Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fred and Ginger: 'The Gay Divorcee'

After reviewing “Flying Down to Rio” last fall, I decided to re-watch all of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies in sequence and blog about them during the next year.

I love their movies – the magnificent musical numbers in both song and dance (which, if you think about it, probably comprises about one tenth of each film), their sense of style and fun, and the fact that no duo has ever been this consistently good since. So, this isn’t really a chore; I’m indulging myself, and you get to watch (or roll your eyes!).

My favorite reference book on these films is “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book” by Arlene Croce. She breaks down each film by plot and dance.

It’s worth noting that “The Gay Divorcee” was a first on many levels: the first starring movie for Astaire and Rogers as a duo (“Rio” had them as supporting players); the first to feature regular supporting players, such as the excellent Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore; the first to bring together producer Pan Berman, choreographer Hermes Pan (unbilled in this film) and director Mark Sandrich, who would direct five of their 10 movies; the first to feature a form of the mistaken identity/mix-up plotline that would be come routine in their films; and the first to feature full-length solos by Astaire (he had a brief one in “Rio”).

It also continues a few patterns from “Rio,” including the stylized Art Deco sets that became known as the “black and white” sets, and the big production number to a specific dance craze (in Rio, it was the Carioca; here it’s The Continental).

“The Gay Divorcee” opens in a Paris club with chorus girls using finger-puppet dancers. The movie then pans to Guy Holden (Astaire) and Egbert Fitzgerald (Horton), both with similar finger puppets. Guy, a famed dancer, figures out how to use his quickly, while Egbert, a pampered lawyer, is a bit clueless, which pretty much tells you what you need to know about these characters. When the two men can’t pay their bill, Fred must dance a solo to prove who he is. It’s a quick dance but one that shows off his skills, and it is Astaire’s first solo as a leading man.

When Guy and Egbert return to England, they run into Hortense (Alice Brady) and her niece, Mimi (Rogers). However, they don’t run into them together. Guy ends up causing an incident with Mimi’s dress; Hortense recognizes Egbert as an old beau.

Hortense ends up hiring Egbert, a lawyer, to handle Mimi’s divorce case. The plan is to whisk her away to a seaside resort, where Egbert will hire a man to spend the night in Mimi’s room. The next morning, they will be “discovered,” and the divorce can be put in motion.

Meanwhile, Guy can’t get Mimi out of his mind, unaware that Egbert’s case involves her.

The movie is based upon a stage musical starring Astaire, although much of the music was removed and the plot was rewritten for the film. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” had been a big hit for Astaire, which certainly helped this film.

RKO was taking a big chance with “The Gay Divorcee.” Astaire and Rogers were not proven box office stars, and that’s why you find some fluff in this movie, particularly the size of the supporting roles. RKO wanted to make sure the audience would be entertained in case the Astaire/Rogers pairing didn’t work.

But it did. As Croce astutely wrote in her book, “When one considers that only ten minutes out of the total running time of ‘The Gay Divorcee’ are taken up by the dancing of Astaire alone or with Rogers, the film’s enduring popularity seems more than ever a tribute to the power of what those minutes contain.”

You can see it in the first full number. Outside of the short dance Astaire does in the Paris nightclub, the next number is a magnetic solo, “A Needle in a Haystack.” Here Guy is preparing to find Mimi and dances as he gets ready. He’s up on a chair or catching his hat and umbrella from his valet, and the number ends with him heading out the door. It moves the plot along while being exuberant, creative and full of life. Astaire was probably unlike anyone on film before, and he carries this standard through nearly every solo he put on film throughout his career.

Also, think of this: This number was without a partner, chorus girls, a chorus line or anything else that you might expect from a dance sequence. For an untried movie star, this was revelatory.

Finally, an hour into the film, we get the first Astaire/Rogers number, “Night and Day” (above). He’s in white tie and tails; she’s in a gorgeous simple dress. As the dance builds dramatically, the tension between slowly gives way as he seduces her, finally lowering her onto a seat and offering her a cigarette. There was no need for kissing or sex. Their chemistry is immediate, their dancing done as one.

Two things would improve after this dance. First, some of Rogers’ arm and shoulder moves aren’t nearly as elegant as they would become, and her gait lacks a certain graceful quality. That would change very soon. Second, the sequence has numerous edits and remote camera angles (one shot from under a table, another through window blinds). This too would change soon, as Astaire would insist upon full-body shots and as few edits as possible.

These are minor complaints to a breathtaking number. It’s the number where Astaire and Rogers really click, and it’s solidified not long after with “The Continental” (below), which goes on for nearly 20 minutes. At the beginning of the number, the two look completely at ease with each other as they sing the beginning of the song on a hotel balcony. Then they race down to the dance floor and provide a dance full of joy and fun, even if it isn’t particularly intricate.

The song won an Oscar that year, the first time the Best Song category was contested (it bested “The Carioca” from “Flying Down to Rio”). “The Continental” continues with rows of dancers, moving with precision, changing costumes from all black to all white to a mixture of both. You have revolving doors with girls clad in either black or white twirling inside them. This number may not have the geometric intricacies of a Busby Berkeley number, but it’s far more interesting than the drawn-out “Carioca” number from “Rio.”

Speaking of Berkeley, the first thing that surprised me about seeing “The Gay Divorcee” again is its nod to the famed choreographer and director, one of the innovators of movie musical the year before. The opening number with its rotating platform of pretty women and the finger puppets seems like something from Berkeley, as does Guy’s search for Mimi, in which pictures of pretty women are superimposed over his image of stopping one woman after another in hopes it’s Mimi. A later number, “Let’s K-nock K-neez,” has some geometric choreography (minus the overhead shots) that Berkeley was famous for.

As for that number, it’s played out between Horton and a young teenage ingenue who would become a big box office attraction during World War II – Betty Grable (below with Horton). The number is a bizarre bit, but Horton is so much fun in a role that had to be written as intentionally fussy (I mean, he was nicknamed “Pinky” as a child because he was always toddling around home in pale pink pajamas – what a hoot!). Horton is a great sidekick for Astaire – popular enough to return in two later Astaire/Rogers films.

Eric Blore, playing a waiter, was already in his second Astaire/Rogers film and would appear in three more. Erik Rhodes was making his first ever film appearance as Tonetti and is hilarious as the married family man who takes his job as a for-hire gigolo to help break up marriages. His slogan: “Your wife is safe with Tonetti – he prefers spaghetti.”

Brady can be a handful to watch, but she does give it her all as the flighty Hortense and her timing is expert with such comedic lines with expertise: “There’s nothing different about (men) but their neckties.” After a solid career in silents, she had returned to the stage, only to come back to Hollywood in the 1930s and establish herself as a dependable supporting player. This was her only appearance in an Astaire/Rogers film.

But RKO needn’t have worried about padding the film. Astaire and Rogers were a success as a team and marvelous to watch together. They were defining a new style for movie musicals, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. If Astaire was worried about becoming part of another established duo – his stage career had been formed with his sister Adele – he and Rogers were friendly and respectful of each other.

“The Gay Divorcee” may be a little creaky in the story department and heavy on the supporting players, but when the stars are together, it’s glorious. Audiences must have thought so, because the film was a success – and so were Astaire and Rogers. They were on their way.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chaplin's 'Gold Rush' Even Better With CSO

This past Friday night, I had the privilege of attending the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.”

The 1925 silent classic was projected on a screen above the orchestra members, who were seated on stage and provided the score. Conducting was Timothy Brock, a man who has restored several film scores for live performance, including “The Gold Rush,” “Modern Times,” and Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.”

“The Gold Rush” finds Chaplin’s The Little Tramp as a prospector searching for gold. The film begins with a startling recreation of the men snaking up the Chilkoot Pass, all hoping they will be the lucky ones to strike it rich. Then we see the prospector making his way around the jagged mountain cliffs. Even a bear following him can’t take the familiar spring in his step as he twirls his cane.

Meanwhile, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) discovers gold and nearly weeps for joy. However, a massive blizzard forces both the prospector and Big Jim to seek refuge in a cabin occupied by Black Larsen (Tom Murray), who is wanted by the law. As the storm rages on, and the food runs out, the three men (below) grow hungry. Black sets out to find food but ditches the two men to fend for themselves.

Once freed from the cabin, the prospector makes his way into town, penniless, spirits dampened. In the local dance hall he falls for a girl. But Georgia (Georgia Hale) finds him silly and begins to toy with him. The prospector invites Georgia and her friends for a New Year’s Eve supper, and they accept. He’s elated, but they have no intention of attending.

Later, Big Jim, who has been knocked on the head, wanders into town, lost and unable to find his claim on the mountain. He spies the prospector and begs him to take him back to the cabin, from which he’s sure he can find his claim.

“The Gold Rush” is the second feature-length film featuring Chaplin’s The Little Tramp, after the success of “The Kid” in 1921. In between he directed the drama “A Woman of Paris,” a film that only briefly featured himself. Although well-liked by critics, the film failed at the box office and fueled Chaplin’s ambition to do his best on “Rush.”

And did he ever succeed. From the opening shots of the Chilkoot Pass, Chaplin creates a realistic setting. Today it would have been accomplished digitally, because why hire that many people to hike up a snow-covered mountain for what appears on film for a minute or so. Apparently 600 extras were brought into the Sierra Nevadas so Chaplin could film them climbing up the 2,300-foot pass through the snow.

The initial cabin sequence is quite long, and yet there’s so much taking place on what is a small set. There’s a beautifully choreographed bit of hilarity involving a struggle between Big Jim and Black Larsen over a shotgun that’s constantly pointed at prospector. No matter where Chaplin goes in the cabin – up, down, under furniture – the other two inadvertently manage to point the gun at Chaplin the entire time.

Chaplin’s famous shoe-eating scene – as if he’s dining at a fine restaurant – is followed by an equally famous scene of Big Jim thinking that the prospector is a giant chicken. It’s Chaplin in the chicken suit, as no one else could mimic his mannerisms or properly mimic a chicken.

One of my favorite shots comes when the prospector enters the dance hall for the first time. Chaplin is in the foreground, his back is to the camera, and he’s mostly dark while the music and dancing and drinking take place in the background. The way he places his hand on his hip and leans on his cane is a beautiful contrast of weariness and loneliness with the cheerfulness and camaraderie he’s watching.

There are many other classic bits – the dinner roll dancing scene, which apparently was first done by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the 1910s, and the cabin positioned precariously on the ledge of a cliff. What Chaplin always does so well is mix that comedy with great emotion. His adoration of Georgia is heartfelt. He opens himself up to Georgia, and despite her many rebuffs, he returns to her, always hopeful.

As for Georgia herself, apparently Lita Grey – who had a small role in Chaplin’s “The Kid” – was playing the leading lady here. But Chaplin and the teenage Grey found themselves expecting a child (which forced them to marry), so Chaplin quickly found Hale (below, with Chaplin), who brings a fresh, unmannered approach to the film. It’s a shame she never did much more, retiring from the movies when sound was introduced.

Another player worth mentioning is Swain, a veteran vaudeville and stage star who had worked with Chaplin on film in the 1910s before finding success on his own. When his career started to fade, it was Chaplin who came to the rescue, first with the short “The Pilgrim” and then with this movie, in which he’s delightful.

What made the Friday presentation especially memorable was the music. The score was written by Chaplin, but he did so for the 1942 re-release of the movie (his first attempt at a full-length score was for his film “City Lights,” released in 1931). In fact, “The Gold Rush” reissue removed the title cards and replaced them with narration from Chaplin himself.

In 1992, the Chaplin estate commissioned a restoration of “The Gold Rush,” implemented by famed historian Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. The 1942 music was used. In the mid-2000s, conductor/composer Brock – commissioned by the Association Chaplin – was working on a restoration of the score. According to the liner notes from the CSO’s program, Brock undertook massive research, discovering that last-minute changes to the music in 1942 were made not on the full score or conductor’s score but on the music used by individual parts.

The results were outstanding. “The Gold Rush” was presented as part of the CSO’s successful “Friday at the Movies” series, which consists of three movie-related concerts per season. I’m a regular of the series and especially enjoy the silent movie presentations. What always strikes me about these nights are the positive reaction from the audience and the beauty of the CSO’s performance. Their live accompaniment never overpowers the film. While I will sometimes close my eyes and listen to them playing (since I’ve seen these movies several times), the music draws you in where it’s an integral part of the film itself. Both work together, and that’s the way it should be.

The next CSO movie concert on Feb. 25 features film critic Roger Ebert. As for “The Gold Rush,” it never feels old no matter how many times I watch it. If you live someplace where this film will be screened with live symphonic accompaniment, I strongly urge you to attend and experience it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Audrey of the Month

After a month's hiatus due to my December countdown, Audrey of the Month is back!

With the recent Alfred Hitchcock blogathan (wasn't it great?), I decided to go with the closest thing to a Hitchcock film Audrey made, and that's "Charade." So here's a picture from that movie. I should have found one in color, but black and white gives an interesting quality to the photo. I can't put my finger on it.

I wish Audrey would have worked with Hitchcock, although she wasn't the icy blond that Hitch preferred. Still, think of the possibilities. Audrey in Marnie? Her and Sean Connery together would have been delicious at least to look at, but I'm not sure if the story would have been right.

Oh well, just watch "Charade" and enjoy her chemistry with Hitch fav Cary Grant.

Monday, January 17, 2011

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: 'Lifeboat'

Thanks to a sharp script and the deft directorial skills of Alfred Hitchcock, “Lifeboat” is a strong wartime drama that avoids the flag-waving fare found in other films of its time.

Perhaps that’s what kept people away from theaters when it was initially released in 1944, as wartime audiences wanted reinforcement in black-and-white terms, not movies that made you explore the gray areas of human nature. But it’s this examination that gives “Lifeboat” a timeliness that feels fresh today. In a way, it’s an unsettling film because it shows how we haven’t come very far in terms of dealing with people who are different from us.

“Lifeboat” tells the story of a group of survivors from a battle between an American ship and German U-boat, both of which sink. Globe-trotting reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is alone in the lifeboat until others spot her in the mist. She helps aboard a variety of survivors: sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix), whose leg has been badly hurt in the tragedy; crew member John Kovac (John Hodiak), who takes an immediate dislike to Connie’s superior ways; Joe (Canada Lee), an African American steward; Sparks (Hume Cronyn), a journeyman sailor; Alice (Mary Anderson), a volunteer making her way to England; Ritt (Henry Hull), a wealthy American industrialist; and Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), a woman traveling with her baby.

What sets the others on edge is the final survivor they pluck from the water: Willy (Walter Slezak), the captain of the German U-Boat. Kovac wants to throw him overboard immediately; Sparks says Willy is their prisoner and should be handled properly until they are rescued and can hand him over to the authorities. The others agree, although they distance themselves from Willy, wary that they can’t understand him. They also suspiciously eye Connie, who can speak German and can fire off barbs as quickly as a machine gun. Ritt assumes control of the boat until Kovac appoints himself as being in charge.

From the beginning, the story makes interesting observations. As survivors are pulled on board, it’s Connie and Ritt who chat like old friends catching up over a drink, oblivious to the others who are pulling survivors aboard, assessing their health and clearing the debris from the ship. This social distinction initially keeps these groups apart from each other. Even when Ritt starts making decisions, it’s the rich industrialist lording over everyone else. But then, in giving everyone a vote on what happens, Ritt also extends that courtesy to Joe. In 1944, Joe would not have the right to vote in the U.S. So this is a surprising turn than may be lost on modern viewers, one that signals that life will be very different on this boat.

As the days pass, the survivors either work together, pair off in friendships or bicker at each other. The trustworthiness of Willy is constantly debated, with some willing to hate him simply because he is the enemy.

“Lifeboat” unfolds beautifully, and I won’t give away any more. The story was written by John Steinbeck in collaboration with Hitchcock, and Jo Swerling wrote the screenplay. I love the questions they ask, touching on class and race and whether it’s acceptable to hate when you know nothing about the person, regardless of whether it’s wartime. The pacing is perfect, with the action, tension and observations carefully mixed together for maximum interest.

The film was made during the time when Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. When Selznick dissolved Selznick International Pictures by the end of 1940, he packaged his talent and loaned them out to other studios. Therefore, Hitchcock was working all over Hollywood, building on his reputation that started in Hollywood with “Rebecca.”

He most recently completed “Shadow of a Doubt” at Universal, and “Lifeboat” was to be the first of a two-picture deal at 20th Century Fox. He’d also done well with war-themed movies before, such as “Foreign Correspondent” in 1940. But almost from the beginning, Hitchcock and Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck clashed. In fact, the movie took far longer to make than expected, and Zanuck was upset with both the rising costs and a story too hard to market. It didn’t help that many of Zanuck’s leading men were away at war, so the cast was not filled with recognizable names, thus another challenge for selling the film.

In the end, the movie went wildly over-budget, costing more than $1.5 million, and didn’t come close to earning back its cost. Hitchcock did not make that second film for 20th Century, disturbed by the failure of "Lifeboat" to make money.

Meanwhile, the cast (Hodiak and Bankhead with Hitchcock, below) enjoyed working with Hitchcock, even if he was controlling. The entire movie takes place on the lifeboat and was shot in the studio tank, with a lifeguard constantly on duty in case of accidents – which was a good thing when Cronyn fell overboard and was nearly drowned by the machine making waves. The cast all suffered their share of seasickness, as Hitchcock kept the boat moving throughout production.

Hitchcock’s methods may seem rough to some, but the results were brilliant. His direction serves the story and the plot without becoming more important than them, and he seamlessly integrates a variety of shots into the narrative.

For example, the opening credits roll over the sinking of a ship. The camera then pans the water, and just from the debris you know what’s happened. Some objects are domestic, reflecting non-military personnel on board. Then you come across the back of a drowned German in his life jacket, which denotes the Germans also had casualties.

Soon after, the camera finds the lifeboat and Connie sitting alone in it. It's a startling shot, as she’s perfectly coiffed, wearing her mink, her bag by her side, as if she’s waiting for a taxi. She then picks up a camera and begins taking footage of another survivor swimming toward the boat. Hitchcock allows the audience to see this through the viewfinder on the camera.

In another great scene, an approaching storm is nicely juxtaposed with Connie and Kovac fighting. The boat is rolling, and the close-ups of each actor find them swaying within the frame and slightly out of the frame. One scene with a quick rainstorm has the survivors grabbing a tarp to collect the water. Hitchcock focuses on the tarp, with the splattering raindrops coming to a halt and a shadow appearing on the tarp, representing the sun coming out. He then slowly pans up and you see the disappointment and despair in the survivors’ faces.

It’s these kinds of shot selections that makes this boat seem larger that it is, and you forget he was working on a single set. Even the way Hitchcock manages to get his cameo into the movie is ingenious (and you’ll just have to watch to see how he does it).

There’s little musical score here, and that adds to the realistic feel. Another reason I like “Lifeboat” is that it could be set during any war. The World War II lingo and symbolism is kept to a bare minimum, allowing the story to play itself out according to human nature. And perhaps this is why the movie didn’t connect with viewers initially.

Critics were divided upon its release. Some adored it; others, like Dorothy Thompson, hated it. She famously wrote, “I’ll give the film three days to get out of town.” The Academy did remember the movie during awards season, as Hitchcock earned the second best director nomination of his career. Nominations also came for Steinbeck and cinematography. It’s a shame the movie was overlooked. Had the Academy not reduced the number of best picture nominees from 10 to five that year, it’s a given the movie would have been nominated.

As for the cast, Bankhead is marvelous. Smart, sarcastic, biting, even funny, she breathes life into Connie. Bankhead won the New York Film Critics best actress award that year but was sadly overlooked by the Academy. It’s a real shame that the outspoken Bankhead – who certainly had as many enemies as she had friends – didn’t make more movies, preferring to spend time on stage instead.

The rest of the cast is equally terrific. If Zanuck didn’t have the stars he needed to sell the film, Hitchcock liked the fact that his cast was relatively unknown. He didn’t want audiences to be on the lookout for their favorite stars being hauled on board or have preconceived notions of the types of characters they would play.

The cast was also surprised by the film’s failure. They felt the intelligent story ultimately provided what could rally audiences during this period of war.

It’s hard to give “Lifeboat” its proper due in print. Its look at the gray areas of human nature – as well as an ending that comes with an observation rather than a clich├ęd situation – makes this a thought-provoking drama that feels fresh rather than dated. Hitchcock pulled off what should have been impossible, what lesser directors would have made predictable. It’s one of the best films he made during the 1940s.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am honored to be part of the Hitchcock blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Below are links to the other blogs participating in the blogathon. In case I’ve missed someone, please check out the CMBA web site.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coming Soon: Hitchcock Blogathon!

It's almost here! The Classic Movie Blog Association will host the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon on Monday, Jan. 17. I think the last time I counted there were 18 blogs that will each discuss a different Hitchcock film.

The goal is to have the entries posted by 8 a.m. EST (7 a.m. my time) at the latest; some of us will post the night before. So my next blog entry will be the Hitchcock film I've selected.

However, don't just read mine; read all of them! My goal is to list all of the participants after my review. You can also visit the CMBA web site at:

I know I'm excited, and I hope everyone will enjoy it!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The 'Kid' Pays Off

I had a friend ask why Humphrey Bogart wasn’t on my list of favorite 1930s actors. While he had a breakout with “The Petrified Forest,” Bogart was still growing as an actor. He made plenty of films in the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until the next decade that he began hitting his stride.

In reviewing “Black Legion” a few months back, I mentioned that I’d like to look at some of these early films of Bogart so I could watch his progression as an actor under contract at Warner Brothers. So, I recently watched “Kid Galahad,” a boxing film that stars Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis, with Bogart more of a supporting player as a rival boxing promoter.

Frankly, when I first started watching “Kid Galahad,” I had to stifle a chuckle at the romantic pairing of Robinson and Davis. I really thought this was going to be forced in either a bad way or hilarious way (I was betting on the latter). By the end credits, though, I’d lost that bet with myself. Not only did the pairing work, but “Kid Galahad” was a thoroughly engaging movie that built beautifully to its climax, both exciting and unexpected.

Here’s a movie that manages to expertly weave all its threads together. The title character is played by Wayne Morris, an actor who became a much-decorated war hero during World War II. Here he’s a naive bellhop named Ward Guisenberry, called to work at a party thrown by Nick (Robinson) and Louise (Davis) after their prizefighter loses and is cut loose by Nick. Ward arrives at the multi-day affair, first day on the job, unable to mix drinks, but handsome enough to draw the attention of all the women. Louise takes a liking to him immediately, although Nick is jealous.
When rival promoter Turkey Morgan (Bogart) and world boxing champ Chuck McGraw (William Haade, above with Bogart) arrive at the party to gloat, Nick welcomes them. Then Chuck insults Louise, and Ward decks him with one swing. Nick is no longer jealous, now seeing Ward as his next fighter. Soon he’s grooming the Kid – dubbed Kid Galahad by Louise – for a shot at the world title. Ward doesn’t drink, smoke or swear, and he maintains this demeanor as Louise falls in love with him. However, Ward secretly falls for Nick’s sister, Marie (Jane Bryant), who Nick has always tried to protect.

“Kid Galahad” may be named after the boxer, but he’s more or less what forces Nick to look at himself, a man who wants to train that world champ but is held back by his own secret doubts. As for the romance, Robinson and Davis (below) are such good actors that they not only make it work but do so with great tenderness. Despite the Production Code, it’s clear their characters have been lovers for years. And yet during a breakup scene, neither throws any punches. The script keeps it simple without the melodramatic trappings, and these two fine actors add the endearing affection that would exist between two people who have been together for years.

Robinson is in fine form, as is Davis, who had already won an Oscar but was still fighting for better scripts. If this is a film about a promoter and his boxer, Davis does her best without taking over.

What about Bogart? While it looks like he’s simply playing a thug, he has more to do as the film goes on, ending up in a cat-and-mouse game with Nick over the championship battle.

I loved how this film wove together the excitement of boxing with well-staged bouts, the two romances between Nick/Louise and Ward/Marie, the media and PR work surrounding boxing, and a criminal aspect in terms of fixes, gangsters and an assertion of power. I was willing to give it some leeway at times when the story veered toward the forced, as when Louise inadvertently lets some vital information slip toward the end. It was cruel for the screenwriter to place Louise in that position, and it wasn’t necessary to the overall story.

Still, “Kid Galahad” was a welcome surprise. Bogart may have been relegated to playing a stereotypical tough guy, but he was still learning, still moving his way up the ranks.

“Kid Galahad” is part of the "Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection," a 13-disc DVD set with 24 Bogart films from the 1930s and 1940s as well as “The Brothers Warner” documentary. It has plenty of commentaries and featurettes, and I like how the movies are also packaged as “a night at the movies” old-school style, complete with shorts and trailers. All of the major titles from this period are included, from “Maltese Falcon” to “Casablanca” to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to his films with wife Lauren Bacall.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Here's looking forward to another year of watching great classic films. I actually watched several films between Thanksgiving and Christmas and transcribed my notes, so perhaps it won't be so difficult for me to be more regular than I was in the fall (gee, that sounds like an ad for constipation medication).

In addition, The Classic Movie Bloggers Association is presenting a great Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon on Monday, January 17! I think I counted 11 participating blogs on the list so far, and I'm one of them. Each of us will be tackling a different film. I'll post another reminder next week.

I've also got more early Humphrey Bogart films, I'd like to follow up my "Flying Down to Rio" post with more Astaire and Rogers (how I love them!), and I need to think about another Oscar-related series. Any suggestions?

In any case, go out and watch some classic films and drop me a line! I love hearing from classic film lovers like myself. And I posted a new icon for myself ... I'm feeling suave these days!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Favorite '30s Actors: #1

When I was in high school, CBS aired the first television broadcast of “Gone With the Wind,” shown over two nights (with commercials).

Even though I had not seen “Gone With the Wind” before, I was quite familiar with it, as it is my mother’s and oldest sister’s favorite movie. In this pre-cable and pre-video world, and growing up in a small Midwestern town, what was shown on network TV was my only access to movies.

So I enjoyed the viewing, which also was my first introduction to Clark Gable. And my reaction to him? He seemed rather slick. Not dirty or unkempt, but not terribly appealing, either. He looked like he smelled of stale cigars and washed his hair once a week. I wasn’t sure why my mother and countless others swooned at this actor or this character, or why he was dubbed “The King.”

Once I began immersing myself in films, I saw a few of his other great roles and recognized his talent. But it wasn’t until I began watching the other movies – the ones few people are familiar with – that I finally understood. That magnetism. That charisma. That virility. When combined with the talent that I knew existed, Clark Gable was like no other. From a star-making turn at the beginning of the 1930s to the role that forever defined him at the end of the decade, Gable was commanding.

His background during the 1920s consisted of acting dreams and manual labor realities. Once in Oregon, trying to find work as an actor but picking up odd jobs (such as lumber jacking), he finally joined a touring company headed by Josephine Dillon, 14 years older than him. She coached him, and they landed in Hollywood, where he found extra work but little else. They married and headed east. Finally he found success on Broadway and ended up back on the west coast on the stage, where he was spotted by a movie agent. He tested for MGM, which passed, but landed a role in a western called “The Painted Desert.”

MGM reconsidered and signed him. During the early 1930s, MGM seemed to have a wealth of female stars but needed more male ones. Gable quickly jumped into the top ranks thanks to the 1931 hit “A Free Soul,” where he play a ruthless gangster who is defended for murder by attorney Lionel Barrymore and secretly loved by Barrymore’s daughter Norma Shearer. Gable sizzles with the help of MGM’s gloss and his own star power, and audiences liked seeing him rough-house with MGM’s first lady Shearer, who looked dazzling herself (both below). If the movie is dated today, these stars shine.

MGM then paired Gable with its other top female stars – Greta Garbo in “Susan Lenox,” Joan Crawford in “Possessed” and Jean Harlow in “Red Dust.” The latter is a fine mix with Gable loving Harlow until a married Mary Astor arrives, with her falling for Gable as well.

I hate to use the word “macho,” but Gable projected manliness, with a voice, physique and manner to match. Rarely was he pushed around by any woman, yet they all swooned for him. But he had the skill to match.

For example, watch “Strange Interlude,” adapted from the Eugene O’Neill play. It’s talky, and the device of having the characters narrate their inner thoughts can be startling at first. But in addition to Gable and Shearer looking about as gorgeous as two people can, with a charisma together that’s mind-blowing, they give strong performances as a woman widowed during World War I, remarrying a man she doesn’t love, and falling instead for Gable’s doctor. I was impressed by Gable’s ability to handle the weighty material with ease.

In fact, he made it look easy, perhaps the best compliment made to any actor. In “Manhattan Melodrama,” the tired plot consists of boyhood friends William Powell and Gable now on opposite sides of the law – Powell an attorney and Gable a gangster. Unlike actors in some of the hard-boiled gangster dramas, Gable is both likable and believable, giving his performance a relaxed confidence that considerably aids this routine but profitable drama. Gable is often more appealing that Powell in this film.

Gable was known as a professional, learning his lines well in advance and showing up on time. The crews liked him and recognized that his background wasn’t far off from theirs. But his relationship with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was cordial at best. During one dust-up, Mayer loaned Gable out to Columbia, which was then still a low-level studio. Gable considered it a punishment and was not happy when he was assigned a movie first called “Night Bus” but renamed “It Happened One Night,” directed by Frank Capra. He was paired with an equally unhappy Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount.

But the two realized this movie had potential, and their resentment faded. Their instincts proved right, and “It Happened One Night” (below) is considered one of the decade’s best films. Although its initial box office run was just OK, word of mouth actually forced distributors to bring the movie back, and it became a hit. In it, Gable plays a newspaper man on the trail of a runaway heiress, who doesn’t realize who he is. But he falls for her instead. Gable is just terrific, employing everything in his acting bag – a gift for comedy, a leading man’s swagger, and tenderness toward the woman he’s beginning to love. There’s a wonderful drunk scene toward the end in which he unwittingly professes his love for Colbert. It may be the film he didn’t want to make, but it earned him an Oscar.
And, it’s also the film in which Gable famously removed his shirt to reveal he was not wearing an undershirt. Urban legend has it that undershirt sales plummeted because Gable didn’t wear them. Fact or fiction, everyone believes it because Gable was that big of a star and therefore could wield that kind of influence.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” also gave Gable a chance to shine as Fletcher Christian, the officer who defends his men against Charles Laughton’s villainous Captain Bligh. In the routine “China Seas,” Gable is all movie star – great looks, brave heroics and the ability to attract both Jean Harlow and Rosalind Russell.

The decade closed with “Gone With the Wind.” His popularity was such that people simply expected that he would play Rhett Butler. Producer David O. Selznick had to make a deal with MGM to get him, and Gable reportedly admitted that the role scared him because expectations were so high.

That makes perfect sense. Vivien Leigh was unknown to American audiences. Olivia de Havilland may have been well-paired opposite Errol Flynn but her individual box office worth had not been tested. Gable was the marquee name in this production. Plus, with so many preconceived notions about the role, Gable had to play a role in which any wrong move would incur the wrath of the book’s fans. It could create his legend or destroy his career.

In re-watching the movie, I no longer see Gable as smelling of old cigars. It’s a tricky role he plays to perfection. The sparks may have flown off-screen between Gable and Leigh (below), but they flew onscreen too, which is what counts. He was strong enough to be a hero but also saw her as the rare woman strong enough for him.

And, if there’s any doubting his stature in Hollywood, just look at how Rhett is introduced in the film. The camera is at the top of the staircase and swoops down on Rhett, standing at the bottom. In that one shot he’s both a Hollywood star and Rhett Butler, a fusing of the two that I doubt anyone else could have convincingly pulled off.

With the success of “Gone With the Wind,” Gable’s career was sky high by the end of 1939. His happy marriage to Carole Lombard only added to his life. Her death in a plane accident in January 1942 was a blow in so many ways. And although he worked continuously until his death, Gable never reached the same level of fame he had during the 1930s.

In Scott Eyman’s “Lion of Hollywood,” a biography about Mayer, Eyman states that Gable was “one of those rare men that men want to be and women want to be with.” It’s an apt description. And the decade belonged to him.