Thursday, October 30, 2014

On the Grapevine: “It’s Hard Out There For a Blackmailer” Double Feature – Lady in the Death House (1944)/Behind Green Lights (1946)

This week, I had originally planned to do a review of another DVD purchased from Grapevine Video in the past (and on top of all that, had scheduled it for yesterday) but I wound up calling an audible because a disc on sale in one of the company’s e-mail fliers caught my eye and I succumbed to an impulse buy.  Touted as a “Film Noir Doube Feature” (they should probably proofread those things before they’re sent out), the DVD showcases two crime drama programmers from the 1940s: Lady in the Death House (1944) and Behind Green Lights (1946).

Dead woman...walkin'...
Both movies, however, share a common theme in that the murder plots of each flick are put into motion by a naughty old blackmailer.  The extortionist in Death House is none other than our good friend Dick Curtis, whose bad guy bona fides were on prominent display in the recent Serial Saturdays presentation of (Big) Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (1951).  Curtis is Willis Millen, a criminal lowlife shaking down the lovely Mary Kirk (Jean Parker) because he knows that Mary is actually the daughter of a convicted racketeer named Thomas Logan (Millen was his confederate in gangsterism) and he’s threatening to rat her out to her strait-laced boss (George Irving).  Mary refuses to cave into Millen’s demands (she’s scrimping and saving to send her sister to college)…which is just as well, since someone soon caves Millen’s noggin in with a piece of statuary.  Mary is convicted of the deed on the eyewitness testimony of two individuals who conveniently saw the whole thing…though it was mostly through two silhouettes on the shade.  (I feel an oldies song coming on.)

1940s film.  With Byron Foulger.  I'll say no more.

Since TDOY’s mantra is that irony can be pretty ironic sometimes, you’ll be interested to learn that the guy who’s going to pull the switch once Mary walks that last mile is her boyfriend Dwight “Brad” Bradley (Douglas Fowley), a research doc who moonlights as the state’s executioner in order to bring home some groceries now and then (though if the movie is any indication, he eats out a lot) and keep Mary in the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed.  But worry ye not, TDOY-ers—Mary’s goose is not yet cooked because criminologist Charles Finch (Lionel Atwill) is convinced of her innocence, and does his darndest to prove she’s been railroaded.  (Death House is told mainly in flashback, as Finch relates his riveting tale to a room of reporters.)

Lady in the Death House is a PRC production…and that’s all that really needs to be said here.  I’m convinced they shot the movie on two sets—one of which is a jernt frequented by the folks in the film known as “The Grotto,” which is apparently the only decent restaurant-bar in the unnamed town.  Helmed by Steve Sekely, a Hungarian-born director best known for Hollow Triumph (1948; a.k.a. The Scar) and The Day of the Triffids (1963), Death House is entertaining but please don’t interpret this to mean that it’s good…because, Lord-a-mighty is this a mess.  The script by Henry O. Hoyt (based on Frederick C. Davis’ “Meet the Executioner”) is good for a lot of unintentional laughs; my favorite is when a detective played by Cy Kendall (another familiar face from Serial Saturdays) observes: “This isn't one of those tough cases which depends on clues.”  Much of the screenplay features logic holes you could steer a U-Haul through; I spent most of the movie trying to suss out why Parker’s lawyer didn’t object to the questionable “eyewitness” testimony unless he was this guy.  I will admit, I found the situation between Parker and Fowley rather fascinating (how would you handle being the one responsible for administering the death penalty to your fiancée?), particularly in a scene where Jean tells Doug: “I’m glad it’s going to be you.”  (Ah, romance…)

Considering what they have to work with, the performances in Death House aren’t too terrible; I like Parker, whom I watched in one of those Inner Sanctum movies, Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), this past weekend (I also remember her fondly from The Flying Deuces).  Actor Sam Flint, who’s currently a cast member of the Serial Saturdays presentation of The Black Widow (1947), can be seen briefly as The Governor, and former kiddie thesp Marcia Mae Jones plays Jean’s sister Suzy—I love Marcia, because she was so delightfully mean to Shirley Temple in The Little Princess (1939).  Lionel Atwill, who was becoming a PRC mainstay by this time (due to proclivities in his personal life that I won’t go into here…but that you can certainly find information about on The Google), certainly classes up the joint (and I kind of get the impression he knew he was just wading through this stuff yet his professionalism kept him going until his death of pneumonia in 1946).

The second feature steps up a little in weight class (since it was a 20th Century-Fox production) though that doesn’t make its contents any better (truth be told, I enjoyed Death House more because I expected it to be cheesy and it didn’t disappernt).  Behind Green Lights (1946) stars William (Barrie Craig: Confidential Investigator) Gargan as a police lieutenant investigating the murder of a man who’s been practically deposited on the steps of the police station.  The victim is Walter Bard (Bernard Nedell), a private investigator who moonlights as a blackmailer, and suspicion for his croaking has fallen on Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), a young lovely trapped in Bard’s evil clutches—her father is Luther Bradley, the current reform candidate for mayor (the city gubmint apparently can be bought for the cost of a loaf of bread).  Also in the “persons of interest” pool are Bard’s estranged wife Nora (Mary Anderson) and her fiancé Arthur Templeton (played by Charles Russell, radio’s first Johnny Dollar).

The investigation of the Bard affair is set against the background of a still-wet-behind-the-ears reporter (“Gosh…I hope I don’t pull any boners” is one of his memorable utterances) named Johnny Williams (Richard Crane), who in the process of “learning the ropes” is featured in a His Girl Friday-ish sequence in which he’s trying to keep his fellow fourth estaters from finding out that he’s located Bard’s corpse in the newsroom (the body goes missing temporarily); there’s even an eccentric reporter named Daniel Boone Wintergreen (Charles Arnt), whom I suspect was modeled after the Ernest Truex character in the aforementioned Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell film.  This temporary detour into comedy doesn’t really help Behind Green Lights (nor does a silly subplot involving a flower lady [Mabel Paige] who keeps kvetching that she’s owed “a dollar and six bits”), which I found pretty boring for the most part.  Apart from the presence from Landis and an early appearance from John Ireland (who plays Gargan’s second-in-command) there’s not much to recommend here besides the inclusion of a lot of character greats like Don Beddoe, Roy Roberts, Lane Chandler and J. Farrell MacDonald.

Hey, kids—it’s Shameless Self-Promotion Corner!

I’ll have an edition of “On the Grapevine” up later this afternoon…and if I don’t get too lazy (like that would never happen) I’ll discuss a recent “Adventures in Blu-ray” tomorrow.  But I thought I’d keep you up to speed with what’s been going on around Rancho Yesteryear in the time that I had to take a quick vacation from the blog.

Tomorrow at the Radio Spirits blog, I’ll have a brief retrospective on the six films produced by Universal between 1943 and 1945 that cashed in on the popularity of the radio horror series Inner Sanctum Mysteries.  (Don’t click on the link until Friday at 8pm EDT—because it’s not technically up yet.)  If you’ve been a member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful since the days the blog was at Salon, you know that I did a review of the 2-DVD set Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection there back in December 2006…but ever since Salon Blogs was vaporized by the Laser Cannon of Death, the essay has only been available if you own a device that reconstructs minute particles of disintegrated blogs.  Okay, I’m only slightly kidding about this—I actually stumbled onto the old piece by fortuitous luck, and I re-tweaked it here and there for the RS blog…I won’t mention where the hiding place is because I don’t want to jinx anything should I have to go digging around the ruins again.

But one review that is already up at the RS blog is Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), the last in the brief film series based on the popular radio sitcom.  It’s certainly not great cinema by any measure of the yardstick but Gildy fans might get a kick out of it.  The Gildersleeve movies generally used only three performers from the program—Harold Peary (Gildy), Richard LeGrand (Peavey) and Lillian Randolph (Birdie)—but Ghost does feature an uncredited Earle Ross as The Great Man’s nemesis Judge Hooker.  Ghost is also worth a look-see because it has a couple of swell performances from Marion Martin (as a disappearing chorus girl) and Nick Stewart (in the role usually played either by Willie Best or Mantan Moreland), and some fairly impressive special effects for a programmer.  (In addition, the RS blog features another installment in the continuing rundown of the Boston Blackie movies with 1946’s A Close Call for Boston Blackie—an entry with a heavy emphasis on comedy and featuring TDOY fave Claire Carleton.)

At ClassicFlix, I thought I’d contribute something appropriate for the Halloween holidays with a "Where's That Been?" look at The Old Dark House (1932), a neglected black comedy masterpiece that probably won’t make the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (from what Dr. Film tells me, the rights issues are a nightmare) so you should try and score yourself the Kino DVD (which goes on sale from time to time) if you have an opportunity.  And have a potato.

Finally, last week Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence asked me if I could contribute to The Black Maria’s Monstravaganza, a week-long celebration of horror films and the like; I recycled some previous writing from here on the blog (I am nothing if not dedicated to recycling) and put together a piece on Thriller, the classic TV series hosted by TDOY idol Boris Karloff.  (Even though I was reworking previous essays, I had to spend a little time re-watching some of these repeats to kind of stoke the dormant memory banks—and I’m not sorry I did, because it reminded me of how wonderful some classic shows like “The Devil’s Ticket” and “Guillotine” can be.)  My distinguished colleague Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts will also have an essay up at the Maria (I was going to use the initials…and then I realized B.M. would not be appropriate) on old-time radio horror later on this week, so keep an eye peeled for it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Brief programming note

Since this is bad news, I probably should be texting this like in that commercial (except I don’t own a cell phone, so that would fail miserably)—but the blog is going to be kind of quiet for the next several days, and it will most certainly affect Serial Saturdays and Doris Day(s).  I’ve got three or four projects in the hopper right now that will eat up all the time I usually depend on to keep Thrilling Days of Yesteryear going at a rapid clip, so I must tend to those matters before we kick back with a little cliffhanger action from The Black Widow.  (No one is more disappointed by this than me, by the way, because if someone as beautifully evil as Sombra asked me to join her organization I would stop fighting for the forces of good in a New York minute.)

One of the projects involves my upcoming appearance on the Hollywood Time Machine podcast this Saturday night (October 25).  Hosts Alicia Mayer and Will McKinley will be chatting with yours truly on the subject of old-time radio horror and science fiction programs, and I have to say I’m pretty flattered and jazzed about being asked.  (I only hope my voice holds out, otherwise listeners may think they’ve tuned into Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on a Jack Benny Show rerun by mistake.)  The details on the show are here; you can listen online by going to at 6pm PDT (9pm Athens time) or you can download it on your Apple or Android by putting “LA Talk Radio” in The Google.

In blogathon news, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club have decided to go for a three-peat and host another What a Character! Blogathon from November 16-18.  It’s been a very successful yearly event ever since the first one took place in 2012, and there’s no reason why the third one won’t duplicate those earlier critical plaudits and kudos…unless a bus swerves out of control and crashes into their blogs, I suppose.  But leave us put aside such morbid thoughts and simply say that if you’re interested in participating, march on over (single file, students) and sign up.  (TDOY regrets that it will have to sit this one out again this year, because we are needed at home.)

So until next week, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.  My latest “Where’s That Been?” contribution is up at ClassicFlix (1944’s Betrayed, a.k.a. When Strangers Marry) to tide you over in the meanwhile.

Guest Review: The Blue Gardenia (1953)

By Philip Schweier

During a brief respite from the drudgery we call modern life, I had the opportunity to enjoy a few days of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, and stumbled across an enjoyable crime drama entitled The Blue Gardenia (1953). I suspect the title may have been inspired by the infamous Black Dahlia murder a few years prior, but having missed the first few minutes, I could be wrong.

Anne Baxter plays Norah Larkin, a young woman in love. Unfortunately, her beau is half a world away, serving in the military. But that doesn’t keep her from preparing a candle-lit dinner and creating an atmosphere of romance to enjoy his latest letter. When two people are in love, distance means nothing.

Or does it? Because no sooner does she open his latest missive than it becomes clear it’s a Dear Jane letter. It seems while serving in Korea he’s met a lovely young nurse and they’re due to be married (“Seoul mates” – there, I said it).

Shattered and emotional, she is vulnerable to a phone call from Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), whom we later discover is a scoundrel of the first order. In a case of mistaken identity, he invites Norah out. She quickly abandons her dinner and heads off to the Blue Gardenia Club, where she meets Harry who immediately begins wooing her with its trademark corsage and a barrage of Polynesian pearl divers (the drinks, not the actual divers themselves).

This prompts the following exchange between Joe the waiter (Victor Sen Young) and our male lead, Richard Conte. Conte plays newspaper columnist Casey Mayo.

Waiter: He's a fancy man with the ladies, that Mister Prebble.
Mayo: You jealous, Joe?
Joe the Bartender: Oh no, no...I fancy men myself.

WHA-? It’s 1953. At the height of the Red Scare, I suppose certain other segments of society could let their hair down a little.

Performing a bit of fortuitous music is Nat King Cole, singing “Blue Gardenia” at the Blue Gardenia. This song later comes into play (no pun intended), when Prebble puts on the record in an attempt to seduce Norah back at his place. Believe it or don’t, he’s an artist, with plenty of cheesecake art decorating his bachelor pad (because nothing gets a girl’s engine revving like pictures of beautiful women). Prebble makes his new girl one last drink; he may have called it a rum roofie – or not.

Drunk, drugged and dazed, Norah is forced to fend off Prebble’s advances. Her head swimming, she draws the poker from the hearth, steps up to the plate and swings like Babe Ruth, shattering the mirror over the fireplace, only to collapse in a heap on the floor.

She comes to a short time later. Prebble is lying on the floor nearby, an ugly gash in his forehead. “I’m going to need a good defense attorney,” she says to herself. “Better call Perry Ma – Oh, that’s right.” Still confused, she pulls on her coat and heads out the door, leaving her shoes behind. The next day, she wakes in her bed, uncertain how she got home.

Prebble isn’t so lucky. He’s dead, his skull caved in by the fireplace poker. On the scene is newspaperman Casey Mayo and the police. Leading the forces of truth, justice and the American way is none other than George Reeves, with a cheesy mustache to conceal his true identity (Hey, if a pair of glasses will work, why not a mustache?)

Capt. Sam Haynes (Reeves) plays Inspector Henderson to Casey Mayo’s Clark Kent, and together they have only a handful of clues: A pair of women’s shoes, size 8C, a fragment of black taffeta, a blue gardenia corsage, and a record playing over and over. Immediately, they suspect one of his many girlfriends done him in and begin asking questions at his favorite haunts.

When Norah reports to her job as a telephone operator the next morning, she discovers many of her co-workers are being questioned by the police. Apparently Prebble prowled the phone company employees in search of vict – er, models. One inadvertently breaks the mirror in her compact, prompting a dim recollection of the shattered mirror the night before.

When her co-worker returns, Norah is told they’re not supposed to talk about it, and then proceeds to explain that Harry Prebble was murdered and the police are questioning his girls for leads. But she’s not supposed to talk about it. Norah is stunned, and pieces the events of the night before together. Convinced she’s responsible for Prebble’s death, she burns her taffeta dress, flies off the handle at her roommates, and generally acts in crazy fear for her life.

Mayo, meanwhile, takes a bit of sympathetic approach in his column. Even when offered a free pass to cover the next H-bomb test, Mayo wants to stick with the Prebble investigation. Knowing Prebble for the D-bag that he was, he pleads publicly for the Blue Gardenia – as the murderess has been dubbed by the press – to turn herself in. In exchange for her exclusive story, his paper will provide the best legal defense available.

Sticking close to his phone through the night, he fields several phone calls from various nutcases with dreams of notoriety. One the REAL Blue Gardenia can tell him the size shoes found at the scene. Even Capt. Haynes gets in one the act, claiming Mayo is interfering with an investigation. Nevertheless, in a moment of despair, Norah calls and provides that key to her authenticity.

She agrees to meet Mayo at an all-night diner, where she tells all she knows about her “friend” who may have killed Prebble. She completely charms Mayo, who’s so infatuated he can’t see that she’s probably the killer they’ve been looking for. She’s a sweet kid who couldn’t possibly have murdered Prebble.

The next day, greatly relieved after her chat with Mayo, Norah apologizes to her roommate Crystal (Ann Sothern) for her behavior. Crystal is more than understanding. She’s noticed Norah’s black taffeta dress is missing, along with her shoes. She agrees to go with Norah to meet Mayo.

When Mayo meets Crystal back at the diner, his first thought is she’s hard-bitten enough to have whacked Prebble, and is dismayed to see Crystal point him in Norah’s direction. But unfortunately for all concerned it’s a trap. Waiting outside is Capt. Haynes and the rest of the force. It’s only after she’s been escorted to the squad cars outside that we see Haynes credit the diner’s operator as the person who led to her capture.

While Norah suffers in the hoosegow, Mayo is convinced more than ever she’s innocent (plus he wants to convince her he wasn’t the one who ratted her out). He spearheads a fresh investigation, leading to conflicting statements that as to what song was playing when Prebble got his. Norah says it was Nat King Cole’s “Blue Gardenia,” but it was a classical piece that was on his Close ‘n Play when the cleaning lady found him.

Mayo is able to drag Haynes along on following up this flimsy clue, leading them to the music store where Prebble bought his tools of seduction. When the manager tells his shop girl the police want a word, she heads into the bathroom, where she shatters and ashtray and…

Cut to Norah being escorted by the prison matron to the bedside of said shop girl, who is in the midst of confessing that she paid Prebble a visit that night. Thinking she was there for another taste of Harry Prebble, he switched records. But she’s hoping he will help her with “her problem.” Harry loses interest quicker than you can say Roe v. Wade, focusing instead on an unfinished painting. She begins to notice the various clues that he’s not the first female he’s had in his place that night. Red-hot in anger, she uses the poker to bash his brains in.

Norah is next seen leaving police headquarters a free woman, a bouquet of flowers in hand (I don’t recall the bouquet being among her personal effects when she went in stir, but I could be wrong). Mayo is on-hand, clearly hoping to kindle a romance with the former accused murderess. And under her roommate’s tutelage, she is quick to give him the cold shoulder – but not too quick.

It’s a pleasant little piece of crime drama, written by Vera Caspary, so perhaps the female point of view is more legit than most film noirs of the era. More notable is its director, Fritz Lang. Despite Lang’s reputation among film fans, many who worked with him found him abusive and difficult. Because of this, his career in America never reached the critical success of his earlier, more artistic films.

And speaking of Metropolis, it should be noted Blue Gardenia was one of George Reeve’s final film roles before he became perpetually identified as TV’s Man of Steel. The Adventures of Superman was produced independently by Superman Inc., a subsidiary of National Comics (later known as DC Comics). The producers owned the show lock, stock and barrel, and did everything it could to keep the cast under a tight rein. There was a clause in the actors’ contracts that prevented them from taking roles that would last more than 30 days. This was a means of keeping the actors from ever cultivating more promising careers, and thereby denying them any leverage they could use against the show’s producers.

Reeves had an uncredited appearance in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, and a small part in Forever Female the same year. Otherwise, he played Superman almost until the day he died.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On the Grapevine: Glorifying the American Girl (1929)/Dixiana (1930)

Back in May of this year, Grapevine Video offered those customers who previously purchased a double feature collection of the early talkie musicals Glorifying the American Girl (1929) and Dixiana (1930) an opportunity to upgrade their copies because they had improved the image quality on the earlier discs.  And on the off chance you had not previously purchased the 2-DVD set…well, now was your chance to take them up on a limited sale offer of $6.99 (normally $9.95).

I decided to have a flutter—even though I already owned a copy of Dixiana, which was gathering dust in the TDOY archives.  (As a matter of fact, it was the Roan Archival Group DVD, which also contains the Oscar-winning 3-strip Technicolor short, La Cucaracha [1934].)  I’ve reviewed the movie previously on the blog, but I decided to give it a second glance to refresh my memory of the film.  It’s still no classic, but I enjoyed it more the second time once I got past the scene that always sends me into hysterics: a plantation owner (Joseph Cawthorn) remarks to his son (Everett Marshall) that his slaves sing better than any of the others on the neighboring plantations. “That’s because they love you, Daddy,” the son asserts.  (I believe they’re planning to make a movie based on this, in fact: 12 Years a Singing Slave.)

In a nutshell, Dixiana is the name of the leading lady in the film, played by Miss Bluebeard’s Bebe Daniels.  Bebe does okay in the role (though her southern accent slips from time to time) of a circus performer who plans to wed that son of a plantation owner…but at a “coming-out party,” two of her fellow big-top confederates, Ginger (Robert Woolsey) and Peewee (Bert Wheeler), let slip to her future mother-in-law (Jobyna Howland) that she comes from common Barnum & Bailey stock.  Humiliated in front of all those in attendance, Dixiana and Company land jobs in the casino run by the rat bastard of this piece, a skeevy gambler named Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde).  Monty killed the son’s (Carl) uncle in a duel long ago and plans to rid himself of the nephew in the same fashion—but Dixiana learns of this scheme and foils it in the nick of time.

In the past, when Dixiana played on the teevee machine, those people who tuned in to watch often didn’t learn how the movie ended because the final third of the film, an elaborate Mardi Gras sequence, was filmed in 2-strip Technicolor and the reels were believed to be lost.  But they were rediscovered in 1988 and the film has been restored…except that the copyright didn’t get renewed in 1958 and it’s now in the public domain.  If you’re a fan of Wheeler & Woolsey (I know—to many they are an acquired taste), you’ll sit through some of the slower parts of Dixiana to watch them (they do a hilarious routine with cigars, and interact with the lovely Dorothy Lee—the ingénue who appeared alongside them in many of their films), not to mention Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who made his film debut with a stair dance that director Luther Reed apparently did not pay too close attention to in the rushes (you don’t get to see the great man’s footwork a lot).  (Warning: the soundtrack on Dixiana goes out-of-sync on occasion, and it ain’t half annoying.)

Glorifying the American Girl was completely filmed in 2-strip Technicolor—but for many years, before it was restored to its color glory by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, it circulated in a black-and-white print made in the 1950s that actually ran shorter than the original ninety-six minute running time because a few cuts were made to excise some of the nudity and naughty business.  (Grapevine advertises their version as running 87 minutes—I clocked it at 94.)  It’s a musical mellerdrammer starring Mary Eaton as Gloria Hughes, a young woman with aspirations to be a Ziegfeld Follies girl…but until such a time as that dream comes true, Gloria’s toiling away in the sheet music department of a local department store.  Her boyfriend answers to “Buddy” Moore (Edward Crandall); he’s a song plugger who’s offered his hand in marriage but Glo insists on waiting for her big break.  (Her gal pal is Barbara [Gloria Shea], who’s pining for Buddy but he takes no notice.)

At a company picnic, Gloria is persuaded to demonstrate her terpsichorean talents and as such, attracts the attention of vaudeville hoofer Dan Miller (Dan Healy), who’s looking for a replacement in his act “Miller and Mooney” since “Mooney” (Kaye Renard) has had enough of his nonsense (Dan has a tendency to be a little handsy, if you know what I mean).  The two of them are a success in vaudeville, and eventually Gloria is signed to a contract with The Great Ziegfeld himself to appear in his show Glorifying the American Girl.  The last third of the film is presented as an actual Follies show, with special guests Helen Morgan (singing What Wouldn't I Do for That Man?), Rudy Vallee (I'm Just a Vagabond Lover) and Eddie Cantor, who performs his “Belt in the Back” routine with Louis Sorin (the Marx Brothers’ foil in The Cocoanuts).  Mary eventually earns applause and accolades from the theater crowd…but because she put ambition before Buddy, she loses him to Barbara ‘cause he feels sorry for her after she’s injured in an auto accident.  (Tough luck, Mare.)

American Girl is every bit as creaky as Dixiana as far as early talkies go; I’d give Dixiana the edge in the musical numbers department (and that’s a tough contest, since Girl capitalizes on an Irving Berlin score) but Girl has a more interesting storyline.  What I particularly enjoyed about Girl was that the characters were not always the most attractive individuals, behavior-wise; Miller’s a lech, Gloria’s ma (Sarah Edwards) a harridan…even Mary gets a bit fair weather bitchy throughout the course of the film.  I really felt sorry for the Barbara character, who’s left behind at the train station when Gloria breezes into town to reunite with Buddy; Babs is hit by a car and has to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, all the while Glo and Bud are catching up and are completely oblivious to the fact that she’s been injured.  (I was prepared to go a little nuts if the movie had thrown Gloria and Buddy together after all Barbara had been through.)

The Great Ziegfeld hisself produced Girl for Paramount (and, like Dixiana, it’s fallen into P.D. status) and he appears in a silent cameo in the film along with then-wife Billie Burke; you’ll also catch glimpses of celebs like Texas “Hello suckers!” Guinan, Ring Lardner and NYC mayor Jimmy Walker.  (Check out that opening “Adonis” number in the Follies sequence and see if you can’t place the gentleman wearing nothing but a fig leaf as a guy what used to swing on vines in the jungle later at MGM.)  The special cameos from Cantor and Morgan are a lot of fun (I’m not much of a Vallee fan), but I have to admit Eaton’s dancing didn’t do much for me.  Oh, incidentally—Glorifying the American Girl is one of the earliest sound films to not be shy about throwing in an occasional “damn” (Edwards mumbles it when she’s unable to open her lorgnette, for example), long before Clark Gable used it as an exit line in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Adventures in Blu-ray: Caught (1949)

It’s a fairy tale right out of Cinderella!  A young carhop named Leonora (Maude) Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), meets and marries dashing tri-zillionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and soon settles in for a life of ease and plenty.  Jewelry, dresses, minks—plus a gaw-jus house complete with swimming pool, perfect for lunching around in the afternoons.  Only in America, friends…and they both lived happily ever after.

Nah, I’m just jinkin’ ya—what seems to be a fairy tale soon turns into the stuff of nightmares.  For starters, Ohlrig isn’t the marrying kind—he’s a petulant child who’s never grown up, and when he doesn’t get his way he has “heart attacks”; there’s nothing even wrong with his ticker—it’s just his psychosomatic way of dealing with defeat.  He’s neurotic and paranoid—he only married Leonora because his analyst (Art Smith) casually remarked that he’d never entertain thoughts of wedded bliss.  And married life is certainly no picnic for our heroine; Smith is a workaholic who expects her to be at his beck-and-call (even at 3am in the morning)—like Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane, Leonora Eames Ohlrig is a literal prisoner inside her husband’s cold and unwelcoming mansion.

Leonora makes a break for it.  She leaves Ohlrig, and after taking humble—very humble—lodgings, convinces a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason) to hire her as a receptionist for him and his obstetrician partner Hoffman (Frank Ferguson).  Leonora is inexperienced, but she’s quite good with children; Quinada decides to take a chance on her but after two weeks is most unsatisfied with her job performance and isn’t shy about letting her know at the top of his lungs.  Stung by the chewing out, Leonora, in a moment of weakness, agrees to return to Smith when he promises to turn over a new leaf.  This lasts as long as a one-night stand; she learns the next morning from his lackey Franzi Karlos (Curt Bois) that Ohlrig expects her to accompany him on a cross-country tour of his plants and properties, ever acting the dutiful wife.

So Leonora gets out for good.  Feeling a little under the weather, she’s told by Dr. Hoffman that she’s got a bun in the oven…and apparently it’s from Ohlrig Bakeries.  She asks Hoffman not to let Larry know, but things get further complicated when the doc asks her to become Mrs. Dr. Quinada.  She returns to Ohlrig Manor, and Larry goes after her…and that’s when he learns that she’s married to Smith.  But Smith is a reasonable guy: he’ll grant her a divorce in order to allow her to marry Larry…and all she has to do is give up the baby when it’s born.

Caught (1949) was an adaptation of Libbie Block’s novel Wild Calendar (the screenplay was penned by Arthur Laurents, also responsible for Rope and West Side Story), a book in which the cruelly narcissistic antagonist, Smith Ohlrig, was loosely patterned on the real-life Howard Hughes.  French director Max Ophüls (billed in the credits as Max Opuls) had worked with Hughes briefly at RKO on Vendetta in 1946 (a film that was eventually released four years later), but because he was unceremoniously fired from that project decided to embark on a vendetta of his own.  He and Laurents made Ohlrig a caricature beyond just merely a paranoiac—he was transformed into a full borne psychopath.   Ophüls found the perfect actor to convey Ohlrig’s rat bastardness in Robert Ryan, who at that time was enjoying the fruits of onscreen menace with memorable roles in Crossfire (1947) and Act of Violence (1948).  In fact, according to film editor Robert Parrish (later a director in his own right), Ryan had gotten Hughes’ okay to imitate him in the film; Parrish claimed that the reclusive rich guy asked him to smuggle out some of the rushes so he could check out Bob’s performance.

It’s a showy role for Ryan as he plays Smith Ohlrig as a power-hungry individual yet with little emotional attachment; he only married Leonora to spite his psychiatrist, and once wed treats her no better than he would one of his underlings.  Smith torments his wife with mind games, expressed visually by his obsession with playing a pinball machine in his den or how he nonchalantly rolls a cue ball along his pool table at the same time he and Leonora are debating the very serious subject of the farce that their marriage has become.  The only thing that matters to Smith Ohlrig is that he is the winner; he doesn’t like to lose, and that’s why he’s determined that Leonora give up the one thing that means the most to her—her unborn baby—as the ticket to her freedom.

Leonora Ames is first viewed by the audience leafing through magazines with her friend Maxine (Ruth Brady), and admiring all of the lovely things she cannot afford on her meager salary as a carhop.  Leonora will scrimp and save to afford tuition to a charm school run by Dorothy Dale (Natalie Schafer), and there’s an interesting commentary on her pursuit of this goal in that it cynically suggests a woman is incapable of landing a husband unless she undergoes a transformation both mentally and physically (Ms. Ames later lands a job as a “model,” where she meet Ohlrig’s stooge Franzi and is invited to a party aboard Smith’s yacht).  Later, when she is gainfully employed by Quinada and Hoffman, Dr. Larry gives her a right pranging because he believes Leonora doesn’t take the position seriously enough.  He later realizes he was being a bit of a douche and asks her to come back; Leonora then applies herself by taking shorthand and typing courses and wins the respect (as well as the attentions—wink wink) of Quinada.  Engaging and likable female protagonists are featured prominently in Ophüls’ American cinematic output, like the previous Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and the subsequent The Reckless Moment (1949).

James Mason’s character isn’t as richly written as the Ohlrigs…but he gets away with it because he’s the dedicated doctor working on the lower strata of society and because he’s freaking James Mason, an actor with so much charisma I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of hitting on him myself.  Setting aside an intended career as an architect, Mason soon became an audience favorite in films like The Seventh Veil (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947), and would play the leading man in Ophüls’ final U.S. film, The Reckless Moment.  None of the four films made by Max in this country set the box office on fire, so he returned to his native France and made masterpieces like La Ronde (1950), The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955).  French critics had much more appreciation for Max’s work than American audiences; Jean-Luc Godard once heralded Caught as Ophüls’ finest American film.  Max himself argued that “the film goes off the rails toward the end, but up to the last 10 minutes, it wasn't bad.”  (I personally would argue in favor of Unknown Woman.)

Still, I think I’m more fond of Caught than many of its critics; the star trio do extremely well in their roles, with fine turns by a supporting cast in Ferguson, Schafer, Bois (the guy in Casablanca who warns “there are vultures everywhere”), Smith and Brady; keep an eye peeled for future TV mom Barbara Billingsley as one of the women checking out Bel Geddes’ mink in an early part of the film.  Caught has been called a noir in many quarters, largely due to its subject matter (Bel Geddes tries to fast track the American Dream) and psychological overtones (Ohlrig’s illness)—plus it has some incredible low-key lighting from Academy Award winner Lee Garmes.  I’m also mesmerized by the art direction by Frank Paul Sylos; Sylos and Ophüls are quite successful in establishing the contrast between the doctors’ office and Leonora’s apartment—shabby but inviting—and the mausoleum that is Ohlrig House, where it’s impossible for love to take root.

Caught would be the last film to be produced at The Enterprise Studios, a company co-founded by actor John Garfield with David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld; Enterprise tasted box office triumph with Julie’s Body and Soul (1947)…but Force of Evil (1948) did not do so hot, and the writing was on the wall as far as Enterprise went.  Though Caught was released by MGM, it eventually wound up in the possession of Republic Pictures, who released it to VHS in the 1980s (when I first saw the film)…but it was a long time coming to DVD; I purchased the Region 2 DVD released in 2003 (from France!) and kept that under wraps until Olive Films gave it the Blu-ray/DVD treatment in July of this year.  It’s a pretty swell-looking print (restoration was done on the movie in 1992, financed by Martin Scorsese) and I’m quite pleased with the purchase.  Ignore most of the reviews at, because I have heard more than a few rumors that those people are Philistines.

Blue Monday, how I hate Blue Monday…

Well, it should be evident by now that I failed to get a new installment of Doris Day(s) up on the blog yesterday.  I had every intention of fulfilling this task…but The Jack Webb and Stage-to-Screen Blogathons ate up a lot of time (it wasn’t an imposition—I kinda rather figured they would) and when it came down to brass tacks I had three essays to write, and only enough time to do two of them.  One of them was an outside project, and the other was an entry in Overlooked Films on Tuesday/Adventures in Blu-ray, which will post in another hour.  I figured that since I skipped Overlooked Films last week and we were kinda sorta at a stopping point before the second season of The Doris Day Show begins, that the TDOY faithful could hold off on the shenanigans of Dodo for one week.  (Besides, it’s not like it’s going to get any funnier, good people.)

Gonna be a crazy busy week here at Rancho Yesteryear with several outside projects dropping by like so many gentleman callers; I will definitely have something for the blog’s “On the Grapevine” feature tomorrow but Chapter 4 of The Black Widow is still up in the air.  (Which is ironic, since the title of that installment is “Peril in the Sky.”)  In the meantime, I’ve got a couple of pieces up at ClassicFlix that you might be interested in: the subjects being Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) and The Brasher Doubloon (1947).  As Rachel Maddow would say—watch this space.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Stage to Screen Blogathon: Death of a Salesman (1951)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Stage to Screen Blogathon, currently underway from October 17-19 and hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema.  For a complete list of the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.

Traveling salesman Willy Loman (Fredric March) returns home early from his established New York route one evening…and his devoted wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock) is understandably nervous.  She will later explain to Willy’s two sons, Biff (Kevin McCarthy) and Happy (Cameron Mitchell), that their father seems to be losing his tenuous grip on reality.  He drifts into nostalgic reveries of days gone by, and occasionally has difficulty delineating between the past and present.  His advanced age and inability to concentrate on his job has resulted in his demotion at work; he is no longer on salary and must depend on the commissions from his sales.  He’s not crazy, but Linda has noted signs that her husband is contemplating suicide.  At sixty-three years of age, a lifetime of bad career decisions, missed opportunities and unreasonable expectations have left Willy Loman disillusioned and depressed. 

Many of those unreasonable expectations are rooted in his son Biff—Willy has never wavered from his conviction that Biff was destined for great things, and because Biff has had difficulty “finding himself” ever since graduating from high school it has led to constant friction between father and son.  (There’s an event from both men’s past that brought all this on—which neither individual will discuss.)  Willy is haunted by visions of his older brother Ben (Royal Beal), who achieved great success in life (“When I was 17, I walked into the jungle…when I was 21, I walked out—and by George, I was rich!”), yet confounded by the down-to-earth pessimistic practicality of his neighbor and best friend Charley (Howard Smith), who’s first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers (“My salvation is I never took any interest in anything”) and whose son Bernard (Don Keefer) is a successful attorney, scheduled to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.

Willy’s offspring have their own problems: Happy is what his mother describes as “a philandering bum” and Biff’s earnest attempts to reconcile with his father only produces more aggravation.  To pacify his father (at Linda’s request), Biff tells Willy that he has a business proposition for an old employer, a man named Bill Oliver—but in his zeal to meet with Oliver, Biff confronts the cold hard reality that he has no influence with a man for whom he once worked…and who fired him after Biff stole company property.  (Biff has continued his devotion to petty theft by swiping a fountain pen during his get-together with Oliver.)  At a restaurant in which they plan to treat Willy to a celebratory meal, Happy tries to persuade his brother to lie to Willy about the Oliver deal going south.  The senior Loman could use some good news, since he was let go by his boss (David Alpert) earlier that morning.

But Biff is simply unable to sustain the fantasy that has enveloped his father’s world—we learn that the reason he’s denounced his father as a “fake” all these years is due to the incident that’s gone undiscussed between the two of them: Biff discovered his idol had feet of clay when he visited his father’s hotel room in Boston unannounced…and found Willy dallying in an extramarital affair.  Biff finally confronts his father and explains that even though he’s never going to be what Willy has envisioned he still loves him.  With that knowledge—and having made sure he’s paid his insurance premium—Willy takes his own life in a car crash.  At his gravesite, Linda muses on the irony that they now own their home “free and clear”…and yet there’s no one with which to share this.

Death of a Salesman, considered by consensus to be playwright Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, was already under consideration for silver screen treatment even before Salesman was awarded the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Shortly after the play’s opening in February, Variety reported that the Music Corporation of America had expressed interest in putting together a movie package that would include Miller, Salesman director Elia Kazan, and lead actor Lee J. Cobb…and according to Miller, would probably be produced at 20th Century-Fox.  Subsequent trade paper announcements speculated on the possibility of an independent production (with Kazan directing and Miller penning the screenplay) and deals at RKO and Paramount (William Wyler directing and Kirk Douglas starring).

Instead, Arthur Miller sold Salesman’s rights to independent producer Stanley Kramer, who had just inked a deal with Columbia Pictures for a series of motion pictures.  Kramer secured the services of performers Mildred Dunnock, Cameron Mitchell, Don Keefer, Royal Beal, and Howard Smith—all of whom had been in the original Broadway production—as well as Kevin McCarthy, who had played Biff in the London version of Salesman.  But Kramer was warned off Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role of Willy on stage, because of the actor’s past political affiliations; instead, Stanley went with a seemingly bigger draw in two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March.  (While many lamented the loss of Cobb, the actor did reprise the role opposite leading lady Dunnock in a CBS network production that was televised in 1966.)  Stanley Roberts adapted Miller’s play for the screen and László Benedek was assigned the director’s chair.

Apart from the acknowledgement that the film version of Death of a Salesman was based on his play, Arthur Miller had little participation in the motion picture.  There’s speculation that this might be the reason why the playwright later distanced himself from the movie; he remarked that director Benedek “chop[ped] off almost every climax of the play as though with a lawnmower” and he had no love for March’s portrayal, either, believing the actor interpreted Willy Loman as “a lunatic.”  (He could hardly criticize Roberts’ script, most of which used Arthur’s language verbatim from the play.)  It’s not hard to discern why Miller felt the way he did—again, despite his non-participation it was he who took much of the heat when the film was released due in part to his having attracted the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee when Salesman hit theaters (because of the HUAC attention, chapters of the American Legion threatened to picket movie venues; the Washington, DC chapter actually did so in the case of the Ontario Theatre).

Arthur also objected to a one-reeler that had been paired with the main feature entitled Life of a Salesman, a propagandistic short subject designed to convince audiences that being a salesman really wasn’t the soul-sucking existence depicted in Miller’s play.  It was thrown together at the last minute to appease those groups who saw Death of a Salesman as an anti-American film and an affront to capitalism, but Miller objected in the strongest possible terms—even threatening to sue Columbia over its inclusion.  The studio backed down at the last minute, and Arthur won the day: “Why the hell did you make the picture if you're so ashamed of it?”

Columbia head Harry “White Fang” Cohn no doubt regretted greenlighting Death of a Salesman; the movie was a box office failure and sort of soured the relationship between the studio and producer Kramer, who would only see big receipts in two of the films in his Columbia contract, The Wild One (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).  Admittedly, the film is a bit of a downer (Willy Loman is not visited by an archangel who demonstrates to him life isn’t all that bad) and audiences just weren’t jazzed about seeing a movie critical of “the American Dream.”  Kramer himself (along with director Benedek) came under criticism for the “cheapness” of Salesman—something Kramer and Benedek had little control over (according to his contract with the studio, the producer wasn’t allowed to exceed $980,000 in his budgets).  Despite the criticism and tepid response from moviegoers, Death of a Salesman garnered five Academy Award nominations: nods for March, Dunnock and McCarthy, and in the categories of Best Black & White Cinematography (Franz Planer) and Best Score, Adaptation or Treatment (Alex North).

Right now I hear you asking: “Alvin, why have I not come across Death of a Salesman at any time on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in recent memory?”  After all, the 1951 version got a vigorous airing on television in the late 50s/early 60s, and is not only available for non-theatrical screenings but has aired on stations outside the United States.  Sadly, by the 1970s it dropped out of sight…and if you Google “death of a salesman dvd” you’ll more than likely be pointed toward the 1985 TV version starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy, which was produced after a successful theatrical revival of the play in 1984.  The speculation has long been that Miller preferred this version to the 1951 film, and since the movie rights to Salesman reverted back to his estate at that time he had no interest in a VHS release (let alone DVD).  The only way to see the 1951 version of Death of a Salesman is to get into contact with your friendly neighborhood bootlegger.

The unavailability of the 1951 movie is a tragedy almost equal to the subject matter in the play itself.  Arthur Miller went to great lengths to express his disdain for Fredric March’s turn as the heartbreaking hero in his play…but what is not generally known is that Miller originally offered March the opportunity to play Loman on stage, only to be turned down.  Freddie has come under considerable criticism for his performance (with many believing he’s “over-the-top” in the second half of the movie) but I was blown away by him the first time I watched the 1951 version.  He convincingly conveys the deterioration of a man who’s lied to himself all his life, who’s blinded by the contradictions of his warped philosophy and is frightened by the bewilderment that everything has gone wrong…somehow.  I recall reading about the time of the TV production that Miller was most praiseworthy of Dustin Hoffman’s presentation of Willy…and yet when I watched it (I had just finished reading the play for a college English class, an event that had a rather profound effect on my life) all I saw was a guy in unconvincing old-age make-up.

Mildred Dunnock gives the performance of a lifetime as the supportive Linda; I bow to no one in my admiration for both Thelma Ritter (nominated in the same Best Supporting Actress category as Dunnock for The Mating Season) and Lee Grant (Detective Story) but Dunnock was robbed at the Academy Awards (sorry, Kim Hunter fans—it’s true) and there’ll be no further discussion about it.  Oddly enough, it’s not Dunnock giving Linda Loman’s legendary “attention must be paid” speech that makes me weep—it’s a statement she makes to son Biff shortly before that, criticizing his frequent absences from home: “Biff, you’ve got to get it through your head—that one day you’re going to knock on this door and there’ll be strange people here.”  Linda spares no criticism of her sons, but in Dunnock’s hands one never gets the impression that’s she simply a one-dimensional nag or scold—she just doesn’t want to see her husband hurt anymore.

The cast in Salesman is all great—McCarthy, Mitchell, Beal, Jesse White, Claire Carleton—but I need to give special props to actor Howard Smith, who’s tattooed into my brain as the corpulent boss of James Daly in that great Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” (“Push push push!”); he’s splendid as neighbor Charley, who Willy acknowledges as the only friend he’s got despite their mutual antagonism (the fact that Charley is willing to offer Willy employment—which the proud Loman refuses to capitalize on—is just emotionally devastating).  Another Zone veteran, Don Keefer—he was the poor fool transformed into a jack-in-the-box in “It’s a Good Life”—plays Charley’s son Ben…and I got a little choked up when I watched him in this movie last night since the actor shuffled off this mortal coil in September at the age of 98.

There are rumors that there is a splendid-looking copy of the 1951 Salesman circulating on grey market video (culled from a 16mm print) but the one I have is a bit splicey (it’s still watchable, though).  The film was preserved in 2013 by Columbia and The Film Foundation in honor of Stanley Kramer’s centennial, and while I’m optimistic that a future release on DVD might be in the works I can certainly understand the studio’s hesitancy to release a movie they technically don’t own.  The 1951 Salesman is, I think, unquestionably the finest film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s voluminous output…and if you have the opportunity to see or acquire a copy, grab it.