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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lana Turner--femme fatale (?) in JOHNNY EAGER (1942)

In this noir, beautiful blond Lana Turner completely bewitches her handsome co-star and sets in motion a series of decisions that ultimately lead to his demise. No, it's not The Postman Always Rings Twice. In that film, she takes her place among the most recognized femmes fatale, including Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Here, we're discussing what was perhaps for Turner a warm-up for that one--Johnny Eager (1942), in which it's Robert Taylor who falls prey to her charms. 

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon about femmes and hommes fatale in film noir. Click the image to see all the terrific posts over the past few days.

"The town's full of women and I have to pick the most dangerous one in town." 
-- Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager.

So I'll be clear up front: in Johnny Eager, Lana Turner's character is not a true femme fatale. Yet, with the seductive way she goes about her business for the first half of the film we really not sure of her motives; that and the deadly plot spiral in the final act, make her part a juicy one to dissect. (Warning: spoilers below.)

Lana Turner and director Mervyn LeRoy
on the set of Johnny Eager
According to Robert Osborne, the beloved late host of Turner Classic Movies, this film, from a short story and screenplay by James Edward Grant, was a departure for MGM, the 'cadillac studio' that rarely made movies about the criminal element. They had a star in Robert Taylor, but decided that in order for his films to attract male fans, they needed to rough up his image and cast him as a gangster! (Just a year earlier 20th Century Fox successfully employed that strategy with Tyrone Power in the similarly named Johnny Apollo.) Twenty-year-old rising star Turner was cast opposite Taylor and was seen by MGM as their female sex symbol since Jean Harlow. While this minor noir is not as well known today, Johnny Eager made over $1 million in profit when it was released.

Robert Taylor in a publicity
photo from the 1930s
Turner was only four years removed from her first significant role, in They Won't Forget (1937), where her discovery by director Mervyn LeRoy was rewarded when he showcased her enticing blend of sexiness and innocence, and she was dubbed 'the sweater girl'. The film was aptly named, as audiences did not forget Turner, who was in a steep rise to stardom. Versatile LeRoy had a hit with the gangster classic Little Caesar (1931), and success with Turner in the earlier film--her comfort level with him made him a good fit for Johnny Eager. To promote the film MGM created an evocative shorthand for their star pairing of Taylor and Turner -- TNT--and indeed sparks flew between them both on and off the set. (For a detailed description of their pairing in this film, see my fellow CMBA blogger Aurora's post here.)

While Turner heats up the screen in her scenes, the film spends more time with the title character. Taylor is serviceable in his role as the titular big city boss and racketeer, as ruthless and hard-hearted as he is handsome. He's recently out of jail on parole and while appearing to go straight, finds ways to keep his crime organization active and has even greater ambitions to profit from a dog racing track operation. Getting in his way is the district attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), who is one of a few not taken in by Taylor's cover as a suave mustachioed cab driver(!) Also serving as minor nuisances are his girlfriend Garnet (Patricia Dane) and his alcoholic right-hand man, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin in his first and only Oscar-winning role).

Things get significantly more complicated when Lisbeth Bard (Turner) turns up. We first see her early in the film when she's at court at the same time that Taylor is meeting his parole officer Verne (Henry O'Neill), and she takes note of the handsome stranger. Though the aforementioned officer refers to her and her friend (Diana Lewis) as 'sociology students', Turner projects a more mature and glamorous persona. And her look after seeing Taylor signals to us she has more than studies on her mind. She questions Verne about Johnny, and her comment "he looks to have more ambition than just driving a cab" makes us wonder if the criminal in him is enticing to her. In fact, the more she hears about his past, the more interested she looks. In this first scene, she seems like a good candidate for femme fatale, the concept that is neatly summed up by Foster Hirsch in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen: these women are "malevolent temptresses, their power confined almost entirely to a sexual realm, their strength achieved only at the expense of men."
Lisbeth Bard contemplating Johnny's criminal record
Lisbeth's pursuit of Johnny begins in earnest when she shows up to his 'home' along with his parole officer with 'field work' as her rationale. Their mutual attraction is evident...and the camera is also smitten.

Lisbeth and Johnny check each other out
Once Lisbeth Bard's young beau turns up at a party, we think she may be an innocent student after all, infatuated with Johnny's good looks and potentially dangerous persona. But then she mysteriously appears in the office of a restaurant manager whom Johnny starts to shake down before noticing her presence. She's unfazed, and begins to come on strong, dropping any pretense of naivete: "You don't want me talking about this (incident) to Mr. Verne--he might think you've been lying to him." She then moves in on him, strokes his suit jacket lapels, and with a hardened jaw says "Don't lie to me Mr. Eager--I have no intention of reporting you." When she gets in his car, she suggestively says to him, "No, I don't want you to take me home", and their first clinch follows. When eventually they do arrive at her home, Johnny is unpleasantly surprised to meet her stepfather - the D.A. John Benson Farrell (Arnold).

Lisbeth, the 'killer'
A short time later, Eager is attempting to make room in his life for Lisbeth--he promptly dismisses his girlfriend while openly defying the two-faced Farrell's threats and bribes to stay away from his daughter. But, lest we think that Lisbeth, in femme fatale fashion, will break Johnny's heart to her own ends, almost the exact opposite happens. Johnny sees an opportunity to use Lisbeth for profit. He sets up a staged scene (which isn't revealed as being staged until after it's complete) where he goads Lisbeth into shooting his underling Julio (Paul Stewart) after he appears to threaten Johnny's life. We later learn his goal is to blackmail Farrell into agreeing to permit his dog racing track. Horrified by believing she killed Julio, Lisbeth promptly retreats into a catatonic, pitiful state for several days. We understand now that she is a victim like most other humans Johnny's life touches.

For the time being, Johnny goes back to his usual mob boss shenanigans, getting what he wants from Farrell and outsmarting most everyone else he meets. After a few days he's convinced to visit the distraught Lisbeth, only after prompting by her ex-beau, and shows some compassion at her condition. When she proves herself willing to sacrifice her freedom for him, he professes his love for her and admits he framed her. His subsequent unselfish and risky decisions then lead to his demise, and the picture ends with him dying in the street in the arms of his friend Hartnett.
Johnny's final confrontation looks as noir as they come

Lisbeth breaks down as Johnny confesses his love
So, if Lisbeth is not a femme fatale, what is she, really? Lana Turner is too glamorous to convince us she is a naive student. (Ironically, when this film was released, the 'femme fatale' wasn't yet a thing, at least in the noir genre, since it was so new. Audiences would not have come into the film with the same expectations as modern audiences looking back.) We wonder what her history with other men has been, despite the desire of her father. It may be her father is over-protective, influencing her to follow danger, take great risks even and get herself in over her head. Turner is perfect at letting slip that vulnerability that just might be part of her irresistibility to Johnny. Her breakdown near the end is truly heartbreaking.

When Lisbeth proves to be as self-sacrificing as Johnny is selfish, promising to turn herself into the police only after Johnny's no longer in danger as an accessory, she breaks the wall of ice around Johnny's heart. When she redeems him, his doing the right thing causes his death - so, literally, she is as dangerous to him had she been a nefarious character. If Lisbeth's not a true femme fatale, for Johnny, the end result is the same.

Sources consulted:
Lana: the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner, E.P. Dutton, Inc, 1982.
Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, by Mervyn LeRoy and Dick Kleiner, Hawthorn Books, Inc, 1974
Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies, by Cheryl Crane (Turner's daughter) with Cindy De La Hoz, Running Press, 2008.
The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, by Foster Hirsch, A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc., 1981.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Planning my schedule--sort of--at the 10th Annual TCM Film Festival


Well, it's that time again and the annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival will explode in Hollywood bigger than ever in under two weeks now. (It's the 10th anniversary of the Festival and the 25th anniversary of the TV channel, and all passes have sold out for the first time.) While I'm excited to be attending, I so far haven't succeeded in building my complete schedule ahead of time, because with up to five different films showing in every time slot, and great guests appearing, my decision-making abilities have vanished--I need help, people!

In any case, I've captured my thoughts here as my festival planning is still very much a work in progress. Perhaps it's good not to get too committed, as it's inevitable that things change at the last minute. So, here goes:

Thursday, April 11
So for opening night, I can eliminate a few films pretty quickly: When Harry Met Sally (1989) (only for higher-level passholders), Dark Passage (1947), (seen it recently), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) (seen it recently on the big screen), Mogambo (1953) (sorry, no interest). The remaining films are all up for grabs.

Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell
Option 1: I'll admit my first instinct was to head to the Egyptian Theater for Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) because it would certainly be fun to get the festival started with a rousing, fun musical with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell--that, plus I've not seen the entire thing. If I did that, I could stick around and see another fun film, or at least I believe it's fun as I haven't watched the entire thing ever -- The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947). (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and an adolescent Shirley Temple star).

Option 2: I'm also tempted to hang out by the pool for the outdoor screening of Ocean's 11 (1960). Angie Dickinson will be there, and outdoor screenings are usually a blast -- unless it's uncomfortably cold. In which case, it's best to be inside a warm cinema. This one ends late, so if I choose it, there will be no time to get to any other.

Gary Cooper as Sergeant York
Option 3: Sergeant York (1941) is screening at the Legion Theater (a new venue for the festival) and here's another Gary Cooper classic I haven't seen. In addition, members of the York family will be there to provide perspective to film-goers. What an amazing opportunity! If I choose this one, though, the timing is such that it will be my only film for the evening.

Friday, April 12
Morning Schedule: The first film of the day was an easy one for me: Merrily We Go To Hell (1932): it's a pre-code and who can resist a title like that? Fredric March plays a drunk and I'll be interested to see how it compares to his Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1937). After that, I may do something I've never done before: go to the Grauman's Chinese Hand & Footprint Ceremony for Billy Crystal, one of my favorite entertainers who so deserves this honor. For the second slot of the morning, my inner film geek will likely take over as I head over to the Legion Theater for What's Not To Love About Republic Serials? which promises film clips showcasing behind the scenes of the low-budget sci-fi/action short films from Republic pictures.

Afternoon schedule:  For the early slot, for me it's a choice between My Favorite Wife (1940),  (another Cary Grant classic) and the seminal silent film Sunrise (1927). I absolutely LOVE Sunrise, and it was one of the films that awakened my classic film obsession. However, my first view of this one was on the big screen with a new score performed live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, so this screening wouldn't be a novelty for me. My Favorite Wife is a film new to me, and Jennifer Grant, Cary's daughter will be on hand to share her insights about her famous dad. It's a tough choice. Also, tugging at me will be the Hollywood Black Backlot meetup at 3:30, with a chance to meet author and film historian Donald Bogle, and get a free copy of his book.

Evening Schedule: For the later afternoon/early evening slot, I'm tempted to hang out near the Chinese cinema #6 for Vanity Street (1932) and Open Secret (1948). These are low-budget "discoveries" and are new to me. The former stars one of my favorites, Charles Bickford, in a rare leading man part. I'd be tempted to attend Steel Magnolias (1989) with the original playwright, Robert Harling, and star Shirley MacLaine in attendance (Wow!). The only thing is, this film will come to a local cinema later this year as part of the TCM/Fathom Big Screen Classics Series, and I will no doubt catch it then with our newly-minted TCM Boston Backlot chapter. The final and best option for me may be to head to Day For Night, a 1973 Truffaut film starring Jacqueline Bisset, with Ms. Bisset in attendance to offer her thoughts. I've not even heard of this one, (!) so a pleasant surprise may be in store for me here.

Late evening: Here it's a toss up between Road House (1948) and Winchester '73 (1950). The former, a film noir starring Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino, has been on my watch list for a while. And, it'll be shown in gorgeous black-and-white on nitrate. If I'm in a Western sort of mood, I'll head over to the Jimmy Stewart classic, to check another one off my watch list. And oh by the way, no midnight movie for me -- just can't do it!

Saturday, April 13
Barbara Rush in
When Worlds Collide
Morning schedule: It doesn't get much easier on Saturday. My first choice will be between All Through the Night, a comedy-thriller starring Humphrey Bogart from 1942, and When Worlds Collide (1951), a sci-fi "discovery" in which star Barbara Rush will be at the screening. The morning's dark horse is The Little Colonel (1935), a classic Shirley Temple film. Since I've not seen any of her films from her golden age--childhood that is--this is an opportunity to rectify that. For the second slot, I'm pretty much decided to see the classic British comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949); it's new to me, plus young Alec Guinness, people!

Afternoon Schedule: For the early slot, I'm tempted by A Raisin In the Sun (1961), which is universally acclaimed and stars the great Sidney Poitier. Alternatively, there is a double feature starring silent cowboy star Tom Mix -- with live piano accompaniment from Ben Model. I could be very happy there! For the second slot, it will come down to one of these two: 1) Nashville (1975) -- this one is considered a Robert Altman classic and I've yet to see it. And as far as special guests--there is huge list for this one, including Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and (gulp!) Lily Tomlin! 2) The other option is It Happened Here (1964) a documentary-styled war drama from film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow. Mr. Brownlow will be there also to receive the 2nd annual Robert Osborne Award, and I would love to see him be honored that way.
Acclaimed Western star of the
early cinema, Tom Mix
Late evening Schedule:  If there is time after Nashville lets out, I'll plan Indiscreet (1958) with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It's directed by recently-deceased Stanley Donen. If I've decided I've had my fill of Cary Grant already, (I know, right?!) If I don't make it to that and still feel like continuing my film-watching, I'll probably go for Samson & Delilah (1949), shown in nitrate with Victoria Mature, daughter of star Victor Mature, there for the screening. Hmm...on second thought...maybe that should be my #1 selection!

Sunday, April 15
Morning Schedule: The last day of the festival is always bittersweet, but still full. There is also the issue of all the 'TBA' slots -- these get announced the day before when festival planners assess how many popular films from earlier in the weekend had to turn away attendees, and thus deserve another shot on the big screen. Assuming none of the TBAs is a huge draw for me, the day still starts out with a really difficult choice: Mad Love (1935), Peter Lorre's first U.S. film, The Defiant Ones (1958), which earned Sidney Poitier his first Oscar nod, or Holiday (1938), the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn romp? I've not seen any of them, and all will be great, so...dear reader, any suggestions?? It may all depend on how many of these stars' other films I've seen so far at the festival.

After this, I'll likely take a little break before the TCM Backlot Members' Meetup starting at 1:30. Since our Boston chapter just formed, with yours truly as co-chair, I want to meet other members and get ideas from established chapters.

Evening Schedule: Before the closing night party, I'll need to make at least one more choice for a late afternoon/early evening film. I expect I'll be strongly tempted by The Dolly Sisters (1945) starring Betty Grable and June Haver. It's a technicolor musical to be screened on nitrate, so I expect it'll be a fun way to close out the festival. No epics (Gone with the Wind, Godfather II) for me!

And that will be a wrap, folks! I'd love to hear your thoughts. The full schedule can be found here. Check back for my summary of my actual experiences!

Monday, February 25, 2019

'Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir' book review & author Q&A

He was the guy who frantically sought his own killer in D.O.A. (1949), the film publicity executive who sweat profusely in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the romantic poet Gringoire, who befriended Maureen O'Hara's Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

I don't remember the first film I saw him in, but after watching his understated brilliance opposite James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Edmond O'Brien (1915-1985) rose quite high on my list of actors I just had to see more of. Luckily, coinciding with my watching more of his films was the publication of a complete study of his career and life, called 'Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir'. The bio was written by Derek Sculthorpe and published by McFarland Press last year. I was pleased to be asked by McFarland to review the O'Brien book, and after I finished it, I contacted Sculthorpe to get more of his insights into O'Brien's unique experience in Hollywood, including dealing with a series of disruptive medical issues.

Sculthorpe states his objective is to "shine a light on his overlooked contribution to film and the art of acting." In this, Sculthorpe succeeded, as he dug deep into every film O'Brien made (and several he didn't) and shared the insights he gained for each one, in approximate chronological order. While the book focuses on the noir films made during O'Brien's most fertile period, it really covers his entire career, including glimpses into his stage, radio and TV performances, and his forays into directing (e.g. Shield for Murder, 1954) and producing. The book content is largely factual, and the extensive list of sources and complete credits attests to the depth of the research and credibility of the information. Of course, Sculthorpe injects his opinions of O'Brien's work which never stray too far to one side or the other, allowing the reader validation of their own opinions. Within the long stretches of movie capsules, Sculthorpe keeps your interest by inserting behind-the-scenes stories for each movie when applicable. There is also information about O'Brien's family heritage and early life as reported in government records and press sources during his career. I was surprised to learn that his older brother Liam was a screenwriter of some distinction with whom O'Brien collaborated whenever possible. Overall, the book presents a comprehensive picture of  O'Brien's career that would be of interest to any classic film enthusiast.

In many ways, O'Brien's career arc was similar to other character actors of the golden age, in that his versatility allowed him to work into his old age (he is brilliant, although almost unrecognizable, in the seminal Western The Wild Bunch (1969). He had a particular love of Shakespeare, and even worked on the stage as Marc Antony in an Orson Welles' production of Julius Caesar. In the star-studded 1953 film version directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, his turn as murderous Casca garnered great reviews at the time. (Note to self: I need to see this one!).
O'Brien and Deanna Durbin were paired in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943);
definitely not film noir (photo from deannadurbindevotees.com)
While many actors of the golden era struggled with drug or alcohol addiction, O'Brien had a series of medical issues that could have derailed his career at any time. I was surprised to learn especially that O'Brien dealt with poor eyesight throughout his career, at times so severe that he required considerable assistance to move around on set or learn his lines. The eye problems dated to an accident during his active duty in WWII, and required many surgeries over the years. He also suffered heart attacks, and from his mid-life on, the effects of Alzheimers. Sculthorpe plumbed the records to uncover how these challenges impacted O'Brien, and what emerges is a portrait of an artist who, with help, was determined to give the best performance he could, and collaborators who helped make that possible. Even when severely compromised, he pulled it together on set, as in his small role in Orson Welles' last film The Other Side of the Wind, produced in 1970.

Q&A with author Derek Sculthorpe
Q: It seems O’Brien identified strongly with his Irish heritage (and obviously kept his last name such that his background was known) – can you comment on how his culture informed how he portrayed or adapted himself to his characters, if at all?

Sculthorpe: His Irish heritage was definitely important to him and informed his work, but I am not sure it was so evident as it was with others such as Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien. Edmond was frequently cast as a cop of course, but never as a priest, although he almost played one in the Pendergast story (a film called The Kansas City Story about corrupt senator Tom Pendergast) that was never made. He mostly portrayed Irish American characters, but there was a universal truth in his work that transcended all borders. 
O'Brien as undercover detective befriending unstable mob
boss James Cagney in the gangster noir White Heat
Q: Considering the broader culture at the time was not particularly advanced in supporting people with disabilities, was O’Brien an exception in how he was treated or typical of those in the business who found themselves with such struggles?

Sculthorpe: Certainly people with disabilities of any kind seemed to be invisible in that era. My guess is that he tried to hide or get around them somehow. By the time his eye trouble became apparent he was well-established and maybe they made allowances. Perhaps his heart trouble led to him losing more roles, but then again he wanted to keep working and he was still in demand. I wonder about the studio insurance in those days, but often health and safety did not seem to come into it. The actors and stuntmen did things then that I am sure wouldn't happen now. When you think of some of the alarming situations he endured while working on The Last Voyage for instance (blogger note: working in neck-high water with electrical hazards all around). Later, when he began to be afflicted by Alzheimers, it was not a disease that was understood at all. His co-workers just thought he was drunk, as they did with poor Rita Hayworth. Edmond was not diagnosed until long afterwards of course. Even at the end of his career with Black Sunday, the director was fully prepared to go out of his way to accommodate him even though he realised there would be times when he went blank and there might be lots of delays. In the event of course O’Brien wasn’t able to go through with it. But that’s a great testament to his ability and to the high regard in which directors and producers held him. 

Edmond O'Brien in his first film role The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
 and one of his last 
The Wild Bunch (1969).

Q: It was interesting to me that so many greater stars and/or show business people with broad influence had such great regard for O’Brien’s abilities. Why do you think he didn’t become a bigger star? Did you get a sense he regretted not rising to the ‘A’ ranks?

Sculthorpe: It’s an interesting question. He said he was satisfied as a supporting actor because he got the more interesting roles. However, in his early career I feel that he wanted to be a star. He was concerned about billing and status. The turning point was the Oscar. I think that meant everything to him, to have the approval of his peers. He seemed to relax after that in a sense, and by then he was becoming more and more a character actor anyway. Personally, I think it’s a shame he didn’t get more chances in Shakespeare, because he clearly loved that and seemed to come to life in his works.

Thank you to Derek Sculthorpe for the insights.

Read my review of the Western Warpath, with Edmond O'Brien in the leading role, here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Another silent gem making the rounds - The Ancient Law screens here

About a year ago I gave up writing monthly previews of classic films screening in Greater Boston, because, well, we have an abundance here, and most local cinephiles know the usual places to check out. Sometimes a film gets a public screening completely under the radar of general audiences, which certainly was the case with E.A. Dupont's 1923 feature The Ancient LawIt screened with live musical accompaniment at Boston's Temple Israel on January 16th, sponsored jointly by Boston Jewish Film and Jewish Arts Collaborative. The film has been making the rounds at various film festivals, notably the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, since it was restored in 2017 by the Deutsch Kinematek.

E.A. Dupont is probably best-known today for Varieté (1925) starring Emil Jannings, and Piccadilly (1929) starring Anna May Wong (I've been fortunate to see both films screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in recent years). A prominent director in Weimer era Germany, and also a Jew, Dupont fled Nazism for Hollywood in 1933, but was not particularly successful there, working off and on until his death in 1956. It's somewhat ironic, then, that a cinematic telling of a story similar to The Ancient Law (in the original German, Das Alte Gesetz) became such a sensation in Hollywood and beyond just a few years later, forever changing how we experience movies. That one, of course, is The Jazz Singer (d. Alan Crosland, 1927).

Ernst Deutch as Baruch and Avrom Moreski as his rabbi
father in a scene from The Ancient Law
The screenplay for The Ancient Law was written by Paul Reno, inspired by a true story of Jewish actor Bogumil Dawison who broke into Vienna's Burgtheater in the mid-1800s. The theater impresario was Heinrich Laube, who was portrayed as himself in the film by actor Hermann Vallentin. In the film, the young man, named Baruch, struggles with his ambition to become a stage actor against his orthodox Jewish tradition and the fierce opposition of his rabbi father. The narrative proceeds as you may think, but takes its time, with a lot of detail in the early scenes of small-town Jewish life in 19th century Eastern Europe contributing to the longish 2 hours 8 minutes running time. The filmmakers took care of every detail in the sets and costumes, enhanced greatly by the restoration of course, making the audience feel like we were traveling with Baruch from his Jewish shtetl to the grandeur of royal Vienna.

I was fortunate to attend a pre-screening reception to meet Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin, the two musicians who jointly composed a new score for keyboard and violin, and have been performing it with the film as it tours. Sosin is an experienced, well-traveled silent film composer and performer, while Svigals, a prominent specialist in klezmer music, has just recently entered the world of composing for and accompanying a silent film. She shared with us that at first she was hesitant to get into the genre, but quickly gained her footing, aided of course by film veteran Sosin.

Their performance was masterful, as the duo cleverly wove scored music with improvisation. The blending of the Eastern European Yiddish folklore-style melodies--"fakelore" as articulated by Svigals-- with well-known synagogue cantorial pieces and Viennese classical excerpts sounded as authentic as Dupont could have ever imagined. The playing was confident, and each musician had the opportunity to shine alone with their instrument, as well as in duet. In a fun touch, about 10 lucky audience members enthusiastically contributed to the live soundtrack by shaking, at the appropriate festival scene, the 'graggers' that Sosin handed out before the film!

For those interested in a deeper dive into the perspective that the musicians shared, check out this video.  The score is now included on a recent DVD release of the film from Flicker Alley. Go here to check it out.
Alicia Svigals & Donald Sosin (from Nitrateville.com)
For those for whom the name Ernst Deutsch may be familiar, it turns out he had an important but small role in the 1949 British noir classic also set in Vienna, The Third Man. Here he is as Baron Kurtz in that film.

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).