Thursday, April 29, 2010

Magnificent Obsession (1935)

As I was watching Magnificent Obsession, I found myself thinking quite a bit about Random Harvest and comparing the two. Improbable situations? Check. Impossible coincidences? Check. Relentless over-long melodrama? Check, check, checkity, check! And like Random Harvest, a movie I liked despite its rather glaring flaws, I found myself totally getting into Magnificent Obsession. Once again the leads, Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor save the day. What would we do if corny novels were made into films with weak actors? Well, we wouldn't watch them, I guess. Dunne and Taylor are supported by Charles Butterworth and Arthur Treacher who provide the much-needed comic relief.

The story begins with the accidental drowning of a famous and beloved doctor. The doctor's life wasn't saved because some lung contraption was being used over at Bobby Merrick's (Robert Taylor) house after he fell in the lake, drunk. A few days later, Bobby and the doctor's widow have a meet cute moment right out of a Powell and Loy movie. Naturally she loathes him because he "killed her husband," (Wha???) and naturally he dedicates himself to making her love him (double wha???). He tries more screwball nonsense ala Love Crazy and she winds up getting hit by a car and going blind. Ha. ha.

You would think with my love of screwball comedy that I would have just shut the movie off right then, wouldn't you? After all this movie seems to be on some kind of mission to preach responsibility and show lightheartedness as akin to homicidal tendencies. Perhaps because the script was just so completely inflexible on the topic, I hung in there. I just had to see what they came up with next. And boy, oh boy was it worth it. Bobby befriends the widow Hudson and pays for her to see the best specialists in the world. When they can do nothing he goes to medical school and becomes a Nobel Prize winning brain surgeon so that he can perform the surgery himself. Of course this is handled in 90 second montage just to make it all the more hilariously unbelievable. I don't want to see Taylor as a brain surgeon any more than I want to see him as an off the hook drunken playboy going through a religious conversion, which he also does in this film. There is something so wonderfully controlled about Taylor, so smooth and perfect. He really could act and he proves that here, but like Cary Grant, I enjoy watching him embodying his own persona most of all. My favorite scenes with him are those when he is the unrepentant playboy, climbing out of windows and making nurses laugh.

Irene Dunne is terrific of course. She always is. I could watch her read the phone book and in Magnificent Obsession she practically does. Well, she reads books in braille which is almost as exciting.

Magnicent Harvest, I mean Random Obsession, no.... Magnificent Obsession was remade in the 1950s with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. It was the go-to script for proving that pretty boy actors had "unsuspected depth," I guess. But I'm left wondering what's wrong with Robert Taylor being really good at being Robert Taylor? It's a gift from God to be so beautiful and charming that people fall in love with you in two seconds. I'd say it's more important than being a Nobel Prize winning surgeon. Brother, those are a dime a dozen, but the Robert Taylors only come along every fifty years or so.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cash (1933)

Cash is an Alexander Korda-produced short film (62 minutes) packed with Robert Donat-y goodness. It follows the story of a wealthy man and his daughter (Edmund Gwen and Wendy Barrie) who are hurt by the financial crash. Robert Donat plays the technician sent to turn off their lights. He ends up going into business with them selling shares in dodgy real estate deal to build a swimming complex called "Eternal Spring" in London. At the time, the idea was meant as a joke, a clear sign that Gwen's character was a con man, and yet, there are places like this all over the United States now. I fully expect to see an "Eternal Spring" in the Wisconsin Dells. (And wouldn't it be awesome to have a water park with a 1930s London theme? I know I'd pony up the dough for a few shares!)

Zoltan Korda's direction is a bit off at times, especially when it comes to adding in music to the soundtrack, which is jarring in every instance, but he does seem to have a deft hand with comedy. The script is fast-paced (with such a short run-time, it would have to be) and funny. The sets are memorable, a sure sign that the other Korda brother, Vincent was probably involved. Gwen and Barrie live in an elaborate streamline art deco masterpiece of a house. This is probably the prettiest set I can think of, equal to Kay Francis' swank digs in Trouble in Paradise.

This film was made shortly after Donat completed work on The Private Life of Henry VIIIth. It was the first starring role for both Donat and Barrie, who had played Jane Seymour in Hank 8. As a Donat fan, it's a thrill to see one of his earliest films even if it's not a terribly impressive effort. It floats by pleasantly enough. Barrie and Donat are quite nice together and they alternate between arguing and making out in a way that is amusing and almost believable.

Cash was a low-budget "quota" movie. In the 1930s Britain was required to produce and exhibit a certain number of British-made films. Quota pictures were frequently greeted with groans by impatient audiences waiting for the American-made part of the program to begin. Yet the Kordas were a force to be reckoned with and I find their cast-off fluff just as interesting if not more so, than similar level films made by American studios.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Show us your Geek Sphere winner

CinemaOCD follower, Rudyfan was the one and only entrant in my Show Me Your Geeksphere Contest. It's just as well, since Rudyfan's Rudoph Valentino collection would have been stiff competition, anyway. Just feast your peepers on it, peeps. It's inspiring.

An original Mineral Lava Beauty Contest trophy, from the Baltimore Contest. The Baltimore contestant came in third overall in the national contest. Read more about the contest at Rudyfan's blog.
Rudyfan's desk. Nice computer screen.

Rudyfan's posters are all originals. I think the flowers are a nice touch.

Rudyfan's DVD collection and the Maltese Falcon. She titled this one "The stuff that dreams are made of." Word.

An original painting and plaque.

An insert from The Young Rajah.

Rudyfan's Blood and Sand Window Card.

Rudyfan will receive a CinemaOCD t-shirt for her troubles. Hooray!

Monday, April 12, 2010

George in the Jungle: Green Hell (1940)

What would happen if you crossed Red Dust with a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which five of the dwarfs were called Sweaty, one was dead and the other was George Sanders? Or to put it another way, what if you spun out the first fifteen minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark to an hour and a half, and replaced the archeology and booby traps with a half a dozen emo Indiana Joneses who sit around being mooning over a chick? (Eventually the natives attack because they are sick of listening to the whining.) Well if you took either of this filmic perversions to their Nth degree and then some you'd have James Whale's Green Hell (1940).

A Friend of Cinema OCD pointed me in the direction of Green Hell, selling me on it with the information that Vincent Price considered it his worst film. Really? Worse than Theater of Blood (1973)? I'm so there! Well it turns out Green Hell is no where near as bad as Theater of Blood. It's not George Sander's worst film by a long shot either. And I'd even go so far as to say it's not even James Whale's worst film, (that honor could well belong to Wives Under Suspicion).

Warning: Spoilers will follow!

George Sanders and Vincent Price. Price dies so early in the film, I kept expecting him to come back as a zombie later on, else why would they bother to hire him?

The story follows a team of archeologist/adventurers lead by Dr. Loren (Alan Hale with a dubious European accent) and Keith "Brandy" Brandon (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Along for the ride are bigamist David "dies twenty minutes into the Film" Richardson (Vincent Price), Tex (George Bancroft), totally emo Graham (Gene Garrick), beyond emo youngster Hal Scott (John Howard) and emo for a George Sander's character, Forrester (George Sanders).

Tex and Forrester sing Home on the Range, "where the dee-ahs and the aunt-a-lope pah-lay."

After arriving at Incan ruins, they use their team of native guides to build a big house where they settle in for the long haul, excavating the ruins with dynamite and kicking over mummified remains while looking for the treasure hall. Perhaps annoyed by the mistreatment of their sacred burial sites, unfriendly natives show up and shoot Richardson with poison arrows.

"It's just a coma."

Richardson dies and not long after his wife turns up, (Joan Bennett) being carried unconscious in sedan chair and looking, to quote Forrester, "a bit of alright." When she wakes up she's mildly distressed to learn her husband is dead, but she has dreamy Fairbanks and Sanders tripping over themselves to impress her with exotic orchids and trips to the ruins. Excursions she takes in white linen dresses and three inch high white high heels, I must add. Fairbanks attempts to channel Gable from Red Dust as he attempts to remain steadfastly grumpy about this doll face turning up on his expedition and ruining everything. It's a given that he's head over heels in love with her.

Hair by George!
Forrester on the other hand, resigns whatever work he may have been doing in favor of the task of grooming himself, the other dwarfs, and fawning over the newly minted widow. He plays guitar behind his head, washes her hair and refuses to notice that she's completely in love with Brandy. That George! Perhaps it's just that I recently finished A Dreadful Man, but I can't help but see a bit of George and Benita here watching him going all out to amuse and cheer up the widow.

Enjoy the shampoo porn.

George sneaks in a Gomez Adams when Joan Bennett isn't looking.

10 out of 10 for this maneuver: a reverse guitar, straight into a dance floor cut-in, finishing with a "hold this for me will ya jack?"

A year passes and the dwarfs decide perhaps its time Snow White went back to civilization because she might not be safe in the jungle or something. Mrs. Richardson discovers that her husband was married to someone else as well, named "Helen" which gives her an excuse to admit her feelings for Brandy. She promptly represses these feelings for the good of the expedition. Then she pretends to like Forrester more than she does even though she looks like she's holding back vomit when he proposes to her.

In a painful scene, Forrester attempts to buck Brandy up a bit by asking him, "is there enough left of us to drink to 'us'." Some viewers speculate that this and several other scenes were part of Whale's diabolical plot to work gay subtext into the film. Whatever. Can't a brother make another brother really uncomfortable any more without it being a whole thing?

The Society for American Archeology called. You guys are all officially on suspension.

While the boys fight about who gets to escort Mrs. Richardson back to town the native guides suddenly disappear, a storm destroys most of the camp and the archeologists, sheltering from the weather in the ruins, finally stumble over the treasure. The hostile natives take advantage of the chaos to attack and the whole cast appear doomed.

"Well, cheerio everyone."

Eventually realizing that this film leaves him no further chances to be ten times as interesting or charming as anyone else, Forrester shoots himself. Twenty seconds later, the native guides' relatives show up as history's most ironic "cavalry" and save what's left of the expedition.

I apologize for the crummy caps made from Youtube. I just got carried away. It's a fun movie, with a great cast. Steve will yell at me if I don't mention that Karl Freund of Universal Horror fame was the DP on the film. There's at least a minute or two of horror sneaked in between the emofests. In one memorable scene the native guides get roasted alive by the unfriendly pro-Incan natives. If you look up reviews for the film you find quite a few people who saw it in the theater who remember this scene very vividly. They must have been a bit traumatized, poor souls.

And here's a weird tidbit for you: in looking for stills of this movie online, I found that it was listed in a web directory called the Shampoo Forum for people who fetishize hair washing. If only there was a forum for people who fetishize George Sanders playing the guitar behind his head. Oh wait, there is. It's called the comments section of CinemaOCD.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

I really thought nothing could top Dirk Bogarde's performance in Tale of Two Cities, (1958) but I think Ronald Colman''s Sydney Carton is at least as good. I was just reading about Colman being given the part after it was conditionally offered to Brian Aherne in the latter's A Dreadful Man. Though Aherne was crushed, he was happy for his friend. The part went on to be Colman's favorite of his entire career and I can see why. He really gets to do it all: brood, act drunk, woo women, be witty, save the day, cry on camera...It's just a big box of delicious acting treats. No wonder Aherne was still licking his wounds decades later.

Colman is supported by an awesome cast that includes the always delightful Edna May Oliver as Pross, Reginald Owen as Carton's s loud-mouthed boss Stryver, Basil Rathbone as the villainous Marquis, Blanche Yurka as Madame DeFarge and Elizabeth Allan as Lucy Mannette. Director Jack Conway manages the big crowd scenes and the epic sweep of history, of course, but is equally at home in the claustrophobic world of Georgian interiors, some shabby, some baroque. Little touches like Colman's face framed in Jack Crusher's dilapidated doorway made me continuously happy. My favorite scene is one that could be completely unbearable in the hands of any other director. On Christmas eve Carton runs into Lucy and Pross on their way to church. He tags along, partly because he's drunk and indulging his desire to be with Lucy and partly because he's too polite, even when blotto, to disappoint her. Lucy lights a candle for him while "Oh Come All Ye Faithful (ever notice how so many Christmas hymns are downbeat and in the minor key? ) moves Carton to tears. Colman plays the scene with the absolute minimum of acting flourish which makes it work and keeps it from falling over the cliff into cliche. It almost makes up for the awful and scene in which Carton states the obvious about his attraction to Lucy while talking to himself in a mirror. The mirror scene is awful simply because it's unnecessary. We've already seen Sydney's motivations. We don't need it spelled out. Still Colman manages to make it bearable by giving it a wry dignity that it doesn't deserve.

Conway manages a level of realism that's unprecedented for big budget historical films of this era. The peasants look truly shabby (though not as terrifically famished as they do in the '58 version) and the director's eye for historical detail is razor sharp. In the trial scene the judge continually clouds the air with perfumed powder whenever those of the lower ranks get within ten feet of him. In another scene Carton and Stryver warm their punch in a big bowl with a hot poker from the fire. This latter image is straight out of Hogarth engravings of the period and it made the history dork in me squee with delight.

The Defarge's are grungy "characters" but I preferred them in the 1958 version where they are a touch less grotesque and more earthy. Yet, this version is probably closer to Dicken's vision since Dicken's was never afraid of making his minor characters into caricatures. And I thought again of another 18th century satirist Gilray as nasty Madame LeFarge and her toothless, warty cohorts cackle with delight while they imagine torturing their aristocratic overlords and rub their hands with glee in expectation of introducing little Lucy to the guillotine. The best scene that doesn't involve Colman is the awesome catfight between Pross and Defarge. This has to be one of classic cinema's greatest girl fights--these two should have had a cameo in The Women.

It's rare that a classic novel gets even one great cinematic adaptation, but this one is lucky enough to have two. You can't go wrong with either film and if you figure out who is the more awesome Sydney Carton, Dirk or Ronny, then you'll have to let me know.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Dreadful Man

I have officially joined the cult of Sanders. I put it off as along as I could, but midway through Brian Aherne's breezy book "A Dreadful Man" I realized I was completely mesmerized by this eccentric, misanthropic actor and nothing less than full-on obsession would do for it. While the book is mostly about Sanders surpisingly few of the letters in this epistolary biography were written by him. Sanders married actress Benita Hume, in a scandalously short time after the death of her first husband Ronald Colman. Benita actually turns out to be the main correspondent and her letters make up the bulk of "A Dreadful Man." What letters of Sanders' do appear are treasures as they capture the full force of his curmudgeonly style. Benita's correspondence is light and chatty and occasionally catty. She describes Grace Kelly's acting as "an atomic age thundering bore," an assessment which made me laugh out loud even as I disagreed with it.

What I enjoyed most from her correspondence was the emergence of a snapshot of her relationship with George Sanders. Though most suspected he married her for the fortune he imagined she'd inherited from her first husband, he seems to have been completely devoted to her all along, despite the fact that he found out rather quickly that most of her money was hopelessly locked into trust funds for her children. Even his best friends found him to be eccentric to an extreme degree, thoughtless and probably unmarriagable. And yet, this odd pair worked somehow. She made him a better husband by dragging him out more into the social sphere and he helped her move on from the crippling grief she felt when Colman died. Colman had been ill for some time, and if you compare her letters during that time to the letters after her marriage you can see that she was operating under a huge strain and hadn't really realized it. Sanders it turned out, made her laugh which is a power not to be underestimated in such a situation, and she describes him as nothing but thoughtful and caring. It's difficult to imagine to those with much familiarity with Sander's as an actor, but he seems to have made Benita an exception to his caddish ways for the 18 years of their marriage.

I'm about five minutes away from starting a Tumblr blog called "FuckyeahGeorgeandBenita" based on this picture alone. The caption was written by one or the other of them, probably Benita.

One of the more intriguing aspects of "A Dreadful Man" is its depiction of Sanders strange business dealings. Robbed of his birthright title and fortune by the Bolshevik Revolution, Rossian-born Sanders chased the dream of being a tycoon for most of his life. He created a number of dodgy companies to hide his wealth around the globe. In several cases he encouraged friends to invest in these hopelessly corrupt organizations with disastrous results. While Sanders and Hume were usually the main losers in these dealings, Aherne is quick to point out that Sanders never expressed an iota of regret for the other people who lost money in these swindles. It's hard to believe but Sanders even managed to con the British government into subsidizing his "Cadco" (named after his autobiography "Memoirs of a Professional Cad.") When a company has the word "cad" in its name, should you really be surprised when it rips you off? Besides fodder for Aherne's sometimes bitter writing (he lost quite a lot of money in one of Sander's earliest schemes), these companies' main product was the prestige that Sanders desired. Though he never spent a minute actually working or managing one of them, he spent untold hours planning and decorating elaborate executive office suites for himself. He liked nothing more than a big desk with lots of buttons apparently. All of this is endearing to me as I always love a good eccentric, especially if I don't have to actually live with him or haven't given him any of my money to "invest." Sanders narrowly avoided prosecution for some his more egregious failings while the rest of Cadco's management actually went to jail.

Sanders was completely disdainful of his career as an actor. You can see a bit of Aherne's own complicated relationship with his profession coming though, here. You can tell he's driven a bit mad by Sanders who never put much effort into his work, always turned up never having even glanced at a script. Aherne who was conscientious to a fault struggled to find work as he aged, while Sanders was seemingly always had more work than he could use. Surely some of this was the lingering prestige of his Oscar for All About Eve, but some of it was what Aherne describes as "his personality." Sanders just brought class to whatever it was he was about, even if it was trash like Psychomania.

After Hume's death in the late 1960s, Sander's life went downhill in a big way. He married a second Gabor sister, Magda (he'd had a comically disastrous marriage to Zsa Zsa before Benita). The second Gabor marriage was actually Zsa Zsa's scheme to provide for her older sister and to try to help Sander's whose drinking was becoming alarming. How this loveless, nay, like-less, match was supposed to work, Zsa Zsa never explained but it was annulled six weeks after it began. After, Magda, his film choices went from bad to worse, his health was poor and made worse by drinking. He ended in suicide in 1972 with a note famous for its brevity and wit among suicide notes, "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."

I think part of Aherne's motivations for writing the book was to come to terms with the loss of his friend and of course the suicide. Though Sander's claimed "boredom" I don't think Aherne was convinced by that. I certainly wasn't. The picture of a man with many talents, hobbies and interests is not one of boredom, but of destabilization and frustration with many bad choices. Sanders had an almost compulsive house buying habit. He would drive through a neighborhood, see a house for sale and buy it on the spot. He moved continuously to avoid taxes, often winding up in far flung locales far from friends and family, which was more than usual the case when he found himself at a small coastal town in Spain with too many sleeping pills. Benita seemed to bring out the best in George and provided some stability. Without her, he might have gone off the rails more completely than anyone, even he, could guess.

Shirtless and apparently underpantless as well . You'll thank me for the "archive" setting on my scanner or you'll curse me for it. Click in at your own risk, people.

There are many great Sander's anecdotes in the book but my favorite is the one Aherne tells about golfing with George. Sanders was a great lover of croquet but famously hated golf. Aherne played golf a lot in Switzerland since there wasn't much else to do. His entire social life revolved around the game and he continually pestered George to play just to get him out and about. Sanders finally relented and arrived at the country club in his favorite ensemble, a pair of ratty old shorts and bedroom slippers. No shirt and eventually the slippers were discarded as well. Sanders had no clubs so he borrowed a five iron from Aherne. He proceeded to win by several strokes all with with just the five iron and all while protesting that he hated golf and never played.

The ease with which Sanders could pick up just about anything was legendary and perhaps the key to his desperate end. A stroke had made life difficult. He hacked his beloved piano to pieces with an axe because he couldn't play it any more. For someone to whom everything came easily, it was perhaps simply too humbling to learn after all that life requires some effort.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dark Purpose (L'Intrigo) 1964

Click on the photo to see the enlarge picture. If you look closely you can actually see the despair in these two actor's eyes.

Man this movie was bad. It stunk. The script was bad. The direction was confused. The music was overpowering and annoying. The cinematography went back and forth between cliched and blurry. The copy TCM showed was cruddy. The actors: George Sanders, Rossano Brazzi and Shirley Jones all had an air of hopelessness about them as they spoke their lines. That is when you could understand the lines, because the dubbing is downright awful.

This is the point where you expect me to say, "But I loved it anyway!" or "George and Rossano can save any dog turd of a film." No, I'm not going to say that. The only genuine entertainment in this movie was seeing George Sanders crammed into a tiny Italian car in the first three minutes. Even that sequence was poorly edited, backed by annoying music, squinched into a horrible pan and scan frame and the film stock looked washed out and a hundred years old. At one point in the film Shirley Jones and Rossano Brazzi come into the room and find Sanders lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling. I was really hoping he'd address the fourth wall and say, "I've just given up on this movie, people. Can you blame me?" But wouldn't you know, it was actually part of the "plot."

Sometimes bad movies are good for their mockability quotient. Dark Purpose isn't even bad enough for that. It's just good enough. It has a 1970s made for TV movie vibe about it. The plot smells of warmed over television. Two professional art appraisers (Shirley Jones and George Sanders) spend a week in an Italian villa owned by a mysterious Count (Rossano Brazzi) and his troubled daughter (Giorgia Moll). There's a little bit of Jane Eyre here, or at least the Wide Sargasso Sea, but tension never builds enough for it to pay off.

Brazzi and Jones seem to have little chemistry together. "Oh Paolo I love you. I love you!" She says and he looks like he might be mentally chastising his agent for getting him involved in this debacle. She has more luck with George Sanders and I wish things would have been written more of a love triangle. Though Sanders is ten years older than Brazzi he somehow seems more comfortable in his skin, probably because Brazzi was, at this point really tired of playing the continental lover. Sanders had long since ceased to care about acting other than what it paid him. Shirley Jones was great as Mrs. Partridge, but as the supposed daughter of a museum curator and art historian, she seems way out of her depth. Giorgia Moll gives a decent performance, if a bit silly and over dramatic at times, but the whole plot is hard to swallow, especially her part of it.

The most compelling thing about the movie is the Count's over-worked German Shepard named Diablo. It wasn't just the presence of a satanic German Shepard that reminded me of the made for television horror schlock master piece Devil Dog (1978). Everything about Dark Purpose seemed crying out for it to be endlessly recycled in the CBS late Night Movie, sandwiched between old episodes of Magnum PI and Columbo. It's too bad because Sanders is hilarious--I laugh at his smallest gesture or expression, and had he been given anything at all to do he might have saved this movie from junk heap.