Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Villain Blogathon: The Spider Woman

Something scary is happening.  Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings have pooled their considerable talents to bring us The Great Villain Blogathon, running April 20th to 26th.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce first embodied Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for Twentieth Century Fox in 1939s The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  The Victorian-era tales were well made and popular, but a series idea did not continue past those two excellent movies.  In 1942 Universal took up the mantle with Rathbone and Bruce, updating the pair to a contemporary setting with the majority of the films directed by Roy William Neill.  Holmes was free to pursue various nefarious villains from Professor Moriarty to Nazis.  In 1944 Holmes was pitted against one of the most fiendish of them all - The Spider Woman!

Gale Sondergaard, Basil Rathbone

Holmes:  I suspect a woman.
Watson:  A woman?  You amaze me, Holmes.  Why a woman?
Holmes:  Because the method, whatever it is, is peculiarly subtle and cruel.  Feline, not canine.

Well, if that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

London newspapers are full of reports of mysterious deaths known as "pajama suicides".  Eminent men of means retire for the evening and, with no apparent cause, leap to their deaths.  What is behind it all?  Only one man can solve the puzzle, but that one man is dead.  While on a fishing vacation in Scotland, Sherlock Holmes falls to his death leaving behind a baffled constabulary and a bereft John Watson.  Of course, we know he's an old faker.  Holmes wouldn't go and die on us.  He wants to lull the criminal element behind the "pajama suicides" into a false sense of security.  A disguised Holmes will follow up on his one lead by placing himself in harm's way.  Holmes, in his everlasting confidence, does not fear the "female Moriarty" of crime.

Dennis Hoey, Basil Rathbone

Gale Sondergaard stars as Adrea Spedding, the Spider Woman.  Ms. Spedding has quite the lucrative racket.  Through the auspices of a gaming establishment she induces the eminent men of means to sign over their insurance policies and then on a luckless night frightens them into causing their own deaths to escape the lycosa carnivora, the deadliest insect known to science.  Creepy and effective.

It is a deadly game of cat and mouse between Holmes and the Spider Woman.  They see through each others disguises and ploys easily, and their enjoyment in the game is as great as ours is in watching the sparring.  Holmes comes very close to underestimating his adversary in this adventure.  Adrea Spedding is a brilliant manipulator and exceedingly clever.  She controls her organization with an uncanny ability to anticipate her enemy's moves and an easy access to her dark side.  A mad scientist, an annoying child, and an arcade shooting gallery all figure in the match-up between the two masterminds, which gives us one of the most entertaining entries in the Universal Holmes series.

Vernon Downing, Basil Rathbone, Alec Craig, Gale Sondergaard

Holmes aficionados will have fun looking for nods to The Adventure of the Final Problem, The Sign of Four, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot and The Adventure of the Empty House in Bertram Millhauser's screenplay.

Gale Sondergaard
(1898 - 1985)

When stage actress Gale Sondergaard came to Hollywood in the 1930s it was for her husband, writer/director Herbert Biberman's career.  However, it was Gale's screen career that started off brilliantly when Mervyn LeRoy cast her in the 1936 epic Anthony Adverse.  Her peers saw something in her portrayal of the manipulative and avaricious Faith that moved them to nominate her for a Best Supporting Actress Award in the first year of that category.  For her first film Gale was the first winner of the, at the time, plaque.  Less than two decades later her peers would not be so kind when Herbert Biberman was jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten and Gale was blacklisted.  Her last movie role for many years before the blacklisting set in was as Barbara Stanwyck sympathetic mother in Mervyn LeRoy's East Side, West Side.

Gale Sondergaard was an actress of versatility and intelligence who could and did play a variety of roles, including the mysterious Mrs. Hammond in The Letter, Lady Thiang in Anna and the King of Siam (another Oscar nomination) and the possessive Mrs. Manette in Christmas Holiday.  It is for the classy relish she brought to her villains for which Gale Sondergaard is best remembered.  Whether played in earnest or played for laughs her presence is as welcome and comforting as any on the screen.  You know what you are getting when Gale shows up in The Cat and the Canary, The Road to Rio or The Time of Their Lives as surely as when you are watching The Mark of Zorro and The Spider Woman.  In the 1970s, Gale Sondergaard returned to our screens with guest spots on television programs including Get Smart, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, the mini-series Centennial and the daytime drama Ryan's Hope.

Once a Spider Woman, always a Spider Woman.  Originally a freelance actress, during the 1940s Gale Sondergaard signed with Universal who capitalized on her appearance in the Holmes series by again presenting her as the "Spider Woman".  However, in the 1946 film The Spider Woman Strikes Back she plays a different character named Zenobia Dollard.  Ms. Dollard is even more mad than Ms. Spedding.  Does anyone else feel a chill?    

Monday, April 14, 2014

The James Stewart Blogathon: Bend of the River (1952)

An idea whose time has come!  This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe.  You can view the complete blogathon schedule here.

The screen credit always read James Stewart, yet the people in the audience always called the actor "Jimmy".  Jimmy was like an old pal they had watched for years, first angling for his spot in Hollywood at MGM then speaking for what is good in all of us with his Oscar-nominated performance in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Then there was the war, where Jimmy the flyer was an instructor and flew combat missions in Europe, become a Colonel by the end.  When he retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1959 he was a brigadier general.  After the war, like other actors, and directors like Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), Jimmy took control of his own career.

Jimmy Stewart's film career in the 1950s is a model of versatility and success that any actor would be proud to claim.  In 1950 he played Elwood P. Dowd in the screen version of Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey and found a role he could return to in future on the stage.  At the end of the decade he was Oscar-nominated for the Otto Preminger directed courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder.  In between there were three biographies, The Stratton Story and The Glenn Miller Story, both co-starring June Allyson and The Spirit of St. Louis.  His collaboration with Hitchcock which began with 1948s Rope, continued with Rear Window, Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much.  There were thrillers, romance, dramas, and he even got to be a clown in The Greatest Show on Earth.  Best of all there were westerns.  Jimmy Stewart made eight films with director Anthony Mann and five of them are among the best westerns of the 1950s, Winchester '73, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and Bend of the River.

Bend of the River is my movie.  We all have one.  The movie we reach for when a cold is coming on.  Not the flu or anything major, but a cold that entitles you to pampering while foregoing a trip to the ER.  You snuggle on the couch under a mound of blankets with tissue at your side while obliging family members bring you classes of water, cups of soup and toast with the crusts cut off.  You watch the movie that comforts you right down to your fluffy slippers.  Life is good.

"How many bad guys have to bite the dust before you are comforted?"
- Janet Hall, concerned daughter

Screenwriter Bordon Chase had been working in Hollywood since his first novel Sand Hog was adapted for Raoul Walsh's 1935 film Under Pressure.  Mysteries, war pictures and westerns make up the bulk of Chase's work, with his westerns being true classics of the genre such as Red River, Man Without a Star, Winchester '73 and The Man from Colorado.  I find his best films to be emotionally epic, and this is how Bend of the River, adapted from William Gulick's novel Bend of the Snake, struck me when I first saw it over 40 years ago, and strikes me again on my many re-watches.

Julie Adams, James Stewart

Jimmy Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, leader of a wagon train taking settlers to the Oregon territory.  Glyn has a past as a border raider during the Civil War, a past he wants to forget.  He's hoping to have a new beginning with these brave settlers, particularly with lovely Julie Adams playing Laura Baile.  On a scouting expedition Glyn saves the life of Emerson Cole played by Arthur Kennedy.  Cole has angered some vigilantes and he and Glyn recognize each other for the bad men they have been.  Cole is willing to string along with the wagon train until something better turns up or Laura Baile casts an eye in his direction.  Cole knows he owes Glyn, but his allegiance is strictly self-serving.

The settlers led by Jay C. Flippen as Jeremy Baile, father of Laura and younger sister Marjie played by Lori Nelson, are greeted warmly in Portland purchasing the supplies which will carry them through the winter.  Merchant Tom Hendricks played by Howard Petrie will see that the supplies are shipped in time.  The approaching winter causes concern when the supplies have not arrived as promised so Glyn and Jeremy return to Portland to check on their stock and on Laura.  Laura had been wounded in an Indian attack and had been recuperating in Portland.

Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy, James Stewart

The intervening months had seen a gold strike and the countryside was filling up with optimistic miners who needed supplies and were willing to pay much more than top dollar.  Hendricks is holding back the settler's necessaries for all the money he can get.  Meanwhile, Emerson Cole is running a gambler's paradise with Laura and with a handsome young gunman named Trey Wilson played by Rock Hudson.  This was a breakout role for Rock who proved himself an appealing screen personality.  Glyn hires some men at the dock to load the settler's goods on a paddle wheel run by Cap'n Mello played by Chubby Johnson and Adam played by Stepin Fetchit.  It is a messy situation and Glyn can't get away cleanly as they are followed up river by Hendricks and a gang.

Arthur Kennedy, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano

Glyn counts Cole and Trey as his partners in the dangerous enterprise, but the men who were basically shanghaied from the dock are not satisfied with the situation.  Jack Lambert, Harry Morgan and Royal Dano are among the crew who decide to turn on Glyn, hijack the goods and sell them to the miners.  As masterminds, they fall a little short of their scheme, but Emerson Cole is ahead of them and were it not for Laura's presence, Glyn would be dead.  Instead, he is left to die in the wilderness.

James Stewart as Glyn McLyntock

"You'll be seeing me. You'll be seeing me. Everytime you bed down for the night, you'll look back to the darkness and wonder if I'm there. And some night, I will be. You'll be seeing me!"

The twists and turns of Glyn's redemption make for riveting viewing.  Bend of the River was the second Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann western following Winchester '73.  It was filmed in gorgeous Technicolor by cinematographer Irving Glassberg and has an appropriate stirring score by six time Oscar nominee Hans Salter.  Location filming in Oregon lends a sense of the treachery of the land and of the people.  You can feel the crisp breeze, the mundane hazards of rocks and mud, and be awestruck by the vistas of rivers and mountains.

A perilous journey.

The story of Bend of the River is compelling and filled with action.  Glyn's search for a new life is heartbreakingly convincing in the hands of Jimmy Stewart, who was giving the public a look at the new post-war actor, a man of darker shades.  Arthur Kennedy is a charming skunk as Emerson Cole.  Whether he is playing a sweetheart or a villain, he is an actor that it is impossible to ignore.  

Chubby Johnson's long screen career in movies and on TV was just beginning.  Oldtimer J.C. Flippen still had some interesting roles to play, even into the 60s.  Until a couple of late life roles in the 70s in a Moms Mabley comedy and Won Ton Ton the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, this year would mark the end of the movie road for Stepin Fetchit.  His role in Bend of the River did not rely on much of the traditional comic schtick for which he is most remembered.  Rock Hudson staked his claim in the star lottery.  In future years, certain cast members would become famous for TV roles, Harry Morgan for December Bride, Pete and Gladys, Dragnet and M*A*S*H, and Frances Bavier for The Andy Griffith Show.  In the 1970s Julie Adams would play Jimmy Stewart's wife in The Jimmy Stewart Show, but for now it was 1952.  The 1950s, Jimmy's decade, was just beginning. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Diamonds and Gold Blogathon: Day 2, the Ladies

Ladies and gents, it is the sparkly Sunday of the Diamonds and Gold blogathon, a look at great performances by actors over the age of 50.  Yesterday Rich of Wide Screen World hosted the wonderful articles on gentlemen who impressed us the most.  Today I am thrilled to host a look at all the great actresses who got better with time.

ImagineMDD - Anne Bancroft in 84 Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins

Victoria Loomes, Girls Do Film - Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Minoo Allen - Bette Davis and the Baby Jane Paradox

Patti, They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To - Bette Davis in Right of Way with James Stewart

Beth, Mildred's Fatburgers - Marie Dressler's Second Wind

Margaret Perry.org - How Katharine Hepburn Defied Sexist Ageism in Hollywood

Aurora, Citizen Screen - Josephine Hull in Harvey

Dorian and Vinnie, Tales of the Easily Distracted - Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton together in Witness for the Prosecution 

Portraits by Jenni - Edna May Oliver

Jacqueline T. Lynch, Another Old Movie Blog - Rosalind Russell in A Majority of One

Amy, Vintage Cameo - Gloria Swanson

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Diamonds and Gold blogathon: Ride the High Country (1962)

It is my pleasure to be co-hosting Rich Watson's (Wide Screen World) brainchild, The Diamonds and Gold Blogathon, highlighting some of the great film performances from actors past the age of 50 (which we all know is the new 30!).  Tomorrow this site will be devoted to ladies of a certain age.  Today, my contribution looks at three popular actors together in one of the best westerns from any era.

Ride the High Country was a 1962 release based on a script by N.B. Stone, Jr. (TVs Zorro, Cheyenne, Bonanza, etc.) that writer/director Sam Peckinpah reworked to create a personal vision in the story of two aging lawman at the dawn of the 20th century.  Peckinpah's film serves as a forward looking farewell to an era of filmmaking and a tribute to a vanished breed of men. 

Joel McCrea (1905-1990) was born in California and followed through on an interest in the motion picture industry by appearing as an extra in films in the 1920s and studying acting to prepare for the hoped-for big break.  Blessed with good looks and an athletic build McCrea was a perfect match for films.  Signed by RKO he appeared in increasingly larger roles in interesting films such as The Lost Squadron, Bird of Paradise and The Most Dangerous Game.  He proved a fine match opposite popular leading ladies such as Miriam Hopkins (The Richest Girl in the World, Barbary Coast, These Three), Ginger Rogers (Primrose Path, Chance at Heaven) and  Irene Dunne (The Silver Cord).  McCrea was an understated actor whose work smoothly speaks for itself in bona fide classics such as Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story, William Wyler's Dead End and George Stevens' The More the Merrier.  By the mid-1940s McCrea, also a rancher by trade, found himself comfortably in the position of a screen cowboy in such well-remembered titles as Ramrod, The Virginian, Colorado Territory and Stars in My Crown.  

"I liked doing comedies, but as I got older I was better suited to do Westerns. Because I think it becomes unattractive for an older fellow trying to look young, falling in love with attractive girls in those kinds of situations ... Anyway, I always felt so much more comfortable in the Western."
- Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea as Steve Judd

In Ride the High Country 57-year-old McCrea plays Steve Judd, a former renowned marshal fallen on hard times.  He has taken a job of transporting gold from an isolated mining camp to a bank.  The trail is dangerous as miners have been murdered in recent attempts to get to town, and the take is expected to be in the tens of thousands.  Judd is an honourable man who is loyal to his personal code of right and wrong, and to his employers.  Successfully completing this assignment is a matter of pride and one which Judd hopes will encourage others to see him as a worthy of hire.  Joel McCrea as Steve Judd gives us a character who is down, but not out.  A philosophical man who has retained his values and his good humour.  The stakes involved in his trek to the mining camp of Coarse Gold are large and Steve thinks he has found someone to help him in the task.  Someone with the same sense of pride.  Gil Westrum is also a former lawman now running a sideshow carnival booth going by the name of the Oregon Kid with a list of imaginary villains run to ground.  Westrum earns his living soaking the rubes with the help of a younger partner Heck Longtree played by Ron Starr.  Westrum agrees to go along on the job for old time's sake, and for the money.

Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum

In what would be his final film role in a 34 year film career, 63-year-old Randolph Scott (1898-1987) plays Gil Westrum.  He commented to McCrea at the end of filming that it was time to hang them up as they'd never find another script as good.  It was mainly in B westerns such as To the Last Man, Wagon Wheels and The Thundering Herd, which kept the young actor from North Carolina gainfully employed in his early Hollywood career.  However, he became a popular and well-rounded lead and second lead in many familiar titles including A Successful Calamity with George Arliss, Murders in the Zoo starring Lionel Atwill, the adventure-fantasy She, The Last of the Mohicans as Hawkeye, two Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, Roberta and Follow the Fleet, and two Shirley Temple movies Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Susannah of the Mounties.

It was westerns where Randolph Scott excelled and seemed most at home.  Top-flight titles such as Frontier Marshal, Jesse James, Western Union and Belle Starr.  By the late 1940s Scott, forming his own production company with Harry Joe Brown (Ranown) would focus exclusively on westerns.  The mid-budget westerns proved extremely popular and profitable, featuring an interesting array of age-appropriate leading ladies including Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury and Ann Dvorak.  In 1956, produced by John Wayne's Batjac, Scott starred in 7 Men from Now written by Burt Kennedy and directed by Budd Boetticher.  Scott and Boetticher would collaborate on seven highly regarded westerns solidifying Scott's screen character as a man who might do the right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa.  His characters were often edgy loners, suspicious and secretive in nature.  Gil Westrum plays off that Scott persona and gives us an interesting and layered man.

Ride the High Country features some lovely exchanges between Steve and Gil which recounts their history and their present situation.  Particularly telling is their reminiscing about a girl and what might have been.  Steve is looking for a sort of redemption for his life an chance to "enter his Father's House justified".  Gil feels the world owes them both more than they received out of the dangers they have faced and chances they have taken.  Gil is determined to steal the gold with which they are entrusted and feels he is just.  Steve will only do the right thing, no matter the cost or who must pay.

Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott

The journey to Coarse Gold brings a young woman into the entourage.  Elsa Knudsen played by Mariette Hartley is running from her dictatorial father, played by R.G. Armstrong, to marry one of the mining Hammond brothers, Billy played by James Drury.  Elsa's presence leads to conflict when an attraction arises between her and Heck, and the Hammonds (John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Davis Chandler) turn out to be less than forthright citizens.  Marrying Billy is a mistake for Elsa and a wonderfully disturbing scene in the movie.  The wedding takes place in a whorehouse with its garish inhabitants and customers.  The ceremony being unceremoniously performed by a drunken judge, Tolliver by name, played by Edgar Buchanan.

Edgar Buchanan (1903-1979), beloved as Uncle Joe on TVs Petticoat Junction, was a dentist who turned his practice over to his wife and began a career as a movie extra at the age of 35 in 1939.  The extra career didn't last long because by 1940s The Sea Hawk, Edgar Buchanan's ability as a scene-stealer of the highest order was recognized.  The adventure epic was quickly followed with prime roles such as Applejack in Penny Serenade, "Doc" Thorpe in Texas and Sam Yates in The Talk of the Town.  

Edgar Buchanan as Judge Tolliver

Previously Buchanan had appeared in six movies opposite Randolph Scott including The Desperadoes, The Walking Hills and Abilene Town, and twice with Joel McCrea in Buffalo Bill and Wichita.  In Ride the High Country the 60 year old Buchanan excels as Judge Tolliver in the horrific wedding scene, marshaling his lost dignity to proclaim:

"I am not a man of the Cloth, and this is not a religious ceremony.  It is a Civil marriage, but nonetheless it should not be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently and soberly.  You know, a good marriage has a kind of simple glory about it.  A good marriage is a rare animal, hard to find - almost impossible to keep.  I don't know - you see - well, people change.  It's important for you to know at the beginning that people change.  You see, the real glory of marriage don't come at the beginning.  It comes later and it's hard work."

The wedding night turns to a nightmarish shambles when the Hammond brothers attack Elsa and Steve and Heck agree to take her back to her home.  The Hammonds object, but agree to leave the matter in the hands of the miners' court.  Gil Westrum fixes things with a visit to Judge Tolliver.  It is a pleasure to watch Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan in the scene where Westrum bullies the judge into relinquishing his license to void the wedding.  Nothing they had appeared in before was ever quite as chilling as that scene. You can tell that they knew this was the goods! 

Westrum finds the hungover Judge Tolliver in a back bedroom at Kate's and offers him some liquor.

Tolliver:  Thank you, sir.  What can I do for you?
Gil:  Clear up a little technicality, if you will.  They're holding a Miners' Court.  About that marriage last night, they'll want to know if it was legal.
Tolliver:  Of course it was legal!
Gil:  Well, I believe that. But the Court may want proof. In the form of a license. To perform marriages. You got one?
Tolliver:  See for yourself.
Gil (reading):  Signed by the Governor of California. Yes sir, there's no question at all about the legality of this document. Now Judge, when you testify at that Miners' Court I'm going to ask you one question: 'Do you possess a license to marry people in California?' And you're going to answer, 'No'. Am I clear?
Tolliver:  But that's a lie.
Gil:  No, it isn't. You don't possess it. I do (pocketing the license).
Tolliver:  Now, hold on, Mister...
Gil:  Listen to me, you fat-gutted soak, you're going to do as you're told.  Understand?
Tolliver:  nodding
Gil:  Do you recall the question I'm going to ask you?
Tolliver:  nods again
Gil:  And what do you answer?
Tolliver:  No.
Gil:  Very good. Let's go.

Of course, the Hammonds aren't going to make this simple and the violent force they comprise, combined with the Westrum's treachery from within the group creates the tension and action of the final act of Ride the High Country.

Good acting is a combination of work, inspiration, material and talent.  When you can add experience into that mix you can create truly memorable movie moments.  Ride the High Country has an interesting ensemble of younger performers about to make their mark in the industry, but it is the work of the old pros, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan that make the film a classic which was placed on the National Film Registry in 1992.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy Birthday, Doris Day

"I like joy; I want to be joyous; I want to have fun on the set; I want to wear beautiful clothes and look pretty. I want to smile and I want to make people laugh. And that's all I want. I like it. I like being happy. I want to make others happy."
- Doris Day

Animal activist, multi-talented performer, fashion icon and beautiful soul Doris Day turns 90 on this date.  I wish for her the joy of sweet companions because that is what she will always be to her adoring fans.

My introduction to Doris Day was as a singer and the above album, commandeered from my parent's collection, was an early favourite, especially the track Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.  A little later I discovered Doris Day the movie star, and her popular movie songs.  I thought it would be fun, as I did previously with Bing, to look at Doris' track record with Oscar nominated and winning tunes. 

Click on the song title links for YouTube performances from the films where available.

Jack Carson, Doris Day

1948:  Romance on the High Seas

In Doris' first film she was directed by Michael Curtiz and she introduced what would become a standard, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's It's Magic.  A beautiful girl singing a beautiful song in a gorgeous Technicolor comedy-romance.  The film has mistaken identities, a cruise ship and an appealing cast led by Janis Paige and Doris Day with Jack Carson and Don DeFore.  Oscar Levant and S.Z. Sakall keep the quips and double-takes coming.  Along with Doris, there's great music from the Page Cavanagh Trio and Sir Lancelot.  It wasn't magic for the composition that year at the Oscars as the trophy went to Jay Livingston and Ray Evans' Buttons and Bows from The Paleface. 

Jack Carson, Doris Day, Dennis Morgan

1949:  It's a Great Feeling

The next year Doris was featured as an aspiring actress whose career is taken under the incompetent wings of Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson.  In their comedic efforts to boost their star, the trio run into many bona fide stars on the Warner's lot and it's a pleasantly diverting Sunday afternoon sort of movie.  Doris sang the title song, It's a Great Feeling, again by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and again they were shut out at the Oscars as Frank Loesser took home the hardware for Baby, It's Cold Outside from Neptune's Daughter. 

Doris Day, Howard Keel

1953:  Calamity Jane

And we have a winner!  In every way Calamity Jane, directed by David Butler, director of It's a Great Feeling, is a winner.  Doris Day is right at home as tomboy Jane who falls hard for Howard Keel's Wild Bill Hickcock, after being sidetracked by Phil Carey's cavalry lieutenant and turning the life of Allyn Anne McLerie's faux entertainer inside out.  Sammy Fain and Paul Frances Webster filled the movie with charming songs and won the Oscar for Secret Love.

Doris Day, James Cagney

1955:  Love Me or Leave Me

The dramatic musical biography of popular singer Ruth Etting, Love Me or Leave Me is filled with popular song hits of the 1920s and 1930s.  However an original song was written for Doris to perform as Ruth, and Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn's I'll Never Stop Loving You was nominated for an Oscar.  Sammy Fain and Paul Frances Webster won the award that year for the title song for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.  Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Love Me or Leave Me and Doris' co-star James Cagney was nominated for Best Actor.  Doris' nomination must have been lost in the mail.

Louis Jourdan, Doris Day

1956:  Julie

Released in 1956, Julie is a thriller directed by Andrew Stone (The Last Voyage).  Doris stars as flight attendant Julie whose second husband, concert pianist Louis Jourdan, is a tad on the possessive psychotic side, and the relationship has become frighteningly dangerous.  Julie fearfully comes to suspect that her first husband was murdered by her second, but convincing others and escaping Jourdan's mania is no easy task, especially on an airplane.  The theme Julie by Leith Stevens and Tom Adair was nominated for the Oscar as was Andrew Stone's original screenplay.

Daniel Gelin, Christopher Olsen, Doris Day, James Stewart

1956:  The Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock revamped his 1934 film of the same name keeping the premise of a couple  and their desperate search for their kidnapped child after they unwittingly become involved in international intrigue.  Our mystified yet resourceful American tourists are played by Doris Day and James Stewart.  The film is opened up to include Marakesh locations and a song.  Not just any song.  THE song that is so inextricably associated with Doris Day that it followed her from movie to movie (Please Don't Eat the Daisies, The Glass Bottom Boat) to television (The Doris Day Show).  Jay Livingston and Ray Evans won the Oscar for Whatever Will Be Will Be (Que Sera Sera).  ASCAP also designated the song as one of the "Most Performed Feature Film Standards".

Happy Birthday, Doris Day.  

Monday, March 31, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for April on TCM

John Ford, though a man of a prickly and mercurial nature, was a director with great artistic vision and critical and popular success.  Despite his laudatory career and multiple awards it took many years for the stars to align for Ford's pet project, a film based on Maurice Walsh's 1935 short story The Quiet Man.  It may have been due to timing or casting.  Perhaps the failure of studio executives to see any box office in the slight story or understand Ford's vision of expressing his lead character's nostalgic yearning and his journey through a mix of humour, mythology and Irish literary tradition.  Whatever the hurdles, the path was finally cleared by the man Ford befriended, bullied and made a star, John Wayne.  

Wayne was at this time making his first steps into production with Angel and the Badman and The Fighting Kentuckian at Republic Studios when he broached the idea of The Quiet Man to Herbert Yates.  Yates immediately saw the prestige of having a Ford picture under the Republic banner, but wanted a buffer against the possibility of box office failure.  The Quiet Man and its Irish location shooting was approved if, first, John Ford gave the studio a western.  As the publicity poster proclaimed he gave them "John Ford's Greatest Romantic Triumph!".

Rio Grande is at its core a story about healing, the coming together of a broken couple, a broken family and a broken country.  Based on a Saturday Evening Post story by  James Warner Bellah (Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) with a screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness (Tarzan and His Mate, Arsene Lupin Returns) Rio Grande is set at an isolated cavalry outpost in the southwest where Colonel Kirby Yorke, played by John Wayne, contends with raiding Apaches who escape U.S. authorities by crossing over the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo into Mexico.  York's superior, General Philip Sheridan, played with a gruff professionalism by J. Carroll Naish (Sahara, A Medal for Benny) gives Kirby a covert order to disobey the rules and at the next opportunity pursue the Apaches into the neighbouring country.  It is an impossible mission where Yorke's actions will be condemned by the very people who gave them.

 John Wayne, J. Carroll Naish

Sheridan:  "If you fail, I assure you members of your court martial will be the men who rode with us at Shenandoah."

Sheridan, Yorke and burly Sgt. Quincannon played by Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din) share a bond which reaches back to their service in the Civil War when their activities on behalf of the Union caused a rift between Kirby Yorke and his southern-born wife, Kathleen.  Maureen O'Hara (Miracle on 34th Street, The Black Swan) plays the tempestuous Kathleen Yorke.  For the first time movie audiences were treated to the electric chemistry and unique friendship that made Duke and Miss O'Hara one of Hollywood's most enduring screen teams.  The beauty of our stars and the stark location of the film is enhanced by the black and white cinematography of Bert Glennon, Oscar-nominated for Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk and Dive Bomber.

Claude Jarmin Jr., John Wayne

Jeff:  "I'm not on this post to call you father."
Among recruits new to this frontier posting is Jefferson Yorke, the teenaged son of Kathleen and Kirby, played by Claude Jarmin Jr. (The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, Hangman's Knot).  Failing in mathematics at West Point, "Jeff" enlisted and finds himself face-to-face with the father he has never known due to his parent's long separation.

Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarmin Jr.
John Wayne, Chill Wills, Fred Kennedy, Victor McLaglen

Sandy:  "He said he was the teacher's pet of a chowder-headed mick sergeant.  What's that mean, doc?"

Kirby Yorke is pleased to meet the son who is following in his footsteps and flustered at how to handle the uncommon role of a father.  Jeff is a good kid who does his best and makes friends easily.  Those friends include Trooper Travis Tyree played with an appealing grace and ease by Ben Johnson (Wagon Master, Shane, The Last Picture Show) and the affable Trooper Sandy Boone played by Harry Carey Jr. (Red River, Three Godfathers, TVs The Adventures of Spin and Marty).  A highlight of the film is a display by these three actors of Roman Riding with the riders standing on more than one horse and jumping.  The trick riding is at the behest of Sgt. Quincannon who acts as an "uncle" toward Trooper Yorke.  The seeming favouritism leads to a fight between Jeff and Trooper Heinz.  Heinz is a lovely and memorable role for stuntman Fred Kennedy, who had been in films since 1938s The Adventures of Robin Hood and worked with Ford on many occasions.  Tragically, Kennedy would be killed performing a routine stunt on 1959s The Horse Soldiers.

John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara

Kathleen:  "Ramrod, wreckage and ruin, still the same Kirby Yorke."
Kirby:  "Special privileges to special born, still the same Kathleen."

The routine of the post and its commander's defences are assaulted by the arrival of Kathleen Yorke, determined to purchase Jeff's release from the army.  The attraction between Kirby and Kathleen is as undeniable as their clinging to past grievances and stubborn refusal to understand the other's point of view.  Will proximity, hardship and the example of their maturing son be enough to bring the couple together.  Perhaps music will soften their hearts.  Victor Young's (Shane, Around the World in Eighty Days) is very fine and a personal favourite of mine.  The soundtrack is filled with songs by Stan Jones such as the lovely My Gal is Purple, and Dale Evans' peppy Aha, San Antone.  The familiar tunes I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Down by the Glenside may not be appropriate to the time of the story, but are certainly appropriate to the tone of the film.  The songs are beautifully sung by the regimental singers aka the Sons of the Pioneers in cavalry guise, with the soulful Ken Curtis taking lead vocals.

One of the things I like best about Ford's cinematic storytelling is that he brings us into a fully formed world such as the society of the post in Rio Grande.  A look between characters, an attitude or a cryptic remark infers a back story for the imaginative viewer.  There's a novel behind those looks that pass among Kirby and his officers.

Anticipating a hard winter of campaigning, the women and children, including 10-year-old Karolyn Grimes (It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Blue Skies) and 11-year-old Patrick Wayne (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Young Guns) are to be transferred to safety at Fort Bliss.  When the children are captured in a raid and taken across the border, volunteer troopers Tyree, Boone and Yorke take the lead in a dangerous mission to bring the children home safely to their anxious parents.  The theme of reunification is amplified once again in Rio Grande.

Rio Grande has it all - action, drama, romance, humour, songs and riding "after the manner of the ancient Romans".

TCM is screening Rio Grande on Wednesday, April 23rd at 10:45 am, as John Wayne is April's Star of the Month with wall-to-wall Duke playing on the network from Monday, April 21st to Friday, April 25th.  Sounds like any five days at my house!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon: Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater (1956 - 1961)

Dick Powell
1904 - 1963

Big Stars on the Big Screen is the name of a blogathon running March 20th and 21st sponsored by Aurora on her sterling television devoted blog How Sweet It WasThis link will take you to a wondrous land where bloggers of renown release their inner fanboy/girl.  Maybe some of the shows featured are your favourites as well.

Dick Powell accomplished a lot in his show business career.  The boy with the lovely tenor voice and way with a popular song became a band singer and master of ceremonies.  His engaging stage presence and vocal ability led to a contract with Warner Brothers Studios in 1932 and a role in the fast-paced Lee Tracy comedy Blessed Event.  Dick sang four songs in the movie, two by Harry Warren.  Composer Warren would figure prominently in Dick Powell's movie career at Warners, composing songs introduced by the singer in such films as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and 42nd Street.  Future standards in the Great American Songbook include Warren and Dubin's I Only Have Eyes for You from Dames and I'll String Along With You from Twenty Million Sweethearts.  Dick Powell's popularity in such films as The Sing Marine, Broadway Gondolier, Flirtation Walk, Colleen and On the Avenue, often paired on screen with Canadian born hoofer Ruby Keeler or wife (1936-1944) Joan Blondell, kept the actor in the rut of a brash, but likeable young go-getter.

"I'm not a kid anymore but I'm still playing boy scouts."

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor
Murder, My Sweet

In 1940 Dick Powell made the move to Paramount Pictures and despite excellent movies such as Preston Sturges' Christmas in July and Rene Clair's It Happened Tomorrow, the fare was much the same.  In an effort to bring his image more in line with his age and his abilities Powell campaigned for the role of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity which went to Fred MacMurray.  Fulfilling a contract obligation to place their newly hired star in a drama, RKO cast the musical star in Murder, My Sweet, an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe story Farewell, My Lovely.  Critics and audiences were impressed with the new image projected by Dick Powell in the role of a hard-boiled detective.  They shouldn't have been taken by surprise.  Those musicals he made at Warners weren't operettas.  They had songs, but they still had the zingers and tough-minded characters associated with a Warners product, and Dick Powell was adept at the style.  More excellent film-noir followed in the 1940s including Cornered, Pitfall, Johnny O'Clock and Cry Danger.  Other personal favourites of this era are Mrs. Mike, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Tall Target.  In You Never Can Tell Powell showed that after all that time on the mean streets, he never lost his comedy chops as he plays a reincarnated police dog solving his own murder.  It's a dandy!

"The best thing about switching from being an actor to being a director is that you don't have to shave or hold your stomach in anymore."

Dick Powell began directing with the 1953 film Split Second.  He directed his wife (1945-1963) June Allyson in a remake of It Happened One Night called You Can't Run Away from It.  It is most likely the directing assignment on The Conquerer which brought cast and crew to a former nuclear testing sight in Utah caused that cancer which would take his life, and those of many involved in the film.

One of the logos for the production company, Four Star

From master of ceremonies to popular crooner to perpetual juvenile lead to gritty dramatic star to director to influential independent television producer.  In 1955 Dick Powell, along with David Niven, Charles Boyer and Joel McCrea founded Four Star Productions, with McCrea bowing out of the corporation early to be replaced by actress/director Ida Lupino.  Dick Powell was the savvy business leader and hard-working head of the group.  Four Star Playhouse was an anthology series which ran on CBS from 1952 to 1956 featuring each of Four Star's four stars in rotating stories.  Over the course of the series run they received 14 Emmy nominations and 2 Directors Guild of America awards.

"From out of the west, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater"

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater was produced by Four Star Productions and ran on CBS from 1956 - 1961.  The 1950s was the heyday of anthology series and of westerns, and here we had the best of both worlds.  The series was created by western writer Luke Short and the earliest stories are purported to be based on Zane Grey stories, however the episodes are pure mid-century American television with the Grey name promising the adventure of the old west.

Each week our host to the half hour episodes was the familiar and welcome face of Dick Powell.  His old m.c. skills made him right at home in front of the television camera giving us pithy, amusing and sometimes corny introductions to the story to come.  Stories written by Short, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller, Fred Frieberger, Aaron Spelling and directed by John English, Christian Nyby, Budd Boetticher, David Lowell Rich and Don Taylor, etc.

Talk about big stars on the small screen - Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater had them all!  Barbara Stanwyck guested four times and Four Star would produce her popular 1960s series The Big Valley.  One of her episodes called Trail to Nowhere was written by Aaron Spelling as a (ahem) nod to Double Indemnity.  In interviews the producer/writer credited his boss at Four Star, Dick Powell with success.  Originally an actor, Spelling was encouraged by Powell to develop his writing skills and then to move into production.  When Spelling came up with the episode that could only be played by Barbara Stanwyck, Powell said "Well, go get her."  In hindsight Spelling knew that his boss had cleared the path for him to Stanwyck's door, but the confidence it gave him was immeasurable.  In her 1982 autobiography June Allyson wrote about her late husband's untiring efforts to mentor and help younger people in show business.  Dick Powell was unstinting in his support of the burgeoning talent, both on and off screen.

Other programs produced under the Four Star banner include Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen, The Westerner with Brian Keith, Trackdown with Robert Culp, Black Saddle with Peter Breck and Russell Johnson and Law of the Plainsman with Michael Ansara.  David Janssen starred in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, adapted from the radio series which starred Dick Powell.  The Detectives starred Robert Taylor.  Programs in the 1960s included The Rogues with David Niven, Charles Boyer, Gladys Cooper and Robert Coote, Gene Barry in Burke's Law and Anne Francis in Honey West.  

Joan Crawford guested twice on the program.  Ida Lupino and James Whitmore are featured in a taut first season episode entitled Fearful Courage.  This would be the first of five appearances for Whitmore in a challenging variety of roles.  You might tune in and see, to your surprise and delight, Edward G. Robinson, Ralph Bellamy, John Payne, Eddie Albert, Van Johnson, Lew Ayres, Chester Morris, Brian Donlevy, Raymond Massey, Sammy Davis, Jr. or Chuck Connors playing a fellow named Lucas McCain.  If it is talented ladies you wish to see, look no further as Julie Adams, Audrey Totter, Martha Hyer, Marsha Hunt, Beverly Garland, Rita Moreno, Constance Ford, Hedy Lamarr, Beulah Bondi, Mary Astor and Carolyn Jones found interesting frontier women to bring to life.  I guarantee you that if you tune into Zane Grey Theater, not only will you be entertained by an interesting story, but each episode will feature a favourite or familiar actor.

Cloris Leachman, Robert Ryan
You Only Run Once

The first episode of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater is You Only Run Once, one of four episode guest starring Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground, Bad Day at Black Rock) and Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein).  Circumstantial evidence and jealousy lead Ryan's rancher to run afoul of vigilantes led by a bitter John Hoyt.  With the likes of Parley Baer, Leo Gordon, Douglas Fowley and Whit Bissell in the cast, the script is quite involving and emotions are brittle.  

Also from season one, a favourite of mine is Stage for Tucson.  A talented ensemble led by Eddie Albert finds travelers facing a crisis at a stage stop.  Deforest Kelley, John Ericson, Ian MacDonald, Bing Russell and a fiesty Mona Freeman give entertaining performances that remind us why this is classic television.

Dick Powell
Adding to his workload on Zane Grey Theater

Of course, our host took the time to appear in a episode or two during the run of the series.  Courage is a Gun has a wonderful script about a hot-headed young gunfighter played by Robert Vaughn who is hired by saloon keeper James Westerfield to take out the sheriff played by Dick Powell.  How does the sheriff's love, the town doctor played by Beverly Garland, come in to play in this tense situation?

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater was awarded a Writer's Guild of America award in 1961 for Anthology Drama, 30 Minutes in Length.  Other nominees that year were Alcoa Theatre, The Dupont Show with June Allyson, The Twilight Zone and Goodyear Theatre.

In 1961 Dick Powell, after the end of Zane Grey Theater, moved on to another star-studded anthology series in which he would host and appear, The Dick Powell Theatre.  The series won a Golden Globe for Best TV Program and was nominated for 9 Emmy awards, winning one for guest Peter Falk.  The program was also honoured with nominations and wins from the American Cinema Editors, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.  Dick Powell's television legacy is one of great distinction as one of the first and most successful independent producers in the industry.