Showing posts with label MGM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MGM. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Yearling (1946)

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling (1946) stars Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as Penny and Ora, married pioneer farmers who live and work deep in the Florida backwoods. Their son Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.) is their sole surviving child. Fearing that her love and attention was responsible for the death of her other children, she exudes a cold demeanor to Jody as a way of keeping him alive. Jody finds joy in his close relationship with his father and with the domestic and wild animals that he encounters on a daily basis. When Penny has to kill a doe in order to gather its liver for life saving medicine, Jody takes the doe's orphaned fawn under his wing and names him Flag. Jody's relationship with Flag helps him through tragedy. Unfortunately, when Flag becomes a yearling he begins to cause much destruction on the family farm. Jody must learn that when every day is a struggle, heartbreak comes hand-in-hand with survival.

Directed by Clarence Brown, The Yearling (1946) is a visually stunning and ultimately heart-wrenching film about family, tragedy and the cruelty of mother nature. It's a difficult watch for animal lovers, like myself, who hate to see the poor creatures suffer. While the animals in the film were not harmed during production, they are depicted as severely injured or dead and that can be a lot to bear for someone with no tolerance for cruelty towards animals.

The Yearling was shot on location in the Ocala National Forest and Silver Springs, Florida with additional scenes shot in Lake Arrowhead, California. Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings served as production advisor and helped with location scouting. Rawlings was originally from the area and the novel was based on her experiences and observations growing up in rural Florida. MGM had purchased the rights to the novel in 1938 and while production was meant to start in 1940, a variety of production problems including financial burdens, casting issues, the volatility of filming in nature and acquiring trained animals for filming, pushed back production until 1945. It was around that time that the studio finally cast Claude Jarman, Jr. after a long search for their Jody. This was Jarman's feature film debut.

The trio of stars, Peck, Wyman and Jarm, are absolute perfection. Gregory Peck is charming as the former soldier turned farmer and loving father who will do anything to protect his family. Wyman gives Ora a range of emotions underneath the cold demeanor. We witness the depths of her pain and frustration as well as her fleeting moments of tenderness. Claude Jarman, Jr. is the heart of the film and through Jody he conveys a sense of innocence and sheer joy that makes one want to shield his character from the impending heartbreak.

The film was shot in Technicolor which is brilliantly enhanced with the Warner Archive Collection's restoration. They sourced a 1080p HD Master from the 4k scan of the original Technicolor negative. The quality is absolutely breathtaking. The color is amazingly brilliant and nature seems to come to life through the screen. Facial details are very important and with the rich detail that can be seen in this restoration, Peck, Wyman, Jarman and the other cast members looked like contemporaries standing right before me rather than renderings of figures from decades past.

I highly recommend getting the Warner Archive Collection's Blu-ray edition of The Yearling (1946) if you can. In addition to the gorgeous 4K restoration, the Blu-ray also features English subtitles, a Screen Guild Players radio broadcast, the Cat Concerto cartoon and restored theatrical trailer.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copy of The Yearling (1946).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

She Damned Near Ran the Studio: The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman

She Damned Near Ran the Studio
The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman

by Jacqueline R. Braitman
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496806192
352 pages
October 2020

"Koverman was a magnetic, centrifugal force; a powerful dark energy that charged the MGM star machine."

Ida Koverman was MGM executive Louis B. Mayer's right-hand woman during the studio's heyday. Serving as his executive assistant and trusted adviser, the movie mogul came to lean on Koverman for her political connections, her ability to keep secrets, her eye for new talent and her business savvy that kept MGM running like a well-oiled machine.

Koverman was no stranger to scandal having endured one of her own. An active member of the New York City social scene, she was thrust further into the public eye with her involvement in an embezzlement scandal pertaining to one of the big railroad companies of the early 1900s. Koverman married for convenience to Oscar Koverman, taking on his surname and essentially giving herself a new identity. Once her transformation was complete, she started a new life in California. She was deeply ensconced in that state's Republican party and became an ally to many conservative bigwigs. Koverman was a force to be reckoned with and helped Herbert Hoover with his two presidential campaigns. It's during this time that she met Mayer. She was the middle man between MGM and the Republican party, something Mayer valued greatly.

When she was eventually hired as Mayer's executive assistant she went right to work helping her new boss with some fairly delicate matters including promoting new stars, minimizing scandals, dealing with the aftermath of celebrity deaths and keeping MGM the prestige studio it was known to be. She became a friend and confidante for some of the biggest stars including Esther Williams, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, George Murphy, Irene Dunne, and Jeannette MacDonald. She also discovered future stars like Jean Parker, Robert Taylor, Judy Garland, Janis Page, Hedda Hopper, etc. Koverman threw parties, groomed talent for stardom, lobbied for legislation that suited the studio's best interest, assuaged male egos, planted media stories, championed musicals, facilitated connections, and much more.

She Damned Near Ran the Studio: The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman is a bit of a misleading title. We only get to Koverman's career at MGM about 120 pages in. Prior to that the book focuses primarily on her scandal and her political career. The subtitle is a bit more spot on since Koverman did indeed have several stages in her career and would transform herself with each. 

If you find Louis B. Mayer to be an unlikable character from Hollywood history, you may have the same feelings for Ida Koverman. She did some despicable things that left a bad taste in my mouth. While I recognize that some of her actions were not uncommon for the time that doesn't make them any less awful. 

Koverman's life story as an independent and career minded woman in a conservative space is quite interesting. She was dedicated to her work and was truly unflappable. She wielded a lot of power which the author effectively demonstrates throughout the book. But in the end, Koverman was an enabler of studio system toxicity.

As a biography, this book was thoroughly researched, relatively chronological with thematic chapters and very thorough. The writing is engaging but is inevitably weighed down by its subject matter. The second half of the book I found to be much more interested than the first half. The author offers lots of great observations about the studio system and Mayer and Koverman's functions within it.

This is my fourth review for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for sending me a copy for review.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Home from the Hill (1960)

An entry into the genre of Southern family dramas like Giant (1956), Written on the Wind (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Splendor in the Grass (1961), director Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill (1960) has all the makings of a sweeping epic. You've got the dysfunction family with a long suffering matriarch, disturbed offspring, a scandal or two swept under the rug, and a tough as nails patriarch who has staked his claim as the unofficial leader of the small town community. That patriarch is Captain Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum), the manliest man who ever did man.

The wealthiest landowner in a rural Texas town, Wade has a commanding presence. When he isn't taking care of business, he can be found out with his cohorts and hound dogs hunting for ducks. Or you'll find him drunk and cavorting with the local prostitute Opal (Constance Ford) or some poor guy's wife. The local men admire him or hate him. Wade's 17 year old son Theron (George Hamilton) is the laughing stock of those men. Sick and tired of being a mama's boy he seeks his dad for an education in how to be a true Hunnicutt. For years Wade left Theron alone because of a deal he made with his wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker). She'd stay in the marriage as long as she could raise her son how she saw fit. Wade breaks this promise increasing the tension in already dysfunctional family. Rafe (George Peppard), Wade's illegitimate son, is Wade's ideal but he won't recognize him as his own. Rafe has all the traits of a manly man that Theron wants and Theron has all the fatherly attention that Rafe wants. When a local teen Libby (Luana Patten) falls for Theron and gets pregnant with his child, Wade rejects her and her family. Rafe steps in to take care of what Wade made Theron abandon. But Wade has messed with one too many lives and now there's a price to pay.

"What every man hunts out there is himself."

Home from the Hill is based on William Humphrey's novel by the same name. Released in 1957, it was Humphrey's second published book but first novel. Producer Sol C. Siegel purchased the rights in 1958 and the subsequent success of both the book and the movie adaptation afforded Humphrey the opportunity to quit his day job as a college professor and pursue writing full time. The story was adapted to screen by husband and wife screenwriting team Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who specialized in adapting Southern dramas, especially the works of William Faulkner.

According to the AFI, Siegel left the project before filming and Edmund Grainger took over. Both receive on screen credits. Made for MGM and filmed in Cinemascope and Metrocolor, Home from the Hill was shot on location in Mississippi and Texas. According to Robert Mitchum biographer Lee Server, Mitchum wasn't terribly interested in the role but it was good pay ($200k plus percentage of the gross), top billing and he'd get some extra vacation time out of the deal. Also he'd be able to do some bream fishing while he was on location. Director Minnelli had this to say about Mitchum:

"Few actors I've worked with bring so much of themselves to a picture, and none do it with a total lack of affectation as Robert Mitchum does. " 
Home from the Hill served as a launching pad for two promising careers. This was relative newcomer George Hamilton's second film, third if you count the bit part he played in a movie as a child. 1960 was a good year for him which also saw roles in Where the Boys Are (1960) and All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960). The other George, George Peppard, studied acting with Lee Strasberg and after some work in television starting making movies. Home from the Hill was his third and the following year would find him in his most memorable role, Paul in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Peppard and Minnelli butted heads. A method actor, Peppard wanted to be in tune with his character's emotions. And Minnelli's direction didn't jive with Peppard's style. Peppard threatened to leave the picture but Mitchum convinced him to stay saying that leaving would cause more problems than it was worth. Another newcomer, Yvette Mimieux, shot scenes for the film but her character was ultimately cut from the story.

Captain Wade is one of Robert Mitchum's most macho roles ever. I love the scene when Wade takes Theron (George Hamilton) to his man cave. They dressed up that set in the most masculine way possible: red leather chairs, a bear skin rug, a mini-fridge filled with bottles of beer, cabinets displaying an extensive collection of rifles and hunting trophies hung on the wall. Mitchum's Wade sits in his red leather chair, beer in hand, hound dogs at his beck and call and delivers a speech to Theron about how he can become a true Hunnicutt.

"It takes a special kind of man to handle that. The kind of man that walks around with nothing in his pockets. No identification because everyone knows who you are. No cash, because anybody in town would be happy to lend you anything you need. No keys, 'cause you don't keep a lock on a single thing you own. And no watch, because time waits on you."

The celebration of being a man's man is short lived. Captain Wade's story, and ultimately Theron's, is a tragic one. The toxic masculinity wreaks havoc on the entire family from Theron to Hannah to Rafe and Libby but especially Wade. Home from the Hill can be seen as a study of gender roles in society and how the pressure to adhere to strict rules on masculinity, and femininity too, can be destructive.

Home from the Hill improves with multiple viewings. I watched this one for the first time last year, in celebration of Mitchum's centennial. I wasn't impressed but took more note of the themes and of Mitchum's performance on the second go around. Much beloved in its time, it deserves more recognition for its exploration of toxic masculinity, its portrayal of a dysfunctional family, Minnelli's excellent direction and the great cast.

Home from the Hill (1960) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection. When you use my buy link to make a purchase at the WB Shop you help support this site. Thanks!

The Blu-Ray features an original trailer and English subtitles. The new 1080p HD master looks fantastic. I've seen this film before but it was a whole different experience seeing the remastered version. It's gorgeous!

 Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Home from the Hill (1960) on Blu-Ray for review!

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

"Don't you love your country?"
"Yes, but is it the same country?"

Prisoner #34, Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier) stands trial. It's Capetown, South Africa in the midst of apartheid. Thanks to the remarkable defense work by his lawyer Rina Van Niekirk (Prunella Gee), Twala is now free. Rina's boyfriend Jim Keogh (Michael Caine) wants to celebrate her victory and Rina invites Twala to join them. On their way to her apartment they encounter the Capetown police who are a little too eager to arrest another black person. Twala, Keogh and Rina get into an ugly fight with the police officers and escape. Rina helps Twala and Keogh flee to Johannesburg. Things begin to escale when two members of the secret police, Major Horn (Nichol Williamson) and Van Heerden (Rijk de Gooyer), are sent out to hunt down the fugitive duo. Twala knows of an Indian dentist Mukerjee (Saeed Jaffrey) who will help them, if his assistant Persis (Persis Khambatta) doesn't get in the way. But Twala is hiding something. Keogh soon learns about the Wilby conspiracy. Mukerjee, Twala and Wilby have a treasure trove of diamonds hidden in a sinkhole. This loot will help finance the Black Congress' revolution, something the secret police are hell bent on stopping. All Twala and Keogh need to do is get the diamonds, find Wilby and escape South Africa before it's too late. But that's easier said than done.

The Blu-Ray is a million times better quality than this image!

Directed by Ralph NelsonThe Wilby Conspiracy (1975) is a political thriller set in the oppressive era of apartheid. Based on the novel by Peter Driscoll, it explores the racial dynamics of the era while also serving as a thrilling chase movie. Some of the politics from Driscoll's original novel were stripped away from the movie but the final product still demonstrates the dangerous political climate of South Africa in the 1970s. The movie was filmed in Keny and at the MGM Pinewood Studios in England. It was far too risky to actually film on location in South Africa.

Actor Sidney Poitier hadn't been in Kenya since filming Something of Value (1957) and found a much different country on his return. He was warmly embraced by the locals and the government as a major movie star. Much had changed politically in Kenya over the past decades. The film has some amazing aerial footage and there is extensive use of small aircraft and helicopters. Chase scenes in the air and on the ground are thrilling to watch.

Independently produced in conjunction with United Artists, producer Martin Baum used to be Poitier's agent and he cast both Poitier and Caine for the film. Director Ralph Nelson had worked with Poitier on Lilies of the Field (1963) and Duel at Diablo (1966). For Caine this was his first "message film." In his memoir he wrote, "my experiences on the set of Zulu had made me an implacable opponent of the apartheid system and I was pleased to be able to make a contribution to highlighting its cruelty." Caine and Poitier were good friends and bonded even further during the making of the film. They both had a near death experience when a 50 pound camera broke loose, almost killing them both. If anything it drew them closer together and they've been friends ever since.

Even without some of the politics of Driscoll's original novel, The Wilby Conspiracy holds a powerful punch as it delivers the painful message of oppression. The film suffers at one point when the story begins lose its purpose and relies too much on the extended chase. Perhaps what was taken away from Driscoll's story should have been left in. The movie is part political thriller and part action drama and I found it wholly engrossing. Caine and Poitier's characters have a contentious relationship and it was intriguing to see what they both had to bring to two very different roles.

On a side note, in one of the scenes actor Nichol Williamson utters the Dutch curse word "godverdomme". My father, who lived in the Netherlands for a brief time, used this curse word, which translates into g-d dammit, whenever he was angry. I have never heard anyone else use it until I watched this film. My father passed away a couple of years ago (you can read my tribute to him here) and it briefly reminded me of him. It made me smile because even though he said it when it was mad, it was one of those quirks that was unique to my dad.

While watching The Wilby Conspiracy I couldn't help but make the connection to The Defiant Ones (1958). Caine and Poitier as two fugitives on the run reminded me of Poitier and Tony Curtis as two chain-gang fugitives who escaped prison. I would recommend pairing those two films together. You could also pair The Wilby Conspiracy with another Poitier film set in South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) is available from Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow! When you purchase through my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Undercurrent (1946)

Undercurrent (1946)

In 1946 Robert Mitchum was under contract to RKO. They had loaned him out to MGM for two pictures Undercurrent (1946) and Desire Me (1947) which were filmed back-to-back. He had relatively small roles in both as the third person in a romantic melodrama. Both films turned out to be box office failures. Not that this hurt Mitchum's career trajectory at all. In fact, placing Mitchum in movies with the type of high-caliber stars that were missing from RKO's line-up, in this case MGM heavyweights Greer Garson in Desire Me and Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor in Undercurrent, was incredible exposure for Mitchum. And the following year he'd make Out of the Past (1947) which would help secure him a spot as a popular leading man in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum's shadow in a publicity shot for MGM

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Undercurrent (1946) is part film noir, part neurotic melodrama. Katharine Hepburn stars as Ann, a scientist and 30-something daughter of well-respected Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn) whom she lovingly refers to as Dink. She's a tomboy, wears pants, loves chemistry, and doesn't fuss too much over her appearance. But in the world she lives in she's really just a dowdy woman on the verge of spinsterhood. When charming young inventor Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) comes to visit Professor Hamilton, Ann is soon swept away by his romantic gestures. Garroway is attracted to Ann much in the same way he would be to a new idea for an invention. He sees possibility to transform her into a glamorous socialite. All seems well in their marriage until it becomes apparent that Garroway harbors dark secrets. He's severed his relationship with his brother Michael Garroway (Robert Mitchum) and in conversation with Ann he paints the picture of unforgivable sibling betrayal. Ann believes him until she discovers Alan's first lie and things begins to unfold. Ann suffers the internal battle between her love for Alan and her desire for the truth. Is Alan really the man she fell in love with? And where is Michael?

Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)

 "Is there good swimming?" - Ann
"No, riptide." - Michael
"Looks very calm." - Ann
"You can't always see that undercurrent." - Michael
"Like life." - Ann

Clearly I watched this movie for one reason: Robert Mitchum. While his character Michael is central to the story, Mitchum himself doesn't appear until 62 minute mark of a 2 hour movie and his total screen time is probably less than 10 minutes. Needless to say this was a disappointment for me but I was grateful for to check off another Mitchum movie off my to-be-watched list.

While it's categorized as a film noir, I like the term "neurotic melodrama" a lot better. It really captures the overall theme of the movie. The build up of tension is slow and methodical. None of the roles suited the main players. Ann was a weak role for Katharine Hepburn whom we all know shines when she has strong characters to play. Mitchum as the mysterious brother was also a weak character for him. Robert Taylor's performance was decent. I grew more fearful of his character as the story progressed so I thought that was an effective part of the movie. I think this film is worth watching for the main players, the melodrama and the build up of tension. This was Jayne Meadows film debut. She plays Sylvia Benton, a no-nonsense socialite who was unwillingly caught in a love triangle with the two brothers. She has a small but fantastic part as the tough woman who opens Ann's eyes to what's happening around her. Clinton Sundberg plays Taylor's right-hand man. Marjorie Main has a small role in the beginning of the film as the Hamilton's maid and mother figure to Ann.

This movie was a departure for Minnelli so he wasn't the only one on set who out of his element. From what I've read, Hepburn and Mitchum didn't get along which could be why there is very little to no tenderness between them in what should be tender scenes in the film. In an interview with Dick Lochte, Mitchum remembered overhearing Hepburn refer to him as a "cheap flash actor." This was the only time they worked together which was probably for the best.

The film didn't perform well in theaters. In 1947 playwright Fay Elhert sued MGM for using the title of his play, one he submitted to MGM for consideration, for this movie. Laraine Day had been promised the title role of Ann in exchange for her appearing in Keep Your Powder Dry (1945). MGM didn't hold up their end of the bargain and Day severed her contract with them.

I'm conflicted about this movie. I want to like it but something pulls me back. I can't quite put my finger on it. It could be shorter with even more tension. Maybe other actors better suited to the roles would have improved the film for me. But otherwise it's just an ordinary movie that I just happened to enjoy but not too much.

If you've seen this film I would love to know what you think!

I watched this film on iTunes. I missed an opportunity to see it at the Brattle Theatre as part of their Robert Mitchum centennial repertory series but hope to catch another screening soon.

Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server
Mitchum in His Own Words edited by Jerry Roberts

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dancing Lady (1933)

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford - Dancing Lady (1933)
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford - Dancing Lady (1933)

 Richie rich Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is out on the town with his equally wealthy friends. They're bored and looking for some amusement. They head to a burlesque show where dancers Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) and her roommate Rosette LaRue (Winne Lightner) are entertaining the crowd with their moves and a bit of stripping. The police raid the joint and the dancers are arrested. Tod and his friends, not wanting the night to end, watch the courtroom spectacle that ensues. Tod has his eye on Janie and bails her out of jail. He romances her but quickly realize he's in direct competition with her first love, dancing. With his influence and her tenacity, Janie gets a dancing part in Patch Gallagher's (Clark Gable) new show. She's conflicted by her love of dance, her affection for Patch and her sentiments towards Tod and the lavish lifestyle that comes with dating him. Not willing to compete with Janie's first love, Tod tries to sabotage her career by convincing Patch's backer to pull out of the production. Many people lose their jobs, something the wealthy Tod hadn't considered but pains Janie who understands the struggle. In the end, Patch and Janie must find a way to continue on with the show.

Dancing Lady (1933) is a backstage musical showcasing both MGM's established talent and newcomers alike. It's an experimental film in more ways than one. MGM had the rights to James Warner Bellah's novel, previously serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and the powers that be saw an opportunity to compete with Warner Bros.'s successful 42nd Street (1933). But first they needed a star.

Joan Crawford was Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick's top pick for the film. She wasn't a classically trained dancer but was a known hoofer thanks to her dancing in The Hollywood Revue of 1929Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). According to Crawford biographer Donald Spoto, Crawford was hesitant at first. She only accepted when Mayer offered her an opportunity to be a part of the story development. Even then she almost jumped ship. It wasn't until Selznick sealed the deal with some reverse psychology. He told her she wasn't right for the part saying "I think it's more Jean Harlow's style." There was no way Crawford was going to concede to letting Harlow have the part. Selznick and Mayer sweetened the pot by adding two major MGM stars, both love interests of Crawford's, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone to the film.

With their main star secured, MGM faced some difficulties with their two male leads. At first Robert Montgomery was supposed to play the part of Tod Newton but had to bow out. That's when Franchot Tone stepped in. Clark Gable got ill, either with a leg infection or an appendectomy, sources differ on what really happened, and MGM had to keep production going while the Gable was convalescing.

Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)
Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)

Then there were the newcomers. Dancing Lady served as a platform to establish some major talent. First there was Fred Astaire, the only true dancer of any significance in the film. Selznick had his eye on Astaire during his time at RKO and when he moved to MGM he brought Astaire with him. Astaire played himself in what would be his true film debut. And we all know what happened after that.

Also in the film are Ted Healy and the Three Stooges. This was before Moe, Larry and Curly broke away from Healy and became the trio we all know and love. Healy plays Patch's assistant stage manager while the Stooges are stage hands whose background gags add some levity to the film. The Stooges are poorly utilized and if you blink you might miss one of their scenes. While this wasn't their first film, it was still early days for the trio and the film helped give them the exposure they needed for their future career.

Eve Arden fans will delight seeing her in a bit part as a frustrated actress. Nelson Eddy has his first credited role playing himself. Then there is Robert Benchley, who wasn't technically a newcomer but Dancing Lady served as the start of the MGM career. It was a delight to see Sterling Holloway in an early credited role as the show's writer. On the flip side was then film veteran Winnie Lightner who was reaching the end of her short career in movies. Lightner was an underrated gem of the era and is not given nearly enough of the screen time that she deserved.

Dancing Lady is a mixed bag. It suffers from too much going on in the story. The plot would have benefited from some simplification and fewer characters. But if that had been the case we'd miss out on performances from the likes of Arden, Benchley, Lightner, Holloway, etc. Joan Crawford was not really a dancer and it shows. But the role of Janie was as close to the real Joan Crawford as you could possibly get. She was perfect for it. The final show number is lacking in actual dancing. Someone at MGM made the unfortunate decision to have Astaire and Crawford sing. They don't sing as much as they talk to music.

Regardless of it's flaws, the film was a success at the box office, earned a profit for MGM, which was no small feat during the Great Depression, and it gave a boost to so many careers. For budding film historians, Dancing Lady is a good study of the mechanics of the studio system. It demonstrates how a major studio like MGM utilized a combination of established stars while also building up new talent.

Dancing Lady (1933) is available from the Warner Archive. You can buy the DVD-R from the WB Shop by using this link.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Dancing Lady (1933) for review!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Big House (1930)

The Big House (1930)

"They all want to throw people into prison but they don't want to provide for them after they are in. You mark my words Pop. Some day we're going to pay for this shortsightedness." - Warden (Lewis Stone)

MGM's The Big House (1930) came at a time when Hollywood was still transitioning to talking pictures and experimenting with cinematography, set design and storytelling. This was all in addition to tantalizing audiences with sound. It's one of the earliest prison films and set many precedents for future films in that genre. The Big House explored many facets of prison life: the alliances, betrayals, hierarchies and the deep animosity between prisoners and authority figures. It was one of the first films to depict a prison riot. It broke ground, pleased the critics, won awards and almost ninety years later still holds up as an enjoyable drama.

The film opens with Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) being escorted to prison. He's been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years. The prison, run by warden James Adams (Lewis Stone), is overflowing with prisoners. Cells made to hold one person now need to accommodate three. Marlowe is placed with career forger Morgan (Chester Morris) and the prison's most notorious inmate, convicted murderer Butch (Wallace Beery). Marlowe is scared, Butch is greedy and Morgan must keep a level head throughout it all. There is a protest, time in solitary confinement, a prison escape, a riot and even a love story, with sole female lead Anne Marlowe (Leila Hyams), thrown in for good measure.

Cedric Gibbons set design - The Big House (1930)
Cedric Gibbons set design - The Big House (1930)

This critically acclaimed and award winning movie brought audiences stunning visuals and crisp sound. I love to call this the "Art Deco Prison Movie" because of the beautiful and minimalist set design by Cedric Gibbons. Recording engineer Douglas Shearer brings the sounds of prison to life and won the Academy Award for Best Sound for his work. Screenwriter Frances Marion researched prison life at San Quentin and wrote the original screenplay for the film. She won the Academy Award for her script. Her husband George W. Hill expertly directed the film and some of the scenes with prisoners en masse are beautifully choreographed. I love how cinematographer Harold Wenstrom plays with light and shadow especially in the earlier part of the movie.

This film came at a time when Robert Montgomery and Chester Morris were launching their careers in Pre-Code era Hollywood. They had just made The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer, a very different film from The Big House. Wallace Beery had been suffering a career slump. Frances Marion spotted Beery at the MGM commissary and thought he would be the perfect actor for the role of Butch. This part revitalized Beery's career just in time for the new wave of talking pictures.

I watched The Big House recently with my husband who usually shies away from films of this era. He loves the prison genre classic The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and I pitched The Big House as a precursor to that film. He enjoyed making connections between the two films and seeing how this early talkie film might have influenced others of its kind.

I wrote about this film back in 2010 around the time when Warner Archive had released it on DVD. They re-released the film several years later as a two-disc set with the French and Spanish versions of the film included. In the early days of talking films, MGM would produce foreign language versions of their big movies. This was the era before subtitles and after silent film title cards which could be swapped out for different text. MGM made El presidio in Spanish, directed by Ward Wing who also worked on the original version. It stars José Crespo as Morgan, Juan de Landa as Butch and Tito Davison as Marlowe. The French version, Révolte dans la prison , was directed by Pal Fejos, one of the most interesting figures from the early film era and director of one of my favorite films Lonesome (1928). Charles Boyer, who wasn't quite yet a household name in the states, has the title role of Morgan.

Chester Morris as Morgan in The Big House
Chester Morris as Morgan in The Big House
Charles Boyer as Morgan in Revolte dans la prison
Charles Boyer as Morgan in Revolte dans la prison

Jose Crespo as Morgan in El presidio
Jose Crespo as Morgan in El presidio

I watched the Spanish and French versions as was quite impressed by both. If you look closely you can see where MGM did recycle some of the scenes from the original and took some shortcuts to save money. The different actors added nuances to their performances that help distinguish those films from the original. I was so relieved that these films were shot with fluent actors and not with the original cast using phonetic Spanish or French. As a Spanish speaker I can tell you that watching a film with phonetic Spanish is a painful experience.

The Big House is not a perfect film. When Marlowe is stripped of his possessions and given a number I thought the movie would explore the loss of identity. It doesn't really happen. The numbers are not referenced much throughout the film. If you're new to early talkies, the lack of a soundtrack and the eerie quiet in the background might be a bit off putting. I'm used to this so it's no problem for me.

Robert Montgomery as Kent in The Big House
Robert Montgomery as Kent in The Big House

André Burgère as Kent in Revolte dans la Prison
André Burgère as Kent in Revolte dans la Prison

Tito Davison as Kent in El presidio
Tito Davison as Kent in El presidio

The Big House is my favorite prison film. I love the era, the performances, the characters and the story. I adore Lewis Stone, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery so having all three in the film didn't hurt. I also love how The Big House set the bar for films to follow. If you're interested in film history, it's a must see.

The Big House (1930) two-disc DVD-R set is available from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me The Big House (1930) for review!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bells Are Ringing (1960)

"I'm in love, with a man.
Plaza o double four double three.
What a perfect relationship.
I can't see him, he can't see me.
I'm in love, with a voice.
Plaza o double four double three.
What a perfect relationship
I talk to him, and he just talks to me."

During the late 1950s things weren't looking up for actress Judy Holliday. Her marriage to David Oppenheim was over. She had been summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee and although she wasn't blacklisted her movie career suffered as a result. Things needed to change for the better and quickly. In steps in her good friends Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the writing duo behind many stellar musicals on stage and on the big screen. Inspired by Holliday's time as a switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre, Comden and Green create a musical with her in mind. It becomes a huge hit on Broadway with over 900 performances before MGM picks it up and adapts it for screen. The end result is a sparkling musical that serves as a last hurrah for the brilliant Judy Holliday: Bells Are Ringing (1960).

The film stars Judy Holliday as Ella Peterson. She lives and works with her two roommates in a dilapidated freestanding brownstone in New York City. The three of them run a service called Susanswerphone, an answering service for everyone from artists, to local businesses to busy socialites. Ella has a soft spot for her clients and becomes personally involved with them, much to the dismay of her boss and roommate Sue (Jean Stapleton) who wants to keep things strictly business. The thing is Ella is starting to fall in love with the man behind Plaza-04433, Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). He's a writer working on his newest musical The Midas Touch. However he's down and out because his writing partner left him and he'd rather drink than face writing by himself. In steps Ella to save the day. Jeffrey thinks Ella is really a 60 year old lady and lovingly refers to her as "Mom". When Ella meets Jeffrey in person she pretends to be Melisande Scott and they fall in love.

A wrench is thrown in the works when two police inspectors have their eye on bringing down Susanswerphone. They suspect it's really some sort of escort service. Sue puts pressure on Ella to be on her best behavior and having a romance with Jeffrey could ruin everything. To complicate things further, Sue is smitten with J. Otto Prantz (Eddie Foy Jr.), the leader of a bookie ring who disguises his illegal activity behind the ruse of the classical music distribution company Titanic Records. Unbeknownst to the smitten Sue and her two roommates, Otto is taking bets on horse races under the guise of orders for Beethoven symphonies and the like.

Ella can't help herself. She wants to help Jeffrey but she also wants to help the dentist who dreams of  being a songwriter and local beatnik Blake Barton (Frank Gorshin) who dreams of making it big as an actor. She wants to help everyone but doesn't want hurt the business either. What's a gal to do?

Judy Holliday sneaks into Dean Martin's apartment in Bells Are Ringing (1960)

With plenty of memorable musical numbers, fun characters and a zany plot with a satisfying ending, Bells Are Ringing (1960) is sure to please. Having seen the film several times recently I've fallen completely head over heels for it. Judy Holliday is so charming. It's her final film role and her only leading part in a color movie which makes it extra special and something to treasure. My favorite numbers of hers are It's a Perfect Relationship, a delightful song you'll find yourself singing over and over again, and the somber The Party's Over. The Titanic Records/bookie scheme is brilliantly explained in It's A Simple Little System lead by Eddie Foy Jr. Let's not forget Dean Martin who has several great solo songs and duets with Holliday. In addition to Comden and Green, Bells Are Ringing features powerhouses from movie musicals including director Vincente Minnelli, producer Arthur Freed, musical director Andre Previn and songwriter Jule Styne.

Bells Are Ringing (1960) was begging to be brought out on Blu-Ray and the good folks at Warner Archive heard the call and did just that. Seeing Judy Holliday don a gorgeous red party dress in the brilliant color only Blu-Ray can bring makes the whole thing worthwhile. The Blu-Ray includes several extras including two deleted musical numbers and an alternate version of The Midas Touch scene and the film's trailer. There is also a featurette from the 2005 DVD release which includes archival footage of Comden and Green discussing the movie, an interview with Hal Linden, who was Sydney Chaplin's understudy for the role of Jeffrey Moss on Broadway, as well as an interview with actor Frank Gorshin. I love that the Blu-Ray has English subtitles and a song selection menu which gave me an opportunity to play my favorites over and over again while also learning the lyrics.

The story of this film has a somber note as well. Holliday had a rough time making the picture. Ever the perfectionist she wanted it to be just as good as the Broadway production. She had a love affair with Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie Chaplin, and her co-star on Broadway. That relationship ended before MGM started production on the film. It was inevitable that they had to replace Chaplin. Vincente Minnelli had just made Some Came Running with Dean Martin so he was a natural choice for the role. Holliday was sick during the making of Bells Are Ringing and died 5 years later of breast cancer. It's a shame we don't have more time with her. It makes films like this all the more special.

Bells are Ringing (1960) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive. Their Blu-Rays are pressed discs and not made on demand like their DVDs. You'll definitely want to pick up a copy of this one!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me Bells Are Ringing (1960) for review!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

It's a Dog's Life (1955)

Wildfire in It's a Dog's Life (1955)

"It was strictly dog eat dog on the waterfront." - Wildfire

Before there was A Dog's Purpose (2017) there was It's a Dog's Life (1955). This film tells the story of Wildfire, a bull terrier making it on the mean streets of New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. He's been taking care of his mom until she suddenly disappears. On a mission to find his mom and the dad who abandoned him as a pup, Wildfire goes exploring. He gets caught up in a dog fighting ring at a local saloon when Patch McGill (Jeff Richards) takes him under his wing. Wildfire is a champion fighter until he meets his match and his winning streak ends. Patch and his lady cohort and source of money Mabel (Jarma Lewis) quickly abandon him. Wildfire starts a new life at the Wyndham Estate when he's rescued by the tender-hearted grounds keeper Nolan (Edward Gwenn). Mr. Wyndham (Dean Jagger) doesn't want Wildfire around but his daughter Dorothy (Sally Fraser) sees showmanship potential in the purebred bull terrier. Thus Wildfire continues onto a new journey as he competes in dog shows, falls in love and wins over the hearts of pretty much everyone he meets.

Wildfire and Dean Jagger in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
Vic Morrow has an uncredited role as the voice of Wildfire whose thoughts narrate the story. Wildfire was actually two identical looking pure white bull terriers, one used for close-ups and the other used for stunts. For those of you squeamish about seeing animal abuse in the form of dog fighting fear not. We don't see any dog fighting. It's obscured by crowd surrounding the dogs with audio effects of dogs growling to suggest the fighting is happening. Also there is a scene when Patch holds up Wildfire by the tail. It's obscured enough that it's obvious that Wildfire isn't really dangling there. Dog lovers will have fun seeing the wide variety of breeds showcased in the film especially at the two dog shows at the end of the film.

Wildfire in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
"I can hardly wait to be reincarnated." - Wildfire

The film includes a young Richard Anderson in the role of George Oakley, a judge at the dog show who has a thing for Dorothy Wyndham. Willard Sage plays Tuttle, the villain of the story who wants to take old man Nolan's job and tries to get rid of Wildfire. Villains in animal films always get to me but Tuttle's role was particularly benign yet helps move the plot along.

Wildfire and Sally Fraser in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
Wildfire and Sally Fraser as Dorothy Wyndham

Wildfire and Edmund Gwenn in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
Wildfire and Edmund Gwenn as Nolan

An MGM film shot in Eastman Color and CinemaScope, It's a Dog's Life was directed by Herman Hoffman and produced by Henry Berman.  It was based on the novel The Bar Sinister by Richard Harding Davis published in 1903 and adapted for the screen by John Michael Hayes. The most notable aspect of the movie for many is the musical score by legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein.

I wasn't expecting much from this film. It's been sitting in my collection for a while and I always put off watching it. Then I thought with the release of A Dog's Purpose, a film also narrated by a dog's thoughts, that it was time to pick this one up. I was pleasantly surprised. This is a fine little film. It's very unusual for a dog movie to have no children in the story. This has not a single one. All of the humans in Wildfire's life are all adults. Usually children and dogs make for magical onscreen pairings because of that special relationship they have. Their innocence and free spirited nature is often lost to adults. This isn't a traditional family film and there is some content parents might not want their very young kids to watch: in particular the dog fighting scenes (suggested and not shown), the gambling and the sexually suggestive scenes between Patch and Mabel and the saloon's entertainer.

It's a Dog's Life (1955) is a fun movie that deserves to be pulled out of obscurity and appreciated. Wildfire doesn't reincarnate into other dogs like in A Dog's Purpose but goes through different stages in his life as he meets new humans on his journey to find his parents. So even if you're giving that new movie the side eye, like I am, or you enjoyed it and want to try something in a similar vein, make sure you pick up this movie and give it a try.

It's a Dog's Life (1955) is available from the Warner Archive Collection on DVD-MOD.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you Warner Archive for a copy of It's a Dog's Life (1955)!

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