Sunday, August 30, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #33 (Ida Lupino edition)

(Note: I usually try not to reveal the endings of the movies I review, but sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men, yadda yadda yadda. In a nutshell—there are spoilers ahead.)

Out of the Fog (1941) – To me, it’s a testament to the talent of John Garfield that even though he plays a totally unrepentant heel in this film (I don’t know if you’d consider him the main character, but he does get top billing) he’s so gosh-darned charming you can’t really be too pissed at him. (Humphrey Bogart lobbied for this role but Warners went with the red-hot and bankable Garfield instead.) Julie’s Harold Goff, a two-bit hood who’s shaking down the residents of the Brooklyn waterfront (Sheepshead Bay, stomping grounds of TDOY/Facebook pal Erica Sherman) and his latest victims are tailor Jonah Goodwin (Thomas Mitchell) and short-order cook Olaf Johnson (John Qualen), two working stiffs whose only pleasure away from their menial nine-to-fives is getting out on their fishing boat for a little recreational trawling. Jonah’s daughter Stella (Ida), though sweet on poor-but-honest George Watkins (Eddie Albert), has fallen for the charismatic Goff—and even begins to adopt his life’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest”: the strong prey on the weak, and never the twain shall meet. Unbeknownst to her, Goff is squeezing the two old men for five clams a week in “protection” money, and when he finds out from Stella that her pop has $190 saved up to buy a bigger boat he decides he’ll take that, too to give Stella a nice little vacation in Cuba.

Robert Rossen, Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay had to put in a lot of overtime to make Irwin Shaw’s hit play The Gentle People palatable to the Hollywood censors, but it’s still an interesting film in that the characters played by Mitchell and Qualen escape the repercussions as accessories in Goff’s “untimely passing.” Lots of interesting character actor action in this one: Leo Gorcey (as the smart-alecky cashier in the dump where Qualen works), his father Bernard “Louie Dumbrowski” Gorcey as a kvetching customer, George Tobias, Aline MacMahon, Jerome Cowan and Paul Harvey—with bits contributed by Frank Coughlan, Jr., Jimmy Conlin, Charles Drake , Barbara Pepper and Walter “Leeeeroy!” Tetley as the kid who cashes in at the pinball machine. Photographed by the legendary James Wong Howe, Hal Erickson observes that Out of the Fog was “film noir before the term was even invented.”

Ladies in Retirement (1941) – Ida Lupino went on the record to say that the role of Ellen Creed in this film was the favorite of all her film appearances, and though Retirement hasn’t dated particularly well (its notions of “horror” have been unfortunately replaced by more graphic and less-genteel productions) it’s still a winner in my book. Ellen Creed works as a housemaid/companion to wealthy Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom)—though I should point out that Fiske’s largess depends a lot on the “kindness of strangers.” Ellen’s sisters, Emily (Elsa Lanchester) and Louisa (Edith Barrett), have been asked by their landlady to leave their current address—and while Ellen is able to talk Ms. Fiske into letting them stay with her they soon become such a burden to her and housekeeper Emily (Evelyn Keyes) that Fiske demands they vacate the premises tuit suite. Since Ellen is the only family member able to take care of the troublesome sisters, she has no other choice but to dispose of Ms. Fiske (and that means precisely what you think it means)—but complications arise when distant relative (and charming rogue) Albert Feather (Louis Hayward) arrives on the scene and begins to put two and two together like an amateur sleuth/professional cad is wont to do.

At the time of Retirement’s filming, both Lupino and Hayward were married to one another off-screen—and in fact, it would be the only production on which they worked as a married couple. (Rosalind Russell had originally been slated to play the lead role, but wiser heads prevailed.) While I haven’t seen every film in Lupino’s catalog, I have to admit that she was incredibly good as Ellen (surprisingly she received no Academy Award nomination, though the film did get nods for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture and Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White); the chief quality I’ve always admired about the actress is that she wasn’t afraid to “deglamorize” herself for a role (she reminds me a lot of Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper in The Heiress in this one). The whole cast here is really first-rate, particularly Lanchester and Barrett as the dotty siblings (Lanchester has a nice throwaway bit in which she takes a vase and grinds it up and down along a table in defiance of Elsom’s complaint that they’re “marking up the furniture”), and I also enjoyed the quiet understatement of the film’s conclusion as Lupino’s character exits the house (leaving her sisters behind), resigned to the fate that awaits her outside. This film was remade in 1969 with Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters as The Mad Room —but you’re much better off with the original even if Room does feature Severn Darden, Beverly Garland and Lloyd Haynes.

The Hard Way (1943) – During his remarks before and after this film Thursday night, TCM’s resident oracle “Bobby Osbo” opined that Lupino’s performance in this hokey-but-entertaining flick—in which she plays a woman determined at all costs to promote sister Joan Leslie as a Broadway sensation (and that requires a leap of faith even Superman couldn’t do in a single bound)—was probably the best she ever gave while under contract at Warners. Personally, I think Osborne’s time would be better spent watching movies rather than pontificating about them because I can think of two films right off the bat—The Man I Love (1946) and Deep Valley (1947)—in which Lupino has superior showcases. (I guess that will take care of all those invitations he's been sending to my e-mail address.) Still, this doesn’t mean you should avoid Hard Way; it’s your typical girl-with-a-teensy-modicum-of-talent-makes-the-big-time-thanks-to-her-ruthless-sister tale: Ida and Joan hail from a steel town and make their getaway on the coattails of vaudevillians Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan (in their first teaming) and from that point on, Ida will stop at nothing to promote her sister’s career. Truth be told, I kind of watched this for the Carson-Morgan antics, and was surprised that they not only match Ida’s performance step-for-step but Carson—who usually plays the oafish buffoon—is actually the more sympathetic of the two; it’s Morgan who’s a tad too obnoxious. The film almost holds up until the ridiculous finale, and it bears repeating that while Leslie is not without talent (she’s fantastic in Yankee Doodle Dandy) she’s just not convincing enough to pull off a performance that should leave the audience completely speechless. The supporting cast in Hard Way includes Gladys George (as a past-her-prime diva who Lupino gets schnockered in order to get Leslie a tryout), Faye Emerson and Paul Cavanaugh; the guy playing the vaudevillian “Frenchy” is Lou Lubin, better known as “Shorty the Barber” on radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy and Jack Carson’s real-life vaudeville partner (who later played nephew “Tugwell” on Carson’s radio show) Dave Willock can be seen as a hotel bellboy.

Women's Prison (1955) – It’s been a long time since I sat down with this one—and the fact that it ran letterboxed was the cherry on top of the sundae. Behind the stone walls of Co-Ed Penitentiary, only a concrete partition separates the men from the women; the men are supervised by warden Brock (Barry Kelley, whose demeanor suggests he’s not far removed from the inmates he oversees) and the distaff side by the sadistic Amelia van Zandt (Ida!). Van Zandt, who possesses all the warmth of a king cobra, finds herself butting heads with the prison’s psychiatrist—none other than real-life hubby and “the greatest radio detective of them all,” Howard Duff (as Dr. Crane). Crane’s a tad put out over Van Zandt’s treatment of new fish Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter); Helene is doing a stretch in the pen for vehicular homicide (she hit a child while speeding) and isn’t taking prison life too well; Van Zandt’s method of dealing with Helene’s squeamishness is placing her in a strait-jacket and locking her up in isolation. (Crane: “She’s suffering from a guilt complex bordering on madness.” Thank you, Dr. Spade!)

The interesting thing about Women’s Prison is that it starts out focusing on Helene’s story and then—as if authors Crane Wilbur and Jack DeWitt realized that this was previously covered in the superior chicks-in-chains outing Caged (1950)—shifts to the plight of inmate Joan Burton (the incomparable Audrey Totter), who, after receiving an unauthorized “conjugal visit” from husband Glen (Warren Stevens; he’s conveniently marking his time in the all-male section next door) in a room located just off from the laundry facilities, finds herself “great with child” (yes, I found it difficult to keep a straight face by this time). Joan has no idea how Glen “crossed over” (and I suspect the writers couldn’t think of a way either) but Brock leans heavily on Van Zandt to extract the information, forcing the female warden to slap Joan around—and resulting in her eventual demise. By this time, several of Joan’s “sorority sisters”—Brenda (TDOY fave Jan “Smoochie” Sterling), Mae (Cleo Moore) and impressionist Dottie (Vivian Marshall, whose Lupino impression comes in handy even it’s just the real Ida dubbing her lines)—confront Van Zandt and hold her hostage, resulting in the inevitable altercation in which tear gas bombs are released to keep the female inmates in check…and Van Zandt finally goes completely bat-shit crazy (ironically trapped in a padded room and needing a strait-jacket…stat!).

I need to warn you right off the bat—if you go into this “babes behind bars” flick expecting Caged, you’re going to be disappointed; this vehicle has so many implausibilities and over-the-top histrionics it can’t be taken seriously for one instant. But it’s entertaining as all-get-out, and also includes Gertrude Michael and Mae “Grapefruit” Clarke as matrons and Juanita Moore as the prerequisite black inmate. As Sterling says: “At first, you won’t like it—but after you get used to it, you’ll hate it.”

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