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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

O.S.S.: A non-noir 1940s Alan Ladd wartime adventure.

In December, Turner Classic Movies, in partnership with Universal, released a packaged DVD set of three lesser-known Alan Ladd films from the 1940s (here).  Having recently tumbled headlong into the Alan Ladd fan club, I was excited to see this when the announcement was first made, and practically ran for my credit card to pre-order the set.  Originally supposed to have had four movies, the set only ended up with three in the finished product.  They are: O.S.S., TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, and LUCKY JORDAN. All three of these films are reminders that Ladd's career during the 1940s extended well beyond film noir. This post focuses on my reactions to O.S.S., a well-made and well-acted WWII adventure film.

Directed by Irving Pichel, O.S.S. was made by Paramount in 1946, and uses the medium of film to inform the public about the heroic actions of the men and women of the 'Office of Strategic Services', the precursor to the C.I.A., during WWII.  To add verisimilitude an opening testimonial was captured on screen from General "Wild Bill" William Donovan, the real head of O.S.S. at the time. According to Marilyn Henry and Ron DeSourdis in their book The Films of Alan Ladd, 30 real O.S.S agents served as advisors on the film.

The story centers around Ladd and his cohort of Allied spies dropped into occupied France near the end of the war, to pose as French citizens and carry out clandestine and dangerous orders to thwart the Nazis at every turn.  Geraldine Fitzgerald is the leading lady, and the cast features terrific support from Patric Knowles, John Hoyt, and Harold Vermilyea.  The tone is quite dark and serious, with very rare touches of humor, quite a bit of irony, and a not insignificant dose of patriotic messaging, which was common in films like these during and after WWII.  There is a little bit of everything:  menacing Nazis, hairbreadth escapes, romance, plastic explosives disguised in sculptured busts (!), and snippets of "My Country Tis of Thee".

What I found fascinating about the film:

--The first episode of the film sets up Ladd, still in the U.S., stealing some important military papers, and leaves the audience initially unsure of who he is or what side he is on.  Eventually after a harrowing interrogation, all is made clear.
--There is a lovely composite scene showing Ladd in various scenarios learning the skills of a spy, with voice over that reads straight from the spy instruction manual.

--We learn early on that if you're an American spy posing as French during the war you must take care to always eat holding your fork in your left hand, and not switch it to the right, which is the custom in the U.S., or fear being found out.  One character lost his life because he slipped up with this!
--Ladd has his typical character arc going from tough cynic to believer through his experiences and the love of a good woman, but a special treat in this is that he has a scene of uncharacteristic emotion near the end of the film where he breaks down in grief and panic--it's a heart-wrenching scene, and makes one wish he'd been able to play more roles requiring him to drop his reserve from time to time.  Apparently Alan was nervous about playing this scene, yet it's really well done.

--There is a lovely little bit piece about a telegraph receptionist and the romance that starts up between her and one of the spies, whom she only knows via love notes he codes in the telegrams he sends her.

What I didn't like:
  • Ladd's character early on makes it very clear he doesn't approve of a woman being among his company of spies, and tells Fitzgerald she should be home raising kids in Cleveland Heights or something to that effect.  Although he was expressing a common point of view of the time it was still painful (ugh, come on now Laddie!). 
  • The chemistry between Ladd and Fitzgerald is lukewarm and while the two clearly grow in affection and respect during the film, the story and our experience would have benefited from a turning up of the heat just a bit.
  • The script ends with a bit too much propagandizing; again, not uncommon during the time.
All in all, a film worthy of Ladd's talents and those of the others, and if not a classic, certainly well worth the 2 hours spent to learn one's history in an intelligent and entertaining way.
Ladd and Fitzgerald surveying their surroundings
Tense meeting between Vermilyea and Hoyt

Fitzgerald is recruited by Knowles

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rarely Screened Treasures at the Harvard Film Archive

Last night I had the pleasure to attend a special 'Members' Weekend' screening of two rarely shown classic Hollywood romps in 35mm:  DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939), and HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (1956) at one of our best local arthouse cinemas, the Harvard Film Archive.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening with friends, old and new alike.

The Harvard Film Archive (HFA) houses over 25,000 items in its collection supporting film research and education in partnership with Harvard University.  They have regular public screenings of films in their collection in their 200-seat no-frills auditorium, and often program director retrospectives, sometimes with the director in attendance.  Guy Maddin was a recent guest speaker, although I missed him. In late 2014 I was privileged to attend Dame Angela Lansbury's fascinating in-person remarks after a screening of one of her lesser-known films with Warren Beatty, ALL FALL DOWN.  Among other things, she described what it was like to work with George Sanders in two films she made with him:  "George loved beautiful women.  He never made a pass at me."  And "George was often bored because he was so much brighter than everyone else around."  She was beyond lovely, and an inspiration, still working hard to entertain us at 90 years young.  And last spring I was introduced to the films of Polish auteur Wojciech Has at a multiple film retrospective. His surrealist epic THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT is not to be missed. Net, the HFA is a great place to indulge a budding film buff's thirst for discovery.  As a member, I received a special invitation to attend their 'Members' Weekend' screenings yesterday, which offered not only the films, but a reception to meet HFA staff and other members.  The event did not disappoint.

The satirical western DESTRY was made in that famous "best" of Hollywood years, 1939, but it is rarely publicly screened and it doesn't enjoy the fame of others made that year, or even of other Westerns.  Directed by George Marshall, it's fantastic.  It's rather a western-screwball comedy, starring a young James Stewart, and Marlene Dietrich in a comeback role for her after being named 'box office poison.'  Brian Donlevy, who I had seen in some Paramount films with Alan Ladd, gained new respect from me as the villain of this one.  He has such swagger, menace, and yet a large helping of likability that keeps your eyes on him.  This film contained Non. Stop. Action in ensemble scenes that were breathtakingly gorgeous and witty.  Well-known character actors of the 30s such as Mischa Auer, Allen Jenkins, and Una Merkel, all played important roles with gusto.

As an Old Hollywood fan, I have never appreciated the popular Stewart as much as some other fans, and often find him too strident and harsh for the leading roles he played (e.g. in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, or THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER even).  Here, his characteristic 'edge' is pitch perfect in his role as the new town sheriff's deputy, who is viewed initially as a man not up to the task, but who knows that he is smarter than everyone and makes this clear at his own pace, in his own way.  He even steals the loyalty of Marlene Dietrich, as cabaret singer Frenchy, away from blustery Donlevy.  Dietrich is a force, as she usually is, and going in to the film I was skeptical of her chemistry with Stewart, even knowing that supposedly they had an affair during film.  Well, believe it -- it's there.  Anyway, the film, with plentiful witty inside jokes, raucous musical numbers, and just enough tone variation from humor to pathos, to keep you interested, is a must-see for any Old Hollywood fan.
Opening scenes of hard partying at the Bottleneck Saloon
Marlene and Brian Donlevy plot during an upstairs game of poker
Initial confrontation between Donlevy and Stewart

First encounter between Stewart and Dietrich. 
Close up of Stewart during an emotional moment
Women of the town aim to break up the shootout with various rolling pins and other household weapons


The second film of the double feature, directed by Frank Tashlin, was the last major film ever to star Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as partners, and featured Anita Ekberg as herself in an extended cameo. Pat Crowley was the ingenue love interest of Martin's.  Essentially the two men meet under somewhat suspicious circumstances surrounding a raffle ticket racket for a new convertible.  They both capture the convertible in NYC and head out on a cross-country road trip to Hollywood and their dreams.   The ride was a lot of fun, but it's a film I won't be rushing out to add to my DVD collection. I must admit, I've not been a devoted fan of this team, in fact to date have seen none of their other pairings so obviously don't have much to compare.  I will say that a little bit of Jerry Lewis goes a long way.  Also, the film is considered a 'musical', but I don't enjoy musical numbers that prominently feature bad or purposely distorted singing voices (Lewis).  On the positive side, the team had a unique chemistry and seemed to anticipate each other's actions just enough to keep the pace of the film fast.  That they supposedly were at great odds and did not speak off-screen wasn't evident in the film at least to me.  The film benefited from some recurring visual jokes and ridiculous situations that did elicit quite a few laughs from the appreciative audience.

Dean Martin opens the film by welcoming fans of Hollywood all over the world (followed by Lewis's non-PC parodies of film fans in various countries)
Dean and Jerry hit the road with Jerry's great dane "Mr. Bascomb"
The sights one apparently sees when driving through the country
An enticing Ekberg as seen by Lewis

Thanks, HFA!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Classic Film Obsessions for 2015

I watched 178 movies that were new to me in 2015. I know this because I use to log what I've seen.  This site is linked to so every movie or TV episode logged there will be 'checkable' on  While there are some contemporary films among the 178 --I do try to get to see a few films in theaters--most were films made before 1960. This post highlights just a few of my new discoveries and obsessions over the past year.

Film Noir

When I care to admit my prodigious movie-watching to friends or family, I quickly follow up with "you know I took an online course in film noir this summer."  I feel I get a pass after this comment, because, after all, you have to watch lots of films if you're taking a course (!).  While I may not claim that I'm obsessed with film noir, I can say for a few months this summer, June-August, I was very nearly so, by necessity.  This course was run by Ball State University in a partnership with Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and I joined about 2000 other budding hardboiled dames and gents:
 I'm proud to say I earned a 'certificate' for my troubles.

During this adventure I corrected some embarrassing outages in my list of watched classic films, including THE MALTESE FALCONTHE BIG SLEEP, and OUT OF THE PAST.  I also found I loved some lesser-known noir including 99 RIVER ST., DOATOO LATE FOR TEARS.

My adventures into film noir led me to one of my 2015 obsessions:

Alan Ladd

Handsome, magnetic Alan Ladd was a huge star in the 1940s and 1950s, and yet is rarely mentioned today in lists of the most popular stars of Old Hollywood. I could go into why that is, but all I'll say here is, that's a real shame.  His most famous noirs, which I watched for the course, were probably THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, and THE BLUE DAHLIA.  All featured Ladd's classic noir 'tough but vulnerable' anti-hero.  Ladd is probably best known today (if at all) in the greater public consciousness as the titular SHANE in George Stevens' western classic.  However for this blog, I want to highlight another Ladd western that is definitely worth your time: BRANDED.  Made a couple years before SHANE, and while certainly not in the same league, it combines a taut story, exciting direction by Rudolph Mate (former cinematographer), a three-dimensional and exceptional performance by Ladd, and terrific support from Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, Mona Freeman, and Robert Keith.  The basic plot summary is Ladd, as Choya the gunfighter, is talked into posing as the long lost son of a rancher to gain himself and his partner a great fortune.  However, after a while he begins to regret what he's doing and has the opportunity to make everything right.   Below are some screenshots (minor spoilers alert):
Opening title

Ladd prepares to shoot his way out of a hostage situation. He explains his guns are his only friends
Ladd reluctantly submits himself to getting the telltale tattoo that will create his new identity.
Sparks fly early with Ladd's new found "sister" (lovely Mona Freeman)
After a staged confrontation, Charles Bickford discovers the tattoo identifying the new ranch hand as his long lost son. (A shirtless Ladd scene is a requirement for most of his films.  Eh, who's complaining?).
A bit of remorse showing as Ladd completes the deception.
Lovely family 'discovery' scene.
Ladd's evil partner (wonderful Robert Keith) and Mexican step dad (Joseph Calleia)
Trouble on the border
Final confrontation and resolution scene.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

I was introduced to the famous son of the silent film superstar earlier this year in one of his most famous, and terrific roles as the swashbuckling villain of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937).  I was instantly smitten, and was thrilled to learn that he had his own day of movies in TCM's Summer Under the Stars this past August.  One of the absolute gems of this day was the pre-code UNION DEPOT, co-starring comedienne Joan Blondell, here in a dramatic role.  Doug gets to play a hobo masquerading as a gentleman during one fateful day at the station, where he gets into major trouble with a counterfeiter, and saves Joan from a nasty stalker while assuring she makes her train to her future, after, of course, trying to pay for her services.  It's a wonderfully choreographed film, taut at only 67 minutes-- the timing of the actions within each scene are perfect, and must happen in such a way to propel the action forward. Additionally there are little touches with minor, unnamed characters that are brilliant in creating the atmosphere of the time at the station, and adding some comic relief to the proceedings. Fairbanks is utterly convincing as the vagrant turned hero, demonstrating quite a range of emotions.  There is also a generous helping of pre-code spiciness to keep things interesting and real at the same time.  This film is on DVD and I had to add it to my collection.  MUST see! Warning -- some spoilers below.

Part of the stellar opening sequence, an extended crane shot of the inside of the station.

Friends on the lam plot their next move at the station. Fairbanks with the wonderful Guy Kibbee.
With a 'borrowed' outfit, Doug decides he likes his new rakish look.  
Doug and Joan's early tense meeting, neither sure what the other is offering.
In trouble.
Look at that face!!  Saying a wistful goodbye to Joan.
Back where he started.

George Sanders

Finally, I spent many hours watching films with the suave British Sanders.  Of the same generation as Ladd and Fairbanks, if a few years older, Sanders had a long career mostly playing debonair cads, but ones that can't be resisted.  His deep resonant voice was a huge asset for this talented actor, and I've read a number of comments on social media from those willing to listen to him read the phone book for an evening's entertainment.  I would count myself among them,  His most famous role is probably in the fabulous ALL ABOUT EVE, but I'm highlighting a lesser known film where he gets to play a good guy; mind you, a somewhat rakish and self-satisfied good guy, but heroic just the same.  The film is FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, an Alfred Hitchcock film from 1940.  Playing a supporting character curiously named Scott ffolliott, Sanders steals most of his scenes from the other actors (Herbert Marshall excepted) with his breezy line delivery and body language.  He could also be straight and serious as shown below.
We're introduced to Sanders as the driver of the getaway car with stars Laraine Day and Joel McCrea.
A typical Sanders pose.
Sanders and fellow British actor Herbert Marshall (my obsession with him will need its own post) have a terrific, tense confrontation scene that is Hitchcock at his best.  Two of the absolute best voices  of  20th century cinema enhance their duel of wits.
Sanders in a rare moment for him -- complete straight horror as he watches a brutal scene at gunpoint.
Sanders at the center of this brilliantly composed scene toward the end of the film.  Tension is building.
That's it for my first installment -- whew!  This highlights only 3 out of 178 films new to me in 2015, but hopefully gives a sense of the diversity of entertainment that made my year what it was.  Thanks for reading and stop back!