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Sunday, March 19, 2017

The inspiration for 'M' as told in Gordian Maugg's 2016 Fritz Lang

Today the Coolidge Corner Theatre screened the 2016 film Fritz Lang as part of their partnership with the Goethe-Institut Boston.  The film series focuses on new German cinema, with emphasis on works early in the careers of their directors.  I've enjoyed films in this series before, and was excited to see a film on the subject of the great Austrian director who made landmark films in Germany in the early years of cinema, and after his emigration to the U.S., found work in Hollywood, gave us noir classics such as The Big Heat and Scarlet Street.

Written and directed by Gordian Maugg, the film is a mixed bag.  I'll admit to enjoying it overall, for its gorgeous black and white cinematography, gauzy evocations of Weimar Germany, an extremely flawed but fascinating central character, strong performances, and references to and clips from the film M, Lang's first talkie.  For it is this film, that served as the inspiration for Herr Maugg, to create what appears to be a mostly fictionalized imagining of this particular segment of Lang's professional and personal journey.
Heino Ferch as Fritz Lang
The film starts with a middle-aged man seducing a young woman in a secluded park, and then stabbing her to death in the neck with a pair of scissors and then drinking her blood. Rapidly switching away from this brutal scene, we meet Herr Lang, who is between projects and seems to be unhappy with his career, and his wife, writer Thea von Harbou.  After reading a newspaper article about the search for a serial killer, he goes off to Düsseldorf to indulge his fascination with the case.   The head of the investigation just happens to be the police commissioner, Gennat, who investigated Lang 10 years earlier for the death of his first wife, Lisa.  It's never made clear in the film if he shot her, or she committed suicide after discovering her husband in the arms of his lover (later to become Frau Lang).  [According to the notes at the end of the film, what really happened to Lisa never came to light.]  Once the serial killer, Peter Kürten, is found--it's a real case, read about it here--Lang is granted interview privileges, and when drawing out Kürten, begins to relive his own scarred past (childhood family trauma, PTSD from WWI, etc.).  The parallels between the two men are underscored, but they ultimately chose different outlets to channel their repressed anger and anguish.  Ultimately, Lang produces his masterpiece, M, from all these experiences. 
Peter Lorre in M
Apparently, most of the film's plot is speculation.  Lang never revealed much about his early life, and denied even that M was based on the Kürten case.  I'm not sure what Maugg's intentions were.  A primary theme of M, that of questioning vigilante justice, is not dealt with in the modern film. I did take away from screening that we were to believe Lang himself empathized with Kürten, as he ultimately did in Peter Lorre's character of the child-killer in M.  As the 'older' Lang, Heino Ferch was terrific.  He created a portrait of a self-important artist, a national celebrity, who demanded and got what he wanted.  He snorted cocaine and was prone to risky sex and destructive rages.  Certainly, this was not what I had imagined Lang to be like, and the film obviously did not intend for the audience to sympathize with him.  That is, at least until near the end where he begins to become more human, facing his own demons through his interactions with Kürten.  Another way this film parallels M.
Cross-fade of Peter Lorre in M and Samuel Finzi as Peter Kürten
The structure of the film is non-linear, with surrealistic imaginings and flashbacks in time.  Inserted throughout are what appears to be newsreel footage of life in early 20th century Germany, and clips from M.  A short article I read on Maugg mentioned his specialty as a director is mixing archival footage with fictional scenes.  The black-and-white cinematography evoked Lang's own films.  The primary questions I had when I left the theater were:  Was Fritz Lang really this bombastic, chauvinistic, and unpleasant?  If so, why?  What really did happen to his first wife?  All in all, a dark exploration of the early days of cinema that was at least an entertaining couple of hours at the cinema, if not providing any trustworthy insights into the enigma of Lang's early life.  

Fritz Lang (from

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Greater Boston's March Classic Movie Scene

A few days behind because of a vacation in a warmer climate (!), but there are some exciting classic film screenings to check out this month.

First, my neighborhood Coolidge Corner Theatre comes back with another entry in the 'Sounds of Silents' series this Tuesday, March 7th, at 7:00.  It's billed as the comedic 'Battle of the Century', featuring two short films by the great Buster Keaton, going head to head with a very early short film from France, and a film from the classic duo of Laurel & Hardy.  The headliner is, of course, Battle of the Century (1927) with Laurel & Hardy; this film until now was considered a partially lost film, but it has been recovered and restored just in 2015.  So seeing this film at the cinema will be a rare treat.  The 'battle' referred to in the title apparently at least in part relates to an epic pie throwing scene (in fact, the blurb for the film at the Coolidge indicates there may be some *actual* pie-throwing antics at the screening.  Note to self: bring a change of clothes!).

However, first on the bill is The Dancing Pig (1907), a four-minute French film (Pathé Frères) featuring, you guessed it, a porcine actor light on his hooves.  The Coolidge website says no animals were harmed in making this film, and I really hope that's the case.

Once we're warmed up, we're treated to one of my favorite Buster Keaton shorts, Cops (1922), an absurdist masterpiece which in which poor Buster tries to elude several dozen traffic cops chasing him on foot through some city streets.  It's one of the greatest, and funniest, chase scenes ever.   This is followed by The Electric House, also 1922.  This one shows Buster gamely but ineptly trying to wire a house to do all kinds of tricks, such as setting up a toy train to bring food to the dinner table.

All films will be accompanied live by keyboard/percussion musicians Joanna Seaton and Donald Sosin.
Buster Keaton & Virginia Fox in The Electric House
Fast forwarding to Tuesday March 28th at 7:00 PM, the Coolidge will screen The Grapes of Wrath (1940) as part of its Science on Screen series.  For this screening, environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben will speak on his specialty, climate change, prior to the screening.  The film of course is the classic John Ford/Henry Fonda black and white interpretation of the John Steinbeck novel about the dust bowl during the 1930s and the migration of the 'Okies.'  I recently saw this for the first time and was blown away (pun intended!) by the cinematography.  Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal of 'Ma'.
Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath
Moving across the river to Cambridge, the Brattle Theatre has announced a 'Year of Women in Cinema'.  Woo-hoo!  Patrons will be treated to multiple series showcasing the films that were significant for the women who contributed to them.  First up, just this week is Part 1, 'The Women who Built Hollywood'.  You can see the entire list here, several of which have already been screened, but Tuesday and Wednesday March 7 & 8 will feature pre-code 35 mm films from the 1930s: Red-Headed Woman (1932) -- screenwriter Anita Loos, starring the lovely Jean Harlow without her usual 'platinum' locks; The Big House (1930), a prison drama with screenplay by Frances Marion, Man's Castle with Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy, edited by Viola Lawrenceand Bombshell (1933)another Jean Harlow comedy (her blond locks are back), edited by Margaret Booth.   I really enjoy Jean Harlow -- to those less familiar with her work, her name might evoke glamour and sophistication, and rightly so, but she also conveys sweetness, innocence, and girl-next-door qualities that add to her captivating screen presence.
Gorgeous 1930s 'bombshell' Jean Harlow
I'm really looking forward to more series in this year-long celebration of women in cinema, and continue to highlight these, especially when special guests will be present.

Patricia Neal & Andy Griffith
Just up Massachusetts Ave. ("Mass ave") in the bustling Davis Square is the Somerville Theatre, which is also offering some classics that should be on your list.  First, on Wednesday, March 15th at 7:30 is A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.  It tells the story of a country musician becoming a TV star, who then reveals all kinds of megalomaniacal characteristics (hmmm...).  Not the guy we know from TV's Mayberry.  It's a film I haven't seen, but would love to.  

Then on Saturday March 18 are two silent features accompanied by the terrific Alloy Orchestra.  The first is Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926) at 4:00 PM, and the second, at 8:00 PM, is the German silent Varieté (1925) with renowned actor Emil Jannings.  The latter is the same film screened at the Coolidge last year with the world premiere score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  I wrote about that here.  It will be interesting to see what the Alloy Orchestra does with it.
Douglas Fairbanks doing what he does best, in The Black Pirate

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sidney Poitier Directs: Buck and the Preacher (1972)

The great Sir Sidney Poitier is celebrating his 90th birthday tomorrow, Feb 20, and in honor of his unique, distinguished career, this weekend a number of movie bloggers are participating in the '90 Years of Sidney Poitier' blogathon, hosted by Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema. Check out all the fabulous posts here.  I'm contributing a review of his first directorial effort, Buck and the Preacher, in which he also starred and produced along with his good friend Harry Belafonte.

In 1972 Poitier was an established star with his most iconic films behind him.  For this first directorial effort, Poitier worked in the film genre which enthralled him the most growing up -- the Western.  In fact, his earliest dreams of Hollywood involved him becoming a cowboy.  This immigrant from the Bahamas, who epitomized the American dream when he, in fact, rose from abject poverty, without a formal education, to the pinnacle of fame, chose the most American cinematic form to tell a story that illuminates a little known piece of African-American history.  Buck and the Preacher entertains and educates, and is a must-watch for fans of Poitier, Belafonte, or Western movies. 

Poitier wasn't originally supposed to direct the film.  His long-time friend actor/producer Harry Belafonte reached out to him with a movie he wanted to make based on story by Drake Walker about African-Americans in the West.  Belafonte and Poitier would co-star and co-produce the film, and engaged Ernest Kinoy to finish the script.  The director they hired was Joseph Sargent, whose credits at that point were mostly television serials.  Early on, though, Sargent was fired when it was apparent to the producers that their epic vision of black heroes wasn't being adequately captured.  Long interested in taking up directing, Poitier did not hesitate to slide into the director's chair at Belafonte's urging, after some difficult negotiations with the Columbia studio execs. 

The narrative is a fictional account of real events -- former Southern slave families migrating west (primarily to Kansas) during the Reconstruction era, only to find themselves embattled by white bounty hunters paid to 'convince' these 'exodusters' to return to the South as sharecroppers to struggling white landowners.  The character of Buck (Poitier) is the wagon-master making a living helping the emigres, and goes on the lam after a shoot-out with a particularly nasty gang of mercenaries led by Deshay, played by Cameron Mitchell.  The gang is after Buck when he happens upon the itinerant con man-cum-preacher (Belafonte).  At first wary of each other, they forge a partnership when the Buck finds his strength is a match for his latest foes only when paired with the wiliness of the Preacher.  The two team up to lead a group of Louisiana emigres through dangerous Indian country while avoiding the mercenary gang.  In an underwritten character, Buck's wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee) only wants Buck to give up his dangerous profession so they can make a life for themselves.
Poitier as 'Buck' coming across a scene of carnage and destruction
In the early 1970s, traditional Westerns were in a decline, and the revisionist Westerns, in response to the war in Vietnam and changing cultural mores, arguably had peaked as well (think The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and many more).  But films marketed to black audiences ("Blaxploitation'), and films with significant African-American characters were gaining traction with the broader market. Both Belafonte and Poitier were uniquely positioned, as civil rights champions and powerful stars in Hollywood, to capitalize on this trend and make a film that they felt would reclaim some of the history of African descendants in a new land.  

In plot outline and thematically, Buck and the Preacher is a very traditional Western.  You have your heroes, or anti-heroes (cowboys or lawmen in other films), defending the helpless settlers against the powerful (ranchers, railroaders, etc.), who wish to maintain an older order, and must combat external threats (Indians) as well.  The good guys succeed due to their smarts, their willingness to fight and kill, their understanding of their enemy, and of Indians.  They are at odds with female characters over the choices they make.  Shades of Shane, Rio Grande, etc.  At the same time, here the Indians were portrayed as equals to the blacks, with legitimate claims to their land on which passage had to be negotiated.  The primary discontinuity here is that the besieged and their heroes are black, underscoring the fact that blacks in the West in the 19th century were not all servants or marginal to the action of settling the West.  In parallel, the white characters, with a minor exception, were brutal villains who deserve to be cut down at the hands of the former slaves.  These paradoxes didn't escape the notice of critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote at the time "the film is a loose, amiable, post-Civil War Western with a firm if not especially severe Black Conscience."
Our heroes (foreground) negotiate with leaders of the Native population (Enrique Lucero and Julie Robinson)
While Mr. Canby goes on to lightly praise the film, and while I don't totally disagree with his assessment, my experience of the film was that it was more than 'loose and amiable.'  As director/storyteller, Poitier kept a kinetic pace, with fast editing, especially in the early scenes where the first shootout occurs in the first 10 minutes.  Interesting high and low camera angles and stunning scenic visuals (the film was shot in Durango, Mexico) keep your attention.  There are some outstanding scenes, including a showdown in a whorehouse where our heroes cunningly ambush their enemies playing cards and visiting upstairs whores.  And great tension is built and released multiple times in this and other confrontations along the journey.  The soundtrack by jazz musician Benny Carter adds a bluesy-style jangle that punctuates key moments. (The main theme is on YouTube here).  There also is quite a bit of humor, especially with Belafonte's portrayal of the Preacher (of the 'High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church').  Contrasted with solemn, stoic Buck, Belafonte's Preacher is all slithery energy -- when not capturing him jumping around, the camera lingers on his expressive face, where all sorts of contortions play out.  Yet he has guts, as when he doesn't hesitate to punch Buck in the face for stealing his horse.
Belafonte as the 'Preacher'
As Poitier served as the film's co-producer, director, and star, we learn much about Poitier's sensibilities, his desire to do honor to his kinfolk of African origin while advancing the art of cinema. In my opinion, he succeeded. In addition, black cultural critics, including author and critic Nelson George of the Village Voice, generally praised the film. Unfortunately, while doing modestly at the box office, the film did not turn a profit, and Columbia did not renew Poitier's production contract.  Perhaps more unfortunately, Hollywood did not pick up the main threads in the story to produce more films exploring the life of African-Americans in the West.  While Poitier apparently was not completely satisfied with the final film, and found his own performance 'dull', he thoroughly enjoyed his experience as a director.  He went on to further hone his directorial skills, with a total of nine film credits to his name.

A final note: Harry Belafonte is also celebrating his 90th birthday soon -- on March 1st.  Happiest of days to both esteemed entertainers!  Enjoy the first encounter these two have in the film, courtesy of TCM, here.

George, Nelson, Blackface: Reflections on African Americans in the Movies; Cooper Square Press, 2002.
Goudsouzian, Aram, Sidney Poitier:  Man , Actor, Icon; University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Slotkin, Richard, Gunfighter Nation; University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. article on Buck and the Preacher

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Glenn Close is Norma Desmond again


Sunset Boulevard, Twisting boulevard
Secret of the rich, A little scary
Sunset Boulevard, Tempting boulevard
Waiting there to swallow the unwary

Don Black & Christopher Hampton, lyricists

Old Hollywood has made a return trip to NYC, with 47th and Broadway transforming into LA's Sunset Boulevard for a few weeks, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is revived for a limited run.  Starring in the role that brought her a Tony 20 years ago, is Glenn Close.  I was thrilled to be able to catch a preview last weekend.

In the mid-1990s Lloyd Webber embarked upon an ambitious project--to give the classic story Sunset Boulevard the operatic treatment. As a musical, it follows very closely the plot and script of Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir masterpiece starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim.  (I remember seeing a touring version of the musical, then, in Cincinnati, before I really knew much about the film and certainly before I became a classic film enthusiast.) The English National Opera revived it last year with a semi-staged production directed by Lonny Price, and Close was engaged to reprise her success, along with a supporting cast of stellar singing actors.  The same production and cast opened today on Broadway.  With the old Hollywood image projections, the bright colors and sounds, and star power, sitting there in the audience I felt a connection to my recent experiences of the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.  
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond (from
The musical would not make the impression it does without the orchestra.  This production featured unusually large orchestra by Broadway standards --40 pieces-- which was situated on stage, doubling as the Paramount orchestra during the scene at the famous studio.  At times I was worried the actors would knock over some of the musicians, they got so close, running back and forth across the expanse of the stage.  Yet no such disaster happened, the players never broke character, and they made a wonderful sound throughout.  The multi-level set was minimalist, but made ample use of image projection on a partially opaque screen, dramatic contrast lighting, movable furniture, and the occasional luxury automobile.  Costumes appropriately evoked the late 1940s with Ms. Close's costumes particularly flowing and glittery and spectacular.  
Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty, and
Fred Johanson as Max
Ms. Close delivered a nuacned portrayal despite her ability to dominate the stage.  Interviewed for Playbill magazine, she discussed how she feels differently about the character now, after 20 more years of life experience, and had reached back once again to the film for inspiration.  It seemed to me she projected considerable world weariness, perhaps more than Gloria Swanson did in the film, which isn't a criticism of either portrayal.  As mentioned, her costumes were appropriately over the top; in the Paramount scene, her strikingly black and white ensemble was in direct contrast to the earth tones of the rehearsing movie actors, making it all the more obvious how she really no longer belonged in 'modern' Hollywood.

The rest of the cast was first rate.  Michael Xavier had youthful swagger as Joe Gillis, and Siobhan Dillon was perky and believable as Betty Schaefer.   I especially enjoyed Fred Johanson as Max, who despite looking like a cross between Erich von Stroheim and Nosferatu (!), had an incredibly powerful and resonant bass voice.  All the best lines from the film were there, and, judging by the audience response, were eagerly anticipated, and greatly appreciated.  A standing ovation greeted the cast at the end.  If that was any indication, this Broadway run should be big.

A few snapshots of the set:

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Feb '17 Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

It's now truly the deep dark winter despite the fact that days are slowly and visibly getting longer.  To brighten those days, there are a number of tempting offerings of classic film on the big screen.

The Brattle Theatre
The Brattle gets the prize this month for arguably the greatest number and diversity of its classic film screenings.

Weds Feb 8: A 'special event' screening of Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 film Targets.  This stars Boris Karloff as a B-movie star dealing with an encounter with a mass-murderer in a drive in (!).  I've not seen this one, but being familiar with Karloff's early work as Frankenstein's monster and most recently, the night club owner in Night World, I would enjoy seeing him in his late career.  The film will be introduced live by musician and writer John Darnielle, whose novel Universal Harvester references the film.
Boris Karloff (left) and Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote, directed,
and acted in Targets from 1968
St. Valentine is appropriately celebrated the week of Feb 10-15 with the 'Great Romances' series. A few old favorites should be savored:

Sun, Feb 10:  Roman Holiday (1953) with two of the most gorgeous and equally talented people in 1950s Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  This film is paired in a double feature with The Philadelphia Story (1940), with more gorgeousness and talent in Katharine Hepburn (no relation), James Stewart and, ahem, Cary Grant.  I say this is about a 'perfect dose' of classic Hollywood confection in one day.  Both are romantic comedies bursting with joy, fun and wit.  Both films are 35mm prints.

Tues Feb 14 & Weds Feb 15Casablanca (1942)  Here's looking at you; happy 75th birthday to this cinema icon.  I spoke too soon about Hollywood perfection -- many would argue this is it.  At least it has the most perfect ending in all film.  Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid star, along with an exceptional supporting cast, in this tale of romance and resistance in German occupied Morocco during WWII.
Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and Ingrid Bergman
discuss politics and love in Casablanca
The Coolidge Corner Theatre
Mon Feb 13  The Lady Eve (1941).  Of course, it's another romantic film, this time starring Barbara Stanwyck as a con artist trying to make a play for naive Henry Fonda aboard a cruise ship, but then things go in all kinds of unexpected directions.  Charles Coburn is great as Stanwyck's partner in crime!
Barbara Stanwyck gets a little help from Henry Fonda

The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
This is the first time I've featured this venue in my blog, but they occasionally show classics amongst their film series.  This month is devoted to a retrospective of the great director Stanley Kubrick, who got his start in the 1950s but directed all the way to the late 1990s, his last feature being Eyes Wide Shut.  However, he only directed 16 films, and all of them are screening.  The Kubrick retrospective is apparently an annual event.  The series start tomorrow, Feb 1, and goes through Feb 25.  I noted:

Thurs Feb 2 and Fri Feb 10Killer's Kiss (1955), a tidy noir (67 minutes) also written by Kubrick, about a washed up boxer.  I've not seen it, and it's a lesser known Kubrick, so worth checking out.

Thurs Feb 23 and Sat Feb 25: Barry Lyndon (1975).  It's not from the classic era, but I LOVE this film.  It's a sumptuously shot and terrifically acted period drama starring Ryan O'Neal as an opportunist who tries to work his way into the upper echelons of society at the expense of others.
A scene from Barry Lyndon
Those who missed out celebrating the 100th birthday of Kirk Douglas could make up for that by attending either Paths of Glory (1957) on Sun Feb 5th and Thurs Feb 9, or Spartacus (1960) on Weds Feb 15.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Getting to know Busby Berkeley - thanks to the Harvard Film Archive

As a new classic film fan, after I heard the name just once or twice, the first image my mind conjured of Busby Berkeley came directly from the improbable sing-song throwback-style name.  It was an image of a simpler time, but also one of extravagance and fun, decadence and flamboyance. In a vague sort of way I'd picked up that this man was responsible for a number of spectacles in the early years of Hollywood. And that much was true.  He was a musical-number choreographer responsible for kaleidoscopic, dazzling, often surreal visual images of human bodies, mostly leggy women, punctuating depression-era tales such as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 or 1935, or 1937, into the MGM musical heyday of For Me and My Gal, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game.
Berkeley (1895-1976) as a young man
Thanks to the retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive over the past several weeks, Mr. Berkeley's image has come into much clearer focus for me.  Here's a collection of some of my observations thanks to the several films (all from the 1930s) that I treated myself to there, as well as a rare screening of a French television interview (Cineastes de notre temps) with Mr. Berkeley in the 1970s.
A typical image of chorus girls in formation as shot from above.  
Interesting Facts from Berkeley's Biography and Career 
  • While born in LA, he actually spent a few of his early years in my adopted state of Massachusetts, and toiled away in the legitimate theater locally, before moving to Broadway, and then Hollywood.
  • The inspiration for his complex, timed dance maneuvers was stated to have emerged from his days during WWI in the army setting up marching companies of soldiers.  Interestingly, in the French TV interview, he dramatically plays down this influence.  Read more here in this New Yorker piece by Richard Brody.
  • By using the camera, through its placement and movement capability to show performances that could *only* be done by the new medium of the moving picture.  In fact, many of his early movies had 'backstage' narratives, allowing multiple moments of stage performances, which would morph, right before your eyes, from rather static two dimensional views to brilliant, ethereal, multi-dimensional moving images disconnected from time, or even gravity  A good example of this can be seen here in this scene from Gold Diggers of 1933.
  • He advanced from choreographer to director, but the later films in which he directs aren't quite as visually spectacular.
  • He struggled with alcoholism, was married six times, and was responsible for the death of three people from a car accident, which haunted him for many years, and was said to have cost him at least two Academy Awards.
  • His work underwent a rediscovery of sorts in the 1970s.  
The Films (those designated with * are new to me from this retrospective)

*Night World (1932) Directed by Hobart Henley for Universal, this one is a dark, *very* pre-code tale of love and loss in a seedy speakeasy.  It stars Lew Ayres, fresh off his lauded performance in All Quiet on the Western Front, Mae Clarke as the showgirl with the heart of gold, and Boris Karloff as the unpleasant owner of the speakeasy.  George Raft also appears in a small role.  There is a staged number in the middle of the film in which a small group of young chorus girls perform a musical number as the nightclub's entertainment, and some of the usual Berkeley touches, ceiling camera, camera through the parallel legs of the girls, etc., are featured.  While not a spectacular film, it's entertaining for it's 58 minute run time.  Lew Ayres was a terrific drunk, and Clarence Muse, an African-American actor, played the club's doorman dealing with a personal problem.  Muse's character was sympathetic and well-drawn, significantly more so than the typical minority character of that era.

Alice Brady & Adolphe Menjou
*Gold Diggers of 1935 No doubt the best in this series is the first Gold Diggers of 1933, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one, Berkeley's first sole directorial feature.  Now that the Production Code was being enforced, much of the pre-code charm of the earlier film was off limits, and a new kind of charm had to be found.  In this case, the film played much more as a screwball comedy, a genre that was on the rise at this time in the mid-1930s.  However, the pacing, musical numbers, and comedy all are in harmony for good time.  Dick Powell is back, but this time his leading lady is Gloria Stuart, a gifted actress but without the infectious personality of a Joan Blondell.  I loved Alice Brady, who'd won me over with her portrayal of Carole Lombard's zany mother in My Man Godfrey.  Here she is...wait for it...a zany mother...who is frugal to the extreme, but wants to see her daughter (Stuart) married off to a wealthy but hopelessly clueless snuff-box historian, of all things.  The family is vacationing in an up-state resort hotel, with Adolphe Menjou as the hired producer to put on a show, and Powell is a hotel employee who has greater ambitions.  Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Glenda Farrell, and Grant Mitchell all shine in memorable secondary roles.  

Footlight Parade I saw this one during last year's "Members' Weekend" at the HFA.  In addition to the fabulous choreographed numbers, most near the end of this spectacle, I recommend this one for a young James Cagney in a pre-code in which he was NOT playing a gangster.  As a theater impresario he was a blast to watch. 

*Fast and Furious  This was a relatively minor offering, not to be confused with a series of films from earlier this century starring Vin Diesel, that I saw as the second of a double feature with Night World.  Berkeley directs, ably, but there are no major musical numbers.  It's a cut rate "Thin Man" style murder mystery with sparring husband-and-wife detectives, here played by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern.  There was a fair amount of slapstick humor with a lion loose in a hotel (the MGM lion??).

*Whoopee (1933)The last film I saw in the retrospective was Berkeley's first.  The HFA located a digital version of a restored print, which looked pretty good, with its two-strip technicolor.   This is a decidedly racist Eddie Cantor vehicle, with a relative mild blackface scene, but outside of those parts I found it hilarious and highly entertaining nonetheless.  A comic/western/romance, this was a big hit on Broadway and the film version was also a winner with the public.
Eddie Cantor as a rich hypochondriac with his smitten nurse,
Ethel Shutta (photo from IMDb)
The other Berkeley films I've seen are:   *42nd Street (1933);  Gold Diggers of 1933Roman Scandals (1933).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

My Favorite Herbert Marshall Performances

Herbert Marshall is another one of those names that will elicit blanks stares from most everyone today.  When Turner Classic Movies (TCM) included him their lineup of featured stars in the 2014 edition of 'Summer Under the Stars," it was the first I'd heard of him, but after I saw a just few of those films, I became a big fan. Many will cite his fine, deep velvety baritone voice with the upper class British accent as his best asset, and perhaps rightly so.  But given the right vehicle and quality direction, he was a compelling, strong screen presence with ability to portray so much more than the staid, suave, and often cuckolded gentleman roles into which he was typecast.  I noted with distinct pleasure that TCM had scheduled a day of his rather obscure 1930s films tomorrow (Jan 19th), and I will be looking forward to watching the ones I haven't yet seen -- Make Way for A Ladyand Woman Against Woman on DVR, of course.   In honor of Mr. Marshall, and in celebration of his recent turn on TCM, I was inspired to share my favorite five performances of his here.
 Marshall was born in England in 1890 to a theatrical family, but came to the profession only after he gave up a career in accounting shortly after college.  He then enlisted to fight in WWI and was a casualty of fighting in France, where he lost a leg (some reports say it was his right, but observing his movements closely, it seems to me it may be his left; he never really discussed it publicly). He resumed his acting career after a long convalescence and learning to walk with a prosthetic.  He came to Hollywood in the early 1930s and rose to relative stardom with leading man roles as a free-lance actor who never signed a long term contract. Later in life he had numerous character roles and starred in many radio programs. He was known as a polite, charming, if not an attention-seeking personality. He had five marriages, and a somewhat scandalous romance with Gloria Swanson in the mid-1930s, which broke up his marriage to English actress Edna Best.  He had two daughters, the first his daughter with Best, who became actress Sarah Marshall.  He continued to work almost until the end of his life; he died at age 75 in 1966.

Here are five performances of his I've enjoyed the most, so far, in chronological order.

Jeanne Eagels as Leslie Crosbie
and Herbert Marshall as Geoff Hammond
1) The Letter (1929, D.: Jean de Limur)  This is not the much more famous 1940 William Wyler film of the same Somerset Maugham novel, which Mr. Marshall also starred alongside Bette Davis.  No, this early talkie was a pre-code version starring doomed actress Jeanne Eagels, and Marshall as the lover.  (In the 1940 version, the lover was not an actual role on screen).  This was a very early film role for Marshall, and he sinks his teeth into the few moments of screen time he has -- he comes across as a caustic, privileged young cad who is eager to move on from his dalliance with Mrs. Crosbie (Eagels). He does have a few moments of tenderness with his new lover, Lady Tsen Mei.  I wasn't as impressed with Eagels, and thought Reginald Owen was one-dimensional as the husband, but it's interesting to watch in comparison to the later version; the ending, in particular is distinctly different.

Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins
in Trouble in Paradise
2)  Trouble in Paradise (1932, D.: Ernst Lubitsch)  This sophisticated comedy is considered one of the best pre-code films and one of Lubitsch's best, as well.  It's in my top five favorite films of all time; in fact, it may just be perfect.  From the romantic love triangle, to the clever visual and verbal innuendo, some sight gags, terrific pacing, and spot on performances that were ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek, you absolutely cannot go wrong with this film.  In the first example of Marshall's talent being brought to the fore by the skill of a good director, as jewel thief Gaston Monescu, he is perfectly understated, yet slyly comic here.  He's more than handsome and charming enough to cause two gorgeous women (Kay Francis & Miriam Hopkins) to fall for him, believably so.  His line readings are a delight.  One of my favorite exchanges: Lily:  "Who ARE you?"  Gaston: "You know the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?" Lily: "Monescu!"  Marshall worked for Lubitsch again in 1937's Angel, but that did not have nearly the same magic.

Marshall and Margaret Sullavan bond over coffee in The Good Fairy
3) The Good Fairy (1935, D.: William Wyler). Another comic role of a different kind came to Marshall in this William Wyler film, starring Margaret Sullavan in the "title" role.  It's a screwball gem, scripted by soon-to-be director Preston Sturges -- if that provides context about the quality of the writing -- from the play by Ferenc Molnar.  Marshall is a delight as a poor legal scholar who is too "honest" to be successful and becomes the unwitting beneficiary of Margaret Sullavan's 'good deed'.  He is definitely NOT suave, and has a nervous habit of running a comb once or twice through his beard.  He also has a hilarious solo scene in which he prattles excitedly about a new pencil sharpener (!).  His chemistry with Sullavan is very strong, and the two make a very lovely couple.  Frank Morgan and Reginald Owen are amusing as variations of their stock comic characters.

4.  The Little Foxes (1941, D.: William Wyler).  Another Wyler film -- he clearly was a terrific director for Marshall.  This one was his second film with Bette Davis, and he played victimized husband Horace Giddens to her poisonous Regina Giddens in this adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play about a dysfunctional Southern family.  The tone is mostly dark throughout, but it's a riveting production with good performances by the entire cast.  Marshall, by turns warm and sympathetic, then angry and righteous, plays the role of a dying man so convincingly that you feel his pain almost viscerally.  His subtlety as an actor is revealed when you know he wants to trust his family, but because he's smart, he cannot hide the growing realization of dishonest motives and crimes being perpetrated.  Interestingly, Davis and Marshall had a warm relationship off-screen.
Davis & Marshall in The Little Foxes
5.  High Wall (1947, D. Curtis Bernhardt).  In this noir, Robert Taylor is a veteran with PTSD, employed by Marshall, who finds himself accused of murder.  It's a psychological thriller as well, with Audrey Totter as the doctor who tries to help Taylor.  In this one, Marshall shows his ability to be slimy, two-faced, and scary.  It takes some questionable narrative turns, and I'm not enamored of Taylor's performance particularly, but it showcases the often underappreciated range of Marshall, who in my opinion, really steals the movie.  

Don't miss him in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Little White Frock," or his appearance on the popular "What's My Line?" TV show in which, as the 'Mystery Guest, he gracefully responds to Dorothy Kilgallen's question as to whether he considers himself a 'character man,' with, "The day has come, yes."  Video link is below.
Finally, for a greater appreciation of his fight to overcome his war injury, read this article published in 2014 by SAG-AFTRA, image below: