche Fury (1948)

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

So Evil My Love (1948)

Madeleine (1950)

So Long at the Fair (1950) 

While I've seen and written about several of these films, quite a few are new to me, and I'm really looking forward to watching them. I hope to add several new Classic Films in Focus posts about these movies in the coming weeks.

For more in-depth discussions of the Gothic tradition in film, check out my essays:

"Consuming Passions: Gothic Romance and the Bronte Sisters"

"The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition"

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941)

If Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) were a tragic drama instead of a screwball comedy, it might play out something like Ladies in Retirement (1941), in which a desperate young woman goes to extreme measures to protect her psychologically complicated sisters. We talk about insanity and mental health very differently today, as well we should, but the trope of the mad woman (or women) has a long history in literature and film, and in Ladies in Retirement we get a profoundly moving depiction of the type from both Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett, who play the two older sisters of Ida Lupino's grimly determined anti-heroine. Director Charles Vidor keeps the suspense brewing even though there's very little mystery about the story's central murder, while sharply defined performances from the stars and supporting cast members Louis Hayward, Evelyn Keyes, and Isobel Elsom draw us into multiple tangled webs of desire and deception.

Lupino leads the cast as paid companion Ellen Creed, who struggles to keep her difficult sisters out of an asylum or worse. Gentle Louisa (Edith Barrett) is a harmless chatterbox, but Emily (Elsa Lanchester) is prone to outbursts and mischief, and soon enough Ellen gets an eviction letter from the landlady in London where the two sisters have been living. Ellen deceives her wealthy employer, Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom), into letting the sisters stay with them in the country, but Leonora soon tires of the troublesome guests and insists that they depart. After Leonora mysteriously disappears for a sudden trip abroad, the sisters seem to be settling into the house for good, but the arrival of a charming, amoral cousin named Albert Feather (Louis Hayward) puts Ellen's schemes in danger.

Ladies in Retirement offers a feast of fascinating characters, with actors who know how to hold their own against scene stealers like Lanchester and Barrett. Both of those gifted character actors play their roles with sensitivity that tempers the more outlandish quirks of the sisters, and we sympathize with Ellen's desire to protect them. The aunts of Arsenic and Old Lace are comical figures, but Louisa and Emily grieve us because they cannot comprehend the tragedy of their situation or the despair to which they drive their devoted younger sister. Louis Hayward, who was married to Lupino when they made this picture, brings both menace and charisma to the cad Albert, although it's ironic that his romantic overtures in this story are directed at the gullible maid, Lucy (Evelyn Keyes), and never at Lupino's more skeptical protagonist. Isobel Elsom's temperamental Leonora is more like the sisters than she'd care to admit; it's easy to see why Ellen is so good at dealing with her but also pushed to the limit by having three difficult older women all making demands of her in one small house.

With its Victorian setting and Gothic mystery atmosphere, Ladies in Retirement might seem like a classic tale of suspense, and a very good one at that, but it's also a serious engagement of the limited options available to unmarried women and caregivers struggling with their dependents' mental instability. The Creed sisters have no brothers or husbands to support them in a deeply patriarchal society that also makes no provisions for the humane care of mentally ill people. Ellen is a woman with no good choices in front of her, and the film dares us to judge her harshly for the course of action she takes. Some of Ellen's problems are specific to the time and place of the story, but even today older, unmarried or widowed women are more likely to suffer poverty and become homeless or dependent on overstretched family members (also more likely to be women). As I watched the film, I couldn't help but think about this NPR piece from 2016 about older women who had lost their homes and were reduced to living in their cars. What would happen to Louisa and Emily today? What would Ellen be forced to do in order to care for them? These questions give Ladies in Retirement currency and encourage us to think very carefully about the bonds and boundaries of familial devotion. 

The inspiration for the original stage version of Ladies in Retirement was apparently the 19th century French murderer Euphrasie Mercier, whose brief history makes a great read for true crime fans. A 1969 remake called The Mad Room stars Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters, but it's a more typical horror film that adds extra murders and gore. For other intense performances from Ida Lupino, see They Drive by Night (1940), The Hard Way (1943), and Devotion (1946). Ladies in Retirement would be the last screen appearance of Louise Hayward before several years of service in the US Marine Corps during World War II. His marriage to Ida Lupino ended in 1945, the same year he returned to films with his role in And Then There Were None.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE MAD MISS MANTON (1938)

Although it's not on the same level as their later collaboration, The Lady Eve (1941), The Mad Miss Manton is still an amusing outing for stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. It's a goofy mix of romantic comedy and murder mystery, with Stanwyck leading a pack of socialite sleuths and Fonda falling head over heels as a reporter who gets entangled in the titular Miss Manton's adventures. You won't find a lot of household names here beyond the two leads, but Leigh Jason directs a fairly large cast that includes Sam Levene, Stanley Ridges, Penny Singleton, and the always memorable Hattie McDaniel. Fans of Fonda's funny side will especially appreciate his silly antics in this picture, but Stanwyck's all-girl Scooby gang also proves delightful, even if they're a little too prone to fainting when they find a corpse.

Stanwyck stars as wealthy socialite Melsa Manton, who discovers a murdered man while walking her dogs late one night after her return from a costume party. Her reputation and costume make the cops doubt her report, especially when the corpse in question has disappeared, but Melsa enlists the help of her society girlfriends to search for clues. At the same time, Melsa enters a war with newspaper reporter Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) because of his printed tirades against her and her group, but Peter's ire turns to adoration once he meets Melsa in person, even as he continues to frustrate her schemes. With the suspects and corpses piling up, Melsa and Peter must help the beleaguered Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) catch the murderer before Melsa becomes the next victim.

The Mad Miss Manton is not a comic masterpiece, but it moves along briskly and lands enough laughs to be entertaining throughout. It can be hard to differentiate Melsa's gang of friends, who might have more individual development if there were just three or four of them instead of a crowded half dozen. On the plus side, the picture passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test with flying colors as the women scramble to find clues and track suspects. Hattie McDaniel has a much larger role than any of the other supporting women, and she makes the most of it even though she's playing another of her inevitable maid characters. The film does, at least, depict McDaniel's Hilda as a sensible, capable person in contrast to the giddy socialites around her. 

Although Stanwyck's Miss Manton is much saner than the title of the movie implies, she doesn't let anything stop her from pursuing the case, even the death threats the murderer makes to scare her off. She has a general's command over her group of friends, who complain about their lost meals and dates but always follow her orders. Fonda's newspaper reporter is by far the giddier of the pair; he is absolutely smitten from the moment he meets Melsa, which leads him into some truly silly situations. One highlight is the scene in which Peter fakes being on his deathbed in order to trick Melsa into revealing information she has uncovered about the murders. The chemistry Fonda and Stanwyck share here paves the way for the sparks that fly between them in The Lady Eve, and if you enjoy them together in that classic then The Mad Miss Manton is well worth your time.

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda made one additional movie together, the 1941 romantic comedy You Belong to Me. For more of Stanwyck's comedy roles, see Ball of Fire (1941) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). You'll find her solving another comic mystery in Lady of Burlesque (1943). For Fonda's lighter side try The Male Animal (1942), Rings on Her Fingers (1942), and The Magnificent Dope (1942), as well as later career roles in Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Vivien Leigh Tribute in Stratford-Upon-Avon


As I was walking from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I came across this sweet little tribute to legendary actress Vivien Leigh. Best remembered today for Oscar winning film roles as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Leigh was also a stage actress who starred in productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1955. You can learn more about Leigh's connections to Shakespeare in this 2015 post from Sylvia Morris at The Shakespeare Blog. It's clear that someone in the area continues to honor Leigh's memory; one of the two potted plants was a fairly recent arrival and still boasted blooms.

If you're ever in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I highly recommend the backstage tour at the RSC, which includes wonderful stories about classic stars of stage and screen. There's also a free exhibit onsite called "The Play's the Thing," which tells the history of the RSC and features costumes worn by some of the most notable performers to appear there (you will NOT spend a day at the RSC without learning a lot about Judi Dench, but she's fabulous and deserves the attention). You'll also find displays dedicated to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, both of whom shared the stage with Leigh. Olivier, of course, also shared a turbulent romance with the beautiful actress, who suffered from mental illness and tuberculosis throughout much of her career. If you want to learn more about Leigh and Olivier, check out the excellent blog, Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier, by Kendra Bean.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Wanting More: The Open Ending of THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950)

WARNING! This post contains major spoilers for THE DAMNED DON'T CRY and other classic noir films. Proceed at your own risk.

When I showed The Damned Don't Cry (1950) to my lifetime learners as the final film of our Joan Crawford series, they were especially struck by the open ending of the story, which leaves us wondering about the ultimate fate of protagonist Ethel Whitehead, aka Mrs. Lorna Hansen Forbes. Director Vincent Sherman and leading lady Crawford carry us through a dark journey over the course of the picture, which is equal parts melodrama and film noir as it shows us Ethel's seduction by avarice and ambition. My lifetime learners fully expected Ethel to die or at least go to prison in the movie's final scenes, but neither happens. Why doesn't Ethel pay a heavier price for her actions, and why are we surprised that she doesn't? Those questions deserve some consideration, especially since both melodrama and noir are known for killing off their most deeply flawed protagonists. Ethel Whitehead is, indeed, deeply flawed, but the film consistently displays a degree of sympathy for her that resists reading her as a villain or reaching a harsher conclusion as poetic justice for her crimes.

The picture opens with murder and scandal as the wealthy Mrs. Lorna Hansen Forbes is revealed as a fraud, but we are soon provided with her backstory. Ethel Whitehead is a poor woman from a working class family, scraping to get by and unable to afford any of the things her beloved young son desires. When the son tragically dies, Ethel feels that she has nothing to lose by leaving her old life behind. She heads to New York City and gets a job as a dress model, which she uses as a springboard to better - but increasingly criminal - prospects. Along the way she entangles Martin Blackford (Kent Smith), an accountant who accepts lucrative jobs with mobsters to win her love, but she abandons Martin in favor of the boss himself, the ruthless but refined George Castleman (David Brian). George remakes Ethel into socialite oil heiress Lorna, but his favors come at a price, and Ethel eventually finds herself dispatched to California on a dangerous mission to uncover the treachery of mob underling Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran).

Given that Ethel abandons her husband and parents, ruins Martin's life, misrepresents her identity and social standing, and knowingly gets involved with gangsters, we might imagine death or prison to be more than justified, and perhaps even obligatory given the Hays Code demand that crime always be punished. She also demonstrates dissatisfaction with married poverty and a desire to have money and nice possessions, and that kind of rebellion against conservative, patriarchal values usually doesn't end well for female characters, especially after the enforcement of Hays in 1934, which brought an end to heroines who cheerfully hustle their way to the top. Ethel wants more, and wanting more is very dangerous to a woman's life expectancy in Hays era films. Crawford's heroine in Humoresque (1946) drowns herself as penance for her sins, while her rival Bette Davis pays the ultimate price in pictures like Of Human Bondage (1934), Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), and Another Man's Poison (1951). Although melodramas sometimes kill their heroines, noir's femme fatale types are especially likely to meet violent ends. Mary Astor's slippery Brigid faces hanging or hard time at the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941), while Barbara Stanwyck eats lead in both Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). If we hold Ethel fully responsible for Martin's corruption and Nick's murder, then we might conclude that she deserves the same fate as her "sisters under the mink," as Gloria Grahame says in The Big Heat (1953) (her character doesn't make it out alive, either).

Ethel, however, is never presented as a true femme fatale, and the film repeatedly balances her materialism with scenes that humanize her. We sympathize with her desire to get out of her miserable life in the oil fields and away from her brutish father and domineering husband. Her child's death breaks her resolve to endure that life any longer, and we can't blame her for running away from a hollow existence without the sole joy she found there. As a dress model, Ethel at first balks at the shady aspects of the job, but she grows accustomed to trading moral qualms for money by degrees. The rewards are concrete - a nicer place, better food, prettier clothes - while the costs are less tangible. Ethel doesn't intentionally corrupt Martin or plan to jilt him from the beginning; she really cares about him but can't stop herself from taking the opportunity that George represents. She holds no animosity toward George's pitiful wife and is, in fact, gentle with her in their one scene together. When George orders her to California, Ethel obeys because she thinks she loves him, but her sympathy for Nick and revulsion at the idea of murder prove stronger than her loyalty to George. Martin, who has clearly resented Ethel for his fall from grace, similarly reveals that his love for her trumps other concerns, and his forgiveness encourages our own.

By the end of the film, Nick and George are both dead, Martin has turned police informant, and Ethel has been shot by George after returning to her parents' spartan hovel. Her ruse as Lorna Hansen Forbes is definitely over, especially with the source of her illicit wealth now gone. The final scenes focus again on Ethel's humanity and the better aspects of her nature. We see her reunited with her parents and with Martin, whom she bravely tries to protect by going alone to face the vengeful George. After George shoots Ethel, the movie could easily have ended with her death, but instead we see that she survives to be comforted by her parents and questioned by both reporters and the police. Martin is notably absent at the conclusion, possibly in police custody and possibly on the lam; we get no hint about a reunion with Ethel. The clusters of policemen all around the house suggest that Ethel might also be looking at jail, but instead of speculating about her trial the departing reporters wonder if she'll make another attempt to escape the stark poverty of her home. "Wouldn't you?" asks one of the reporters, and the other nods his answer with certainty. We leave the story not knowing the fates of either Ethel or Martin, but we're encouraged by the last bit of dialogue to wonder what happens next.

While this open ending might well surprise viewers expecting a definite conclusion, it lets The Damned Don't Cry obey the letter of the Hays Code while still offering us hope for a flawed heroine whom the narrative encourages us to care about in spite of her flaws. Ethel has already suffered a great deal, although of course a narrow-minded moralist like Joseph Breen would be happy to see her die in the dirt or the execution chamber. Instead, we get an ending that lets the viewer imagine what happens next according to his or her own preferences. Personally, I like to imagine that Ethel and Martin get back together and disappear into new identities far away from the shadow of their shared past, maybe somewhere in Mexico. I don't blame Ethel for wanting out of her miserable, downtrodden life, but I hope that she can find a via media to real happiness somewhere between poverty and ruthless materialism. A less sympathetic viewer might assume that jail time, if nothing worse, awaits Ethel as punishment for her crimes, and the hovering police officers certainly make that option plausible. If we want more from the ending of The Damned Don't Cry, that in itself makes us more like Ethel than some viewers who judge her harshly might care to admit. How much is someone allowed to want? How much wanting is too much, and what should happen to someone who wants it? Like Ethel, we're left wanting more, but we'll have to make it up ourselves to get it.

If you're interested in reading more of my posts about Joan Crawford, check out the following:





Monday, May 15, 2023

Big Stars on the Small Screen: THE MUPPET SHOW

This post is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon - Big Stars on the Small Screen: In Support of National Classic Movie Day. Check out all of the participating blogs and posts by visiting the Classic Movie Blog Association's post about the blogathon!

Big Stars on the Small Screen: Classic Movie Guest Stars on The Muppet Show

Guest stars on the original Muppet Show television series spanned the full range of celebrity types in the public eye during the late 1970s, from singers and actors to puppeteers, dancers, and musicians. For many children watching the episodes, The Muppet Show provided a kid-friendly introduction to entertainers they had never encountered before, including many classic movie stars entering the later decades of their careers. If you were four years old in 1976, as I was that year when the first season of The Muppet Show aired, you might not know who most of the Season 1 guest stars were, but a Muppet curated introduction to Vincent Price might prove a watershed moment in your young life. For five seasons, The Muppet Show entertained adults and children alike with its quirky mix of old and new, high and low, classy and wacky, all mingled together to form the joyful chaos so quintessential to the Muppet aesthetic. Here's a look at some of the classic movie stars featured in each season of the series, with highlights on some of my personal favorites.


Season One

The 24 episodes of Season One offer a wide range of guest stars, including Joel Grey, Ruth Buzzi, Florence Henderson, Paul Williams, Sandy Duncan, and Phyllis Diller, and of course many stars who were fairly new in 1976 are considered "classics" today. Among the guest stars who hail from the Golden Age of Hollywood are Rita Moreno, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, and Ethel Merman. Of the group, both the Rita Moreno and Vincent Price episodes are standouts, with both stars fully committed to interacting with their puppet hosts.

For me, the Vincent Price episode is a special favorite. The campy horror maestro is totally at home with his weird monster companions, including the delightful Uncle Deadly, who appears as Price's "beautiful assistant" in one horror movie parody sketch. Price also gets to tout his reputation as a gourmet and art lover, although of course the sketches veer into vampirism, cannibalism, and other gruesome but silly twists. It's a thoroughly essential episode for any fan of the Muppets, Price, or classic horror in general.

Season Two 

Classic movie stars in the second season include many performers who were also famous for their radio and television work, like Don Knotts, Milton Berle, George Burns, and Bob Hope, but you'll also find stars like Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers in the mix ("modern" guest stars for this season include Rich Little, Madeline Kahn, Elton John, and John Cleese). Both the Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers episodes are noteworthy in their own, separate ways, although the Sellers episode suffers some for Sellers' outdated and stereotyped performance of "A Gypsy's Violin."

I can't really choose between the Peter Sellers and Julie Andrews episodes because they're both great. While the first sketch with Sellers is culturally problematic, the Queen Victoria sketch is a brilliant bit of meta comedy that is one of my all-time favorite Muppet Show moments, and the segment with Sellers as a sadistic German masseur who mangles Link Hogthrob is another demented gem. The Sellers episode is also notable for featuring Kermit's performance of "Bein' Green," which would become a signature song for the character. The Julie Andrews episode is sweeter in tone, with Andrews performing "The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music (1965) for her first number. Andrews is very natural and funny with her puppet costars throughout the episode, and for added humor you can watch Carol Burnett be jealous of Andrews' popularity on the show in Burnett's Season 5 appearance.


Season Three

The most memorable episode of Season 3, for me, at least, is the one featuring Alice Cooper, who might as well be a Muppet given how well he fits in with the monsters of the group. The Faust angle of the episode's plot also makes it a hit. Among the newer stars featured, the episodes guest starring Gilda Radner and Roger Miller also stand out. Classic movie stars appearing in the third season include Jean Stapleton, Raquel Welch, Harry Belafonte, Danny Kaye, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (who appear together, naturally). 

While the Danny Kaye episode is cute, the must-see classic star of the season is definitely Harry Belafonte, who collaborated closely with the show's creative team to make a truly special episode. "Day-O" is a Belafonte hit that adult viewers would have recognized, but the real highlight is Belafonte's performance of "Turn the World Around," a song that would prove so meaningful to Muppets creator Jim Henson that Belafonte performed it at Henson's New York memorial service in 1990. While this episode of The Muppet Show focuses on Harry Belafonte's skill as a singer, his acting ability serves him well in his interactions with the puppets. I couldn't help but think of this episode and the song, "Turn the World Around," when Belafonte died on April 25, 2023.

Season Four

The fourth season includes fewer guests who really qualify as "classic movie stars" in the strictest sense, and overall there are a lot of popular singers represented, such as John Denver, Arlo Guthrie, Crystal Gayle, Andy Williams, and Diana Ross. The best episode of the season is the one featuring the stars of Star Wars, with Mark Hamill absolutely game for the comedy shenanigans and accompanied by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). The most "classic" of the stars included in this season are Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing, and both of their episodes are worth watching.

If you're interested in episodes where The Muppet Show varied its usual format (as it did several times during its five season run), the Liza Minnelli episode is the one to watch. The usual songs and comedy skits are organized as part of a murder mystery with Kermit as the detective and Minnelli as his client. The episode earned an Emmy for Outstanding Directing, and the Mystery Writers of America honored it with a Raven Award, as well. If you want to see how a human Muppet interacts with actual Muppets, see the episode with Carol Channing, who really fits in perfectly and performs some delightfully nutty numbers.


Season Five

The final season of The Muppet Show ran from the fall of 1980 to the spring of 1981, and it followed the fourth season in leaning toward newer celebrity guests. Some of the best include Brooke Shields (in an Alice in Wonderland themed episode), Carol Burnett, Johnny Cash, Marty Feldman, Linda Ronstadt, and Paul Simon. The classic movie stars featured in this season are, however, truly classic, with Gene Kelly, James Coburn, and Tony Randall all making appearances. As great a star as Kelly was, he looks uncomfortable with the puppets, and it's not a great performance (his episode aired around the same time as his appearance in the 1980 film, Xanadu). Tony Randall is having more fun, but the wackiest of the lot turns out to be James Coburn.

I'll admit that, having seen the entire series multiple times and co-edited two books about Jim Henson, I can't really remember a lot about the Tony Randall episode, which is why I'm giving the nod to James Coburn as the best classic star guest for this season. The finale, which involves a chaotic tribute to Japan that turns into a square dance with invading cowboys, has some of the same cultural sensitivity issues as the Peter Sellers episode, but James Coburn going for broke with a bunch of Muppets is just too wacky to resist. The sketches poke great fun at Coburn's tough guy reputation, especially in the salute to the Roaring 20s segment. Coburn also has a fun cameo as the owner of the El Sleezo Cafe in The Muppet Movie (1979), if you want another bit of Coburn-Muppet collaboration.

If you're interested in reading more of my posts about the Muppets, check out these links:

Classic Movie Stars on THE MUPPET SHOW

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me: Reflections on The Muppets

From Phantom to Phenom: The Evolution of Uncle Deadly

Christmas Movie Blogathon: THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992) 

Making News with The Muppets




Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (1957)

The 1950s proved a challenging time in the movie industry as television became a full-fledged competitor for audience attention, and Frank Tashlin confronts the issue with satiric glee in his 1957 comedy, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which Tashlin wrote, directed, and produced with only the most superficial lip service to the original stage play of the same name. In fact, Tashlin has a wide range of targets for satire here, including the Hollywood film industry, American advertising, fan culture, and the mega stardom of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Hilarious at times, but a bit uneven thanks to its fractured focus, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? works largely because of Tony Randall's delightful performance as an advertising writer whose career ambitions land him in an unexpected - and very public - fake romance with a Hollywood sex symbol.

Randall plays the titular Rock Hunter, a rather average New York adman whose engagement to his assistant, Jenny (Betsy Drake), has dragged on while Rock tries to climb the company ladder enough to get married. When the company struggles to retain its top client, Rock hatches a plan to save the account by getting sexy star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) to endorse the product, but in return Rita demands that Rock pose as her new lover to make her ex (Mickey Hargitay) jealous. Jenny is understandably upset by this arrangement, and Rock finds his new notoriety as Rita's "Lover Doll" both rewarding and chaotic.

Having recently watched Randall play second fiddle to Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964), I enjoyed the chance to catch him as the lead here, although his Rock Hunter (a joke, of course, referring to Hudson) has much in common with the neurotic sidekicks he plays in those later pictures. Randall grounds this absurd comedy with his performance, which is played mostly straight but is still versatile enough to switch into breaking the fourth wall during the opening credits and the "intermission" that pretends to cater to the disrupted attention spans of television viewers. Randall's everyman character also balances the exaggerated persona of Rita, an obvious parody of Marilyn Monroe but, ironically, the single most powerful person in the story. Mansfield's squealing might wear thin - especially when the other women start to imitate it - but she's a platinum goddess at whose altar the lipstick company, the advertising executives, and the American public all worship with enthusiasm. Randall is perfect as the mere mortal who never has a chance against this dyed blonde deity, even though his devotion to the comparatively average Jenny never wavers.

A variety of supporting characters enhance our understanding of the protagonists and their approaches to life while underscoring the satirical points of the picture. At home, Rock is perpetually outmaneuvered by his teenage niece, April (Lili Gentle), who is also the president of the local Rita Marlowe fan club. At the advertising agency, Rock enjoys support from fellow Harvard grad Henry Rufus (Henry Jones) but struggles to get the attention of his boss (John Williams), who turns out to have his own long-denied ambitions. Although conflicted about his career choices, Rock yearns for the perks of status at the office, which leads to a very funny scene with Rufus and Rock weeping tears of joy over access to the executive washroom. Equally silly but somehow essential is Rita's desire to punish former flame Bobo Branigansky (Hargitay), a Tarzan type who boasts to the press that Rita will come crawling back to him. Rita's long-suffering assistant, Violet (Joan Blondell), astutely observes that Rita doesn't love Bobo or Rock, having long ago lost her heart to the mysterious George Schmidlap (whose eventual appearance provides a surprising cameo). Blondell is an especially apt choice for the role of the older and wiser Vi, who has worked for Hollywood stars since the silent era, and her scenes with Mansfield allow us to see Rita without her sex kitten schtick.

I won't spoil the George Schmidlap cameo, but pay close attention to catch brief appearances by TV icons Majel Barrett (in the fake TV ads) and Barbara Eden (as Miss Carstairs). Jayne Mansfield married costar Mickey Hargitay in 1958, and the pair would go on to star together in a handful of pictures before their divorce in 1964. She is better remembered today for The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which Frank Tashlin also wrote, produced, and directed, and Kiss Them for Me (1957), a romantic comedy costarring Cary Grant. Betsy Drake, who was married to Grant from 1949 to 1962, starred with him in Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) and Room for One More (1952). For more of Joan Blondell's work from this era, see The Opposite Sex (1956), Desk Set (1957), and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). In addition to his movies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Tony Randall stars in The Mating Game (1959), Let's Make Love (1960), and Boys' Night Out (1962). Frank Tashlin got his start directing cartoons, including many Looney Tunes shorts, but more of his live action directing efforts see Son of Paleface (1952), Artists and Models (1955), and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966).

Monday, February 20, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1949)

Once considered lost, The Queen of Spades (1949) is an example of buried cinematic treasure that was luckily rediscovered so that we can enjoy it again today, an ironic twist since it's a tale about the fickle turns of Fortune's wheel. The plot comes from a short story of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, which explains its Russian setting and Romantic bent, but the movie is a British production directed by Thorold Dickinson, with Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, and Yvonne Mitchell in its most significant roles. A meticulous 4K restoration by Studiocanal means that modern viewers can enjoy The Queen of Spades in all her baroque glory, and it really is a stunning picture, with a moody atmosphere reminiscent of Val Lewton and a delirious mix of romance, menace, and supernatural chills.

Anton Walbrook stars as Herman Suvorin, an officer in the Russian army who envies the wealth and good fortune of his nobler and more successful peers. When he hears the story of a beautiful countess who sold her soul for the secret of winning at cards, he sets out to learn it from her by first seducing her lonely young companion, Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell). Soon Suvorin comes face to face with the now ancient Countess (Edith Evans), but his meeting with her does not go as planned, and his manipulation of Lizaveta rouses the resentment of her honest admirer, Andrei (Ronald Howard).

The horror element of The Queen of Spades relies more on Gothic ambience than overt terrors, but it's always there, pulsing in the undercurrent of the narrative and rising with Suvorin's paranoia in the third act, when he might or might not be experiencing supernatural encounters. We're introduced early to the idea that malevolent forces are at work in this world, as we hear the story of Countess Ranevskaya and her desperate bargain to regain a fortune stolen from her by a secret lover. Faustian deals with the devil, wax figures containing lost souls, and unseen horrors prime our imaginations for the unfolding tale of Suvorin's obsession. The resulting narrative exists somewhere between the Lewton oeuvre and classic thrillers like Gaslight (the British 1940 version was also directed by Dickinson and stars Anton Walbrook). The reality of the supernatural is up for debate, especially where the final climactic scene is concerned, but there's a fantastic turn of the screw quality to Suvorin's increasing hysteria, and if anyone deserves to be haunted he's top of the list. Fans of the 1961 anthology film, Black Sabbath, might appreciate the parallels between the haunting scenes and those found in the segment titled "The Drop of Water," although Mario Bava's movie provides more lurid terrors for the guilty protagonist.

Elegant performances help to elevate The Queen of Spades and complement its gorgeous period settings, with Walbrook especially compelling as the ambitious Suvorin. He opens the picture tightly controlled and standoffish, and it's enthralling to watch him succumb to his envy, avarice, and guilt as he worms his way into the presence of the elderly Countess. Dame Edith Evans, looking about a hundred years old and outfitted in full 18th-century finery with a stupendous wig, still manages to be shrewish, funny, pathetic, and terrible by turns. Neither she nor Suvorin is a good person, but both retain degrees of humanity and frailty that excite some sympathy from the viewer, especially because Lizaveta feels pity for both of them. Yvonne Mitchell invests Lizaveta with moving Gothic sensibility; as a paid companion she's very similar to a governess, inhabiting an uneasy liminal space between servant and family member, but she burns with longing and a desire to be loved. The film's brilliant visual metaphors make it clear that Suvorin means to trap Lizaveta in his web of lies, but she attracts a nobler suitor in handsome Andrei, played to great effect by Leslie Howard's son, Ronald. 

Arresting cinematography by Otto Heller also makes this picture a gem. It's a stunning feast for the eyes, making the most of the gorgeous costumes and elaborately decorated sets created by Oliver Messel. Memorable moments abound: we see the young Countess hurrying down a secret passage, Suvorin waiting in the snow at night, and a beautiful dancer entertaining the amorous officers. Most of the central characters are shown in mirrors at various times, confronting themselves, reflecting themselves, or revealing their natures to the viewer, and the scenes in which we see one character directly and another in reflection are particularly striking and well shot. The long awaited confrontation between Suvorin and the Countess is absolutely riveting, thanks to the performances of the actors and the ways in which the camera frames them.

For more of director Thorold Dickinson and Anton Walbrook, start with the 1940 Gaslight, which some consider superior to the 1944 Hollywood version. Walbrook's other British films include 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and The Red Shoes (1948). Edith Evans earned Oscar nominations for her performances in Tom Jones (1963), The Chalk Garden (1964), and The Whisperers (1967), but don't miss her as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Yvonne Mitchell, who made her screen debut in The Queen of Spades, can also be found in The Divided Heart (1954), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), and Sapphire (1959). For an eerie period double feature, try pairing The Queen of Spades with Bedlam (1946), or follow up with Gothic thrillers like The Uninvited (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Dragonwyck (1946).

The Queen of Spades is available on Blu-ray and DVD; the new Studiocanal restoration is region specific, but a 2019 version with some extras is available on Amazon from Kino Lorber.  You can also find it streaming on the horror subscription channel Shudder as of February 2023.

Time to Quit Twitter

It's time to quit Twitter.

I joined Twitter over a decade ago to connect with classic movie fans, writers, fellow LEGO enthusiasts, and other people who shared some of my eclectic interests. It was, for many years, a satisfying experience that introduced me to films, books, and people I would not otherwise have found, including my current gig writing a monthly column for Classic Movie Hub. This week, however, I decided the time had finally come to pull the plug on my Twitter account. 

It has been a gradual process of disillusionment, but the current state of Twitter makes it less useful, less enjoyable, and more problematic than ever. I'll miss the good old days and the classic movie people I interacted with, but I've seen less and less of them in recent years, as my feed became flooded with the most aggressive retweeters and promoted posts. I found that looking at Twitter increased my anxiety but not my knowledge or feeling of connection, and now basic services on the site are rapidly shifting to "paid only" access, while Elon Musk treats Twitter as his personal megaphone and cudgel.

Enjoying real life at Niagara Falls in 2022. So much better than Twitter!

Going forward, you'll find links to my blog posts on my Tumblr account. Classic movie and LEGO content will also continue on my Instagram, along with way too many pictures of my cats. I am not, at this time, attempting to join one of the new social media sites like Mastodon. This blog will continue, too, although I long ago stopped trying to make it profitable. It's purely a labor of love, and I find that the regular writing practice is good for me. I hope my posts here on Virtual Virago occasionally find readers who enjoy them. You can also read my Silver Screen Standards column each month at Classic Movie Hub!

Finally, if you really want to be supportive, you can always visit my Amazon Author page and buy a book.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE SUSPECT (1944)

Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Suspect (1944).

Director Robert Siodmak weaves Victorian sensibility with noir energy in the justifiable homicide story of The Suspect (1944), which sees a mild-mannered Charles Laughton driven to murder by his extremely disagreeable wife. It's an unusual tale in that it pitches our sympathies toward the murderer throughout, even though we know the Hays Code won't let the picture - or its protagonist - get away with the crimes. Laughton, equally adept at comedic and horror roles, here plays an amiable working man who never stops being likable even as the corpses pile up. Ella Raines gives a sweet performance as the young woman whose affection ironically plunges the protagonist into violence, while Rosalind Ivan and Henry Daniell are delightfully horrible as the two antagonists who threaten him to their peril.

Laughton stars as Philip Marshall, a pleasant middle-aged man who manages a cigar store and does his best to placate the wrath of his hectoring, hateful wife, Cora (Rosalind Ivan). After Cora drives away their son, Philip takes comfort in a new friendship with pretty, young Mary (Ella Raines), but his hopes for a second chance at happiness are dashed when Cora refuses to give him a divorce. Cora's threat to ruin both of the lovers by publicly exposing them proves too much for Philip, but his snap decision to take drastic action has unexpected effects, especially when his abusive, alcoholic neighbor, Mr. Simmons (Henry Daniell), sees an opportunity for blackmail.

The success of this picture relies very much on Laughton's ability to play a truly kind, sympathetic man who is also believably capable of outright murder. Philip Marshall is no smiling sociopath like Joseph Cotten's character in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), nor is he incompetent once he commits to the deed. It helps that Cora and Mr. Simmons are so thoroughly rotten that even a saint might be forgiven for wishing them dead. Cora is unhinged enough that she doesn't seem to realize or care that ruining Philip's career would put her in the poorhouse, too; she means to torment him until death do them part. The revelation that Mr. Simmons beats his long-suffering wife (Molly Lamont) makes Philip and the audience hate him long before the blackmail attempt, as ironic as that seems when we consider that Mr. Simmons doesn't actually murder his wife. The Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges), enters this story as a most unwelcome pest; he's determined to prove Philip's guilt but doesn't care at all about the circumstances or the consequences. He might not be a corrupt cop, but he's willing to tell lies, set traps, and ruin lives without a moment's hesitation because he believes in his own moral superiority.

Touches of romance and comedy constantly lighten the mood to remind us of Philip's essential decency and the happiness he and Mary might enjoy if only fate would deal them a better hand, but there are fully realized moments of thrilling noir tension, too. Some of the sweetest scenes feature Raymond Severn as the errand boy, Merridew, whom Philip treats with paternal affection. The mix of moods also leads to black comedy, including a perversely entertaining sequence where Philip attempts to hide a body behind a couch while also entertaining unexpected guests. Laughton carries all of it beautifully, even the tenderest scenes with Raines, which might easily be rendered ridiculous by the difference in their ages and Laughton's cherubic curls atop a round, sad face. The ending might not offer what the audience really wants, but it's as gentle as possible given the inevitable conclusion to Philip's experience, and it leaves some poignant questions hanging in the air. Can you forgive a murderer depending on who they murder and why? How does that change the nature of justice and who gets it? What does the end of the story mean for Mary, or Mrs. Simmons, or Philip's adult son, John? The Suspect is the kind of murder story that begs for group viewing and discussion.

Robert Siodmak's other films from the 1940s include classics like Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and The Killers (1946). Charles Laughton won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and was nominated again for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), but be sure to see him in Hobson's Choice (1954), too. Ella Raines also stars in Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Web (1947), and Brute Force (1947). If you like mild-mannered men embroiled in murder, pair The Suspect with The Woman in the Window (1944) or Scarlet Street (1945), both starring Edward G. Robinson.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

Long before The Twilight Zone came the 1945 British anthology film, Dead of Night, which weaves together a collection of eerie tales within a framework that gathers a small group of people in an English country house. While it's not exactly a horror movie, it does offer plenty of weird and even disturbing moments, and it would profoundly influence future horror anthologies, which have since become a unique and much-loved subgenre. Each segment of this multi-part narrative has its own director and stars, and each has its own charms, but standouts of the group include Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, and Michael Redgrave as some of the unfortunate visitors to the stranger side of experience.

The frame tale follows mild-mannered architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) on a professional visit to a remote country house, where he meets the owner, Mr. Foley (Roland Culver), and a group of his friends. Craig feels an overwhelming sense of uneasiness as he realizes that he has seen these people somewhere before, but he only remembers that the gathering ends in tragedy. Psychologist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) doubts that Craig is really experiencing a supernatural vision, but the other guests try to support Craig by telling stories about their own brushes with the inexplicable, which range from the horrific to the humorous.

The anthology contains five stories in addition to the frame tale with Craig, and each one strikes a different tone. The hearse driver tale has an urban legend quality; it mostly functions as a short opening act for the more complex stories that follow. The Christmas party is a lovely, old fashioned ghost story that briskly moves through its beats, with Sally Ann Howes very charming as the heroine and narrator, also named Sally. In the story of the haunted mirror, Googie Withers and Ralph Michael play an engaged couple who become ensnared by the eerie menace of a newly acquired antique. Fans of iconic TV series like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery will find the mirror adventure very much to their taste, and the two leads give great performances that really sell the story. In the fourth segment, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne play golfing pals whose rivalry for the same woman leads to ghostly misadventures; it's a bit of comedic fun that fans of the duo - who first became famous for their appearance in The Lady Vanishes (1938) - will especially appreciate, but you don't need to recognize them as Charters and Caldicott to laugh at their scenes. The final segment stars Michael Redgrave as an increasingly deranged ventriloquist plagued by his sadistic dummy, and it's easily the creepiest and most iconic of the lot, with Redgrave absolutely riveting as the tortured partner of the nightmarish Hugo.

Michael Redgrave hushes the devilish Hugo.

The changes in cast and tone keep each new experience fresh as the picture unfolds, with the haunted mirror and the ventriloquist stories cranking up the horror and the other episodes offering varying levels of relief. In between we return to the frame tale, which works its way toward a hallucinatory climax that merges bits from every segment. The format would inspire many later horror anthologies, leading to genre classics like Tales of Terror (1962), Twice-Told Tales (1963), Black Sabbath (1963), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), and The House That Dripped Blood (1971), just to name a few. These later pictures increasingly leaned into the sexuality and gore that Dead of Night eschews, but television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, The Outer Limits, and Amazing Stories continued to provide eerie chills without buckets of blood. It's worth noting that the anthology format is itself a very old literary genre, famously used in Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which makes Dead of Night a fascinating link in a long genre chain that connects 14th century texts to modern hits like Black Mirror.

Ealing Studios is remembered today for its comedies, and Dead of Night was very much a departure from its usual fare, but it includes many of the studio's regular directors and stars. Charles Crichton, who directed the golfing story, went on to make The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and Robert Hamer, the director of the haunted mirror tale, later directed the classic Ealing comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). You'll find Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers along with Radford and Wayne in The Lady Vanishes, while Withers and Roland Culver both appear in On Approval (1944). Director Robert Hamer also works with Withers, Mervyn Johns, and Sally Ann Howes on Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). If Hugo Fitch, the ventriloquist's dummy, fascinates you, check out Magic (1978) or the two Twilight Zone episodes with similar themes, "The Dummy" and "Caesar and Me." The first one is the more iconic of the two.