Monday, May 24, 2010

There’s Something About a Soldier (1943) Alfred E. Green

This is a Columbia Pictures production made during World War II and I mention it for several reasons, none being the quality of the film. The movie centers on Officer’s Candidate School applicants, their backgrounds, and progression. Rear projection footage is poorly and overly used. Watch and cringe.

The always lovely Evelyn Keyes is the love interest. For “Leave It to Beaver” fans, Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver) is amusing to watch as he plays the heavy-handed lieutenant to the new recruits. Bruce Bennett (you know him from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Mildred Pierce”) is the serious, war veteran. Also look for William Edmunds as the Polish father, and Louis Beavers, a talented black actress forced into the stereotypical maid or cook roles. In her first film role, Shelley Winters appears as Norma.

Tom Neal (1914-1972) plays an arrogant soldier who comes to be a decent human being by the end of the movie. Born in Evanston, Illinois to a wealthy family, Neal became a champion boxer at Northwestern University and received a law degree from Harvard. Intelligent and nice-looking, his movie roles ended up being thugs, or at the very least, tough guys. And in real-life, that’s what he was. He shared girlfriend, Barbara Payton (she’s a whole other story), with actor Franchot Tone for a while and once beat Tone up so badly he ended up in the hospital with a coma. Neal killed his third, and last, wife by a gunshot to the back of the head, and was sentenced to 10 years in jail for involuntary manslaughter (must have had a heck of an attorney).

More notorious than famous, Neal made fewer than 100 film and TV roles and all between 1938-1959. Watch for this hapless, handsome actor and you’ll appreciate, if not his acting, his back story.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Front Page (1931) Lewis Milestone

Most of you will be more familiar with the remakes of this great play: “His Girl Friday” in 1940 with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1974 “The Front Page.” There was another production in 1988 with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner entitled “Switching Channels,” which I haven’t seen and probably won’t. But this first film version is a treat and makes me wish I could have seen the original stage play. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the play based on their experiences as crime reporters in Chicago, and I need to find a copy of the play.

Howard Hughes produced the movie and Lewis Milestone (of “All Quiet on the Western Front” fame) directed. The cast is filled with recognizable faces and voices. And in my opinion, Pat O’Brien is the star. He snaps out his dialogue with the rest of the wisecracking reporters and is an impressive Hildy Johnson. Look for the scene where he’s carrying on two conversations into two telephones - very clever work. Adolph Menjou plays the devious Walter Burns, silent screen actress Mary Brian is O’Brien’s love interest, and Mae Clarke, of Jimmy Cagney grapefruit fame, is the streetwalker with a heart of gold.

Other notables are Edward Everett Horton, a hilarious germaphobe, George E Stone as the hapless anarchist, and Frank McHugh, Clarence Wilson, and Slim Summerville. Don’t miss the brief appearance by Francis Ford as Carl, a detective, not because he’s spectacular but because he’s the brother of director John Ford, who famously placed him in small roles in most of his films. (Francis was John’s older brother and was a silent film actor and director in his own right before the advent of sound.) Gustav von Seyffertitz plays Professor Max J, Engelhoffer, who diagnoses the anarchist: “dementia praecox!”

The directing and cinematography (Glen MacWilliams) are amazing for a 1931 film. Watch for the camera quickly moving from reporter to reporter as they make their telephone calls. One of my favorite shots shows the long telephone table as each reporter leans in from the opposite side to make his call. Milestone was an early user of camera panning and has some amazing camera angles. He moves the camera throughout the set and varies between long shots and close-ups very effectively. Sound quality could use some cleaning up but just get over it.

Menjou was nominated for Best Actor, Milestone for Best Director, and the movie for Outstanding Production (now called Best Picture). They lost to Lionel Barrymore, Norman Taurog, and Cimarron, respectively.

It’s a dramatic film that at the same time introduces the concept of “screwball comedy.” If you’re looking for themes or morals, try political corruption, communist hysteria, anarchists, sleazy reporters, and work vs. family, against the backdrop of lightning-quick, witty dialogue. It’s fast and funny, and although I’m a fan of “His Girl Friday,” this movie definitely rates a watch. Don’t miss the last Menjou line when the typewriter bleeps out the offending word. And keep watching through the ending credits for a nice little visual and audio tidbit.

“I have too many things to do . . . getting ready for the hanging.”

“Tell her nothing! She’s a woman, you fool!”

“I’m going to cut out drinking and swearing and everything connected with the crazy newspaper business! Honey, I’ll never even read a newspaper!” Right...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Night Must Fall (1937) Richard Thorpe

This is my favorite Robert Montgomery movie and one of his best. His character Danny/Baby Face suddenly appears in Dame May Whitty’s little cottage as the boyfriend of the maid. You know he’s clever but is he truly good or devilishly evil? Everyone in the house falls on either side of this question, with Rosalind Russell moving back and forth. Montgomery himself moves effortlessly and quickly between the dark and the light.

The household consists of the aforementioned crochety (really much worse), hypochondriac, Whitty, her niece, Russell, Merle Tottenham as the maid, the cook played by Kathleen Harrison, and Eily Malyon as the village nurse. Handsome Alan Marshal is Whitty’s lawyer and Russell’s wannabe boyfriend.

The stage is set and the play slowly unfolds. Watch when Montgomery moves into the house and asks the maid, his girlfriend, to help him with his bags. She walks in front of him carrying two large suitcases, and he practically skips past Russell, carrying nothing but a hat box. Also, later in the movie, Montgomery and Russell are in the kitchen at night in a great scene together (“You’re not frightened, you’re excited!”). Whitty is incredible in her scene when she’s left alone in her cottage, as is Montgomery in the mirror at the end.

Sets and art direction (Cedric Gibbons) are superb and the entire film is very atmospheric (cinematography by Ray June). Musical scoring is light but effective. This understated thriller has clever dialogue and is well-paced by the director. Both Whitty and Montgomery received deserving Oscar nominations for their roles (they were beat by Alice Brady and Spencer Tracy). And it’s interesting to see Russell in such a subdued role, which she performs wonderfully. Look for the familiar E.E. Clive as a tour guide near the end. And don’t look away until the end - I promise that you will not know for sure which way the wind is blowing! And you just may be looking at everyone from now on to see if their eyes are wide apart, and pondering whether or not that's a good thing...

"I often wonder on a very fine morning what it would be like for night to fall."

"Happy dreams and sweet repose..."

Faithless (1932) Harry Beaumont

The movie stars Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Montgomery and depicts a slice of life during the stock market crash and subsequent depression. The dapper Montgomery (father of Bewitched’s Samantha) is always interesting to watch. Bankhead is so over the top that it becomes obvious why she was so much more successful on the stage than in movies. For all her notoriety, she made very few movies, and is probably best known film-wise for “Lifeboat” (and for the expression “Hello, Dahling”).

Neither character is really believable as each falls into hardship, because their high society personalities remain rock solid. But like many movies before and since, the story does show how desperate circumstances can drive one into doing desperate things. Bankhead begins as a superficial, selfish woman and morphs into an understanding, self-sacrificing wife. You will have to watch it to find out what occurs and how it happens.

Look for Sterling Holloway as a photographer, and Hugh Herbert as the sleazy, wealthy Mr. Blainey. In the credits you will see Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons and Sound by Douglas Shearer. The names may not ring any bells today but both gentlemen have thousands of movie credits; give them their due.

“You’re just being a quixotic fool.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Kennel Murder Case (1933) Michael Curtiz

This is a fine film that features William Powell shortly before his Thin Man days. He plays the character, Philo Vance, who is a debonair detective and bon vivant. Sound familiar? Powell made five “Philo” movies before moving to MGM and being paired with Myrna Loy, and this was his last. (Philo Vance is a character in 12 crime novels by S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) and was featured in 15 movies.)

So along with the witty Powell, there is a great cast of suspects: Ralph Morgan (older brother of the more famous “pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain” Frank), Mary Astor, Paul Cavanagh, Arthur Hohl, Helen Vinson, and Jack LaRue. There’s a murder, maybe, or two, and everyone has a motive. Eugene Pallette, the always recognizable rotund, gravel-voiced actor, plays a dim-witted detective whose amusing banter with Powell is always at Pallette’s expense. The coroner is humorously played by Etienne Giradot who after Powell, gets the best lines.

The seemingly unsolvable crime is slowly unraveled by Powell (“It’s a maze of conflicting clues”), and you might get it beforehand or you may not. How does a man in a room locked from the inside get murdered, or was it suicide? The director creatively uses split screens and imaginative flashbacks, and if you don’t know his name, you certainly know the movies Michael Curtiz directed: Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and many more. This is a well-crafted story with a clever plot. And you need to pay attention; it’s an early sound-film, and the movie unfolds through the dialogue. If you’re a mystery fan, a William Powell fan, or just a fan of well-written films, you’ll want to watch this entertaining movie.

“It’s slightly complicated since the man was shot, slugged, and stabbed himself, particularly in the back.”