Saturday, January 7, 2023

Ruth Donnelly: The Sneer With No Peer

This is my entry in the "What a Character" Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful bloggers at Once Upon a Screen, Paula's Cinema Club and Outspoken and Freckled. Please check out their sites for more of those unforgettable characters that put the support in supporting characters.

The peerless sneer of Ruth Donnelly

In those heady pre-code days (1927-1934), Warner Brothers had the most marvelous stable of supporting characters. Standing tall among such unforgettables is the indomitable Ruth Donnelly, the lady with a face full of priceless expressions. She was paired with Guy Kibbee many times and they made a perfect portrayal of a married couple whose ties now (as the great Erma Bombeck said) bind and gag.

Ruth and Guy Kibbee: this is what
mature married love looks like, kiddies

Ruth was a successful Broadway actress before she came to movies in a big way in 1931 (no less that George M. Cohan liked her comedy chops), and she certainly had a long and busy career playing not only comedy, but dramatic parts. However, it is her work as a pre-code wise-cracking, morally flexible woman of a certain age that tickles my funny bone.

My favorite Ruth Donnelly performance is in 1933's "Hard to Handle." As Mary Brian's mother on the make, she is simply hilarious as she veers from support to disdain to the financial status of the girl's suitors. As the dollars ebb and flow, so does her opinion of the men. When James Cagney, as her chief suitor, asks Ruth if his daughter told her he was in town, she replies, with that disdainful sneer, "yeah, you and the rest of the Depression." Her work with Cagney is tops. Both players never are afraid to be "too much" and they operate on a plane completely different, yet wholly compatible, from the rest of the cast.

Ruth Donnelly: never afraid to go big

As the protective mama bear, Ruth keeps a very close watch on her pretty daughter who is her meal ticket to a comfortable life. Hey - things were tough then and a woman of a certain age had to be tough and shrewd. "Hard to Handle" is typical of those quick and dirty Warner's pre-codes. There was not much subtlety, but lots of snarky, funny jokes are thrown all over the place. As Ruth and her daughter (a very platinum blonde Mary Brian) frequently appeared in the same outfit, I couldn't help thinking this was a humorous slap at Jean Harlow and her mama Jean.

Ruth and daughter (Mary Brian):
like mother, like daughter #1

Ruth and daughter (Mary Brian):
like mother, like daughter #2

The real Mama Jean and daughter Jean Harlow


Ruth sells the rented furniture for some quick cash

As Ruth's character sells rented furniture, schemes with friends and foes, and holds her daughter's charms like the crown jewels (when preparing for a date, Ruth counsels her daughter to wear a different dress, one that shows more of her "girlish laughter"), she steers this crazy ship of her daughter's romantic desires, Cagney's fortunes and her extraordinarily focused ambition for financial security to a safe harbor. Of course she did! The woman was on a mission.

She likey: Ruth and her "Footlight Parade" boy-toy Dick Powell

My other favorite Ruth Donnelly role is (again with Cagney), in "Footlight Parade." Although she is married to Guy Kibbee, she seems to have a parade of young, male "protégés." And, since it's pre-code, Kibbee doesn't seem to mind. As the film begins, her latest young man is Dick Powell, who soon gets a yearning for Ruby Keeler. Ruth shamelessly promotes her young man to Cagney to place him in the show (lucky for him the boy can sing) and gives epic shade to younger rival Keeler throughout the film. 

That look says it all. Nobody looked as though she was
smelling something foul better than Ruth Donnelly.

When she finally sees the writing on the wall that Powell has thrown her over for Keeler, she finds a new squeeze and makes sure he gets a part in Cagney's prologues. She is a woman who knows what she wants.

Great character actors usually have great presence and, many times, great faces. They may not get top billing, but their presence in any film brings a bit of satisfaction and comforting familiarity to the viewer. When I see Ruth Donnelly in the cast, I breathe a little contented sigh. 

Ruth as a women's prison warden in the crazy
"Ladies They Talk About." And you thought
Allison Janney was the first dame with a bird.



Don't forget to check out more great characters in the What a Character Blogathon. I hope you find a favorite or two there.


Monday, December 26, 2022

Babylon: Damien Chazelle, Have a Little Respect

I knew I was going to have a strong reaction to "Babylon," but I just had to see it for myself. And I just had a small, teeny tiny bit of hope that the greats of the era would not be disrespected. Alas.


I've seen most reviews that pretty much call this a hot, steaming mess and I can't disagree. There are, however, moments that capture the incredible and emotional impact of the movies that kept me engaged and hoping, hoping, hoping.

As a fan of silent film and early Hollywood and all that jazz, the references to actual people and to film and literary sources are hard to ignore. Brad Pitt's character of Jack Conrad is clearly based on John Gilbert, although it is not completely factual. His is the most compelling character, and Pitt is very good. His portrayal of a self-aware star in twilight is probably the most insightful one in the film. Pitt is getting that world-weary bon vivant thing down pat.

The Real Deal: John Gilbert

Margot Robbie's Nellie LaRoy is a cruel portrayal of a star based, I'm sure, on Clara Bow. She is wild, her ridiculous father is her manager, her mother is in an asylum, she can cry on cue by thinking of home and, horror of horrors, she comes from New Jersey and sounds it. I can hear Louise Brooks in Kevin Brownlow's series "Hollywood" talking about Bow and the fact that nobody would know what Clara would do at a party because she was from Brooklyn. But if the character is based on Clara Bow, this great star with a truly tragic life deserves better. Margo Robbie is fine in a poorly written role, but I pray someday David Stenns' "Runnin' Wild" is made into a film and that Clara's life is treated with the respect she deserves. And honestly, I don't think anyone ran around town quite as naked as Ms. Robbie's character.

The Real Deal: Clara Bow

Speaking of respect, nobody in this film seems to have any for themselves or anyone else. And the scenes of ridiculously wild parties - well, I'd just say to the director that you don't have to actually become a debaucher yourself in order to show debauchery. 

Jean Smart probably makes the most sense as a gossip queen with the deliciously mashed up name of Elinor St. John (Elinor Glynn + Adela Rogers St. John), She gives Pitt's Jack Conrad a dose of reality amid his world of fantasy: namely that your career is dead, but you'll live forever on celluloid. Deal with it.

There is a character who is sort of Anna May Wong and a particularly nasty caricature of a Fatty Arbuckle type. It can be kind of fun trying to pick out the thinly disguised celebrities of the era.

I could go on and on about this thing, but the sad part is that every once in a while the love of the magic of film that sneaks in and that makes it tolerable. It's all wrapped up with a character from the silent era watching "Singin' in the Rain" in a theater and, at first weeping with nostalgia for that time and then, finally, becoming one of Norma Desmond's wonderful people out there in the dark, caught up in the story, lost in the magic of movies.

See it if you're curious or just watch Gene Kelly and company. 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Alone at the Movies

To share or not to share... It is a question for this movie lover. All my life I have longed to share this love, to discuss and share this particular passion with enthusiasm. And yet yesterday, when I settled into my theater seat, alone, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of sheer bliss.



It is only alone in the dark that I can truly make that magical connection. My heart space opens to its inner landscape and allows whatever is happening within those silver shadows to take over. It is all so very private. Tears flow freely when I am alone, my chest swells with love when I alone, and I truly allow something to touch my true self, something I can never do in the company of others.

Maybe this happens because my initial love of film happened while watching television. It was a lonely pursuit which even called for passing up a trip to the mall with friends because Wuthering Heights was on. Shopping at Lerner versus getting lost in the brutal romance of Laurence Olivier...not much of a choice for me. But I was a solitary kid and have remained so after all these years; the perfect candidate for a single seat in the dark.



It's not that I don't love sharing this passion by blogging, going to festivals or on social media (which allows me to share while remaining solitary - kind of a jackpot).

As an adult, those solitary experiences have become a road map or guide to that innermost space in me , the one behind and beneath those carefully constructed ramparts that life demands we build to survive. And when the castle is breached, oh what joy. When Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin engage in a silly, uninhibited dance as the credits roll at the end of "All of Me," I unfailingly burst into tears. I think they are tears of happiness, but I'm not sure. The sight of such unbridled, primal joy always cracks through that armor and finds its way to my true heart. And, oh, when Rocky Sullivan, in all of his swagger and power lets that light into his heart at the end of "Angels With Dirty Faces," yes, my own heart opens in recognition and surrenders.



Surrender. That seems to be the right word. A surrender in the dark that allows that sliver of light to find its way to a place where there in no judgment. Oh cinema, I open to your power and your story and together there is total trust alone there in the dark.

But there is something else - a bit of a paradox. Experiencing it truly alone, even in the company of others is one thing. It is private and precious. Yet how to explain that joy when shared with strangers in the same space. One of my most treasured movie-going experiences is this shot of Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind." The theatrical re-release in 1967 was so exciting to this barely teen-aged kid. I remember they gave out beautiful color programs (I'm sure I still have it somewhere) and in a packed theater there was an audible and collective gasp from probably every female in the audience. Yes, my heart stopped for a second, too, but knowing that everyone felt what you felt was sublime and fun. Just remembering that moment fills my heart close to bursting. 



And, truly, I will never forget the laughter during the baked beans scene in "Blazing Saddles." The dialogue was drowned out by laughter.

Preston Sturges got it in "Sullivan's Travels." 



Times do change and a lot of what is considered entertaining has passed me by, I fear (although I've always had at least one foot firmly planted in decades before my time). The theater yesterday was almost empty and even though talking, crunching, sniffing, strange body parts too near me and cell phones glowing in the dark irritate me, I felt a little sad. I'm torn between sharing with live strangers, sharing in silence (as here), and holding that experience close within my heart because, in the end, there are no words to adequately describe the love. But, being human, we try. One thing our Covid experience has taught me: even though I think I don't like people, I guess I need them. Go figure!


Woody Allen finds faith in a world where the Marx Brothers
exist in "Hannah and Her Sisters."



Monday, November 7, 2022

The Public Enemy (1931): Did They have to Rub Out the Horse?

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Movies are Murder Blogathon. Click here for more movie murder and mayhem.

The Public Enemy: 

The Killer Must Be Killed

This

As most likely know, there are murders aplenty in The Public Enemy (1931). There are those anonymous gang members caught in the spray of a tommy gun and there are those of the specific nature - retribution for disloyalty or double crossing ratness. And then there are those of the innocent. The innocent deaths are the ones that hurt the most.

Tom and Matt handle a gun for the first time

I don't mind saying that the first time I saw "The Public Enemy," it scared the bejesus out of me. From the eerily disconcerting "I'm forever blowing bubbles" played on a gramophone to that final murder, it still gives me the chills to this day. That dull thud of a lifeless body before the fade out is right up there with all of those movies that deliberately try to scare you (thinking "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" and the like).

Oozing murderous charm

And yet there is also something compelling about this film that makes it so complicated, something that jazzes the whole nasty story up, and that disconcerting something is James Cagney as Tom Powers. Cagney was originally and famously cast as second banana Matt, but director William Wellman demoted Edward Woods, the original Tom, to the role of Matt and re-cast Cagney as Tom. It proved to be a brilliant move. His on the make charm, that jaunty little spin he takes when he see he has a chance with Jean Harlow's Gwen, his self confident strut when he shows up in his new clothes, all make for an unsettling confusion. If this guy is so bad, why can't I dislike him? 

As Tom and boyhood buddy Matt Doyle drift from a brutal and impoverished childhood into a life of petty crime (they never rise above being trusted lieutenants to boss Paddy Ryan), the first murder they witness is that of their boyhood friend, Larry Dalton. Tom and Matt and Larry, all barely men, are enlisted by gangster Putty Nose to rob a fur warehouse. Things go wrong and Larry is shot and killed by a cop, who Tom shoots before escaping with Matt. Frightened, they go to Putty Nose for help (he has promised to protect them), but they are turned away and forced to fend for themselves. As the neighborhood mothers weep over the loss of a young man who went wrong, Tom and Matt get their first glimpse of a dead body at Larry's funeral. But it won't be their last.

After you see your first friend in a coffin, it gets easier

As Prohibition becomes the law of the land, Chicago crime boss Paddy Ryan recruits Tom and Matt as his "beer salesmen." Strong-arming saloon keepers for their bootleg beer, Tommy and Matt muscle their way through their life of crime. 

Tom makes clear his distaste for a rival supplier's product 

For a while, they are riding high. New clothes and new women make life even sweeter. Tom is a charming brute. He picks up the unfortunate Kitty, but eventually tires of her, giving her the famous "citrus massage" in her puss. 

Harlow as Gwen: her acting is green, but her allure is platinum

Mae Clarke as Kitty receives the cinema's most famous facial

He moves up to the more glamorous tart Gwen. Jean Harlow, in an early performance, is pretty terrible. But, as bad as she is, there is an undeniable allure about her and she sure wiggles her caboose in an unforgettable manner. Tom is also is taken under the wing of fancy gangster, Nails Nathan. Nathan is a sort of mentor to Tom, a "class" guy that Tom look up to aspires to emulate.

And then there is Putty Nose. Ah Putty Nose, the dirty double crossing rat who left Tom and Matt holding the bag after the bungled fur warehouse job. Tom does not forget and poor old Putty Nose - well, he had it coming. Can't say I felt bad. He was the groomer who lured Matt and Tom into a life of crime. After doing away with the craven Putty Nose who begs for his life, Tom coolly turns towards the door and wonders if he can still get together with Gwen. A psychopath does have his needs.

Say your prayers, Putty Nose

So, the thing about Tom that softens me to him, beside his obvious charm, is his admittedly twisted code of honor. In a world where people are double-crossing and selling out one another so fast it makes your head spin, Tom's loyalty to his friends is kind of admirable. I told you this was complicated.

Nails Nathan before his fateful ride

Matt's murder in a shoot out with the rival Schemer Burns gang (live by the gun, die by the gun, I suppose), sends Tom on a vengeful mission. He is outgunned, but somehow manages to survive. Well, that wasn't his enemies' plan and, wrapped like a junior king tut, his lifeless body is delivered to his annoying mom and goody two-shoes brother, the final murder in a murderous tale.

Vengeance is Tom's

Tom Powers is no better or worse than so many of his contemporaries, but there is one other murder in "The Public Enemy" that I can't accept as remotely justified. Unlucky for Tom, just when he is finally making some headway with the hard to get Gwen, Matt appears and tells him the bad news: Nails Nathan has been killed. And not killed by a rival gang, but by his horse. Dandy-wannabe Nails, decked out in his best English riding habit, was thrown by his mount and died as a result of a hoof to the head. Tom, true to his code, has to kill the killer of the man he so admired and, with a single shot, committs equinecide (I know, not a word, but it could be). Honestly, if the guy was a better rider he probably would not have been thrown*. Mercifully, the murder takes place off screen. There is a shot and a sad neigh.

Where's that horse?

And so, I find myself sadder and madder over the murder of an unknown and unseen horse than over the murders of Larry, a cop, Putty Nose, Matt and, ultimately Tom. In a way (other than the cop, who faced potential harm in 1920s Chicago), they all had it coming. But not the horse. If you're the person who cries harder when the dog dies in the film than when the human does, you know what I'm talking about. And when Tom Powers takes that final flop at the feet of his mother and brother, I am pretty sure, to paraphrase Zuzu in "It's a Wonderful Life," every time a horse-murdering gangster buys the farm there is a happy neigh in heaven.

Special delivery

* The murder of the horse is actually based on a true story (as is much of this film). True life gangster Samuel "Nails" Morton was a flashy mobster who took a liking to riding his mount in Chicago's Lincoln Park. When his horse (obviously one on the side of law and order) threw Morton and then fatally kicked him in the head, Morton's compatriot Louis "Two-Gun" Alterie, took the horse out for a ride, shot him and left him for dead. 





Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Take Two Blogathon - Strawberry Blonde is Better the Second Time Around

This is my entry in the Take Two Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. Click HERE for more remarkable remakes.


Some films just don't get it quite right the first time around. Remake "Gone With the Wind"? Unthinkable. Remake "A Star is Born"? Maybe the perfect version is yet to be made. 

Biffs and Amys

"Strawberry Blonde" (1941) first saw cinematic life as "One Sunday Afternoon" in 1933. Based on a stage play of the same name, "One Sunday Afternoon" boasted an intriguing cast headed by Gary Cooper and Fay Wray. The story of dentist Biff Grimes (Cooper) who carries a torch for Virginia Brush, the local beauty (Wray) who marries his rival (Neil Hamilton) has some small town charm. However, there is a certain darkness about this film despite some comedy and the bucolic setting that is a little off-putting. Cooper's performance as Biff Grimes lacks the actor's usual charm. To be honest, he comes off just downright nasty and disagreeable. The beauty and her conniving husband (who causes Cooper's character to go to jail) are also a nasty pair without too many redeeming characteristics. Only Biff's wife Amy, as played by Frances Fuller, is likeable, but she is so sweet and nice in the face of Biff's indifference that I found myself wondering what she saw in the lout and wanting her to leave him a goodbye Charlie note. 

For some reason, Warner Brothers thought they could remake this story, but it needed a few tweaks. First, writers Julius and Philip Epstein took the story out of the country and put in in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The title change to "Strawberry Blonde" not only referred to the beauty of the story, but to the song that has such meaning to Biff Grimes. Once the story was moved to New York, who better to play the combative and cocky dentist but James Cagney? While he had some misgivings about being cast in the film, once Raoul Walsh signed on as director, Cagney was in. Add Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson to the cast and things were really starting to shape up.


Virginia, Amy, Biff and Hugo meet for their first date

The difference between the 2 films is literally night and day. While the earlier version is dark, "Strawberry Blonde" is light and endearing. Gay nineties music is always in evidence and the very cardboard characters of the first film come to life in a most endearing way. 

Biff sports his ever present shiner

The icing on the cake is the perfect casting. Where Cooper's Biff was moody and resentful, Cagney's Biff has a little boy charm that makes all his antics forgivable. He sports a perpetual back eye from all of his scrapes and when trying to explain himself simply offers "that's the kind of hairpin I am." Aww.

It took Biff the entire film to comment on Amy's beauty.
Maybe those shiners affected his eyesight?

Olivia de Havilland's Amy darn near steals the film. Unlike Frances Fuller's too sweet Amy, de Havilland is a spitfire who winks, loves her man and looks impossibly beautiful while doing it. In fact, I think she wins the beauty contest over her pal, the strawberry blonde of the title, hands down. And since that strawberry blonde is Rita Hayworth, that is saying something.

Speaking of Rita Hayworth, the part of Virginia Brush was originally envisioned for Ann Sheridan, an actress who had demonstrated some chemistry with Cagney in earlier films. Sheridan, however, like a good Warner Brothers rebel, went on strike and the part went to Hayworth. While Wray is very pretty, her Virginia is a rather bland character who goes from small town beauty to tramp. Probably due to the enforcement of the production code, Hayworth's Virginia devolves into a shrew instead of a tramp, but nonetheless she sparkles with allure and good humor. Who could blame all the boys having a crush on her?


The Barnsteads

The villain of the piece is Hugo Barnstead, the thorn in Biff's side. As played by Neil Hamilton in the first film, Hugo is an insufferable blowhard. He's still an insufferable blowhard in the second film, but, really, can you ever dislike Jack Carson? We know he's a creep, but he's such a funny and pompous creep. Cagney was a little unhappy at being paired with an actor who surpassed 6 feet in height, but the physical difference between the two men only emphasizes their differences in social standing and ultimate cuteness.

Biff looks up to Hugo, but it's only because he's taller


But it is the love story between Biff and Amy in "Strawberry Blonde" that elevates the film far above the original. Cagney and de Havilland blend so well both physically and in temperament. For once he gets a leading lady who can hold the screen with him and not disappear in the face of his personality. 

It's all about the love story

There are three lovely scenes between Biff and Amy, all taking place in a park, that show their developing love story.

Biff would much rather be with Virginia

First, when they are set up on a blind date, Biff clearly wants to be paired with Virginia, but Hugo, of course, outmaneuvers him. This leaves Biff "stuck" with nurse Amy. He is disagreeable and annoyed. Her talk about bloomer girls, smoking and perhaps unmarried sex shocks Biff. She is way too fast for him, with the soft and feminine Virginia representing his ideal woman. Cagney and de Havilland play perfectly off one another. You can see she is a gal who can give as good as she gets and that she is the better girl for him. But, being a guy, he's blind to the obvious.

Amy saves Biff some humiliation when he
finds out Virginia and Hugo have eloped

The next park scene has Amy coming to tell Biff that Virginia would not be keeping her date with him because she eloped with Hugo. After some huffing and puffing, and Biff's advances exposing Amy as being all talk about the pre-marital sex stuff, Biff finally sees that Amy is a more quality person than Virginia. Here they agree to go steady and eventually marry.

At last Amy is appreciated

The last park scene is one of the most beautifully acted scenes of any film I've ever seen. It's not big, it's not over the top, but it is quiet, tender, real and moving. Upon returning home from prison (where Hugo's double crossing landed him), Biff meets Amy in the park where much of their love story unfolded. Biff is humble and grateful that Amy has stood by him and Amy is overcome with love as she reaches for her man. Their ultimate embrace has you cheering for them. Who cares about Hugo and Virginia?


Biff's final act of revenge when Hugo presents himself with a tooth ache highlights the essential difference between the two films. In the earlier version, Biff gives  Hugo almost enough gas to kill him before Biff comes to his senses. In the remake, Biff contemplates gas, but elects to pull the tooth without the pain killer, causing Hugo a great deal of pain and giving Virginia a good laugh. It's a great scene and I can't forget how Hayworth stubs out her cigarette in Biff's spit sink. Some lady.

Hugo and Virginia. Turns out, they deserve one another

Of course, there is a happy ending for "Strawberry Blonde." Amy, adorable as always, whispers in Biff's ear, presumably that she is expecting, and the two take their Sunday walk together in smiles as wide as the screen.

Exactly!

The happy couple


Alan Hale as Biff's dad with the troubled teeth

"Strawberry Blonde" has even more added attractions: Alan Hale as Biff's ne'er do well father is a hoot, as is the one and only Una O'Connor as a lady he flirtatiously chats up. And then there is the ever reliable George Tobias as Biff's pal, a marked improvement from Roscoe Karns in the earlier film.

Mrs. Mulcahey has Mr. Grimes' number

"Strawberry Blonde" ends with a gay nineties sing-along for the audience to seal that old time nostalgic flavor. 

When asked once what if he had a favorite film, Walsh said it would have to be "Strawberry Blonde." It also counts as one of Cagney's favorites. The love and affection and just plain old good humor pours off the screen.  Walsh liked the story so much he directed a third, musical version of the story in 1948 starring Dennis Morgan and Janis Paige. However, the less said about that version the better. No, the second time, in this instance was the charm.