Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Big Shot (1942)

“He was a big shot once.”

The 1930s saw Humphrey Bogart in countless crime dramas playing every different variation on the gangster character. It wasn’t until the early 1940s, thanks to some poor decisions made by fellow actor George Raft, that Bogart’s career would do an about face. Raft turned down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (1941) and these two films launched Bogart into mega stardom. George Raft also bailed out on another film, the lesser known Warner Bros. movie The Big Shot (1942) which would serve as Bogie’s goodbye to the gangster film genre. It would the last vestige of that former career.

“You can’t be a crook anymore because you used up your chances. And you can’t be honest because nobody’ll let you.” – Bogie as Duke Berne

Bogart stars as Duke Berne, a career criminal who just got out of prison for the third time. One more strike and he’ll be in the hoosegow for life. He’s determined to make an honest go at things but the police have a close eye on him and his old cronies are back to rope him into another heist. This time it’s an armored car they’re after and District Attorney Fleming (Stanley Ridges) is the brains behind the operation. Turns out Fleming is married to Duke’s old flame Lorna, played the dazzling singer turned actress Irene Manning. Lorna convinces Duke to bail on the heist and spend the night with her instead.

“This armored car is no can of corn.” – Bogie as Duke Berne

The heist goes terribly wrong and Duke is misidentified by a witness, thanks to police coercion, and sent to prison for life. Lorna is his only alibi but neither can reveal that they were together that night. Salesman George Anderson (Richard Travis), desperate for money so he can marry his girlfriend Ruth Carter (Susan Peters), is hired as a fake alibi but things go terribly wrong for everyone involved. We know from the onset that things won’t turn out well for Duke. The first scene of the film shows Duke in the hospital ward of a prison dying with George and Ruth by his side. The majority of film is a flashback revealing Duke’s tragic story.

Directed by Lewis Seiler, The Big Shot (1942) is part film noir, part gangster flick, part courtroom drama and part prison film. This is a rare Bogart film which is an odd thing to say considering how easy it is to access the majority of Bogart’s film work. It was unavailable for a long time, I always missed it when it was on TCM and I was very happy to see Warner Archive made it available on DVD. I was particularly interested in this film because of Susan Peters, a favorite actress of mine who was at the height of her career in 1942. That same year she would land a plum role in Random Harvest and she would be nominated for an Oscar for that performance. 1942 also saw Bogart in the mega classic Casablanca so needless to say it was a really good year for him too.

This film is very flawed but still enjoyable to watch. There is a lot of fantastic dialogue delivered expertly by Bogart and even though Bogart and Manning didn’t get along on set they do make an electric pair on screen. Some of the cinematography in the film is delightful. There is one scene in which Bogart reveals himself from behind a curtain and he is lit to perfection. Some of the editing is not that great and while I don’t have a fine tuned eye for this sort of thing it was quite noticeable in this film which is a bad sign. There are several plot lines which makes this film more a series of vignettes than one continuous story.

The biggest problem with the film is the black face. Isn’t that always a problem when it appears in old movies? Not to reveal too much about the plot but one of the pivotal scenes towards the end of the film involves a fellow prisoner of Duke’s donning black face for a prison talent show. The black face itself is not really a plot element, just something this character did, but it does date the movie for contemporary audiences. It may also be one of the many reasons this film remains relatively unknown.

Bogart completists need to watch The Big Shot (1942). And who isn’t a Bogart completist? I know I am! The Big Shot is an oddity and an entertaining one at that.

The Big Shot (1942) on DVD is available from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received The Big Shot (1942) from Warner Archive for review. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Interview with Thelma Todd biographer Michelle Morgan

Michelle Morgan

I had the honor to interview Michelle Morgan, author of The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd , which I reviewed on this blog last month. It's a fantastic biography that humanizes an otherwise tragic figure. If you haven't read it already I hope this interview will entice you to do so. Thank you to Michelle Morgan for taking the time to answer my questions!

Why write about Thelma Todd?

Morgan - I discovered Thelma while I was working on a biography about Marilyn Monroe. Her ex-husband’s name came up in a letter and I was intrigued about who he was. A quick search on the Internet led me to Thelma and her mysterious death. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I realized that just like Marilyn, Thelma was a very under-estimated person and over the years more and more lies and rumors have been attributed to her. I wanted to show who Thelma really was. She wasn’t just “the body in the garage.” She was a real-life person and it was very important to me to treat her that way.

The Ice Cream Blonde

What kind of research did you do for this book?

Morgan - I did absolutely everything I could in order to find out information. I bought the huge Coroner’s report; I read literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and interviews; I spoke to anyone I could think of who might own something related to Thelma’s life; I accessed the FBI records; I watched movies; collected documents and photos… Literally everything I could do, I did. In fact even during the editing process, I was still researching in order to answer the editor’s questions. The research for this book was never ending but it was very much worth it and I enjoyed every minute of the process.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you were researching Thelma Todd? 

Morgan - Just how very approachable, warm and funny she was. Up until the time I started researching her life, I had heard so many stories about her having a drinking problem; being a gangster’s moll; and just generally having quite a questionable personality. Going back to interviews, stories and memories from the time showed that this was absolutely not true. Thelma was hard-working, very friendly with fans and friends, intelligent, a good negotiator, strong, independent and a genuinely warm person. I was so pleased to find such a lovely woman underneath all the rumors, and I became a huge fan. I will forever hold a good thought for her and will continue to collect about her.

Why do you think Thelma had such a strong connection to her home town Lawrence, Massachusetts? 

Morgan - I’m sure it had a lot to do with Lawrence being her hometown. She had a fairly secure childhood there, her family lived there for the whole of her life, and she had many memories there too. I think the Lawrence people helped to keep her going when she felt unsure about her abilities as an actress. Knowing they were spurring her on, made a big difference in her attitude. In fact Thelma said as much to a crowd of fans, during one of her trips back there.

I’m planning on a trip to Lawrence to explore different locations that were important to Thelma Todd. Is there anything I should look for?

Morgan - With the passage of time, some of Thelma’s locations are now long gone. However, you can visit her resting place at Bellevue Cemetery (her ashes are there). The cemetery is also where family members are buried, including her brother, who died tragically at a very young age. Another good location is 22 Bowdoin Street, where many of the Todd family lived over the years. The funeral for her brother and father both left from there and Thelma stayed at the house on many occasions. In fact after her daughter’s death, Thelma’s mother moved back to Lawrence and into 22 Bowdoin Street. The street as a whole still looks remarkably like it did in Thelma’s day, so would be a great place to go if you want a real sense of Thelma’s early years.

Could you tell us a bit about the Paramount School, where Thelma Todd studied acting before heading to Hollywood? 

Morgan - The idea behind the Paramount School was to give students the tools and techniques they needed for acting in front of a camera. A lot of actors were heading to Hollywood with a thorough stage training, but their performances were exaggerated because of the way they’d worked in theatre. This did not go down well with studio heads, so they were actively seeking people who actually knew how to act in movies. The Paramount School gave students an opportunity to learn the trade and make a film at the same time. It was also hoped that a few stars would be discovered along the way, and this is what happened with Thelma and her classmate Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers. However, while the school may have been a way to fill her time, Thelma was somewhat frustrated by it and always felt that she could have learned a lot more as an extra girl in the movies. The school was also looked down upon by some in Hollywood, who wondered why they should welcome these kids who they felt had no experience other than in a classroom.

Thelma Todd found more success in comedy shorts than in dramatic features. Why do you think that is?

Morgan - I think it was purely because she was extremely good at comedy. Her facial expressions, her body language, her eyes (especially her eyes!) were made for comedy. She was an extraordinary comedienne and audiences really warmed to her in funny roles.

Thelma and her mother were really close. Tell us a bit about their relationship over the years and what happened with Alice after Thelma died. 

Morgan - Yes they were very close, but at the same time Alice had known a lot of loss and heartbreak (she lost both her husband and son very tragically), so she could be a little overpowering in her love for Thelma. The two lived together for many years which I’m sure the actress felt fairly restricted, particularly when it came to her love life. However, she moved out when marrying Pat De Cicco, and while the relationship may have failed, it did give her the opportunity of gaining a little independence from her mother, once and for all. Instead of moving back in with her, she instead went to live first with a friend and then in her own house. However, while they may have lived apart, the two remained very close and actually went shopping together on the very last day Thelma was seen alive. They spent the entire day together and the actress’s driver dropped Alice home after taking Thelma to her final party. After Thelma’s death, Alice moved back to Lawrence and divided her time between the family home on Bowdoin Street and a lakeside cottage. She outlived her daughter by many years and died in December 1969.

What do you hope readers will get from reading The Ice Cream Blonde?

Morgan - I hope that they will see that Thelma was a real-life person, not just an image on the screen or a body in a garage. She worked hard, had many friends who loved her, and had sadness and happiness just as we all do. If people can get past the rumors and see that she was a human being, that is the most important thing to me. I also hope that the book starts a renewed interest in her career, which in turn will lead to some of her films being released on DVD.

What advice do you have for someone who might want to write a biography about a classic film star?

Morgan - Writing biography is extremely hard work, not only with the actual writing, but the constant researching, sources, photographs etc. You really need to think outside the box and explore every avenue to try and find new and exciting information. It is challenging but also very rewarding. I would say that if you are interested in writing biography, do some initial research first; just casually to see what you can find out. If you find yourself becoming more and more excited with the process, then absolutely go for it. If you find the research rather boring or your heart’s not really in it, then perhaps biography isn’t for you.

Thank you to Michelle Morgan and Chicago Review Press!

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