Friday, July 30, 2010

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson were a spectacularly successful pairing in Fritz Lang’s classic 1945 film noir Scarlet Street. That was in fact their second pairing for Lang, having previously appeared together in The Woman in the Window a year earlier. Once again they’re an oddly effective fatal attraction kind of combination.

Robinson is Professor Richard Wanley, a mild-mannered criminologist who loves to discuss crime with his friends over a glass of sherry at his club. His friends are in the business as well, so to speak, one of them being the District Attorney. Wanley is the sort of quiet rather bookish man who has probably never been guilty of returning a library book late but he’s undoubtedly wondered how he would react if he actually found himself involved on a crime. He’s about to find out.

The crucial scene in the movie is an anticipation of Scarlet Street since it involves Joan Bennett and a painting. The professor sees an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman in an art gallery window. As he gazes in rapture at the picture he notices a woman standing behind him, reflected in the glass. It’s the very same woman. She seems friendly, she’s amused by his response to the painting, and invites him to have a drink with her. Her name is Alice. They end up back at her apartment.

Whether they were going to get up to anything romantic or not is something we don’t know since they are interrupted by the sudden appearance of an enraged madman. The professor defends himself; the intruder is soon lying dead on the carpet.

While it’s unlikely he would be charged with murder there would be a scandal, and the university authorities might not be too thrilled. The question of why he was in this woman’s apartment would also be raised and it would be difficult to convince anyone that they were really just having a quiet drink. And the professor is a married man. In fact the scandal could wreck his career. Then the professor has one of those ideas that people in movies always seem to have - if nobody knew the man was there do they really need to report it to the police?

Unfortunately the professor isn’t as knowledgeable as he thought when it comes to the field of criminal investigation and he is soon alarmed to discover that his friend the DA might well solve the mystery. There’s also a question of blackmail.

The Woman in the Window is a movie that even Fritz Lang fans have second thoughts about, mostly due to the ending (about which I will say nothing).

The most interesting this about this movie is that Wanley and Alice have done nothing wrong, but that isn’t going to stop them from being hunted. Perhaps they made a foolish decision in not calling the police but despite their innocence the circumstances could most definitely have seemed suspicious and maybe being innocent wouldn’t have helped them. In Lang’s universe a policeman is not necessarily your friend. Whether you’re innocent or guilty doesn’t really matter, it’s all just a matter of luck, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you make a bad decision it can never be reversed. Once Wanley and Alice have chosen their course they cannot turn back. They can only wait as the hunters close in.

This had the potential to be one of Lang’s great movies, and there is still a great deal to admire. The ending is a problem though. Robinson and Bennett are terrific, Lang piles on the paranoia very effectively, and despite its flaws it’s still essential viewing for anyone with any interest in film noir.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Awful Truth (1937)

Any screwball comedy starring Cary Grant is probably going to be worth watching (except for The Philadelphia Story which leaves me cold). And The Awful Truth is a pretty good example of the screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are Lucy and Jerry Warriner, a married couple who have tried to trust one another but it’s becoming more and more difficult to do so. Especially since it’s made pretty obvious that Jerry really is playing around, and Lucy probably is as well. Jerry has always liked the idea of having a sophisticated modern marriage but when he’s presented with fairly clear evidence that Lucy has been fooling around with her music teacher he discovers that his attitudes aren’t so modern after all. In fact he’s insanely jealous, and pretty soon the Warriners land up in the divorce court.

The divorce goes fairly smoothly apart from a bitter wrangle over custody of their dog, Mr Smith. They remain on friendly terms until they both decide to marry other people. Slowly the awful truth dawns on them that they’re still hopelessly in love with each other.

That’s it for the plot. Not that it matters because it doesn’t need a plot. And apparently director Leo McCarey felt it didn’t need a script either. He thought they could all just make it up as they went along. This upset Cary Grant at first but eventually he realised that he could improvise and that the picture was actually working despite McCarey’s unconventional (by Hollywood standards very unconventional) methods.

It took me a while to get into this one. It started to pick up as soon as Ralph Bellamy arrived on the scene about a quarter of the way through. Apart from the fact that I like Ralph Bellamy anyway he provides the needed focus. From that point on the movie really starts to zing. If course when Ralph Bellamy is playing the romantic rival you just know he’s not going to get the girl, so you know that Cary Gant and Irene Dunne will get back together. But this is a romantic comedy so you knew that anyway.

This is a movie packed with inspired comedic moments. There’s Jerry’s short-lived fling with a floozy named Dixie Belle Lee that ends with her truly bizarre musical number in a night-club, assisted by a wind machine blowing up her dress. There’s the scene with Lucy’s efforts to hide her boyfriend’s presence from Jerry being foiled by the dog (it’s apparently the dog from The Thin Man incidentally). There’s Lucy masquerading as Jerry’s sister and gleefully wrecking his chances of marriage with a rich heiress. There’s Jerry and Lucy having fun with a couple of hapless motorcycle cops.

I hadn’t seen much of Irene Dunne’s work prior to this. I wasn’t sure about her at first but once I got used to her she won me over completely. It hardly needs to be said that Cary Grant was a delight.

Pure movie fun.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dishonored Lady (1947)

The problem with Hedy Lamarr’s reputation as an actress is that she gave so many of her best performances in B-movies. And, to make things even worse, these have no fallen into the public domain so they’re most likely to be seen in very poor quality budget DVD transfers. And hence they’re likely to be overlooked. A good example is Dishonored Lady.

This 1947 melodrama is actually a whole lot more interesting than it sounds. But once again Lamarr has been unlucky. The movie has been widely misunderstood as a socially ultra-conservative movie and I’ve even heard it suggested that it was part of a heinous plot to force American women back into the kitchen after World War 2. All of which suggests that many people have made up their minds about this film before seeing it and when they have seen it they’ve missed the point.

Lamarr is Madeleine Damien, a very successful and very glamorous art editor on a prestigious fashion magazine. Her life is divided equally between work, partying, and men. Lots of men. The movie goes as far as it was possible to go in 1947 in exploring this part of her life and I don’t think any viewer could possibly be left in any doubt that Madeleine has had numerous sexual partners.

This glamorous life has not brought her happiness and in a fit of depression she drives her car into a tree. As luck would have it the tree happens to be in the front yard of an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Caleb. Dr Caleb pulls her out of the wreck. He soon satisfies himself that physically she’s in fine shape and none the worse for her adventure, but he realises immediately that emotionally she’s a mess. She takes some convincing but eventually enters treatment with Dr Caleb.

Now at this point what we’re all expecting is that the doctor (who comes across as a slightly severe father figure) will tell Madeleine that there is only way for her to find true happiness and that’s by devoting herself to the life of a wife and mother. And this is where the movie throws its first surprise at us. He doesn’t tell her that at all. He does persuade her to give up the high-paying magazine job, but he also persuades her to try to make a new career for herself as an artist. Her father had been a prominent artist and we’re left to assume that she’s always cherished secret ambitions in this area.

So in fact he’s telling her she should pursue a career, but that money should not be the primary goal. Doing what you want to do with your life is more important than material success. Not quite what you expect in a 1947 Hollywood movie.

Of course Madeleine then falls in love, with an idealistic young doctor. And her past catches up with her and threatens her new-found happiness. She is embroiled in a murder case involving an ex-lover. But here again the movie doesn’t follow the expected pattern. And we discover that the title is in fact meant ironically. The people who judge Madeleine as being dishonored by her colourful party-girl past and her sexual escapades are quite wrong. She has not lost her honour at all, and the movie is if anything taking a swipe at the conventional sexual mores of the time that judged a woman’s worth by her sexual history.

Lamarr is perfectly cast and her performance is faultless. Her character is neither demonised nor sentimentalised. She’s not a type, she’s not a Femme Fatale or a Fallen Woman, she’s a real woman and a complex one.

The supporting cast is pretty solid as well. Dennis O’Keefe is good as the doctor with whom Madeleine falls in lover. John Loder (Hedy Lamarr’s real-life husband at the time) is very good as the smooth but wicked Felix Courtland, a wealthy jeweler and one of the many men in Madeleine’s past.

I don’t want to give the impression that this film is a neglected masterpiece but it’s an exceptionally interesting and very well-made movie that is definitely more than just a routine B-movie. It’s somewhat in the style of the Joan Crawford melodramas of the 40s and Hedy Lamarr shows she can do that sort of thing in her own style but just as successfully.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Party Girl (1930)

Party Girl is an outrageously campy 1930 movie from a Poverty Row studio so obscure I’ve never even heard of them. It concerns the infamous “party girl” racket, where businessmen are wined and dined and then induced to make favourable business deals with certain companies in exchange for sex. The party girls are in fact high-class escorts. The movie even includes a prologue warning the public that this scourge is corrupting the morals of countless innocent girls, and the next one could be your daughter!

It’s amazingly lurid even for the pre-code era, making no attempt whatsoever to disguise the fact that the party girls are in effect prostitutes. And, horror of horrors, the hero’s beloved, a girl so sweet and pure she just makes you think of freshly baked bread and Mom’s apple pie, turns out to have been one of these wicked wantons!

Douglas Fairbanks jnr is the hero, Jay. He’s the son of a major glass manufacturer, but the glass business is apparently notoriously corrupted by this evil racket. Dad’s as straight as they come, and refuses to believe that the only way to make sales these days is by using party girls. Jay is of course basically decent and good-hearted, but he’s got in with bad crowd at a college fraternity, and in the course of an all-night drinking session they crash a party. The party turns out to be for a group of executives in the glass manufacturing business, with lots of party girls provided.

Jay wakes up next morning in the bedroom of one of these young ladies, and she leads him to believe that he’s subjected her to a Fate Worse Than Death, and that her Reputation is now ruined. Jay’s a bit wild, but he's fundamentally conservative and exceptionally dumb, so it doesn’t take much to convince him that he now has an obligation to Do the Right thing and marry her. Explaining to dear old Dad how he happened to end up married to a woman who has floozy written all over her isn’t going to be quite so simple though. And what about his one true love, poor sweet Ellen? Luckily for the public the District Attorney is determined to clean up vice in the city and to stamp out the party girl racket.

The acting is unbelievably bad, with Fairbanks jnr being particularly atrocious. And the dialogue is cringe-inducing. In spite of this (or possibly because of this), Party Girl is wonderfully entertaining. The Art Deco interiors and the gorgeous women’s costumes certainly help. This is very much a Jazz Age movie. If your idea of a good time is lots of bathtub gin, wild parties and loose women, this is a movie for you. And to get to one of these immoral parties, you just drive your car into the goods lift of the building and rode up to the 6th floor, then you just drive right in! On to the dance floor.

One of the more remarkable things about this movie is that although it was made in 1930, it was banned in Britain until 2003! It’s very much in the style of the classic American exploitation movie, ostensibly condemning some deadly threat to public morals but actually being very much on the side of wickedness. These party girls are not just shamelessly debauched, they’re enjoying every minute of it. The movie is included in a boxed set with the rather delicious title of Girls Gone Bad: The Delinquent Dames Collection, which gives you 24 lurid exploitation shockers for a mere $11.50. All public domain, and the transfers are of varying quality, but still great value.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teacher's Pet (1958)

OK, I admit it. I was totally wrong about Doris Day. After seeing my second Doris Day movies in the last couple of weeks, I’m seriously hooked. Teacher's Pet, released in 1958, is in its own way every bit as much fun as Pillow Talk.

At first glance pairing Doris Day and an ageing Clark Gable in a romantic comedy might seem a slightly odd decision. But it’s not as if Gable was a stranger to the romantic comedy genre, and his character is supposed to be ageing and a bit weather-beaten. And the chemistry between the two stars works surprisingly well.

Gable is a hard-bitten newspaperman, city editor of The Chronicle. James Gannon is a self-taught self-made man who never finished high school. He has nothing but contempt for all these college types trying to break into the newspaper game. As far as he is concerned being a reporter is something you learn on the job, on the streets, and in the bars. You don’t learn it from a book! So he’s not terribly impressed when he receives an invitation from a university lecturer in journalism to be a guest lecturer at a college. He sends off a scathing letter to the lecturer, informing him that the very idea of college courses in journalism is a waste of time, and he doesn’t intend to waste his time on it!

He expects that to be the end of the matter, but to his dismay he discovers that the publisher of The Chronicle is rather keen on all this college nonsense (especially since the college in question awarded him an honorary degree). So Jim Gannon receives his orders - he’s going to do the guest lecture bit whether he wants to or not. A further disturbing discovery awaits him in the classroom - the Dr Stone who teaches journalism is a rather attractive woman. Being of the old school Gannon disapproves of women college professors even more than he disapproves of male ones, but he has to admit to himself that she is extremely attractive, especially in the amazingly tight skirt she’s wearing. But before he has a chance to introduce himself, she reads his letter to her class, and makes some scathing remarks of her own about anti-intellectual dinosaurs like himself.

Since he never got the chance to introduce himself, he hatches a plan to teach this uppity female a lesson. He pretends to be an aspiring journalism student, and enrols in her class. Of course, this being a romantic comedy, pretty soon he decides that although he still despises all this book-learning stuff, he’s strangely attracted to this woman. In fact, although he takes a while to emit it to himself, he’s seriously smitten. Of course he has a rival, a psychology professor (played by Gig Young) who seems to be good at just about everything.

One of the likeable things about this movie is that although it seems to be a typical Hollywood battle of the sexes movie, it doesn’t follow the all-too-familiar pattern of the career woman being taken down a peg or two. She is in fact taken down a peg or two, but so is he. This battle of the sexes will end in an honourable draw, with both parties realising they’ve been excessively dogmatic and with both parties ending up treating each other as respected equals. It also doesn’t follow the easy path of simply making fun of intellectuals - again the war between the practical hard-headed learn-by-experience type and the education enthusiast ends with both having to admit that they were both wrong.

Gable manages to be bull-headed but still rather likeable. The old charm was still there, even in 1958. Gig Young is a delight. And Doris Day has confounded me once again. Not only is she a strong female character who doesn’t have to accept defeat, she’s also charming and funny. And I have to admit that her sexless perpetual virgin image is somewhat unfair as well. In fact it’s remarkable just how often in this movie the camera focuses in rather lovingly on Miss Day’s posterior! And she plays up the sexy teacher bit quite a bit. Gable’s character certainly doesn’t find her sexless, and she isn’t.

The ending is also pleasantly surprising. It’s not giving away any spoilers to say that the implication is that Gable and Day will end up together. This is a romantic comedy, so you know right from the start that the two leads are going to fall in love and end up together. What’s surprising is that there’s no suggestion that she intends to choose life as a housewife or give up her career, there’s no suggestion that Gable wants her to do this, or that she should do this.

It’s a light-hearted fun romantic comedy in which both the romance and the comedy are equally effective, and it’s great entertainment. Especially if you’re a Doris Day fan, and I now cheerfully admit to membership of that exalted society.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It (1927)

Clara Bow is the girl with “It” in the 1927 movie It. “It” is that quality that makes the opposite sex go weak at the knees, and there’s no doubt that Clara Bow has lots and lots of it.

The plot is standard romantic comedy fare, but the movie has some interesting features. Bow’s character, Betty, doesn’t conform to either of the stereotypes that you’d expect in this type of movie. She’s not the sweet naïve girl who gets her man through sheer niceness, but nor is she the scheming gold digger who eventually realises that all she really wants is marriage and True Love. Right from the start it’s obvious that Betty wants a lot more. She’s very much the New Woman, a phenomenon much talked about in the 20s. She wants money certainly, and she wants love. She also wants fun, and very clearly she wants sex. When she first sets eyes on her handsome new boss, she practically drools.

Bow does a wonderful job of conveying a healthy and very enthusiastic sexuality. Betty is definitely out to get this man for herself, but she relies mostly on her own considerable charms rather than on manipulation.

An even more interesting, and pleasing, feature is that the two main male characters (the only significant male characters in the movie) are not especially threatened by the New Woman. They’re not particularly concerned with trying to “tame” her. They seem to find her refreshing, exciting and (even more pleasing) worthy of respect. It’s also interesting that being a single mother is presented as something that can involve great difficulties for a woman, but it’s certainly not presented as something shameful. This is a very modern movie in many ways.

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. William Austin as her boss’s best friend is somewhat annoying, with the exaggerated acting style that gives silent movies a bad reputation in the eyes of many people (although in fact most silent movie acting isn’t like that at all). On the other hand his character, Monty, is likeable enough. Antonio Moreno as Betty’s boss, Cyrus, gives a much more naturalistic and much more satisfactory performance. Clara Bow is simply fantastic. So much energy, so much charisma. The old cliché about an actress lighting up the screen is no cliché in his case, it’s plain fact. She’s incandescent.

It is thoroughly entertaining, a charming and likeable romantic comedy and a fascinating view of the age of the flapper. The Kino DVD includes an excellent documentary on the career of Clara Bow.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Naughty Girl (1956)

Naughty Girl (Cette sacrée gamine) was one of half-sa-dozen films Brigitte Bardot made in 1956. It was one of these movies, And God Created Woman, that made her an international star, but in some ways Naughty Girl is more fun.

It's a breezy romantic comedy, a kind of French screwball comedy in fact.

A night-club owner is falsely accused of involvement in a forgery racket operating in his club. He flees, but his main concern is that his teenage daughter Brigitte (played by Brigitte Bardot) may be interviewed by the police. The resulting scandal would see expelled from her exclusive school. His friend Jean Clary, a young and handsome singer, is dispatched to rescue Brigitte. He carries her off in the middle of a dance class, just before the police arrive.

With the police hot on their tail they can’t make it to the border so he decides to hide her in his apartment. Much to the dismay of his manservant Jérôme. His fiancée (a psychoanalyst) is even less impressed, and inclined to doubt his story that this is actually his kid sister. Brigitte is convinced her father is a government secret agent and that she is really hiding out from dangerous spies.

Brigitte soon creates havoc in Jean’s life, managing to set fire to his apartment within the first 24 hours. His love life is even more severely affected. He is exasperated, especially when he has to bale her out from the police station after she is arrested following a poker game with Jérôme and his friends (in which Brigitte ended up winning a good deal of money). She insists on bringing him a foul-mouthed runaway parrot that was also in police custody.

Despite his exasperation Jean is of course falling in love with Brigitte. But will true love triumph before either the police or the real criminals track them down?

As is the case with many Bardot films, this one’s greatest asset is Bardot herself. She’s energetic, bubbly, funny and totally insane in an exceptionally charming way. Even relatively early in her career her comic skills are finely honed.

Jean Bretonnière as Jean is a slightly colourless leading man, but Raymond Bussières as Jérôme makes up for this. He and Bardot bounce off each other wonderfully well as the ageing, crusty and slightly pompous Jérôme is gradually won over by Brigitte and eventually is more than willing to help her snare her man. Mischa Auer contributes an amusing little cameo as an eccentric dancing instructor.
There are several dream sequences, as Jean dozes off during one of his fiancée’s lectures on psychoanalysis. This offers the opportunity for Bardot to do some lively dance numbers, and to wear even skimpier clothing.

This is purely light entertainment, but done with flair and with class. Roger Vadim, who was by this time married to Bardot, wrote the screenplay. It’s romantic mildly sexy fun and Bardot is dazzling. It’s almost impossible to dislike this movie, and if (like me) you happen to like Bardot then you’re pretty much guaranteed to like it.

The Region 4 DVD is, surprisingly enough, quite good. The movie is presented in widescreen and in French with sub-titles. The colours look bright and the picture is reasonably sharp. The complete lack of worthwhile extra is the only downside.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calamity Jane (1953)

Having become quite a fan of Doris Day in other movie genres I thought it was about time for me to bite the bullet and attempt one of her musicals. Calamity Jane seemed like as good a place as any to start.

Calamity Jane was an actual historical figure but don’t panic - this movie is not going to bother with anything as tiresome as historical accuracy. And in any case it appears that the real Calamity Jane was not exactly a sticker for accuracy when it came to recounting her adventures.

As the movie opens Calamity is saving a stage coach under attack from a Sioux war party. The stage coach is on its way to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. Calamity’s account of the attack is embellished a little in the telling but it seems that the people of Deadwood are used to this. Wild Bill Hickok is particularly sceptical, which doesn’t prevent him from being a close and devoted friend to Calamity.

There is trouble brewing in Deadwood. The manager of the town’s only theatre has announced, with much ballyhoo, that he was importing a famous (and glamorous) actress from New York City. Unfortunately there was some confusion on the subject of gender and the actress who arrives is in fact an actor. The townsfolk (almost all of them men and exceptionally starved of female company) are most displeased and are about to trash the theatre when Calamity steps in. She will go to Chicago and bring back a real actress, a major star, the famous Adelaid Adams.

Calamity is not the most feminine of women and she’s a bit of a rough diamond. And her knowledge of the theatre is non-existent. She mistakes the great actress’s maid for the actress herself. The maid, Katie Brown, has always nourished the dream of a career on the stage and now sees her opportunity. She neglects to tell Calamity that she isn’t the great star.

As you might expect, her theatrical debut in Deadwood is somewhat eventful. The audience is initially pleased, Katie being an actual female and a fairly attractive one. When she tries to sing in the style of Adelaid Adams it becomes evident that she is an impostor. Once again Calamity comes to the rescue and when Kate is persuaded to simply be herself she becomes a surprise hit.

Katie and Calamity set up housekeeping together but there are complications. Both women are madly in love with a handsome young lieutenant. Of course you know that somehow or other true love is going to triumph.

Allyn McLerie, an actress I’d never heard of, is extremely good as Katie. Howard Keel is Wild Bill Hickok, and I’m afraid I’m not a fan of either his singing or his acting.

Doris Day on the other hand is a delight. She’s funny, she’s feisty, she’s convincingly butch as the tomboy Calamity.

The movie has a very very artificial feel to it, which I like. It looks like it was filmed entirely on a sound stage and that gives it a very appealing unreal feeling. You don’t want anything as tedious as realism in a musical. It’s amusing, the sings are a bit uneven but they have their moments, it’s outrageously romantic and it’s just generally fun.

As for the notorious lesbian subtext in this movie, well it's there if you really look for it although (unlike movies such as Gilda) I'm not entirely convinced it was intended.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m a convert to 50s Hollywood musicals but I’ve now come across a couple that I’ve liked a good deal.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

True Confession (1937)

For a lot of Hollywood actresses the policy of strictly enforcing the Production Code from mid-1934 onwards was a disaster, but not for everyone. For Carole Lombard it was an opportunity.

Lombard really found her niche in the screwball comedy. And the screwball comedy was a reaction to the Production Code. It was a way of making intelligent grown-up comedies whilst remaining within the Code guidelines, with zaniness replacing sexiness. And Lombard was ideally suited to this new genre.

Lombard is Helen Bartlett. Her husband Kenneth (Fred MacMurray) is struggling to make his mark as an attorney. Helen takes a job secretly but it turns out that when a job sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Her boss, Otto Krayler, isn’t bothered by Helen’s lack of any typing or shorthand skills. He’s more interested in hanky-panky. Helen is shocked and after a scuffle she flees. But she has left her coat and her purse behind. She persuades her long-suffering best friend Daisy (Una Merkel who always seemed to play the heroine’s best friend) to company her on an expedition to retrieve these items.

While Helen looks for purse the police arrive and find something much more interesting. The find Otto Krayler’s corpse. And they find two promising suspects - Helen and Daisy. Daisy is soon ruled out, but Helen has a weakness that now gets her into big trouble. She is a congenital liar. Not in a malicious way but she is a would-be writer and her imagination gets away from her. The stories she tells the police are outlandish enough to get her charged with Otto’s murder.

It’s lucky her husband is an attorney. He defends her in court but the court case has unexpected outcomes. And there’s a wild card in this pack - a drunken criminologist named Charley Jasper (John Barrymore).

Lombard and MacMurray generate the same kind of romantic and comic chemistry that they generated in Hands Across the Table a couple of years earlier. MacMurray and Lombard had the perfect personas for screwball comedy and both had nice comic timing. John Barrymore demonstrates his comic skills, while Una Merkel turns in yet another funny, likeable, sexy performance. How was she never a bigger star?

Some American comedy of the 30s could get annoying but that’s never a problem here. Even with the minor characters.

There’s very little to dislike, and a great deal to love, in True Confession

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bird of Paradise (1932)

Bird of Paradise is an outrageous piece of pre-code nonsense about a girl, a sailor and a volcano. The idea is exceptionally silly and the script is, well really the less said about the script the better.

On the other hand director King Vidor and his two stars Dolores del Rio (as a quite remarkably un-Polynesian looking Polynesian princess) and Joel McCrea (as an American sailor who falls in love with her) do their best to inject some life the into proceedings. McCrea is actually surprisingly good. He’s very natural, and he makes a likeable character out of one who could so easily have been arrogant and obnoxious.

Of course in a Hollywood movie of this vintage dealing with a non-European culture you’re going to have a certain amount of racism, but the racism in Bird of Paradise is mostly on the unconscious variety, born out of ignorance rather than malice. And in any case this story is so preposterous you can’t really take anything about this movie seriously.

Bird of Paradise’s main claim to fame is of course Dolores del Rio’s celebrated nude scene. The producers figured that they might have problems getting away with a nude scene, but if the woman in question was a Dusky Island Maiden rather than a white woman that should be OK, shouldn’t it? After all, it seemed to work for National Geographic. Of course Dolores del Rio wasn’t actually a Dusky Island Maiden, but she could pretend to be, couldn’t she? I can’t even attempt to understand the sort of mindset that could consider that a naked woman was only a threat to the morals of healthy young Americans if the woman was white and Anglo-Saxon, but that seems to have been the way they thought in those far-off days. In any case they got away with it. The scene is extraordinarily daring for its time, but to his credit King Vidor shot it in a manner that was both erotic and rather innocent.

So, does Bird of Paradise have anything going for it apart from Dolores del Rio’s skinny-dipping scene? The answer to that really depends on how you approach this movie. It is fun in its own way, it has loads of pre-code moments, an ending you certainly wouldn’t have seen after 1934, and it’s nicely photographed. If you like the Tarzan-type of jungle adventure movie with some romance as well then it’s entertaining enough. More of a curiosity really, but if you’re a connoisseur of pre-code movies you probably need to see it. It was a move that definitely pushed the envelope of what you could do in a Hollywood movie in 1932.

It’s in the public domain and most versions floating about, the Alpha Video DVD release which is the one I have, are sadly in very poor shape.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Falcon Out West (1944)

The 1940s was the great era for B-movie crime series, like The Saint and The Falcon movies. There were also the Boston Blackie movies, although I’ve never managed to track down any of them. The Falcon Out West was my first exposure to a Falcon movie, and it was a generally painless experience.

The Falcon series started out with George Sanders as the title character, but his brother Tom Conway later took over the role. Poor Tom Conway, who really never did escape his reputation as the poor man’s George Sanders.

The Falcon is, like The Saint, one of those mysterious amateur crime-fighters with an ambiguous relationship with the police. Not a private eye exactly, more of an amateur who solves crime as a sort of hobby.

In this case a wealthy Texan rancher (named Tex apparently on the assumption that all Texans are probably named Tex) is killed by a rattlesnake bite. Not overly surprising you might think, but dying of a rattlesnake bite in a swanky 1940s New York night-club is definitely unusual. Murder seems the obvious explanation. There are of course several obvious suspects. There’s Vanessa Drake, the young woman he was about to marry. He’d just signed most of his fortune over to her as a wedding present. And she does have a reputation as being a bit of a good-time gal.

There’s also the embittered ex-wife. And the equally bitter business partner, with whom Tex had been quarreling for years. And the former business partner’s beautiful daughter. So The Falcon, more at home in the bright lights of the big city, finds himself on a Texas ranch as he tries to unravel the mystery. There are various hazards - hostile Comanches (yes this is 1944 so hostile Comanches do seem a bit odd), angry cowboys, rattlesnake, wild horses, and of course no-good dames. This being a 1940s American crime movie we realise immediately that the no-good dames are going to be the biggest danger. Fortunately the Falcon has plenty of experience in this area.

The movie’s greatest strength is that it knows it’s a B-movie and has no pretensions whatsoever to being anything else. It has one goal, which is to provide just over an hour of reasonable entertainment. It does this pretty successfully, with the tried and tested formula of murder, complicated conspiracies involving inheritances, a bit of action, a hint of romance, and of course the aforementioned beautiful dangerous women. And this one has no less than three beautiful dangerous women!

Although comic relief is a inescapable but unpleasant fact of life in American genre movies of the 30s and 40s at least in this film it isn’t overdone and it isn’t too annoying.

Tom Conway is charming and debonair, makes the police look like fools, and of course solves the mystery. Its one departure from formula is that it throws in some western cliches as well as the standard crime movie cliches. Director William Clemens
isn't tempted to try anything fancy but he keeps things moving along at a good pace.

It’s harmless lightweight fun and as long as you’re not expecting anything ground-breaking or profound it should provide sufficient enjoyment to keep crime B-movie fans happy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Man's Favourite Sport? (1964)

Man's Favourite Sport? was the last screwball comedy by one of the great masters, if not the great master of the genre, Howard Hawks.

By 1964 Hollywood was loosening up, the Production Code was clearly on the way out, and Hawks was struggling not to get left behind. In fact the movie feels more like a 50s movie than a 60s movie in some ways but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There’s lots of sex, but it’s all in the form of innuendo and sub-text. On the other hand this is something Hawks did supremely well.

Rock Hudson is Roger Willoughby, a fishing expert and the author of bestselling selling book on fishing, who gets roped into participating in an actual fishing tournament. The problem is, everything he knows about fishing had been cribbed from talking to actual fishermen, and from reading books on the subject. He’s never actually been fishing in his life. He hates fish, he hates the outdoors, he hates getting wet. But his job at a major sporting goods store depends in his reputation as a fishing expert, and of course there’s a feisty female mixed up in all this (it woudn’t be a Howard Hawks romantic comedy without a feisty female). In this case it’s Paula Prentiss, whose father owns the fishing lodge where the tournament is to be held.

Abigail Page (Prentiss) is a typical Hawks heroine. She’s way too smart to be taken in by Roger for even one minute. She knows he’s hiding something, and it doesn’t take her long to find out what it is. Roger may not be able to fish, but Abigail can, and she decides she can teach him enough in three days to at least get by. And being a Hawks heroine, Abigail can catch men as easily as she can catch fish. And Roger might be a phony, but he’s cute and once she has him nibbling on the end of her line she’s not going to let this one get way.

Man's Favourite Sport? doesn’t have quite the same level of inspiration as Hawks’ best efforts in this genre. But Hawks is still a thorough professional, and the screwball romantic comedy is one of his specialties. Hawks still knows what he’s doing. Whether he’s going to get away with it or not depends largely on his actors. By 1964 there wasn’t much doubt about Rock Hudson’s ability to do romantic comedy, and he does it both both skill and charm. Roger is a phony, but he’s likeable and funny.

The real trump card in this movie is Paul Prentiss as Abigail. If you thought the great age of the female screwball comedy star was past by 1964, you haven’t seen this movie. She’s an absolute delight. And remember, if you’re going to play the female lead in a Howard Hawks screwball comedy you’re going to be compared to people like Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn. This may seem like a very rash statement, but Prentiss has no problems in this area. She plays screwball comedy like she was born to play screwball comedy.

The other thing that makes Hawks’ efforts in this genre so consistently enjoyable is that he clearly likes both his male and female characters. They may be battle of the sexes movies, but these are battles of the sexes in which the men and women respect each other. They battle it out both he believes she’s worth it, and she believes he’s worth it. And they both end up winning, because they’re both right.

OK, this is not Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. But it’s not one of those embarrassing late movies by a great director clearly past his prime. It’s a late movie by a great director who still retained much of his touch.

And it has Paula Prentiss, still fairly young and inexperienced but already at the peak of her powers, and it’s worth watching just for her performance. And it’s funny and charming and romantic.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Laura (1944)

While there is some doubt as to whether Laura really belongs in the film noir category, there can be very little debate as to its qualities as a film. It is quite simply one of the best American movies of the 40s. After Rouben Mamoulian’s imitial efforts failed to satisfy Daryl F. Zanuck producer Otto Preminger was asked to take over as director. It was an inspired move. Most of Preminger’s movies that have been labelled as film noir are more explorations of tangled and dangerous relationships than pure film noir.

Since this is a murder mystery one can’t say too much about the plot. Laura Hunt, a woman whose success in the world of advertising has brought her glamour and wealth, has been murdered. There are plenty of plausible suspects. There’s Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the acid-tongued columnist who was responsible for Laura’s rise from obscurity to fame. There’s Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a rather feckless and untrustworthy but undeniably charming gigolo, to whom Laura was engaged. And there’s Ann Treadwell. Shelby had been her boy toy, until Laura came along. Detective Mark McPherson’s task is difficult enough, but becomes even more difficult when he takes one look at Laura’s portrait in her apartment and falls hopelessly in love with her.

To me Laura is a movie about love. More specifically, it’s about unhealthy and doomed love, and the delusions and self-delusions that accompany it. There are many love relationships in this film, and all are unhealthy and all are based on delusions. Laura is so far out of Mark’s league that it’s absurd for him even to think about it. Laura is not the sort of woman who is going to marry a cop. Waldo Lydecker’s love for Laura is equally hopeless. As he himself points out, Laura likes her men to be muscular and handsome. And while Laura remains fond of Waldo, she no longer needs him. She is wealthy, successful and self-reliant. Ann’s love for Shelby is similarly hopeless. He’s not going to settle for a woman with money once he realises he can have a woman with youth and beauty as well as money. Laura’s love for Shelby is based on the delusion that he’s something more than a mere gigolo, but in fact that really is all that Shelby amounts to.

There are other self-delusions at work in Laura. Waldo Lydecker is clearly gay, so at first sight his desire to marry Laura seems rather improbable. This was the problem I had with this movie the first time I saw it, but now it seems more comprehensible. Waldo believes that Laura is his own creation, so it’s really a form of narcissistic love. And in the world of the 1940s it would certainly be advantageous for someone like Waldo to acquire a wife, to reduce his vulnerability to gossip about his sexuality. He is also clearly very sensitive about his physical inadequacies, so a young and beautiful wife would be exceptionally gratifying to his ego. And Laura is intelligent and cultured, so she would make a congenial companion. My assumption is that Waldo has other deluded himself into believing that Laura would accept a sexless marriage, or he’s convinced himself that he can overcome his natural inclinations to a sufficient degree to satisfy her sexually.

Laura is one of those movies that demonstrates that it was possible to make an intelligent grownup whilst still remaining technically within the confines of the Production Code. It has to be admitted that Laura does stretch the Code somewhat, but it is an Otto Preminger film and baiting the Production Code Administration was one of Otto’s favourite pastimes. It’s the mark of a great murder mystery (and one that transcends the limitations of the genre) that having seen the film before and knowing about the plot twists doesn’t diminish one’s enjoyment in the least, and that was my experience with Laura. If anything I liked it more the second time around. Dana Andrews gives one of his best performances as the detective, and although Gene Tierney apparently wasn’t happy with her own performance I think she was judging herself too harshly. I think she’s perfect, but then I’m an unashamed Gene Tierney fan. A truly great movie.