Thursday, May 8, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #67 (John Garfield edition)

With AT&T U-Verse offering a free Showtime preview this weekend, I did what I could to make what available room was needed on the DVR (it won’t be as much as what I grabbed from the Starz!/Encore or HBO/Cinemax previews, because most of what’s on Showtime is not Scottish*).  As such, it made for this dan-dan-dandy post!

East of the River (1940) – Julie inherited this hand-me-down from James Cagney; he’s Joey Lorenzo, a tough street kid whose plans to hop a freight with his pal Nick (William Lundigan) to see a bout in Chicago are scotched when they’re discovered by some railroad bulls; one of the bulls gets his skull cracked and the two kids (the yutes are played by Joe Conti and O’Neill Nolan) are headed for reform school when Joey’s ma (Marjorie Rambeau) makes a passionate plea to a judge (Moroni Olsen) to give the little j.d. one more chance.  Because Nick is an orphan, it looks like he’s not going to catch the same break but Mama Lorenzo agrees to adopt him to save him from a life of detention hell.

The two boys grow up…and while Nick has become a model citizen, doing well in his edjumacation studies and about to graduate from college, Joey took a wrong turn in life—he arrives in time for Nick’s graduation with his surly girlfriend Laurie (Brenda Marshall) in tow, telling his ma that he’s been working on a ranch (when he’s actually done a three-year hitch in stir).  Seething with thoughts of revenge for the two mugs (Douglas Fowley, Jack La Rue) who framed him, Joey plans to get even…but Laurie is having second thoughts.  She’s also become quite chummy with Nick, which was sort of telegraphed in a scene where the two of them make serious eye contact at the graduation ceremony.

I’ll be the first to admit that East of the River is nothing special as far as classic John Garfield movies are concerned—it’s strictly paint-by-numbers—but I can’t help but like the film; Julie has a habit of calling his mama “sweetheart,” which reminded me of that wonderful line he has in The Fallen Sparrow (1943) when someone asks him why he needs a gun (“To shoot somebody with, sweetheart!”).  As Mama Lorenzo, Rambeau has an accent thicker than a lasagna with ricotta—matched only by George Tobias as Tony, the comic relief waiter.  I’ve seen Brenda Marshall in a number of movies (my favorite is a lovely bit of WTF directed by Anthony Mann, 1946’s Strange Impersonation) but she really shines in this one; she reminded me a lot of Barbara Stanwyck at times.  The only really weak link in this one is William Lundigan; how this guy ever made in motion pictures is a riddle that would even make the Sphinx say: “Hell if I know…”  (I watched this one with Mom, and she asked me where she had seen Bill—I pointed out to her that he was in The House on Telegraph Hill, which we watched earlier this week.  Mom wasn’t impressed with him, either.  Lundigan, to apply The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™, was okay—if stiff—in Follow Me Quietly.)

Flowing Gold (1940) – Flowing Gold is the second-worst John Garfield movie I’ve seen.  Still, I’d watch it again a thousand more times before I’d ever think about putting on Tortilla Flat again.  Julie’s Johnny Blake, a working class roughneck who earns the gratitude of ‘Hap’ O’Connor (Pat O’Brien) when he has Hap’s back in a fight with an oil field worker.  Hap and his crew have thrown in with one Ellery Q. ‘Wildcat’ Chambers (Raymond Walburn), whose plans to dig a new oil well have been scotched by his rival (Granville Bates), and Hap is forced to put Blake in charge of the race-against-the-clock digging when an accident on the derrick puts him out of commission.  Johnny’s problem is that he’s on the lam from the law (a familiar Garfield situation) for a crime he’s innocent of (self-defense!)…and the fact that’s macking on Hap’s girlfriend—and Wildcat’s daughter—Linda (Frances Farmer) doesn’t help matters either.

Gold has two things going for it: a great cast, including first-rate support from Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, Tom Kennedy (whose love of flowers earns him the nickname “Petunia”), Jody “Rosa” Gilbert and John Alexander (who lends his name to Garfield’s character’s real handle).  (Walburn’s presence is a little off-putting; I kept expecting Bill Demarest and Franklin Pangborn to show up.)  The other is a very impressive climax where lightning strikes the derrick and explodiates that mutha; Garfield’s Johnny must motorvate a crane on a road near a river that is starting to slide into the sea.  It’s fast-and-furious Warner Brothers material, and while it’s clearly not worthy of Garfield's, O’Brien's or Farmer's talents it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

The Sea Wolf (1941) – Some time back, I engaged in a discussion on the ClassicFlix Facebook page as to why this classic isn’t available on a Region 1 DVD yet…not even as a MOD from the Warner Archive.  Watching it last night, I can see why it hasn’t given the greenlight: Warner’s print is in watchable but pretty rough shape.  And that’s a shame, because this adaptation of Jack London’s seafaring-is-hell novel is an extraordinary film: sadistic captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) makes things a tad uncomfortable for accidental passengers Alexander Knox and Ida Lupino…Garfield is a reluctant crewman (again, he’s wanted by the law—and interestingly, so is Ida) who’s determined to defeat Eddie by hook or by crook.

I’ve said this so many times on the blog—but the fact that Edward G. Robinson was never…ever…nominated for a competitive Oscar demonstrates the farce that was (and admittedly still is) the Academy Awards; Eddie G.’s Wolf Larsen is one of his greatest screen roles, and he’d revisit that Satanic essobee as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948).  Screenwriter Robert Rossen split London’s hero into two people (Knox and Garfield’s characters) and added the Lupino character to the film’s benefit; there are also amazing character turns by Barry Fitzgerald (as a conniving stoolie) and Gene Lockhart (as a dipsomaniac doctor struggling to keep his dignity)—and contributions from Frank Lackteen and Howard Da Silva.  The only Oscar nod received by Wolf was a nomination for its special effects (courtesy of future director Byron Haskin and Nathan Levinson).

*If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.

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