Saturday, July 30, 2011

'Tortilla Flat' an Odd Trip

“Tortilla Flat,” based upon the John Steinbeck novel, veers wildly between the annoying and satisfying.

Released in 1942 by MGM, it’s one of those studio films that casts well-known American Caucasian actors into non-Caucasian roles and expects audiences to believe it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and in “Tortilla Flat” you have to really suspend reality to believe Spencer Tracy and John Garfield as “paisanos” or in this case Mexican Americans.

It also doesn’t help that Tracy plays Pilon, who justifies his lazy, selfish tendencies at every turn. The movie begins with Danny (Garfield) in jail when he discovers that his recently deceased grandfather has left him two small houses. Pilon convinces a pliable Danny that he deserves to live in one of those houses. In a scheme involving rent and other friends, Pilon manages to live there rent-free.

All live to drink wine by day and scoff at those who work for a living, with Pilon finding ways to sustain their simple existences. When Danny takes a liking to the lovely Dolores (Hedy Lamarr, above with Garfield), Pilon sees danger – meaning if Danny takes a wife, he’ll need to support her and get a job. He may also cast out Pilon, who could no longer hold his friend under his thumb.

As Danny pines for Dolores, the gang determines that a lonely old man known as The Pirate (Frank Morgan) has been saving his nickels and must have them buried somewhere. They pretend to be his friend in order to discover the location of the man’s riches. However, they find out he’s saving to buy a gold candlestick for the St. Francis statue at the local church.

For the first 40 minutes, I simply could not believe these actors as Mexican Americans. Tracy may have pulled off being Portuguese in “Captains Courageous” (directed by Victor Fleming, who also helms “Tortilla Flat”), but he doesn’t quite do it here. Garfield doesn’t even try. When Danny says to Dolores “Hello sweets,” you expect him to be wearing a trenchcoat and fedora while holding gun.

I laughed out loud when the wonderful character actor John Qualen – yes, he with the Scandinavian accent born to Norwegian parents – shows up as a paisano!

In addition, the film presents Pilon as a lovable rogue, but I didn’t love him at all. In fact, I quit watching the movie at one point because the character irritated me so much. I have not read Steinbeck’s book, so perhaps someone could shed light on whether Pilon is just as annoying of a character in print as he is on the screen, or if his antics are tempered in the book that did not happen on screen.

In fact, just as I was thinking all was lost, Morgan (above center, with Tracy left) shows up nearly unrecognizable halfway through the film, and finally an actor convinced me that he belonged in this story. In fact, Morgan gives a heartfelt portrait of a lonely man and his dogs, so genuinely touched by the men who offer friendship, who in turn are touched by his quest for the candlestick. Morgan received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work and it’s a shame he didn’t win.

Redemption does come for Pilon and Danny, and Tracy the actor shines in one particular scene in a church, using his eyes rather than dialogue to show the change occurring inside Pilon.

As for the breathtaking Lamarr, she is convincing as the fiery Dolores, although there’s not much for Lamarr to explore beyond the expected love interest trappings of the story.

The second half of “Tortilla Flat” nearly saves the film as a whole, although I’m guessing MGM had high hopes that were not realized. If anything, watch the film for Frank Morgan’s rich performance, which is worth seeing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Audrey of the Month

With all of this heat, doesn't a dip in the pool sound refreshing? All I need is a pool ... until then, enjoy Audrey's swim!

I met yet another Audrey fan earlier this week, so I hope that "L" sees this post and enjoys it!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

'Daniel Webster': Devilish Delight

“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” also known as “All That Money Can Buy,” is a refreshingly enjoyable fable made with intelligence and imagination while featuring a slew of fine performances.

Based upon Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, this morality play concerns Jabez Stone (James Craig), a hard-working New Hampshire farmer who hits a rough spot. Filled with frustration, Jabez says he’ll sell his soul to the devil for two cents.

Thus enters Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), a.k.a. the Devil, who promises Jabez riches in exchange for his soul. Jabez signs a seven-year contract with Mr. Scratch and is rewarded immediately with a “hidden” treasure of gold coins in his barn. Jabez begins paying off his debt and buys simple luxuries – a bonnet and a shawl – for his lovely wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and his mother (Jane Darwell), both of whom are suspicious yet accepting of his newfound wealth.

But greed begins to take over Jabez. His simple loans to neighboring farmers initially help them dig out of financial servitude to Miser Stevens (John Qualen), who himself has made a pact with the devil. But as Jabez’s wealth increases, his generosity decreases and he ultimately becomes even worse than Stevens.

On the even of the birth of his son, Jabez begins to question his agreement with the devil. Sensing discontentment, Mr. Scratch replies by replacing the Stone’s maid with Belle (Simone Simon, below with Craig), a devilish creature who beguiles Jabez. As his son grows, Jabez’s paranoia expands as he becomes the wealthiest man around, with Belle at his side and Mary frightened by what Jabez has become.

In fact, one neighbor remarks of Jabez, “A strange sickness seems to have come over him, a plague of sorts, like the Bible tells.”

Meanwhile, the great New Hampshire Congressman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), renowned for his intelligence and ability to fight for good in Washington, is alerted to Jabez’s behavior by Mary, a long-time family friend. Webster, having waved off repeated temptations from the Devil to help him become President, decides to fight Mr. Scratch for the return of Jabez’s soul.

The film was released by RKO in 1941 and is known by an alternate title, “All That Money Can Buy.” There was a feel to this movie that made me immediately think of “Citizen Kane,” also released by RKO that same year. It was a time when studio chief George Schaefer was willing to take chances on risky A-movie product. However, despite excellent notices for “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” it failed at the box office.

Thankfully, “Devil” holds up well today because it doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood product from the early 1940s. Even the presentation of the credits signals a departure in tone for this film, with simply “In front of the camera” followed by the list of actors and “Behind the camera” with a list of the filmmakers.

The somber beginning details the hardships in the small town and on the Stone farm. Every scene has a harsh look to it until the contract with the devil is signed, when the fortunes and scenery of the Stone family change. Perhaps this opening turned off audiences who did not feel entertained.

The special effects are simple yet effective, from Mr. Scratch’s fiery bursts to intriguing camera effects meant to keep the viewer off-balance. For example, the birth of Jabez’s son coincides with the harvest dance, during which Belle begins to lure Jabez. The increasing tempo of the dance, deep shadows and quick cutting from face to face create an eerie atmosphere.

Even the photo of Jabez and Belle above, with Belle backlit by the fire to illustrate her ties to the devil, shows the film’s visual flair.

The director, William Dieterle, came to RKO from Warner Brothers in 1939 to make the Charles Laughton version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Dieterle clearly works his magic on “Devil” in one of his best films.

If some of the backdrops look fake – at one point Jabez is looking out of a window and you could swear the sky is less than a foot from his face – the performances are incredible. Huston earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (below, right). The magnetism of his performance makes you think he’s in the film more than he is (the title characters, despite the final showdown, are really supporting players). He ingeniously decides not to play the Devil with menacing power. Instead, with a wide, toothy grin, a fearless demeanor and a propensity to pop up in unexpected places, Huston brings rakish glee to Mr. Scratch.

Arnold (above, left) is every bit his match as Webster by combining warmth, intelligence and passion. Craig, the true lead of the film, gives perhaps his best performance as he slowly falls prey to the clutches of greed.

At first, Shirley resembled Olivia de Havilland so closely that I began to question when the latter was at RKO! Shirley is almost too lovely to convey the hardships of the town but does the best she can with the typical supportive wife role. However, Simon, a beauty with a crooked smile, is truly creepy as the seductive Belle.

Rounding out the excellent cast are veteran character actors Darwell, Qualen, Gene Lockhart and H.B. Warner.

Also worth mentioning is Bernard Herrmann’s excellent Oscar-winning score that fits the mood of the piece rather than the symphonic dramatics of the era. Robert Wise worked as editor – as he did on “Citizen Kane” – and Joseph August (who worked with John Ford during the 1930s) is the cinematographer.

The Devil and Daniel Webster” may not have made money upon its release. And if the film was made today, the special effects would overshadow all else. What makes the original work is an engrossing story told in a way that matches the seductive lure of Mr. Scratch. It’s a morality tale, a slice of Americana and top-notch entertainment rolled into one.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bogart: 'San Quentin'

Continuing my sporadic look at Humphrey Bogart’s early career, here’s another entry from 1937, a routine prison drama called “San Quentin.”

It was one of seven movies released that year featuring Bogart in either lead or supporting roles. In this film the lead is Pat O’Brien, the go-to actor who Warner Brothers turned to for good-guy roles. Bogart’s the con with a chip on his shoulder, while rising Warners star Ann Sheridan plays the love interest. Lloyd Bacon crisply directs with some location shooting at the prison itself.

Unfortunately, the script never breaks free from the genre’s conventions. With such an obvious title, “San Quentin” does what you’d expect it to do in a brisk 70 minutes. But that’s also a detriment because it feels contrived.

O’Brien plays Capt. Stephen Jameson. With his Army background, he’s hired by the warden to bring some order to San Quentin. Jameson has an eye on reform while curbing the restless complaining of the prisoners.

On the eve of starting his job, Jameson visits a local nightclub with some pals, where May (Sheridan) is singing. Jameson is immediately smitten as one pal cracks, “Training one woman is worse than a whole company of recruits.”

May is smart and sassy and declares that she doesn’t like guards. Jameson keeps his new assignment a secret, especially after May’s brother, Red (Bogart, below with Sheridan), visits her backstage looking for money for a “job.” Unfortunately, he has been followed and is arrested for robbery before getting away, while Jameson watches the commotion as a spectator.

When Red is brought to San Quentin, Jameson recognizes him immediately. Without telling May, Jameson decides to help Red, believing he’s not far enough gone as a criminal. But Red is cynical about the help, especially when he learns that Jameson is seeing his sister.

Even if the film doesn’t aspire to greatness, it could have been far better had the clumsier moments of the script been eliminated. In one scene, a guard accidentally drops his rifle into the prison yard in a bit of unbelievable nonsense that would play better in a Laurel and Hardy film. In another scene, there’s a prison break involving a car. While the guards phone in the break, they can remember the car’s license plate number (which they probably didn’t see for more than a few seconds) but can’t figure out which prisoners made the break, even with a stool pigeon standing nearby who was planted specifically to keep an eye on the escaped prisoners!

The most unintentionally hilarious bit happens when Jameson sees May for the first time. O’Brien must have been told to look at Sheridan as if he’s seeing a juicy side of beef. All that’s missing is the drool sliding down his chin and a ketchup bottle nearby!

The film does a better job of showcasing its two rising stars. Sheridan is winning despite having little to do, while Bogart demonstrates why Warners developed that tough-guy image. He played a wide range of roles in 1937; if “Black Legion” did a better job of allowing him to stretch, “San Quentin” demonstrates his commanding presence despite the familiarity of the material.

Some good performances are turned in by the supporting cast, notably Barton MacLane as Lt. Druggin, the tough guard who precedes Jameson, and the likable Joe Sawyer as Hansen (shown below, right, in a scuffle with Bogart), the con who wants to make a break. As an aside, to demonstrate how much a good character actor could work, MacLane had 11 films released in 1937 and Sawyer had 10!

“San Quentin” contains all the requisite aspects of a prison film – a disgruntled con, scheming prisoners, nasty guards, wisecracks delivered as quickly as gunfire, a pretty girl and a car chase. If only these ingredients were used in a way that was more original. Even the final moments, meant to be exciting and redemptive, are unbelievable as they fit a moralistic agenda rather than completing the story.

If anything, this film simply demonstrates the evolution of Bogart from a Warner Brothers breakout star to the legend he would eventually become.