Monday, January 15, 2018

The Young in Heart (1938)

The Young in Heart (1938)

"And here came the Carletons, a merry little streamlined family exuding charm and a touch of larceny with every fortune-hunting smile..."

Producer David O. Selznick was in a bind. Gone With the Wind was costing his production company Selznick International Pictures a lot of money and they hadn't even started filming. Selznick knew that without any incoming cash flow there was no way he was going to be able to continue. He set out to make a few pictures in the interim that would generate some much needed box office returns. One of those movies was The Young in Heart (1938).

The Carletons are a family of con artists. There is Sahib (Roland Young) the monocle wearing, poker playing patriarch, his loving yet ditzy wife Marmy (Billie Burke) and their two kids the suave Richard (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and the head strong George-Anne (Janet Gaynor). They travel around targeting wealthy socialites in hopes of conning them out of their money. The Carletons are working their prey at a resort in the Riviera. Richard has his eye on a plain jane socialite with a bankable dowry. George-Anne has a handsome yet not-so-rich Scotsman, Duncan (Richard Carlson) at her beck and call.

"You're so young. When you're old night comes too soon."

When the resort proprietors catch on, the Carletons are presented with a one-way train ticket back to London. On their journey, they meet a sweet older woman with a peculiar name, Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree). She recently inherited a mansion and much wealth from an old beau. George-Anne sees an opportunity to get into the lady's good graces. She convinces her family to be kind to the lady in hopes they might be written into her will. But they all get a lot more then they bargained for. When George-Anne suggests they start acting like normal, hard-working folks instead of socializing gadabouts, they're reluctant at first. But then they find that they kind of like this new lifestyle. Sahib becomes a successful salesman at a car dealership. Richard gets a job at an engineering plant and falls for the secretary Leslie Saunders (Paulette Goddard). And they begin to care for Miss Fortune in a way that hadn't expected. George-Anne doesn't think any of them are capable of change and keeps beau Duncan at bay because she doesn't think she's good enough. Will the Carletons be able to con their way into Miss Fortune's will? Or will their true nature be revealed?

Richard (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Leslie (Paulette Goddard) buy Miss Fortune a puppy.

Based on the novel The Gay Banditti by I.A.R. Wylie serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, The Young in Heart was the perfect picture for Selznick to produce pre-Gone With the Wind. According to to author Steve Wilson in his book The Making of Gone With the Wind, some of the cast members of The Young in Heart were considered for GWTW including Billie Burke, Paulette Goddard who had tried for the part of Scarlett O'Hara and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who turned down Ashley because he wanted to be Rhett.

The film was directed by Richard Wallace with some directorial work also completed by Lewis Milestone, Gilbert Pratt and Richard Thorpe. If the end of the film seems to have a different tone from the rest of the picture, it's because it was a new ending tacked on after the production had wrapped up. Test audiences reacted very negatively to the original ending. As a result, the plot was changed and the actors were called back to reshoot the final scenes.

The Flying Wombat, The Young in Heart (1938)
The Flying Wombat

William Cameron Menzies did the production design and went on to work with Selznick on Gone With the Wind. Vintage car enthusiasts will be mesmerized by the scenes at the Flying Wombat car dealership and by the car itself. These scenes are a final hurrah for the Art Deco era with its minimalist style and clean lines. The Flying Wombat was a Phantom Corsair that cost $12,000 to make. According to the AFI, it "was an experimental vehicle built by Rust Heinz of Pasadena, CA, with a body design by Maurice Schwatz." It was going to be produced in a limited run for the general public but that plan was canceled when Heinz suddenly died,

The cast of The Young in Heart is one of the best. Roland Young and Billie Burke are simply charming. I was blown away by Minnie Dupree who plays the kind hearted Miss Fortune. When I did some research on her, I was sad to see that she had only made two movies. Dupree was a celebrated stage actress and was brought on to this production when another actress dropped out at the last minute. Dupree gives the film much heart and I suspect she's the main reason why the ending was changed.

This film was not only Dupree's screen debut but also Richard Carlson's. Selznick offered the young actor, who proved to be quite the self-starter, a contract and Janet Gaynor encouraged Carlson to appear in the film. Besides delivering the worst Scottish accent ever, Carlson does a decent job in his debut. Paulette Goddard was also getting her start in film and this performance comes after Modern Times (1936). Gaynor at 32 and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at 29 were a bit too old for their parts. But they pull it off giving the film the youthfulness that was needed for the story. For Gaynor, this movie would be the last in a celebrated career before she retired (she made one more film appearance a couple decades later). Just the year before she had a stand out performance in the much celebrated A Star is Born (1937) and won an Academy Award. Gaynor married costume designer Gilbert Adrian and retired from the industry.

Selznick's film did well at the box office and went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards: Leon Shamroy for Best Cinematography and Best Music (Scoring and Original Score) for Franz Waxman.

I was utterly enchanted by The Young in Heart. It's just the sort of feel good movie that isn't sickly sweet with it's message. Rather it gently tugs at your heart strings. While the ending does feel rather abrupt and disjointed, I don't think my emotional state could have handled the alternative scenario. I loved watching the evolution of the Carleton family. They're an endearing foursome and I enjoyed watching them transform from no-good con artists to upstanding citizens.  If the film has one message it's that it doesn't matter what stage in life you are in, change is always possible.

The Young in Heart (1938) is a hidden gem, an obscure little film from a glorious era of filmmaking. It deserves more recognition than it currently receives. I dare you to watch it and not be charmed by it. Impossible.

Kino Lorber has released The Young in Heart (1938) on DVD and Blu-Ray. It doesn't have any extras yet it looks absolutely glorious on Blu-Ray.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of The Young in Heart (1938) to review.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Whales of August (1987)

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August  (1987)

"Passion and truth -- that's all we need." - Sarah

Sometimes you need strong voices to tell a quiet story.

Actresses Lillian Gish and Bette Davis were two forces to be reckoned with in the film industry. Gish and Davis helped usher the medium in its earliest days and broke down misconceptions of what actresses were capable of. Throughout their many decades in the business, the two had never worked together and remarkably hadn't even crossed paths. It wasn't until 1986 when they would come together to make the swan song of their respective careers: The Whales of August (1987). It would be the final completed film roles for both actresses (Davis appeared in one more film but did not finish her part).

Set on an island off the coast of Maine circa the mid-1950s, The Whales of August is a gentle tale of two elderly sisters, Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis), vacationing in their summer home. Both widowed, Sarah tends to Libby who is now blind. The two sisters couldn't be more different from each other. Sarah is an optimistic and gentle soul who enjoys the small things in life and the company of good people. She especially loves the romantic attention she gets from the handsome and recently widowed Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price), whose pension for old customs charms her. Libby has grown bitter in her old age and senses death is just around the corner. She chides Sarah and others for insignificant things because she's not capable of letting herself be happy in her current state. Their lifelong friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) often stops by to gossip with the ladies and offer some unsolicited advice. Local handyman Joshua Brackett (Harry Carey Jr.), who is a little too loud for his own good, also stops by to help the sisters tend to their beautiful cliff side home. We follow these five souls over a few days in August, the one month out of the year when you can see the whales from the coast line.

Ann Sothern and Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987)

As a lifelong New Englander, I've always been drawn to quiet stories like these. Simple tales about simple lives are sometimes the most potent. When you strip down everything down to its essentials and you focus on the emotional lives of people there is much to uncover. Everything is felt much more acutely because the events in your life aren't fighting with a lot of other stimuli for attention. As a teenager in the throes of the angst of my own simple life, I was drawn to the stories of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen and would have been enthralled by The Whales of August. It would have spoken to me in a more profound way. Today I live a busy and stressful life and sometimes long for a simpler existence and I get in touch with my past with movies like this.

The Whales of August came out at a time when home video had reinvigorated interest in both classic film and the many aging stars who were still with us. Films like On Golden Pond (1981) and Cocoon (1985) were showcasing older stars in lead roles. Producer Mike Kaplan, who had worked with Lillian Gish on the set of The Comedians (1967), wanted to find a starring role suitable for the elderly actress. Kaplan attended the off Broadway premiere of David Berry's play The Whales of August in Rhode Island and immediately thought this was the perfect story not only for Lillian Gish but for Bette Davis as well. Davis turned down the role of Libby Strong and so did Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Davis had been sick after a stroke and a mastectomy when she was strong enough again she became interested in the role and it was hers.

For the role of Mr. Maranov, John Gieguld was on board but due to a scheduling conflict he had to bow out and was replaced by Vincent Price. For the part of Tisha, Kaplan was reluctant to hire Ann Sothern who had become partly immobile due to a stage accident. Sothern won him over and uses a cane to get around in the film. The part seemed destined to be hers considering she named her own daughter Tisha. In fact, Tisha Sterling appears in the film as the younger version of the role her mother plays. Price will simultaneously charm you and break your heart. He brings a gentleness and old school charisma to the part.

Lillian Gish's Sarah and Bette Davis' Libby were roles that seemed custom made for the two actresses. Gish was adept at playing parts of women who were gentle in nature yet strong in spirit. In an interview during the filming of the movie Davis claimed that she had no connection whatsoever with Libby and that it was just a part. But one can see that an older Davis was very much like Libby cantankerous, feisty yet vulnerable. It's marvelous to watch both of these legends so effortlessly play these parts not just because it suited them but because of what they could convey. Ann Sothern's Tisha is the quintessential small town socialite. She received an Academy Award nomination for her role and it ended up being her final film.

This film was never going to be a blockbuster. A story about isolation, loneliness, growing old in a small community isn't going to draw many to the cinema. Instead, The Whales of August was a passion project for Kaplan, director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Berry. The ending of the play was changed for the movie per director Lindsay Anderson's request and to make the film more receptive to movie audiences. It was also an opportunity for legendary actresses Gish and Davis to once again play leading roles. For Vincent Price, who hadn't been working on much for a while, it was an opportunity to do something different. In an interview he said, "I felt the things I was being offered were already done." Price admired the writing, the dialogue and the heart of the play. He went on to say, "Maine is basic America." The setting itself is its own character. The film was shot on location at the Pitkin house on Cliff Island near Portland, Maine.

Filmed in September and October of 1986, Lillian Gish was 93, Bette Davis 78, Vincent Price 75, Ann Sothern 77 and Harry Carey Jr. 65. This is an opportunity to watch five legends who had vastly different careers come together in one beautiful movie.

If you've ever been hesitant about watching this film, whether it's a fear of exploring the complexities of growing old or seeing your favorites in such an advanced state. The Whales of August is a compelling movie with a lot of heart and reassures us that there is a good life to be led even at the end of our time here on earth.

The Whales of August (1987) was recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. This edition comes packed with extras. I particularly liked the 1 hour and 12 minute piece that includes on set interviews with the five main players Price, Gish, Sothern, Carey and Davis in that order. Davis' interview is difficult to watch because she gave the poor interviewer such a hard time. Other extras include on set interviews withLindsay Anderson, Mike Fash, Jocelyn Herbert, other interviews with Mike Kaplan, Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd and Tisha Sterling, as well as audio commentary with film critic. The Blu-Ray quality

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray of The Whales of August for review!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Born in jail, Eugene Francois Vidocq (George Sanders) seemed destined for a criminal life. On his birthday a few decades later, he finds himself once again behind bars. There he makes friends with fellow career criminal Emile Vernet (Akim Tamiroff). The Vernet matriarch sends Eugene a special birthday cake with a file hidden inside. The two buds break out of jail and set their minds on anything they can steal. Not content with small loot, Eugene sets his sights on a bigger prize.

Eugene meets saloon dancer Loretta (Carole Landis), seducing her out of a ruby laced garter gifted to her by prefect of police Richet (Gene Lockhart). Then he meets the De Piermont family and practically moves in while he and Emile set out to Marquise De Piermont's (Alma Kruger) family jewels. Instead he uses his detective skills to solve his own crime while impressing police captain Houdon de Piermont (Alan Napier). He charms his way into Richet's job as prefect of police. Eugene and Emile fool everyone except the beautiful young Therese (Signe Hasso), daughter of Houdon. She fell in love with Eugene when she saw a painting of the two men as Saint George and the Dragon.  Meanwhile, Eugene and Emile expertly plot out a robbery of the Bank of Paris. Will this be the greatest crime caper of all time or will Therese throw everything off?

George Sanders and Akim Tamiroff in A Scandal in Paris (1946)
George Sanders and Akim Tamiroff in A Scandal in Paris (1946)

A Scandal in Paris (1946) was directed by Douglas Sirk, who went on to direct memorable 1950s melodramas including some of my favorites: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959). This was an independent production by Arnold Pressburger and his son Fred Pressburger and distributed by United Artists. The story is very loosely based on the real life career criminal  of the 19th century Eugene Francois Vidocq. He's credited as the world's first private detective. The screenwriters changed many aspects of Vidocq's exploits and even added a cutesy and very unrealistic ending. His buddy Emile was either a work of fiction or an amalgamation of several real life friends of Vidocq. The man himself wrote a couple of memoirs but who knows if he could have been trusted to tell his own story. In fact the opening text of the film warns audiences of this.

This movie is kind of ridiculous and a reminder why I tend to shy from biopics from this era in film history. You couldn't get away with a film like this in contemporary cinema. However, I do appreciate the attention to detail in the wardrobe and sets. I was particularly enamored with the fantastical carousel that the de Pierremonts have in their backyard. It's a fine example of the over-the-top lifestyle of the wealthy elite of that era. I enjoyed the recurring theme of Saint George and the dragon which represents the two main characters, Vidocq and Emile, and how their narratives change throughout the story. I came to this picture because of George Sanders and Akim Tamiroff, two actors whom I greatly admire. Any time a film of theirs pops up on the TCM schedule, I usually schedule my DVR to record it. Having both actors in the same film was not an opportunity that I was going to pass up.

Signe Hasso, George Sanders and Carole Landis in A Scandal in Paris (1946)
Signe Hasso, George Sanders and Carole Landis in A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Both Sanders and Tamiroff deliver fine performances. Sanders is well-suited to the role of a wanna-be upper-class criminal who charms his way out of many situations. Tamiroff is heavily made up as Emile and he adeptly plays the knife-wielding and greedy criminal who sticks by his buddy but always has his eye on the prize. Child actress Jo Ann Marlowe, who many will recognize from Mildred Pierce (1945), plays Mimi de Pierremont, Therese's curious young sister. Carole Landis has a rather small but powerful role as the saloon singer who seduces men in power positions but meets her match with Sanders' Vidocq. I enjoyed Gene Lockhart's performance as the troubled police prefect. Signe Hasso does a fine job in her role as the angelic Therese who becomes wise to Vidocq's intentions. I doubt her character existed in real life. And if it did I feel bad for her as I'm sure Vidocq would have abandoned her for other exploits.

If you can forgive the sins of a 1940s period piece, A Scandal in Paris is a worthwhile venture into the work of several key players including Douglas Sirk, George Sanders and Akim Tamiroff.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook     Google+