Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Tyrone Power was a handsome fellow and it led to a meteoric rise among Hollywood’s elite. But as often is the case, a pretty face can be your undoing as people only see a movie idol and not an actor. Daryl Zanuck for one saw one of his biggest box office draws in Tyrone Power and he was protective of that image even after coming back from the war.

However, to his credit, in Nightmare Alley Power persistently went after a role that put his talents on full display by wickedly subverting his longheld screen persona. Zanuck was undoubtedly horrified by the results and pulled the picture out of circulation as quickly as he possibly could while giving it little publicity. And yet thank goodness this picture remains today — a testament to the peculiar oddities that managed to come out of Hollywood — for one an A-list picture where one of the biggest names in the business plays an opportunistic sleazebag.

Stan Carlisle (Power) is an up-and-comer in a trashy traveling carnival that brings in the hordes of local yokums through sleight of hand, mysticism, and outright exploitation. One of their biggest acts is the dubiously named “Geek” show while Stan does his bit with “Madame Zeena” (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic has-been husband.

Meanwhile, the young man’s charismatic qualities aid him in talking up hick sheriffs trying to close down the establishment and run them out of town. He seamlessly spouts off the gospel he learned in an orphanage to captivate his audience noting foxily, “Boy how I went for salvation. It’s kind of handy when you’re in a jam.” He can spin just about anything to get what he wants.

Though Pete is all dried up, Zeena still has it and the ever-industrious Stan convinces her to teach him the secret code that they used to utilize in the old days to completely captivate the crowds with feats of extrasensory perception. Ever the carnival showman he soon rebrands himself as a mentalist extraordinaire “The Great Stanton” taking his adoring carnival cohort Molly (Coleen Gray) along with him following a shotgun wedding demanded by the resident strongman (Mike Mazurksy). Zeena and the other carnival nobodies get left behind without a note of gratitude.

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There are innumerable intricacies found throughout Nightmare Alley but the overarching themes revolve around the three women in Stan’s life who ultimately shape his existence. Zeena is the veteran who gets him his foot up while her deck of tarot cards including a hangman remain a harbinger of future misgivings.

Only now do I realize that Colleen Gray’s demure qualities are rather reminiscent of Joan Fontaine and she remains a textbook guardian angel figure. In later years she would devote herself to numerous charities including Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. What so easily gets forgotten, in the midst of Power’s disingenuous portrayal, is Helen Walker as the equally unscrupulous psychoanalyst who in many ways bests him in a very unconventional femme fatale role.

However, with Molly’s assistance, they’re initially able to begin to realize his dreams of the big time where they take their shows into swankier places with more respectable audiences who they are nevertheless still able to dazzle. And yet the recurring attribute of a man such as Carlisle is that he can never be satisfied. There must always be another greater success to follow up every previous exploit.

He unwittingly finds his next access point when crossing paths with the dubious analyst named Ms. Ritter (Walker) with extensive records on numerous influential people. She and her new accomplice go in cahoots and Carlise soon realizes his next aspiration that of a spook act. But far from just being a gimmick to get money, it becomes a form of spiritual comfort to people. In many ways, it seems like he is playing with fire. He hardly knows who he is dealing with in Lillith Ritter and he keeps the entire arrangement conveniently hidden from his wife.

Instead, he tries to use her in one last payoff with Molly masquerading as the specter of an old man’s long-lost beau. But she is so unlike Stan. She cannot manipulate a man in such a way and she’s equally afraid. She confronts her husband, “You make it sound so sacred and holy when all the time it’s just a gag with you…You’re just laughing your head off at these chumps. You think God’s going to stand for that?”

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Not only is Nightmare Alley a carnival noir with the dark palette courtesy of veteran Lee Garmes but thematically, we also take a cynical nosedive into ominous even sacrilegious territory. It’s an heir apparent to such 1930s films like Blue Angel (1930), Freaks (1932), and Miracle Woman (1933). Fundamentally it charts the rise and fall of a single man who used religious clout and chicanery only to end up as an ostracized carnival commodity. He went from using others to being used because he winds up a good-for-nothing. So the story predictably comes full circle.

The film is good enough not to give us a happy ending. Yes, it cuts the dramatic arc short but that only saves us from the foregone conclusion. Molly clings to a now paranoid and wasted Stan — a shell of the whip-smart punk he used to be — promising to take care of him. Zeena made that promise before to her husband too and look what happened to him.

There was no reemergence or getting back to the way things used to be. What’s to make us think that this version will be any different? In fact, it’s probably even more haunting than actually knowing definitively what will happen because we are forced to leave the movie in the shadowy ambiguities. What isn’t ambiguous is Tyrone Power in the most duplicitous and simultaneously most devasting showing of his career.

4/5 Stars

The Black Swan (1942)

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If you make your way to this swashbuckler you’ll find a movie set in The Spanish Main as England has just brokered a peace treaty with their imperialistic competitors. As you probably already surmised, you might as well leave your textbooks on maritime history at home because there’s no need to reference them here. Actually, I stand corrected. Captain Henry Morgan was a real person. Everything else is an excuse for pillaging gold and adventure on the high seas.

As someone educated on Tintin serials (ie. The Secret of the Unicorn) and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” enjoying such a picture from perennial Hollywood journeyman Henry King is hardly a chore taken for what it is.

In the opening moments, we have coastal marauders who overrun a city to loot it and run off with pretty girls. They’ve even stretched a conceited official on the wrack for good measure. Except a counterattack by the local militia ensues and soon we learn from the reformed pirate, Henry Morgan himself (Laird Cregar), things have changed.

He has been made Magistrate of Jamaica in return for his loyalty and he calls his faithful scallywags to join him in a bit of respectability on the right side of the law. His longtime right-hand man, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), agrees to it, though some of the others led by treacherous Billy Leech (George Sanders) look to try their luck on the seas like always.

The pictures finest asset is a cast as thick as thieves. A particularly cheeky Tyrone Power is at the top his of game, looking like he’s having a swell time of it, being a bit of a dashing scoundrel right up there with Errol Flynn. Cregar is memorable yet again as the formidable blaggard with many a plume. He and “Jamie Boy” share a particularly humorous reunion when Power dumps a purportedly unconscious Maureen O’Hara like a sack of potatoes to give his old buddy, Captain Morgan, a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, George Sanders is almost unrecognizable as a mangy red beard. It’s one of those makeover jobs where you have to do a double take to try and differentiate that familiar voice hiding behind a very unfamiliar visage.

Following up his villainous turn opposite Power in Son of Fury (1942), Sanders is back and even better. Though not seemingly the athletic type or a swordsman for that matter, he lends the right amount of licentiousness and folly to his turn as Captain Leech.

Thomas Mitchell, a man who could play a character part in his sleep, colors in his role as the quintessential boisterous, bandanna-wearing sea hand who’s right by Jamie’s side whenever he’s needed. There’s even Anthony Quinn with an eye patch, though woefully underused and Maureen O’Hara, the most desirable “wench” there ever was on the Caribbean, as our only leading lady.

It must be acknowledged however the script all but wastes her talents as she hardly fits the archetype of your normative “damsel in distress” role, though her beauty in Technicolor is admittedly unsurpassed. While hampered by an unimaginative part, she still manages a few fiery exchanges with Power after his character kidnaps her as his bride-to-be and they subsequently build some kind of rapport out of the sparks in a mere scene or two.

The picture follows Jamie Boy as he scours the ocean for his old shipmate, Billy Leech, who is up to his old plundering ways, terrorizing the seas and ruining the tranquility of the two world powers. Though reformed, Morgan is under fire from a council that finds his position suspect as he was once in cahoots with the wanton criminal. The authorities at hand call for impeachment even as one among their ranks sows discord.

What else is expected except a final shootout on the seas complete with a barrage of cannons? Jamie is held prisoner by the man he was sworn to apprehend while other forces look to hang him for perceived insubordination. But Tyrone Power is more than up to the task of swinging through the yardarms to victory and getting the girl for good measure.

To this end, The Black Swan is wartime swashbuckling escapism, both fanciful and fairly lean in running time and resources. These, of course, were in part an effort toward wartime conservation but the reduced length does not keep it from being fulfilling. Perhaps it’s for the best they don’t make pictures like this anymore but, for its day, it’s an ebullient rollick worthy of the pirates within its frames. Maybe not its lady…

3.5/5 Stars

Blood and Sand (1941)

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There’s little doubt Blood and Sand was a follow up to The Mark of Zorro (1940) meant to capitalize on the lucrative romantic pairing of devilishly handsome heartthrob Tyrone Power and winsome ingenue Linda Darnell. But what it sets out to do, it achieves through an ability to capture us in a joyously Hollywood confection. It pulls out all the stops to establish Spain for the moviegoing audience. Flamenca, guitar, castanets, swirling skirts, and sashaying ladies are all present bursting forth from the screen with multicolored gaiety and merriment.

The picture in straightforward fashion charters the rise of a young boy into a renowned matador with aims at commanding the grandest stage in all of Seville. Juan Gallardo (Power), buoyed by a tight-knit band of friends and propelled by lifelong ambition, is ultimately able to realize his dreams and to garner all the laurels lavished on the man of the hour.

Most important of all, he’s finally able to marry the girl whom he’s loved since childhood, the virginal beauty Carmen Espinosa (Darnell). She has dutifully waited for his triumphant return when he serenades her with a full band and presents her a wedding dress to pronounce his everlasting love. They’re young and deliriously happy.

While initially maligned as a fifth-rate talent, now the famed purveyor of public opinion, Natalio Curro, christens Gallardo the finest matador in all the land. Laird Cregar is more than capable as the pompous bullfighting critic who relishes the spotlight as well as his reputation as a tastemaker.

Likewise, everyone wants Juan to be the godfather of their child. He is in high demand and he catches everyone’s eye. Namely, the recently returned socialite Doña Sol des Muire (Rita Hayworth) coming from irrefutably high-class stock. She has her pick of the litter and she immediately becomes diverted by this dashing matador tossing him down a red rose in return for a couple tokens of his goodwill.

Meanwhile, Carmen remains faithful by his side praying every day he enters into the ring to do his work. She dotes on him with breakfast, reading the headlines about his finest hour, and remains his constant companion.  However, the allure of the “other woman” ensnares him and his fate is all but sealed. Just as he baits the bull, she soon has him reeling much the same. But the only real person to blame is himself.

His wife is betrayed in one heart-breaking confrontation, his finances are in disarray, his temper has alienated many of his closest allies, and his success in the ring has begun to falter. None of these plot developments are unforeseen. On the contrary, we expect them. As his mother reminds him, taking cues from the Biblical parables, “One can’t build on sand.” Because everything you worked so hard to erect will just as easily come tumbling down when the downpour hits.

It’s as much his own fault is it is the fickle masses who are so unforgiving. Pretty girls like Doña just as easily move on to a new toy, this time Juan’s lifelong rival Manolo (Anthony Quinn). And of course, Curro has been quick to pronounce the new man as the latest shining comet of the new season. He fails to add that comets burn brightly only to fizzle out in a nose dive. The tragic metaphor is a little too obvious.

But again, the picture is all spectacle and it’s ultimately bolstered by lavish costumes and the early shades of Technicolor offering a seminal example of 3-strip Hollywood opulence. Rouben Mamoulian’s artistry in mise en scene from his days with the stage are on display, played out to the nth degree. The screen and the stars are easy on the eyes. The director purportedly kept cans of spray paint on hand to touch up any necessary blasé patches with enhanced color. However he achieved it, Blood and Sand generally works.

True, bullfighting always seems like a barbarous pastime even as Hollywood can’t show that much. It does feel like a modernized incarnation of gladiatorial battles.  Just as the public is petty, it’s even a little difficult to feel sorry for our protagonist, though Linda Darnell, continually surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery, remains as the last vestige of saintly virtue.  She’s never been so pure.

The same cannot be said for Rita Hayworth in her secondary role, which in itself is a rather strange circumstance since she had yet to reach the heights of her later career and pictures like Gilda (1946). Tyrone Power could coast on his looks and charisma alone and he pretty much does.

3.5/5 Stars

Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover_Square.jpgWithout question, Hangover Square is in many respects analogous to The Lodger with the reteaming of director John Brahm with Laird Cregar and George Sanders. However, the biggest difference is that we have Cregar putting on on a new persona and losing over 100 pounds!

Among other things, it forced director John Brahm to shoot the production in sequence as to not completely decimate the continuity, based on the movies main protagonist. In fact, the actor initially turned down the part because of his aspirations to remake his image. Though he reconsidered when he saw the part could be played to his advantage and he turned Hangover Square into a superior vehicle.

If we want to break the movie down to its most incremental themes, it’s essentially about a man in Edwardian London torn apart by conflicting musical projects representing the two women in his life, who are effectively pulling him in opposite directions. He’s a mad genius whose personality disorder is completely torn asunder by the chafing in his life. It will only prove to be his undoing.

Like any good noir, there’s the femme fatale: Linda Darnell, hair puffed up in a bouffant, legs kicking gayly as she puts on her best English accent. She handily makes a coy nuisance of herself, cajoling him with her flittering eyelashes and then evolving into an icy heartbreaker on the turn of a dime when he no longer does her bidding.

Cregar gets walked all over as Veda sucks his talent dry for her own aspirations and the pursuit of a more dashing suitor who she vows to marry — even after making fragile promises to be his. She knows how to play him, if nothing else.

Barbara (Faye Marlowe) is the “Guardian Angel” who has everything including his best interest in mind. Her father (Alan Napier) has long been advising on Georges latest masterpiece — a Concierto that he has been laboring over for some time. She has been his astute pupil on the piano while also seeing right through not only Veda’s mediocrity as a performer but also her manipulative guise. There’s nothing sincere about her.

What we continuously see are reverberations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale. Here is a man of such musical receptivity able to craft pieces with such depth of feeling and yet there is another side of him — a side that strangles cats in his spare time and other things… Quite frankly his unaccounted behavior scares him and he goes to a Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) at Scotland Yard seeking some kind of aid.

It’s true that Hangover Square is a movie plagued by claustrophobic hysteria supplied not only by Cregar’s performance but the mise en scene as well. What we have is the artifice of gothic exterior-interiors with layers of ready-made atmospherics and foreboding scoring interjected with an instantaneous cacophony of chaos composed by the virtuoso artist Bernard Hermann.

One enduring moment is that of the burning effigy lit to high heaven on Guy Fawkes Day. It’s the quintessential image to capture the essence of our main character and the conflicted conflagration burning inside of him. Nero purportedly played his violin while Rome burned. George pounds away at the piano slavishly. But his story is a tragic tale of destructive genius that overtakes him. The final lingering images can’t help but leave an impression.

If Bogart sculpted psychopathic gangsters into hardbitten anti-heroes, later on, there’s a similar sense that Laird Cregar might have fashioned his menacing villains into conflicted but still heroic alternatives too. It’s mere conjecture and alas we will never know what could have been.

Two months before the picture was even released the actor would die from a heart attack, the ultimate tragedy brought on by his rapid weight loss. A fairly heavy man in most of his earlier roles, Cregar was committed to changing his physique in an effort to be leading man material. But, again, it was not in the stars.

While not a bona fide classic per se, Hangover Square remains as a chilly noir that’s not only a testament to Linda Darnell’s aptitude as a spellbinding black widow but to Cregar’s ability to make madness all but palpable. It’s a shame we lost him so suddenly because there’s no telling what heights his career might have reached. How true it is we very rarely appreciate someone’s talents until they are no longer available.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Lodger (1944)

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“Love is very close to hate. Did you know that?” – Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade

Some perceptive viewers might well know that The Lodger is based off a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and it garnered a fairly high profile silent adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock followed by a sound version in 1932. Both pictures starred heartthrob Ivor Novello.

What the Hitchcock version boasts is his trademark eye for the visually cinematic even at this early juncture of his career. Still, the young director was a bit unsatisfied with a resolution that lacked the true punch of the original narrative. Honestly, he probably delivered the best thriller he could given the circumstances.

But with John Brahm’s rendition, this is as close to an uncompromised narrative as it can be while still meeting the requirements of the Hays Codes. What we have on our hands is a Jack The Ripper murderer who slits the throats of ladies all across England. And it’s not merely a bout of mistaken identity with Laird Cregar’s foreboding presence hanging over the picture moment by moment.

Merle Oberon, renowned for her immense beauty, did suffer some lacerations and scarring from a car accident in 1937. Her career continued unimpeded and in Lucien Ballard, she found a cinematographer she literally fell in love with. The reason being, he developed a lighting style — still called “The Obie” to this day — that completely hid her minor blemishes. As was the case with Minnelli and Garland, perhaps she fell in love more with the way he made her look than with the actual person. They would get divorced a few years later in 1949.

As far as her performance there’s little to criticize. She’s bright and beautiful as the dancehall singer, Kitty Langley, who lives with her aunt and uncle in the Whitechapel district. Admittedly she does seem a little well-to-do for her specific career path but no matter she’s quite the success.

Meanwhile, the ominous and rather taciturn gentleman Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes up residence in the Bontings’ home forewarning them about his nocturnal habits due to his research as well as his desire to be left alone as much as possible. Meanwhile, the rash of murders across the city continues and Scotland Yard has yet to apprehend the criminal.

An Inspector Warwick (Georges Sanders) comes to call on Ms. Langley as she was the last person to see Jack The Ripper’s latest victim alive — one washed up actress named Annie Rawley. In this way, our stars have been brought together but far more intriguing is the fact that such a foreboding character is staying right in their stead.

And it’s more than just a hunch that Mr. Slade might be the culprit. On top of his often erratic and suspect behavior, he’s obsessed with his genius-of-a-brother now deceased. He claims that beauty led to his sibling’s destruction and there’s little denying that he has some deep-rooted abhorrence for stage actresses.

So the inevitable must come. Everyone turns out for Kitty’s latest performance even the normally reclusive Slade and as he watches the show with its lavish costumes, provocative Cancan lines, and song and dance, we watch something begin to erupt.

What follows is the rest of a thrilling pandemonium-filled stage show that becomes a frenzy when it’s let out that the wanted lady killer is purportedly right in the very building. Cregar crazed and paranoid scrambles past sets and up into the rafters for a chance at escape. Ultimately he brandishes his knife for a desperate face off with the police force. In the end, he takes the path of least residence that nevertheless leaves an indelible impression.

Sanders and Oberon are fine talents, genial and all, but next to their supporting star they feel unremarkable. Of course, that comparison is already so unfairly weighted. Because Cregar is just that chilling. There’s little doubt that he captivates the screen and subsequently steals the picture in the final minutes. He’s the only reason you need to watch this one. If it means anything, the movie was a stirring success and it garnered a follow up in Hangover Square (1945) which might be even better. Cregars a showstopper in that one as well if you needed any indication.

3.5/5 Stars

It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

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Rene Clair makes no justifications for his flights of fancy and it’s true that the stuff is unabashedly whimsical to the zenith. He made a reputation for himself in his native France for his playful cinema and for the decade or so he was in Hollywood (1935-1945) he continued much in the same vein. Most people would say it came with lesser dividends though some of his more memorable offerings included I Married a Witch (1942) and this film, It Happened Tomorrow.

Again, it involves highly unconventional orchestration like he was all but accustomed to in his comedies. It’s nary for everyone. In fact, it probably relies too heavily on its nifty bit of novel storytelling involving a journalist who begins to receive the following day’s news in advance. He can predict the future and it proves advantageous for grabbing the scoop and betting on the horses among other trifles.

Subsequently, the film begins rolling out a red carpet full of tropes upon tropes. But no one can shame Clair for sticking to his own whimsical abstractions and if you do allow it to invade your space you might just find yourself taken with its jungle gym-like acrobatics through time.

It starts 50 years ahead of our story with the golden anniversary of a couple talking about a small matter that happened years before. Then we fall back to the 1890s where Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell) has the monotonous distinction of penning obituaries for the local paper before finally being promoted to reporter by his grouchy editor Mr. Gordon.

But then something far more miraculous happens. Lawrence doesn’t realize the implications at first when Pop, a veteran newspaperman with a near-saintly demeanor, becomes Lawrence’s guardian angel. To speak in known references, he might very well be this movie’s Clarence. His true gift is offering his young colleague the following day’s headlines.

They involve, of all things, updated classified adds, irregular snowfall and then an Opera House Robbery — offering the first moment of realization that Lawrence might have something extra special in his grasp. Simultaneously he becomes, enamored with the clairvoyant half of a niece (Linda Darnell) and uncle fortune telling duo.

Not until reading a little further into Linda Darnell’s history did I realize just how young when she made it big in Hollywood. Like her finest efforts, she dazzles with that bright-eyed concern next to Dick Powell. Though he would begin the redefinition of his career shortly with his introduction as Philip Marlowe and upcoming hardboiled fare, there’s still time for something light. He carries it with his usual assured comic energy as the headlines continually drive him into action.

One night he’s saving a girl from jumping off a bridge — his own girl in fact — to make a prophecy come true and then the next morning he’s tipping off the suspicious police chief on where to capture some wanted bank robbers.

Lawrence is now the talk of the town and the go-to writer for the paper with his uncanny nose for news. Soon he’s asking for Sylvia’s hand in marriage though a momentous misunderstanding leads her uncle to insist on a shotgun arrangement. If that’s the case he gladly takes the poison. But to bankroll their happy future together he bets on sure thing after sure thing at the racetrack. After all, he can’t lose. Or can he?

If you could know when you were going to die would you know or is ignorance really bliss? The movie begins its downward spiral after Lawrence’s winnings are swiped and it is foretold that he will die the same day in a hotel at 6:25pm on the dot.

Flimsy physical comedy takes over as we plummet toward the inevitable despite Lawrence’s vehement attempts to derail fate. He still winds up in the lobby of the St. George Hotel, within the very confines where he is destined to be gunned down. Like clockwork, everything unspools toward that exact end. The most exasperating thing is he saw it all coming and could do nothing to stop it.

But with a knowing wink, Clair flips the conceit on its head and that’s the story’s flash of momentary brilliance because we see as the narrative gets back around how things can work out in such a convoluted but somehow logical fashion. The paper reads: Lawrence Stevens is Dead. Of course, we know he’s alive. But the movie manages to make the headline ring true. You can have your cake and eat it too.

3/5 Stars

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

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Though Preston Sturges would never eclipse the heights of the early 40s again and his stellar run was slowly spiraling down, we do have Unfaithfully Yours and for my money, that’s recompense enough.

It documents the life of a prestigious conductor, Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison), happily married to a gorgeous woman (a stunning Linda Darnell) with ample help from a staff including an efficient personal secretary (Kurt Kreuger) and a crotchety Russian played by Lionel Stander. The entourage includes his wife’s wisecracking little sister (Barbara Lawrence) and the sister’s husband, an insufferable bore of the bourgeoisie named August (“He’s got $100 million don’t also be expecting Mickey Mouse”).

The whole issue arises when said brother-in-law, played by Rudy Vallee, takes Alfred’s passing entreaty quite literally to “watch over his wife” while he’s away. As August was also away paying a visit to mother, he has a private detective check in on his sister-in-law. The P.I. collected a comprehensive dossier on her activities while he was gone, which Sir Alfred promptly rips up.  It doesn’t help that the hotel house detective (Al Bridge) is very thorough in his job, driving the conductor to burn the documents decisively, followed by a valiant effort to put out the subsequent conflagration in his dressing room.

However, all his attempts are to no avail and the conductor starts getting ideas; the rumors that were in the back of his mind now start moving to the front, making him irritable.

What other film, featuring a tailor just trying to eat his lunch in peace, winds up leaving an impression because the man is given enough to say? It’s quintessential Sturges and he doesn’t disappoint many of his faithful players either. Each gets a spot of their own. The private detective (Edgar Kennedy) gets a contentious visit from De Carney and turns out to be a patron of the arts. He’s a keen follower of De Carney’s oeuvre even. Sturges gives him the perfect summation of his opinions, “For me, there’s no one who handles Handel like you handle Handel.”

There are also a few choice Sturges lines that I couldn’t help but recall being recycled from other pictures such as being “left to hang on a meat hook” and the age-old favorite “nuttier than a fruitcake.”

As the director slices through the material, De Carney thrusts and waves his way through Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. He’s so attuned to his craft, in fact, that he daydreams through each, the music setting the perfect melody to each of his mental confrontations with his wife.

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The first arrangement of events is calculated yet diabolical, played to a piece booming with sweeping, all-encompassing, passionate rage. Using a voice recorder, he stages the perfect murder to entrap the other man. He ends up cackling in the courtroom with relish as he watches Tony get his sentence. It’s all too easy. Hitchcock might have been proud.

His middle piece captures the pure melancholy of the entire scenario. Both maudlin and chivalrous, as he decides the greatest act of love he can perform is to let her go to her true love while writing her a check that she might never have to work her pretty hands ever again. The final coda picks up the tempo again in a ragingly melodramatic fashion that culminates in the proposition of Russian roulette between a gentleman and his rival.

What actually happens is like so: It entails an inexplicable trashing of his apartment after dipping out of his finest hour prematurely. Lamps and wicker chairs are systematically demolished, not to mention the knocking of the telephone off the line and unwittingly pranking the operator again and again. Glass shatters, pratfalls, miscues, clunking about like a witless neanderthal. It is all present.

There is a Georges Rouault painting up on a wall that I distinctly remember from an Art History textbook I once read. So, obviously, this makes this picture the height of culture and it might as well be. Juxtapose that with Rex Harrison, always so refined and erudite, seen stomping about and making a shambles of his apartment and you have one of the film’s high points. And the picture has much to offer us even amid its bleak and admittedly dark deviations.

What’s striking is not simply that this is a physical comedy (typical Sturges) but that it wholly relies on Rex Harrison’s abilities and is nearly a wordless sequence. For a man who was so renowned for his pen, Mr. Sturges shows an apt restraint. This long extended scene says in visual terms that the very way we envision things never hold a candle to actual reality, where things get complicated and muddled by this or that. Nothing is left where we remember it or sudden onslaughts of sneezing come out of nowhere.

Recording machines, that despite being “so simple they operate themselves,” never seem to behave properly, foiling us at every possible interval. In fact, each of his nefarious ploys that he dreams up get thwarted.

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His wife comes home and they have a normal, healthy, human misunderstanding. Husbands get accidentally cut by razors, spill ink pots all over the desk, and wives innocently confuse the marginally different games of Russian Roulette and Russian Bank, worrying about the moods of said husbands.

The only flaw in Unfaithfully Yours, if we can call it that, is the fact that the husband has no open line of communication with his wife. Of course, not having it allows the film to cycle through each of its subsequent movements, thanks to our protagonist’s mercurial nature.

What I find most troubling about it is how he jumps too quickly to accusatory behavior in taking the higher moral ground. His better half is given the lower position as the doting wife, though her sincerity is never in question like his. I suppose it’s precisely why we must see Harrison acting like such a numbskull lunatic; we have a counterweight.

It’s true that the picture could have featured the pairings of Ronald Colman and Francis Ramden then James Mason and Gene Tierney at different intervals. Rex Harrison was brought on with Carole Landis to play his wife, only to have the actress replaced due to difficulties between her and Harrison. Landis is remembered today namely for her romantic ties to Harrison, her figure, and a terribly unfortunate, premature death.

It seems nearly impossible to separate the two as the picture’s release date was pushed back in part to the actresses death and her close romantic ties to Harrison (married to Lilli Palmer at the time). He was the last person to see her alive as well as one of the first people who discovered her body. While the parallels to this film aren’t altogether obvious, there’s nevertheless still some controversy swirling around both.

What we are left with is that Unfaithfully Yours is funny and then sad and then sadly funny again. We can’t laugh but we must just as life must be full of laughter. For it is one of the grandest antidotes for poison. The acerbic poison that crops up in people due to jealousy and distrust. The picture might be truer to life than we would care to admit. I’d generally be interested in hearing Rex Harrison’s thoughts. I guess we’ll never know. The viewing public in 1940s America certainly wasn’t ready for such a perversely pitch-black picture. It was probably too far ahead of its time. Even today it still maintains that sting of biting wit.

4/5 Stars

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

Christmas in July (1940)

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“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” – Maxford Coffee House Slogan

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturgeses earliest efforts where he both scripted and directed the material. He was fed up with how others had handled his handiwork. Obviously they must not have directed it in the zany scattershot way they should have. He would all but rectify that oversight in the early 1940s with his string of successes.

We are privy to a rooftop romance between Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his best gal Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) as they take up a light squabble over modern living and radio sweepstakes. The man is intent on winning the grand prize of $25,000 for the Maxford House Slogan Competition. He hangs attentively around the radio to get the verdict. He, his girlfriend, and millions of other Americans.

But a snafu arises when the jury is hung in their decision-making process by an obdurate Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest). The radio announcer has no choice but postpone the annoucment. Not only does it annoy the public by leaving them hanging on a meat hook, it leaves space for a practical joke to go horribly awry.

You see, Jimmy is adamant that his slogan will be the kicker and he’s not shy about telling everyone about it. First, his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally any coworker who will listen. Three wiseguys in the office overhear his spouting and pull the gag to end all gags. All it takes are a few slips of paper, some paste, and an unused telegram slip. It’s a pretty horrible joke. You can probably envision it already.

In fact, I could just see it unfolding like the emperor’s new clothes and yet it’s more good-natured and innocent. He sees the note, reads it, and proceeds to stand on top of his desk to share his good fortune and tell his colleagues to gather around. It’s a sequence full of canned laughter as the floor manager comes by to see what the ruckus is about.

Jimmy and Betty are glowing and positively floating down the corridors together. They must be dreaming. He quite innocently wanders into the Maxford offices inquiring about his winnings and walks out again as nice as you please with a check for $25, 000. Next, comes the department store jewelry case and every other department they have.

Seeing the astonishing check in his possession, the store all of a sudden gets very generous and soon he’s being given everything on credit. Buying new fangled whizzbang contraptions like the all-in-one Davenola. Diamond rings and fur coats for his girl follow, and gifts for everyone else in his family and the adjoining neighbors. The street in his old neighborhood is pure bedlam with the passing out of toys to all the kiddies and free caraousel rides and confections. They’ve never had it so good. There has never been such a respite before.

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As an audience we are in on quite a big secret. We know the bubble must burst some time. Our greatest fear is that it will completely devastate MacDonald. He’s the kind of man who requires the approbation of others to believe that his ideas are any good and that can be dangerous.

For all the madness, there is a very sincere consideration of the American Dream in this picture, not to mention what people deem to be truly important in their lives. His Manager, far from being a mere boob, has some suprisingly sagacious knowledge to dispel:

“Mr. MacDonald. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn’t happen to, don’t worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.”

Thankfully, the picture is loaded end to end with character parts. It’s positively swimming in them. Though he never worked with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew again, who coincidentally have a fine genial chemistry, many of the smaller bit players became mainstays of Sturgeses stock company. Aside from William Demarest (who gets the final comic punchline as per usual), you will see many other familiar faces if you’re acquainted with the director’s canon. In other words, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Et Al.

There’s this innate sense that he’s stuffed this particular script with any number of inside jokes and he mastered the art of humorous character naming, only adding to this swirling cauldron of mayhem born out of one simple gimmick.

Hanging his hat on a slogan like, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is seemingly a foolhardy task and yet he all but pulls it off. I must confess that I couldn’t get my head around the statement for a while because it seems that “bunk” used in its informal and archaic etymology as “nonsense” isn’t as common today But it reflects Sturges perfectly.

If there is a modern heir apparent to Preston Sturges I am still in the dark. The closest might be the Coen Brothers and yet their work has never undone me in the same ways. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. You also had a contemporary in Frank Capra who was well-versed in populous fare but though he had close collaborators, he rarely wrote his material or had the same unorthodox pizazz of Sturges.

Billy Wilder proved capable of much the same as Sturges, both as writer and director, but even he worked often with writing partners. His work was injected with a cynicism even foreign to Sturges in all of his idiosyncratic, zinging panache. Each is worthy of an examination due in part to their differences. However, Preston Sturges  was really one of the first high profile screenwriters, preceding so many modern success stories. He gave the formerly uninspired and restricted post a newfound respect at a time when that was all but unheard of.

One part of me speculates whether his humor is dated and another part asks why we don’t have films quite like this anymore? Part of the answer might be because of television. The kind of hijinks and episodes that Sturges seemed to showcase often got translated into I Love Lucy episodes and numerous other sitcom tropes that would gain traction over the years.

Still, there’s little doubt that something deeply satisfying is afoot — a film that zips along at an hour and seven minutes yet leaves us feeling like a whole boatload has happened in that same amount of time. Because it’s true. There are dour notes. Moments of wistfulness even, but paired with all that is frenetic and wonkers, you find Preston Sturges coming out on the other side with a comedic trifle that speaks to a great many things about American life, however superficially. Because remember, the punchlines are just as important as the lessons.

3.5/5 Stars

Ramrod (1947)

 

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Right away, in the very first moments, we know something’s amiss when the driver of a passing wagon notes to the woman at his side that they just passed her father…and they proceed to keep going without even a word of greeting.

It’s true that Ramrod is a riff on the age-old family feud but it involves several other men who are tied up in it too. Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) plays god where nothing and no one sees the light of day without his say so. Because remember these are the days when whoever had the most firepower and the ability to lean on others was king.

True, the sheriff (Donald Crisp) has a duty to uphold the peace but his jurisdiction and authority can only reach so far. One man against an entire posse doesn’t amount to much. Important to this story is that the old man from the opening scene, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), has long sided in all of his affairs with Ivey. He’s even told his daughter to marry him and he does it again when the bully runs her latest beau out of town.

But Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake) is resolute and not about to let anyone push her around and so she decides to take the land bequeathed to her and try and make a go of it as a cattle rancher. She knows its an uphill battle in opposition to Ivey but one key to the enterprise is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) who finds himself all of the sudden on the wrong side of Ivey as well. Now he has a reason to take up an offer from Connie becoming the ramrod of her outfit.

Soon he assembles a workforce including his pal Bill Schell (Don DeFore) to see the game through by legal means playing by the rules because the local sheriff is a buddy and Dave is not about to put his friend in a compromising position. He respects him too much. Others are not so valiant. For all intent and purposes, total war has begun.

First Connie’s homestead is razed to the ground, a cowhand is given a going over, and another man is gunned down in retaliation. Both sides have blood on their hands’ thanks to this eye for an eye mentality that continues to escalate matters. A herd of cattle is stampeded. The sheriff gets it for attempting to enact justice. Dominoes continue to tumble with each subsequent shotgun blast of malice.

Dave winds up as a fugitive for avenging his friend’s death by gunning down his purported killer. He finds himself wounded and trying to sneak past the searching eyes of Ivey. They manage to get him away to a secluded cave but even their his safety is put in jeopardy by — you guessed it — Connie Dickason. She has her meddling hands in many things.

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The one person who won’t let him down, despite a myriad of faults, is Bill and he devises a plan to draw the enemy away from his friend by acting as a decoy. The posse winds into the mountain crags to gun Dave down for good; they fail to comprehend who they are actually dealing with.

With her then-husband directing, it makes sense that the film provided a prominent berth for Lake. It’s a juicy role full of a mixture of innocent intentions and conniving. There’s absolutely no question about it; it’s another femme fatale role as she plays a “man’s game” by pitting all the men in her life against each other to get her way so she can pick up the pieces. In totality, it’s a nifty bit of maneuvering to get the desired results, successfully pouting her way to the top. But a curious counterpoint is Rose (Arlene Whelan) who is without question the guardian angel of the picture tugging at Daves heartstrings while Connie continually entangles him.

Retroactively it’s seamlessly easy to label this a noir-western sharing company with such hybrids as Pursued (1947) and Yellow Sky (1948). This breed of western is dark and brooding, concerned with psychological warfare as much as it is rough and tumble enforcement of justice. We half expect Ramrod to cram itself down our throats and it might as well with all that goes down.

The cast is steady with a plethora of recognizable character actors including Charles Ruggles and the diplomatic hand of Donald Crisp. Don DeFore as the bright-eyed ranch hand nevertheless knows how to hold a grudge with the best of them. You’ve never seen him so grungy. Lloyd Bridges fills a near bit part as a hot-headed heavy as usual while the scapegoat Virg is portrayed by Wally Cassell (Cassell lived to the ripe, old age of 103). With the reteaming of Lake and McCrea we had a reunion of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and yet the reason it didn’t happen earlier was McCrea was not all that fond of his leading lady. By no means does that detract from this minor western success.

3.5/5 Stars