Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ Government Girl (1943)

Government Girl from Warner Bros.

Washington, D.C. during WWII was a hectic place. The new jobs created to support the war effort drove many to the nation’s capital. The influx of people caused a housing shortage that had workers and hotels scrambling. And with so many men away on duty, D.C. became a 10-women-to-every-man kind of a town leaving single gals with few options. The “government girls”, who took on a variety of important roles, were crucial to war effort’s success.

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What better way to examine chaos than with a screwball comedy? The film Government Girl (1943) is a humorous look at this moment in history. It was directed by Dudley Nichols, produced by RKO and adapted by Nichols and Budd Schulberg from a short story written by Adela Rogers St. John. Olivia de Havilland stars as Ms. Elizabeth Allard, AKA "Smokey", a “government girl” living and working in D.C. She’s booked a honeymoon suite at a hotel for her best friend May (Anne Shirley) and her soon-to-be-husband Sgt. Joe Blake (James Dunn). Joe only has 24 hours to get married, have quick honeymoon and be back on duty, so they are on a time crunch.

Anne Shirley and Olivia de Havilland in Government Girl (1943)

Unbeknownst to Smokey, the hotel gave their suite to Ed Browne (Sonny Tufts) a mechanic who has been hired by the government to do important work for the Air Force. When Smokey finds out the gentleman who lent her his ring so that her friend May could get married with one has the suite, they begin to butt heads.

Sonny Tufts in Government Girl (1943)
Sonny Tufts in Government Girl (1943)

And they keep butting heads when they eventually find out Smokey, or Ms. Allard, is really Ed Browne’s new secretary. He thinks she’s the one who was getting married. But really she’s a single government gal who already has two suitors, which is virtually a miracle in a town with an imbalanced ratio of men to women. Ms. Allard becomes Browne’s Girl Friday, helping him with important government work and championing for him when crooked government types try to screw him over.

Olivia de Havilland, Sonny Tufts and FDR.

This movie had a lot of potential but never quite realizes it. I read that Olivia de Havilland got stuck doing this film for RKO because of an arranged loan out from Warner Bros. What would follow was a difficult battle with Warner Bros. over her contract. Would the film have been better if circumstances for de Havilland were different? Male lead Sonny Tufts was being groomed during WWII to be a replacement star. With so many actors on duty and away from Hollywood, film studios needed more leading men. Tufts didn’t quite make the splash they were hoping for.

Government Girl is a quirky and funny movie but ultimately falls flat. The More the Merrier (1943), a Columbia picture starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn, is from the same year, deals with the same topic but is much more entertaining. If you are interested in the topic of American life during WWII, I suggest you watch Government Girl and then The More the Merrier to achieve a better experience. 

Agnes Moorehead and Jess Barker in Government Girl (1943)
Agnes Moorehead and Jess Barker in Government Girl (1943)

Notable appearances in the film include Agnes Moorehead as the villain Mrs. Right, Harry Davenport as Senator MacVickers and Una O'Connor as the honeymoon-wrecker-landlady. I love Anne Shirley but I thought her role as the daft but loveable May was a little too similar to Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Peggy in The Women (1939). I’m not sure why I made that comparison while I was watching the film but perhaps it has something to do with Fontaine and de Havilland being sisters.

The main reason I watched the film is because I’m interested in the D.C. housing shortage during WWII. I’ve lived in cramped quarters all my life so I enjoy watching films about similar situations. The More the Merrier (1943), it’s remake Walk, Don’t Run (1966), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Buster Keaton’s Scarecrow (1920) are some of my top favorite movies partly for that reason.

One final note: fans of 1940s fashion will want to watch this for the excellent outfits worn by Olivia de Havilland, Anne Shirley and Agnes Moorehead.

Government Girl (1943) is available from Warner Archive on DVD-MOD.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received Government Girl (1943) from Warner Archive for review.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme

Missing Reels
by Farran Smith Nehme
The Overlook Press
352 pages - 9781468309270
November 2014

Barnes and Nobble
IndieBound - Your local independent bookstore.

You know her as the Self-Styled Siren and film critic extraordinaire. Now Farran Smith Nehme can add “published novelist” to her resume. Nehme’s debut novel Missing Reels goes on sale in a few weeks but I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Nehme at Book Expo America earlier this year and received a signed advance readers copy of the book.

The story takes place in late 1980s New York. The heroine, 21-year-old Ceinwen (pronounced kine-wen), works at the vintage clothing shop Vintage Visions. She has two roommates Jim and Talmadge and her free time is consumed with all things classic film. Ceinwen is curious about Miriam, the elderly woman living in her apartment building on Avenue C in New York City. When Ceinwen finds out that Miriam is really actress Miriam Clare, the star of a long lost silent film adaptation of The Mysteries of Udolpho, she’s determined to find out more. She wants to learn everything about Miriam’s short-lived acting career and her tragic romance with director Emil Arnheim. Ceinwen gets an important clue about the existence of a director’s cut of The Mysteries of Udolpho and she becomes hell-bent on finding it. You’d think have the film’s leading lady in the same building would be an asset to Ceinwen. However, Miriam is very suspicious of Ceinwen’s motivations and offer her little help. But Miriam gives her enough information to lead Ceinwen on the chase for the lost film.

Missing Reels is a mystery and Ceinwen is the story’s detective. Her love interest, the brilliant yet romantically unavailable mathematician Matthew, is her sidekick and is integral in helping her solve the mystery of the lost film. The new-person-dynamic of Matthew coming into Ceinwen’s life is crucial to the story. He introduces her to the important people who will guide her in her quest. My favorite character is Harry, an older gentleman and mathematician at NYU where Matthew is doing his postdoc. Harry is the anti-thesis to Miriam, takes a liking to Ceinwen and opens up a lot of opportunities for her. Plus his passion for old movies will endear him to any classic film fan. I love this line from the book: “You had to find another love, if you were a mathematician, or you’d have nothing to talk about with regular people.”

There are two distinct audiences for this book: classic film enthusiasts who will understand Ceinwen’s motivations and get all the movie references and a general audience who will appreciate good story-telling and the mystery elements and might learn a few things about film history. There are a lot of movie references: titles, actors, actresses, directors, studios, etc. Folks not well-versed in film history might complain that they don't recognizes the names and titles that appear throughout the text. But I make the same case as I do with Junot Diaz and his usage of Spanish in his short stories and novels: look up what you don’t understand and maybe you'll learn something.

A note to fans of the Self-Styled Siren blog, look for the the Joan Fontaine reference towards the end of the book. Nehme is a big Fontaine fan and I knew there would be at least one reference to her in the novel.

While many of the movie references are real, the “missing reels” in question are fictional. The Brody Institute for Cinephilia and Preservation (archivists and preservationists), The Mysteries of Udolpho (film), Emil Arnheim (director), Miriam Clare/Gibson (actress), Civitas (film studio), etc. are straight from Nehme’s imagination. When you read the book though, they feel like real people and you’ll have to stop yourself from Googling the Brody Institute.

This novel really speaks to Nehme’s devotion to film preservation. When films become destroyed and lost, we lose part of our history along with them. It’s important to preserve them and to keep looking for the lost ones like Ceinwen did with The Mysteries of Udolpho. I love that nitrate is a plot device in the book. It’s flammability and the risk of deterioration adds an element of drama and urgency to the story.

True classic film enthusiasts will appreciate Ceinwen's obsession with finding the lost silent film. In a time before Turner Classic Movies, the internet, DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix and pretty much everything else, Ceinwen indulges her passion for old movies by watching them on VHS, live broadcast TV and at repertory houses. Her research is done at universities, archives, institutes, by phone, by mail and in person. There is no IMDb, no Wikipedia, no blogs and no online archives.

One of the things I really love about the novel it demonstrates the way classic films infiltrate our lives. We compare real life events to scenes from movies. We spot resemblances between people in our lives and Hollywood stars of yesteryear or the characters they played. I also was intrigued by how many of the characters in the book pursued their interest in classic film outside of work. Ceinwen’s day job is in the realm of her interests but its in a toxic environment thanks to her horrible boss. Readers might wonder why Ceinwen devotes so much of her free time to finding the lost silent film. She devotes so much time to it it’s almost like a second job. Classic film fans, especially bloggers, will understand Ceinwen’s motivations. Very few of us make a living off of our interest in film history (in fact only a couple of the characters in the book actually do). In many cases, that’s a good thing. We are not bound by the regulations of a company and can pursue our hobby with complete independence. There is no one telling us what to watch or what to study or what to pursue. It’s the ultimate freedom.

Don’t mistake Missing Reels as just being a missive for the love cinema. It can be appreciated as a good work of straight storytelling and a fine mystery.

Kudos to Farran Smith Nehme for writing a wonderful novel that many of us classic film lovers will enjoy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ The Lusty Men (1952)

Lusty Men, The from Warner Bros.

The Lusty Men (1952) is a rodeo film exploring the reality and danger of the sport. It was produced by RKO and directed by Nicholas Ray (and also by Robert Parrish for a few days while Ray was ill).

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
"A strong back and a weak mind." - Jeff McCloud

Robert Mitchum plays Jeff McCloud, a rodeo star who has just retired from the ring. Recently attacked by the last bull he rode, McCloud is tired of the injuries and the transient lifestyle that comes with the sport. He travels to his hometown of Spring, TX to seek out the permanency that's been missing in his life.

He meets Louise (Susan Hayward) and Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy). Wes works as a ranch hand and together they're saving up money to buy their own ranch. Louise dreams of a stable life because of her chaotic upbringing. Wes is enchanted by the lifestyle Jeff has left behind and bored with the steady and monotonous work of being a ranch hand.

Susan Hayward in The Lusty Men

At first Wes only wants to do compete in rodeo to earn enough money to buy the ranch he and Louise dreamed of. Jeff guides Wes and shows him the literal ropes of working the rodeo. Wes is quickly enchanted by the adoration and the quick cash that comes with the rodeo. He abandons his dreams of a ranch to achieve the level of fame and recognition Jeff once had.

Louise sticks by her husband but from the very start she hates rodeo life. It's the antithesis of what she thinks a happy life should be. She sees Jeff McCloud as the bad role model that lured her husband away. Wes begins to neglect Louise and pays more attention to rodeo work, booze and other women. Jeff is the third wheel, teacher to Wes and stand-in husband to Louise. There is escalating sexual tension between Jeff and Louise as she and Wes draw apart from each other.

Susan Hayward about to kick some butt. Literally.

The Lusty Men is a fantastic film; the quintessential rodeo movie. It's filled with real footage of the rodeo ring and gorgeous shots of San Angelo, TX. It's a stark look at the reality of the sport; the physical dangers, the complicated relationships, the gambling addictions and the transient lifestyle. It doesn't sugar coat the truth. Events such as calf-roping, bare back, bull dogging and saddle-bronc are exciting to watch. And despite the imminent danger of bodily harm, the fame, glory, money and the ego boost from battling untamed beasts keeps the circle of the rodeo going.

The Lusty Men is beautifully shot. Most scenes are filmed on location in San Angelo, TX and some in San Francisco. There is plenty of symbolic imagery. I particularly enjoyed the shot of Robert Mitchum, after his last bull ride, walking across an empty rodeo ring (see above). Fences and gates are often closed to symbolize the separation between what the rodeo audience sees and what really goes on.

You'd think that a film about the rodeo would be dominated by male characters. However, this film has plenty of interesting female roles. Carol Nugent plays the spunky teenager Rusty Davis, friend of Jeff and daughter of retired rodeo legend Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt). (If Wes is at the beginning of the cycle of rodeo stars, Jeff is in the middle and Booker is at the very end. He represents the harsh realities of life after the rodeo.) Maria Hart plays Rosemary Maddox, a rodeo girl who takes Louise under her wing. I was particularly impressed by Lorna Thayer's character Grace Burgess. Grace is the window into Louise's potential future. Her husband is a rodeo star whose addiction to gambling and to the bottle is ruining his marriage. Grace is conflicted by her disgust for rodeo life and her dedication to her husband.

I wouldn't be a true fan if I didn't mention Robert Mitchum. One of the things I love about this movie is the gratuitous shots of Mitchum in the film. With his cowboy hat and tight pants, Robert Mitchum looks really good here. And he looks good doing everything! Here are some of my favorite Mitchum shots from the film.

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum in chaps about to ride a bull

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum on a fence

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum in profile

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum having a cup of coffee

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum on a horse

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum reading a magazine

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum working the hay loft.

Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (1962)
Robert Mitchum ::wink::

I read that Mitchum was potentially interested in becoming a rodeo star. I'm glad he stuck to movies instead.

The Lusty Men (1952) is available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive. I saw this film four years ago at the Harvard Film Archive and reviewed it here.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received The Lusty Men (1952) from Warner Archive for review. 


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