Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Lucky Partners'

RKO was already discussing “Kitty Foyle” with Ginger Rogers when she began working on “Lucky Partners” with Ronald Coleman. 

“Lucky Partners” is one of those frustrating movies that starts with 10 minutes of charm and promise but gets caught up in a farfetched plot point that seems even more unbelievable as the story progresses. The appeal of its leading players cannot help the story as it builds toward a copy-cat finale. 

Rogers plays Jean, a woman who works for her aunt’s bookstore. While delivering some books, she passes on the sidewalk a stranger, David (Coleman), who wishes her good luck. She is startled by this, and as the two continue walking in opposite directions, they turn to check each other out. Surprisingly enough, Jean does encounter good luck during her delivery, and as she tells her aunt (Spring Byington), Jean notices David across the street and has a brainstorm. Based upon her luck, she proposes a partnership with David in which they split the cost of a sweepstakes ticket, with the winnings also split between them. Jean explains the money would help her and her fiancé Freddie (Jack Carson) so they can get married and start their lives together. 

David agrees but only if he can spend his winnings taking her on a platonic “honeymoon” before she gets married as an “experiment.” Aghast, Jean runs to get Freddie, who eventually agrees with David, thinking he will never win. 
This very strange plot twist doesn’t work, because we know nothing about David. He is a mystery man, and the story hints he’s running away from something. But this is one of those films that mistakes the star for the character. Because Ronald Coleman is playing David, he must be OK and therefore it makes sense Jean would agree to such nonsense. Frankly, though, it’s just mortifying that Jean would run off with this unknown man on an experimental honeymoon (which, frankly, I’m still not sure of the reason behind the so-called experiment). So much time and talk is made of this strange arrangement that no real conversations exist between David and Jean, which makes the romance that begins to blossom even more unbelievable. 

The ending is a courtroom scene, just like “You Can’t Take It With You,” complete with Harry Davenport as the judge. And I still don’t get all the commotion around David’s disappearance. It’s a shame, too, after such a promising beginning. And it wastes the talents of all involved – Coleman, playing an underwritten part; the always likable Carson, who isn’t stretched here; and Rogers, who is so appealing (and an even darker brunette than in “Primose Path”). But even she looks a little lost at the end. 

Rogers admitted to a secret crush on Coleman and was delighted to work with him. The two got along well, and she said everyone enjoyed working on the film. It’s too bad the result just doesn’t work.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Primrose Path'

Continuing my very slow look at the five films Ginger Rogers made after striking out on her own following her ninth pairing with Fred Astaire, “Primrose Path” is an intriguing movie for charting the growing maturity of Ginger Rogers as an actress.

Following the lighter “Bachelor Mother” and “Fifth Avenue Girl,” “Primrose Path” gives Rogers a more substantial role and she succeeds in the part, even if the movie isn’t quite up to her performance.

“Primrose Path” is adapted from a book and play (which Rogers called “trashy” in her autobiography) and directed by Gregory La Cava, who had previously directed Rogers in “Stage Door.” Rogers plays Ellie May, who lives on the wrong side of the tracks with her alcoholic father Homer (Miles Mander) and flamboyant mother Mamie (Marjorie Rambeau). While the script never calls Mamie a prostitute, it’s clear that she is and it’s her income that keeps the family fed.

Ellie May idolizes her father, who went to college and studied “The Greeks.” His career as a writer clearly is going nowhere as he spends most of his time in a drunken stupor. Grandma (Queenie Vassar) and her acid tongue remind all of his condition, while Ellie May’s younger sister Honeybell (Joan Carroll) seems to have inherited her grandma’s wicked ways.

In fact, Homer advises his daughter early on, “Run away, dear. What will happen to you here in this horrible environment?”

After this speech, Ellie May decides her father needs some clam soup to help ease the discomfort in his stomach, eaten away after years of drink. She heads to the beach and accepts a ride with kindly Gramp (Henry Travers). He believes the pigtailed Ellie May to be younger than she is. She explains that her immature look keeps men from hitting on her.

Gramp owns a gas station/diner, where Ed (Joel McCrea) works. Ed helps Ellie May dig up clams and takes her home on his motorcycle. For the first time, Ellie May finds herself attracted to a man and dresses up to visit him at the local bar later that evening. However, she lies about herself and claims she’s run away because her family doesn’t want her to be involved with a lower-class man like Ed. 

It’s this lie that fuels the rest of “Primrose Path.” I wish I knew more of the original play to see how it was changed for film. I do know that the original material focused more on the mother and grandmother, while the screen adaptation changed the location from Boston to California and shifted the story to Ellie May. It’s a frustrating film because there are some wonderful moments that unfortunately are interspersed with others that jar the viewer out of the film’s spell.

Take the sequence along the beach when Ellie May and Ed are digging for clams. They really are at the beach and not on a soundstage. There’s no soundtrack in most of the film, which gives scenes like this a much more realistic feel. McCrea and Rogers clearly have chemistry together, and this first encounter between them has Ed fooled by Ellie’s younger dress and believes her to be younger. She’s clearly smitten by him and awkwardly tries to get away, particularly when she decides to swipe his wallet for the money.

The scene is followed by a long trip home on his motorcycle, with her in the sidecar. He’s trying to get a rise out of her and they swerve all over the road in comedic fashion. The rear projection shots then change from a long stretch along the highway to a neighborhood back to the long stretch along the highway. This sudden shift in tone and inconsistent rear projection clashes with the realistic beach scene before it.

Such juxtapositions happen throughout the movie. Another sequence comes when Ellie May invites Ed to dinner at her parents’ house. Now, isn’t it clear to everyone that this is a bad idea, considering Ellie May has yet to come clean about her family? And yet their arrival at the house is followed by an eager Ellie May introducing everyone to Ed. This is a silly plot maneuver that makes viewers question Ellie May’s intelligence. And the whole scene unfolds predictably, which carries through to the end of the movie.

This is also a script that liberally sprinkles “aint’s” and improper English usage to denote that these people are from a lower class. I supposed today it would be four-letter words, but in “Primrose Path” it’s ladled on a little too thick.

Thank goodness for the cast, starting with Rogers. She actually dyed her hair brunette for the role, knowing this was not a glamorous part, and wore as little makeup as possible. Rogers has always been a likable presence on screen, and it’s nice to see her hold her on in the many combative moments with her family. Rambeau grabbed a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her fine work here. McCrea, always appealing, creates a good romantic partner for Rogers. Only Vassar seems rooted in an acting style that came about a decade earlier when movies converted from silent to sound. With one hand on her hip, she overacts as she spits out her venom.

What “Primrose Path” did for Rogers was give her yet another leading role that allowed her to display versatility as an actress. When you watch her films from this period, you can see it all building toward a long career as a leading lady.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Fifth Avenue Girl'

So, where was I? LOL Once again I find myself apologizing for my long absence. Between the new house, not selling the old house yet, work and other obligations, I had taken a very long hiatus. But I just can’t bring myself to pull the plug on my blog, so it’s one more try – or should I say one more strike and I’m out!  

Did I really start a series on Ginger Rogers two years ago? That doesn’t seem possible, but apparently I did. However, I do need to finish it, which I guess is my own brand of obsessive behavior. So, two years ago, I decided to follow up my series on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by looking at the five films that Rogers made after the release of “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” what was thought to be the last film the duo made together. Eager to make it on her own, Rogers started off with a hit, “Bachelor Mother.” 

Today I’m looking at “Fifth Avenue Girl,” her next movie, and an interesting blending of social commentary, comedy and romance. Wealthy industrialist Timothy Borden (Walter Connelly) is frustrated by the problems of both work and home. On his birthday, which only his assistant remembers, he comes home to find his wife off with her lover, his daughter off cavorting at school and his son off playing polo. Taking a walk in Central Park, he meets Mary Grey (Rogers), unemployed yet seemingly untroubled by that fact. Borden invites her to dinner at a swanky club, and the next day everyone assumes that Mary is his lover. His aghast family watches as Mary moves into their swanky Fifth Avenue home, unaware that he has hired her to be his companion in hopes of shocking them into accepting some sort of responsibility for their own lives. 

In tone, “Fifth Avenue Girl” feels like a distant cousin to “Holiday,” stripped down in presentation with no soundtrack. The social commentary hits – fairly gently – from all sides, with “personal responsibility” the key lesson for everyone. While the plot doesn’t really surprise, it’s still engaging. In fact, I watched this two years ago when I was first working on this series, and my reaction was simply OK. However, on a second viewing, I enjoyed it far more. Perhaps it’s the straightforward nature of the story, or the fact that it has a keen eye and ear for the struggles of these late-Depression characters. 

It also helps that the two stars are so appealing. While Mary Grey functions simply as a catalyst for change in the Borden family, the story really revolves around Mr. Borden, and he really is the main character. Connelly is so likeable in this role, making us feel for this good man who has lost control of his family as he simply searches for a bit of happiness. It’s too bad that Connelly would die of a stroke a year later. 

The role of Mary Grey doesn’t ask Rogers to do much except bring her own charm and comedic sensibilities to the movie, which she does well. She may be the star, but Rogers shares the wealth with the rest of the cast. (And it’s always a plus to see Franklin Pangborn in anything, here as the Borden family butler.) Rogers was also happy to work again with director Gregory La Cava, who had directed her in “Stage Door,” the first movie that proved Rogers could make it without Astaire. 

While “Fifth Avenue Girl” may not be a major movie, it’s an enjoyable one, and even in a role that doesn’t ask much of her, Rogers clearly had a smart and engaging screen presence that would be used more effectively in future films.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My new house

Hi Everyone, 

I'd like to share some photos of my new house. Feel free to read my last post if you haven't already to get the background. 

The first shows the great room when we bought it -- yes, this is how we bought it. 

It may not look like much, but we saw the potential immediately. 

Now, here is the same room on Thanksgiving -- we moved in the weekend before: 

And here's the same room looking the opposite direction: 

Still can't believe it's ours. Very proud of it!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mid-Century Modern Dream

Hi All ... just when I attempted a comeback, I had a setback LOL 

Actually, it wasn't a setback, just a sudden diversionary force in my life. In August, we bought a new home. We had been looking for a year and knew that when the right home came on the market, we'd have to act fast. 

And that's what we did. In early August, we saw the house on a Friday and bought it on a Sunday. How's that for fast?

In the past, we've owned old, traditional-style homes. Not this time. We bought a mid-century modern house built in 1960. It had nothing inside -- no walls, ceilings, flooring. Just the studs. And we loved it within 30 minutes of being there. 

After a four-month total renovation, we moved in right before Thanksgiving -- and hosted Thanksgiving, which many may think we are crazy. But I couldn't wait to cook in my new kitchen (10-foot island!!), plus we always host Thanksgiving. It may not look like the above home from "Mon Oncle" (I love that film), but it's ours and I still feel like I'm on vacation rather than fully believing that it's ours.

Anyway, all other parts of my life besides work have been neglected. Including my much-neglected blog. Sigh. I miss all of my blogging friends. And writing and reading about  films. But perhaps my year-long absence has been for the best, considering this wonderful house and the break that I needed. 

I'll take a few pictures of the house to share soon. In the meantime, if I haven't lost every reader I ever had, I miss everyone and hope to be back reviewing films soon!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

'The Elephants of Shanghai': A Talk with Author Stephen Jared

Recently I chatted with Stephen Jared, the author of “The Elephants of Shanghai.” Over the past several years, I’ve blogged about Stephen’s previous books, “Jack and the Jungle Lion” and “Ten-A-Week Steale.”

Stephen is a classic film lover, and his books clearly reflect it. “Elephants” is a sequel to “Jack and the Jungle Lion,” and it’s a terrific, rip-roaring adventure set during World War II, with the hero – film star Jack Hunter – finding himself embroiled in an international caper.

If you’re interested in reading it, Classicfilmboy, Solstice Publishing and Stephen Jared have worked together to make “The Elephants of Shanghai” available as a FREE download corresponding with the publication of this blog post. It will be available for five days only, so rush over to Amazon and get yours now.

Below is my interview with Stephen. I hope you enjoy it and please take advantage of the special! 

After Jack and the Jungle Lion, how did you come up with The Elephants of Shanghai?  Thirty years ago Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out. As that movie starts a title reads: Shanghai 1935. For thirty years I’ve wanted to time-travel to old Shanghai because of that movie. This book allowed me to do that somewhat. The Rocketeer was also a big influence. I love the cohesiveness of The Rocketeerdespite so much variety in the visual components. Not only does it have a rocket-man, it has Nazis and Hollywood and Howard Hughes and gangsters. Hard to throw all that into a single story and keep the narrative from running off the tracks. I wanted to see if I could manage that. As to the actual story, in the previous one Jack becomes the hero he always pretended to be in movies in order to save the woman he loves. I thought it would be interesting with this new one if WWII started and Jack feels he must contribute something, so he steps into the role of hero again, this time to save the world. Of course the effort is clumsy in the beginning because Jack is more Bob Hope than Indiana Jones, but as the story moves along Jack changes. He summons the courage he needs to do what must be done, and even becomes a bit of an inspirational figure to those around him. 

It’s amazing how much is going on in The Elephants of Shanghai, especially once Jack realizes that his mission is nothing like the fictional ones he pursued in his films. There’s hardly a chance to catch your breath – and I mean that as a big compliment. I began to wonder if Jack felt like he was trapped in a more expansive version of one of his films. I put myself in a tough spot after the first story because it was essentially a love story. How do you write a sequel to a love story? You can’t have them fall in love again. So, I wrote a straightforward, hard-driving adventure story. That said, I think all stories have to be rooted in some kind of emotion that people can relate to. The emotional foundation for Elephantsis that Jack feels insignificant as the world is at war around him. When he decides to do something about it, his wife can’t stand that he’s taking such risks. In the first story, Jack has the biggest arc. He grows as a person thanks to this woman he’s fallen in love with. In the sequel, his wife has the biggest arc. Through Jack she comes to realize the need for looking beyond her family to the world around her. 

And yet Jack does come to understand his worth beyond acting and doing his part for the war effort. I love the idea that he’s an actor who has come to the end of his usefulness – in the eyes of Hollywood – in films. But he’s not just sitting around drinking himself to death. Yes, he feels a bit useless at the beginning, but he has this determination in this novel to prove his worth, not only in the eyes of the ones he loves but also in his own eyes. I think that’s a relatable theme that goes well beyond the action. At the time this story takes place, five years have gone by since the events in Jack and the Jungle Lion. I imagine Jack has spent a good deal of that time feeling regret for all the years spent as a self-absorbed actor. When he’s first introduced in Jack and the Jungle Lion, he’s drunk, not only because of his loveless marriage, but because his life is meaningless. He had been having a great deal of fun thanks to his good looks, charm and fame, but he’s not been happy. He’s got insecurities, all rooted in self-centeredness. So, with The Elephants of Shanghai, it’s been five years since he started becoming a different person, and I had the opportunity to take him even further down a road of selflessness. This is not as easy as pulling a switch; it wouldn’t be for anybody. There are lingering personality traits, and Jack has to repeatedly summon the courage within to do what’s right. With all that emotional distance traveled, all that change within, in the end he is a little surprised and more than a little proud of what he manages to pull off. 

It’s easy to cheer for Jack throughout this story. Despite his flaws, you want him to succeed and grow. But even though Jack is an action movie hero, the real action in this story has a movie feel to it. What choices did you make to keep it from sliding into the cartoonish? The characters have to be relatable, and their motivations have to be clear. If you can pull that off, you can pretty much be as imaginative as you want with the story. I’ve been reading Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet. His main character throughout those books is a cop who is prone to fits of nostalgia for his old school friends. On one level Padura is capturing the disillusionment experienced by the Cuban people over time, but from a strictly narrative perspective the nostalgia and the heartbreak for how things have changed, makes the character relatable. I’m not a cop, not a tough guy, have never been to Cuba, nevertheless, I can relate to Mario Conde. Through him, when I sit down to read, I go to Cuba. I’m right there, soaking in the atmosphere, sharing in his heartbreaks. These stories could easily be cartoonish. A tough cop, loner, likes to drink, investigates missing persons and murders—how many times have we seen this? Yet, it’s original because the character has depth. We feel we know him. We get into his head and understand what motivates him.
You’ve created many original new characters in this book – Summer, Johnny, Kyo, Chenglei. And you created a breathless pace that escalates with every chapter. Beyond being inspired by Indiana Jones, where did all of these characters and the creative plot thrusts come from? The Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff was an inspiration. I'm not a huge fan of The Dead End Kids but they, along with Cagney, influenced Johnny Marbles. A lot of this comes from being enamored with old Hollywood set pieces.  As example, the sultry singer with her ballroom or nightclub scene. Summer was created for that, and to provide a temptation for Jack, which I thought would be fun. As to the plot, I can't think of any big influences. If someone told me they liked The Elephants of Shanghai and wanted to see a movie that was similar, I don't know what I could point to. Over time, I've picked up a few skills. I just keep telling myself the plot must thicken. I bang my head against the desk thinking of ways to make it more thrilling. Jack and the Jungle Lion, on the other hand, did have a big influence behind its story, which was Romancing the Stone. One of the major influences on Max's character that I've never mentioned before was Bess Armstrong's character in an old Tom Selleck adventure called High Road to China. 

You certainly succeeded in making this more thrilling. It’s the best kind of page-turner! Thanks, it’s gratifying to hear. As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m not alone among writers influenced by classic Hollywood. Not long ago I read Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage, which I liked a lot. He’s clearly inspired by those foreign-set espionage thrillers from the forties. I’ve not read The Good German but given what Steven Soderbergh did with it as a film, I’m sure it too has the feel of those old movies. 

So what’s next for Jack? He’s a terrific character and I’d love to see you write a third adventure for him. I intend to write more Jack Hunter stories. I started one set in 1952 where his ex-wife, the ever-dramatic, former silent film queen, Theda Lomond, has a very young boyfriend who is a communist. This gets her in trouble, and she calls the only person she can think of to offer help as a character witness—Jack Hunter. Meanwhile, with television around now, Jack is seeing some of his old movies again, and he misses his younger self, only wishes his movies weren’t so idiotic. So, this trip reunites Jack with Theda, only to prove that fifteen years later they still hate each other, and it gives Jack the chance to put in a few calls, see if he can appear in just one last picture, this time he insists on a serious drama. The tone is more old-fashioned farce than adventure, but I think it’s a fun idea, and would bookend well with the beginning of Jack and the Jungle Lion. 

Sounds like a great idea. I will definitely look forward to reading it. As always, Stephen, a pleasure to chat with you. You as well. Thanks.