Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Now that Ben Stiller is about to bless cinemagoers later this year with his take on the classic Danny Kaye film, I thought it would be a good time to have another look at the original. I confess to having been a fan of sorts (of Kaye, not Stiller) over the years, even if some of his output has aged badly. One remembers that Kaye, popular as he was in the 40s and 50s, ended his career horribly, warbling "Thumbelina" in second-tier nightclubs.

I'm pleased to report that the above movie still packs an entertainment punch and is quite possibly Kaye's best performance, although I shall remain faithful to "The Court Jester" as a real contender. Based on a James Thurber short story first published in the New Yorker in 1939, Mitty is the ultimate fantasist, a milquetoast of a man, literally fed soggy milk toast at a dinner party by his domineering mother (Fay Bainter). His life is further plagued by his nagging fiancée (Ann Rutherford) with her spoiled mutt Queenie, her pushy mother (Florence Bates), a boss who appropriates all of Mitty's best ideas at the pulp magazine publishing company where he works (Thurston Hall), and a so-called best friend who enjoys nothing more than humiliating him with practical jokes. As an escape from his humdrum reality, he tunes out these oppressors with fantasies of being an ace wartime pilot, a sharpshooting cowboy, an immensely skilled surgeon and the like. In all of his daydreams, he is worshipped by his dream woman (his frequent co-star Virginia Mayo) and the ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa soundtrack of various machines. Kaye is at his comic best in all of these idealised roles; for example, he operates on a hopeless patient using the miscellany of the items demanded by his mother on her daily shopping list for him, telling Mayo at the end of the procedure, "Your brother will play the violin again; I have just grafted new fingers".

Ironically Thurber hated the entire project and apparently Kaye as well, and offered producer Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to abandon the film. His main objection was that it was unfaithful to the spirit of the original, with the scriptwriters opening out the action to create a plot where Mitty helps a real character (also played by Mayo) retrieve a little black book outlining the wartime hiding place of the Dutch crown jewels and other art treasures. He is told that his life is in danger: "The Boot wants the book" -- and his natural coward is forced to deal with a bevy of villains including Konstantin Shayne as Mayo's duplicitous uncle and Boris Karloff in full Frankenstein mode without the make-up. Space was also created for two of Kaye's trademark patter songs, which do indeed slow down the preposterous plot, but without which it would be less of a Kaye extravaganza. The public did not agree with Thurber and it was another big hit for Kaye and Goldwyn -- and it is still fine entertainment.

The two show-stopping numbers, "Symphony for an Unstrung Tongue" and "Anatole of Paris" (inspired by an overly camp hat designer whose show Mitty attends) were penned for him by his wife Sylvia Fine. Ironically the second song ends with the words "I hate women" -- rather ironic in the light of rumours that have subsequently spread about Kaye's predilections.

Sam Goldwyn himself was another Hollywood legend -- a poor immigrant made good. Losing control of his own company shortly before it was incorporated as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, he created his own mini-studio which he successfully ran for some 35 years and churned out a variety of great movies. Stars under contract to him at various times included Ronald Colman, Eddie Cantor, Gary Cooper, David Niven, and of course Mr. Kaye. He also created his so-called Goldwyn Girls, a home over the years for dozens of aspiring actresses -- some of whom like Lucille Ball, Paula Goddard, and Jane Wyman went on to forge successful careers, but most of whom existed only to decorate Goldwyn's films, dating from "Roman Scandals" in 1933 right through "Guys and Dolls" in 1955. The producer is also famous for his many so-called "Goldwynisms": 'Include me Out', 'In two words im-possible', and others generated by his fractured understanding of English.

His son, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. is also a successful producer, and perhaps the greatest irony of all is that he is producing the Ben Stiller re-make soon to 'grace' our screens. RIP, Sam Sr!!!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Pattes blanches/White Spats (1949)

Every so often I am tempted by seasons featured in the British Film Institute's monthly programme to check out directors with whom I am not overly familiar. This month they have been featuring a series of films directed by Jean Gremillon, a well-respected auteur in France, but not terribly well-known outside. I have one or two of his films on my famous old list, but think I have only seen his "Remorques" (1941) starring the incomparable Jean Gabin. So I researched some of the other films in the season and chose one that sounded among the more interesting, as a taster if you will...and indeed it was a tasty morsel.

One of the criteria by which I measure my enjoyment in the cinema is not looking at my watch. This cross between a noir thriller and a gothic fairy-tale really held my attention and time flew by. The title refers to the mocking name given to the down-at-the-heels local laird by the children of the small fishing village whenever he ventures into town. It refers to the knee-high white leggings he affects and translates literally as 'white paws'. He is a figure of fun and barely tolerated by any of the villagers, a legacy of his late father's overly-free use of the local women in better days long gone. He is played by Paul Bernard who also played a squire in the director's earlier "Lumiere d'ete" (apparently one of his best films), but although I have probably seen him in several other movies, he is not an actor I know. Here he makes a good fist of combining an air of superiority with the lonely hand-to-mouth existence he leads.

The other main characters are Fernand Ledoux playing the local innkeeper who has brought sexpot Odette from the Big City passing her off as his 'niece'. She is played Suzy Delair, who is ready to milk her lover for whatever she can, and who comes across with the air of slightly over-ripe fruit (she was 33 when the film was made).  Delair has had a varied career playing Jenny Lamour in the classic "Quai des Orfevres", as well as appearing in the Italian "Rocco and his Brothers" and the late Laurel & Hardy flop "Utopia" (aka" Robinson Crusoeland"). Here she flaunts her fading yet lush charms to seduce not only the stand-offish White Spats but also his illegitimate and jealous half-brother, played by Michel Bouquet -- now a doyen of French cinema but appearing here in one of his earliest roles. The fifth protagonist in the drama is young Mimi, played by the 22-year old Arlette Thomas -- again, not well-known to me but the heart and soul of the film. She is the hunchbacked servant at the inn, charged to wait upon Delair's every whim.

However she alone protects White Spats from the jeering children and secretly nurtures an unrealizable crush on the haughty aristo. When she seeks his friendship, he casually gives her an ancient ball-gown from his castle's mouldering closets, and she is totally smitten, dancing with the wonderful garment in her bare attic room. However she is unable to protect him from the mechanics of desire, as Odette uses her sexual prowess to bring down the brooding Bernard and to assist the intense Bouquet (a far better lover it seems) to reap revenge on his disdainful sibling. Events come to a head on Odette's wedding day to the slobbering Ledoux, and as the assembled guests dance the evening away, the other four play out their tragedy on the cliffs.  Poor Mimi is left to sort out the ruins of four lives; however, the feeling that the fairy tale may yet have its happy ending prevails.

The film is adapted from a play by Jean Anouilh who had intended to direct as well before realizing that he was not up to the task. Gremillon was his late choice, picking one of the best-considered directors from France's so-called Golden Age. Lovingly filmed on the Normandy coast by Philippe Agostini, the stark landscapes provide a wonderful contrast to the burning passions that consume the players. Perhaps on another day this movie would have seemed something of a potboiler, but I was seriously absorbed by its brooding romance and the inevitability of disaster that the characters unwittingly bring upon themselves.  

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Half Naked Truth (1932)

Over eighty years old and fresh as a daisy! This film which has been on my list 'forever' was not a YouTube discovery, although they have a clip of one of its scenes ballyhooed as the 'greatest musical number ever'. Rather the movie received its first television showing according to my records in the early morning hours courtesy of BBC2, who seem to have unearthed some RKO pre-code rarities as I exalted a few weeks ago. I just hope there are more to come.

This film is a 1930's product with a vengeance, not just because of its risqué moments (more of that later), but because its director and male and female leads all did their best work in that decade. The director, Gregory La Cava, came into his own during these years and went on to helm "My Man Godfrey" (1936) and "Stage Door" (1937), both Oscar-nominated. However a fondness for the bottle and some notorious drinking companions resulted in a series of so-called 'recurrent illnesses' and he only made three films after 1940. Lupe Velez the petite and fiery Mexican actress is now best remembered for her series of Mexican Spitfire comedies. She was married to the screen's best Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, but was a suicide by age 36 after her marriage ended and her popularity waned. Lee Tracy, unlike the other two, went on working for many years and he even received a best-supporting actor nom as the President in 1964's "The Best Man". His early career success never recovered after he was fired by MGM over a drunken incident in Mexico during the filming of "Viva Villa". He was the epitome of the fast-talking, wise-cracking hero so prevalent in the early 30s -- he even spoke more rapidly than Cagney. However, his shtick definitely feels a little dated now, and even then audiences began looking for rather more sophistication and charm in their favourite stars.

Tracy's character is purportedly based on stories, both true and apocryphal, about the master publicist Harry Reichenbach, who always found a gimmick for promoting his latest attraction.
Here his current love interest is cooch-dancer Velez, billed in their two-bit carny as La Belle Sultana. Business is bad so he spreads a rumour that at the end of tonight's performance she will reveal who, among the local  hayseeds, was responsible for impregnating her mother some years ago. A dozen guilty secrets are reflected on their erstwhile respectable faces, and Tracy's sidekick Eugene Pallette playing supposed strongman Achilles goes through the crowd collecting hush money. However like Jeanne Eagels, Velez has her heart set on appearing on the New York stage, and off the three of them go to the Big Apple. Tracy promotes Velez as a genuine princess, Princess Exotica, and cons his way into a free stay at a swanky hotel. Cue here for Franklin Pangborn to do one of his wonderfully swarmy hotel clerks turns. He tells the thronging reporters that a artsy Ziegfield-type showman (beautifully played by Frank Morgan) will be featuring her in his next big show and he hires a rather seedy lion and 30 pounds of fresh meat to be delivered for her 'pet' to their hotel suite to ensure more publicity. Incidentally he explains away Pallette's role in their entourage as the former eunuch of the harem from which the Princess has escaped. The word is never used but furtive glances at Pallette's nether regions make this clear.

Morgan tries to frame a tasteful number for the exotic 'princess' but the audience is bored until she sheds several layers of clothing and reverts to her standard bump and grind routine to the strains of her favourite song "Hi, Mr. Carpenter". Just imagine a set of lyrics full of innuendos reminiscent of the cliched porn film theme of a visiting plumber inspecting the lady of the house's pipes and you'll get the picture. Velez is eventually dropped by the amorous but married Morgan after some hilarious blackmail attempts by Tracy, involving pictures of the impresario feeding her an olive mouth-to-mouth. By now, however, Tracy has found his next would-be sensation, chambermaid Shirley Chambers (possibly the original 'dumb' blonde); he claims to have discovered her amongst a cult of nudists living in Central Park, led once again by good old Achilles with a paunch and a fake beard.

The film is a scant 74 minutes, but that's 74 minutes of brilliant performances, fast-paced and bright repartee, and loads of good, not so clean, fun.  Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Night Tide (1961)

And so, all the night tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling -- my darling -- my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea

The above lines from Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" are supposed to have provided the title and inspiration for this peculiar, low-key feature film debut from writer-director Curtis Harrington, previously associated with experimental film-makers like Kenneth Anger. In his first starring role Dennis Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a skinny, callow and naïve young sailor on shore leave in Santa Monica, trying to make time with any of the local ladies in a swinging jazz club. 24 or 25 when this was filmed, Hopper is reserved and awkward, a gawky pretty-boy in his skin-tight sailor suit -- a far cry from the 'mad man' roles he would later inhabit. He is immediately smitten with the exotic-looking Mora (Linda Lawson) who lives in an apartment over the ornate carousel on Venice Pier. She works as a 'mermaid' (the 'Lovely Siren of the Deep') at a local attraction, decked out in a fake fish tail and reclining in a water tank. However there is definitely something 'fishy' about her, if I may be allowed this cheap pun. She breakfasts on fresh fish and has a strong affinity with the sea.

Her erstwhile guardian, the attraction barker Gavin Muir, a collector of oddities including a severed hand in a glass jar, found her in Mykonos as a child and has looked after her ever since. He attempts to scare off Hopper by saying that she is dangerous to know -- a rumour reinforced by Luana Anders, grand-daughter of the carousel proprietor. It seems that two previous boyfriends have washed up on the shore with water in their drowned lungs. Hopper begins to believe that perhaps she really is a mermaid and has visions of her legs turning into a tail and dreams of being strangled by her octopus-tentacles. These visual fantasies are well-done but inconclusive. Less explainable is the mysterious woman who watches her from the shadows and who speaks to her in a strange tongue. Perhaps she really is one of the lost tribe of Sea People who are doomed to kill their mate at the full-moon, a siren luring each unsuspecting lover to his death.

Much against his better judgment the besotted Hopper agrees to go deep-sea diving with her, and yes she does try to tamper with his air tank. The gasping, bare-chested Hopper (an unlikely piece of cheesecake) manages to reach their dinghy, but there is no sign of mermaid Mora. When he returns to the sideshow some days later, her drowned corpse inhabits the tank. Muir reveals all to the police, confessing that he fed her fairy tales to keep her close to him and that he killed her previous boyfriends. However the viewer is left with too many unanswered questions and tantalizing possibilities. Never mind, young leading man Hopper will be OK -- he's about to taken on by the eager Anders.

Harrington went on to make a number of successful low-budget horror features like "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo" and "How Awful about Allen", but "Night Tide" deserves a wider audience for its poetic insolence. It is nearly on a par with Jacques Tourneur's classic "Cat People" in its suggestion of the everyday horrors lurking around us, but perhaps would have benefited from a few more jolts to the system.

I'm pretty sure I've viewed the above movie before, although I can not recall when, unlike "The Juggler" (1953) which also has been a long-standing inhabitant of my famous list. I finally managed to view that film yesterday, but was disappointed by Kirk Douglas's hammy overacting; if the truth be known I have always found him a little hard to take despite the fact that he has appeared in some very good films, a number of which I actually own. Here he plays a refugee of the camps who arrives in Israel in 1949, but who can not reconcile his treatment under the Nazis with the 'let's build a new tomorrow' approach of the Israelis. He attacks a policeman and is on the run, landing up in a kibbutz and the arms of Milly Vitale. I was tempted to extract a scene where he entertains the children in clown make-up, but I thought better of this, since even there he appeared to be emoting "look at me and see how manly and wonderful I am!" Where would I be without my deep-rooted film likes and dislikes?


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Jeanne Eagels (1957)

Besides being an obsessive collector of films (despite the figure in the sidebar to the right, I was up to 5273 at the last count), I also have an impressive collection of film-themed books. Some of these have been read cover to cover, others I regularly consult for reference, a few have been comprehensively skimmed, while others sit glaring at me from their shelves daring me to digest them. I guess I am something of a hoarder. Perhaps if I live to be 150 and retain all my senses (fat chance!) I will actually read them all, to say nothing of finally seeing all the elusive movies on my famous list and re-watching the pick of my collection. I must be a hopeless romantic...

One book that I certainly have read and enjoyed is titled "Lost Films of the Fifties" by Douglas Brode, published in 1988. The purpose of his selection is to showcase movies that were popular in their day, but which have become little known subsequently, overshadowed by those films of the decade which have come to be considered 'classics' -- even if they were not then the more successful films of their time. The above title is one of many that he includes and there are a surprising number of others that even I, the so-called film buff, have not seen; most of them are no longer shown on television nor have they been considered sufficiently worthy for release and reconsideration on disc.

"Jeanne Eagels" is the highly-fictionalised biopic of a real-life star of the early 20th Century, who has been forgotten as well. It features two of the most popular actors of the 1950s, Jeff Chandler and Kim Novak, in a tawdry version of Eagel's life. Although she was born into poverty, she was something of a child prodigy and appeared in Shakespearian productions from age eleven, touring with a travelling theatre company. She made a run of shorts and early features between 1913 and 1919, before conquering the Broadway stage in the 1920s. She originated the role of Sadie Thompson in "Rain" in 1924 and played the part for an amazing 648 performances. However a combination of drink and drugs eventually undermined her career, and after a last silent movie in 1927 with John Gilbert and two early talkies, she died young. Her performance in "The Letter (1929) earned the first posthumous Oscar nomination.

Instead of this largely illustrious life-story, this film opts for a seamy scenario and features Novak as a hoochie-coochie dancer in Chandler's travelling carnival, yearning to be a 'Becky Sharp' on the New York stage. When he joins his brother at his Coney Island enterprises, she bullies a famous acting coach, played by the wonderful Agnes Moorehead, into getting her an understudy role; of course she emerges as a budding talent to be reckoned with. She next grabs the opportunity to  appear in "Rain", the rights stolen from an on-the-skids actress (Virginia Grey) who has sought her help and who subsequently commits suicide. Despite being madly in love with her, Chandler can not easily forgive such self-serving behaviour and he is pushed further aside when she ups and marries a famous Princeton football star to better herself. As that relationship descends into a flurry of drunken orgies, Eagels increasingly needs 'something to calm my nerves' before taking the stage. Her flighty behaviour and her new nickname of 'Gin Eagles' cause Equity (which she had always refused to join) to ban her appearing on Broadway and it's back to Chandler and Coney Island. Naturally, as the movie would have it, she manages to fight her demons and stages a comeback -- although there is a swarmy Murray Hamilton waiting in the wings with his handy flask. The last shot is of a tearful and still adoring Chandler watching her charm a cinema audience with her latest hit musical -- a film she never made. The author of the book describes the movie as "irresistible trash" and I can not disagree with this very accurate description.

Kim Novak was never much of an actress but rather a beautiful object to be adoringly photographed. Even in her best-known movies, both comedies and dramas, she never seems quite real or shows much nuance. In this film she demonstrates her sexual, screen appeal, but it is only in the over-acting silent film sequences that she shows any real attempt to emote, albeit well over the top. Chandler died young and his Westerns and action movies are now largely forgotten too; he is probably best remembered for his role as Cochise in 1950's "Broken Arrow". I never thought of him as anything more than a 'hunk' of the period, but in this film he manages to show a surprising sensitivity and likeability. Mind you, the movie is all sheer schmaltz.

Perhaps I should return to Mr. Brode's book and list out some more of his 'lost' films that I've not seen and to discover whether they too can be 'found' lurking in YouTube's vaults.