Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: Oh Mr. Manners

One thing I love about writing this blog is that it encourages me to watch all kinds of old movies and to "discover" all kinds of actors and post gratuitous numbers of photos of them. It's a poorly kept secret that I wish I was the editor of one of those old movie magazines from the thirties.

David Manners was born Rauf Acklom in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1900. He came to Hollywood in 1930. He signed with First National & Vitaphone before it became part of the Warner empire. He was lucky in that his first film was a decent sized part working with the great James Whale on the war movie Journey's End. He pitched hay and woo to Ruth Chatterton in The Right to Love, fell under Myrna Loy's vampish spell in The Truth about Youth and wore a turban with Loretta Young in Kismet (1930).

He got his big break as Johnathan Harker in Tod Browning's classic production of Dracula, starring Bela Legosi. It's interesting that he got his start with James Whale and yet never acted in one of Whale's horror movies, but went on to do his best known work in the genre. The Mummy and, The Black Cat, and The Death Kiss soon followed, building on Manners' popularity as a leading man.

Outside of horror movies, Manners was sought after to play the "palpitating playboy" (Gosh I wish I'd come up with that phrase!) in Beauty and the Boss and Three Broadway Girls (AKA The Greeks Had A Word for It) and Torch Singer (1933). He played a character with the unfortunate name, Dick Cheney in The Ruling Voice (1931)

Manners had memorable parts in two great pre-code womens' films, Man Wanted and The Miracle Woman. It was in Man Wanted that I first noticed Manners and like Kay Francis, could really appreciate his qualities as a secretary. Manners plays a blind song-writer who falls for a fake faith healer in The Miracle Woman. One of the more interesting aspects of this part is that his character relays most of his emotions via a ventriloquist dummy. Manners manages, amazingly, to make this less creepy than it sounds.

He sported a southern accent in the civil war drama, Hearts in Bondage in 1936, his last year in Hollywood. David Manners, in looks so much like an early 1990s Ralph Fiennes in personality more like a late 90s Brendan Fraser. Perhaps if Manners had been able to play the kind of challenging and provocative roles that Ralph has made a career of, he might have stuck with acting in Hollywood. Instead, he retired as his popularity was waning only slightly and took up novel writing among other things. His last film was playing second lead to another recent obsession of mine, Herbert Marshall alongside Katharine Hepburn in a Woman Rebels. I guess playing second lead in a "Box office Poison" era Hepburn film wasn't enough to tempt him away from retirement. He had played opposite Hepburn as her romantic interest in her first film, A Bill of Divorcement.

Manner's returned to acting on the stage in the late forties and fifties in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Manners continued to write and after publishing two novels, he also wrote a pair of self-help books published in the seventies and eighties. He died in 1998 in Santa Barbara, California. I've started a small David Manners Gallery. I'd be happy for any additions.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lady in the Lake

I was ten minutes into this movie, when I slapped myself on the forehead and said, "oh no! Not THIS thing." I had seen part of Robert Montgomery's disastrous first person camera version of The Lady in the Lake in some point in my past and repressed it. Somebody in 1947 needed to take the actor/director aside and tell him two things: Christmas music has no place in film noir, and if a filming technique has never been used for an entire movie there's probably a good reason for it. I'm sure as a first-time director, Montgomery was trying to be generous and give the spotlight to his fellow actors. If that was the case, just cast someone else as the lead. I won't go so far as to say that Montgomery's face was his only good attribute as an actor, but a movie that depends entirely on his voice is not as enjoyable as one in which we get the whole package. His performance as Philip Marlowe feels very stagy and what exactly is that accent he's trying to do? He is not helped by his leading lady Audrey Totter whose main acting technique is to bulge eyes out every once in a while like an unfunny, unappealing Lucille Ball.

As you can see from the poster, Lady in the Lake was billed as "the most revolutionary picture since talkies began." The genius in marketing who came up with that deserves to have to watch this stinker once a week for life. It's really too bad that the movie was executed so poorly, because Raymond Chandler's "The Lady in the Lake" is one of the all-time great detective stories. It deserved high-style forties noir treatment. What it got was a garbled plot and a lot people trying to punch or make out with a camera. Oh, yeah, and for what it's worth, there's no lake in it either. The original story begins with discovering the body at Little Fawn Lake. This mess begins with Robert Montgomery addressing himself in the mirror.

There are moments in the film, such as the discovery of a dead body, where the first person camera work and the creepy Christmas music are actually effective. But one suspenseful sequence does not make up for the excruciating minutes of "real time" where nothing much happens and the payoff for all our waiting around is to hear Montgomery huffing and puffing away in the background while we watch the surface of the ground moving slowly in front of us. Yeah, I get it, he's half dead and crawling along, but why would I want to experience that for myself?

This must be my week for bad noir, but really after Lady in the Lake, Bette Davis in The Letter seems like Citizen Kane, or at least The Postman Always Rings Twice. I feel like I need to watch Double Indemnity as soon as possible or I'm in danger of giving up on the genre all together.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Letter (1940)

The Letter starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall is a classic example of why I really don't like film noir very much. People behave in completely stupid and irrational ways in order for most of the plots to work. The lead characters in noir are required to be short-sighted and mad in their objectives, which limits the depth of the characters and the actors who can play them. I'm sure this mirrors real life somewhat, but it is equal parts movie exaggeration. The genre seems to demand the cool, aloof beauty with a heart of stone, the lustful clever man and the hapless chump to be the victim. But what happens when the actors portraying these types are just too different, too smart, too nuanced to fit into these molds? Well, what happens is a film like The Letter.

The film begins on a moonlit night on a rubber plantation in Singapore, the camera panning over a shed full of dozing workers, moving across the yard to the plantation house. Shots ring out. Leslie Crosbie (Davis) comes to the door pursuing an unseen man. She puts four more slugs into him, in front of half a dozen witnesses, calmly orders the "head boy" to bring the police, before retiring to her room to smoke cigarettes. Her husband, Robert (Marshall) arrives along with the police and their family lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and the three men coo over her while she calmly tells how the man, Jeff Hammond, tried to "make love to her" before she filled him full of lead. The police and her husband are beside themselves with admiration for her strength and dignity in defending her honor. The lawyer is a bit suspicious. At this point, I wanted to shake Herbert Marshall till his head popped off, but he goes on being decent, thoughtful and totally blind to his wife's obvious flaws. For her part, I began to wonder why she would cheat on a man who was so obviously devoted to her and who is, after all debonair, handsome Herbert Marshall.

Davis plays the role as cool as ice, never letting on until the films last act just what her attachment was to the dead man. Since we never see him except as a corpse or learn much about his personality it's difficult to understand why she would prefer him over her husband and why she is so in love with him when it becomes clear that he treated her pretty shabbily. The bulk of the film is taken up with a letter from the defendant to the dead man that threatens to send Leslie to the gallows where she belongs. Her lawyer compromises his principals to save her because he he so fond of her husband that he doesn't want him to find out what she's really like. And he may be infatuated with her as well. It's difficult to tell because their scenes together are kind of nebulous and Davis plays everything so aloof and quirky that you can't tell whether she's trying to seduce Howard Joyce or not.

Davis wasn't particularly well suited to the stereotype of femme fatale. She's too intellectual, too neurotic (the film's most clever ploy is to channel her restless energy into lace knitting which becomes a symbol for her sexual frustration) and not the right kind of sexy for this. I'm not saying Bette Davis wasn't a sex symbol. She was, but primarily, I think her appeal was to women and men who liked a woman with spirit and brains. She was a thinking man's pin up. Not the sort of knock out who inspired the animal lust that will drive men to do completely stupid and irrational things. In short, she's no Lana Turner. Herbert Marshall, though flawless as usual is perhaps the wrong type to be the likeable chump/victim. He's too handsome, charming and well-matched with Davis to fit the type. In short, he's no Cecil Kellaway.

The Letter
is worth watching for noir fans as it is a well-crafted example of the genre, with plenty of exotic and dark atmosphere and a comprehensible visual language from able director William Wyler. The very qualities that limit the genre of Film Noir, in requiring those stereotypes, also make it so compelling when it does work. This is good example of a movie that gets almost everything right,except casting. It's also an interesting entry for Davis fans who want to see the whole limit of her range as an actress.