The Sea Hawk (1940): Errol Flynn Against The Spanish Armada

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Anyone who knows even a smidgeon about historical dates knows what the big to-do with 1588 is. If anything, 1588 automatically means the sinking of the Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth’s forces. So when a film opens in Spain in 1585 we already have a good idea of where we might be going. It’s the voyage to get there which matters most.

I can’t quite help but see the parallels between Spain and the Nazis aspirations for world domination. Because in the year 1585 there is a King in Spain named Phillip II who not unlike an incumbent dictator in 1940 was looking to conquer all of Europe with England being a priority.

With this historical backdrop, Warner Bros. gathers another classic ensemble anchored by Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz along with the steady support of Alan Hale. Following his debut as a film composer in Captain Blood (1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold returns to similar waters to provide the scoring once more.

The film does feel empty without Olivia de Havilland but she was by this point fed up with playing second or third fiddle in swashbucklers. Be that as it may, Brenda Marshall (the future Mrs. William Holden). with a shining countenance, fills in swimmingly in one of her most prominent performances.

Leading his pride and joy The Albatross in the service of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, English captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) makes a glorious conquest of an enemy ship. The thrilling surf soaked cannonball-filled action picks up right in the same waters as Captain Blood.

He just happens to commandeer the boat carrying the Spanish ambassador (Claude Rains) across the English channels. It is the conniving man’s mission to ingratiate himself with the queen and being the two-faced scoundrel that he is, he finds Thorpe to be an incorrigible scoundrel.

Though he makes a monkey of court and her closest advisor Lord Wolfingham who seems quite sympathetic toward the Spaniards on a whole, Elizabeth is fond of Thorpe’s patriotic brand of cheekiness. Envisioning vast spoils at the hands of the Spanish, he takes on a clandestine mission off the record albeit with the Queen’s permission behind closed chamber doors.

Cloak and dagger countermeasures ensue as Don Jose looks to ensure that his mortal enemy will be cut off before he has any chance to do anything. Although initially turned off by the scoundrel, his daughter soon becomes enchanted by his chivalry even as she fails to intercept him in time. They are riding off into a trap.

They set out through the sepia-toned world of Panama in search of vast treasures to be plundered from their enemies. Instead, they get brutally ambushed and pushed back into the mosquito-infested swampland by the waiting conquistadors.

Whereas Captain Blood found Flynn starting at the bottom in The Sea Hawk he is brought down into the pits of despair once taken prisoner. He and all his men are imprisoned aboard a Spanish ship, oarsmen chained to their places and beaten mercilessly. They grind it out and take the torture while biding their time behind the oars.

It takes time but eventually, a chance is created culminating in a brazen escape attempt. The midnight mutiny is aided exquisitely moment by moment by Korngold’s score put on full display and nearly urging the men on in their quest while instigating an underlying tension.

The final burst of drama comes when Thorpe returns to shore, reunited with his love in her carriage making amends and sneaking back to the queen’s castle cloaked by night. Making it to the queen proves a nearly insurmountable task with all the guards on high alert and Wolfingham waiting to intercept him for one final duel. But Flynn could never be outdone and Henry Daniell is certainly no Basil Rathbone. The Queen gets the news and vows to battle the Spanish Armada. We know the rest of the story.

While not quite eclipsing the jaunty heights of Captain Blood, this worthy successor nevertheless has its own share of thrills and fine action with Flynn maintaining high form. Perhaps it’s partially a testament to how captivatingly the film opens because it’s difficult for any picture to maintain that kind of vigor all the way through. But with a valiant effort led by its charming rapscallion and his crew, they wade through any slow passages to bring us back around to the grade-A entertainment of a quality swashbuckler.

The production thriftily saved on funds by repurposing the exquisite period costuming from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from the prior year. They become a perfect extension of the storyline to match Flora Robson’s formidable turn as the Queen. Meanwhile, Claude Rains is transformed into a dark-haired Machiavellian villain which he pulls off with the required amount of duplicity. This time around, Flynn’s character is based on the legendary Sir Francis Drake and yet like Robin Hood before, the Australian falls into the part and makes it his own through magnetism, athleticism, and wit. It’s another sterling achievement.

Queen Elizabeth gives one final stirring message that again can be taken in its time as a veiled indictment of Hitler’s belligerent aspirations. America had yet to enter the war and yet in over a year’s time, they would be right by England’s side. It wasn’t quite the surprise defeat of the Spanish Armada but it would take long hard years of waves of sacrifice and hard toil against the enemy. Winston Churchill is said to have admired this picture immensely and it’s hardly difficult to see why. It sums up his guiding sentiments exactly. After all, he is the man who famously said:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the original restored uncut version of the film that clocks in at 127 minutes.

 

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

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To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 11 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars

City for Conquest (1940): James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Arthur Kennedy

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Upon being immersed in City for Conquest, it feels like a cast of millions because so many familiar faces make an appearance for any given amount of time. Surely, the most important coupling is James Cagney and Ann Sheridan who are paired much in the same way as Angel With Dirty Faces (1938), playing childhood sweethearts who end up growing up together.

The picture also provides a scintillating film debut for young Arthur Kennedy, forerunning his turn playing the younger brother to another boxer in Champion (1949), opposite Kirk Douglas. Cagney’s not a bad man to have for a brother either and their dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of this relatively slight drama.

It all begins with a rather peculiar framing device with an all-knowing drifter (Frank Craven) posing his commentary on “The Big Apple” and the world of interpersonal relationships that exist all around him. Because each individual has different talents and aspirations, at its most instinctual level, City for Conquest is about the trajectory of each character in tandem to one another. Thus, the story is most concretely driven by its characters while being enriched by that prototypical Warner Bros. grit and street corner brand of atmosphere.

For one, Danny Kenny (Cagney) tries his luck in the boxing ring taking on the name “Young Sampson,” not necessarily because of ambition but for the pure fact, it puts grub on the table and provides means to pay for his little brother’s musical education. Backed by promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp) and supported by buddies Mutt (Frank McHugh) and Pinky (George Tobias), he tenaciously makes his way up the ranks toward the welterweight title.

Although he has nothing to show for it yet, Eddie Kenny (Kennedy) has a knack for compositions and he’s moved his brother with his city symphony, despite his lack of musical knowledge, because music has the power to speak to even everyday folks on a visceral level.

Meanwhile, Peg Nash (Sheridan) is terribly smitten with Danny and yet in the same breath aspires to be a first-class dancer. She meets an arrogant yet talented bloke (Anthony Quinn) out on the dance floor and is enticed with a career just like she’s always dreamed about.

The girl breaks his heart as much as you can break Jimmy Cagney. He takes it like a man while still feeling betrayed. To add insult to injury, his climactic bout is rigged due to the resin dust illegally sprinkled on his opponent’s gloves. Not only does Danny unfairly lose the fight but his career is permanently terminated with his eyesight impeded for good. Eddie shouts for the senseless beating to end as Peg cries to herself over the radio broadcast besides herself over Danny’s loss. It affects Danny physically while the others are casualties of a different kind.

It’s all but inevitable that the picture will end in some gangster knockoff job with the boy’s big shot pal Googie (Elia Kazan) seemingly ready to give the crooked wrenches who tampered with the fight their comeuppance. And the side of the underworld set on the east river with bodies to dispose of certainly has its place. But the underlining factor is despite their struggles, our three protagonists are allowed to find a swatch of contentment.

Eddie is finally able to realize his musical ambitions and gain the repute of the masses in his first show while Danny and Peg are reunited to live life as they were always meant to — together. Though her dancing aspirations have been curtailed and his sight lost, their future remains shimmering with hopefulness.

One could easily comment that City For Conquest‘s themes riff off of Golden Boy in the way music and the boxing ring are juxtaposed, one next to the other. In this case, it’s the two brothers who represent the two seemingly incongruent worlds. And yet the biggest implication is that a rough and tumble guy like Cagney can still have a beating heart and a sensitivity for song even as he goes day in and day out pounding people in the ring. The two worlds are not mutually exclusive by any means.

We certainly know who our main players are but again it’s the robust and jovial nature of the full ensemble making it even more diverting. Ward Bond shows up as a disgruntled cop there, Charles Lane as a no-nonsense promoter here, and Jerome Cowan is ready to rib his competition over a few boxing ring bets. They don’t have to be the focal point because that’s not requisite for being entertaining. I greatly admire the character actors of old for what they are able to create even within meager means.

3/5 Stars

Wuthering Heights (1939): Death Be My Destiny

Wuthering_Heights_(1939_film).jpgIt’s almost instantly reasonable to clump this cinematic adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with other contemporary pictures swirling with gothic menace like Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. The latter film, of course, is based off the novel of another of the Bronte Sisters, Charlotte.

We might be able to give it some credit as the first of the lot while it also somehow managed to be one of the most high profile pictures in a year that has been lauded for the spectacular nature of its output. Its true 1939 was a staggering year for Hollywood. The list is too extensive even to begin attempting.

William Wyler was continuing his string of successes throughout the 1930s before WWII, and Wuthering Heights, in particular, would see the formation of a fruitful partnership with Gregg Toland, the cinematographer renowned for his perfecting of deep-focus photography. It was used in this picture and most prominently in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and then again in The Best Years of Our Lives, also with Wyler.

The story itself streamlined and truncated from the original work begins with the dark mood of the eponymous estate roosted over by a brooding man named Heathcliff and his gaunt wife, frail old housekeeper, and his hounds. But we are provided a flashback to happier times evoking childhood and the glories of the Yorkshire Moors covered by vast expanses of heather (actually imported from England to California).

How it diverges from the tales of Dickens or even Charlotte Bronte’s work is by offering a portrait of elders who are not nearly puritanical but actually show a pretense of actual Christian charity. What is there is a warmth girded around them and a hospitality and prodigal nature toward the less fortunate.

Mr. Earnshaw is a model of such a man as he brings a besmirched orphaned youth from his travels on London back to his estate and he adopts him as his own son. As long as the man lives young Heathcliff finds great joy in life treated as a full member of the family. Out of his childhood blooms his lifelong affection for his adopted sister Catherine. Their friendship grows out of horseback riding and wishful dreaming of castles and knights on the rolling plains of their homeland. They could not be more contented.

Ironically, behind the scenes, we have two talents in Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier who could not have been more antagonistic. Though young, Oberon was a fairly established actress in Hollywood, admired for her exquisite beauty. Laurence Olivier was just coming into his own as a film actor. His presence and dashing looks are irrefutable, though he had only recently dabbled in the medium following his already illustrious career on the stage.

Their projections are all but believable and ultimately rapturous even if the illusion is somewhat broken by the realization that the two actors abhorred each other off-camera. Part of the resentment might stem from the fact Olivier’s lover and soon-to-be wife Vivien Leigh had been passed over the leading role. But we must fall back to the story.

Mr. Earnshaw’s own son Hindley (Hugh Williams) vindictively maintains a grudge against Heathcliff that began the first day he ever set eyes on the other lad. He was never going to be anything but a stable boy.

Inevitably comes the day when Mr. Earnshaw passes on and the warmth once bathing his dominion is so quickly scrubbed away by the younger Earnshaw. He pushes Heathcliff out of the house to take care of the horses and treats him as he always has, as a mere pair of dirty stable hands, Meanwhile, the conceited rival becomes crippled by alcoholism and gambling debts.

Though they have confessed their undying love, the fact that Heathcliff can never achieve any amount of success to fund their childhood fancies, Catherine grows up impatient and bitter. Impatient to find a man who can make her happy by means of the world. Heathcliff now scorned seemingly leaves for good and she finds such an affluent suitor in Edgar Linton, David Niven with another thankless part, doting over her good-naturedly.

What ultimately arises in the final act is a vindictive battle of raging jealousies and contorted love affairs. Heathcliff begins to court the sympathetic younger sister Isabelle Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which immediately receives the ire of not only her older brother but Cathy as well. She and her future sister-in-law have at it and yet soon Cathy is taken by illness because though she’s too proud to admit it, truthfully she still desires Heathcliff.

The most piercing love stories are those that are unrequited or worst yet lost out on based on the passage of time and changing circumstances. Where regrets and misfortunes pool up in such a way crippling what could have been so joyous. It speaks to a human desire for abiding, even eternal, romantic contentment. Heathcliff rashly prays to be haunted by her — for the ghost of her to torment him — because he cannot live without his soul. That is, Cathy.

What’s more, he is all but granted the wish that never seemed attainable in life, provided by a near transfiguration of the ethereal and the eternal. It’s a deeply powerful and moving apotheosis but upon closer observation, it also bears the responsibility in creating myths around romantic love. Because even in this modern age inundated by themes and testimonies of passion we cling to the idea that love is an eternal force when evoked and instigated between two people.

However, it’s only a half-truth because even as we look at the narrative of Wuthering Heights the messiness and the heartbreak that’s found all the way throughout the story, such final departures do not fit the origins of the story. They cannot line up in the real world either and it is true this is a picture that relies on the outskirts of the imagination and the hinterlands existing on the edges of the moors and the frames of the film itself. This is where love is able to survive in this almost unknowable, illusory world where it is not bounded by the ephemeral things we know to be true.

Reminiscent of some of Frank Borzage’s most enthralling romances, love is spiritual — a religion all to itself — ably transcending the throes of death. That’s the sentiment anyway, observed most curiously by the maid Ellen (Flora Robson) as, “Trying to tear away the veil between death and life.”

Because with Wuthering Heights, were it to maintain a real-world authenticity to the end of its days, we would rue the day we ever saw it and be bitter and downtrodden for the tragedy we had just witnessed. Life and film cannot always be interchangeable. As long as we understand this,  there’s a good chance we can avoid being damaged by such fallacies on the other side of the written page and the celluloid screen.

4/5 Stars

Jezebel (1938): A Bette Davis Southern Belle

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The oldest movie theater near where I grew up was built in 1938 and by some peculiar coincidence, Bette Davis is said to have driven by the establishment time and time again. Being the iron-willed personality that she was, the rising star demanded they open with her latest movie. (I assume very few people crossed Bette Davis and lived to tell about it.)

Thus, the first film ever shown at the newly minted theater was her very own Jezebel. One of the attractions of the theater to this day is an old-fashioned parlor in the ladies room reminiscent of the days when women used to sit together while powdering their noses and sharing in the latest trivialities and juicy bits of gossip. At least that’s how I imagine it.

In truth, Jezebel would prove to be the actresses consolation prize for being passed over for the leading role in one of the biggest cultural attractions of the era, Gone with the Wind (1939). Though Davis was beloved and already extremely popular with the viewing public, the big wigs got the final say choosing Vivien Leigh instead. Of course, the rest is history.

But it’s difficult not to look at Jezebel in juxtaposition with its arguably more opulent and ostentatious rival. That begins with the differing palettes — black & white vs. color — and subsequently bleeds into the running times and comparative success as well.

Surely, Henry Fonda is no dashing rapscallion like Clark Gable, but I find him a more understated hero. More pleasantly reserved. Likewise, while Selznick’s behemoth production was a cash cow, you wonder how he was able to tie the picture together with so many moving pieces and names attached as directors, cinematographers, etc.

William Wyler guides Jezebel with his usual expertise and professionalism, cementing a long and fruitful partnership with Bette Davis. Not that they always were the perfect symbiotic relationship; he soon earned the nickname “99 Take Willie” and Davis was already known for her aforementioned recalcitrant nature.

But there’s little denying that they made each other better. He elevated her performance with his care and the collaboration with long-time cinematographer Ernest Haller lighting her in each scene, creates an ongoing continuity, while Davis brought something authentic and inherently obstinate, fearlessly commanding the screen.

This particular story takes us back in American history to Antebellum New Orleans in 1852. Davis makes a stirring impression as southern belle Julie Marsden arriving late to a fine to-do, not even changing out of her riding crop before bursting in on the company. The churlishness of her impropriety is startling and utterly appalling to the ladies and some of the gentlemen trained up by decades of Southern civility.

Ladies just don’t do such a thing. It isn’t decent. But you get the sense that’s precisely why Davis is impeccable for this role as a woman who willingly tramples over the normative without a second thought. She’s simultaneously an audacious nonconformist and a destructive force clouded by her own pettiness.

She currently resides with her hospitable and generally courteous aunt (Fay Bainter) who nevertheless has her hands full with such a strong-headed woman in her home. The most crucial personal conflict begins with Jezebel’s beau Preston Dillard (Fonda), an up and coming banker. They have a disagreement as he seems more taken with his work than with her.

However, for Julie, in her egocentric world, she is all that matters, and in a form of brash retaliation, she disregards traditional protocol again by ordering a scandalous red dress to wear to the forthcoming ball. Why is it unheard of? Because unmarried women are only ever seen in white. Never in their life would they dream of donning such a brazen symbol.

Throughout the entire film, Davis’ wardrobe, designed by Orry Kelly, essentially becomes an extension of her character, embodying her individuality and defiance of the culture she finds around her.

Henry Fonda maintains a quietly stern resolve much to his credit. Because at face value I always take him for a benevolent soul, and he is when the moments of sincerity are called for. But one cannot acknowledge his candor without remembering the other scenes in You Only Live Once or The Grapes of Wrath where his utter alienation with the world is palpable.

Thus, he’s able to hold his own with Davis even if, by design, this is her picture. The steadiness of his own demeanor is able to be her counterbalance while also confronting the blind devotees of southern convention. Of course, it can’t be helped even as he and his mentor, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp), try and speak sense into those around them.

Julie and Preston weather the Ball together as he forces her to make the ignominious walk of shame and subsequently dance with him, as all eyes fall on them stupefied. Their engagement falls to the wayside after that and Julie will not have him back.

Time passes as Pres goes up north for a spell and Julie becomes inconsolate, clinging to the hope that her former lover will come back to her on his hands and knees. She’s desperate and terribly broken up. Eventually, he does return, just like old times, and yet on his arm hangs his new wife, a charming northerner (Margaret Lindsay), who nevertheless gets slighted by her jealous rival.

In one last-ditch effort to make Prez jealous, Judy tries to use a cocksure southern gentleman named Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to stir up any dissidence she can between the two men. To a degree, her disingenuous contrivance works out in winning the man’s favor with consequences she cannot be absolved of.

Although the conflict between the North and the South is rising to a fever pitch, the film is never actually embroiled in the Civil War. Instead, it is stricken by the peril of the Yellow Fever which fails to discriminate between the rich and the poor.

We see most clearly in these waning moments the arbitrary nature of the southern moral code which would deem two men would have to die in a duel for absolutely pointless means. It’s infuriating to watch because no one’s honor was even at stake. It’s all on account of the needlessly puerile ploys of a woman completely consumed by selfishness, ultimately destroying the relationships around her.

Bette Davis’ pursuit of redemption at the end of the picture generally ruins what we are left with. Especially because she was well-known for playing strong often uncompromising women verging on the unsympathetic. That was part of her allure as an actor, making her so very unlike many of the Hollywood standard-bearers. She had those iconic eyes but also an implacable bullish nature. She’s always a cinematic force to be reckoned with even if her performance gets slightly compromised in Jezebel.

3.5/5 Stars

Dodsworth (1936) Needs Mary Astor

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Sinclair Lewis is one of those literary names I thoroughly recognize and assume must have been a culture-shaper in his day. Yet I can say nothing intelligible about him. In fact, this guttural reaction has more to do with my own ignorance with prose then it does with his fading into antiquity.

But regardless, he is the authorial power behind Dodsworth which was subsequently made into a stage play by Sidney Howard (also starring Walter Huston) before being brought to film by William Wyler. The film itself has always intrigued me as I have great esteem for the director who proved his longevity and ability to construct well-crafted, beloved works out of the Hollywood industry.

The prospect of an authentic examination of marriage circa the early 20th century also piqued my interest bolstered further by Walter Huston’s presence. He originated the stage role and carried it on for over 1,000 performances. In truth, the self-made automotive magnate, Sam Dodsworth, is meant to be the most benevolent of spirits and Huston is flaunting the charm that always made him a likable figure.

He falls seamlessly into the part of a simple man contented where he’s taken his business and ready to give it up to be a family man and devoted husband for once in his life. It is Ruth Chatterton who helps form the nucleus of the story with him, as husband and wife.

To celebrate his leaving the daily grind behind for the welcoming embrace of retirement, the couple plans a luxuriant trip to Europe. Mrs. Dodsworth is looking forward to the culture and fashionable circles to rescue her from the shabby town they hail from. Among the company she keeps is dashing Englishman, Captain Lockerhert (David Niven), who she willingly encourages until his advances get too brazen for her taste.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dodsworth is far more enchanted with the northern lights than the social gatherings, crossing paths with an amiable American, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), currently residing in Italy. There’s little doubt who is more affable in the marriage or faithful, for that matter. Even when peeved and irascible, there’s still a lovable magnetism Huston seems capable of mustering up, easily seen as the victim of a wife who is trying to stave off old age and the horror of a banal lifestyle.

To be quite blunt, Dodsworth is full of monotonous quibbling. I’m apt to label it a dull showing and a generally sorry business but there you get at precisely what the issue is. Huston labels it “the old triangle stuff” as his wife keeps company with any number of men with varying degrees of seriousness and intent. Eventually, it gets to be too much.

A well-documented point of contention arose between Wyler and Chatterton about divergences in how Mrs. Dodsworth should be played. Chatterton wanted the character to be a full-on villain as it were while Wyler hoped to tease out the insecurities and fears of a woman trying to hold onto or at least reclaim her perceived youth.

It seems apparent upon watching the picture that the actress might have well been in the wrong because you watch her performance and even if it inched more toward the director’s intentions, it lacks any kind of the charisma easily attributed to Huston or even Astor’s performance.

Because they are both contemporaries and prime examples of older couples depicted on celluloid, I could not help but consider Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) in reference to Dodsworth. That film is heartbreaking because it shows two elderly people so faithfully in love and yet pulled apart by circumstance, all but forgotten by their families; the bittersweet nature is in the love story. It’s alive and sentimental in the finest way. We grow to love Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi.

However, in the case of Dodsworth, there’s rarely a moment that captivates in a similar manner. I’m ashamed to admit that I should care and I want to care but for some inexplicable reason, I don’t. Not that the dialogue is rubbish or even that the acting is mediocre. Far from it.

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In fact, Astor proves a far more sympathetic heroine and so Wyler’s final decision to leave us focused on her effulgent countenance is probably the best shot selection of the film thus far because in her dwells all that is good and joyous about the picture. For our protagonist and for the audience. Of course, the other striking juxtaposition is Astor’s own real-life woes as she was entangled in a deleterious scandal at the time. In some strange way, while not completely parallel, the screen and reality overlapped.

Although, that still fails to truly reconcile with the troubling moral dilemma remaining within the storyline. We as an audience are far more content with Dodsworth leaving his wife for another woman. Because every delineation of the film suggests that by remaining faithful to his wife the man only gets hurt again and again. Surely, that’s not how the world works? Loyal people should be happy. Those sots prone to infidelity are the ones for which life becomes a shambles. And yet if there are meager conclusions to glean from the picture, the opposite would seem to hold true.

Life is often very unfair. Marriages do not live and die by monumental skirmishes between antagonized parties. Surely that can happen but more often they simply fall apart as apathy ingrains itself and two persons drift away like ships in the night. Because when you love someone you want to be docked by them forever. The banal and the mundane are the most pleasurable because they provide a proper excuse to just exist with the other person.

You know you’re in trouble when discontentedness begins to spring up. Duty, civility, even sexual intimacy are not the building blocks of marriage. They are good things, assuredly, but we need more. Do you actually relish spending time with your spouse? That’s one imperative. When you look at Dodsworth you come to the sad reality that this couple has lived by each other’s sides for 22 years seemingly just passing time. It all seems like a terrible waste. Both the film and the lives at stake. They were made for so much more than this.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Is The Good Fairy (1935) Luisa Ginglebusher?

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Though not what I might consider purebred screwball comedy, The Good Fairy nevertheless shares some of the essence of the genre, based around class divides and fanciful plotting. The roots in fairy stories even precede two of Billy Wilder’s finest early scripts Midnight (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941) mixing modernity with the worlds of childlike invention.

It’s no small wonder Preston Sturges would be the tip of the spear in the ascension of screenwriters as singular talents, followed soon thereafter by Wilder. Both men would crave more control over their material, which led them both to highly successful careers in the director’s chair. But we are still in the nascent stages for the time being.

The Good Fairy is actually helmed by an up-and-coming director in his own right, William Wyler, though he and Sturges were both subsequently sacked by the studio (or asked to leave) for complications they engendered. That says nothing of the quality of the movie itself.

Admittedly, I’m hardly adept at knowing just what denotes Wyler’s technique as a director aside from the addition of Herbert Marshall and the usual professionalism that assures a fine viewing experience. In this regard, it’s a sight easier to realize the hand working the strings behind the character’s mouths.

You can pick up a certain idiosyncratic quality to the dialogue and then with a flash of recollection you remember Preston Sturges. It’s unmistakable from his impeccable naming of characters; our heroine is Ms. Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), to the verbal kerfuffles characters engage in, which verge on the uproariously ludicrous.

The daydreamy orphan’s trajectory from a girl’s home to an usherette on the floor of a lavish theater begins when a stately gentleman (Alan Hale) requests an audience with Dr. Schultz. He misunderstands the good doctor to be a man until a helpful girl at the orphanage straightens him out explaining “he” is actually a “she” (Beulah Bondi).

Any matter, they meet and after surveying the prospects, the theater owner decides on the whimsical Luisa (Margaret Sullavan) who soon finds herself learning calisthenics, dressed from head to toe in military garb, and lighting the way for her patrons with a glowing arrow. You’ve never seen a ticket taker quite like this. Here the lavishness comes in, overwhelming her humble sensibilities.

She is also taken with the magic of the moving pictures, getting completely distracted and involved in the movie melodrama playing out in front of her. In this particular case, a woman is continually being chided by her remonstrative lover to “Go.” The tears start flowing.

Her first misstep, no fault of her own, comes right outside the theater when a lothario (Cesar Romero) tries to pick her up. At a moment’s notice, a patron (Reginald Owen) she recognizes from inside serves as a stand-in for her husband and gets her out of harm’s way. He expects no favors from her. In fact, he has connections to get her into a decadent party. His in-road, being a waiter at the establishment.

She ends up way out of her league, an orphan enraptured in the extravagance of the upper elite and swimming in it giddily like an impoverished fish out of water. Because of course, she is. Among the party guests is Konrad, a flittering Frank Morgan who takes an immediate liking to her because she’s well, young and cute and he’s an old eccentric coot with loads of cash.

Eric Blore is up to all his huffy nonsense as an overbearing snob with a cackle for a laugh. There’s a mutual distaste cultivated by the two men that’s utterly hilarious. Reginald Owen is a fine addition as the indignant waiter constantly trying to protect this girl he feels responsible for. With fortitude and a steady supply of excuses, he looks to check in on her and make sure the older “gentleman” doesn’t take any undue liberties.

Nothing catastrophic happens but there’s a spectacular development when Luisa pulls the same trick about a fake husband and Konrad promptly offers the unseen man a job as an excuse to continually lavish the pretty young gal with trinkets. In a follow-up flash of inspiration, Luisa winds up fabricating a husband who happens to be a lawyer out of the phone book — one Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), distinguished and honorable but terribly broke.

So providence smiles down on him warmly in the form of “The Good Fairy” conveniently bankrolled by a neurotic millionaire. Sporum, of course, thinks he’s being chosen for his strength of character while Konrad believes him to be a downtrodden soul with the wife that he’s taken a personal interest in. Only Ms. Ginglebusher knows the truth and she’s not spilling the beans unless under extreme provocation. But that inevitable moment does eventually arrive. I will leave the ensuing complications be because that is much of the delight of the picture, seeing how all the various confusions will smooth themselves out.

The question, in the end, remains, Who really is “The Good Fairy?” because for varying reasons Luisa, Konrad, and Dr. Sporum all have reasons to claim the title. What’s not up for debate is Detlaff, the waiter. Like John Barrymore a few years later, he plays “The Fairy Godmother” and he does a fine job indeed.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Funhouse Film Noir

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Before I knew the word “auteur” I think subconsciously I began to realize Orson Welles was gifted with this kind of innate artistic force that cemented all his pictures together. It’s part of what made him such a terror to work with and simultaneously a genius of such mammoth accomplishments as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

However, even his lesser-known pictures addled by studio meddling or lack of funds, bear his mark of visual ingenuity and singularity. Run down the line from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial and Chimes at Midnight and you get the idea perfectly. Of course, The Lady from Shanghai keeps this same company capably.

At its core is not just one luminary performer but two: Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. From a purely cinematic perspective, no one had seen either of them quite like this before. Welles acting as actor, director, and producer introduces the story in first-person voiceover cloaked in an Irish brogue. Meanwhile, Hayworth loses her trademark luscious locks to transform into a bleached blonde.

To look at its opening frames alone is to acknowledge that The Lady from Shanghai is noir in nearly every conceivable way. Further still, it never abates along these lines traversing a befuddling narrative arc. It ultimately fails to ever gain clarity while casting Michael O’Hara as a fated hero destined for some inevitable destruction as the narrative zips along with lightning-quick pacing.

He is instantly pulled into the entangling web of Rosalie Bannister though it’s as much a testament to the seedy characters in her stead than her own inclinations. Hayworth gives us an immaculate conception of a femme fatale who is in one sense deadly and still somehow trapped within her very existence.

Even as O’Hara’s concerns for her well-being rise, he only gets dragged deeper into the dark depths of the squalid world around him. Because this particular tantalizing siren is surrounded by a sea of ravenous sharks just priming themselves to rip each other to shreds. Even if he tells himself otherwise, he’s chasing after a married woman, biting off something much too big for him.

Invalid attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) clings onto his “lover” like a trophy because the truth is, he has dirt on everyone in his life — keeping them right where they serve him best. It’s his shifty valet (Ted de Corsia), constantly lurking around, who surmises that tough guys always have an edge. The movie is filled with such shifty characters.

George Grisby (Glenn Anders) is the most unnerving as Bannister’s equally conniving partner. His cackling chills the bones while his continuous obsession about murder and O’Hara’s own scrape with it becomes a queer fascination of his. The reason is still left unknown.

Welles’ camera lovingly adores Hayworth. As she learns to smoke, picking up the habit after seaside excursions or basking in the sunbeams on deck. She the epitome of classic Hollywood allure. It was never her hair anyways. I think it’s something in her eyes gleaming with inalienable life.

However, I want to hate most of the close-ups — as a visceral reaction — because I rarely feel an actor breathing down my neck and yet Welles readily goes back to them again and again in a way that’s unnerving. The worst of them all is, of course, Grigsby.

In fact, Welles continually chooses the most perplexing camera setups. It’s such that you cannot help but allow his perspective to infiltrate your own and dictate how you see things. He’s allowed for no other way whether it be the harsh low angles, overhead shots or cutting between various close-ups to create the patchwork of a single scene.

O’Hara joins the jocund company on the yacht while the picture benefits from early examples of post-war on-location shooting sweeping through Mexico, New York, and ultimately San Francisco. Though it has its share of perceived opulence, not least among it the borrowing of Errol Flynn’s prized boat for the production, equally visible is a certain degradation and subsequent atmosphere that can be traced to Touch of Evil a decade later. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to go right along with the menagerie of players.

And if O’Hara’s own shark metaphors are not augurs enough, Welles has the gall to envelop himself and his lover in an aquarium where the sharks are literally circling in the background, magnified to almost inordinate proportions. The figures are black contours facing each other cloaked completely by the darkness, framed by the panes of the tanks. On the whole, it’s a definitive image of pure chiaroscuro photography, completely indicative of their fatalistic state.

Though the director’s picture originally clocked in at a whopping 155 minutes, it was slashed down to an expedient 87 minutes, which nevertheless means there’s not a continuous line of lucidity running through the drama. Because through outcomes that mostly elude us, O’Hara finds himself on trial for a murder that came to pass by means that are never quite expanded upon.

All of a sudden, he’s fighting for his very life by some cruel reversal. The most incongruous part is the very fact there’s almost a sing-song quality to everyone else from Bannister to Grisby to the District Attorney and the Judge presiding over the case to decide O’Hara’s life.

The flippancy to it all is disconcerting. It’s like Welles and Hayworth are caught in the ghastly webs of noir melodrama and no one else has the least bit of concern. It’s only a game to them. The doleful drone of the shipyards moan as the jury deliberates and Bannister all but admits he’s set O’Hara up for the gas chamber.

But the final act is quintessential Welles given the luxury of two fine setpieces. The creme de la creme is, of course, the funhouse hall of mirrors which is pure directorial showmanship, stylized with gunfire, broken shards of shattering glass, and images of our stars refracted in disarray. Words cannot do it the justice it deserves. It stands as a final testament to a picture that’s plot is about as wonky, unresolved, and inconclusive as any noir piece ever was.

But if you’re like me you get the sense Welles placed the utmost care in the aspects of the film that mattered most to him, namely the visual elan. Because certainly, Lady from Shanghai is a narrative mess. There’s probably little hope of actually justifying all of its leaps and bounds.  And yet in the same breath, it’s equally difficult not to concede how visibly delightful a feast it is.

Will it satisfy everyone? Certainly not. But that’s a part of what made Orson Welles an unprecedented mastermind. He very rarely catered to others and as a result, his films are usually creatures of artistic invention all their own. There will never be another Orson Welles. The same can be said of any so-called auteur. That’s what makes them special — their easily attributed individuality. No one else is capable of making the same exact film. As it should be.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: Cover Girl (1944): Hayworth and Kelly

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In the thick of the war years, Cover Girl stands as a beacon of unadulterated Technicolor lavishness permeating the screen. It proved a fine diversion from the day-to-day, which was wildly popular in its time as a vehicle for beloved screen star and Pin-Up, Rita Hayworth. Watching Cover Girl now, it’s become a fitting marker in the constellations of Gene Kelly’s career and the movie musical in general. We can easily use it to chart his course, culminating in later endeavors of the 1950s.

Because while Hayworth is the most substantial star in director Charles Vidor’s movie, going from Brooklyn chorus girl to rising starlet of  Variety‘s Golden Wedding Girl Edition, Kelly was simultaneously given almost complete creative control over choreographing his numbers. He brought on a young man named Stanley Donen to help with the process. Already we have the roots of a partnership that meant so much for the exploration of musicals as a cinematic genre.

We also have music and lyrics provided by the heralded Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin offering up “Long Ago (And Far Away,” one of the most mellifluous love melodies of the 1940s.

Rusty (Rita Hayworth) has a contented little life working at the hole-in-the-wall nightclub run by her boyfriend Danny (Gene Kelly). They work hard with rehearsals always at 10 am sharp, do their thing at night, and the after hours are theirs to wile away dreaming.

Her endearing pet name is “Chicken.” I’m not sure if we ever find out why. But their best pal, a goofy song and dance man, goes by “Genius” (Phil Silvers) and we know that’s in jest. Nevertheless, he’s their jovial third wheel as they always go to the same late-night hangout, order a heap of oysters, and go pearl diving. It’s a tradition and a habit but it also represents the dreams they haven’t quite reached yet.

“Make Way for Tomorrow” is a joyous romp preceding the palsy-walsy camaraderie of Don, Cathy, and Cosmo in Singin in the Rain (1952). It puts itself in line with all the great studio street corner numbers using extensive sets to create an indoor-outdoor world perfect for peppy outbreaks of dance. In his foresight, Kelly would have some of the set walls punched out so they could go about the number more or less uninhibited and it does wonders.

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So we see that Rusty is happy in this life and yet she still has personal aspirations. She tries her luck at a cover girl job. Cornelia “Stonewall” Jackson (Eve Arden with her usual verbal panache) is the executive tasked with culling through all the eligible hopefuls who walk into her office looking to impress. It’s a real cutthroat pack of wolves. On a side note, it’s fascinating to watch actual cover models from the era go from screen to pages of recognizable magazines. Oh, how things have changed in 75 years.

It’s Stonewall’s boss, magazine editor John Coudair (Otto Kruger), who picks Rusty as his newest star because she shares an uncanny resemblance to the girl he once loved in his youth, one Maribel Hicks. So there you have it! Rusty seems to have hit the big time. She puts Danny’s club on the map as their “Put Me to The Test” performance is a shining success and you’d think he’d be cheering for her.

But it’s his male prerogative to feel under attack. Suddenly she doesn’t need him and maybe she will leave him for the suitor and stage promoter (Lee Bowman) who is looking to move in.

Here we have an uncanny Deja Vu scenario as past and present overlap because by some strange coincidence Maribel Hicks was Rusty’s dear departed grandmother. Granted, it’s a weak piece of plotting but regardless, we have a spurned Gene Kelly on our hands. What it gives way to is the original shadow dancing although reflection dancing is more like it.

It was one of the earliest Kelly innovations allowing him to dance alongside himself, the devil on his shoulder telling him he’ll never get Rusty back. It’s this lovely melding of character progression through the art of dance. Proving it can function elegantly as both.

In the end, Rusty realizes what was good for her grandmother, who lived a satisfying life, is good enough for her and she runs off from her wedding day to get back with a woebegone Danny. It’s a happy ending as the gang’s back together. Consequently, Hayworth would elope with her next husband Orson Welles around this time. But the real-life results ended up being far more tumultuous.

Pal Joey, which Kelly had starred in on the stage, was to be the next pairing of Hayworth and Kelly but alas it was never to be. It finally came to fruition over a decade later with Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth but it lacks the magic this earlier proposed version might have coalesced. What I was left with is the fact that Hayworth has quite the distinction. She danced alongside the two greatest that film ever had to offer: Astaire and Kelly. She more than holds her own as a scintillating star in her own right.

3.5/5 Stars