Monday, January 25, 2010

Easy to be 'Hard'

In putting together my recent countdown of favorite 1940s actresses, I realized that I needed to familiarize myself with more films of several leading ladies, including Ida Lupino.

So I recently watch 1943's "The Hard Way," a film that won Lupino the New York Film Critics' prize for best actress, although she was passed over for an Oscar nomination. Time has not been kind to this film, although it remains intriguing and Lupino worth seeing.

Lupino plays Helen, who has settled into married life that lacks passion, direction -- and money. She works hard but channels her energies into little sis Katie (Joan Leslie). After her high school graduation, Katie takes in a traveling show featuring Albert (Jack Carson) and Paul (Dennis Morgan). Katie announces her desire to go into show business, and a charmed Albert believes the untrained girl can do it.

Helen suspiciously considers the second-rate talent of Albert and Paul beneath Katie. But Helen realizes that by helping Katie fulfill her dreams, she can find a purpose herself. So she leaves her husband, goes on the road with Albert, Paul and Katie, and begins guiding her sister's career. Even when Albert and Katie marry, Helen sees this as a minor speed bump on their way to fame and fortune.

According to Turner Classic Movies, the inspiration for Helen and Katie are real-life mother and daughter Lela and Ginger Rogers. Lupino (above left with Leslie), at this time a contract player at Warner Brothers, took the role after Bette Davis turned it down. In fact, Lupino reportedly called herself a "poor man's Bette Davis."

I think she's selling herself short. Unfortunately, "The Hard Way's" script doesn't do her any favors. Or perhaps times have changed so much that Helen doesn't seem so harsh, considering how much power women now have when compared to the 1940s. This type of ambition is more acceptable today. Or, in comparison to such stage/screen mothers like Mama Rose in "Gypsy," Helen may not be all that bad.

The film is hurt by having most of Helen's nasty work occur off-screen. People constantly talk about what she did, but the audience doesn't see all that much of it. We catch glimpses here and there. One of the best scenes is between Helen and Lily Emery (a wonderful Gladys George in this small role). Lily is a drunk, past-her-prime stage diva, and Helen manages to convince a boozing, unaware Lily to leaving her current production, thus paving the way for Katie's big break. Outside of rare scenes like this, when Helen negotiates a tough deal for Katie or tries to get younger sis to act more responsibly, it comes off more as Helen being tough and responsible rather than a monster.

I also didn't like the ending -- and I rarely discuss in detail endings. Let's just say the story is framed by Helen being found in the river and carted off to a hospital, where she tells her story in flashback. It's a clunky device here and doesn't work. One other minor point: There are times when Lupino is decked out as Helen. It plays into Helen living through her sister, and yet Lupino is too lovely -- the old-school Hollywood glamour should be almost garish, over the top, or darker for Helen rather than having her look like she stepped into another story altogether.

OK, I'll stop complaining. I did like Lupino, despite the script's shortcomings, as a fiery, unforgiving Helen. Leslie works best in the first half of the film, giving Katie a vivaciousness that works. Unfortunately, in the second half, Leslie can't quite carry off her character's change and darker moments.

Two of the best parts of the film are Carson and Morgan. I'm used to seeing Carson as the wiseguy and Morgan as the good guy, and here it's reversed. Carson is a wide-eyed dreamer who can't see what's going on while cynical Morgan catches on to Lupino right away. The two character actors are great together.

"The Hard Way" entertains but doesn't have the impact it once had. Still, Lupino makes it look easy. I'm looking forward to watching more of her films, hopeful that better scripts will allow her to shine even more.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

'Letters' Worth Revisiting

Between my recent countdown and the death of the lovely Jennifer Jones in December at age 90, I decided to revisit a film I had not watched in more than 20 years.

"Love Letters," released in 1945, is a soap opera, one of those films that requires the viewer to not think and just go with the flow. I first saw it during a time when I was devouring any old film that was being shown on TV. I remembered both its flaws and enjoying the film, although its reputation is not as stellar as other films of the same type.

So why revisit? It's an experiment I enjoy, seeing a film after a long gap to see if age, wisdom and knowledge has changed my viewpoint.

The basic plot of "Love Letters" is pretty straightforward. The movie opens with Allen Quinton (Joseph Cotten) writing a love letter. However, the letter isn't for his girl, it's for the girl of his war buddy, who can't manage much more than a salutation. Quinton has fallen in love with the letters from this girl, and it's clear she's fallen for the writer of his buddy's letters, unaware another is composing them.

After leaving the service, Quinton later finds out that his buddy married this girl but was killed. Quinton, a bit of a loner, can't get her out of his mind and tries to find her. Along the way he meets Singleton (Jones), an amnesiac ... and you can probably figure out where all of this is going.

The screenplay, believe it or not, is by author Ayn Rand (who wrote the novel "The Fountainhead"). This appears to be her only screenplay. Anyway, in revisiting "Love Letters," I was struck immediately by something that bothered me when I initially watched the film: the accents, or lack of them. This film takes place in Great Britain, and all of the characters are British -- except for Singleton, who is Canadian. Apparently just telling us this was enough for the filmmakers, as the actors range from having British accents to none at all. This film could be set in the Indiana countryside rather than in Europe.

In addition, what struck me this time around was the amount of time required to get into the story. The first half hour is spent on setting up the plot. If you don't have patience, you may give up on this film, because it seems to crawl. And the coincidences in this film begin to mount. In particular, Quinton's aunt/great aunt (can't remember at the moment) dies and leaves him her cottage, which happens to be 10 miles from where his buddy's girlfriend lived! How convenient.

Then there's the friend of Quinton's brother named Dilly who seems to know exactly what Quinton is looking for and initially passes along mysterious warnings about his search for the girl.

But, finally, after about a half hour, we meet Singleton. And with that appears Jones, who is a like a breath of fresh air. Lovely and full of life, she radiates charm.

In fact, I was rather surprised at myself for being drawn into this obvious romantic drama during its second half. Jones and Cotten are such an appealing pair that you really want them to triumph, although there's little doubt that they will. Yet they make you forget the clanking plot mechanics.

Their performances also bring up an age-old question: Is it easier to give a great performance with great material or with lesser material? I don't know the answer, but here's proof of two good actors elevating their material several notches, which could not be easy. In fact, Jones received her third consecutive Oscar nomination for this role.

The film was released by Paramount, with both Jones and Cotten on loan from David Selznick. Selznick, in his usual way, gave numerous notes, criticisms and unwanted advice on what to do with his stars to producer Hal Wallis and director William Dieterle. I'm sure Selznick took credit for how Jones glows in this film, regardless of whether he's to thank. Add in a lovely score from Victor Young and "Love Letters" did what everyone wanted -- it turned a profit at the box office.

"Love Letters" will never be a well-loved classic. But I was surprised at how fond I remain of this film, in spite of its shortcomings. It provides a comfy afternoon at the movies if you're willing to go along for the ride, and sometimes that's all a classic movie lover needs.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Audrey of the Month

I promise to post a new review this weekend.

Until then ... because of my countdown in December, I didn't run my Audrey of the Month photo. But she's back this month, looking chic and warm -- much warmer than me. Darn these Midwest winters! Her main home was in Switzerland. I'd rather be cold in Switzerland (much better scenery) than here. Oh well ... spring isn't THAT far away ...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! I'm still recovering from my December marathon of my favorite actresses from the 1940s. Trying to keep up with the blog postings, work, fit in Christmas and deal with a family emergency left me exhausted.

However, I'll be back soon with more posts. Inspired by my list, this month I'll discuss films from the 1940s featuring actresses of the era -- some on my list, some not. Also, I'll put up a poll to find out who your favorite actress is from the 1940s.

I had planned a longer Oscar-related idea for February, but given the effort of my recent countdown, I'm going to scale it back. Plus, the Winter Olympics will be taking place -- and I'm an Olympics junkie, so I won't be watching many films during this time.

As always, I love to hear your comments, so keep them coming!

Friday, January 1, 2010

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #1

I recently read a description of Barbara Stanwyck in a reference book that stated she "was neither a great actress nor did she ever give a bad performance."

I'll agree with the latter portion of that statement, as Stanwyck -- even in a lesser film -- gives it her all. But as for her not being a great actress, that's just crazy talk. Think of her range, particularly during the 1940s -- intense drama, screwball comedy, film noir -- and how she excelled in all of them. The great writer/director Preston Sturges said that he barely had to direct her in "The Lady Eve" because her instincts were so good.

Stanwyck is endlessly fascinating. Respected as a professional, loved by fans, she is my favorite actress of the 1940s.

Oddly enough, I arrived late to the Stanwyck fan club. It wasn't until I began to watch more of her films and revisit some I had already seen that I could see how immense her talent was. During the 1930s, it seems like she was always playing the hard-working, defiant working class girl. She honed her craft, built a solid reputation and started earning better roles. Her first Oscar nod for "Stella Dallas" in 1937 validated this hard work, and she hit her peak during the 1940s.

This holiday season, Turner Classic Movies showed "Remember the Night" from 1940, featuring Stanwyck as a shoplifter and Fred MacMurray (shamefully underrated as an actor by many people) as a lawyer who slowly falls for her the Christmas holidays. Written by Sturges, the film is being positioned by TCM as a new holiday classic. While I think the film just misses being great, it's certainly a fine film that has held up well, with the two stars making it worthwhile.

The next year was a banner one for Stanwyck and showcased her versatility. In Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," she plays Ann Mitchell, a cynical reporter whose "creation" is a nobody (Gary Cooper). He threatens suicide to protest what's wrong with society. This wordy but well-crafted story features fine pairing of the stars and the Capra touch.

The two stars are even better in the comedy "Ball of Fire," in which Cooper plays a straight-laced professor working on an encyclopedia. For an entry on slang, he ends up meeting Stanwyck's nightclub performer Sugarpuss O'Shea (love that name!), and she begins to loosen the stodgy guy up. This amusing twist on Snow White is pure fun, even if the slang of 1941 is outdated today. Another Oscar nomination came her way for "Ball of Fire," although it should have been for her other 1941 release "The Lady Eve."

In this one, she plays a con artist who meets millionaire Henry Fonda (above) on a cruise ship and sets out to win him and his money, realizing that she really does love him. Written and directed by Sturges, "Eve" allows Stanwyck to showcase all of her skills. Witness an early sequence, in which she uses her compact mirror to watch the other women on the ship try to meet Fonda in the dining room. Her running commentary is a sheer delight, delivered perfectly, and the ends by showing how she manages to succeed where others could not. Then she's flirty and funny as she lures Fonda down to her stateroom. Later in the film, she has a fine dramatic moment when she realizes she's losing what she really wants. How she shifts her emotions in the matter of seconds is delicate and moving. Finally she has great fun when exacting revenge, and it's just as much fun for the audience to watch -- plus she has one moment when she enters a room and looks absolutely dazzling. It's a great, great film worth watching over and over again.

Her material over the next few years wasn't the best, but she again demonstrated range in the saga "The Great Man's Lady," in which she ages to 100, and has some fun in "Lady of Burlesque."

Then came an iconic role for Stanwyck -- Phyllis Dietrichson in "Double Indemnity." Writer/director Billy Wilder wanted her for the role, and when she hesitated, he reportedly asked her, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" Stanwyck took the part, donned a blond wig and nailed the role of a lonely wife who lures Fred MacMurray (above and at his best) into knocking off her husband for the insurance money.

Stanwyck gets to be vulnerable, conniving, seductive -- a lethal combination in a brilliant performance. Key sequences include the one where she and MacMurray first meet, and their verbal volleys are like foreplay, while she feigns disinterest while clearly trying to get under his skin. Another is her teary confession to MacMurray of how her husband treats her. She turns cold and determined when it's time to carry out their plan. Again, it's great stuff.

I applaud Stanwyck for doing a 180 and making her next appearance in the comedic "Christmas in Connecticut." This film sets itself up nicely and has a great supporting cast, although the plot turns ridiculous toward the end. Regardless, Stanwyck is a joy to watch as Elizabeth Lane, a home and garden columnist who can't cook or keep house. She's clearly having fun and helping the audience to the same.

Her work again is uneven during the next few years. "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" is a well-made melodrama in which she plays a ruthless woman in a worthless marriage to an alcoholic who carries her secret. She plays opposite Humphrey Bogart in "The Two Mrs. Carrolls," a sometimes gripping story of a man who murders his wives.

But then came my favorite performance of hers -- as Leona Stevenson in "Sorry, Wrong Number." Without doubt it's a tour-de-force, in which Stanwyck plays a pampered invalid who overhears on her phone two men plotting a murder. She tries to report it but slowly realizes she herself may be in danger. First off, Stanwyck is the star, and she's onscreen most of the time. Second, she's in bed nearly the entire time, so her performance comes from the waist up. Third, Leona is not a likable character, and yet Stanwyck must create someone the audience can care about -- which she amazingly does. It's brilliant work, and why she didn't win an Oscar for this is beyond me.

It's a credit to Stanwyck that while her movie career faltered in the 1950s, she kept working, turning to TV during the 1960s and winning several Emmy awards.

But it's during the 1940s that she hit her stride, turning in so many memorable performances and willing to take chances. She's wonderful to watch, and I'll always be a fan.