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Monday, August 21, 2017

Ann Harding will not be eclipsed in the delightful pre-code Double Harness (1933)

Ann in the  early 1930s
(from Wikipedia)
Perhaps it's appropriate that TCM is honoring Ann Harding on Monday, August 21, 2017--the day of the great solar eclipse.  For here is a terrific actress and leading lady of classic Hollywood whose career has faded from view over the years since the 1930s, when she reigned at RKO Studios and very popular with depression-era audiences.  Working against her today, are a few factors, in my opinion -- a) none of her films have made it into the top echelons of time-tested audience or critics' favorites lists, hurt, no doubt, from being out of circulation (especially the 'pre-code' films) until recently; b) she was only nominated for one Oscar, in 1931, in the very early days of the talkies; c) her screen persona and fashion style was never 'cutting edge' or emblematic of female glamour of a particular era, and she liked it that way; d) she took an extended break from Hollywood after the mid-1930s, and when she returned in the early 1940s, she was being cast in supporting parts.

If you want to know more about Harding and her career, I recommend the posting about her on the blog here, as well as a recent bio by Scott O'Brien.  O'Brien did a Q&A for the Filmstruck blog and revealed quite a bit about both her professional and personal lives.

Publicity for Double Harness (

"Then together in double harness
 They will trot along down the line, 
Until death shall call them over
 To a bright and sunny clime."  

--from a traditional cowboy song called 'Dan Taylor.'

It's my favorite of her films, but I admit to watching Double Harness a few years ago for William Powell, the leading man in the film, who I had recently discovered.  I came across this obscure film on YouTube, (it's still up here) and didn't know what to expect, thinking I might not even finish it. Yet it grabbed me and held my attention; I savored its sophisticated story and efficient pacing, frank treatment of sexual politics of the era and its (mostly) strong women, as well as the nuanced characterizations that emerged.

Joan (Harding), Valerie (Browne) are motoring with their father
 (Stephenson) in San Francisco, discussing Joan's romantic
entanglements.  Nice use of rear projection in this scene.
The term 'double harness' of course refers to marriage, and Ann's character is Joan Colby, a wealthy single woman living in San Francisco with her father (Henry Stephenson) and younger sister Valerie (Lucile Browne), who apparently is in danger of spinsterhood when Valerie is set to be married.  Joan is the 'steady, dependable one' according to her father, in contrast to the shallow, spendthrift party girl Valerie.  But Joan is not to be relegated easily to the spinster life--she has recently snagged John Fletcher (Powell) as a boyfriend, and while he's 'the playboy of the west', according to the father, and is not interested in running the family business, Joan decides she's going to reform him by marrying him.  But alas, while John apparently is smitten with her, he declares he has no interest in marriage, and is still being pursued by former flame Monica (Lilian Bond). So Joan decides that she's willing to become his mistress, and then secretly orchestrates, with Valerie's help, the discovery of the two of them in a compromising situation by her father.  John does the honorable thing, but the passion has been snuffed out by the shackles of this 'double harness', and he wants a divorce after a respectable time. Joan is resigned to the failure of her plan, but in the meantime still manages to influence John to look after his business, which begins to turn around, and the two seem to be on a path to eventual happiness until Valerie, in an angry fit blurts out the ruse Joan pulled to trap John in marriage, and the rug seems to pulled out once again on the couple.  This takes us to the last three or so scenes of the film, and well, you can watch to see what happens.
Lilian Bond, William Powell, and Ann Harding in Double Harness
Double Harness was based on a play by Edward Poor Montgomery and adapted for the screen by Jane Murfin, also the screenwriter for The Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Due to legal battles at RKO, the film wasn't available to be viewed by mass audiences until in 2007 Turner Classic Movies acquired the rights and put it out on DVD.  The director, John Cromwell, is the father of actor James Cromwell, who is still working today.  James Cromwell spoke at the 2016 TCM Film Festival screenings of the film (in which I and hundreds of others didn't make it in -- but that's another story...).  Thankfully fans can watch the clip here.  In his remarks Cromwell referred to Ann Harding as 'brittle' in this part, and with all due respect, I completely disagree.  She enchants every scene and makes you root for her even as she manipulates those around her to get what she wants.  She's a perfect match for William Powell, in the suave, sophisticated, and utterly charming way. A side note: Powell was still at Warner Bros., a year before his MGM rise, and was loaned out to RKO for this film.

Ann Harding was absolutely lovely, with long blond tresses, but refused to be a slave to the fashions of the time, such as bobbing or unnaturally waving her hair. She often left her home without makeup.  In her films she often wore her hair up in a bun at the nape of her neck.  In Double Harness, this of course, gives her that 'steady, dependable' look, bordering on matronly.  In the very first scene in the film, Ann establishes that Joan is also maternal, adjusting her father's tie, giving her sister advice when asked, and sacrificing her share of her father's dowry to her sister's extravagant wedding plans.  Later she even prepares dinner, donning apron and all.  But a saint she is not.  She is deeply cynical, and all too knowing of the ways of the world. "If I ever get married, it will probably be at City Hall in a pair of slacks and a turtleneck" she tells her father with a wry smile.  Shortly before this film started production, Harding herself had recently been divorced from Harry Bannister, a stage actor with whom he had her first daughter. No doubt, she could bring a true quality of world-weariness to her character.
Ann in the kitchen, filling in on the 'cook's night out'
Yet she could dress to the nines and instantly become stunning, the elegant kind of woman that a wealthy bachelor-about-town could become attracted to.  This transformation in Joan early in the film is complete because Ann's Joan is smart.  Further, while maybe 'coolly virginal', as stated by Powell's character, she still presents a knowing exterior during their first evening together when she smokes a cigarette and declares "I must admit, I've been enamored of you for years" while casually looking away.

Because of Joan's inherent goodness and depth of character, she ensures that we forgive her manipulative ways, without even our discerning that there is anything to forgive.  Her determination has given her confidence.  "If I'm as good as I think I am, I (will be seeing John) several more nights in succession," she tells her father when he commented on her recent success with the wealthy John.
Ann and William Powell locked in a romantic joust
Yet she comments to her sister on how she has no natural talents, and therefore can only be successful by marrying a successful man. (This, I found hard to believe, with someone as smart as Ann's Joan.)  Ultimately she discovers that with her natural kindness and confidence, honesty pairs much better than duplicity. She takes full ownership of her actions, and when her secret is revealed, she admits everything to her husband, but leaves him with heartfelt words of how she loves him, and then calmly wishes him the best.  "I don't make scenes, Mrs. Page," she says to Monica.

The last part of the film, in which a dinner party goes wrong on many levels, devolves a bit into slapstick, and perhaps earns the film the categorization of 'comedy', but I think undermines the sophisticated pre-code drawing room drama of manners that this film really is.  And I doubt comedy was Harding's best suit.

Harding was known in her hey-day for her sophisticated yet sympathetic portraits. She had a timeless quality that needs to be better appreciated today. Double Harness is the perfect place to start.  With her modern acting style, and frank treatment of sexual politics, we could be forgiven if we forget, for a while, that this film was made in the 1930s.  Watch it.

This post is my contribution to the 'Summer Under the Stars' blogathon, hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  Please head over there now to check out the other posts for Ms. Harding, and all the stars being honored by TCM this month.   Double Harness airs on TCM overnight tonight (2:30 AM Eastern).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Celebrating Robert Mitchum's centennial with The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Mitchum in his noir fedora
and trenchcoat from Out of
the Past
Once, when Bowling Green State U. film prof. Richard Edwards inquired on Twitter about our thoughts on which actors most embodied film noir, I didn't have to think before typing his name -- Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum had a unique blend of handsome elegance, a touch of menace, and a good helping of macho.  If he was your friend, you would be grateful to have him walk with you in a dark alley, a place seemingly familiar to him.  If an enemy, you'd be advised never to venture into any dark alleys with him nearby.  

Born on August 6, 1917, in Connecticut, he would have been 100 years old today.  While he passed away in 1997 at age 79, his film career lasted six decades plus.  His acting was easy, comfortable, and understated.  His face telegraphed world-weariness and intelligence, and his six foot frame was sturdy and imposing.  He played psychopathic killers in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear to such a degree that you'd never think you could look at that face again with anything but dread.  But then tune in Out of the Past, Crossfireor Holiday Affair, for example, and you'll be attracted to him all over again.  

I had the good fortune to watch one of his later films The Friends of Eddie Coyle, (1973) last night as  part of local art house's Mitchum celebration.  I attended with a group of classic film enthusiasts, and enjoyed a lively discussion afterward.  Directed by Peter Yates, an English-born director known for Breaking Away and Bullitt, it's based on the crime novel by George V. Higgins.   Set in and around the gritty Boston environs of the 1970s and filmed on location in the chilly late autumn months, it's a Boston I don't know, but some of my friends indicated they remembered some of the location settings. Mitchum plays a local gun runner trying to go straight, but being on parole facing more time, he tries to bargain with local cops to reduce his sentence by setting up some partners in crime who are involved in a bank-robbing outfit. I'm not going to review the film here, but rather provide what captured my attention and reflections.

Did Mitchum ever really age?  Of the classic actors I've seen at both early and later phases of their careers, so many lost their looks quickly--Alan Ladd, Tyrone Power come to mind--but Mitchum's handsome features are still attractive in his later years, rather like Cary Grant, who was also fortunate in this regard.  Considering Mitchum was apparently not scarce with the booze, cigarettes, and other substances, he was lucky.  Or perhaps, it's just that as a young man, world-weariness had already seeped in, and as an older one, it had simply settled.

Cops and robbers couldn't be distinguished.  So I always have trouble unraveling convoluted plots in crime stories, but I was shocked to learn halfway through the film that a group of men I thought were a rival gang of thugs were actually cops.  Never once did they don uniforms.  Perhaps this was the point, as there often can be a fine line, especially considering the tense relationships in 1970s Boston between authorities and citizens.

To illustrate this point, left is Richard Jordan playing top cop Dave Foley, and right is Steven Keats as petty criminal Jackie Brown. 

Inspired performances by the entire cast, including two near-forgotten actors.
Both Richard Jordan and Steven Keats are not well-known today, and both did not live past their 50s. Jordan died of cancer, and Keats was a victim of suicide.  Character actor Peter Boyle was the true villain of the piece, and his oiliness oozed from every scene, but for my dollar I plead guilty to not being able to shake the image of him as the monster in Young Frankenstein.  That's what you get when you have very distinctive looks and an iconically weird but unforgettable performance from a popular film.  
Peter Boyle as double-crossing bartender Dillon
Not all crime films have an excess of graphic violence or language.  
While all kinds of guns, showdowns between gangsters and criminals and cops and robbers, car chases, and bank robberies, litter this picture, not one gun goes off until practically halfway through.  And there are only two shootings resulting in death, and almost no blood.  Conditioned by Scorcese, Tarantino, and Coppola films in the post-studio-system crime genre, I was shocked by this.  Hitchcock would have approved of the suspense-building skill on display here, and the psychological violence subbing for the physical.  And in another surprise, the "f-word" was only uttered maybe three times throughout, with a minimum of other juicy utterances (OK, the 'n-word' was uttered twice, yikes).  It still jars me to see classic actors swearing, and considering what often strikes me as an expressionistically large amount of swearing in contemporary films, I rather approve of this.

Did I enjoy the film?  Well, yes.  It was bleak -- do not expect to feel better about the world at the end. (I did smile seeing the great Bobby Orr skating for the Bruins during a pivotal scene).  But to see Mitchum still dominating the screen nearly 30 years after his first triumphs, was a great pleasure.  

Roger Ebert summed up Mitchum in this film in his 1973 review:
 "...give him a character and the room to develop it, and what he does is wonderful. Eddie Coyle is made for him: a weary middle-aged man, but tough and proud; a man who has been hurt too often in life not to respect pain." 

Check it out on Filmstruck or on Criterion DVD or Blu-Ray.
Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle contemplates a bleak future with no friends