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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Anthony Caruso's collaborations with Alan Ladd

This post is my contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by the great blogger team of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club, and Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. Go to any of those sites to read the other blogathon entries on this always fascinating topic of character actors.
Anthony Caruso in the 1940s
Like many of the best character actors during the 'golden age' of Hollywood, Anthony Caruso's output was prolific. Need a menacing henchman for your mob lead in a gangster picture? Call Caruso. Require an Indian chief to complicate the life of your Western hero or heroine? Caruso's your man. Caruso did it all and more in a 50-year career in movies, TV, and radio. Some of his parts were large, others were tiny, although most were villains or at least unsavory characters. His best roles allowed him to display his sensitivity and humanity. Today, there is not much written about him, but a few interview clips with him are available. What is interesting is that in those that I've seen he discusses his relationship with star Alan Ladd. On the surface, two more different actors could not be paired - Caruso, large and swarthy; Ladd, diminutive, soft-spoken, and blond. But yet the two careers were tightly intertwined in the 1940s and 1950s.
Caruso in Johnny Apollo film poster, 2nd from left.

Caruso was born in Indiana to Italian immigrants, but moved to California at age 10. His acting career started when he was still a teenager, playing in "all the chronicles Shakespeare ever wrote, from King John to Henry VIII"(1), at the Pasadena Playhouse. When young, he was a handsome guy, but his dark and brooding face and large muscular physique had the studios steering him into 'bad guy' character parts almost immediately. His first film role was in the 20th Century Fox Tyrone Power gangster film Johnny Apollo. His name appears way down in the credits as 'Joe the Henchman' but he appears in a film poster (2nd from left) with Power. His final film credit was in 1990, and he died at age 86 in 2003.

Throughout the 1940s, Caruso found steady work as a character player for multiple studios. His collaboration with Alan Ladd started very early in both their careers, in the 1942 Paramount gangster comedy (!) picture Lucky Jordan. This was a film Paramount rushed out when after This Gun For Hire, they realized they had a star in Ladd. (In another twist, Caruso was being seriously considered for the lead in This Gun For Hire, but Paramount chose to cast Ladd against type). Caruso had one short scene, sharing the screen with the film's villain Sheldon Leonard. Blink and you'll miss it.

A couple of years later, he had a bit part in another Ladd film, And Now Tomorrow, also starring Loretta Young. In this role, he again didn't have a chance to make much of an impression on the audience, but he did make one on Ladd. This is where their lifelong friendship and film collaboration truly took off.
Caruso (r) supporting Sheldon Leonard in his (unsuccessful)
attempt to take down Alan Ladd's character via a sharp shot
through a window in Lucky Jordan.
Caruso's version of the story goes like this. On the set, Alan asked Caruso to come to his dressing room to chat, and it was quickly clear to him that Caruso didn't remember their encounter nearly 10 years earlier. He refreshed Caruso's memory: in 1933 both aspiring actors were trying out for roles at the Pasadena Playhouse, and because Ladd had no lunch money, Caruso, who would have been 17 to Ladd's 20, bought Ladd lunch. Ladd related that he never forgot that act of kindness and wanted to give Caruso work whenever he could: "From that time on, Alan, a star, would throw me a script and say, 'pick a part'."(2) "He insisted that I be in his films, whenever I was available."(3)

Due to his bankable star status, Ladd had considerable sway at Paramount. It's not clear, though, if he played a role in Caruso's casting in The Blue Dahlia (1946), or Wild Harvest (1947). In The Blue Dahlia, Caruso is memorable, but again uncredited, as a Marine recently returned from WWII who is provoked by William Bendix's character at a bar's jukebox. His role in Wild Harvest is likewise tiny. Interestingly, Ladd's last role for Paramount was as the titular character of the classic Western Shane (1953). Caruso stated that he would have liked to have done a part in Shane more than any of the Ladd pictures he did do (3).

It didn't seem that Caruso needed Ladd for his career. In 1950 he was a major supporting player in one of the finest movies of his career, the great noir heist film, The Asphalt Jungle. Here he plays the safecracker Louis Ciavelli, a desperate man trying to provide for his family during difficult times. He gets shot when the heist goes wrong, but takes hours to die, staying loyal to his compadres to the end. The role took full advantage of Caruso's sensitive side and elicited the sympathy of the audience.
Caruso (second from right) plans a heist with Sam Jaffe,
Sterling Hayden, and James Whitmore in The Asphalt Jungle.
It was when Ladd moved to Warner Brothers in the early 1950s that Caruso's profile in Ladd's films increased. This was a time of career uncertainty for Ladd, as he was challenged to find his footing at his new studio. His response was both negative and positive--he started drinking heavily, but he also built his own production company, Jaguar Films, under the Warner Bros. umbrella, and produced a series of mostly Western films. None of these rose to the stature of Shane, but most were entertaining and bankable. Ladd relied heavily on many colleagues from Paramount and developed his own 'stock company', in which Caruso was a prominent member. Reliable directors such as Delmer Daves and Frank Tuttle, and co-stars such as Virginia Mayo, Shelley Winters, Edmond O'Brien, and Charles Bronson added to their value.

Caruso as Brog in The Big Land
At Jaguar/Warner Bros. from 1952-1958, Caruso worked with Ladd on seven films: The Iron Mistress (1952), Desert Legion (1953), Saskatchewan (1954), Drum Beat (1954), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), The Big Land (1957) and The Badlanders (1958). In two of these, he played a Native American, today a controversial casting choice, to be sure. However, despite that, in those roles Caruso was convincing.

One reason Ladd may have been eager to cast Caruso--according to Caruso, he was willing to slouch, stretch out his hips, or contort in other ways so as not to be taller than Ladd. "I know Alan appreciated that", he said (5).

I'd like to highlight two contrasting films of this time. The first, The Big Land, is a middling Western with Ladd teaming with Edmond O'Brien to make the Great Plains safe for cattle merchants. In this one, Caruso has a large part as the main villain, Brog. He's a ruthless cattle buyer who uses intimidation and murder to shut out the competition. There is no subtlety in the role, as Caruso leers and sneers, milking a mediocre script for all it's worth.

The second film is widescreen Cinemascope color noir Hell on Frisco Bay. This film evokes some memory of Ladd's success in noir in the 1940s, and adds to its noir credentials with the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Stewart. It's worth checking out on DVD. Here, Caruso has a cameo that is a far cry from the cardboard villain Brog. He's a devoted father who happens to have some knowledge of a mob murder on the docks that ex-con Ladd is investigating. Ladd visits Caruso in his flat and catches him in the middle of a shave. While wanting to be helpful to Ladd, he realizes the price he may pay, and the risk to his young son, if he reveals too much. Over the course of the short scene he's tough, threatening, soft, fearful, all in quick succession. His casting here is a work of genius and perhaps the peak of the Ladd/Caruso collaboration.
Caruso assures Ladd he knows little about murder at the docks
in Hell on Frisco Bay.
Caruso with his young son (Peter J. Votrian) in Hell on Frisco Bay.

Sadly, Alan Ladd struggled professionally and personally at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, until he died from an accidental overdose at age 50 in 1964. In this later period, the film The Badlanders (with Ernest Borgnine and Caruso in a small role) is definitely worth checking out. It's a western version of The Asphalt Jungle, and Ladd brings an appropriate amount of world-weary cynicism that enhances the adventure.

As for Caruso, his career lasted almost another 30 years after Ladd died, and he continued to find success in Westerns, mobster, and 'ethnic' roles in TV and movies. Fans of the original Star Trek TV series will recall him as a gangster in the time travel episode 'A Piece of the Action' from 1968. If he were born a generation later, he may have found long-lasting success as a member of the New Jersey mob in the acclaimed TV series The Sopranos. In real life, apparently, Caruso's life was quite the opposite of many of his characters. His hobbies included cooking and gardening, and his marriage lasted 63 years. His career is a model of character actor success in Hollywood-a nearly 50-year career in all kinds of roles, using a variety of talents, and knowing that taking work is sometimes more important than ensuring that every role has substantive screen time. Whenever Caruso pops up in a film, you're guaranteed to be entertained.
Caruso (l) confronts Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in Star Trek's episode
"A Piece of the Action"

(1) Interview with Sunset Carson
(2) Alan Ladd: The True Quiet Man (Documentary)
(3)-(5) Interview with Sunset Carson 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Outlaws hiding out in Custer's cavalry in Warpath (1951)

If you're looking for a quintessential 1950s Western that has just about everything, look no further than Paramount's Warpath (1951). Sure, there are more profound and certainly more iconic Westerns...but hey, why not expand your horizons?

This film review is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's fall blogathon on the topic of movie outlaws. Go here, if you dare, to read all the great entries.

Warpath boasts a solid cast, starring Edmond O'Brien, Dean Jagger, Polly Bergen, Harry Carey Jr., and Wallace Ford. As I've been digging into the career of Edmond O'Brien via the recently published biography, Edmond O'Brien, Everyman of Film Noir (to be reviewed in an upcoming post), this one grabbed my attention because it's the first Western that O'Brien headlined. In fact, this film emerged when O'Brien, who specialized in film noir, was arguably in his prime-- just two years after D.O.A. and White Heat and two years before The Hitch-hiker.

Producer Nat Holt helmed Warpath for Paramount Studios. Westerns were his specialty, as he free-lanced during the 1940s and 50s for Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO.  Writer Frank Gruber also specialized in Westerns, having written novels and short stories in the genre. In the director's chair was Byron Haskin, who also helmed Too Late For Tears, a fantastic noir that has recently been restored by the Film Noir Foundation and has played to the delights of 21st-century audiences on Turner Classic Movies and at festivals. Ray Rennahan, the cinematographer, had a long career from silents to television, and many Westerns in the 1950s--of note he was the DP for the epic Western Duel in the Sun starring Jennifer JonesGregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten.

Warpath starts rather romantically, planting us squarely in the west of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who commanded the Seventh Cavalry against the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes at his 'last stand' in the battle of the Little Bighorn, Montana.

We soon meet O'Brien's character, John Vickers, an officer during the Civil War who now, a decade later, is looking to get revenge against three men who were responsible for the death of his fiancee, but who had evaded justice and were said to be hiding out in the Seventh Cavalry, probably with names changed. With little more than their original names to go on, since he never got a good look at these men, Vickers shows up in a small town in North Dakota and on the street, immediately meets and kills (after being drawn on, of course) the first of the three men (how he knew it was his target was not explained). Shortly after, he meets Molly Quade (Bergen)--who has just arrived to help her long-lost father (Dean Jagger) run his local store--and saves her from some unwanted moves by an officer. The two develop an instant attraction. Strangely, Molly's father seems to not want her to have anything to do with the soldier.
Molly (Polly Bergen) immediate sets her sights on the
handsome stranger.
Vickers, who had been an officer in the Civil War, enlists as a private in the Seventh Cavalry and intends to find the two missing outlaws while continuing to serve his country. Unfortunately, he has to report to O'Hara, the local sergeant (Forrest Tucker) the same officer whom Vickers prevented from assaulting Molly. Also in the group are Pvt. 'Irish' Potts, (a delightful Wallace Ford) and Pvt. Fiore (Paul Fix). Harry Carey, Jr. plays the regimental captain.
At the dance: even cavalrymen get to have fun once in a while.
(l-r Paul Fix, Wallace Ford, Edmond O'Brien)
The revenge story takes a back seat in the middle of the film when trouble brews on the range, and a series of skirmishes with the native tribes break out. Sgt. O'Hara, who is now suspected by Vickers as one of his targets, proves himself to be a coward, while our hero Vickers's skill is noticed by none other than Custer himself. Vickers is rapidly promoted and now is O'Hara's commander.
Gen. Custer (James Millican) promotes John Vickers (O'Brien)
When embarking to meet and warn Custer about an impending attack, his group is ambushed and taken prisoner by an army of Sioux. This time O'Hara is the hero, sacrificing himself to save the others (this after Pvts. Potts and Fiore also get themselves killed at the hands of the natives).  At this point, Vickers has already figured out who the outlaws are but keeps this to himself for a while, as he begins to question whether he wants his legacy to be his private vengeance and simultaneously condemn himself to outlaw status. Complicating the decision is Molly's direct condemnation of his plan. As expected, the plot threads are all tied up in a way that allows Vickers and Molly to get together at the end. (You'll need to watch the film to see who the outlaws are!)

On the positive side, this film boasts well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, has a complex story with a few plot twists, and entertains with exceptional action sequences and strong production values that make me wish I could see it on the big screen. There are scenes with large contingents of soldiers and natives, all filmed on location near Billings, Montana. There are wagon trains, but Paramount did not give director Haskin the budget to use real trains, so he reused film from The Great Missouri Raid early on in the film (from D. Sculthorpe's bio Edmond O'Brien, Everyman of Film Noir, 2018).
Settlers and Cavalry about to be attacked by the Sioux.
On the negative side, Warpath is a bit overlong and suffers from mediocre editing. The film doesn't have a significant point of view on the Western ideology or the plight of the native American, but is, in essence, a somewhat moralistic piece of entertainment solidly of its time.

Edmond O'Brien, ca. 1940s.
O'Brien went on to have quite a career in Westerns, even though I'm never sure if his New York City accent and manners were really right for the genre. Yet, I highly recommend The Big Land, an Alan Ladd vehicle with good friend O'Brien in support. Of course, near the end of his career he had a memorable turn as grizzled gun-fighter Freddie Sykes in Sam Peckinpah's classic The Wild Bunch (1969).

I watched Warpath on Amazon Prime Video.

Fawcett Comics made a comic book from this film in August 1951, which was one of only twenty film adaptations the company made.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

61* -- A 21st century baseball movie for classic film lovers

Barry Pepper as Roger Maris (l) and
Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle in 61*
It's October, and for a baseball fan like me, the excitement of the playoffs is in high gear. This year my insanely good Red Sox have just earned a berth in the World Series, set to start next week, so I'm all in.  The classic film fan in me started to reflect on baseball films, and there are many classics over the decades, including Bull Durham (1988), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and Eight Men Out (1988), just to name a few. Today, I'd like to shine the spotlight on a lesser known, but tremendously entertaining baseball film, Billy Crystal's 61* (2001), which tells a true story with compelling portrayals, and vividly recreates a time and culture passed.

The facts are these: In 1961, the New York Yankees were coming off another World Series win, and newcomer Roger Maris had just won the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for the prior season. A strapping slugger, he and Yankee veteran Mickey Mantle anchored the middle of the New York lineup to start the new season. After a slow start both started hitting home runs at a pace that threatened the record for most home runs in a season -- 60-- a record also owned by a Yankee, the late great Babe Ruth. This home run race of the "M&M boys" captured the attention of a nation during the summer, with even President Kennedy interrupting press conferences to announce that one or the other slugger had hit another homer. In private, things weren't so pretty. Mantle was fighting his inner demons with the bottle and other health issues, and Maris was slowing suffocating from the pressure of the media attention, especially after baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced that because the baseball season consisted of eight games more than that of Babe Ruth's time, any record broken would be forever tainted. Of course, Maris did break the record, slugging his 61st home run on the last day of the season. It wouldn't be until 1998 that the 61st homer mark would be broken, this time by Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals (a feat that now has even a larger asterisk because of the eventual revelation that McGwire had been taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.)
Roger Maris (l) and Mickey Mantle,
legendary NY Yankee sluggers

Made for HBO, 61* follows both players through the season, although the focus is somewhat more on Maris, played by Barry Pepper. Mantle, played by Thomas Jane, is at first a rival, but quickly the two opposites become fast friends, and then roommates. The arc of this friendship is one of many touches that add heart to the film.  While rooting for Midwestern underdog, family man and reluctant hero Maris, we also feel sympathy for Mantle, who lacked a deep sense of security and family stability that Maris had. That doesn't mean that Crystal whitewashed Mantle--on the contrary, his carousing, boorishness, and self-destructive behavior are front and center; Jane showcases the star's vulnerable side, though, and the rapport he had with his teammates, which made him extraordinarily popular with both the team and his fans.

The pacing of the film is terrific - it starts in flashback, with the Maris family (now ironically) set to see McGwire's final record-breaking home run in 1998, when Roger's widow Pat Maris is taken ill and her thoughts go to the summer of 1961 (older Pat is played by Pat Crowley and younger Pat is played by Crystal's daughter Jennifer Crystal Foley). There are poignant confrontations, exhilarating baseball moments, punctuated by genuinely funny comedic bits, including a scene when Maris and Mantle couldn't stop laughing when trying to film a hot dog commercial sitting in the stands of Yankee Stadium. Popular music of the time adds to the soundtrack, with the most evocative "I Love Mickey" by Theresa Brewer.

Crystal is a baseball and Yankee super-fan, and this film was a labor of love for him. He was a friend of the older Mantle before he died, and stayed in touch with and consulted with members of the family. He paid attention to every detail to recreate the 1961 Yankee experience. Legendary Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard was brought in to add his voice to the stadium scenes, and Maris's clubhouse locker was equipped exactly like the real thing using photos of the era.  Prominent members of that era of Yankee baseball, including Yogi Berra (Paul Borghese), Whitey Ford (a terrific Anthony Michael Hall), Elston Howard (Bobby Hosea), and gruff manager Ralph Houk (Bruce McGill), all had their moments. As a baseball fan, I marveled at the how the script got baseball jargon exactly right, from: "there's a short porch out there, Roger" to "'Curve ball?' 'Yeah, but it didn't curve!'", to the portrayals of the omnipresent beat reporters, such as Milt Kahn (Richard Masur) and Artie Green (Peter Jacobson) and play-by-play man Mel Allen (Christopher MacDonald). Even the feared knuckle-ball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm was portrayed by then active knuckler Tom Candiotti, who modeled Wilhelm's cocked head posture on the mound as well as he threw the ball. Most of all, the sheer joy and excitement, and ups and downs, of major league baseball at its summer best comes through.
Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle steps to the plate at Yankee Stadium
in a scene from 61*
Really, I could go on and on about how much I love this film. Screenwriter Hank Steinberg deservedly was nominated for several awards for the film's script. The children of Roger Maris have gone on record with their praise of the realistic way of their father's experience was shown. If I were to provide any criticism it might be that it tilts toward heavy-handedness when going for audience emotion, but by this time we are invested in the characters. There are minor suspensions of disbelief required, as when Whitey Ford is explaining to an unaware Maris, who'd been on the team for a year, the reasons Mantle freaked out when hearing he was going to be face-to-face with Joe DiMaggio. That could be forgiven for dramatic license. Yet, it's such a satisfying film for baseball aficionados and those who enjoy exploring mid-century U.S. culture, that I hope more people will see it.

I bought the DVD of the movie, but it can be streamed on Netflix, Amazon (for a fee) and HBO streaming (with a subscription).

Monday, September 17, 2018

Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (40th anniversary) and Liv Ullmann's character revelation

The renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman would have been 100 years old this year, and the only film he made with the other famous Bergman, actress Ingrid B., turned 40. The Coolidge Corner Theatre screened a 35 mm print of Autumn Sonata yesterday, but did their audience one better by welcoming the only surviving star, Liv Ullmann, to introduce the film and then answer questions during a live interview afterward.
Liv Ullmann recounts her experiences with Autumn Sonata
for Jared Brown, WGBH Executive Arts Editor
and a capacity crowd at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Sunday
I was a little cautious approaching this film, as my experience with Bergman's films has been minimal and not always joyful. I dozed a bit during a screening of The Seventh Seal at the TCM Film Festival in 2013, reacted with indifference to another film considered a masterpiece, Persona, about a year ago, but loved Wild Strawberries when I caught it on TCM. But after my experience yesterday, and encouraged by the discussion afterward with my local arthouse/classic film group, I felt moved to get to at least a couple additional films screening in the next few weeks as the joint Bergman 100th birthday retrospective at the Coolidge, the Harvard Film Archive, and the Brattle continues. 

Ullmann (left) and Bergman struggle to deal with decades-old
hurts and guilt in Autumn Sonata.
Autumn Sonata (in original Swedish--Höstsonaten) portrays a complicated, explosive mother-daughter relationship over a few days when after seven years, the mother, Charlotte, a concert-pianist (Ingrid Bergman) comes to stay with her daughter Eva (Ullmann), a seemingly naive, retiring wife of a local minister. Also in the house is Charlotte's invalid daughter Helena, who is confined to her bed and cannot communicate except for a few grunts and unintelligible words (exactly what is wrong with Helena is not fully explained). That all will not be well during the visit is hinted in the first scenes when Eva's husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) surreptitiously reacts with frustration when Eva announces her plans to host her mother. After warm and loving initial greetings, the relationship deteriorates as Eva exposes her anger over her mother's self-centeredness and neglect in favor of her career. The scenes in the middle of the movie are harrowing, as Bergman frames the two women's faces in opposition, and both actresses are called on to emote. The film ends on a somewhat hopeful note, although I sensed that those final scenes just previewed what would be a sad pattern of interaction between these two women for the remainder of their lives.

If the majority of scenes in close-up were emotionally loaded, occasionally Bergman set up the flashback scenes with the camera far back, with stillness and simplicity and lighting that looked like a some spare Scandinavian painting. Those moments provided a bit of visual relief even as they enhanced the narrative.
Screen capture of a scene late in Autumn Sonata

I also loved that the film created shifting sympathies for the two women -- it was obvious that Charlotte was attention-seeking and vain, but when Eva shifted from a victim to an aggressor, the film felt so timeless and real.  It posed questions about the validity of past memories, parents' accountability for the difficulties of their children, and the pros and cons of dredging up past hurts and using them as weapons when family relationships are simultaneously everlasting and fragile.  On the topic of her character's motivations, Liv Ullmann made a stunning admission yesterday -- within the last year she watched the film and was struck by the revelation that it might be possible that everything her character says in her hate-filled 'monologue' directed at her mother is a "lie". Before, she was convinced of the sincerity and veracity of her words, and played it that way. She said director and screenwriter Bergman never revealed one way or another the motivations of the characters, and, as an aside, this caused conflict between the two Bergmans since Ingrid had difficulty believing her character would utter some of her lines (she acquiesed eventually). 

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman when they were
romantically involved.
At my movie discussion group's post-film conversation, we focused on Ullmann's revelation and what it said about how our perspective changes with time. Is Ullmann now seeing the two women's relationship through the lens of an older woman and mother, who despite being imperfect, tried to do her best by her children while juggling the demands of a career in the limelight? Is a daughter's bitterness related to feelings of inadequacy? Do memories of past hurts take on a disproportionate role in how we perceive our childhoods? Will a mother's guilt be magnified compared to other kinds of guilt? Some of us shared similar challenges in our own families, and the painful estrangements that sometimes resulted.  Bergman would likely have approved of our discussion, as according to Ullmann, he valued the importance of human connection and the need to prioritize relationships, themes that informed most of his films.

Coming back to her interview, Ullman shared a few other thoughts about making the film as well as her long career in the dramatic arts. On her relationship with Ingrid Bergman, Ullmann said, "I sat in quietness and admired her" when she clashed with director Bergman; in Ullmann's view, "you don't question the writer,"  and she felt sorry for Ingmar who was hurt at having his art questioned. When asked if she was most proud of her acting or directing career, she shared that her experience directing Cate Blanchett in a theatrical production of A Streetcar Named Desire was among her most rewarding. At the end of the afternoon, the audience rose to their feet to applaud Ullmann, and most likely grateful for the opportunity to share in this terrific cinematic experience.

Autumn Sonata is currently streaming, with extras, on

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

When in Rome...Fun at Capitolfest 2018

It's always fun to tell people you're going to Rome...then surprise them further when you reveal it's not actually THE Rome, but rather the small town in central New York. However, the second weekend in August it's the place to be for fans of rare early Hollywood. The weekend festival draws film buffs from many states and Canada, and it was the third time I've attended in 4 years. [Read about my last experience, in 2016, here.]  This year the fabulous and swoonworthy British superstar Ronald Colman took center stage as the 'featured star'. Sadly he's not a household name now, but his films are worth checking out. Perhaps his best known films today are: the wartime romance Random Harvest (1942), a terrific version of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1935), or A Double Life (1947). [He obviously excelled in playing dual roles!]  Of course, Capitolfest gave us the opportunity to see some very rare Colman films, among other little-seen gems.
From Capitol Theatre website
Colman Films
On Friday evening we were treated to the 1924 silent* Romola, (D: Henry King) co-starring both Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and William Powell as the protagonist/villain. I've been wanting to see this one since I developed a particular fondness (!) for Powell back in 2013.  It's a period drama set in Renaissance Florence in which the title character (L. Gish) is torn between her long-time suitor (Colman) and social-climbing opportunist Powell. Some found it long and meandering, but to me it was satisfyingly epic, with the on-location setting in Italy adding an exotic factor. Unfortunately, Colman didn't have too much to do. Powell, despite portraying the villain, got the chance to showcase an undeniable charm that would be his trademark later in his career. Dorothy Gish was fantastic as the poor waif/other woman-- I believe this might be the first film of hers I've seen.  [Below, l to r: Colman and  L. Gish; D. Gish; L. Gish and W. Powell.]

The second Colman film, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934, D: Roy Del Ruth), screened on Saturday--this one a sophisticated sound film.  As Colman had one of the most mellifluous baritones ever combined with a smooth British accent, I believe most of us attending the festival were eagerly awaiting this one.  It ended up ranking as one of my favorites of the weekend, not only because of Colman; this movie, about a murder in post-WWI London, reveled in its simultaneously cheeky, dark, and mysterious tones.  Colman was wonderful as the titular war hero-turned detective who just can't leave well enough alone and saves several potential victims of a dastardly extortion scheme, including the luscious Loretta YoungWarner Oland shows why he was the master of Asian (albeit in yellow face) villains in later films--he's just this side of cartoonish to be truly enjoyable in his menace.  The pace is snappy and I just didn't want it to end. 

Vilma Banky & Colman make an exotic pair
in The Night of Love
The Night of Love (1927, D: George Fitzmaurice) This was another Colman silent screened on Saturday evening, and I must say it was a disappointment to me. If you've ever seen the fun Son of the Sheik with Valentino, made only a year before, the Colman film felt largely like a retread, with a similar exotic/romantic kidnapping plot, the same director (George Fitzmaurice), female star (Vilma Banky), villain (Montagu Love), and occasional comic tone.  Colman and Banky were paired in several films in the silent era, and this one is rarely seen today, so it was a treat for at least that reason (if not for Colman's curly locks!) 

Sunday morning brought the earliest Colman silent of the weekend, Twenty Dollars a Week (1924, D: Harmon Weight). Colman was not yet the big star and was only one in a large cast. Apparently, though, George Arliss was a real star at the time and stood out in the film. This was a comedy of errors and morals, that frankly, I found too convoluted. It involved rival families adopting children and fathers. For those Arliss and Bette Davis fans, you may have seen the remake called The Working Man from 1933. 

The last Colman film closed the festival, The Rescue (1929 D: Herbert Brenon). This one came at the time of conversion to sound films, and like many others at this time, was made in both a silent and a 'talking' version. Like the best films of the late silent era, a good story, fantastic cinematography, and star power propelled this one. It was a stunner. Since the only surviving print of the film, minus one reel, resided at the George Eastman House, we were fortunate indeed to see it on the big screen here at Capitolfest. I hope it gets a DVD release, as it is more than deserving. Based on the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, the film puts Colman to good use as the seagoing hero out to win over friendly island natives while thwarting attempts of his clueless countrymen to mess up existing relations with them and put their lives in danger. A lovely young Lili (billed as Lily) Damita is the 'damsel in distress' who starts out seeming a femme fatale but ends the film as a foolish young woman who is on her way to a more mature womanhood.  Highly recommended!
Colman is both dashing and conflicted in The Rescue
Other highlights
The UCLA Film & Television Archive is responsible for the restored version of the 1933 gangster melodrama starring Spencer Tracy called The Mad Game. (1933), which screened on Friday afternoon.  I found it quite enjoyable if not Tracy's best performance. It's notable for being one of the first screen appearances of eventual noir queen Claire Trevor -- she was barely recognizable here, at least to this viewer. Judge for yourself in the image below. She blended charm and sass in her role as intrepid reporter with a soft spot for Tracy. I also admired the work of Ralph Morgan (brother of Frank) as an upstanding judge. 
Spencer Tracy & Claire Trevor in The Mad Game (from
One of the reasons to go to a rare film festival is to see gems like The House that Shadows Built, which was a documentary short celebrating Paramount's 20th anniversary in 1931.  A Marx Brothers skit not included in any of their films was seen here, as well as the only surviving clips from a movie that was never completed, director Dorothy Arzner's feature The Stepdaughters of War with Ruth Chatterton. Also on the program were some hard-to-see short comedy films, including some Laurel & Hardys (silent and sound), and the side-splitting Your Technocracy and Mine, with comedian Robert Benchley, in which his attempt to lecture on the topic, including nonsensical visual aids, just goes off the rails. 

At Capitolfest there is always (at least) one film that is completely outrageous but irresistible. This year it was the audience pleaser It's Great to be Alive!, in which Raul Roulien's character, by a happy accident, survives a plague that wipes out all of the male human species. When he returns from exile, he must win over his disgruntled girlfriend (Gloria Stuart) so that the human race can continue.  The film doubled as a musical and featured Edna May Oliver in top comic form as head scientist of the institute confronting the crisis.
Raul Roulien soaks up the love in It's Great to be Alive!
Image from
Perks of Capitolfest
Wendy & Toni 

In addition to the films, Capitolfest abounds with charms. Perhaps the most important, the relaxed atmosphere--there is only one theater, which means no lines and no rushing around.  Popcorn sells for $2.00, and beverages are free once you've purchased your Capitol Theatre mug (I brought mine from 2016).  Most importantly, though, is the opportunity to spend quality time with other film fans, many of whom I know online and/or from the TCM Film Festival -- until next year, guys!
l-r, Wendy, Toni, me, Theresa, Aurora, Alan (author of the selfie)
*All silent films were accompanied by film organists (Dr. Philip Carli, Bernie Anderson, Avery Tunningley) using the in-house vintage (1928) Möller organ.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Book review: The Life and Times of Sydney Greenstreet

Author Derek Sculthorpe continues to conduct exhaustive research leading to the biographies of classic screen actors whose names are less familiar to the casual movie fan, but beloved by cinephiles. The bio of British-born Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) is the latest of his for me to read and review, and this time I'm grateful to BearManor Media for providing me with my copy.  Check out my posts on the Van Heflin and Brian Donlevy bios, and my Q&A with author Sculthorpe included in the Donlevy post.

The thing about Greenstreet is this: while his film career was relatively short--he entered the industry in 1941 at age 61, but made his last film in 1949 due to his failing health--his appearances are so striking, his voice so resonant, and his characters' personalities loomed so large, that I'd wager that anyone would remember him after seeing a single of his films.  As his career arc differed so much from other classic film stars, I was particularly interested in learning about him as a way to illuminate some dusty corners in cinema history and early 20th-century cultural history. For this, the book does not disappoint.

Sculthorpe is a completist in his approach and offers everything that is known about Greenstreet, both professionally and personally, in a measured, chronological manner, starting with his family history. He drew from primary sources as well as books such as Ted Sennett's profile of Greenstreet and frequent co-actor Peter Lorre's professional collaboration, Masters of Menacebut his connection with Gail Greenstreet, the actor's granddaughter, was especially valuable, leading to insights and photos never before published. The book offers a complete catalog of Greenstreet's film, radio, and stage appearances, and 36 pages devoted to a bibliography and citations.

Young Greenstreet, ~1920.
From the book's Facebook page
"I seek to ... show that he had a full life before he became famous," Sculthorpe said in the book's introduction. As a result, over half of the book is devoted to his stage career, which actually encompassed most of Greenstreet's working life, but at first I wasn't sure that I would be as interested in that. However, as I continued reading I became fascinated by the new world of early 20th-century theater life was that opening up to me--the touring lifestyles, the larger-than-life theatrical impresarios, and changing tastes of the American public. Greenstreet, while a UK native, made the U.S. his adopted home early in his career, as he toured with a number of theatrical companies here.  Among those were Sir Philip "Ben" Greet of 'The Ben Greet Players',  Col. Henry Wilson Savage's company, which produced mostly musicals, Margaret Anglin, an actress and producer who produced a number of Shakespeare plays that Greenstreet sank his teeth into, and Minnie Fisk ("Mrs. Fiske") with whom Greenstreet excelled in Shakespeare's As You Like It.  Sculthorpe punctuates these histories with colorful stories of alfresco performances and audiences of suffragettes.

Greenstreet's star was considerably high at this point, and he never really actively sought to become a film star, but when John Huston gave him the opportunity with The Maltese Falcon after seeing him in a stage production of There Shall Be No Night by Robert Sherwood, Greenstreet's career was catapulted in a new direction. His success in the beloved noir led him to an Academy award nomination and a contract with Warner Bros., and he made Hollywood his home--this after he assumed The Maltese Falcon was going to be his one film, and did attempt to resume his stage career.
Greenstreet with Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
According to Sculthorpe, the two actors shared a warm relationship.
Sculthorpe examines Greenstreet's film career through the lens of the actor's theatrical experience. In plays, because of his large size (Greenstreet always loved food and was heavy from his early days) he wasn't cast as romantic leads in plays, but rather villains and often clowns or comic characters. [Of particular note to film fans was a 1931 production of Arisophanes' play Lysistrata in which Greenstreet shared the stage with Miriam Hopkins and Fay Bainter, and after he left, Hopkins' role was taken over by Jean Arthur.] In contrast, in films Greenstreet rarely had the opportunity to exercise his comic chops, as his most memorable screen roles were of imposing, albeit refined villains.  He did, apparently, complain to his studio bosses about the narrow nature of his roles, and eventually did receive parts in comedies, that were, for the most part, second rate. Perhaps the best known and loved today is Christmas in Connecticut, in which Greenstreet's relatively straight character had some comic moments--in particular, having a tumble in the snow.
Christmas in Connecticut proves to be less than hospitable
for poor Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet).
Unlike many Hollywood stars, Greenstreet's personal life seemed to be somewhat calm. He married New Jersey native Dorothy Ogden at age 38, and they had one son, John, who spent many years in boarding school in the U.S. while his father toured much of the time. Sadly, Dorothy fell victim to a mental illness and was institutionalized at age 41 for the remainder of her life.  While his wife's illness and absence was a considerable strain, Greenstreet was an outgoing person who formed relationships with his fellow actors and was generally appreciated for his professionalism and warmth.  He mentored up-and-coming stars including most notably Zachary Scott, who credited Greenstreet as his film 'teacher.' He apparently loved a good party and enjoyed regaling everyone around with jokes and stories.

Greenstreet as the trumpeter in a 1938/39 stage production
(with Lunt-Fontanne) of Amphitryon 38 (from the
book's Facebook page here)
Greenstreet succumbed in 1954 after years of battling ill health. Some may say that it's too bad he only acted for nine years and 24 films, but in reality I believe our memory of him is enhanced because his work was preserved in such a concentrated period of time.  I recommend the bio for dedicated film lovers looking to fill in many gaps in our understanding of the man behind the imposing, often frightening physique in many 1940s classics. As previously mentioned, his film work does not dominate the volume, and those picking up the book should know that equal time and analysis is devoted to his stage work.  For those, like me, for whom this part of history was unexplored, those parts of the book will greatly add to your appreciation of early 20th century cultural life.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The comfort of Buster Keaton's short films

Buster with his classic melancholy face.
It all started with Buster--why my blog exists in the first place, and why I'm a classic movie obsessive and evangelist.  Comedic film master Buster Keaton was my gateway drug to the ever-expanding universe that is classic film.  So when Rick of Classic Film and TV Cafe announced the 'comfort movie' blogathon to celebrate 'National Classic Movie Day' on May 16th, I had a flashback to 2010 and my long, cold winter days of enjoying short film after short film of Buster's, and I knew I had my topic.  Happy Classic Movie Day everyone!

[For more reasons to get hooked on classic movies, go here to explore all the great entries in the blogathon]. 

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was a giant of early cinema comedy, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Like those two, physically Keaton was not a giant, but a small compact athletic man, whose trademarks include a 'pork-pie' hat, a flat facial affect that, while never smiling still conveyed a range of emotion, and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts.  To watch a Buster Keaton film is to be transported into a surreal setting that looks rather similar to early 20th century America, only, well, surreal. Keaton's career tanked quickly after talking pictures replaced silent film, and his many-faceted later career is certainly not without interest, but his silent films remain his most visible and beloved legacy.

Keaton's film career started with short films in the late 1910s, made with silent star comedian and mentor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. Keaton starred alongside Arbuckle, but learned film direction as well during this period. Buster then came into his own as an independent filmmaker, and with his New York and Hollywood studios, assembled his stock company of actors and crewmembers and started a prolific period turning out nineteen hit two-reelers from 1920-1923.  The rest of the 1920s he focused on creating silent features, including such classics as Our Hospitality, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.  Keaton was both a brilliant slapstick comedian and creative pioneer of the visual medium of film.  The features are brilliant, but an entire short only requires 20-25 minutes of your time!

So if your idea of comfort is taking your mind off your troubles, you could do worse than to settle down and treat yourself to a few doses of Keaton short film hilariousness.  You will be enraptured by what you see, just as Buster here:
Gif from
Following are just a few reasons I find these short films to be so addictive, with a specific film to highlight each.

Absurdist humor: I don't typically laugh at traditional slapstick humor, with pratfalls, pie-throwing stunts and the like. What I enjoy most about Buster's form of comedy is how he creates a slightly surreal universe and then puts himself into both large and small situations that are absurd, and then reacts appropriately.  Most of his films have this characteristic, but I'd like to highlight The Balloonatic (1923).  In this, one of his last shorts in this period, Buster's character takes an unplanned ride in a hot-air balloon, maroons himself in a wilderness near a river, and finds a young woman who is enjoying her own private camping expedition. Buster is smitten and wants to prove himself to her, and runs into trouble. In this film the outdoors is the primary setting, which Buster returns to in other films (see Battling Butler for one), but there is an absurd assortment of wildlife just hanging around camp to menace our hero and heroine, including, a steer with horns, and of course a black bear.  Buster also finds himself in possession of a trick canoe that breaks into three parts at the most inopportune times. Look closely at the name printed on the canoe -- 'Minnie Tee Hee' - likely a parody of the common native American name 'Minnehaha'.  
Buster in his boat 'Minnie Tee Hee" plays a joke on the viewer. Gif from
my friend Vânia (
Stunts that only Buster could pull off:  Charlie Chaplin was often called 'balletic' in his movements. Keaton was the Gene Kelly to Chaplin's Fred Astaire -- more overtly athletic but still incredibly graceful. In The Scarecrow (1920), Buster is rooming with romantic rival 'Big Joe' Roberts, in a house that consists of one room, converted for multiple uses thanks to a number of mechanical 'marvels'. In a sequence that is just a warm-up for later, but hilarious in its own right, the two men sit down for dinner and all condiments and utensils hang from the ceiling, and the two men start grabbing them and swinging them back and forth to each other in a synchronized motion that clearly was not choreographed in one sitting.  It's stunning.
Gif from

Keaton's love of dangerous stunts is showcased when he is being chased by a dog ('Luke the Dog', who featured prominently in Keaton's shorts as well as earlier in the films he made with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle).  The extended chase takes them to the top of a hollowed out brick farmhouse, where they literally run around on a narrow foundation raised on walls well above a safe distance to the ground as only one part of a breathtaking chase sequence.  Buster was known for doing his own stunts, and somehow survived breaking countless bones in his career.
Gif from

Don't look away for five seconds:  Buster's films were chock full of gag after gag, but also the physicality and kinetic energy was off the charts.  As Hal Hinson said in a 1994 Washington Post article, "Keaton's films are like elaborate laboratories set up for research into the physics of slapstick." One of the best examples is The Electric House (1922), in which recent college grad Buster is hired to 'electrify' the home of a wealthy family while they're away on vacation. You often see clips of the escalator-driven staircase with poor Buster being thrown around trying to keep his balance as the mechanism goes out of control. I particularly love the billiard scene, in which the billiard balls are cycled from the pool table bowling-ball style, and the ball rack descends from the wall on an extension arm.  All goes well early in the film, but later a series of malfunctions going on in each room simultaneously sends Buster, and the viewer, into a tailspin of hilarity. The billiard balls start jumping around, the mechanical wall arm socks a houseguest in the jaw, and Buster, trying to escape, gets his head caught in a pair of sliding doors. (Apparently, he actually did break a leg doing the stair stunts for this film). 
Buster showing Joe Roberts how to play 'Electric Pool'
in The Electric House
Warmth of character:  Despite Buster's character's 'stone face', there is never any doubt that he's a good and honorable guy who would not hurt anyone or anything. This does not mean that he backs down from a fight, but that through his exceptional pantomime and emotion-filled eyes, can immediately get you, the viewer, on his side. Many of his misadventures come about for the love of a (deserving or not) woman, and this is nowhere more evident than in one of my favorites, One Week (1920)This short, about the trials a newlywed couple has trying to set up their new home, literally, captures all the stunts and absurd humor that he's known for, but features an unusually warm and loving relationship with his new bride, played by Keaton favorite Sybil Seely.  They share a sweet moment when Buster catches Sybil drawing interlocking hearts on the wall of the home they are building from a kit.  
Buster and Sybil Seely as cute newlyweds.
Gif from
They also are partners sharing the chores.
Gif from
Seriously--marriage goals.
So if you decide to approach Buster to cure what ails you, here's my prescription based on your need using the 'Comfort Scale':

Your ‘comfort need’
Minor Annoyance
One short film (I suggest One Week or Cops). Be warned: stopping at one is very, very hard!
I might need a drink
.... at least three shorts: (add The Balloonatic or The Scarecrow)
The world might end!
You require a marathon viewing of at least 10 shorts. (add The Boat, Frozen North, The Electric House, The Playhouse, The Goat, Paleface)

Where to watch:  The short films have been published on DVD and Blu-Ray in a number of editions over the years. Several of them are available now to stream on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.