Thursday, April 30, 2009

Caryvention IX

Cary Grant tickles Genevieve Tobin in Kiss and Make Up (1934).

I'm back too soon from my seventh Caryvention, CVIX, in Chicago. It's always tough to say good-bye at Caryvention, and this year was no exception. I miss everyone already. Our hosts, Lynnette and Kim really outdid themselves. What a rush it was to pick up the program for the Music Box theater and see "Caryvention presents." I don't know how you guys swung it, but hats off too ya! As always all the warbrides went mental with the gifts. One dedicated warbride wrote to Eva Marie Saint and got her to send us an autographed statement about how much she loved working with Cary. My goody bag is truly awesome. Thanks everyone!

The Warbrides celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of North by Northwest in style at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago. It was such a trip to walk up and down the staircase into the hotel every day that Cary uses in the movie. I'm such a dork, I had to walk the path that Cary walks toward the hotel in the exterior shot.

The highlight of the week-end for me was watching North by Northwest on the big screen of the Music Box Theater with the other warbrides. I have seen the movie twice before in a proper theater, but this time was definitely the best. The only thing better than watching Cary on the big screen is watching him on the big screen with a room full of fanatical fans. There were three warbrides who came from far corners of the earth who had never had the opportunity to see him on the big screen before. Janine, Natalie and Irena, I hope it was worth the trip! If only to see the yellow boxer shorts in larger than life format.

We also watched Kiss and Make-up, one of my favorite Cary pre-code films. I first watched this film on the big screen with the Warbrides at the DC Caryvention and it's always held a special place in my heart because of that. While this isn't a great movie by any stretch of rational measure, it is completely and utterly fun to watch in room full of semi-reverent warbrides. It's a high-energy comedy about a man who runs a beauty spa and the women in his life. It also has a love song to corned beef and cabbage. As the projectionist at the teater in DC said after screening it for the first time "Where has this movie been all my life?" I'd like to see watching this movie become a Caryvention tradition where we could give it the "Rocky Horror" treatment.

After the movie screenings, my favorite part of Caryvention is the random Cary Grant or other film conversations I have with other Warbrides. Turns out there's a big Jane Austen/Cary Grant cross over that I haven't had a chance to quite process yet, other than to think about finding a way to put my awesome Jane Austen "boots and shirtsleeves" screensaver on line for you.

I have a ton of other movies to blog after my two week break, so I'm gonna wrap this up by saying, "Happy Thoughts!"

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I'm Henry the VIIIth, I am

Once while driving across Iowa during a summer storm, I looked out my window and saw the corn, as high as an SUV's eye, swirling in an ominous cyclonic pattern. My radio which was tuned to the AM weather band, cut out. The air was thick and had a pea green cast and I was certain that I was going to be picked up any moment and hurled to Oz or my death. Suddenly, my radio came back on loudly playing Herman's Hermits "Henry the VIIIth I am." I'm going to die, I thought and the last thing I hear is going to be this ridiculous song. No sooner did this register in my fear paralized brain than my Isuzu Trooper past a line of trees, a shelter belt around a graveyard, and the cyclonic wind stopped. A wall of rain hit the car and the radio returned to static. I drove blindly, my wipers barely keeping up with the rain somehow knowing that I'd escaped the tornado and pondering the significance of a radio signal trapped in weather pattern. Perhaps, I'd merely dreamed the whole thing, like Dorothy.

I bring this up because I recently heard that Alexander Korda got the idea for making his film The Private Life of Henry the VIIIth (1933) when a cab driver began whistling "Henry the VIIIth I am" well known in music halls before Herman's Hermits took it to the rest of the planet, including Iowa. I wonder, what was the weather was like outside that London cab? Raining like mad, I'd bet anything.

There is another, contradictory tale, about Korda that says that he got the idea for the film while standing under the famous Holbein portrait of the monarch and realizing that he looked a lot like Charles Laughton. I doubt this version of the tale, since Life magazine published a photo of Korda, and Laughton co-star Robert Donat standing underneath that same picture in 1948. Either Life set out to recreate this moment of inspiration or people are remembering a picture they saw and attaching more significance to it than it warrants.

I recently rewatched both of Charles Laughton's performances as Henry the VIII in Private Life and Young Bess (1953) and I'm positive that I assigned a lot more significance to the later performance than it warrants the first half dozen times I watched it. If I believed in guilt I would list Young Bess as definitely among my guilty pleasures having loved the movie for years for it's absurd dialog, Stewart Granger's legs and Charles Laughton's huffing and puffing Henry. His first Henry is tender, childlike and whimsical when he's not lopping off heads, his second is more a collection of tics and catch phrases than a flesh and blood character. I'm sorry to say this, because I love it anyway. It's not just that the movie is so bad it's good, it's that sometimes it's so good, it's good. I love the way that Laughton always stands as if he's straddling and imaginary globe and how Jean Simmons imitates this stance at every opportunity. I love that Bess and Tom (Stewart Granger) always discuss ships and they make talk of mizzen masts and gunwales sound downright naughty. I love the sentimental portrayal of the relationship between boy King Edward and Bess which has more of a basis in the demands of injecting phony "family values" into 1950s movies than with historical reality. (Not that anything in either of the movies is much more than malarkey in that respect. It's not so much what they get wrong, which is quite a lot, it's the over-simplification and over-dramatization of what they get right. Why is that in every movie about Henry the VIIIth he is always out hunting when Elizabeth was born? I've never been able to figure out where that comes from, other than costume drama tradition. )

Lots of actors have played the infamous king, from Richard Burton in Anne of a Thousand Days to Jonathan Rhys Myers in the recent television series The Tudors and most have brought something new to the character, but Charles Laughton pretty much made the template. Far and away my favorite Hank 8 flick is The Private life of Henry VIII (1933). I always think of it as a comedy, though it's usually billed as drama (I guess all those ladies loosing their heads isn't as funny as I think.) The biggest delight is the relationship between Henry and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester). The pair have great comic timing with one another and despite their divorce Anne ends up being the only wife to remain on friendly terms with her notorious ex. Much of the drama is provided by Henry's fifth wife Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) and her lover Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). Barnes portrayal is an interesting one, managing to strike a balance between seeming sympathetic and overly ambitious at the cost of her life and her lovers. Donat is great as usual and one gets the feeling that the kind is more hurt by his old friend's betrayal than he is by loosing another wife. The movie ends on an up note with an elderly king henpecked into hiding his turkey legs from sharp-eyed Katherine Parr (Everly Gregg). Merle Oberon has a surprisingly small part as Anne Boleyn, whose story is perhaps too long and complex for the length of the film.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: A Brian Aherne Gallery

Brian Aherne surrounded by adoring nurses during a World War II USO tour.

I started this blog, in part, because I always had a fantasy of producing a modern version of the fairly trashy movie magazines that were popular during the golden age of Hollywood. If I had such a power, I would print lots of lovely pictures of all my favorite actors and actresses and of course give all my favorite obscure English actors the spotlight they deserve. I would probably devote an entire issue,or at least a cover to the under-rated Brian Aherne. I first noticed Aherne in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) playing the floppy-haired bohemian artist rival to Cary Grant's "bad, handsome" cockney piano man. It's the rare actor that can turn my head away from Cary for even a moment. Though Aherne's character is kind of a jerk in the movie, I've always gotten what it is that Katharine Hepburn's character sees in him.

Brian Aherne was a British theatrical star who had been on stage since he was eight years old. Like many of his fellow thespians he was recruited to Hollywood when the movies got sound. Women ruled at the box office in those days and Aherne was fortunate enough to play second fiddle to some of the best. His first talkie was made at Paramount as Marlene Dietrich arm candy in Song of Songs (1933). One of his first films was the British version of The Constant Nymph (1934), which was later remade in 1943 starring Ahern's then-wife, Joan Fontaine. Another standout part for Aherne was the male lead to Helen Hayes in What Every Woman Knows (1934) where he plays a thickly-accented Scottish politician at the turn of the century. That same year he starred opposite Ann Harding in the World War I picture The Fountain. He also played the male lead in the Joan Crawford vehicle, I Live My Life (1935). He played the sympathetic Irish rebel, Dennis O'Riordan, in Beloved Enemy (1936) with Merle Oberon and David Niven.

Aherne got his first starring role in 1937 in Jame Whale's The Great Garrick, a biopic about the great 18th Century actor, David Garrick. Though the movie was a critical success it was expensive, especially for a Warner's picture and it flopped. Aherne's comic abilities got further airing with Constance Bennett in the My Man Godfrey knock-off, Merrily We Live (1938). Ahern eplays a rehabilitated tramp who becomes the family chauffeur. Screwball antics ensue. In 1939, Aherne starred in Captain Fury, his most commercially successful movie, about another Irish rebel who escapes from an Australian prison. That same year he earned his only Oscar nomination in a hilariously-bearded supporting role in the Paul Muni biopic Juarez. He played a self-made man who spoils his child in My Son, My Son (1940) and made the first of three comedies with Rosalind Russel, Hired Wife and My Sister Eileen and What a Woman.

He co starred in a courtroom drama with Rita Hayworth, The Woman in Question (1940) . He starred in The Man who Lost Himself (1941) and the musical remake of Smilin' Through where he listened contemplatively to songbird, Jeanette McDonald. He made a romantic comedy with Lorraine Day, A Night to Remember and a pair of war movies Forever and A Day and First Comes Courage. After that he took some time off from film and returned in the later forties as a supporting player. One later Aherne role that comes to mind is the teen pregnancy drama Susan Slade (1961) in which his wife is played by Natalie Schafer, best known as Mrs. Thirston "Lovey" Howell the Third on "Gilligan's Island."

After retiring from Hollywood, Aherne tried his hand at writing, composing a casual biography of George Saunders called "Dreadful Man" and his own autobiography "Proper Job." He was married to actress Joan Fontaine, from 1939-1945. He met Fontaine because he had first dated her sister, Olivia De Haviland, while filming their movie, The Great Garrick. He later married Eleanor de Liagre Labrot, the sister of celebrated broadway producer Alfred de Liagre, Jr. The couple were married until his death in 1986.

Enjoy more pictures of Brian in my gallery.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sunset Boulevard: on Monkey Funerals

With the topic of film noir coming up recently on this blog, I've been thinking about what constitutes "noir." I've seen Sunset Boulevard (1950) on numerous lists of film noir, though I've mentally never categorized the film that way myself. Maybe because the movie is so funny. But it does have most of the trappings of noir: a mystery, a body, a voice over and a dark view of the world.

On my most recent trip through the film, the thing that struck me was what motivates Joe Gillis (William Holden) to stick around after things start getting weird at Norma Desmond's house. I think it has to do with the monkey funeral that he witnesses shortly after moving into the room above her garage. The kind of person who would hold a big funeral for her ancient pet monkey is the kind of subject a writer, even a failing one, can't resist. Joe sticks around because he tells himself that Norma would make a fascinating topic for a screenplay. And she does, as the movie attests. I have coined the term "monkey funeral" for any time that you stick around in a potentially unhealthy situation just because your storytelling compunction or artistic sensibilities won't let you leave. This is different from a "train wreck" in that there has to be at least a small potential that there will at least be a great anecdote born out of the experience, whereas the main pull of a "train wreck" is simple morbid curiosity.

Of course, there are the material advantages that Joe gains by sticking with Norma: debts are paid off, rent is no longer a concern and he's swimming in fine clothes and gold cigarette cases. Yet, I think he bristles under these attentions and he does not actually begin sleeping with Norma until he gets sucked in emotionally. Norma's New Years Eve suicide attempt should be another monkey funeral, but at this point, I think Gillis feels something, even if it's just guilt.

Anther thing that struck me this time through is that Norma really has her moments of being charming. It's not such a bad life lying around watching her put on little skits. Swanson is at her most attractive when she dumps the ridiculous get-ups and and buckets of makeup to dress up like Charlie Chaplin. Gloria Swanson's performance is especially brave, because they must have gone out of their way to make her seem every inch the desperate older woman trying to hang onto her youth. As Joe tells her, "there's nothing wrong with being fifty Norma. It's only when you want to convince everyone that your twenty, that it's sad." And yet, Joe proves her right by leaving her for a younger woman.

Eric Von Stroheim gives a great performance as well, more or less playing a looking glass version of himself. Max is a great German director who becomes so attached to his younger protege that he is willing to give up his career and any personal life to protect her. It's difficult to understand that kind of a sense of responsibility, which is what makes it such an interesting and watchable tale. Joe Gillis was right. These people are fascinating.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: A Free Soul

I've posted a lot of gorgeous eye candy since I started this blog, but I have to say this may be one of the prettiest. Not only did Doctor macro come through with a still of Gable and Shearer together (many of the publicity images for the film understandably feature its stars Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer), but I wanted to talk about the smokin' hot "dress" that she wears in this scene. Also, I love the way the scene is lit so that her hair has that halo effect. Every time I watch a Norma Shearer movie I have the sudden urge to get a perm. It must be the lighting!

I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of A Free Soul, especially in comparison to The Divorcee which was made just a year earlier. A Free Soul is better written, her character far more daring and interesting, the acting vastly better, and the production values are miles ahead. This feels almost like a mid-thirties film. The sound if not great, is at least fully audible, and the flow and the pace of the film are much more like a talkie than a silent.

I've said before that Norma Shearer is an actress who is really only good when she is acting with other people of her level of talent. Many great actors will make bad material and weak co-stars better, but Shearer wasn't able to do that. Here, thankfully, she clicks with everyone on screen . Luckily everyone in the movie (Gable, Leslie Howard, Lionel Barrymore and James Gleason) are also excellent. Her co-stars are so good that it would be tempting to say that they carry her, but that is not the case. Lionel Barrymore won an Oscar for his performance as her alcoholic father and that award came mainly for a long monologue he delivers in a courtroom. It is very over the top, but Barrymore doesn't go too far. A big scene like that is risky in that if it fails it will be as memorably bad as it is good. Barrymore nails it and he deserves his accolades. But Norma Shearer is in the scene too, holding her own.

Clark Gable is probably the most interesting thing in the film. It was clear that he was going to be a star and he and Shearer have an incandescent chemistry. The infamous scene where he shoves Shearer back onto the sofa, plays as fairly tame today. His character is reasonably sympathetic most of the way through and in many ways this film marks a turning point in attitudes toward "antiheroes." The New York Times review in 1931 said that it was absurd that a woman like Shearer would be romantically interest in Gable's character. Now it seems absurd that Leslie Howard would have a shot at all.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Can your Spam: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

I was leery of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1957): Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, technicolor, big budget "message" picture. I couldn't help but be reminded of the Duel in the Sun (1946) debacle which ended weeks of agonizing with the white flag of "I don't know what to make of this." Well, I know what to make of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The man is hot. As for the movie, it is at least closer to achieving its goals as a message picture than Duel in the Sun.

It's the story of Tom Rath, a war veteran who is hoping to get ahead in business and make his suburban home life a bit happier in the process. As Tom rides the train from Connecticut into Manhattan he flashes back to scenes of the Second World War. He remembers killing a young German soldier to get his winter coat, accidentally killing his best friend with a grenade and the shell-shock episode it triggered. He spends a fair amount of time reliving his own version of Roman Holiday, in which he has an affair with starving Italian woman named Maria (Marisa Pavan) who is so completely charming, self-sacrificing, vulnerable and out and out stupid that one feels very conflicted about his behavior toward her. On one hand he's a complete rat for not trying harder to look her up after the war, on the other hand she's a woman who first slept with him for a can of SPAM, knew that he was married and still wanted to have his baby on her own.

Jennifer Jones plays Betsey Rath, who at first appears to be a '50s suburban Lady MacBeth, but grows more likable as the film goes on, especially as it becomes inevitable that she's going to get it with both barrells full of the truth about her hubby's history with canned meat prositutes. There is a somewhat tedious subplot about Tom's new boss, Mr. Hopkins, at the TV network (Frederick March) and his troubled home life. As good it as it is to see March onscreen with Ann Harding who plays his wife, the whole thing is handled with enormous ham (SPAM?) fists. Hopkins warns Tom that he has to take care of his family while he has a chance, lamenting the son lost in the war and the daughter "lost" to an unwise elopement. Conveniently for Tom, his moral dilemma about whether he should be spending so much time at the office when he knows he should be taking care of his own troubled brood is solved when his boss gives him permission to simply be a "9 to 5 man." Dilemma solved. Now it's home to mop up a small raft of "Father Knows Best" scale crises and of course the problem like Maria.

One of the more astringent aspects of the movie is a fairly harsh criticism of the way that television effects the average family. The Rath's children are creepily strung out on violent westerns and more than a little morbid for it. This seems a bit rich coming from the movie industry, which can't exactly claim to have never put a bad idea in a child's head. Consider also that TV was killing the studio system that was making big technicolor message pictures like this and it seems more than a little hypocritical. Mr. Hopkins, a man who has supposedly spent his whole life building a television network to the detriment of his personal life, tells Tom "Turn the TV off. Kick it in if you have to. Spend time with your kids."

For all this raging hypocrisy, what makes The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit interesting is not just the actual man in the gray flannel suit, because if you've learned anything from this blog, it won't surprise you that I really enjoyed Peck's performance. ( The movie is a good showcase of a wide range of emotions and when he's not skillfully emoting just enough he's projecting integrity all over the parts of the movie that are a little bit thin.) It works as a message about the dangers of materialism because it is so steeped in the 1950s that its trying to decry. Every piece of set decoration, from the gleaming Herman Miller furniture in Tom's new office to his pretty secretary, clad in a skin tight gray flannel wiggle dress is a seductive reminder of just how wonderful it was to have decade of pure self-indulgence and confidence after the Depression and the War and how completely wrong it was for the country to undergo those two calamities for mere prosperity. With a total absence of prosperity you have Italian women selling their bodies for commodity grade meat and meat byproducts and with too much prosperity you have Jennifer Jones wanting her husband to sell his soul for a new washing machine. Rath is walking a tight rope of "safe choices" that will both keep his family in reasonable comfort and his conscience from keeping him awake nights. While working on a PR campaign for the network on behalf of mental health, Tom has to choose between being a yes man or telling the truth. I couldn't help but wish that he'd told the truth about his own break with "mental health" during the war, but it really is cataclysmic enough for him to say, "I thought your approach on this speech was wrong."

Feeling so good about speaking truth to power, Tom decides to speak truth to Betsey and then things get a bit crazy. He ends up tackling her on the lawn. The movie pulls out of a total lust in the dust tailspin as Betsey decides to forgive Tom and help set up a trust fund for his son in Italy and I'm assuming a life time supply of SPAM for the mother. So here I am again defending yet another movie where a guy cheats on his wife and she forgives him. Well, yes and no. I'm left with lingering doubts about his truthfulness about Maria. For someone who is supposedly long forgotten he sure thinks about her a lot, spending as much time daydreaming about the good times as feeling bad about leaving her preggers in a war zone. His final "I worship you" to Betsey rings as hollow as an empty tin of SPAM blowing across the Piazza Navona. So yeah, maybe I am back to "I don't know what to make of this" but at least I won that bet with myself that I could reference SPAM in a blog post ten times. What's that you say, not quite there yet? Well, to paraphrase another PR man from this era, Jim Blandings, "If you're not eating WHAM, you're not eating ham."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Korda brothers, 1932

Last month TCM highlighted the films of the Korda brothers which was an especially big treat for me. Not only were some of my favorite films shown (That Hamilton Woman, Fire Over England and The Private Life of Henry the VIII) but I got to find see several films I'd never seen before. The excellent Vacation from Marriage, which I've already discussed and the almost equally excellent Wedding Rehearsal and Service for Ladies .

If you are half as fond as I am of Jeeves and Wooster or the world of PJ Woodhouse, you will probably enjoy Wedding Rehearsal . Imagine Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves is a woman and she winds up marrying Wooster and you'll just about have it right. Roland Young gives an energetic and sparkling performance as Reggie, a gadabout playboy who enjoys his freedom and his bachelor lifestyle (complete with an affair with married woman) so much that when his granny presents him with a list of seven eligible women in England for him to marry he sets about making matches with his friends for all of them. The list is carefully prepared by his gran's companion, Hutchy, (Merle Oberon) who admires Reggie from afar given her status as little better than servant to his family. As in the world of Woodhouse, Reggie's friends are a lot of silly public school men who have names like "Toodles" and "Bimbo" and the women are flighty, rich and spoiled. The first names on his list are the Roxbury Twins, whom it is difficult to tell apart, excpet that one is a dog fancier and the other fancies cats. When the cats and dogs inevitably get together it constitutes a servant crisis as the poor retainers try to extricate the howling, scratching beasts. This is all very funny and since one of the dogs is a wire haired terrier like Asta, I couldn't help but feel shades of screwball comedy.

Reggie manages to get the Roxbury twins engaged to Toodles and Bimbo and it's one of the films best gags that Lord Roxbury refuses to get their nicknames right calling them "Boodles" and "Timbo" most of the time. When all upper crust society gathers for the wedding rehearsal Reggie is given an ultimatum, "get engaged this week-end or start over with next season's debutantes." Unable to face the prospect of more flighty, rich spoiled young women, Reggie does the sensible thing and falls in love with Hutchy. Merle Oberon is adorable looking though underused in her role. I think she can manage the Joan Fontaine routine quite well and it's a shame she didn't get more of these type of roles. She was a fairly able comedian and I've always liked her in the Divorce of Lady X with Laurence Olivier. I can't help but wish she was given just a bit more to do even though Roland Young very ably carries the bulk of the film with his hijinks. Lady Tree is particularly good as the Roxbury the twins' sweet, but dimwitted mother. So lets see you have barking dogs, a ditsy mom, an on again off again wedding, a rich man marrying his gal friday...Are you sure this isn't Columbia Pictures 1937? Nope it's London Films circa 1932 and the wonderful Korda brothers.

As part of my quest to begin to appreciate Leslie Howard I can safely say that I quite enjoyed him in Service For Ladies. I didn't exactly love him, but what can you do? I'm trying here, people. I should like Leslie Howard. He fits into that type I regularly go daffy for: English, stage-trained, handsome, and having the air of a man who is hiding a great deal of something interesting under his cool exterior. I think I've figured out that it boils down to his hair. When he lets his hair get messy he's great, (yay! Pygmalion) otherwise forget it. In Service for Ladies he plays a head waiter who is mistaken for royalty when he goes on vacation at a "winter sports hotel" in Austria. He falls in love with a well to do young American woman (Elizabeth Allan) and perceived class differences on both acounts keep them apart. The movie teases us with plenty of opportunities to mess up Howard's hair, but it never happens. He never goes skiing or ice skating or gets in a snowball fight. It's just not fair, how, long would it really have taken Korda brothers? Is this too much to ask? I think the answer to that lies in the fact that Service for Ladies was the Hungarian autheurs first film for an American company and was made on a total shoestring. Obviously Vincent Korda blew the entire budget for the picture filling every room in the "winter sports hotel" with dead animal heads and had no money left over to do a rear projection skiing sequence or to make a fake ice rink. Darn.

The story is further complicated when the Countess Ricardi (Benita Hume) shows up. It's heavily implied that she and Howard had an affair in the past but that he broke it off. The second half of the film turns into a fun bedroom farce with ladies popping in and out of Howard's room alternately kissing and slapping him. Eventually Howard's status as a head waiter comes out and the couple are sweetly reunited thanks to the good intentions of Howard's restaurant patrons who want nothing more than happiness for their favorite head waiter. So let's see you have a slightly naughty bedroom comedy, a slyly satirical knock at the upper classes, and a grand case of mistaken identity...Are you sure this isn't an Ernest Lubitsch film? Nope, again Korda brothers, 1932!