Sunday, May 19, 2024

One, Two, Three - Seasoned Cagney Can Still Spice It Up

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Screen Debuts and Last Hurrahs Blogathon. Click here for more memorable firsts and lasts.

Cagney and the grapefruit make one last joint appearance

Season is an interesting word. It can mean to add flavor to something, or it can define a period of time. In the case of James Cagney, from day one he always seasoned the screen with some invigorating cinematic spice. He was also a performer who, in over 30 years, presented himself to the audience in various seasons of his acting life. From the summer of "The Public Enemy" to the winter of "Ragtime," Cagney not only physically matured, but also matured in the depth and humanity he brought to his roles. All before our eyes. While those two winter roles - the aforementioned "Ragtime" and the final performance in the television movie "Terrible Joe Moran," gave us a final glimpse of a cherished star, it is the late autumn performance in Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three" (1961) that offers us the final major performance of a great star. At age 62 he was as dynamic as he was 30 years earlier.

Not as well known as many of Wilder's other great films, "One, Two, Three" is a sharp, sly and very funny look at the cold war and corporate moral flexibility (to put it kindly). A lot of the topical humor may be lost on those who didn't live through the cold war or are not familiar with it. Originally slated to be filmed in Berlin, the crew had to quickly relocate to Munich because those pesky Russians decided to build a wall. The dialogue is filled with topical references (do modern audiences know who Khrushchev was, or the significance of the shoe banging on the table?). Fortunately, I am old enough to remember (wow - that's the first time I ever had occasion to use that phrase!).

Proving the cold war could be fun

Thanks to Wilder's script (co-written with I.A.L. Diamond) and direction, this all results in fast and furious fun. The supporting cast of Horst Buchholz, Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin, Lilo Pulver, and especially Hanns Lothar as Schlemmer, is top-notch. Cagney proves to be a good sport, allowing  several jokes at the expense of his long career - the grapefruit, the gangster quote from "Little Caesar" (even though that was uttered by Edward G. Robinson, it still harkened back to those good old gangster days), and a Cagney impression by Red Buttons. While those references made gentle fun of Cagney's decades-long public reputation, in true double-edged-sword Wilder fashion, it also seems an homage to many well-loved movie memories; an acknowledgement that we are in the presence of a living cinematic legend. I was getting those Norma Desmond/Gloria Swanson conflicted vibes here, though not in such a tragic framework.

An executive's work is never done

The film is very early 1960s, and I admit it's a bit arresting to see this particular star as a man of the modern world. For some reason he always seemed to be a man who lived in a past era. Even when his character was current in the 1930s and 40s, he seemed a man who lived by an earlier code. Cagney wears the 1960s suits and ties well and proves that he was a real actor playing something he never tried before - a slimy, married Coca-Cola executive, always conniving while canoodling with his mercenary secretary on the side. Still, he manages to retain that special sympathetic star shine something. That was his super power. Even when he was a gangster he was never slimy. Come on, weren't we all rooting for Rocky Sullivan?

Love and Capitalism wins the day

Cagney's personal struggles during filming are well known. While he could wear the clothes of the modern man, he was privately uncomfortable. Besides butting heads with Wilder, a very strong-willed director, he came to actively dislike co-star Horst Buchholz. In his autobiography, Cagney, who rarely had a harsh word for any co-workers, openly complained about the scene-stealing ways of the younger actor. Add to that those wildly changing times and Cagney decided he had had enough. At the end of filming, there seemed no place for him to go but to his beloved farm and let the world go by for a few decades. 

Cheers to you!

For some reason this topical and breathless movie reminds me of a line in Checkhov's "Uncle Vanya" about "autumn roses, beautiful, sorrowful roses." I feel a twinge of sadness in between the laughter. There would be those two graceful appearances much later, but watching this now, knowing this would be the last time we would see him in full power, is truly like looking at the twilight of the gods.

Friday, May 3, 2024

New Movies Do Not Fill the Landscape of My Dreams


Why do I find going to the movies to see new films so unsatisfying? I want to keep an open mind and heart and want to support the theatergoing experience, but I rarely, if ever, find new films at the theaters truly, madly, deeply enjoyable. They might be truly enjoyable. They might be madly enjoyable, and they might even be deeply enjoyable. But rarely, almost never, are they meet the truly, madly, deeply threshold for me. Why?

The answer is in the title of this article and it came to me while watching Peter O'Toole in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Objectively, the film is not great, although it has a lot going for it. It's very long, a little full of itself, and the score is forgettable. But, it has the captivating Mr. O'Toole, who always leaves nothing unfelt or unexpressed, and I saw it when I was a teenager when the landscape of all that I would love forever and always was being painted on my psyche.
I've read countless books about Charlie Chaplin and one of the things that touches me is how the trauma and longing associated with his childhood poverty and fractured family were embedded in all of his work. What scarred him, what inspired him, what frightened him and where he found beauty was imprinted on his soul at a tender age and there was no changing that no matter what life held. Fame and wealth and celebrity could not change it, nor could the reversal of professional fortune. Time revealed the public's changing tastes, but Chaplin could not change at his core.
And so I find it to be with me. The films that drew me to them were the ones I discovered early on. What is charming, what is beautiful, what is good and what is desirable all were found in the movies I saw in my youth. Films that moved me after I became an adult somehow were related to the same type of film. I probably should have gotten some of that stuff from family life, but clearly I needed to seek them elsewhere. While not at all a horror of a childhood like Chaplin's, I admit there might have been a few things lacking. Or maybe I just had a dreamer's imagination. Mercifully, there were movies. And I am so very grateful that I can access so many of my favorites upon demand these days and not wait until 3 a.m. to watch the Late Late Late show ( I did stay up until 3 once to watch a Bing Crosby film when I was about 12). They are like a comfortable blanket or a hug from a friend. At some point during those formative years, a private understanding between myself and Cary Grant, Crosby, Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, both Hepburns, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Bob Hope, and especially Cagney was established that endures to this day. We truly, madly, deeply get one another. If this sounds weird to you, your landscape and mine are completely different.
So, today's films, for so many reasons, can not connect with a landscape of dreams and desires that has been built and fortified over time. It can not change and I don't want it to change. I like it. I only hope that young people who go to the movies are building their own internal landscape with images and feelings that will stay with them throughout their lifetime.  

Thursday, February 15, 2024

I Don’t Care How the Sausage is Made: Give Me the Magic, Give Me the Make-Believe

I've been blogging a long time (13 + years) – lately not so much. I mean, after a while, you kind of run out of novel things to say. Plus – man, are there some great classic film bloggers out there. I am amazed, not only at their writing ability, but at their intricate knowledge of all the things that go into making movies. You know, all that behind-the-scenes stuff, like writing, directing, cinematography, etc.

It might be hard to keep your mind on the screen here....

Alas, I am nowhere in the same league. Sometimes I just feel like throwing in the towel because I am not an expert in anything (and don’t have the nerve to pass myself off as one).


But I do admit you would have to go a long way to find my equal when it comes to being starstruck. Those pictures you see of the enraptured movie goer, sitting on the edge of their seat, hand poised between popcorn and mouth, eyes wide and glued to the screen? Yup, that’s me.

Yes, Mia, I totally get it.

Billy Wilder has William Holden as Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard” say “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” Of course I know that. But, when I’m lost in a film, I don’t care. I want to believe. Maybe that’s the filmmakers curse – they work so hard at make believe that their own contribution is ultimately ignored. Do you sit though all of the interminable credits at the end of the film these days? I don’t. I just want to see who was in it.

You know how you can pretty much find a Seinfeld episode that relates to every incident in life? Well, I can pretty much do that with movies. I have to keep those references in my head most times, because I’ve had the “poor thing: can’t relate to real life” look too many times. Or worse, the “WTF is she talking about?” look. Actually, I kind of like that one.

There is nothing like a great star of the classic era. I’m aware that it took an entire industry to produce such glorious beings for our consumption, but I don’t want to know. I don’t care that Rita Hayworth had her hairline painfully altered, I only care to see her shimmering image on film. I want to believe that they emerged – full-fledged and fascinating – on the screen.

Charles Foster Kane had his Declaration of Principles. No matter that he betrayed each and every one of them, but he had them. And here are this lowly starstruck willfully ignorant fan’s Seven Rules of Classic Film Fascination:

1. There must be music in the background: Does mood music follow you around all day? Well, in the movies it does and it is perfectly normal. No questions asked.

2. Do you wake up in full make-up and perfectly coiffed hair? Only movie stars do. They really do.

3. Can life’s stories be brought to conclusion in approximately 2 hours or less. In the movies they can. Or at least, in most classic films they can. Anyone see “Oppenheimer” or “Killers of the Flower Moon”? Either learn to tighten it up, give us a potty/snack bar break or make a streaming series.

4.  Only a great star can invite the illusion of intimacy. All the behind the scenes stuff can't make that.

5. There is always, always, an elegance about a star. And something unique – they neither look, nor sound, nor move quite like anyone else.

6. A film is not totally absorbing unless there is a star. A cast of unknowns don’t cut it.

7. How will you know 1-6 combine to create the brew that is a star or an unforgettable film? You will know it’s magic when it lingers in you thoughts and dreams, when it interjects itself into your real life, and when you never tire of repeated viewings of images or a film.

I am not now and never will be a film scholar, although I have lots of odd facts rumbling around in my brain. Please don’t ask me about geography, but I can tell you a lot about Clara Bow. I was what the movies was made for: open to magic, open to dreaming, open to the secret life that lives within.

Go on...ask me

Maybe I’ll go on blogging, maybe not. I started blogging because I felt the need to share my love of the movie-going/watching experience, but maybe this one entry is all I have left to say. I do like participating in some blogathons because it forces me to write, but right now my only topic is that of surrender – surrender to the magic of the finished product. It's bliss in a world filled with anything but at times.


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Lina Lamont and Billie Dawn: Sisters From A Different Mister?

Sometimes things are so obvious you just can't help but wonder: Were Lina Lamont ("Singin' in the Rain") and Billie Dawn ("Born Yesterday") related?

We don't know anything about the parentage of Miss Lamont and only know that Billie's dad worked for the gas company.  Let's take a look at a few undeniable truths.

First: obvious physical and seductive resemblance. You see it, right? Sisters? Mother and daughter?

Second: the even more obvious vocal resemblance. I mean, really - can there be any doubt that these two have a memorable -shall we say - tone? 

Sorry for any ear bleeding here,

Third: the shared impression that both were not bright when, in fact, they were smart cookies. While Billie mastered her civics and brought down a millionaire crook, Lina knew all the ABCs of her studio contract.

Fourth: while we know that Billie's first name is really Emma, we don't know her given last name. And it's a pretty good bet that Lina Lamont is not the lady's real name. It has proved impossible to obtain actual birth certificates for each gal and back then there were no DNA tests.

So, I'm going to posit, without any proof, of course, that somehow these 2 are related. Billie would have to be the kid sister, of course or...could it be that somewhere, somehow, Lina had an affair with the gas man?

I leave it to you to ponder. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Sweet Smell of Success: The Cat's in the Bag and the Bag's in the River

 My local library is kind enough to indulge my desire to share my passion for classic film by allowing me to show a classic film once a month. And once in a while, a few film fans wander in and share the enjoyment. 

November's Film: 

The Sweet Smell of Success

1957's "The Sweet Smell of Success" is a glamorous black and white vision of the seedy New York gossip world of the 1950s. Before TMZ and the internet's instant update on the rich and infamous, there was the gossip columnist. While Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were well known on the west coast, New York City had Walter Winchell, a columnist who wielded his power to make or break people with an iron and vicious typewriter. In "The Sweet Smell of Success," Burt Lancaster is J.J. Hunsecker, a thinly disguised version of Winchell. While he cloaks himself in a cynical suit of respectability, his is a world devoid of morals  and filled with sleaze. His chief officer in charge of sleaze is struggling publicist Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis in a dynamic performance. Hunsecker's downfall is his shall we say "unusual" attachment to his sister, Susie. Isn't that always the way? Anyhow, to watch J.J. and Sidney weave a spider's web of malice only to be caught in it is a joy to behold.

Aside from the two stars at the top of their game and dialogue that snaps and crackles, New York City, backed by a great jazzy Elmer Bernstein score, is the third star of the film. The film captures the city in the last glittering days of nightclubs, cocktails and fur coats. It's fun to spot the long gone stores you knew in the street scenes and to see legendary nightspots like The 21 Club and Toots Schor's in all their glory. 

A couple of special mentions: Barbara Nichols tugs at your heart as a cigarette girl (remember them?) who is badly used by the men she knows. 

It's also a chance to get a glimpse of the great vaudeville artist Joe Frisco playing a nightclub comedian. It's a small part, but just the thought that he was cast is a bit of a bow to New York's entertainment past.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Leave Her to Heaven: When Beauty Disguises the Beast

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Blogathon and the Beast event. Click here for more beastly good reads.

Leave Her to Heaven: 

When Beauty Disguises the Beast

In the eternal cinematic battle between good and evil, virtue must always contend with the beast. Now, when the beast looks like these guys, he's not so hard to resist.

But, when the beast looks like this, well, it certainly complicates things. And that's what makes "Leave her to Heaven" so much twisted fun.

As with the serpent of old, the beast in Ellen Berent (the impossibly gorgeous Gene Tierney) reveals itself slowly. It takes time for poison to settle in and work to its full potency, even in the host.

Our beauty is a predator, and the beast in Ellen is a maniacal, possessive jealousy that causes her to destroy anyone who threatens her prey's singular fascination with and devotion to her. 

strangers on a train
The prey in this story is author Richard Harland (a totally interchangeable-with-any-leading man Cornel Wilde). They meet cute on train in New Mexico. Ellen is just getting over the death of her father to whom she was VERY devoted and who, it appears, was very devoted to her. What to do with all of that singular and obsessive devotion? Why, transfer it all on to Richard, who reminds Ellen of her dad. Naturally.

off to a happy start....

As with all doomed love stories (movie-wise), things get off to a great start. Richard meets the family. It's all so lovely, but there are warning signs. Mother Berent seems resigned to have been the third wheel in her dead husband’s and Ellen’s relationship. Cousin Ruth (a virtuous Jeanne Crain) keeps mom company and kind of fills the emotional space where daughter Ellen should be.

Ellen coolly ditches her attorney newly ex-beau Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) in favor of Richard and announces that she and Richard are to be married. That’s news to Richard, but Ellen’s power is too alluring to overcome. They wed. Ellen’s little paradise seems to be working – she is completely adored by her new husband. But is she?

It's the word “completely” that causes the beast to rear its ugly head. Richard has other loves – a disabled younger brother and his career. This makes the beast unhappy and you can hear the gears clicking in Ellen’s brain – how can she destroy them?

Richard loves his home, called Back of the Moon, in Deer Island, Maine. The remote location is perfect for him to write. Ellen hates the place.

Ellen "helps" Danny with his swimming regimen 
The tense situation only gets worse when Danny comes to visit. Taking the boy out for a swim, the unthinkable occurs and Ellen watches the boy helplessly drown before her eyes. A truly unforgettable scene of detached and compassionless evil.

and then watches him drown
From there, things go from worse to worser (I know, not really a useable word, but what’s worse than worse?). Cousin Ruth offers Richard a sympathetic ear. While Ellen may have driven Richard to Ruth, Ellen's jealousy Spidey sense here was not off base.

Cousin Ruth: a pretty shoulder to cry on
Eventually the beast begins to consume its host. Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, Ellen goes full beast. In fact, she refers to her unborn child as "the little beast." Unless a Rosemary’s Baby is cooking in the oven, she is fingering the wrong beast.

before the fall...getting it just right
She is a clever cookie, though. Why not kills 2 birds with one stone? Ellen manages the old fall down the stairs to terminate the pregnancy move. When she confesses her actions to Richard to prove the depth of her singular devotion, Richard leaves her. To add insult to injury, he dedicates his next book to Ruth. At this point Ellen is fairly glowing green.

Poison comes so naturally to Ellen
The last act of this beautiful beast is to take poison and try and frame Ruth. While this proves a bit of a headache (which involves some over the top theatrics from Vincent Price’s attorney) and some jail time, the beast is dead and Ruth and Richard are free to live happily ever after.

Old flame Russell Quinton grills Ruth.
Ellen is dead, but her spirit is in a courtroom painted green with envy
It wasn't that Ellen loved too much, as her mother told Richard, it was that she smothered (and drowned) anyone who her beloved dared to love or admire besides her. Face it, the girl just couldn't stand to share.

The beauty of the film is not only Ellen. The costumes, the color, the settings, all contribute to a feast for the sense that leaves you rather full like a dinner where you've had too much to eat. It is all too tasty, all too uncomfortable and all too deliciously much in a most discomforting yet satisfying way. 

As mentioned, Gene Tierney's costumes (designed by her husband Oleg Cassini ) and the various homes featured in the film are simply to die for. Here's a sampling:

The Costumes

notice her initials?

The Homes

1. The New Mexico Home (my favorite)

2. Back of the Moon (Deer Lake, Maine)

3. The Bar Harbor Maine House


Saturday, September 30, 2023

This Month at the Library : I Married a Witch (1942) - Bewitched, Bothered and Charmed

My local library is kind enough to indulge my desire to share my passion for classic film by allowing me to show a classic film once a month. And once in a while, a few film fans wander in and share the enjoyment.

October's Film: 

I Married a Witch (1942)

I admit I approached this film with a kind of blah attitude the first time I saw it. Fredric March is part of that group of leading men (including Franchot Tone and George Brent) that prompt a mental yawn from me. 

As for Veronica Lake, my opinion of her more influenced by things I read about her rather than her actual performances (more about this later). And Susan Hayward, one of my most favorite actresses, has only a supporting role here.

So imagine my surprise when I was completely charmed by this little fable. If it reminds you of the television show "Bewitched" you would not be wrong, as this film was one of that show's inspirations (the other being "Bell, Book and Candle."). The chief charm here is Veronica Lake. She is a pint sized sprite, alluring and adorable and simply perfect for this role. Old Freddy March does quite all right for a two time Oscar winner (even though I rate him with zero sex appeal while Ms. Lake oozes it out of her every pore). Susan Hayward is stuck in one of those before-she-became-a-star roles and her main purpose here is to be as bitchy as possible (making you root for the witch). But, she is mighty beautiful. Cecil Kellaway pops in as the witch's dad and might remind you of Agnes Moorehead's Endora character in "Bewitched."

Speaking of the b-word, apparently Ms. Lake was so unpleasant to work with that March renamed the film "I Married a Bitch." Joel McCrea was originally cast as the leading man and seemed a better choice, but he balked because he had had enough of Ms. Lake after "Sullivan's Travels." No matter. I'm sure anyone who views this film will fall under her spell.