Lured (1947)

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Herein is a slightly off-kilter serial killer, mystery-thriller and early American film in the career of German emigre Douglas Sirk. Of course, the action is actually set in England. It’s a film that builds a paranoid framework like The Lodger (1944), I Wake Up Screaming (1941) or other like-minded films. However, it goes through the normal paces only to lurch forward in the most curious directions.

The parties involved include a Scotland Yard guided by that industrious Brit for a day Charles Coburn. Other people of interest include a street-smart nightclub dancer (Lucille Ball) who saw one of her co-workers go missing after a rendezvous with a mystery man. In fact, a rash of disappearances of young attractive women has overtaken the city.

Thus, upon finding Ms. Carpenter to be a plucky and intelligent young woman the inspector calls upon her services to force their elusive perpetrator out in the open acting as the tantalizing bait. She begins to respond to advertisements in the paper — his calling card — to lure victims into his clutches.

The only problem is figuring out who the man might be because numerous candidates roam the streets and many people circa 1947 placed postings in the paper. It’s common practice. Among people she gets caught up with are a delusional fashion designer who became unstable after years of criticism. The one and only Charles van Druten is played by none other than Boris Karloff in one of the film’s many digressions.

Likewise, Ms. Carpenter answers a call for a position as a maid, though the prospective employer’s intentions prove to be far more insidious involving some dealings in South America and too-good-to-be-true promises of advancement. Once more Scotland Yard puts an end to the criminal activities but is no closer to their murderer.

One of the more prominent people of interest is Robert Fleming (George Sanders) a man of vast influence and a stage producer who finds classical music tepid and most of the upper echelons of the society’s elite even worse. He goes about it all with the playful disdain that can only be attributed to George Sanders at his best.

In fact, his manner is off-putting to Sandra as well but their prickly beginnings cannot completely derail romantic feelings. In those respects, both Ball and Sanders prove to be adequate romantic leads propelled by their wry comedic proclivities. That’s far more rewarding than any romance. The only problem is that he might not be who he claims to be and at any rate, a great deal of circumstantial evidence is piled up against him. A final push for justice must be made.

Lured isn’t an instant classic as the tension while there is never altogether sweltering. But simultaneously the screen is crammed with quality performers and just enough idiosyncratic moments and bits of humor to keep the film from being absolutely conventional. George Zucco is by far the most amusing of the many supporting characters as the crossword puzzle-loving officer H.R. Bartlett who acts as Sandra’s guardian angel while simultaneously coming upon many of his solutions through simple eavesdropping.

This is also a telling film that should make us uncomfortable and it’s not so much that things feel overwhelmingly misogynistic and objectifying of women, it’s the even more sobering fact that things have not changed as much as we would like to believe.

What is the root of most serial killing? Surely we can see familial issues or mental instabilities but oftentimes it’s tied in with a distorted sense of love wrapped up in perverse fantasies hidden from view.

Our killer is obsessed with the poetry of Baudelaire and uses it to realize the fantasies that he never seems able to act out on. The man’s interest is in destroying beauty instead of making love to paraphrase Coburn’s character. When he finally is revealed I’m not sure it’s a surprise but then need we be surprised? Many “normal” men are capable of great evil. They’re simply good at covering it up.

3.5/5 Stars

Kings Row (1942)

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Kings Row is apparently a good place to live. The billboard in town says as much. It’s the goings-on in the community that tells a different story — providing a conflicting more subversive view of small-town America.

The story starts out with 5 children. It feels like we hardly get to know them before they are already grown. For some, it feels like we hardly get to know them, period. Robert Cummings is Parris, a fresh-faced polite young man who still exudes a naive innocence and he manages it at 31 years of age. He certainly doesn’t look it.

Those qualities are precisely what is called for in Kings Row, a film directed by Sam Wood (The Devil and Miss Jones) that feels like an enigma — a sprawling coming-of-age drama that dares to show the dark underbelly of society in a very patriotic time.

Despite being hampered by the Hays Codes and its gatekeeper Joseph Breen, Casey Robinson’s script is still a fairly adequate adaption. It comes off surprisingly frank for a mainstream success during the war years even if it can’t quite cover all the vast territory the book undoubtedly expounded upon. But it was a notable forerunner of such pictures as Peyton Place (1957) or even Blue Velvet (1986) years later. It does not shy away from cancer, death, suicide, psychological duress, and all sorts of malice.

Cummings is joined by Ronald Reagan playing his best buddy Drake McHugh, an affable straight shooter with that winning Reagan charisma. Reagan and Ann Sheridan prove to be a great delight with undeniable chemistry if not for the fact that they don’t actually share a scene until well into the picture. In normal circumstances, you would say they’d make a happy couple.

Meanwhile, Cassandra Towers (Betty Field) and Lousie Gordon (Nancy Coleman) seem at the fringes of the narrative if not all but forgotten. Cassandra was formerly Parrises sweetheart when they were kids. But her family is ostracized in town because her unseen mother has mental problems and her father (Claude Rains) pulls his daughter out of school. Parris doesn’t get to see her until years later when he’s under the doctor’s tutelage. He learns to admire the man but that doesn’t make the family dynamic any less disconcerting.

Likewise, before setting his sights on Randy Monaghan (Sheridan) from the other side of the railroad tracks, Drake had his eye on Louise but her parents, Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) and his wife (Judith Anderson), were vehemently against such a union. They believe Drake to be unscrupulous, fearing what others will say about his nighttime buggy rides.

Not to be outdone, Drake gets over his first love and moves on with his life. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of the picture. He seems genuinely content. Though he is miles away in Vienna, Parris is continuing his aspirations of becoming the first psychiatrist in his hometown.

But Kings Row remains a coiled spring of melodrama quickly catapulting from romance to drama back to passion then darkness and romance again. Drake’s life back home turns morosely tragic giving rise to the line that would define Reagan’s career, “Where’s the rest of me!”

James Wong Howes’ photography is A-grade as per usual. The shades of melodrama are his to dictate and he does it exquisitely suggesting tonalities with every composition. The well-remembered score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold has an undisputed majesty which seems to be echoed in some of John Williams most resplendent works from Superman to Star Wars.

There is so much that goes as unspoken subtext in the movie, simultaneously helping and hindering the final outcome. Easily forgotten are the troubling parent-daughter relationships with brokenness at the seams. Claude Rains appears in a very severe role as Dr. Towers who seems like a good man but in the same breath, he still has some lifelong demons he cannot contend with.

Charles Coburn is positively acerbic, channeling every bit of malevolence he can muster. It’s another small but markedly different role than his usual cantankerous or avuncular comics. The trifecta of supporting talent is rounded out by Judith Anderson who only has a couple scenes but they paint a picture of yet another strained mother-daughter dynamic. These issues provide an alternative unnerving layer to the drama but there are so many other subjects to be broached so these feel muddled.

Kings Row barrels towards a lightning fast conclusion that looks to resolve the film’s entire length in a matter of a few moments and that proves to be a heady proposition. An almost unnaturally joyous ending cannot quite tie up all the loose ends and the questions we may still have as outsiders trying to come to grips with this world. But there is one that does become evident and one thread of morality that shows itself.

Humanity was not made to live paralyzed by gossip, hearsay, and secrets that can never be completely rectified. Instead, what we can do is bring all that is in the darkness into the light and do our best to hold on dearly to our relationships.

Because strains of hypocrisy, sickness, and pernicious intent will look to undermine our happiness until the end of time. One of the keys is striving for a life that takes the hardship and comes out of it with a continued zeal for life. Battling all that is depressed and despondent with a spirit of pure integrity.

So while there’s still something unspeakably unsatisfying about Kings Row that’s not to take away from its positive outcomes. Just seeing a smile cross Ronald Reagan’s face once more almost feels like it’s enough. I still remember going to the Reagan Library and watching some clips from Kings Row, a film he likened to his best work. Now many years later I can finally say I’ve seen it for myself.

3.5/5 Stars

Bachelor Mother (1939)

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Of course, Bachelor Mother is a blatant oxymoron and it’s a perfect summation of that vestige of a genre the screwball comedy — a genre that’s about marriage and divorce and the gray areas in between conveniently skirting past issues such as adultery or people “living in sin” as it were. The norm was not a genre of divorce but of remarriage.

As such this Ginger Rogers vehicle has her playing a woman who doesn’t actually have a child out of wedlock but it’s assumed as much and that’s where the roots of the comedy get their traction. Because therein dwells so many societal taboos that are subsequently turned into marvelous fodder for misunderstanding though no actual moral statutes have been broken. It’s that line of dramatic irony that the rom-com, in general, has always needed in order to survive.

Just think how perfectly it all happens. In one moment Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers) finds herself laid off from her department store gig just in time for Christmas and between the unemployment agency and home she happens upon a lady leaving a cute little bundle of joy on the doorstep of the local orphanage. She says it’s not hers. She found it somewhere and now she’s leaving.

But Ginger Rogers being our concerned heroine can’t just let the baby sit there so she takes a course of action, delivering the child inside and enlightening the staff about the situation. Of course, they all believe she’s simply shirking her maternal responsibility and running out on her child and they pass the news along to David Merlin (David Niven), one of her former employers.

By now, Polly is already long gone. She’s agreed to take part in a dance competition at the local hall the Pink Slipper. There’s $50 in it for her and her partner Freddie (Frank Albertson of It’s a Wonderful Life prominence) if they can win. Waiting, babe in arms and valet in tow, Mr. Merlin tries to rectify the situation and get Polly to take back her child.

If the film was born on the steps of the orphanage, then it is solidified right here as a full-fledged screwball comedy of motherhood and misconstrued circumstance. Polly finds herself called into Mr. Merlin’s office and is offered her old post as long as she takes her child back. Still, they don’t listen to her renunciation so she has no course but to become a mother, after all, babies are cute. They can’t be that much work…

The fact that this is a screwball and not so much a domestic comedy is made clear by the fact the baby is more of a plot element than an actual character and Rogers and Niven find time to fall in love even with the added strain of motherhood.

What seems to do it is a lovely night together on New Year’s Eve which is highlighted by an extended gag where Niven introduces Rogers as his date from Sweden who conveniently does not speak a lick of English. It’s punctuated by the definitive punchline of the film. Simultaneously, Rogers struts her stuff all night long (though we miss Fred Astaire) in a reverie of pure joy.

But that’s not all that’s capped off amid the pandemonium of the festivities. Love Affair is far from just the movie up on the nearby theater billboard. It’s also something coming to fruition between our two stars. However, if this was the end it could hardly claim the name screwball. That’s when the baby comes in. J.B. Merlin (Coburn) finds his son with this single mother and draws conclusions of his own and…he’s very happy to be a grandfather and not so happy with the spineless conduct of his son.

What follows is a mad dash by our two leads to try and conjure up other stand-ins for a game of Who’s the Father? Three eligible contenders are brought in to play the charade. We already know Merlin, then there’s the dancing fiend and disgraced floorwalker Freddie, and the landlady’s bespectacled son.

In the end, everything is squared away nicely and the corkscrew comes full circle. Though Charles Coburn plays a very small part it proves to be a crucial one. Meanwhile, I adore Ginger Rogers and once more following Stage Door and Vivacious Lady, she proves in yet another film her genuine skills as an actress of immeasurable smarts and humor. Sometimes I’m admittedly unfair to David Niven — he’s never been the most compelling actor — but he’s fine in this picture.

This film also shares much the same world as the Devil and Miss Jones (including Charles Coburn) and the toy store environment provides the perfect arena for a terrifically comical shoplifting sequence full of excitement. It’s this movie to a tee. Positively quacking.

3.5/5 Stars

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

4/5 Stars

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-ms-jones-1Its title suggests that this film might be something like Lubitsch’s Heaven can Wait but The Devil and Miss Jones could easily hold the title as the original version of  Undercover Boss. Although its main function is on the romantic and comic planes, it also has a bit of a social message behind it that signals for change.

Setting the stage, the wonderfully memorable Charles Coburn is none other than the 6th richest man in the world and he is also a hopelessly cranky curmudgeon. A comic Mr. Potter if you will. He’s also a finicky eater only indulging in graham crackers and constantly calling upon his longsuffering servant (S.Z. Sakall). He’s always got something to gripe about.

At the moment, the workers at the department store franchise he holds ownership of are decrying his policies and the benefits he gives workers. They’re pretty bad but he really doesn’t care. All he cares about is that his name is being slandered and he’s looking to hire a detective to find the conspirators. However, not finding a suitable candidate, he resolves to join the floor staff in the shoe department himself so he can act as a mole and undermine any plans they have against him. He’ll beat them out his own game. He’s “a real Benedict Arnold in Sheep’s Clothing” as they say.

Soon he is befriended by the kindly Ms. Ellis who swears by her tuna fish popovers and it takes a moment but he is disarmed by her generosity. The plucky Ms. Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) also takes him under her wing in a way, looking out for him amidst the cruel world of customer service. He isn’t much good at it anyway — selling slippers that is. Edmund Gwenn in a rather subdued role as the snooty store manager tells him as much.

And it’s Mary who unwittingly introduces him to the inner workings of all things store-related. Including the fact that her beau is the infamous Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) a recently fired store employee who is working his hardest to rage against the accepted order by organizing a labor union to protect his fellow working class friends.

But it’s not all serious, hardly. Among other things, the foursome takes a lively day trip. One can only imagine Coney Island or some such hot spot with crowded beaches that look more like sardine tins and bustling avenues with kids running hither and thither. In these moments it becomes obvious that there’s a bit of a comical culture war being waged, perfectly summated by the moment some of his new colleagues dilute his fine wine with soda pop to kill the peculiar taste. And despite, their simple ways, they grow on Mr. Merrick, while at the same time his naivete about real life, gains their sympathy. He seems fairly helpless without them. A rambunctious trip to the police station ensues because he gets lost like a little kid.

Of course, there’s the expected turn of events. It must happen. Mr. Merrick is slowly becoming redeemed, falling for Ms. Ellis and gaining the trust of both Mary and Joe. But Mary happens across something that puts everything in jeopardy. And it could be melodramatic but Arthur knows how to adeptly play the comedy even in these moments. Most notably, when she’s summing up the courage to clock her deceptive colleague over the head with a hay maker courtesy of the season’s latest model of footwear.

The final crusade for unionization leads to utter bedlam with the higher ups and it has a trickle-down effect on everyone else. Mary and Joe lead the charge emphatically but with this inside look at the corrupt inner workings of his leadership, Mr. Merrick is aghast and willfully joins the rebellion. It’s comic absurdity and all the main players do the film justice making their happy ending all the more deserved. Sam Wood might not be noted as a director of raging comedies (true, he worked with the Marx Brothers) but he does well enough with The Devil and Ms. Jones to make it a delightful trifle even now. Thanks be that Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were paired once more in More the Merrier. They’re gold together.

4/5 Stars

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_poster“I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” ~ Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell together. It’s a crackerjack combination and Howard Hawks milks it for all its worth. There’s streetwise Dorothy  (Jane Russell) wooing all the boys from here to kingdom come. She cares about more than just money, especially when it entails having fun. Her other half is the vivacious bubble-headed beauty Lorelei like only Monroe could pull off. She’s the girl looking to get hitched with her bookish millionaire and she’s not afraid to admit that his money sweetens the pot. It certainly doesn’t hurt (Don’t you know that a rich man is like a pretty girl? You don’t marry her just because she’s pretty. But, my goodness, doesn’t it help?).

Time and time again words and bits of dialogue leave her lips that are almost astonishing. She delivers them with such a fluid air of seriousness that they force a double take and each and every time she has the audience in the palm of her hand. We think she’s dumb, but whether it’s the just the persona she puts on or a bit of Marilyn Monroe herself, she is extremely intelligent. If nothing else she knows how to captivate an audience, not letting them soon forget her magnetic performance.

If she had been playing against anything else Jane Russell would have been the primary attraction and she’s always wry and lovely, but with Monroe in the equation, they develop into a dynamic duo, leaving a wake of hapless boys behind them. There’s the old playboy Piggy (Charles Coburn) with a tiara Lorelei has ambitions for, the hired private investigator Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid) who finds himself falling for Dorothy, the diminutive Mr. Spofford and, of course, the hapless Gus (Tommy Noonan).

It can be easy to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes off as a superficial musical — a provocative color extravaganza aboard an ocean liner. After all, it’s a story complete with pools, water slides, romance and a whole squad of athletes with bulging biceps. But it is a genuinely enjoyable film with Howard Hawks once more showing his aptitude for skirting between genres, this case indulging in musical comedy.

The sparkling and most remembered number is, of course, Monroe’s sultry turn in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” clothed in velvety pink,  but really for the entire running time of the film, Monroe and her costar are continually strutting and snapping their way into the hearts of everyone they cross paths with. A final comedic twist of an ending, playing off the comedic dynamic of the film’s pair of heroines, gives Jane Russell an equal chance to show off her star power. This truly is a team effort, even if gentlemen circa the 1950s were discriminatory towards all non-blondes.  Obviously, this film and my commentary are not meant to be taken too seriously. Still, they can be enjoyable. At least in the case of this film. My commentary, not so much.

3.5/5 Stars

Monkey Business (1952)

monkeyb5I always was under the assumption that the screwball comedy died off in the 1940s with homages coming out years later. Is there such a thing as neo-screwball comedies? Anyways, after watching Monkey Business I feel it is necessary to reevaluate that general conclusion. Here is a film from Howard Hawks that channels a great deal of the madcap craziness that you see in his earlier works like Bringing up Baby (1938). For lack of a better term, it is very screwy indeed. Right from the opening credits, you have the voice of God (Hawks himself) breaking the fourth wall and calling Cary Grant by his real name.

Then the film actually opens, and we meet the quintessential absent-minded genius Barnaby (Grant) and his loving wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers). They are meant to go to a social gathering and yet he is so caught up in his work that they stay behind. You see he is trying to develop an elixir of youth. His experiments are of interest to the business-minded and much older Oliver Oxly (Charles Coburn), who only sees the positives of such a discovery. Barnaby tries to explain to him that it’s not so cut and dry. In fact, his work could have dire effects if careful precautions are not taken.

Little does Dr. Fulton know that one of his lab chimps got loose in his lab and tampered with some chemicals, dumping them in a water cooler. After this absurd moment, Barnaby unknowingly consumes the rejuvenating concoction and his whole demeanor takes a turn.

Soon he’s out buying flashy clothes, getting a flamboyant car, ice skating, and driving like a speed demon down the thoroughfares with an astonished secretary Ms. Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). Cary Grant even shows off his impressive acrobatic skills, performing a cartwheel and a few other tricks.

monkeyb3Only when the concoction wears off does he figure out what happened, and he resolves to be more careful next time. Except next time turns out to come sooner than he was expecting when Edwina willingly drinks some of the substance so Barnaby can observe her. Just like that, she is a prank-pulling schoolgirl with insatiable energy.

Once more Barnaby takes the elixir while Edwina is sleeping off the effect. However, when she wakes up a misunderstanding leads to more mayhem as she tries to get help from Mr. Oxly. What develops is a spiral into more hilarity. Barnaby and Edwina are reunited, Edwina’s old flame is incensed, Ms. Laurel is petrified, and chimps and man alike are taking part in some Monkey Business. If none of this makes much sense then I did my job!

3.5/5 Stars