Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

The Bad and the Beautiful is one of two great movies about the movie industry itself to be directed by Vincente Minnelli (the other being Two Weeks in Another Town which interestingly enough also starred Kirk Douglas).

When you mention Minnelli you think of musicals but he had a real flair for full-blown melodrama with a surprisingly dark touch.

The film opens with big-time movie producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) on the skids.  As his business manager says at the moment he can’t raise 25 cents on the name Jonathan Shields. But Shields wants to make a comeback and he’s trying to enlist the help  of three people who played a major part in his career when he was one of the biggest players in Hollywood. 

Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) is the hottest actress in Hollywood, James Lee Bartlow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is a top director. All have won Oscars and gone on to glittering careers after working with Jonathan, but all three have vowed never to work with him again. In a series of flashbacks we find out why.

Jonathan is a monster, an egotistical megalomamiac, a manipulative liar and a man who’d sell his soul to raise money to make a picture. He’s also a great man, the kind of larger-than-life character who made Hollywood great. And while Georgia James Lee and Fred all have reasons to hate him the fact is that they would have been nothing in Hollywood without him.

Fred had ambitions but lacked the push to get deals done. Jonathan supplied that push. James Lee would have stayed in his sleepy southern college town forever without Shields. And without Jonathan Georgia would still be a self-pitying drunk drifting from one man’s bed to another.

The stories of these three people are told in three extended flashback sequences. Minnelli directs proceedings with plenty of style and energy. While this picture is in the tradition of Hollywood movies about Hollywood itself this is no Sunset Boulevard Sunset Boulevard. Minnelli and screenwriter Charles Schnee lack Billy Wilder’s all-consuming misanthropy and while they don’t avoid Tinseltown’s dark side they can see the other side as well. Not that I dislike Sunset Boulevard, but this is a different kind of film. 

Most importantlyMinnelli and Schnee see Hollywood as being just like Jonathan Shields - the things that make it monstrous are the very things that make it great.

It’s a rather grown-up movie for 1952. Jonathan’s sexual tastes (he likes cheap starlets) and Georgia’s open-bed policy as far as sex is concerned are discussed openly and non-judgmentally. There’s a great deal of extra-marital sex going on in this movie and it’s treated in a remarkably casual manner.
Kirk Douglas is crucial to the film’s success. We must admire Jonathan even as we’re appalled by him, and we must continue to care what happens to him. Douglas achieves both objectives. Lana Turner is unexpectedly good as Georgia while Gloria Grahame contributes a memorable turn as James Lee’s cheerfully randy (and terrifyingly greedy and manipulative) wife. There are no weak acting performances at all in this film. Also look out for Leo G. Carroll as a pompous English film director. 

This is the kind of big-budget over-the-top melodrama that became extremely unfashionable after the rise of auteurist criticism and the New American Cinema in the late 60s. I must confess there was a time when I would have sneered at a movie like this. The arrogance of youth! 

Thankfully I’m over that now and can enjoy movies like The Bad and the Beautiful without guilt. If you too have a taste for melodrama and excess then I recommend this one very highly.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Polly of the Circus (1932)

Polly of the Circus tells the tale of a circus trapeze artist who falls in love with a preacher.

Arriving in a small unnamed town young Polly is outraged to see that her posters have been defaced by moral crusaders. Her skimpy costume has been augmented on billboards by the addition of skirts and even bloomers. She assumes (wrongly) that the local Episcopalian minister, the Rev John Hartley, is responsible. In fact the young preacher is a keen circus fan and he’s in the audience at their first performance.

When a heckler makes some remark about her costume and the posters Polly loses concentration and plunges 50 feet to the ground. The minister insists that the hospital is too far away and the girl too badly injured to survive the trip so he suggests she be taken to his home. When the doctor examines her he has good news - there is no permanent damage but Polly will need at least three weeks to recover. In fact her recovery takes much longer, which may have something to do with the fact that the Rev Hartley is a young, handsome, hunky and unmarried clergyman.

It’s not long before they’re both madly in love. But John Hartley is devoted to the Church and has ambitions (his uncle is a bishop). Will his congregation accept a circus girl as a minister’s wife? Will any congregation accept such a scandalous marriage? Will true love eventually triumph, or will it all end in tragedy?

With the trapeze artist being played by Marion Davies and the preacher being played by Clark Gable we have here the makings of a delightful breezy romantic comedy. Alas, it is not to be. Polly of the Circus takes a different direction and we end up with a somewhat corny sentimental romantic melodrama. I have no problems with romantic melodramas but this one is a little too contrived. I can’t help regretting the romantic comedy that might have been.

All is not lost however. Despite being a very surprising casting choice as an earnest and rather pious man of the cloth Gable gives a pretty reasonable performance. Being Gable he can’t help making John Hartley a rather likeable character with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and that works to the movie’s advantage. We need to be sympathetic towards the preacher.

Marion Davies is adorable. She’s lively, free-spirited and very sexy and we have no difficulty in believing that the young churchman would fall madly in love with her, or that he would be prepared to sacrifice everything for her. Gable and Davies have plenty of chemistry and they manage to make the movie quite watchable despite its faults.

While the script is certainly a weakness the bigger problem is that the story was already an old one (it had in fact already been filmed as early as 1917) and by 1932 was starting to look a bit dated. While it’s reasonable to assume that in 1932 a circus performer might have been considered a less than ideal matrimonial choice for an up-and-coming minister one can’t help wondering if it would have been quite such a big deal as the movie suggests. Polly is a bit of a rough diamond but she’s not exactly a brazen hussy.

There’s not much that’s distinctively pre-code in this production. There’s no suggestion that Polly’s life has been a procession of sin and debauchery, in fact she’s pretty virtuous.

Polly of the Circus is worth a look if you’re a fan of Clark Gable and/or Marion Davies. Don’t expect too much of it though.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940)

Michael Shayne: Private Detective was the first of Fox’s popular series of crime B-movies based on the novels of Brett Halliday. Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne novels were among the most popular hardboiled private eye novels of the 1940s. Halliday wrote dozens of them, and after he stopped writing them in 1958 the series was continued by other authors until the mid-70s. Almost immediately following the success of Halliday’s first novel Fox snapped up the film rights. Fox made seven Michael Shayne movies, PRC made half-a-dozen more, there was a radio series and a TV series. The novels still have a following among mystery fans, and four of the Fox movies are available on DVD. While the novels were very much in the hardboiled tradition the movies have a very different feel. They’re much lighter in tone, and with considerable additions of comedy. And Lloyd Nolan is about as unlike the book’s hero as any actor you could possibly imagine. So if you’re looking for hardbitten dialogue and dark tales of the seamy side of big-city life you won’t find those things in the movies. On the other hand if you enjoy that 1940s style of mystery-laced-with-comedy crime B-movie then there’s a good deal to enjoy in Michael Shayne: Private Detective. This was the only one of the movies that actually followed the plot of one of the original novels, Dividend on Death. Halliday had a reputation for very tight plotting and this certainly helps. Michael Shayne is a private detective so far down on his luck that his office furniture is being repossessed as the movie opens. Shayne is a hard man to keep down though. He has an irrepressible confidence that something will turn up, and indeed it does. What turns up is a case that Shayne rejects, followed immediately by another case that he accepts. Both cases are however inextricably linked. Shayne finds himself trying to keep a rich man’s daughter out of trouble (she has a fondness for gambling coupled with extemeky poor luck). There are missing persons, shady dealings at the racetrack, bogus murders and real murders, some disreputable gamblers, some bumbling cops and some over-keen amateur detectives. Michael Shayne takes it all in his stride. Being a major studio B-movie the production values are reasonably high and the supporting cast is solid. And while Lloyd Nolan is ludicrously miscast as the hero of the novels he solves the problem by creating a totally different character that does suit his style. The DVD includes a brief but interesting featurette dealing with both the books and the movies. If you’re a lover of the 40s style of slightly tongue-in-cheek B-movie mysteries this one is certainly worth catching.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Frisco Jenny (1932)

The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 brings us six pre-code movies directed by William A. Wellman. I already had mixed feelings about this director, and Frisco Jenny only served to confirm many of my forebodings.

Ruth Chatterton is Jenny, raised by a violent bar owner in San Francisco’s notorious red-light district, the Barbary Coast. She gets herself pregnant by a piano player but things are about to get much worse. It is 1906, and San Francisco is about to be devastated by the famous earthquake. Jenny is left alone in the world to raise her son. She soon finds the financial means to do so, becoming on of the city’s most successful brothel operators.

She prospers, partly thanks to her association with crooked but charming lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern). But Jenny is still dogged by bad luck. Dutton shoots a man for cheating at dice and Jenny’s efforts to shield him bring her to the attention of the Children’s Welfare League. Faced with the prospect o losing her child she agrees with Steve’s plan to send the son off to love with some respectable friends of his. But then when she goes to reclaim the boy she can’t bear to tear him away from his new happy home. This is the first of a series of annoyingly self-sacrificing acts, and it marks the movie’s first descent into the perilous depths of sentimentality. It’s also the point where the plot starts to become increasingly contrived and unconvincing.

Jenny and Steve become the uncrowned queen and king of San Francisco vice, while Jenny’s son Dan grows up into a mealy-mouthed moralising do-gooder. Eventually he becomes the crusading District Attorney determined to stamp out wicked criminals like his mother. Only he doesn’t know that the infamous Jenny is his mother. And the plot just keeps getting more and more contrived, while Jenny manages to become more and more self-sacrificing. But she’s just warming up. The stage is set for a breathtakingly maudlin ending.

This is basically a turgid crime-doesn’t-pay melodrama. Jenny is certainly the heroine of the movie, despite being so wicked, but her manic self-sacrificing makes her an irritating heroine and this is not one of those pre-code movies where bad girls get to enjoy being bad girls. In this one bad girls face inevitable retribution. The film could have been made without any major changes in the post-Code era - it has more than enough punishment of uppity women to have satisfied even Joe Breen.

Ruth Chatterton does her best but the script is awful and as a result many of her scenes don’t ring true. She’s good in the early part of the movie but her performance fall apart as the movie progresses. Louis Calhern as Steve Dutton is the film’s one bright spot.

It’s unusual to see a movie involving the San Francisco earthquake that has the earthquake at the beginning rather than the end of the movie. The earthquake is rendered with a mix of stock footage and rather unconvincing miniatures but it’s reasonably effective.

Wellman’s direction is generally dull. Turgid is the word I keep coming back to in relation to this movie.

However the major problems I have with this movie come down to two things. Firstly, overly self-sacrificing characters alienate me rather than making me care about them. Secondly, I couldn’t help getting the impression that I was being emotionally manipulated in a clumsy and rather phony way, that I was being instructed in how to feel rather than having the chance to make up my own mind.

I really can’t recommend this one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Raintree County (1957)

Raintree County is a movie that very few people have a good word for. For many it represents everything that was wrong with Hollywood in the 50s, being overlong, overblown, over-produced and and overloaded with stars. Personally I think it’s a surprisingly interesting film.

Its main claim to fame (or infamy) is of course the fact that Montgomery Clift had his near-fatal car accident during the filming.

It is 1859 and a group of young people are celebrating their graduation from the local academy in a small town in Indiana. Raintree County takes its name from a local legend about a mysterious raintree. Many have searched for the raintree but none have found it. But then it’s one of those things you’re not supposed to find; the search is what matters.

John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) and Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) are close friends and there seem to be an unspoken assumption that in the fullness of time they will marry. John does have a rival for her affections, in the form of the cynical Garwood Jones (Rod Taylor), but Nell is hopelessly in love with him and there is no doubting which of her suitors she will choose. Unfortunately for Nell trouble is about to arrive in the form of Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor).

Susanna is a southern belle and it’s never quite clear what she is doing in a hick town in the backwoods of Indiana. What matters is that for John and Susanna it is love at first sight. John is swept off his feet. John and Susanna get to know one another quite well during a 4th of July celebratory picnic, so well in fact that not long afterwards Susanna informs him that they are expecting a Happy Event. John is the kind of guy who will always do the right thing so there is never any doubt that he will marry her. He’s crazy about her anyway, so it’s not exactly a great sacrifice on his part.

Susanna is crazy about him as well, but unfortunately she’s also just plain crazy. She has never recovered from the psychological effects of a disastrous that destroyed the family mansion and killed her parents as well as her much-loved nanny Henrietta. There was a major scandal surrounding this fire, with rumours that her father had been having an affair with Henrietta. This being the South, Henrietta was both black and a slave. Susanna is haunted by memories of the fire, and also by a strange dread that she herself might be not entirely white.

As the Civil War rages Susanna becomes progressively more unstable until finally she disappears, taking their son with her. John is determined, despite the war, to find her.

There’s a lovely and amusing performance by Nigel Patrick as the professor at the local academy, an individual who combines cynicism, scepticism and idealism in a way that both disturbs and inspires his students. Lee Marvin is fun as the boozy but good-natured Flash Perkins.

The problem is John Shawnessy. And the problems with John Shawnessy stem from a lifeless performance by Montgomery Clift and the fact that he’s a character who is essentially an observer of life. There’s the danger that this type of character can end up coming across as bland and uninteresting and that’s what happens here. Clift was having problems with pills and booze even before the accident but the script is as much to blame as his acting.
There is one thing that makes this film worth watching, and that’s Susanna. She’s by far the most complex character in the movie and Elizabeth Taylor’s performance is by far the best in the movie as well. And this is where the movie gets interesting since it raises the always intriguing (to me at any rate) question of the differing ways that audiences in the 50s and audiences today would respond to such a character.

In some ways an audience today would be more sympathetic towards Susanna, seeing her more as a victim (of childhood trauma and/or mental illness) and less in moral terms. On the other hand her beliefs and many of her actions would have been much less shocking to audiences in 1957.

It’s clear though that Susanna was always intended to be an ambiguous character. Although she’s superficially set up as the Bad Girl to Eva Marie Saint’s Good Girl, it’s significant that Susanna doesn’t actually commit any of the sins that would have damned her in the eyes of an audience in 1957. She’s a faithful wife, she tries to be a good mother, and she’s willing to sacrifice herself for her husband. It’s true that she traps John into marriage (she wasn’t really pregnant) but he’d already fallen for her anyway. And we’re not told what exactly happened at that memorable 4th of July picnic - was it a deliberate act of seduction on Susanna’s part or simply two young people celebrating their nation’s birthday a little too enthusiastically? Nell makes a remark at one point suggesting that it was extremely common for such celebrations to end in such a manner.

The movie did Elizabeth Taylor no harm. I gained her an Oscar nomination, and as she later remarked, it taught her to “climb walls and chew scenery” - skills she was to put to good use in the coming years. Even though it is a little over-the-top she is careful not to portray Susanna as a stereotypical Wicked Woman, and she remains a sympathetic character.

It’s certainly a flawed movie, and desperately needed tightening up. Clift’s performance is a major deficit, especially since one of the key questions driving the plot is whether his devotion to his wife is motivated by pity or by love. Clift is so vague that we end up not having the slightest idea as to the answer. Worth watching though for the very complex and ambiguous female lead character and for Elizabeth Taylor’s performance.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Lady in Cement (1968)

Lady in Cement was the sequel to Tony Rome, with Frank Sinatra again playing a rather seedy private eye in what is really very much a B-movie. If you accept it as a B-movie it’s decent enough entertainment.

It was made in 1968, a somewhat awkward but interesting period for American movies. This was the year the Hollywood Production Code finally died, and it was also a time when mainstream Hollywood was trying to come to terms with the whole youth culture/counter-culture/Swinging 60s thing. Exploitation film-makers like Roger Corman had already demonstrated how profitable this could be. So Lady in Cement is a slightly uneasy attempt to combine a fairly routine hardboiled private eye movie with a bit of sleaze (strip joints and brief nudity) and some youth culture (go-go dancers) and with a dash of 60s decadence (the spoilt rich girl gone bad).

Tony Rome is a Miami PI who lives on a houseboat, has lots of debts (mostly to his bookie) and an unusual hobby. He’s into scuba diving, but not just scuba diving but scuba diving combined with treasure hunting. He’s trying to locate the wrecks of some Spanish galleons that went down off the Florida coast, laden with gold. He doesn’t find the galleons. What he does find at the bottom of the sea floor is a blonde. A very dead blonde. She’s dead on account of the fact that her feet are encased in a large concrete block. Since that’s not the sort of thing that generally happens by accident Tony figures he’d better let his friends at the Homicide Squad know about this.

The blonde’s name is Sandra, a dancer at a sleazy joint called Jillie’s. Tony gets comprehensively involved when he’s hired by a very big and very tough guy, Waldo Bronsky (Dan Blocker), to find Sandra. Waldo insists she’s alive. The trail leads Tony to the home of Kit Forrest (Raquel Welch). Kit is very very rich. And she has a hobby as well. Her hobby is getting drunk. Very drunk. Very regularly. She throws great parties, although she usually has no idea who the guests are. And she has a friend who’s a mobster. Also Sandra was at one of Kit’s parties the night she ended up at the bottom of the ocean, so it seems reasonable to start the investigation with her. Meanwhile Waldo is turning out to be a very eccentric client indeed.

The plot is your typical convoluted murder mystery plot. It works mostly because it has a cast that is both strong and interestingly off-beat. Richard Conte always made a good hardboiled cop, and he does well here as Tony’s buddy who happens to be head of the Homicide Squad.

This is a movie that tries to be both hardboiled and tongue-in-cheek, and Raquel Welch’s performance suits the tone of the movie perfectly. She also gets to sport some incredibly outrageous 60s hairstyles. Dan Blocker, best known as Hoss in the long-running Bonanza TV series, is the big surprise. He’s simply delightful, and like Welch he strikes the right balance between jokiness and seriousness. He’s both very scary and likably vulnerable.

And then there’s Sinatra, a very fine but rather underrated actor. Sinatra had a reputation for being a lazy actor, disliking the idea of ever doing more than one take, but in this case his very laid-back approach works just fine.

Major changes were happening in Hollywood at this time, and the kinds of movies that used to be made as B-movies (sci-fi movies, cop thrillers, horror movies) were about to become A-pictures, and were about to start taking themselves very seriously. And movies like Lady in Cement would be left looking like odd period pieces. It’s the sort of movie that probably wouldn’t have got made five years later but that’s part of its charm. It’s unassuming entertainment, and I rather liked it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon had already been filmed twice by Warner Brothers before John Huston’s clasic 1941 version appeared. That might lead you to expect that the earlier versions were very poor adaptations. In the case of the original 1931 version, that expectation turns out to be dead wrong.

While it’s not as good as Huston’s film the 1931 version is still a splendid little effort in its own right. And it’s very much a pre-code movie as well. Director Roy del Ruth was no auteur but he was extremely competent and this is the kind of material he handled particularly well.

The plot flows Hammett’s novel reasonably closely. A beautiful woman (Ruth Wonderly, played by Bebe Daniels) turns in up in private eye Sam Spade’s office with a concocted story about a kidnapped sister. She wants the suspected kidnapper tailed, and in the course of doing this Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot to death. This doesn’t exactly break Spade’s heart, especially given that he was having an affair with Archer’s wife, but he is annoyed when it becomes evident that Ruth’s story was a pack of lies.

What is really going on, of course, is that an assortment of adventurers and thieves is trying to get hold of a statuette of a falcon, a statuette give as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by the Knights of St John in the 16th century. The falcon is rumoured to be made f pure gold an encrusted with fabulously valuable jewels although its appearance has since been disguised by a coating of black enamel. Spade gets interested himself when he finds out just how much money the bird is worth, but he has to deal with some very shady dealing by just about everyone involved and there’s also the matter of two murders (Spade’s partner Miles Archer and the guy he was tailing both being now dead), and to make things more annoying the police are keen to put Spade himself in the frame for both killings.

Ricardo Cortez makes a very good Sam Spade. He’s hardbitten and cynical and sleazy, and he’s also an indefatigable womaniser. Bebe Daniels is sexy and manipulative as Ruth (the character better now as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the 1941 version). Dudley Digges as Gutman and Oto Matieson as Joel Cairo inevitably don’t measure up to the performances given by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in the ‘41 version (no-one possibly could measure up), but if you can put the Greenstreet and Lorre characterisations out of your mind then Digges and Matieson are actually pretty good. Une Merkel is marvellous as always, as Spade’s secretary Effie. And look out for Dwight Frye in the role of the punk played by Elisha Cook Jr in the later film - Frye is very creepy indeed as usual.

The big advantage this movie has over Huston’s is that it’s a pre-code movie. There’s a lot more sex. This is a delightfully naughty and cheerfully immoral pre-code production. There’s plenty of implied nudity, and it’s obvious that Sam Spade is bedding Ruth Wonderly at the same time as he’s still sleeping with Miles Archer’s widow, and he’s pretty friendly with Effie as well. Thelma Todd as Iva Archer gets to deliver a classic pre-code line about “the dame wearing my kimono” when she discovers that Sam has just spent the night with Ruth. The homosexual connotations of the relationship between Caspar Gutman and his faithful gunman Wilmer (which are fairly explicit in the novel) are also made rather obvious.

This movie manages to combine both pre-code wickedness and hardboiled crime drama with some sly humour and a fair amount of both cynicism and irony (especially in regard to the question of the reality of the falcon legend).

While it might not be able to match Huston’s masterpiece it’s still a very very good movie that stands very successfully on its own merits. Highly recommended, and an absolute must for fans of pre-code cinema.