Daisy Kenyon (1947)

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Otto Preminger always moves through space so fluidly with his camera, and Daisy Kenyon is introduced with a single scene, but it’s the perfect post for the film to hang its hat on.

There’s Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) trying to get the cabby to keep the meter running only to relent when the cabby gives him the statistics on New York’s taxi shortages. Joan Crawford’s punching pillows as Daisy Kenyon, a successful artist who has had an amiable fling for some time with the man. He already has a wife and kids. It’s not where she wants to be. She’s not looking to be a homewrecker. But it’s partially O’Mara’s fault, a successful lawyer who walks in and grabs himself a cup of coffee as nice as you please — all part of his normal routine.

Moments later, another cab appears with Henry Fonda, the understated G.I. Peter Lapham, who winds up on Daisy’s doorstep to call on her for a date. In this opening moment, it takes us so long to know how these characters relate to each other. Maybe it’s the fact that for two people not married to each other Crawford and Andrew’s characters have such a casual, even comfortable, relationship. This isn’t the passionate tryst we’re accustomed to seeing. That’s a beginning and it only gets more fascinating as time marches on.

Henry Fonda feels like he should be the third wheel of the picture and though recognized as a phenomenal actor, he had been out of the game so long like his buddy James Stewart; it’s hardly possible to know what to expect from him. We have My Darling Clementine (1946) and that’s about all. When he pops up, we almost lose him behind the personality of Crawford and Andrews’ own brand of charisma.

But that’s why I’ll always admire Fonda as an actor, because his natural delivery leaves an impression that’s a perfect counterbalance, almost to the point of undermining what his costars are doing.

Meanwhile, Dana Andrews doesn’t appear to make a very convincing father, because every time you hear him say “Baby” to his daughter, a noir dame like Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell springs to mind. The associations have already been made long before this picture. It makes it hard to go back now. Remarkably, in all other respects, he fits the bill and he hardly places a foot wrong. It’s the side of Boomerang (1947) that’s rather more interesting. A big-time lawyer’s family life going to shreds outside the courtroom, spilling into his work as well.

Thus, Daisy Kenyon rolls out the carpet in the fashion of a romantic love triangle and we can make that assumption right off the bat with the stars whose names flash above the title. But what sets this picture apart mostly has to do with the account of the ensuing melodrama. Because it’s hardly melodrama at all, or at least, it’s a more authentic, even honest strain that feels noticeably genuine compared to what Hollywood generally seemed capable of in the 1940s.

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Case and point is a very simple sequence around a table at a bar. Our three stars are gathered there together to talk things out like rational-minded adults. They’re the kind of conversations that can be unpleasant and most certainly of a private nature. Still, in another picture, they might have continued the dialogue as the waiter comes up without a second thought, but here the conversation ceases because that’s more like real life. The film itself seems openly aware of this fact as well.

What becomes equally noticeable is the lack of the kind of soppy manipulative scoring we might see in other works. Embraces and kisses and sweet nothings but none of the same mood created. Again, a little like the real world. Choirs only play in lovers’ heads.

I do greatly appreciate David Raksin’s score, his work in Laura (1944) being transcendent, and here it fits the mood with its sparing arrangements around certain moments to accent nightmarish attacks and more tranquil interludes. It’s almost counter-intuitive if not refreshing.

Subsequently, we witness the most painful sequence of infidelity. Just watching things unravel gives me a heavy heart and I want to grieve even if this is only a cinematic space within which the events are taking place. Because it feels so brazenly real as the lines get crossed and irreparable damage is done.

A part of this messy process is the ensuing complications like divorce, settlements, splitting up custody of the kids, and all the future roadblocks that make people more embittered and jaded when it comes to life.

Though by title and content alone it doesn’t let much slip, there were also murmurs that Daisy Kenyon featured Japanese-Americans in its storyline and as one myself I usually jump at the chance of any such story. Because normally, they are few and far between in Classic Hollywood. That makes any picture with such content a minor revelation for me whether it was Preminger’s impetus or not.

At any rate, The Civil Rights Association comes a calling on O’Mara to represent a Nisei war veteran named Tsu Noguchi who came home to find his farm had been legally taken away from him. We never see the man and there’s not that much more said on the issue except that “It isn’t anyone’s kind of case” but Dan takes it up, assumedly because he wants to impress Daisy and there’s an inkling that he has a shred of decency in his being too.

Now here is another picture to add to that modest but still formidable list including The Steel Helmet, Go for Broke!, Japanese War Bride, and The Crimson Kimono. It proves to be a victory for even conceding that such a world and such a history existed. That is enough for me.

It’s an extension of the entire film really, constructed of minor intricacies that succeed in making this picture an unprecedented example of 1940s Hollywood. It’s ending is wonderful for how it defuses everything we expect from a courtroom drama or a woman’s picture or any other genre convention. It ends on a natural, smooth note like a nice glass of bourbon cradled in the palm of your significant other. Like clockwork, there’s Henry Fonda again. The man we should never, ever write off. What is the age-old adage? He who laughs last, laughs loudest? Yes, indeed.

4/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Johnny Guitar (1954)

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“I’m a stranger here myself.” ~ Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar

In watching even only a handful of Nicholas Ray films, it’s possible to discern fairly quickly that his films are often about the marginalized outsiders. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the most iconic example but this theme goes a lot further than that single movies. He even plays with the same ideas in Johnny Guitar his extraordinarily distinctive western from 1954.

There are other westerns that open like this. A stranger (Sterling Hayden) riding through the mountains and making his way to the nearest town. He overlooks a stagecoach robbery going down and miners blasting away at a mountain with dynamite. There must be a purpose to it all but the significance fails to resonate quite yet.

He goes to the local watering hole: Vienna’s. Except there’s no one there. It’s a ghost town. There are only a few solitary figures working the roulette wheels and the bar. No one else. But still, the stranger walks in as if he’s meant to be there. We don’t know why yet.

By all accounts, Sterling Hayden wasn’t much a cowboy but he had the presence of one. In the movies sometimes that’s enough. Here’s the eponymous Johnny Guitar, the man with his instrument strapped to his shoulder with little stake in the local goings-on.

Namely, the grudge match brewing between the hotel’s fierce proprietress Vienna (the always cutthroat Joan Crawford) and fiery western lass Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who packs a whole posse of cattlemen including ornery John McIvers (the venerable Ward Bond). It doesn’t help matters that Vienna opens her doors to the despised Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cronies.

We, like Johnny, have no particular stake in their quarrel though there is a sense of some past grievances. In fact, everyone seems to have a history but we are hardly ever given a nibble, never through flashback and rarely in exposition.

Nicholas Ray creates a gorgeous world in color that showcases some of the most attractive imagery of the West in Classic Hollywood on par with The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). And it boasts an equally colorful array of characters including quality supporting cast members like Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson, and Paul Fix.

But the subversion of all norms begins with Joan Crawford, the woman who loves the sound of the roulette wheels spinning, ever severe, packing a six-shooter in her blue jeans. While the TruColor does much to enhance not only the scenery but her performance as her piercing eyes burn through everyone she stares down. Johhny Guitar might be in our title but Vienna is our undisputed star.

The relish of the film is perfectly rendered by the complete lack of clarity initially. It’s trying to get a line on everyone in an attempt to understand what’s going on as their allegiances are made fairly evident. It’s a matter of picking a side. But the sides are incredibly difficult to decipher. In fact, even in her moments of complete innocence, it helps her character that Crawford very rarely comes off as a sympathetic person — in reality or on the screen. So if she’s our protagonist then we’re in for a tough outing.

Of course, the feud that’s central to the tale was also twofold unraveling on both sides of the camera. Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford loathed each other to put it lightly. They probably wanted to tear each other’s hair out and while not the most benevolent of relationships, it undoubtedly stoked the fires of the film’s drama. In fact, it seems like there weren’t many people who did like working with Crawford. Hayden never wanted to be in another picture with her again either. Still, once more, it all functions in front of the camera exquisitely.

There’s certainly some truth in drawing up parallels with George Stevens’ Shane (1953) but the moral lines are a lot more jumbled and the intentions of the plot far less direct. Shane is a success because it’s a fine piece of classical storytelling still underlined with an imminent threat. Johnny Guitar is beguiling because it breaks with all the conventions of the West while still carrying its own amount of subtext that’s hard to figure.

Should we even care that the posse gets these men? But you see, that’s nearly beside the point. It’s not about right or wrong but this muddled center controlled by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The man and the woman with a bit of a past but not enough that they will fall into each other’s arms and live a faithful life at one another’s side. That’s just not in their nature. Still, riding the fence proves to be a taxing ordeal.

We witness the most peculiar bank robbery as far back as I can remember committed by the local outlaws who until they ran off with the loot hadn’t exactly done anything wrong, in spite of being despised by a whole town. In other words, they played the roles expected of them. Then, a pair of hangings takes place but instead of your typical unrepentant criminals being strung up, you have a kid and a woman both ending up with a rope around their necks. The enforcers’ stomachs begin to churn uneasily. This isn’t how mob justice is supposed to work.

Subsequently, the battle to subdue the frontier is brought home with the most unconventional showdown in the western canon that’s fundamentally also one of the most stunning. It blows up in your face and then leaves you questioning this entire ordeal.

Peggy Lee’s title track is used to sing them out as one final note in this dazzling western courtesy of Nicholas Ray; dazzling for the very reason that it does everything contrary to what we have learned. It continually makes a conscious choice to upend the accepted script attached to the mythology of the West, rewriting its own narrative full of vivid imagery and equally blistering outcomes.

4.5/5 Stars

Grand Hotel (1932)

GrandHotelFilmPosterGrand Hotel is the epitome of a Hollywood superstar ensemble, and it would set the bar for all the films that would try to imitate and surpass it. Thanks to Irving Thalberg and the studio with more stars than there are in the heavens, MGM delivered a film that was a smash hit and after well over 80 years, it still remains an important visual relic.

The cast was beyond a contemporary viewer’s wildest dreams. It was that good. You had Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery among others. Nowadays many of these names do not carry as much clout (I must admit even to me), and the idea of a film starring numerous big names seems almost mundane. Just take a look at Oceans Eleven or The Avengers. But we must understand that at that time it was a stroke of genius because usually only one or two stars were set aside to be in a certain film. It was seen as the most commercially viable philosophy at the time.

Then came Grand Hotel: As Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone)  muses it’s “always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” It’s counter-intuitive but in some ways, that’s what makes this film so much fun. People love stories with fun vignettes that criss-cross and weave in and out. It’s even better when the stories contain the likes of Garbo and the Barrymores. Not to mention Joan Crawford.

It’s a fun world and a lasting tradition that many films have attempted to replicate because honestly, most audiences love these types of realities that they can escape to and in turn, be a part of. In this case, it’s this opulent hotel in the heart of Berlin full of bustling bellboys,  lavish suites, and all the pleasures life could afford.

Furthermore, the guests come from every walk of life imaginable making it all the more enjoyable to watch their intermingling and chance encounters. There is the prima ballerina (Greta Garbo), who has recently gotten cold feet and even canceled a show in her melancholy. It allows for Garbo to utter her famous line, “I want to be alone.”

Then there’s the baron (John Barrymore) who is also in desperate need of money. You might label him a cad because he resorts to theft several times, but if he is a thief he also has a heart of gold befriending and comforting nearly everyone he meets. He especially makes Ms. Grusinskaya very happy and it allows for some amorous scenes between John Barrymore and Garbo.

Next comes Mr. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) who is the lowest of all the individuals in the hotel, but since his imminent death is ahead, he is finally going to live a little and he finally gains some of the friends and respect that he has always wanted. On the other hand, Wallace Beery plays Preysing the big magnate who is trying to swing an important deal to keep his company afloat.  Mr. Kringelein is one of his nameless underlings who keeps his books. Preysing has little concern for the “little man,” until he is desperately in need of help.

Last, but not least, is a radiant and spry Joan Crawford as the stenographer. She’s far from the star, but she does seem to steal many of the scenes that she pops up in. Also, despite all the ups and downs, she gets the happy ending she deserves.

I must admit that Grand Hotel takes a little time to set the scene and pick up steam, but when it does it’s a lot of fun. You know it’s a special film when the two Barrymore brothers are acting together, playing two so very different individuals. Yet underlining every scene they share together is the indisputable fact that they are related.  You also have Garbo and Crawford in the same film without either sharing a scene with the other! For an updated take on this type of story give some attention to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise, this lavish 1930s production is worthwhile, because it really does feel like you’re watching film history.

4/5 Stars

Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

mildredpierce1Mildred Pierce is a hybrid between two genres in a way. It most certainly could be categorized as a weepie 1940s melodrama, a so-called “woman’s picture,” and yet it has the undeniable framing devices of a typical film-noir. It’s unique in other ways as well. It features a strong, independent woman as the lead, the eponymous Mildred Pierce and her aspirations and the struggles in her life become the focal point of this story.

Before any gun was fired or a dead body was found at a beach house or any of that happened, Mildred was a stay at home housewife with two daughters and a husband. It becomes all too clear that all is not right in the Pierce household as Bert becomes annoyed with Mildred, who spends so much time doting over eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). It’s as if she needs to earn Veda’s love and Bert realizes the issue early on. They separate and soon after they watch their youngest daughter die of pneumonia suddenly.

What happens next is Mildred’s big break. She starts out all alone and discouraged before finding a job as a waitress, and ultimately, starting up her own restaurant with the help of the hapless Wally Fay (Jack Carson). She finds a loyal friend and employee in Ida (Eve Arden) and a rejuvenated love life thanks to the socialite Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott).

Veda on her part is ecstatic to finally have a life of nice things with the stream of income coming in from her mother, however, she still does not approve of her mother working in the restaurant business. Mother is so Philistine after all.

Thus, despite all the work and effort, she has put into holding onto her one remaining daughter, Veda begins to drift farther and farther away from Mildred until a fight causes Veda to leave home. Most people would say good riddance, but Mildred Pierce is not like that. She has an unhealthy, almost obsessive need for her daughter’s affection. She will do anything to get her back and most of it has to do with giving Veda stuff.

She is far from happy but finally marries Beragon, because she thinks it might bring Veda back to her home. It works but what she doesn’t know is that she is getting forced out of her own company by Bergaon. That evening she found her gun and then Beragon got murdered on the premises of his beach house.

Back in the station, the shadowy noir sensibilities are still present and Mildred abruptly finishes up her tale. Except for the police investigator and the audience know better. That was not the end of the story. There’s one last cruel twist.

In my mind, Joan Crawford is rivaled only by Bette Davis in giving me the shivers, except in this film her eyes are so expressive, giving off emotion without her even saying anything. Within this film, I find the character dynamics and gender conflict to be quite interesting and there are really 6 main characters we can look at:

Mildred: A strong woman who gains her independence the hard way by putting in work to earn her honest wage. She is not a bad person per se, but her weakness is an unhealthy love for her daughter, or rather, a need to have the affection of a girl who never can be satisfied. It leads to divorce, a loveless marriage and a lot of heartaches.

Veda is a little spoiled brat and most of the pain and problems in the film stem from her. She constantly plays on her mother’s emotions heartlessly and even goes so far as to steal her man. That is perhaps the ultimate slap in the face after all she has already done.

Ida: Along with Wally Fay, Ida is perhaps one of the more likable characters in the film, because she is a strong woman who also holds a lot of wit thanks to the performance of Eve Arden. She also utters the famous line that shines some light on the Veda situation (Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young).

Bert: Although he takes part in an affair and is not the perfect husband, I think Mildred and the audience realize how right he was. He saw all the drama with Veda coming, and he remained civil with Mildred through it all, continuing to look out for her.

Monte: He may not be a “villain,” but Beragon is ultimately another corrupt character who is driven by money and his social status. However, it is interesting to ponder whether it was his own avarice and playboy instincts that led him to do what he did, or was he wholly influenced by Veda?

Wally: Finally, we have Wally Fay played the always enjoyable Jack Carson. He too has his eye on Mildred, but although he can be forward and a little annoying, he ultimately looks out for her much like Bert. And yet to call him an angel would be an overstatement because he still has his own interests in mind.

That’s what makes these characters so fascinating since there are some obvious antagonists, but each character, at their core,  has faults. Thus, it makes sense that this film has melodrama brought on by familiar conflict and the like, only to descend down into the noirish world brought on by vice and greed. Whatever you label this film as, the fact of the matter is, it was a major hallmark for the fading Joan Crawford as well as the ever versatile director Michael Curtiz.

4.5/5 Stars

The Women (1939)

 6d603-womenHere is a film full of personalities. In fact there is so much personality that it nearly bowls you over with its impact and frenetic force.

In the center of it all is Norma Shearer who is the respectable socialite who is losing her husband to another woman. Joan Crawford is the gold digging woman who is as detestable as ever. Rounding it out is the equally repulsive gossip played to a tee by Rosalind Russell. There is the ever innocent Joan Fontaine and a spunky divorcee played by Paulette Goddard. Throw in numerous other memorable women and you have a cast that completely overwhelms, but in a good way.

Husbands and lovers seem to being switching hands so easily and the whole film is focused on the women who are swapping them. It begins with Mary Haines’ husband only to continually get more complicated as more gossip is divulged and mud is thrown. Not to mention a few angry fists and slaps to go with the caustic words.

There is a lot to admire about this film, because it does what it set out to do very well. It creates some empathy, some laughs, and yes, a whole lot of loathing.

However, as I contemplated the film I realized although the Women is from 1939 and the clothes often seem laughable, the people and issues in the film often seem all too real. Divorce hits close to many homes literally and gossip certainly has not gone instinct. Thus, despite the passage of time, in many ways this film still feels fresh and relevant today.

4/5 Stars

The Women (1939)

6cabb-poster_-_women_the_01Starring a cast including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine, this film is all about the lives of these women. Mary is a member of New York high society who is happy with her marriage. However, when her gossipy friends begin to talk about her husband with another women she is hurt. She eventually  files for divorce and while waiting for the conformation in Reno she meets some new friends and is finally able to find a way to get her husband back. Needless to say the ending is happy and a few women get what they deserve. This film had an enjoyable introduction, a sequence in Technicolor, and an all female cast. Most of all it characterizes the various women in this walk of life. Some are kindly, others foolish, and still others are treacherous.

4/5 Stars

Mildred Pierce (1945) – Film-Noir

Starring Joan Crawford, this classic film noir is intriguing because it revolves around a successful woman. The film begins with a murder and Pierce is taken in for questioning. From that point on she tells the story of her life with her first husband and two daughters. However, Pierce was in conflict with her husband about their spoiled daughter Veda and they split. She was forced to go it alone in the business world and make something of herself. However, her spoiled daughter and complex relationships with men made her life painful. She was now a wealthy restaurant owner but Veda no longer loved her. Pierce tried in every way to win back this love However, her efforts were not enough to save Veda from her fate. This film is certainly enjoyable and Crawford does a wonderful job because for once you actually feel sorry for her. She has a solid cast behind her including Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, and Jack Carson.

4.5/5 Stars

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

This psychological thriller starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with Victor Buono, opens with the bratty vaudeville star Baby Jane Hudson. Her sister Blanche lives in her shadow but begrudgingly agrees to watch out for her sister. Now in the 1930s Blanche is the movie star and Jane is all but forgotten. After a mysterious accident, the film moves to the present where Blanche is confined to a wheelchair and Jane vengefully takes care of her. Because of Jane’s psychotic and often cruel behavior, Blanche tries getting help several times but to no avail. She is at the mercy of her sister, when Jane is not trying to renew her career with the help of a young accompanist. Ultimately  the truth is revealed and the film ends on a pitiful note. This film is full of suspense and Davis is absolutely creepy; never was one staircase so integral to a story either.

4.5/5 Stars