Sunday, March 28, 2010

Off to 'Arizona'

"In Old Arizona" is a curious one for film buffs who like the first wave of sound films. Released in 1929, its best asset today is Warner Baxter, who plays the Cisco Kid and won an early Oscar for it.

Much like "The Broadway Melody" was touted as the first all talking, all singing and all dancing movie, "In Old Arizona" is considered the first sound western. Considering how cumbersome early sound equipment was, confining scenes to small spaces in order to capture dialogue, the technology seems like a bad match to the western genre, which should be filled with sweeping vistas and outdoor action sequences.

"In Old Arizona" tries, but it ultimately is done in by this early technology, with too many static scenes and not enough action.

The Cisco Kid is a Robin Hood of the West, a man who will hold up stagecoaches but not hurt any civilians. He is wanted by those in charge but well-liked by the people. The story centers on Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) charged with finding the Cisco Kid, who hides out with his girlfriend Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess), unaware that she's willing to betray him for the reward money and the love of Sgt. Dunn.

As with "Alibi," an early gangster movie that I blogged about last year, "In Old Arizona" takes advantage of the new sound technology and throws in as much music and noise as possible. There's too much music here, but to audiences it must have been a treat. The same goes for the bits of humor -- perhaps the ability to verbalize comedy was considered on par with the addition of music, but it doesn't always fit into the story.

The film starts off promising, but it really gets bogged down by the lack of action and a shift in focus from the Cisco Kid to Tonia Maria's shenanigans. It doesn't help that she is an annoying character and Burgess' performance is equally annoying. Perhaps Burgess was better suited to the silent screen -- seen but not heard. She doesn't convince as Hispanic and she's not as alluring as the story wants us to believe.

So, what is there to recommend? First and foremost Warner Baxter. Raoul Walsh was to direct and star in the film but was in a terrible car accident when a jackrabbit went through the windshield and he lost an eye (or eyesight in an eye, depending on what you read). Baxter was tapped and made his talking film debut. What's great is that while his character can be oversized, the performance is not. It has a relaxed, modern feel to it, and he is convincing throughout. He apparently enjoyed playing this character tremendously and ended up doing so at least twice more -- "The Cisco Kid" in 1931 and "Return of the Cisco Kid" in 1939.

I also like some of the pre-code dialogue and the double-entendres, such as when the men are comparing the size of their "guns." It's definitely worth a chuckle.

"In Old Arizona" was popular with audiences and the Academy, which was only in its second year. The movie earned Oscar nods for best picture, actor, director, writing and cinematography. Considering there were only seven categories, that's pretty impressive. Baxter, the only winner from the film, would go on to have a productive career during the 1930s and star in a 1940s serial as the Crime Doctor.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Audrey of the Month

Shame on me for forgetting my Audrey of the Month in February! Can I ever be forgiven???

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I'll Take 'Manhattan'

I recently was asked by a friend to write about any actor from the 1930s. So, here is a film that stars two popular actors from that decade -- Clark Gable and William Powell.

And some people may know the significance of this film, which I'll reveal at the end. Beyond that, this dated yet enjoyable movie features a top cast that includes Myrna Loy.

In today's movie parlance, this might be called a "bromance." That's because the story centers on a deep life-long friendship between Jim and Blackie. Within the first 10 minutes, the two boys -- unrelated to each other -- are orphaned after a devastating boat fire, adopted by one of the survivors, and then orphaned a second time when their new dad is beaten to death!

That's a lot for anyone to bear, but the two boys manage, and the film fast-forwards to adulthood, where Blackie (Gable) is a racketeer and Jim (Powell) is a clean-cut district attorney. Their paths cross again, and the friendship is rekindled. When Eleanor (Loy) leaves Blackie, she ends up with Jim, although this doesn't break apart the men's deep friendship. Then, as expected, Jim and Blackie are forced to deal with a murder case that pits them against each other.

This type of story -- childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of the law -- was told often in the 1930s, and perhaps it was this film that began that trend. Regardless, the plot seems dated. But that doesn't take away from the movie's enjoyment, thanks to W.S. Van Dyke's deft direction, producer David Selznick's impeccable powers for knowing what works, and that magnificent cast in residence at MGM.

By this point, Gable was an established star, popular and handsome. It was old hat for him to play a rogue with charm and have the audience like him. This was Powell's first movie at MGM, and if Jim is a little too good, Powell is clearly a likable presence on screen. This was also his first on-screen pairing with Loy, and how fortuitous. They would appear in "The Thin Man," released later in 1934, and it became a smash. In fact, the two stars appeared so comfortable onscreen that people through they must be married offscreen (not true). The two ultimately making 14 films together. For Loy, after nearly a decade in film, this movie helped push her toward the top as one of the decade's most popular leading ladies.

At this point in her career, Loy did have one important admiring fan, which brings us to the film's significance. John Dillinger liked Loy, which is why he went to the Biograph in Chicago to see this movie. Afterward, he was gunned down outside of the theater.

Finally, let's not forget the young actor who plays Blackie as a boy -- Mickey Rooney. Yes, the idea of Rooney playing Gable as a child may seem humorous today, but it was the start of a fruitful career for Rooney at MGM.

The script, which surprisingly won an Oscar for best original story, contains some unnecessary comic relief, although it does make some interesting choices in regards to what characters believe to be right and wrong. And I like how the friendship between Jim and Blackie remains strong despite the many obstacles facing them.

Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed "Manhattan Melodrama," a popular film in its day. At the very least, it's a chance to enjoy an impeccable cast in a film from MGM's heyday.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movies Unlimited Reprints a Post

Hey guys, I was pleasantly surprised recently when contacted by Movies Unlimited to reprint my posting on "Gilda." I said "yes," so check it out on their web site. What a nice compliment!

Upcoming Film Class

Just wanted to quickly mention that I'm offering a class in April and early May called "The Oscars: 1958." If you live in the western suburbs of Chicago and are interested, send an e-mail and and I'll get more info to you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

And the Real Winners from 1944 Are ...

First off, thank you to everyone who took my poll. The winning movie for 1944, according to you, would have been "Laura," a wonderful and deserving selection. You have good taste!

As for the real winners from 1944 (and what a great photo from Life magazine above) were "Going My Way" for best picture, Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald for best actor and supporting actor from "Going My Way," Ingrid Bergman for best actress for "Gaslight," and Ethel Barrymore for best supporting actress for "None But the Lonely Heart."

"Going My Way" had a great run -- the top box office draw of the year and winner of six Oscars (the others were for best director, original story and the song "Swinging on a Star"). But before the naysaying begins, also note that "Going My Way" won the New York Film Critics award that year (with "Hail the Conquering Hero" as the runner-up).

I do like "Going My Way," very much so. It may not have the artistry of some of the others, and its episodic nature may not be as compelling as the strong narratives in "Double Indemnity" or "Laura." But its gentle charms are many, and it's a film you really need to think about within the context of 1944. This type of reassuring fare meant a lot to audiences. My mother said it was the first film she saw in a theater and remembers it fondly. In fact, a few years ago we watched it together, and I'm really glad we did. I know she enjoyed it.

If you want me to do a full-blown review of the movie, let me know. I'd be happy to oblige. Otherwise, I'll wrap up my salute to the 1944 best picture race and thank everyone for tuning in. It's been fun!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

1944: And My Winner Is ...

The Kid in the Front Row just left a comment on my last post about how nothing is better than "Double Indemnity." When it comes to 1944, I must agree.

Taken from James Cain's book of the same name and directed by Billy Wilder, "Double Indemnity" tells the lurid tale of insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) taking up with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money. Insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is one roadblock that could keep this plan from working.

For Wilder, one of my all-time favorites, this is only his third directing effort! And yet his vision of a film noir set up that genre for the rest of the decade. One reason this film works so well is the clarity with which the tale is told. There are no extraneous plot elements, while the characters are fully created and presented. Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the screenplay, and the dialogue has that famous Chandler touch -- tough, funny, rapid-fire repartee. And the dialogue is set up with precision.

Consider the scene when Walter visits the Dietrichson home, hoping to speak with Mr. Dietrichson but meeting Phyllis instead. Walter first sees her at the top of her staircase, where she's wrapped in nothing but a towel, having been out sunbathing. After changing, Phyllis walks down the stairs, and the camera focuses on her ankle and ankle bracelet, which clearly attracts Walter. Then comes the charged exchanges between them, concluding with this gem:

PHYLLIS: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
PHYLLIS: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
WALTER: Sure, only I'm getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.
PHYLLIS: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
WALTER: How fast was I going, officer?
PHYLLIS: I'd say about ninety.
WALTER: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
PHYLLIS: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
WALTER: Suppose it doesn't take.
PHYLLIS: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
WALTER: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
PHYLLIS: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
WALTER: That tears it.

But no one's fooled into thinking Phyllis isn't loving the attention. If Walter too easily conveys his thoughts, Phyllis is the opposite, carefully revealing just enough to get what she wants. The dialogue throughout is this good.

There's also a brilliant framing device on the film. At the beginning, Walter staggers into his empty office at night, pulls out his Dictaphone and begins telling his tale in flashback. We hear his thoughts throughout, and he explains why he fell for this women when she clearly is up to no good. He stopped thinking with his brain, yet his thoughts on getting tangled up with her helps us understand his motives.

Their relationship is built on lust and then greed, clearly two ingredients that will lead to failure. Yet it's a complex relationship. He may be making the plans, but she has a will of iron. At first you may think she's out of his league but it turns out to be the opposite.

Equally important to the story is Barton Keyes, a moral compass in this story, whose job is to keep people from making false claims.

This great story needed great actors to make it work, and the three leads are inspired. Wilder wasn't afraid to take changes. For Phyllis, why not choose a blond actress rather than give Stanwyck a wig? Because of what she brings to the film. That first shot of Stanwyck at the top of the stairs, blond and wearing only a towel, establishes her as the femme fatale. But because it's Stanwyck, you know this character isn't going to be a dumb blond. Stanwyck plays smart, tough, independent-minded women who aren't always liked by the audience, and Wilder wanted people to instinctively pick up on these traits from the beginning. He was right and got a great actress to deliver brilliance.

Wilder could see beyond MacMurray's leading man looks and seems to be the only director to effective tap into his dark side, both here and in "The Apartment." How ironic that these are MacMurray's two best roles. Audiences at the time may have been shocked by this change, but hopefully they were equally impressed. Robinson get to play the good guy here and needed to be as equally tough as his co-stars, which he is.

I hate getting too specific about the plot elements in "Double Indemnity." I want people who have not seen the film or who haven't watched it in some time to rent it and be surprised by it. Because, after nearly 70 years, it's still brilliant.

And choosing this as the top film of 1944 is saying something, considering the number of other fine films made during this year. While "Double Indemnity" was up for best picture, actress, director, screenplay, cinematography, sound and score, it didn't win a thing. Perhaps it was too dark for war-weary audiences who wanted pleasant diversions, and that's reflected in the winner, which I'll discuss later this week when I review the actually winners from 1944.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

1944: And the Nominees Are ...

In the last column, I looked at five additional best picture nominees from 1944 if the list had been kept at 10. Below are the actual five best picture nominees from that year:

Double Indemnity: Billy Wilder's brilliant film noir has insurance man Fred MacMurray taking up with housewife Barbara Stanwyck and plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money.

Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, from James Cain's book. Cain reportedly thought the screenplay was stronger than his book, high praise indeed. The dialogue crackles, and Wilder gets terrific performances from his stars -- MacMurray, who was never better; Stanwyck, who was reticent to take the role before Wilder challenged her by questioning whether she was a good enough actress; and Edward G. Robinson, great as the insurance honcho who smells a rat. In terms of the Oscars, the only shame is that MacMurray wasn't nominated for best actor. He certainly deserved it -- but a freak loophole in the voting may have been the culprit (see "Going My Way" below).

Gaslight: MGM's drama/thriller stars Ingrid Bergman as a Victorian-era wife who is slowly going mad, unaware that it may not be her fault. It's a glossy affair, lushly appointed in the usual MGM way, and director George Cukor capably directs.

Although I like the film, I always felt it was a bit obvious, with no subtlety to many of the characters -- they are either good or bad. Bergman's level of intensity seems to be a few notches above everyone else's, although Angela Lansbury is fine in her film debut as a cockney maid, and as a result she landed her first Oscar nomination.

Going My Way: This gentle, episodic film about a new priest being sent to an aging church was the equivalent of comfort food for war-weary 1944 audiences. It was the #1 box office hit of the year and it had Bing Crosby, the country's #1 singer, performing "Swinging on a Star," which would become a monster #1 hit. That's a lot of #1's.

The interplay between Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, the parish's aging priest, is priceless. Fitzgerald's performance was so well-liked that it was a cinch he'd receive an Oscar nomination. But in which category? Well, he received enough votes to place him in both lead and supporting, which was a real headscratcher. The Academy rules were rewritten to prevent this from happening again, but the nominations remained, and his lead nod probably knocked out Fred MacMurray for "Double Indemnity."

Since You Went Away: David Selznick, who hadn't produced a film since "Rebecca" in 1940, was motivated to make this film for two big reasons. First, he wanted to contribute to the war effort in some way, and this homefront drama -- with Claudette Colbert holding her family together while her husband is away at war -- was his way of keeping up morale. Second, he wanted a vehicle for his discovery, Jennifer Jones, who had hit big in "The Song of Bernadette" at 20th Century Fox. While Jones was a supporting player, she had a large-enough role as one of Colbert's daughters, with a teenage Shirley Temple as the other daughter.

Perhaps this film oversimplifies life at home and went for emotion rather than realism, but the production hit all of the right notes, with a fine cast, many memorable scenes and a lovely score from Max Steiner. Selznick obviously knew what he was doing, as this film was one of the year's top moneymakers behind "Going My Way."

Wilson: Producer Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox was obsessed with this historical biography of President Woodrow Wilson. He felt it was the best movie he ever made, and he poured millions into its making, going for historical accuracy and unafraid to tackle political issues.

He succeeded in making a fine movie, and Alexander Knox nails the title role. However, while the critics praised the movie, the public was less enthusiastic, and Zanuck's dream project lost money.

So why were these five films nominated? It's a combination of many factors, and I can only guess at the reasons: the runaway popularity of "Going My Way," the popularity of "Since You Went Away" coupled with Selznick's ability to sell himself and his film, Zanuck's respected position in Hollywood and his power to influence voters into backing his pet project, the overall excellence of "Double Indemnity," and MGM's powerful push for its Oscar-bait drama.

But if I was nominating five movies today, what would they be? Hindsight always provides perspective and it helps you get over Academy biases. For example, "Meet Me in St. Louis" was also a big moneymaker in 1944, but it failed to get a nomination, partly because MGM was pushing "Gaslight" and partly because the Academy overlooked most musicals. It's intriguing that the very next year the popular "Anchors Aweigh" made it into the best picture lineup, almost as if to say "Whoops! Sorry about overlooking 'St. Louis!' "

If I was selecting five top films from 1944 -- a very difficult task -- I would go with the following, a mixture of excellence and personal favorites: "Double Indemnity," "Laura," "Lifeboat," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Since You Went Away."

But that's just me. What do you think? If you had to pick five nominees, what would you select? Leave me a comment listing your top five.

Then, take the Oscar poll. I'm putting up my list of 10 -- the five actual nominees and the five additional nominees from my last column. On Sunday, March 7, I'll review what film I would select as the best from 1944.

Oscar Picks: 2009

OK, I can't let an Oscar season go by without making my selections. As AwardsDaily says, No Guts, No Glory.

Plus, an outfit in Great Britain called Voucher Codes asked me to do a post on my choices as part of an Oscar predictions contest they are running.

Frankly, I'm much better at reviewing past Oscar contests than keeping up with the current race. And I haven't seen everything yet. But, what the heck? So, here are my choices:

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'nique
Best Director: Kathryn Bigalow
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Foreign Language Film: El Secreto de Sus Ojos
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Best Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Sound Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Original Score: Up
Best Original Song: The Weary Kind

What do you think?

Monday, March 1, 2010

1944: And Then There Were Five

In 1943, there were 10 best picture nominees. In 1944, there were five.

And five has been the magic number until this year, when the race was increased back to 10. But what about 1944? If 10 movies were still to be considered, did five additional worthy contenders exist?

In short: Absolutely, without question. Below I select five films overlooked by the Academy in 1944 but deserving of best picture nominations. In fact, if these were the five nominees, it would have been a strong year.

Hail the Conquering Hero: Of all the World War II movies out this year, I would go with this Preston Sturges comedy about a man whose chronic hayfever earns him a rejection from enlisted duty. Since his father was a decorated war hero, he feels like a failure. When he tells his story to a group of enlisted men, they decided to escort him home as a hero -- and proceedings begin to get out of hand.

Some may prefer Sturges' other 1944 release, the wild "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." But I'll take "Hero" because of its big heart. It's about what it takes to be a hero and whether you need to be wearing a uniform to be one. Eddie Bracken beautifully plays the title role, and this small town with Preston's usual array of quirky characters are endlessly endearing. It's Sturges most poignant film.

Laura: Director Otto Preminger's exquisite mystery has everything going for it: a nifty story told in flashback, memorable characters, great acting, atmosphere to spare and one of the era's most recognizable music scores.

Gene Tierney (above) gives a breakout performance as the title character, whose murder is being investigated by Dana Andrews. Her friends, including Vincent Price (above) remember Laura in flashback as Andrews reconstructs the time leading to her death. Clifton Webb's sterling performance as a cynical columnist earned him a well-deserved Oscar nod as best supporting actor. Preminger himself received a nomination for best director, but this enduring film somehow was left off the short list.

Lifeboat: Like Preminger, director Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for best director for this story of shipwreck survivors adrift on a lifeboat during WWII. The cast of characters includes a journalist and a Nazi, and how Hitchcock manages to keep this drama moving on this one tiny set is a feat in itself.

But the film is much more than a gimmick. With a fine cast, headed by Tallulah Bankhead (was she ever better in Hollywood?), John Hodiak, William Bendix, Mary Anderson and Hume Cronyn, the story unfolds with characters revealing more and more about each other. It's a one-of-a-kind story told by a master.

Meet Me in St. Louis: It's my favorite musical of the 1940s, a joyous series of episodes about the Smith family in St. Louis and the time leading up to the 1904 World's Fair. Director Vincente Minnelli brings his eye for detail to every frame of this film, and the magnificent sets and costumes are lushly photographed in color.

But its joys come in the family interactions. Judy Garland, dazzling as ever, and her sisters, including the scene-stealing Margaret O'Brien (above with Garland) go through what may seem trite but becomes winning in Minnelli's hands. Love gained, love lost, holidays celebrated and family spats are all part of this fun. The now-classic musical score includes "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and it all comes together in a film that represents MGM at its best.

To Have and Have Not: On the success of "Casablanca" the previous year comes Howard Hawks' take on how to win the war when you don't want to be involved. Bogart is a tough skipper who reluctantly becomes involved with the Resistance. Lauren Bacall, in her film debut, captivates as a perfect love interest for the hard-boiled Bogart.

The film is equally as much fun to watch them together (anyone want to whistle?) as it is to follow the plot. But it all unfolds under Hawks' dependable skill and the stars' charisma.

There's no doubt that these five films would make a terrific best picture lineup. But all were overlooked! And in a few days, I'll discuss the five films that were nominated and post a poll for people to make their own choice.