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.



Sunday, July 2, 2023

Down the Rabbit Hole with Cagney's Coat: This is when you know you've got a problem

So, during covid I decided to indulge my obsession with James Cagney and watch all of his films - in order, mind you. And I did. And I liked it.

However, when you spend a lot of time with someone, you get to notice things. Things like clothes, for instance.

I kept seeing this coat over and over - in film and in real life photos I happened to come across going down the movie rabbit holes we movie maniacs know all too well.

My conclusion:

a) I need to get a life (which is a whole 'nother story), and

b) Cagney must have really liked that coat.

If ever a garment deserved billing, it is what shall now simply be referred to as "the coat."

If this photo was taken during the filming of "Smart Money," the only time Cagney and Edward G. Robinson appeared on screen together, then this would have been taken in 1931 and, so far, would be the earliest sighting of the coat.

This photo of Cagney and the missus was dated 1936, so this would make the coat at least 5 years old. Apparently, the coat did on and off screen duty. I've kept coats for 5 years, so not feeling too strange....yet.

1938 appears to have been a good year for the coat. First up, "Boy Meets Girl." The coat is prominently worn. 

The coat then has a cameo in "Angels With Dirty Faces," also 1938. Cagney doesn't wear it, but it is draped over a chair and searched by the cops when they enter Rocky Sullivan's room. The coat is now 7.

All right. Now it's getting weird. The coat has a major role in 1949's "White Heat." Coming out of retirement, the coat is now at least 18.  I'm not sure what that means in "coat years."


The coat's last appearance (as far as I can find) is in this candid shot during the 1955 filming of "Love Me or Leave Me." Assuming there was not a role for the coat on screen, Cagney trotted the 24 year old war horse out for a photo shoot. The old boy can now vote, drink and get married.
 
So, let's hear it for the coat, winner of the most durable piece of outerwear in cinema history. But honestly, Cagney, was this your lucky coat or something? I'd love to know.


Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Giveaway! Warner Bros. 100 Years of Storytelling

 

If you know anything at all about me through this blog, you know that I'm a Warner Brothers girl. One look at that distinctive shield and I'm instantly happy. I don't exactly know why. Maybe it has something to do with all of those Saturday afternoon films shown on television during my adolescence. Or maybe it has something to do with that suave, naked bunny lounging confidently atop it. Munching a carrot.

 

Anywho, that's how it is and always has been with me. And I'm so grateful that in this world that continually changes at an ever faster pace that symbol still endures. I'm sure its founders wouldn't recognize the entertainment business today, but still, 100 years is pretty impressive.

By the way, anyone catch that recent Jeopardy final answer about the name of the brothers who missed the premier of "The Jazz Singer" because one of them was ill? Were you, like me, screaming "WARNER!" at the television screen? Did you feel pretty darn smart when each one of the contestants didn't know the answer? Of course, I kind of doubt my score would have been on the plus side leading up to Final Jeopardy, but that's another story.

So now to the giveaway. In honor of hanging in there for 100 years, A Person in the Dark is conducting a giveaway of the newly published "Warner Bros. 100 Years of Storytelling. The Official Centennial History by Mark Vieira" with a forward by Ben Mankiewicz.



From the Preface by Mark A. Vieira:

Four brothers from Ohio started a film company. Their first star was a dog. Their next star was Broadway’s greatest actor. They climbed to the top of the industry with the technology of sound, but they lost a brother in the process. They not only survived the Great Depression but also thrived by making musicals such as Footlight Parade. Their studio was the home of unique stars: Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Kay Francis, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Muni. Theirs was the only studio to blow the whistle on fascism. They boosted morale during World War II with films such as Casablanca. In the 1950s, after adapting to 3-D, widescreen, and stereo, Warner Bros. was one of the first Hollywood studios to enter television production.

Warner Bros. started as a family business. This book could be the family album…. It’s a record of extraordinary entertainment history, a panoply of the greatest names, faces, and talents in Hollywood lore.


Interested? Okay, here are the rules:

1. One entry per person

2. Email your name and email address to me at flickchick1953@aol.com. Please write "Giveaway" in the subject line.

3. The drawing will be held on Thursday, June 15th.

 


That's it! Good luck. And, as always, here's looking at you kid.

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Hollywood Palace: Hello, Lover

May 16th is National Classic Movie Day. In honor of that day that is near and dear to our hearts, I offer my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Spring 2023 Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon. Click here for more television memories.

Anyone here old enough to remember a television show called "The Hollywood Palace"? It ran on ABC from January 1964 through February 1970. It was a variety show like so many that were popular at the time, but it had a few features that spoke to my little but growing classic movie loving heart. 

The show had a revolving door of guest hosts that served as emcees, but the most frequent host was a fella named Bing Crosby. 

Now, I probably was familiar with Bing even at a young age because he was on television quite a bit and was always selling Minute Maid Orange Juice, but I kind of liked the guy and looked forward to seeing him and hearing him most every week (please do not tell John, Paul, George & Ringo). He was warm and casual and always seemed to fit so comfortably into our living room. Bing seemed to know everyone! And it was there, at the Hollywood Palace, that I first encountered performers who apparently were big stars some time ago and were - tonight!- gracing us lowly television audience members with their glittering presence. Who were, as Lina Lamont would say,  these "shimmering glowing stars in the cinema firmament"? Thankfully, my mother was there to fill in some blanks.

The show was run as a sort of high class Vaudeville show with placards announcing each act. It was here I found out these people were movie stars:



Groucho Marx: well, he was funny. I think I'll check out one of his movies when they are shown.

Dean Martin: He made movie with Jerry Lewis? How did he stand him?

Fred MacMurray; He always seemed so nice. Little did I know he had thing for ankle bracelets.

Betty Hutton: Wowee! where can I see more of her?

Donald O'Connor: Fred who? Gene who? This guy could dance! Wait - is this the guy with the mule?

Betty Grable: My first look at a real glamour girl.

Olivia de Havilland: I needed my mother to tell me who this was. Later one of my most favorite actresses.

Ginger Rogers: Ah, more glamour. I knew she and Fred were a team, but had yet to see any of their films. 

Ann Miller: Yikes! Tap-a-palooza! Years later I caught her on film, but always remembered my first sighting.

Jane Powell: Gee, she's tiny, but has a big voice. She was treated like a star, not just another singer booked for the week.

Van Johnson: He seemed so very nice playing himself. later he just seemed so always nice in the movies.

Bette Davis: Okay - I knew who she was, but I had yet to see her in a movie. She seemed like she was trying to be nice, but really wanting to be anywhere but there.  Please check her out her singing "Single." It's kind of unforgettable.

Edward G. Robinson: Quite a dapper man. I knew him from the Warner Brothers cartoon parody and he seemed nothing like a gangster. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Fred Astaire: Yes, I knew Fred, but, as with Ginger, I had not yet seen any of his films. He was on the small screen as he was on the big screen: elegant, modest and wholly charming.

Bob Hope: well, of course I knew Bob Hope, but did not yet know he had made all those films with Bing Crosby. Who knew these guys were such big movie stars?

But it was this gal that really wowed me:

Alice Faye: Now, I never heard of Alice Faye, but she was on with her husband, Phil Harris. However, my mother, who seemed to know things, said that her true love was her first husband, Tony Martin.

(Later there was a show with Cyd Charisse: Awkward! Here was Cyd with her husband, Tony Martin. But, wait, wasn't he Alice Faye's true love? I watched for signs of discontent. Didn't see any.)

But back to Alice Faye. To me, she conducted herself like a true movie star. Crosby treated her as an absolute queen. Yet, she was warm and funny and lovely; just like she was, as I eventually discovered, in the movies. Of all the star performances I remember from that show, I recall her being greeted with the most warmth and affection. 

Since that time I have always adored Alice Faye. It was her genuine sincerity, naturalness and wonderful talent that made me a fan, and I am so very, very thankful to all of those 60s and  70s television variety shows that introduced me to stars I would later fall in love with. 


And while not big movie stars (yet), may I give a shout out to other frequent Hollywood Palace guests such as the great Carl Reiner and the still great Mel Brooks, the incomparable Victor Borge, and the sort of creepy Marquis Chimps? And who can forget Enzo Stuarti?

One more thing (no, not Columbo):

While not my selection, I'm going to sneak this one in:

Candid Camera with Buster Keaton. His performance as a man at a lunch counter was unforgettably funny and had hosts Allen Funt and Durward Kirby laughing out loud. Oh Buster, it took me a while get get from Candid Camera to Beach Blanket Bingo to your great films, but, as with Alice Faye, it was love at first sight.

Just as movies gave us records of great stage performers that we would never otherwise be able to see, television, that much maligned medium back in the day, let us kids see what a great movie star looked like.


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.