Thursday, September 4, 2008

“Like hell I would…”

Turner Classic Movies wrapped up its August Summer of Stars Festival Sunday night with a tribute to Spencer Tracy…and the only real gripe that I have with these things is that for some odd reason they schedule the really good and obscure offerings either early in the morning a.m. hours or late at night. For example, the prime-time Tracy films (beginning at 8pm) were Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951)—and it’s not that these movies aren’t entertaining; it’s just that they possess the cinematic nutritional value of caramel corn.

Fortunately, TCM programmed Man’s Castle (1933) after Dividend, a rare Tracy film that’s been on my must-see list for a while now. Leonard Maltin gives the film three-and-a-half stars, but I would personally knock off half-a-star because while it’s an essential Spence outing (as well as a must-see for Frank Borzage cultists), Len over-hypes it just a tad. (Curiously, while watching Castle’s opening credits, I couldn’t help but wonder as to whether or not this print was a re-release: it features a slightly updated version of Columbia’s “lady with the torch” as opposed to the one that would normally kick off a film from 1933.)

Tracy plays Bill, a hobo (though the character played by Marjorie Rambeau calls him the far-more elegant “bindlestiff”) who gets by in Depression-era times by working odd jobs and living in a cabin amongst other Depression camp shanties. He meets up one night with a beautiful young girl named Trina (Loretta Young), and after “treating” her to a meal allows her to tag along with him back home—they soon become lovers (despite Bill’s later dalliance with a showgirl played by Glenda Farrell), though Bill is careful to explain to his new girlfriend that he’s liable to leave town at the sound of the next train whistle. Trina’s pregnancy soon puts those notions to rest and the two get married; but Bill—in attempt to make sure Trina is well provided for—goes in on a robbery with a real wanker named Bragg (Arthur Hohl) and gets shot in the process. (Actually, I think it was his arm.) Bill then faces the decision of whether to stick around and take his punishment or whether to get the heck out of Dodge.

Man’s Castle is a pretty spicy Pre-Code melodrama; several soon-to-be no-no’s are spotlighted, like a moonlight skinny dip between Tracy and Young, and of course the unmarried Young’s bun-in-the-oven flirts openly with a taboo subject (the plot point in which they get married is probably what keeps Young’s Trina around till Castle’s closing credits roll). I’ve never really been a big fan of Loretta’s but this is clearly one of her best showcases; Tracy is great as well, though his macho shtick gets old quickly. Walter Connolly nicely underplays his part as Ira, a former minister-turned-night-watchman, and Arthur Hohl is appropriately slimy as the sinister Bragg—who not only talks Tracy into the robbery but looks rather lasciviously at Young throughout the film. (Rambeau is also good; she’s like the Susan Tyrrell of her day.)

After Castle, I stuck around for what must be my umpteenth viewing of Fury (1936), a film noted primarily as German émigré Fritz Lang’s American directing debut. There are a few Lang fans who have opined in the past that Lang never managed to top Fury—something I certainly disagree with (Scarlet Street [1945] and The Big Heat [1953] pretty much table that motion—even The Woman in the Window [1944], controversial ending and all)—but for those unfamiliar with Lang’s American films you certainly can’t do worse. Tracy and Sylvia Sidney are a pair of star-crossed lovers whose financial situation dictates that they separate for a while until they are able to eke out an existence as man-and-wife; on the day this happens Spence rambles into a small town and, on circumstantial evidence alone, is arrested as one of the members of a gang that kidnapped a local girl and collected a hefty ransom. The town citizenry whips itself up into the title condition and plans to lynch Tracy, but the events soon spiral out of control and the town’s jail ends up on fire, killing the innocent Tracy…or does it? Based on a true-life event, Fury is one of Spence’s best movies—and was later remade as one of the most underrated and rarely-seen film noirs, The Sound of Fury (1950; aka Try and Get Me!)

Since I couldn’t keep my eyes open after Fury’s conclusion, I ended up hitting the hay, bummed because I was going to miss The Seventh Cross (1944)—a Tracy film that I saw many moons ago but would like to catch up with again. Last night, however, as part of TCM’s tribute to politics in films, I did manage to tune into The Last Hurrah (1958), the film adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s novel (a thinly-disguised biography of famed Massachusetts governor/Boston mayor James Curley).

Hizzoner Frank Skeffington (Tracy) has been mayor of “a New England city” (honest to my grandma, that’s what it says in the opening credits) for four terms, and is in the middle of campaigning for term number five. He’s optimistic about victory but acknowledges that his methods of politicking are slowly going the way of the dinosaurs—his most impressive foe, a callow novice named Kevin McClusky (Charles B. Fitzsimmons), not only has the backing of the editor (John Carradine) of the city’s largest newspaper but the CEO (Basil Rathbone) of the largest bank as well. Skeffington’s nephew Adam (Jeffrey Hunter) is invited by his uncle to take a “warts-and-all” look at how campaigns are run and though he’s not completely comfortable with the mayor’s “ends-justify-the-means” approach he comes to respect Skeffington for truly having the citizenry’s interests at heart.

John Ford directed Hurrah, and oddly enough though it doesn’t get discussed much I think it’s one of my favorites in his long list of film credits. Hurrah’s strength is its formidable cast of veteran players (many of them dues-paying members of Ford’s stock company): Pat O’Brien, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Edward Brophy, Willis Bouchey, Ricardo Cortez, Wallace Ford, Matt McHugh, Carlton Young, Frank Albertson, Anna Lee, Ken Curtis and Jane Darwell. Last week, I decided to purchase a DVD copy of this film because I was concerned that it might suddenly disappear from Columbia’s inventory (a similar thing happened to Experiment in Terror [1962], something I was not aware of until later) and I think I bought mine for eighteen bucks and something from DVD Pacific. (Only to turn around and see that Best Buy was offering it a few days later for $11.99. D’oh!)

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