Monday, January 12, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #14

Party Wire (1935) – In a sleepy little hamlet known as Rockridge(!), the phone service is provided by means of a party line—an economical measure, to be certain…but one that allows the town’s busybodies to eavesdrop on everyone’s conversation. Such a thing occurs one night when town inebriate Will Oliver (Charley Grapewin) phones his daughter’s boyfriend (Robert Allen) to let him know he’s not going to skip town and “leave Marge in the fix she’s in…”—he’s talking about a discrepancy in the church’s accounts, but everyone else thinks that Marge (Jean Arthur) has a bun in the oven. The town chapter of the Loyal Order of Gossiping Old Biddies (L.O.O.G.O.B.) then sees to it that Marge loses her bank job, is denied first prize in the flower show…and that her romantic relationship with dairy heir Matthew Putnam (Victor Jory) is scotched. An interesting—if none too subtle—look at small-town mores, Wire doesn’t have too many surprises but it does have the loveliness of star Jean Arthur; this may be the earliest talkie in which I’ve seen her and she’s positively aces. The supporting cast includes Helen Powell, Clara “Auntie Em” Blandick, Geneva Mitchell, Matt McHugh, Oscar Apfel and Walter Brennan, and was directed by Erle C. Kenton—who probably won’t be the first candidate for the auteur theory but did direct some of the best vehicles of W.C. Fields (You’re Telling Me!), Abbott & Costello (Who Done It?) and Joan Davis (She Gets Her Man)…not to mention horror classics like Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) – Part deux of a Jean Arthur two-fer; this time she’s a shoe clerk in a department store owned by millionaire J.P. Merrick (Savannah native Charles Coburn). Merrick becomes incensed at the publicity surrounding a recent employee protest at the store and decides to go undercover as a clerk to ferret out the opposition—but he then befriends Arthur and her boyfriend (Bob Cummings), as well as Arthur’s co-worker Spring Byington and begins to show sympathy for their cause. Sharply written social comedy by screenwriter Norman Krasna is an unjustly neglected gem, with Coburn giving one of the warmest performances of his film career and Arthur…well, she gets points for just being Arthur. (Seriously, a great supporting cast in this one—Byington will tug at your heart strings, Cummings is not all that annoying and Edmund Gwenn has an interesting change-of-pace as an odious supervisor with S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Coburn’s loyal manservant.) I’ve always been curious why a conservative director like Sam Wood would allow himself to be connected with a project like this (particularly Cummings’ politics would be considered a tad “pinko” in that time frame)—perhaps that’s why he was so eager to co-found and serve as the first president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals during the HUAC witch hunts of the late 40s/early 50s. (Note: In a post I wrote about The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) eons ago at Salon Blogs, I mentioned that I once rented The Devil and Miss Jones and Webster from the local library one weekend but never got the opportunity to see them. It took me nearly fifteen years but I finally finished seeing both.)

Picnic (1955) – I’ve sort of made a resolution for myself (nothing technically binding, you understand) that I’m going to start watching movies that, as a rule, wouldn’t normally appeal to me…and I think I’ve done pretty well so far with viewings of Executive Suite and Dinner at Eight. Picnic, of course, is the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by William Inge (the screenplay was written by Daniel Taradash with an assist from director Daniel Logan) about a drifter (William Holden) who’s passing through a small Kansas town on Labor Day and how he manages to steal the girl (Kim Novak) of his college pal (Cliff Robertson), convincing her to run away with him. To be honest, I really didn’t care too much for the Holden-Novak-Robertson love triangle (Holden is too old for the part, Novak can’t act and Robertson’s character is a bit of a drip); I was more interested in the secondary story, in which spinster schoolteacher Rosalind Russell aggressively romances boyfriend Arthur O’Connell…trying to get him to marry her because she fears she’s going to seed. (Columbia Studios had planned to place Roz’s name in nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards but Russell said no dice; a damn shame because it really is one of her outstanding screen triumphs.) In fact, the supporting cast—Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Verna Felton, Nick Adams, Reta Shaw, Raymond Bailey and Elizabeth Wilson—is for me Picnic’s main draw and the reason why I sat through this entertaining if not completely fulfilling movie. (I agree with Field’s character; her daughter and Holden will marry up and they’ll end up miserable. C’est la vie!)

Beyond the Rocks (1922) – Gloria Swanson (in that time period before the pictures got small) and Rudolph Valentino (on the cusp of stardom) co-star in this romantic drama (directed by the aforementioned Sam Wood) about a pair of lovers who must remain apart because for some odd reason Gloria married some ailing old duffer (Robert Bolder) at the film’s beginning instead of handsome Rudy. (It’s not like Rudy’s character comes from the wrong side of the tracks—he’s the friggin’ Earl of Bracondale, ferchrissake!) The plot is pretty contrived (at one point in the action, Glo’s hubby plans on going on a trip to Egypt but Rudy talks him out of it because he might not come back alive…hello?) but you can’t take your eyes off of Swanson and it’s interesting to see Valentino as he began his short-lived but exhilarating career of cinematic gold. Long thought to be a lost film, Rocks was discovered among the effects of a Dutch film collector in 2003 and was restored by the Nederlands Film Museum and the Haghefilm Conservation for a public showing in 2005. It’s not in pristine shape but the noticeable effects of nitrate decomposition serve to remind us that innumerable cinematic treasures face complete obliteration from the ravages of time if something is not done soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I, too, watched "Beyond the Rocks" and was impressed -- not so much by the story (your basic early
20th century forbidden romance claptrap at which writer Eleanor Glyn was so expert) but by the performances of the cast.

The leads are given relatively little chance to display any nuanced emotion, aside from showing sadness, disappointment, longing, etc., but the supporting cast - particularly Rudy's sister and Gloria's rich-but-aged husband - mine charactor actor gold out of what are fairly base minerals.

The film also reminded me that the acting styles of the early 20s - particularly in melodramas - are far different than we'd see today. Audiences didn't really want the performances to be *real*, they wanted that dream-like quality of unreality that took them out of their own lives for awhile. Stars like Valentino and Swanson were *supposed* to be larger than life...and acted that way.

And Miss Swanson was right: they *did* have faces then. It's fascinating to see how both stars have such a personal glow in this film, a charisma that inexplicably but undeniably draws attention right to them.

No kind of a classic, mind you -- but, still, we're darned lucky this long-lost film still exists.