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Possessed (1931): Joan Crawford and The “In” Crowd

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We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.

Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”

It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.

She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.

Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.

At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.

In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.

However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.

For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.

What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.

Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.

Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.

Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.

It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.

A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.

In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.

Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.

Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.

3.5/5 Stars

Getting to Know Peggy Dow: Harvey and Beyond

source: IMDb

The L.A. Times headline in 1951 read: “Peggy Dow Sketches Future as She Quits Hollywood to Wed”

Many people recall how Grace Kelly famously married Prince Rainier of Monaco and from thenceforward left her stirling Hollywood career behind out of a sense of love and duty. That’s how the narrative was written anyway.

At least in the case of Peggy Dow Helmerich, it was never about sacrificing her career for the sake of her family. She wouldn’t have had it any other way, going on to raise 5 sons with her lifelong husband, Walt Helmerich, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What makes it such a lovely story is how she left behind the “Hollywood Dream” and lived a lovely life of contentment outside of the West coast rat race. Far from being a wasted talent that could have been, she simply reallocated her talents becoming synonymous with the arts in Oklahoma. And there’s nothing more admirable than raising a family.

In recent days, I got interested in Helmerich’s career. She is still with us today and before COVID days, she still made a decent amount of public appearances in her hometown as well as graciously agreeing to be interviewed by the Jimmy Stewart Museum, among others. It’s been a cache of wonderful information about old Hollywood and her part in it, but it’s also given me a greater estimation for the woman herself.

I felt compelled to acknowledge her, not only as a bright Hollywood talent with some enjoyable films to her name (including Harvey), but also as a lovely human being. I’m not sure if Mrs. Helmerich will ever see this, but hopefully, it can act as an introduction to those who aren’t as familiar with her.

Although she was only in Hollywood for several years, coming off university at Northwestern, she was touted at Universal-International as a rising starlet and her contemporary portfolio suggested as much.

In 1950, she was not only featured prominently on the cover of Life Magazine, but she also presented Edith Head her first Oscar at the Academy Awards for costume design. Famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper rated Dow highly, writing that she “Endowed Roles With Zest and Impact.” In 1951 she even accepted an award from Harry S. Truman in laud of Bright Victory, and its portrayal of servicemen.

If there was a beauty to actors being salaried to specific studios, it meant they had the opportunity to be in a slew of movies and therefore take on many different roles in an extremely short span of time. Peggy Dow only worked for a couple years at Universal-International and still found herself in 9 movies. Here are some of them.

Undertow

It’s not a pretty picture, but in an era saturated with noir, Undertow does give a fairly prominent role for Dow as an intrepid schoolteacher who meets a reformed criminal (Scott Brady) in Reno and shares a flight with him, only to later provide him asylum from the Chicago mob. Against the run-of-the-mill plot of a wanted man exonerating himself, Dow ably showcases her charms with warmth and a touch of class. The only question remains how will Brady end up with her since he already has a bride-to-be already waiting in the wings? It all works out in the end and boy gets girl.

Woman in Hiding

It’s a superior picture starring Ida Lupino in trouble, Stephan McNally as her treacherous southern boy of a husband, and Howard Duff plays the genial foil, providing support in her time of need. The title is straightforward enough and Dow’s part is pretty small, but it’s a juicy bit. She plays a scorned southern belle who gets slapped around during a cabin rendezvous and still manages a conspiratorial tone later on. Although it wouldn’t become the norm, it certainly would have aided in not totally typecasting her if she had wanted to stay in Hollywood.

The Sleeping City

It’s a mostly forgotten noir set in a hospital with Richard Conte as an uncover agent investigating a mysterious murder. With the sweet and diffident Colleen Gray as a nurse, it’s a bit difficult to know where Dow will fit into the picture. Sure enough, she shows up at the tail end as the heartbroken wife of a dead man brought in for questioning. All it amounts to is sharing a walk and talk with Richard Conte. That’s about the extent of it. Thankfully, the best was yet to come!

Harvey

Dow stated in interviews she actually didn’t want to feature in Harvey as a nurse because she was earmarked to play an Indian princess in some western opposite Van Heflin. It was her agent as well as her beau at the time, Walt Helmerich, who both encouraged her to take the part from the hit play now starring James Stewart. Time certainly has looked kindly upon that decision.

Now 70 years on and Harvey is still a beloved classic about a whimsical man who converses with an invisible rabbit and sprinkles a bit more pleasantness into the world. It would not be a stretch to say I would have never known Peggy Dow without Harvey. It’s not a flashy part, but what comes through is her beauty and natural courtesy gelling so nicely with Stewart’s characterization as Elwood P. Dowd. It just makes me smile, and she does too. It still holds up for me.

Bright Victory

It comes in the fine tradition of many of the war rehabilitation movies, in this case, following a soldier returning from WWII without his eyesight. He struggles to put his life back together with the help of his doctors and the tough love of his buddies. Dow got her biggest chance this time opposite Oscar-nominated everyman Arthur Kennedy.

She plays a warm and virtuous woman who sees through a vet’s gruffness, treating him decently because she sees all he’s had to overcome. After getting off on the wrong foot, they build a comfortable rapport. The only problem is that he already has a beautiful fiancee (Julie Adams) waiting for him. Thankfully, she’s hardly a terror, but the way the cards fall, Kennedy still ends up with the girl who has waited faithfully for him. It’s a joyous crescendo in a movie that certainly has admirable intentions promoting empathy and racial tolerance. Dow shares some tearful moments opposite Kennedy that are absolutely heart-rendering.

You Can Never Tell

At its heart, it’s a goofy fantastical comedy that has a bit of the DNA of the Shaggy Dog or Angels in the Outfield. A dog is bequeathed a giant fortune, quite peculiar, only to kick the bucket, quite suspicious. He’s reincarnated as a Dick Powell private eye prepared to get to the bottom of his own murder. Far from a villainess, Peggy Dow is his faithful caretaker who is next in line to the fortune. However, in all her good-nature, she doesn’t know someone has their designs on her (and the money). It’s ludicrous and fluffy if altogether harmless entertainment, enjoyable for what it is.

I Want You

This movie shares some similarity to Bright Victory in that it evokes an earlier classic in The Best Years of Our Lives. In fact, Samuel Goldwyn was trying to match his earlier success bringing back Dana Andrews in a story examining the effects of war on three generations of a family in Middle America. Robert Keith is the father and WWI vet whose eldest son (Andrews) went off to WWII, leaving behind his wife (Dorothy McGuire). Now, with the current conflict in Korea, the next in line (Farley Granger) is to be sent off.

He’s a brash young man involved with his car and girls. His best girl happens to be Peggy Dow. She’s been off to college, gained education, experience, and breeding. Her father is not too keen about her hometown beau, and so he has an uphill climb to woo her back. There are several facets to the movie, and if it was allotted more time to tease out its themes with greater nuance, it might be more well-remembered today. The meaning certainly is there if it’s not executed to a tee. Regardless, the performances carry a genuine warmth, and it’s a delight to watch the young love of Granger and Dow breeding between them. What a shame this would be Dow’s final time in the Hollywood spotlight!

Beyond Hollywood

We will never know what Marnie would have looked like if Princess Grace had come out of retirement to work once more with Alfred Hitchcock. And the same might be said of Peggy Helmerich. She was married and already a mother of her first when Hollywood tried to coax her back one last time in 1956.

It wasn’t just anyone either; it was one of the industry heavyweights in William Holden. He was set to play a pilot. No, this wasn’t another Bridges of Toko-Ri, but a picture called Toward the Unknown. Ultimately, the former actress passed on the opportunity and never looked back!

In an interview with Tulsa World she recounted how Dick Powell actually gave her some sage personal advice:

“Why would you want to stay in this business?’ I thought he was crazy, and I told him, the same reason as you: I’m an actor. But it turned out that he was fascinated with Walt because Dick was fascinated with business. He told me: You get married to Walt, and you come back to Hollywood, and this is what’s going to happen: It won’t work out. He asked me to come up with five happy married couples in Hollywood that we knew, and we had a hard time doing it.”

So in the end, a truncated Hollywood career seemed like a small price to pay for lifelong happiness. As alluded to already, Dow gladly turned her faculties towards raising a family with her husband of over 50 years Walt Helmerich as well as investing in her community. It’s no coincidence that the University of Oklahoma school of drama is named after her as well as a prestigious Distinguished Author Award.

However, more then any of this, whether it’s through her screen roles or the interviews that she gave, it’s obvious that Peggy Dow Helmerich is a classy, warm-hearted individual. When asked what she wanted to hear from God when she arrives at Heaven’s gate, she responded, “Come in.”

I’m not sure if I will get the pleasure of making your acquaintance in this lifetime Mrs. Helmerich, but I certainly hope I might get the privilege of seeing you in the next. I will tell you how much Harvey impacted me and how pleasantness really can go a long way in this world of ours. I think you exemplified that as well as anyone else. I wish you all the best.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928): Joan Crawford Ascending

Our Dancing Daughters is an inflection point of silent film for the very fact it stands out for setting Joan Crawford up to be in incandescent star for generations to come. She calls upon her flapper talents and bouncy effervescence fully embodying the jazz age through the character of “Dangerous” Diana Medford.

Between glitzy wardrobing and the Charleston, she exerts herself as a first-rate girl about town. Because she, like everyone else of her age demographic, is out to have a good time, dance with boys, and partake of everything else youth affords. Although it is still a silent, the added benefit of a synchronized soundtrack imbues the party scenes with life to go along with Crawford’s infectious hoofing as the balloons fall all around them. 

Di’s doting friend Bea (Dorothy Sebastian) is having her own romantic tribulations, based on the searing baggage of a past love affair, now impinging on her present. Meanwhile, her greatest rival, Ann (Anita Page), a conniving opportunistic with a mother cut out of the same cloth, continues to jockey for the most advantageous romantic partner. Page is an unholy riot giving the part her all as the duplicitous gold digger who turns into a raucous and rebellious drunk. She more than holds her own as a foil and the film’s primary villain.

This is great, but we still have to contend with all the various trysts and dalliances taking place; what do they matter? All the talk of merrymaking and marrying rich gets kind of monotonous. The picture’s premise feels quite flat and it may be an added effect of antiquity.

Another complaint is how so many of the male co-stars blend together aside from John Mack Brown. They’re a generally innocuous bunch of ne’er do wells. Why are we supposed to be drawn to any of them? However, even as other elements feel staid and pat to go with the passage of time — the ending included — Crawford still manages to draw the eye. 

This prevailing curiosity feels genuine and not simply an academic appreciation from a historical distance. She engages when the movie doesn’t always manage to do so. It’s not merely about looks or fashion. These are only cursory traits. But can we all agree that those great big expressive of hers were made to be in movies?

Thank heavens we have Joan Crawford and her heroine to bolster Our Dancing Daughters. It begins with garnering a certain reputation. The charm drips off of her, or better yet, it flies, landing like pixie dust on all her beaus and the audiences out in the theater seats. Crawford as a persona is coming to the fore and becoming fully apparent. She might not be the proverbial Clara Bow “It Girl,” but there’s a similar infectious magnetism even sensuality to her, bursting off the screen.

Thus, when she catches the eye of a Mr. Blaine (Brown), an eligible, very rich, young bachelor, people take note; they snicker. Diana the Dangerous is at work. But for all her reputation, Di is really a very sympathetic, vulnerable girl. It’s like Hollywood (or maybe the entire country) had not yet been burdened with the cynical inclinations of the Great Depression.

They have yet to see utter destitution or debauchery a la Baby Face or Red-Headed Woman. In 1928, women in the movies still dream of the right man, they marry for love, and the heroic ones are bound to get their hearts broken. This is so crucial to Diana. She’s hardly as superficial as we would assume.

She falls more and more for Ben only for him to make a major faux pas by going for Annikins and her false showing of pious propriety. She’s anything but. Whereas Di’s totally out there and inherently honest. And what does it get her? Heartbreak. Because Crawford has youthful good intentions, open to being wounded, and she’s more than susceptible to it.

She begins her career on this surprisingly sympathetic note, heartbroken by a man, and forced to come to terms with it. But she plays it sincerely, where all the frivolity evaporates when it really matters, and when it begins to hurt the most. This is the key to the movie. It starts to mean something. We realize why we are watching. 

As her sceen life merged with her personal legacy, I’m not sure I always considered or ever imagined Joan Crawford to be a terribly sympathetic figure. She was larger-than-life, yes, but I rarely felt connected with her. At this early juncture in her career, she more than proved her mettle as a “good girl,” and when it’s done well, there’s nothing wrong with being good. In a world that’s unfair and harsh, it gives us stories fraught with genuine weight. There would still be time enough for Joan to grow scales. She was a resilient one to be sure. She had to be.

3.5/5 Stars

Alias Nick Beal (1949): Ray Milland’s a Devil

Alias_nick_beal (1)

This is my entry in the CMBA Politics on Film Blogathon.

Alias Nick Beal handily flips the paradigm of cinematic angels in vogue with Hollywood, specifically during the 1940s. You could make a whole subgenre out of them. As its name suggests, the lynchpin character of the whole movie is Nick, though this is admittedly only a pseudonym. Across time and space, he’s come in many forms, under many names, including the serpent, Lucifer, or the Devil.

Ray Milland portrays him in bodily form ,providing a deliciously evil turn in fine threads. He’s not quite the “blonde Satan” out of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade literature, but he’s almost there, about as close as you might possibly come in the flesh. With such a devious figure pulling the strings, Alias Nick Beal becomes noir mixed with myth and allusion in a rather unusual manner. It is the first of its kind: a Faustian noir.

The story itself opens in more conventional territory. There’s an earnest, hard-working district attorney named Foster (Thomas Mitchell) who is looking to clean up local corruption, manifested as always by cigar-chomping Fred Clark with his host of slot machines and bookies just looking to rake in the dough.

Try as he might, he’s never been able to deal the definitive blow to the town’s graft. Regardless, he’s an upstanding man of principle with a devoted wife (Geraldine Wall) of many years and a solid base of friends, including local minister Reverend Garfield (George Macready). Of course, even someone like him falls to temptations; they seem innocent at first even honorable. The trajectory of his entire political career starts to change for the better, although his personal relationships are poisoned beyond repair. More on that later.

For now, he has an inauspicious meeting at the local watering hole, the dubious China Coast Cafe. It’s the kind of joint that can only exist in the foggy back lots of some Hollywood studio (in this case Paramount Pictures).

It’s the cheap, low-lit atmospherics of such an obviously stylistic or phony facade that make Alias Nick Beal feel like low-grade entertainment. With noir, however, this often proves more of a blessing, and what’s more remarkable is how impressive the cast manages to be. The cafe also happens to be a fitting place to meet the devil’s incarnate.

No, Foster doesn’t go and sign the pact right then and there. His new acquaintance is far too cunning, far too diabolical to be so direct. But it comes soon enough as his new undue influence makes an insidious impact on the politician’s life. Isn’t it true that small habits compound as days, weeks, months, and years go by before you realize how much you’ve actually changed? Whether good or bad.

Simultaneous with his public ambitions, Foster’s reverend friend helps run a boys home not unlike similar storylines in Boy’s Town or Angels With Dirty Faces. It’s a conventional if generally uninteresting element. The one moment prodding the movie’s core conflict with a stick comes with the daily Bible reading.

Nick doesn’t want to be caught dead near the good book, but the minister opens it all the same as is his practice reading the following words to his charges:

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

If they’re not obvious already, the passage is an implicit call for Foster — to make him take heed — a warning against his current trajectory. Nick knows if Foster heeds the words, all his tireless work in interference will be thwarted. However, he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve.

One of them is named Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), a dame he found out on a street corner by the same upstanding establishment he just happened to meet Foster at. Audrey Totter does her gloriously acerbic rendition for this strange character and plays it nice and tender as well. It’s a fluid performance for a peculiar role calling for a hooker to get promoted in status to that of a campaign manager and confidante.

Suddenly, the work of devils and angels don’t look altogether dissimilar. After all, he raises this woman of ill-repute out of the gutter, gets her an apartment, drapes her in mink coats and stoles. However, it’s the ulterior motives that are most revealing.

Because eventually Nick has worked his way up — greasing the wheels of Foster’s ego as it were — so they can start talking about the murky grays of politics. His line of arguments are deceptive to the point he has his victim finds himself conceding on the same points of moral bedrock as Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

They buy into the lie that this is the only way to get anything done. Maybe it is partially true. Who am I to say? Conveniently, in the other picture, Thomas Mitchell was the wisecracking journalist who could observe from a comfortable distance. In this one, he’s embroiled right in the middle of the mess.

With Nick Beal constantly needling him and all the conflicting forces and voices in his life swelling, it really is a tug-of-war for his soul. Everyone wants a piece of it. His wife, the reverend, Nick, even Donna. It’s the intent that colors their true character.

Thus, Alias Nick Beal is an impeccably noirish take on spiritual warfare — the necessity of “pinning the devil to the mat” — before he totally makes you into a self-serving, arrogant person. Given the context it’s already working within, Nick Beal is a creative riff on Faust, but it never feels like full-fledged noir since the moralism is laid on a bit thick.

Neither of these elements is altogether detrimental, but it does feel like the movie is diluted in all its efforts. It’s this curious amalgam of disparate points of interest and self-reflexive in its orchestration with Milland being allowed to be villain and impresario. Again, the pieces and the resulting performances are intriguing, but it feels too cut-and-dry in the scripting department.

There’s never the great intrigue of watching a movie where we imbibe the sense of drama, romance, laughter, or whatever else. It feels like a story is being spun for the sake of Nick Beal so we can see him pulling the strings in front of the camera. Meanwhile, other themes are either cast aside or never fully explored. They could have been the building blocks for another movie entirely.

All told, I’d put it a couple rungs under the likes of The Bishop’s Wife and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And it’s not quite on par with director John Farrow’s The Big Clock or His Kind of Woman. Milland is enough to make it nearly worth it.

3/5 Stars

The Unknown (1927): Silent Cinema Out on The Big Top

As someone always trying to steep myself in more and more silent cinema, I still have much to contend with when it comes to the careers of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. However, from everything I can gather, The Unknown is a wonderful melding of their talents, Browning drawing on his penchant for the outcasts of humanity and his own past on the carnival circuit.

Meanwhile, though he would die in 1930, up until that point, Chaney really was a standout in the fledgling movie industry for how he approached the acting profession. He was the “Man of a Thousand Faces” because he went against the prevailing current — the desire to promote an image — and he succeeded by promoting many. He was the era’s beloved chameleon. The Unknown is little different.

It’s a story of old Madrid. The tale is set in a gypsy circus and involves an armless knife thrower (Chaney) and the love of his life: his boss’s daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford). At first, it seems like an immediate oxymoron. Sure enough, we see Alonzo the Armless doing his art with the dexterity of his feet. It’s the marvel of the movies watching it play out in front of us as the ringmaster’s daughter plays his daring assistant.

But once the crowds are gone and after hours we come to understand some of the other dynamics behind the Big Top. Nanon is a young woman with an almost obsessive fear of men. She trembles when the male performers in the company try to lay their hands on her. She’s left with this lingering fear and an aversion to their very touch.

It goes beyond a mere sense of harassment, verging on an elemental level at the very core of her being. It becomes the film’s primary metaphor and sadly this metaphor maintains its relevance almost a full century later. In one summative line, she cries out: “Men. The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands of all of them.” Her distaste is stated quite plainly.  

That’s part of the reason she has a special place in her heart for Alonzo, being vulnerable and kind to him because, with his physical disability, he cannot take advantage of her.

Chaney does so much to make the reality of his character’s disability supremely evident. There’s actually some sense of the suspension of disbelief. It’s a habit of movie magic and the subsequently projected illusions, we want to see how they do it.

Is it possible to see true signs of Lon Chaney’s able body? And yet The Unknown shocks us by stripping away everything. Behind closed doors, he loses his normal attire and gains a pair of arms because you see, he’s not actually armless. 

It’s not just part of his act. He’s pulling it over on everyone in the troupe aside from his closest confidante Cojo (John George). He discloses to him, There’s is nothing I will not do to own her!” Because he too secretly has his sights on Nanon, wanting to have her for his own through this act of sophistry. 

Like the best silent cinema, The Unknown feels so emphatically poetic, where the characters represent more than themselves. They shed the mere realms of reality to speak to something far more, at times, both terrifying and tender. Suddenly, the movie morphs, building into a wicked tale of irony. I wouldn’t think of divulging all of it here, although such sordid things like murder, amputation, and blackmail abound.

Also, be prepared for the finale. The world is literally being ripped apart at the seams, and it becomes the film’s gloriously chaotic crescendo back out on the circus Big Top. The carnival strong man, Malabar the Mighty ( Norman Kerry), Nanon’s suitor, looks to show off his feats of strength; they are rapturously in love. Joan Crawford snaps a whip from the platform up above as she rallies the horses galloping on their giant treadmills. Alonzo looks on poised for revenge against his romantic rival. 

It conjures up indelible images of performed chaos leaving a starling impression even after all these years. If nothing else, it proves silent cinema is far from rote, often brimming with all sorts of memorable even perverse bits of storytelling. The Unknown’s overall impact is not to be taken lightly. 

Viewers would do well to seek it out if only as an act of appreciation of Browning, Chaney, or Crawford. The picture, in its current form, is missing some of its original exposition, but what a fantastic relic it is. However, it’s far from a museum piece. It feels fiercely alive even after all these years. I did take some issue with the cut I’ve seen if only because of the typically off-putting soundtrack that feels too modern and incongruous to make me truly appreciate what is on-screen. 

But the title cards have a pleasant lyricism to them accentuating the story’s dramatic situation so we can fully appreciate its implications. Likewise, Joan Crawford, as a recognizable entity, isn’t fully flourished into her full-bodied image of stardom even as glimpses of her emerging persona flash upon the screen. However, it’s absolutely a testament to why Lon Chaney was a revered talent of the silent generation right up until the end of his life. 

4/5 Stars

What I Learned About Peggy Dow

Peggy Dow Helmerich hasn’t been a Hollywood starlet for about 70 years. However, she still delights fans years later in her movies including Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart in one of his incomparable performances.

I recently took a look back at some of her other movies that saw her starring alongside generational talents like Ida Lupino, Dick Powell, and Arthur Kennedy.

Here are just a few of the fascinating things I picked up along the way. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

  • She attended Northwestern and was classmates with the likes of Paul Lynde and then Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, and Cloris Leachman, who were a couple years older.
  • Her name was shortened for the screen from Peggy Josephine Varnadow to Peggy Dow.
  • She was a part of Universal’s class of young players including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, and Piper Laurie.
  • When she was in Hollywood she lived in the Hollywood Studio Club, which was created by Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille to help young actresses. Other tenants included Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Rush. 
  • The first car she bought in California was a green Chevrolet hatchback.
  • She was an acquaintance, from her Hollywood days, of Colleen Townsend Evans.
  • She was on the cover of Life Magazine in August of 1950.
  • Along with Joanne Dru, she presented Edith Head with her Oscar at the 1950 Academy Awards.
  • She initially wasn’t too keen on playing a nurse in Harvey since she was slated to play an Indian princess in a western opposite Van Heflin (It was probably Tomahawk).
  • She received an award from Harry S. Truman in Washington D.C. on behalf of the film Bright Victory.
  • She was asked to come back to Hollywood in 1956 to star opposite William Holden in Toward The Unknown where he was set to play a test pilot. She ultimately declined the part.

Until next week, here are some stills from Peggy Dow Helmerich’s films:

Charles Drake and Dow in Harvey

Jesse White, Dow, and Drake in Harvey

Dow with Jimmy Stewart

Dow with Dick Powell in You Can Never Tell

Dow with Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory

Farley Granger and Dow in I Want You

The best in-depth interview with Mrs. Helmerich can be found in the Voices of Oklahoma from 2009. There are a lot of great details featured if you’re interested.

She also did a lovely telephone interview for the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

For more contemporary newspaper columns, check out the following:

Scott, J. L. (1949, Oct 02). Peggy dow, who scored that way, sees TV as surest gateway to motion picture success. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

HEDDA HOPPER: CONTE AND PEGGY DOW ‘WEB OF CITY’ STARS. (1949, Oct 21). Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

REBA AND, B. C. (1950, Jun 08). Peggy dow’s small fry party stresses fun and participation. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995)

Hopper, H. (1950, Dec 10). Peggy dow endows roles with zest and impact. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995)

Schallert, E. (1951, Nov 18). Peggy dow sketches future as she quits hollywood to wed. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

You Can’t Take It With You (1938): Quality Capra

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This is my post in The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon put on by the Wonderful World of Cinema!

Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), or A.P. as his deferential colleagues call him, is a business magnate with innumerable successful endeavors. He has the full pockets to go along with a career full of shrewd decisions. And the latest scheme he’s worked up just might be the granddaddy of them all, that is, if it weren’t for the obliging grandfather in his way.

It stands to reason if Kirby can secure the 12 blocks around the Ramsey company, his one sole remaining competitor, he can cripple them out of business with a large scale monopoly, therefore controlling the munitions industry outright.

It’s a representation of the ugliest strain of free market capitalism. This is not the type of carte blanche you want ruling business, especially in Frank Capra’s world. Still, Kirby wants no interference and that means even Martin Vanderhoff must go. He throws one of his cronies, the perpetually twitching Clarence Wilson, at the problem to get it resolved by any means necessary.

But lest you think the man is merely an old crank who won’t sell out, Lionel Barrymore (now crippled by worsening arthritis) walks into the picture on crutches and mesmerizes the entire audience with his instant charisma. This isn’t quite UP, nor is he just a silly little man gumming up the works. Well, maybe he is, but he finds strength in family. That and his given temperament are all the better for doing battle with Mr. Kirby, indirectly though it maybe.

Lionel Barrymore is defined in modern generations solely by the curmudgeon Mr. Potter and little else. What You Can’t Take It With You is a superlative reminder of is just how magnetic an actor he was in all sorts of parts. Here he serves as the affable glue holding the picture together at the seams and spinning wisdom throughout the neighborhood.

It begins by recruiting other “lilies of the field” including the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who leaves behind the job he’s been slaving away at to follow his passions. You see, he makes things.

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There’s something innately compelling about the life Mr. Vanderhoff leads. In fact, it’s a bit of a practical utopia. He doesn’t work. He follows his fancy, whether sliding down the banisters, playing his harmonica, or going to the graduations to listen to the speeches. Still, he gets by and feels deeply contented holding malice towards none. The prayers he sends up to the big man upstairs are irreligious, frank, but genuine in nature.

His family takes much the same approach ,and they’ve built for themselves a comfortable if altogether quirky family commune.  Tony Kirby’s not far off when he surmises it’s “Like living in the world of Walt Disney.

Grandpa does all the aforementioned activities including collecting stamps because it’s what he likes best. Mr. Sycamore makes fireworks because he never grew up and mother writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake. Mr. Poppins feels right at home in the basement workshop devoted to all sorts of fanciful tinkering with a raven hopping about. Meanwhile, the precocious Essie (Ann Miller) jaunts around in ballet slippers to her husband’s xylophone playing.

Charles Lane’s IRS income tax man paying a house call and grating up against the libertarian, pragmatism of Grandpa is a hint of conflict just waiting to come to a head. Of course, all of this would add up to nothing if it weren’t for the central romance spawning the indelible chemistry between James Stewart and Jean Arthur.

Because they are a bit of the prototypical Romeo & Juliet passion. He’s set up in his father’s business with no aspirations whatsoever to take over the family firm, and she is his typist with no status to her name. But we never once forget who these people are, and they are adorable together.

They forego the stuffy ballet for two front row seats at a much more attractive park bench, complete with daydreamy small talk and a personal show by a pack of real toe-tapping tykes. Then, it comes to meeting the parents at a well-to-do restaurant and in the sheer awkwardness of the scene, one cannot help but reminisce about Hepburn and Grant’s own high jinks from Bringing up Baby. This one involves a humorous tag, some phantom mice scurrying about, and so on and so forth (you get the idea).

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However, the creme de la creme has to be his parents coming over for dinner to meet Alice’s family under the most embarrassing circumstances, just as whimsical bedlam sets in. Xylophones, dancing, darts, exploding fireworks. You name it and they’re doing it. In fact, it’s enough for them to get raided by the police and serve time down at the courthouse waiting for bail — the Kirbys included. It’s the proverbial nail in the coffin.

I’m not sure if he was genius or not, but Capra had a knack for capturing the organic mayhem of a bustling courtroom to a tee. You Can’t Take It With You‘s finale uses the judicial arena to bring the story out of despair. There are words traded, a $100 fine enacted, and the passing of the charity hat, with the same outpouring of generosity from the common folk George Bailey would later be blessed with. Even the benevolent judge (Harry Davenport) throws into the pot.

And obviously, there is no Capracorn without the inspired quill of Robert Riskin. Watching more and more of Capra’s collaborations with Robert Riskin, there is the sneaking suspicion that the screenwriter has as much to do with this American optimism we so often attribute to the director. Because the words, the scenarios, the characters are constructed in such a way to draw on these deep-running themes time and time again.

You Can’t Take It With You is an unequivocal reminder that these prevailing themes of humanity never quite go away; they only reimagine themselves and return with a vengeance. The patriarch laments the fact nowadays most everyone says “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.” If this aphorism was true in a pre-war society, think how much more pertinent it remains in a hyper-polarized, antagonizing social media age.

You can scoff out their resolutions as needlessly naive or champion them as eternal optimists. Regardless, in the world dreamed up here, it’s not just the lion laying down with the lamb. The banker can play harmonica with the country bumpkin and pick up the Russian in a fireman’s carry. If that’s not a bit of paradise, I’m not sure what is.

4/5 Stars

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Jesse James (1939): Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda

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Reputed screenwriting scribe Nunnally Johnson starts off on clever footing by giving his mythic western hero an obvious antagonist. It was the railroad — that lawless iron horse — forcing Jesse James into the position of a criminal. Though he would evolve over time into the complicated human being projecting his legend, at least in the beginning, he was all but driven to take the mantle of an outlaw. At least in this telling. 

In making his hero fully sympathetic, Johnson has cast James as a western Robin Hood righting the wrongs perpetrated against him and others based the bloodthirsty land grabbing of railroad companies. Brian Donlevy, still yet to be promoted from his heavy roles, makes his rounds swindling the general populous and using more persuasive tactics to swipe their holdings.

Content notwithstanding, Jesse James is just about the glossiest possible extravaganza, you could offer a cold-blooded outlaw. The early Technicolor is gorgeous to behold, and in these prime early years of their careers, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda aren’t in need of any favors.

Jesse James (Power) is nothing more than a gee-whiz country bumpkin when we first set eyes on him. His big brother Frank (Henry Fonda) sits in the house lazily chawing on tobacco. Despite living with their concerned mother (Jane Darwell), they aren’t squeamish about sticking up for their own. They also aren’t about to be squandered out of their land without a fight, and they’re ready to oblige any strong-armed tactics thrown their way. Dunlevy doesn’t stand a chance.

As they flee into the night with reward posters calling for them to be dragged in for a hefty reward, they on take the mantle of fugitives almost out of necessity. It’s not merely about absconding with payloads for their own pleasure. This is a form of just retribution to be enacted against the corrupt machine belching smoke and literally railroading every poor sap in its way.

A codgerly newspaperman (Henry Hull) is one of their primary champions, though each week spawns a new tirade, whether it be lawyers or dentists or any insufferable faction who are all destroying society as we know it. Rufus Cobb is one of the voices rallying the public on Jesse’s behalf because it is his daughter Zerelda (Nancy Kelly) that the man has an eye for, but he also genuinely likes the lad.

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Even as the James’ boys notoriety grows, Jesse and Zee get hitched in an impromptu church wedding. They find out, even among this congregation, they have a great deal of friends.

For every conceited businessman represented by diminutive railroad baron Mr. McCoy (a comically demonstrative Donald Meek), there is another humble, salt-of-the-earth human being like local Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). He knows the law, in all its strictness, calls for him to chase down James as a craven villain. In his own way, he’s cheering for him to live another day, even as he turns the other way on at least one occasion.

It’s this sense of good faith and the pleading of his wife leading Jesse to turn himself into the authorities for a fair trial. The judge has vowed for leniency as negotiated by the marshall. They’re all for a fresh slate. Mr. McCoy is not such an understanding fellow. All he thinks of are dollars and cents. He uses his resources to bring in his own judge and make a harsher sentence stick.

However, he’s hardly counting on Frank James. He happens to be a brazen fellow, and when he vows to come in and retrieve his brother from jail before the stroke of midnight, you better believe he’ll keep his word or else be taken for a fool. Even after their thrilling escape — one of the most gratifying successes of the picture — we fall into a bit of a rough patch.

Not only has Jesse gone off on his own to leave his family to live without the specter of his reputation, he begins to change with the constant pressures and paranoia weighing on him daily. He’s no longer the same good-natured kid who once went on the run in a righteous coup against extortion.

While not a film you look for poignancy in, Henry Fonda is present and he does deliver one monologue that speaks to something supremely candid. Jesse has become hard and crazed, systematically alienating all those around him. And if there’s anyone who can speak to him, it’s his brother Frank. Fonda handles the scene with his usual subtleness dumping all these obvious grievances in the lap of his own flesh and blood. He encourages him to draw if he needs to. Frank’s not squeamish about it, but it’s his last-ditch effort to speak some sense into his kid brother.

What will come of Jesse if he doesn’t trust those who have still stuck with him? Of course, among the faithful, there is often a Judas. In this case, Robert Ford (John Carradine), intent on getting a payoff for stabbing his old compatriot in the back.

We understand implicitly we are reaching the beginning of the end. First, they get corralled in a town after a bank job and a hail of bullets comes raining down from any number of windows. This is not what does him in. If you’re acquainted with the history, you’re aware he got knocked off by a double-crossing skunk. Then, again, this is not the Sunday school truth. If anything, Johnson relishes tinkering with the details and coloring in the tall tales to fit his ambitions.

The verdict? Jesse James feels a bit sluggish as it runs its course. There’s not enough action or bank robberies in the span of the film to make it really feel alive with the overarching aura of the James brothers. In its most watchable moments, it functions, fundamentally, like a family drama. Even if the movie is only a minor oater, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda are the main attractions, and they rarely disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 60s Spy Spoofs

As part of our efforts to cater to up-and-coming classic movie fans, here’s our latest installment to our classic movie beginner’s guides.

In appreciation of the James Bond franchise and the newest installment that will hopefully still be released early next year, we thought it would be fitting to highlight four spy spoofs that had as much fun with the genre as their inspiration, if not more so!

While we’re partial to Don Adams’ Get Smart on the small screen (or The Man from U.N.C.L.E), here are four franchises to consider if you’re interested in the spy fad of the 1960s. Here we go!

Fantomas (1964)

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France’s answer to the Bond craze came with retrofitting a national comic book hero and supervillain for the ’60s. The blue-faced mastermind Fantomas (Jean Marais) is constantly avoiding capture by the bumbling Inspector (played by comedy’s best-kept secret Louis De Funes). Thankfully, he has the help of an intrepid journalist (also played by Marais). Two more installments would follow.

Our Man Flint (1966)

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Not to be outdone by his compatriots, James Coburn also got his chance to be a top-class secret agent named Derek Flint, who fits all the parameters of a world-renowned spy, including playmates, gadgetry, and continual globetrotting. His travels bring him in contact with a deadly adversary (Gila Golan) and the nefarious Galaxy! One more Flint film with Coburn would follow.

The Silencers (1966)

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Dean Martin is no one’s idea of a James Bond (a drunk one maybe), but his good-natured persona and womanizing ways make him the best off-beat answer to Bond as impregnable agent Matt Helm, also based off some serialized literature. It’s campy, low-grade spy spoofing at its best (or worst?). A bevy of sequels came out in rapid succession.

Casino Royale (1967)

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Definitely not to be confused with Eva Green and Daniel Craig’s iteration, this is the most unwieldy and extravagant of all the spoofs. The cast is absolutely stuffed with big names, and it really is an excuse to roll out the talent. Everyone from David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Ursula Andress masquerade as the incomparable Bond. The best thing to come out of the movie might be “The Look of Love,” but there are lots of memorable cameos.

What other classic Bond or spy spoofs would you recommend?