Friday, October 29, 2010

Chained (1934)

To describe Chained as lightweight would be an understatement of epic proportions. This movie is as frothy and featherweight as a romantic melodrama could possibly be.

Middle-aged married steamship tycoon Richard Field (Otto Kruger) has fallen in love with the beautiful and glamorous Diane Lovering (Joan Crawford). Unfortunately his wife proves unexpectedly recalcitrant about granting him a divorce. Diane tells him she doesn’t care, that she would be happy to live in sin with him, nothing matters as long as they can be together. But Richard, who is rather annoyingly noble, feels uncomfortable about this and spends her off on an ocean voyage to think about it.

An ocean voyage is perhaps not the wisest thing for a middle-aged man to suggest to his much younger and extremely attractive girlfriend. And sure enough, she falls prey to the dreaded shipboard romance syndrome. The object of her affections is Mike (Clark Gable). He owns a ranch in the Argentine and he sweeps her off her feet. Their romance continues when the ship reaches Buenos Aires.

Diane at this point has a sudden attack of nobility as well and decides she must return to New York to tell Richard face-to-face that she has fallen in love with another man. This turns out to be much more complicated than she anticipates. The romantic triangle is ultimately resolved in a rather unconvincing manner.

This movie was made just before the tightening of the Production Code in 1934, but not released until after the Code started to bite. As such it’s a transitional picture, with a rather pre-code non-judgmental approach to marital indiscretions but at the same time taking care that the social rules are bent but not actually broken.

Chained represents MGM film-making at its most facile and frivolous. The paper-thin plot and cardboard cut-out characters could easily have sunk this movie but MGM gives it the full-floss high-glamour treatment. The sets are gorgeous. Crawford’s dresses and hairstyles are gorgeous. Gable and Crawford exude charm, glamour and beauty. Crawford is at her most alluring. She radiates sex, and whenever the creaky ploy falters she simply turns up the sex appeal a little more.

With the reliable but fairly conventional Clarence Brown at the helm this movie is competently directed, with Brown content to let his two leads carry the picture with their very considerable star quality. With Gable and Crawford steaming up the screen whenever they’re together this turns out to be a sound approach and despite its lack of any depth whatsoever it’s charming harmless fun.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Send Me No Flowers (1964)

The first of the romantic comedies to pair Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk, was both an absolute delight and a box-office smash. Their second outing, Lover Come Back, repeated the formula and surprisingly was almost as good. Their third and final teaming in Send Me No Flowers proved that lightning might strike twice, but it doesn't strike three times. This one just doesn't quite make it.

That's not to say that it isn't entertaining, but the magic is just somehow lacking.

Hudson is George Kimball, the world’s biggest hypochondriac. On yet another visit to his doctor he overhears a telephone call. The doctor is discussing another patient who has only a few weeks to live, and of course he thinks he’s the one who is about to die.

Once he gets over the shock he decides that his first priority must be to line up a new husband for his wife Judy (Doris Day). The bumbling efforts of George and his best friend Arnold (Tony Randall) to find Judy a suitable new mate have the effect of making her suspect that George is actually having an affair.

The slightness of the plot is no problem. The lead actors are all good enough to produce movie magic out of the flimsiest of comedy plots. The problem isn’t even the script. There are amusing gags and funny situations and again with three comic talents of the stature of Day, Hudson and Randall even a slightly weak script isn’t a fatal flaw.

The real problem is that the characters played by Day and Hudson are already married. The fun of any Doris Day romantic comedy is the sexual tension between her and her leafing man. For all the nonsense that has been written about Day as the eternal virgin her romantic comedies were all sex comedies and they worked because with any halfway decent leading man Day could produce an impressive quantity of sexual chemistry. She and Clark Gable sizzled in Teacher's Pet, and she and Hudson sizzled in Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. The sexual tension was there on both sides, and it provided the fuel that made those movies zing. Casting them as a married couple was a major error of judgment.

There’s another problem, and that’s the character of Judy. In all of Day’s best romantic comedies she plays a smart, strong, independent, opinionated career woman. That’s what she did well. In Send Me No Flowers she has to play a housewife and it just doesn’t suit her style. She doesn’t get to be feisty enough, and she doesn’t get to be sexy enough.

Hudson is OK, but he was always at his best in this type of movie when his leading lady had the opportunity to provide some fireworks and with Day forced to play such a low-key role he has no-one to bounce off. Even Tony Randall is somewhat dull, since there’s no love interest for him and all he has to do is get drunk. There’s just a general lack of sex in this movie.

I also have to say that Doris Day doesn’t look as good in this movie as in most of her other movies. Her hairstyles and her clothes are mostly decidedly on the dowdy side. Which doesn’t suit her.

Send Me No Flowers is a gently amusing and thoroughly harmless time-killer, but compared to the sparkle and the zip and the sexiness of Pillow Talk it’s a considerable disappointment.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

High Wall (1947)

I have a real weakness for 1940s movies dealing with psychiatry - they’re almost guaranteed to be goofy outrageous fun. Combine psychiatry with some film noir themes and style and you have a definite winner in my book. And while no-one is going to claim that High Wall is one of the great noirs it certainly delivers entertainment.

The movie opens with a bang. A car is being chased by the cops. Steve Kenet (Robert Taylor) is driving with his wife beside him. She appears to be unconscious but as we’re soon to discover she is in fact already dead. Suddenly the car veers off the road and crashes. Meanwhile respectable businessman Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall) has been told that his secretary left the office hurriedly after her husband suddenly returned after being overseas for two years.

The dead woman in the car is the missing secretary and Whitcombe is called in to identify the body. The husband has survived the crash but seems confused and is mumbling that he has killed his wife. The rather zealous DA sees it as an open-and-shut case but a pesky doctor insists that Kenet be sent off for a psychiatric assessment. Kenet, a pilot, had brain surgery during the war and has recently suffered another head injury. Much to the DA’s disgust the psychiatrist who examines him decides he is unfit to stand trial.

That could change if he had another operation but he will not consent to this. Is he hoping to get off the murder charge on a plea of insanity, or is he in fact trying to avoid a trial because he doesn’t want to take the chance of being acquitted? Is he determined to be punished for a crime of which he has no clear recollection? Psychiatrist Dr Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter) is fascinated by the case. Initially convinced of Kenet’s guilt she gradually coms to suspect that perhaps he is not guilty after all. Kenet is also starting to winder of he really killed his wife.

What follows is classic 40s psychiatry movie stuff, with hypnosis and sodium pentathol (the truth drug so beloved of spy writers) being used as magical keys to unlock the parts of his memory that Kenet has blocked out. It’s not overly difficult to figure out what actually happened on the fateful day in question - the suspense coms from Kenet’s struggle to uncover the truth and his race against time to do so before it’s too late and he finds himself committed to an insane asylum permanently.

Naturally Dr Lorrison gets involved with her patient to a degree that any reputable therapist would regard as highly unprofessional but it wouldn’t be a proper psychiatry movie if she didn’t (think of Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound. And it was almost a rule that the psychiatrist in question had to be young, attractive and female.

In 1947 Robert Taylor, obviously realising that his days as a matinee idol were numbered, had just started to reinvent himself as a much darker sort of actor. It was an experiment that proved highly successful and Taylor went on to give some superb performances in noirish thrillers like The Bribe and Rogue Cop. His performance is one of the highlights of High Wall - he’s sympathetic but with lots of rough edges. Audrey Totter and Herbert Marshall are both very solid.

This was an MGM picture but it has a very definite film noir look and atmosphere.

Of course the plot can’t be taken seriously but if you disregard that and just enjoy the ride you’ll find this a highly entertaining little movie. Unfortunately this one doesn’t appear to be available on DVD but if it turns up on cable TV it’s well worth watching.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is more or less what you expect from a Warner Brothers pre-code film that focuses on both crime and newspaper reporters. It’s a fast-moving and fast-talking, cynical, hard-boiled combination of drama. comedy am romance.

With the very competent Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, and with two perfect pre-code leads in the shape of Ann Dvorak and Lee Tracy, it sparkles and wise-cracks its way through its very brief 73-minute running time, scarcely pausing long enough to catch its breath.

Ann Dvorak is Molly Louvain, a young woman who thinks that life is finally going to give her an even break. Her mother had abandoned when she was a kid, but now she’s found a rich young man who has promised to marry her. Unfortunately when she turns up at his family’s house for the celebrations marking her engagement she find that the whole family has hurriedly decamped. Apparently they decided that the heir to the family name was not going to marry some foundling who works at a cigar counter at a hotel.

This is bad enough, but Molly is pregnant as well. She had two other male admirers, a good-hearted but penniless bell-hop who worked at the same hotel and a smooth operator named Nicky Grant. She makes her choice, and throws in her lot with Nicky. But Nicky turns out to be more of a crook than she’d realised and their life together is mostly spent evading the cops. Meanwhile her daughter is being cared for by a foster mother.

Molly is working as a hostess at a dance-hall when her life takes a fateful turn. She runs into the bell-hop again. He’s now a medical student, still wet behind the ears and still in love with her. She also meets Scotty Cornell, a motor-mouthed newspaper reporter. He has literary aspirations and he’s also hoping to snare a contract as a Hollywood screenwriter. Molly and the bell-hop got mixed up in Nicky’s latest bungled robbery and now the cops have decided that Molly is the leader of a major criminal gang, and they’re closing in on her. Scotty is closing in on her as well, but with different intentions. He offers to take her to Paris with him. He isn’t offering marriage, just a life of sin and fun.

The sparks fly and the wise-cracks come thick and fast when Dvorak and Lee Tracy are onscreen together. They’re both charmingly and cheerfully amoral, and while the supporting players are competent it’s Dvorak and Tracy who carry the movie and they do so effortlessly.

This is unmistakably a pre-code production, with no big deal being made about Molly’s having a child out of wedlock, and with a similarly casual attitude towards Scotty’s offer to take Molly to Paris with him as his mistress. And of course there’s the obligatory pre-code scene of the lead actress stripping down to sexy underwear.

Highly entertaining if somewhat lightweight and mildly naughty fun. Most definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nora Prentiss (1947)

Nora Prentiss is a 1947 film noir that is often overlooked but has enough quirks to make it worth seeking out.

It’s more a noir melodrama than a conventional noir, but that’s fine by me since I quite like 40s melodramas. There are crimes of a sort in this movie, but no criminals.

Richard Talbot is a respected, pleasant but rather dull San Francisco heart specialist. He has a very successful medical practice, a comfortable home, plenty of home, a devoted wife and two well-behaved children. He should be content. And he is. Until one fateful day when a woman is knocked down in front of his office. She’s not badly hurt, just a few bruises, easily dealt with in his surgery.

The woman is Nora Prentiss, a night-club singer, and she’s much less respectable than Dr Talbot’s wife. And much more exciting. She’s vastly amused by this rather stuffy doctor who is very disturbed by her shapely legs, and even more disturbed by her willingness to display those legs. She’s even more amused when he rather sheepishly asks her the name of the night-club where she sings. And her amusement knows no bounds when he then turns up at the club with a story that his wife is out of town for the weekend.

Her amusement starts to turn to affection when she realises he really is quite clueless about women and is hardly even aware that he is making a very clumsy attempt at a seduction. He might be na├»ve about women but he’s kind of sweet, and she’s not used to men who treat her like a lady. His marriage might appear to be successful but the passion and the fun have gone out of it, and Nora is fun to be with. Underneath her tough cookie exterior Nora is lonely and craves the kind of affection that Dr Talbot is all too willing to show. Inevitably they drift into an affair.

Of course the strain of conducting a clandestine affair soon starts to tell on them. Richard can neither bring himself to ask his wife for a divorce not bring himelf to give up Nora. Then fate steps in, offering what appears to be a way out.

At this point the movie begins to move from being a fairly straightforward romance into full-on melodrama territory. The plot becomes increasingly contrived and unlikely, and increasingly reliant on coincidences, but this is not a weakness. This movie obeys the rules of melodrama, and contrivance and coincidence are assets in this genre. They are necessary in order to bring about the requred workings of fate.

The movie also plays some interesting games with characterisation. When we meet Nora we assume she’s going to be a Bad Girl/Femme Fatale character. Her behaviour, her dress, her provocative posing on the doctor’s examining table, her tough girl banter, all point to this. But she isn’t a femme fatale. Her affect on Dr Talbot’s life might be disastrous, but she’s really a nice girl who just wants to be loved.

Several key minor characters are dealt with in the same way. We’re led to make assumptions about the roles these characters will play and the sorts of people they’ll turn out to be, and those expectations turn out to be totally wrong. This is not done in a dishonest way, but it is done in such a way as to make us uncomfortably aware of the dangers of judging people, and of course of the dangers of judging Dr Talbot and Nora. He may be The Unfaithfull Husband and she may be The Other Woman but they’re real people who have real emotions and are trying their best (even if sometimes very unsuccessfully) to deal with a difficult situation.

The ending is unexpected and rather bizarre, but unlike the endings of so many noirs it’s a satisfying ending.

Ann Sheridan is very good as Nora. Kent Smith was one of those actors who got as far as playing leads in B-movies but never quite made the big time. His superb performance in Nora Prentiss suggests that he deserved better.

Nora Prentiss benefits from fine cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, and competent direction by Vincent Sherman. It uses some standard noir techniques such as telling most of the story in a flashback but it uses this device effectively and for a purpose. It’s both a film noir and a “women’s picture” as the term was understood in the 40s and it manages to be an intriguing example of both genres. A movie that certainly deserves more recognition than it’s received. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939)

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt is a lightweight spy thriller played mostly for laughs. It’s really a sort of screwball comedy with spies.

Michael Lanyard was a notorious safe-cracker who used to go by the name of The Lone Wolf but he’s long since reformed. His past comes back to haunt him when a spy ring kidnaps him and tries to frame him for stealing top-secret weapons plans from a safe in the War Department.

Lanyard isn’t all that easy to get the better of though and when they try the same stunt again he switches the plans on them. The spies make various attempts to retrieve the plans while Lanyard not only has to try to foil their plans, he also has to keep one step ahead of the police.

The plot isn’t exactly inspired and the twists are fairly predictable. Since it’s being played mainly as a comedy that doesn’t matter too much. Unfortunately the script doesn’t really have too much sparkle to it. But it does boast an interesting cast.

Warren William plays the Lone Wolf and while he’s always watchable one can’t help thinking that this sort of essentially comic role was a reprehensible waste of his unique talents. The really interesting casting choices are the two main female roles, two actresses who had not yet found their niche in Hollywood and are playing roles that are very unexpected.

Firstly we have Ida Lupino as the hero’s ditzy blonde girlfriend, and she’s there to provide most of the comic relief. Whatever misgivings she may have had when she read the script it has to be admitted that Lupino approaches the part with her usual commitment and energy. And somehow or other she just about carries it off. In fact she’s probably the best thing about this movie.

Secondly, and even more surprisingly, we have Rita Hayworth as a heavy! She’s the number two in the enemy spy ring but she gets to do most of the dirty work, using a mixture of threats and seduction. She handles the seductive aspects fairly well but being threatened with violence by Rita Hayworth isn’t particularly scary. It’s a bizarre piece of miscasting and she never comes to terms with the part.

So far it must sound as if I really disliked this movie but while it reaches no great heights it’s still harmless entertainment. It’s strictly B-movie stuff but if you can accept it for what it is then it’s reasonably enjoyable. And Lupino is fun.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Wild Oranges (1924)

Wild Oranges is an outrageously over-the-top 1924 melodrama directed by King Vidor.

The movie opens with a kind of tragic prologue. A newly married young couple are riding in their buggy when their horse is spooked. The wife falls from the buggy and is killed. The distraught widower, John Woolfolk, vows to turn his back on love forever.

Woolfolk takes to the sea in his yacht, alone apart from one crewman and companion. Some years later he puts in at a remote inlet on the Georgia coast. An old man lives in an isolated house with his grand-daughter Millie, fearful of the outside world. A strange young man named Nicholas has attached himself to them. He’s both child-like and violent, and he is obsessed with Millie.

John Woolfolk finds himself drawn to Millie despite his fears of being hurt by love. Millie and her grand-father are completely cowed by Nicholas. A series of violent altercations between John Woolfolk’s crewman and Nicholas ensues. Woolfolk realises he will have to take the initiative and arrange an escape.

This movie has practically all the features that so many people find off-putting in silent movies - the histrionic acting, the wildly melodramatic plot, the complete absence of any sense of realism. But in this movie these faults become virtues. This is a movie that makes no apologies for being a melodrama. It positively revels in its melodramatic nature. If you can accept that then you’ll find that the acting styles actually work.

Wild Oranges is more than anything else a film about two people trying desperately to escape from life, and coming to realise that they cannot continue to run way, and that they no longer want to do so. They learn to accept life, with all its risks and heart-breaks.

Vidor was already a well-established experienced director and he handles the action with complete assurance. The TCM print preserves the original tinting - a feature of many silent movies that I find particularly attractive and effective in evoking mood. Picture quality is excellent.

A highly enjoyable romantic melodrama, but if you dislike melodrama you may find it heavy going. I liked it a lot.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933)

The Secret of Madame Blanche is a sentimental melodrama about thwarted mother love. As such it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes but it’s a decent example of this type of film.

Irene Dunne is a American showgirl named Sally on tour in London in the 1890s. She meets a man who takes a shine to her and who is not prepared to take no for an answer. He eventually wins her over. He’s a gentleman, good-looking and charming, but unfortunately financially totally dependent on his father. He’s also quite incapable of performing any useful work, having been brought up to expect that he would never need to sully his hands with anything quite so distasteful.

Having decided that it’s true love they get married. His father is more than a little displeased. In fact he cuts him off without a penny. Disaster looms, and his efforts to persuade his father to accept the marriage are in vain. A series of catastrophes ensue, Sally ends up with a child to support on her own, but worse is to come. Twenty years later an unlikely reunion will plummet Sally into even further misfortunes. I’m trying here to be as vague as possible so as not to spoil a lot with many twists and turns.

Irene Dunne is reasonably good, especially in the early part of the movie as the young showgirl. Lionel Atwill is truly the father-in-law from Hell, a performance of sustained wickedness, selfishness, stubbornness, cruelty, vindictiveness and all-round bloody-mindedness that is all the more chilling because Atwill avoids the temptation to overact.

This is very much a movie about the wicked aristocracy abusing its powers and behaving very badly indeed in just about every way. There are three generations of the St John family males represented, all of them appalling in their own ways.

There’s a degree of self-sacrifice on the part of the mother that may well have modern audiences shaking their heads in disbelief. It’s all very overwrought, and in the true style of melodrama there’s an excessive reliance on amazing coincidences and the inescapable nature of Fate.

There are some minor pre-code features, with some of Sally’s misfortunes stemming from the social disgrace of working in what is clearly a brothel although it’s equally clear that Sally herself is not a prostitute. And like so many pre-code movies it takes a rather jaundiced look at family life.

While I rather enjoy melodramas this one, to my way of thinking, doesn’t quite make the top grade. Still worth a look if it shows up on cable (it was screened in Australia by TCM so there’s every likelihood it will turn up on TCM elsewhere).