Friday, June 25, 2010

Exotic Ports of Call on the Studio Lot

MGM set sail in 1935 with "China Seas," an exotic trip from Hong Kong to Singapore -- although no one left the back lot. Still, the stars were out in full force, and producer Irving Thalberg kept everything moving full steam ahead, which keeps this film from capsizing.

OK, how many bad boat metaphors can I use in one lead?

Actually, think "Grand Hotel" meets "Mutiny on the Bounty." While it's not as good as either of these films, "China Seas" works in spite of itself. The stars look fabulous, the dialogue clips along at a fast pace, the action scenes are exciting, and the audience can just sit back and forget the fact that story is pretty flimsy.

It's worth noting that Thalberg had produced "Grand Hotel" in 1932, which featured for an unheard-of five top-line actors and multiple story lines going at once. The formula works even today, and in the years following "Grand Hotel's" success, MGM wasn't afraid to tap into its vast acting pool and bring together that much talent for a film. "Dinner at Eight" from 1933 is a good example, and this film follows suit with three stars and story lines to spare. Thalberg knew that star power can detract from lesser material.

The movie opens by introducing all of the various characters and plotlines -- and there are TONS of plotlines, big and small, for a 90-minute film. It's like every nook and cranny of the ship is filled with some intrigue. You've got Captain Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), arriving somewhat drunk yet feared by his crew for being an unrelenting taskmaster. He's broken off with the earthy Dolly (Jean Harlow) in port, although she's decided to book passage to be near him. He then runs into Sybil (Rosalind Russell), a classy woman he befriended years ago, and he pursues a romance with her. In retaliation, Dolly works with Jamesy MacArdle (Wallace Beery), who is in cahoots with a band of pirates wanting to steal a secret gold shipment that's on board.

These are the main plotlines. Then you have Davids (Lewis Stone), a fallen captain detested by the others for being a coward who Gaskell hires to be third officer; a female passenger with fake pearls she's trying to hide from her husband and a man blackmailing her; and McCaleb (Robert Benchley) as an author who's constantly inebriated. A few other minor characters are around for color and you've got to keep track of a lot.

The plotting gets to be too much at first, and the romantic triangle isn't all that intriguing. Once you get to the action, though, the movie picks up. A typhoon and a pirate raid provide plenty of excitement, and the second half of the film is really quite fun.

Plus there's plenty of focus on the stars. Harlow plays the dame -- typecast once again. But she does it with so much energy that it's hard to resist. The film cuts awkwardly at times to her closeups that clearly look like they were shot at a different time than the rest of the scenes, almost saying "here's the gratuitous star closeup for her fans." But what would a Harlow film be without a few gorgeous closeups of its star?

Gable looks even more handsome and dashing than usual. His charisma is fully in use here -- he gets to be hero, lover and tough guy. Plus there's a chance to see him in an undershirt and a sleek black knit long-sleeve shirt during the typhoon that ups the swoon factor.

Beery, like Harlow, plays the same type of character in his films. Usually they are earthy or men who have made something of themselves but are rarely polished. There's no exception here. Gable, Harlow and Beery were all established stars at this point, and MGM knew it and draws on that star power here.

On the other hand, Russell was just beginning her long movie career. For anyone who's enjoyed the force of her comedic skills or the strength of her dramatic talents, she's simply playing a throwaway role here -- the love interest, and one who is secondary to Harlow. Russell doesn't have much to do, but I don't think MGM knew what to make of her yet. Thankfully, that would change.

During the past year, I've been watching a lot of MGM films from the 1930s, and I'm enjoying seeing how the great studio managed to turn out so many likable films, whether they were truly great or simply enjoyable like this one. MGM had the stars and instructed its directors and cameramen to make their stars look amazing, even if their characters weren't glamorous. This is a film where the studio's know-how is on full display.

Or, really, it's Thalberg's touch at work once again. This was one of his first films after a long hiatus from the studio due to his health. He was on the "China Seas" set constantly, giving advice to the actors, until director Tay Garnett confronted him and pointed out that Thalberg was undermining his authority. Thalberg immediately stepped back and thanked Garnett for being open and honest about it. This is one of the stories that makes me appreciate Thalberg. He was a genius, but he also tried to treat people with respect.

So, with "China Seas" you've got MGM in the 1930s with Thalberg as producer and Gable, Harlow and Beery as stars. What's not to like about this crew?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Silent Treasure Trove

I don't know if anyone saw this recent story, but several silent films thought to be lost were found in New Zealand, including the only known copy of a 1927 John Ford film called "Upstream," a film directed by and starring Mabel Normand, and a Clara Bow period drama.

Read about it here

When the estimate is less than 20 percent of all silent films survive, it's always worth celebrating one of these rare finds. I am sure once they are preserved, they will show up on Turner Classic Movies -- something to look forward to!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Audrey of the Month

I'm feeling in a "Funny Face" kind of mood, so here's a shot from one of my all-time favorite Audrey moments. I've been to Paris once, and I went to the Louvre Museum mainly to see the Winged Victory and imagine Audrey walking down the stairs. S'Wonderful!

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Light 'Heart'

I recently read Marion Davies' autobiography, "The Times We Had." It was a light read; apparently she had recorded her recollections and then never went back to review them. The book was subsequently published after her death, and it does lack the reflection and perspective that could have made it great.

Still, I was struck by her own continual assertion that she was no actress. I would counter by saying she had a vibrant screen presence and was an adept comedic talent, on display in the slight 1934 comedy "Peg O' My Heart." She's clearly having fun, and she alone nearly makes you forget that the simplistic plot just kind of sits there.

Davies plays Peg O'Connell, who lives in a small Irish fishing village with her loving father, Pat (J. Farrell MacDonald). One day, Sir Gerald Markham (Onslow Stevens) arrives to inform Pat that Peg has inherited her grandfather's estate. This is her mother's father who never liked Pat. However, there's a catch: Before receiving any money, Peg must go live at the estate in England with her unknown relatives for three years so she can be schooled as a lady. Also, Pat must never have contact with Peg again.

Anyone can guess where the plot is going and how it's going to work out. The relatives are snooty and treat Peg as a country bumpkin. Peg moons over Sir Gerald and misses her father terribly. I can't say the other actors really stand out, although MacDonald and Davies have some touching father/daughter moments. Nor does the plot really go for the "fish out of water" laughs that it could easily get.

Still, Davies sparkles as Peg. Her longtime companion, William Randolph Hearst, felt Marion should have been nominated for an Oscar. I wouldn't go that far. But her wide-eyed girlish innocence smooths over some of the story's corniness. She even gets a chance to sing and dance.

Perhaps Davies never made one really great classic film, but she herself should never have dismissed her long career, because there are several comic winners in her filmography. "Peg O' My Heart" is one of her better sound picture efforts, and it made money for MGM.

It wasn't long before she left MGM for Warner Brothers, and after a short tenure there, she ended her career. Her book sometimes reads as if she wasn't aware of how lucky she was, living a lifestyle of wealth that most people then or now will ever know. And yet she has moments that clearly indicate that she was aware of her good fortune. I just wish her memoir had been stronger, much like I wish this movie's story was, too.

Still, and I've said this before about movies that just miss the mark, there are far worse films out there. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, "Peg O' My Heart" and Davies may provide enough sunny warmth to cheer you up.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A 'Tale' Worth Enjoying

It opens with Charles Dickens' classic line "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and the film "A Tale of Two Cities" unfolds as a classic itself.

This Christmas day release in 1935 is a literate and compelling version of Dickens' story. It is one Dickens book I had not read, so I was only marginally aware of the story before watching this film. By the end I was hooked and wanting to actually read the book.

Starring Ronald Colman, this version was the last film produced by David Selznick before he left MGM to form Selznick International Pictures. Selznick had already produced a highly successful version of Dickens' "David Copperfield." And, during this first decade of talking pictures, the studios were pulling the classics off the shelf and either filming or remaking them as sound movies. In fact, following "Copperfield, Selznick had produced "Anna Karenina" before tackling "Cities" -- a literary movie hat trick.

Set in London and Paris against the backdrop of the French revolution, "A Tale of Two Cities" centers on Sydney Carton (Colman), a disillusioned lawyer who ends up defending French immigrant Charles Darnay (Donald Woods); becoming enamored of Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan), whom Darnay eventually weds; and then coming to Darnay's rescue once more in France.

That's it in a nutshell, although much more is taking place. The movie deftly presents the story without sagging and easily sustains its two hours-plus running time. Director Jack Conway, a dependable craftsman, helms with confidence. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, who would later produce/direct such horror classics as "Cat People" at RKO, staged the French revolution scenes.

Some of the scenes are wonderfully created by combining various sources. For example, the guillotine in Paris sequence (above) relies on an actual set, glass painting and matte work to create striking, painting-like images. Other scenes inside a wine shop required intricate lighting sources to capture both the interior and exterior actors all at the same time.

It's also worth noting that the story is brutal, and while the Production Code dictated what could and could not be shown, the story doesn't shy away from gruesome moments, even if they aren't shown on-screen.

A fine cast is headed by Colman (above). Sydney Carton was one of his favorite film roles, and he even shaved off his famous mustache for it. Colman easily made the transition to sound films and was immensely popular throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. He plays the tortured Carton with poise, registering the right amount of self-loathing and determination to do good. Colman quietly and confidently carries this film.

Allan brings a nobility to her role, while the supporting cast brings together many notable players from MGM's stable, such as the always-delightful Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross, Basil Rathbone clearly relishing his role as the despicable Marquis St. Evremonde, and the excellent Henry Walthall as Dr. Monette. Stage star Blanche Yurka makes a memorable splash in her sound movie debut as the formidable Madame DeFarge.

"A Tale of Two Cities" is the type of film that wouldn't be made today unless undertaken by an independent company or changed/modernized/glamorized/actionized in some way to be more "relevant" to current moviegoers. Most likely it will receive lavish made-for-TV treatment as a movie or miniseries.

But this version is a reminder that a big-screen film can be both literate and entertaining, made by studios and producers who knew how to combine these to create a quality product. We all know that Selznick knew how to turn a book into a film, and "A Tale of Two Cites," which earned Oscar nominations for best picture and best film editing, can proudly stand as a classic of 1930s moviemaking.