Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bitches and Blaggards: James Mason and Jane Greer

This is the fourth in the "Bitches and Blaggards" series; monthly posts devoted to my favorite movie bad girls and roguesA bitch is a selfish, malicious woman. A blaggard is a villain, a rogue and a black-hearted man. Both are bad, both are devastatingly alluring.

Jane Greer

This was one femme fatale with a heart of cracked ice. Her performance as Kathie Moffat in 1947's "Out of the Past" puts her in the Bitch Hall of Fame. Sadly, her career was spotty, since she was one of those gals whose career was controlled, stalled and pretty much ruined by Howard Hughes. Possibly because she is so rarely seen, there is an unequaled quality of mystery about this actress. She is elusive, delicate, deadly and unknowable - in other words, a delicious film noir desert. Her two films with Robert Mitchum were memorable, not only for her allure, but for their outstanding chemistry.

Out of the Past
Who does not love this dilly of a film?The utter coolness of the sexual heat between Jane and Robert Mitchum is almost too hot to handle. They are both so beautiful, your eyes hurt just looking at them. Mitchum had great chemistry with another HH/RKO Jane, that being Ms. Russell. Jane Russell matched Mitchum in toughness and cynicism (and beauty), Jane Greer is the bad beauty that Mitchum can't kick.
Of course, the fact that Jane's character has the heart of a snake makes her that much more alluring. With her Mona Lisa smile and her what-is-she-thinking eyes, she manages to hook, seduce and double-cross both Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Alas, as must most femme fatales in the 1940s, she came to a bad end (but she almost made it out of Dodge with the dough). Her Kathie is enterprising, duplicitous and, hooray, always thinking. This is a fabulous noir without the usual suspects, which makes it so captivating.

The Big Steal

None of Jane's subsequent films are in the "Out of the Past" league, but she did get to team up with Mitchum again in "The Big Steal," and got to play a character named Chiquita Graham. This film is more of a comedy/noir with the RKO stock company present (and Ramon Novarro and Don Alvarado thrown in for all of us great-lovers-of-the-silent-screen hounds), but it's a bunch of fun to watch Jane and Mitchum heat up the screen. She's not so much a bitch as a toughie here, but, hey, any girl that can point a gun like she is doing in the above photo can't be a Pollyanna.

Jane Greer had a curious career. Hughes, ostensibly because Greer would not engage in a romantic relationship with him, held her career up and refused to let her work from 1949 to 1951. She made some interesting, more sympathetic, appearances after that, but the momentum of "Out of the Past" had passed. She worked occasionally in television in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1984 she made news when she was cast in "Against All Odds," the remake of "Out of the Past," as her earlier character's mother (now called Jessie instead of Kathie). The remake was good in its own way, but anyone who has ever seen Jane Greer's performance in "Out of the Past" will never forget her.

James Mason

Oh, that voice! In the history of talking films, the velvety full-of-disdain British tones of James Mason have to be in the top 5. James Mason was so much more than a blaggard, but he fits that role so nicely! He was such a talented actor that he could be bad, good, tough, tender, and all of the above rolled into a complicated one. However, with his ever-present five o'clock shadow and sneering scowl, he had the intelligence and the vague aura of dissatisfaction with the world to make him a first-class blaggard. 

The Wicked Lady

James Mason's role in this film defines the word blaggard. As the highwayman and rapist Captain Jerry Jackson, he is a romance novelist's dream. The film is all Margaret Lockwood as the much too lusty lady who longs for excitement, but her meeting and mating with Captain Jerry proves even too much for this scheming wench. "The Wicked Lady" is such fun and is much beloved in Britain. Captain Jackson gets shot in the end, but his lustiness lives on! 

North By Northwest

Anyone who tries to hurt Cary Grant is a blaggard in my book, but James Mason's Phillip Vandamm is a bit of a complex blaggard. We know he's bad (although we are not quite sure what he's up to), but he seems so reasonable. if only Cary will give up the information he doesn't have, Van Damm is willing to strike a deal. Plus, he seems to really have a soft spot for double crossing Eva Marie Saint. When she faux-shoots Cary in the cafeteria at Mt. Rushmore, his first impulse is to go to her. It's the focused-on-the-mission-at-hand Martin Landau that sets the evil plan back on course. There is nobody smoother than Mr. Grant, but James Mason, with his black heart and cultured manner, gives him a run for his money. 


Freaky Humbert Humbert is the blaggard of blaggards and James Mason lets his freak flag fly as much as possible (given the censorship constraints that existed in 196s). Pedophile, murderer, miserable, and snob, what more can you say about this bastard and fool? Mason is totally despicable and even the tiniest self-serving plea for some sympathy can't erase the utter contempt we have for him. A great performance in a disturbing film.

There is just so much more to say about James Mason. He lent authority and depth to virtually everything he touched. He was bad in so many other films, but he was never a one-dimensional baddie. The blaggards never are. They charm, they deceive and, even though they need to get it in the end, we miss them when they are gone.

The Bitch and Blaggard of May will be Judith Anderson and Basil Rathbone.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Gone With The Wind: Part Deux or Get Over it Already!!

Beware! This post may offend. It's all in good fun, but if you are offended, well, you were warned!
I have often pondered what happened to Scarlett, Rhett and the gang on Peachtree Street and the outlying areas. I am aware that there was a faux sequel, but I found it to be rather unsatisfactory.

Could the story have continued like this? Let's catch up with our favorite characters.

Rhett Butler

Rhett returns to Charleston. However, he soon becomes bored with the stuffy way of life there. He takes to booze and loose women to fill his time. Still, there’s no one like Scarlett. He thinks about divorcing her, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. He wants her, but prefers she would come to him (macho pride and all that). Meanwhile, he drinks, gambles, whores around and generally enjoys his rakish reputation among the puritans. In fact, he has become quite wealthy, as he has invested wisely in railroads, saloons and whorehouses. His business interests would give him an excuse to go back to Atlanta….

Scarlett O'Hara

Scarlett limps back to Tara, and recovers from Rhett walking out on her. Tara, however, proves to be just as boring to her as Charleston is to Rhett. She longs for Rhett, but would rather die than go crawling back to him. And, for some reason, she still hasn't gotten that wooden-headed Ashley completely out of her blood. Whenever she thinks of some past horror committed by Rhett, Ashely always looms in her imagination as her protector – the perfect gentleman. So, after making sure everyone is doing their job at Tara, Scarlett decides to return to Atlanta and pursue Ashley once again……

Scarlett and Ashley Wilkes

When Scarlett returns to Atlanta (accompanied by Mammy & Prissy & Pork – who now work for wages) she immediately looks up Ashley (who is still playing with Melanie’s glove and talking to himself). Scarlett, in her usual can-do manner, gets him on his feet and back to work at the lumber mill. They spend every day together and Scarlett thinks she has the 2 things she loves most – money and Ashley. She and Ashley even become an “item” – much to the shock of Mrs. Mead and Mrs. Merriweather (Aunt Pittypat has settled in London - remember that). Scarlett is a bit dismayed, though, by Ashley’s lack of passion. His pale kisses on the cheek can't compare to Rhett bounding up a flight of stairs with her in his arms and lust on his mind. But she soldiers on with Ashley. After all, admitting that she doesn't love him would be admitting that she might really love Rhett after all. But, Ashley is such a bore (as that devil, Rhett, had predicted he would be). What to do? What to do?

Her dilemma disappears when she comes to the mill unexpectedly and finds Ashley in flagrante with Big Sam. Ashley, pulling up his drawers, was quick to explain that they were playing a version of that new game that was sweeping the nation – baseball. Big Sam was the “pitcher.” Ashley was the “catcher.” “We were just taking a break, my dear,” he said. “Fiddle-dee-dee,” cried Scarlett, who never allowed any worker to take a break. Suddenly it was all clear, including Rhett’s sneering laughter whenever she defended Ashley. Rhett, that varmint, had known all along.

After stumbling through the fog yet again, she arrived home to find a big pink box from Paris, France, waiting for her in her parlor. Mammy, still fighting the rheumatism, said it had been delivered while she was out. Scarlett, whose spirits were always lifted by presents, forgot all about Ashley, ripped the yards of ribbon off of the box and discovered inside a blue velvet hat that sat so cunningly on her head that it made her look 16 years old again. It was perfect! And no one in occupied Atlanta had anything like it. But who could have sent it? The only person she knew who could afford to do such a thing was Rhett. But would he?


Poor India. Disfigured when the Yankees burned Twelve Oaks, she went to Savannah to live off of the charity of relatives. Once well enough to travel, she left suddenly and was never heard from again. Funny, but nobody seemed to care very much. The truth is, India went to England, acquired a British accent and became a housekeeper. She had one goal in mind: Destroy Scarlett. She thought that Rhett’s abandonment would have done that, but she had to admit that Scarlett was a resilient one.

India now is unrecognizable from her former self. Her skin is leathery, her eyes yellow and watery and her hair totally gray. Her hatred for Scarlett burned at a low ember, but news of Ashley’s disgrace had come to her from Aunt Pittypat (who only knew her as Mrs. Gray). Ashley – living in ShantyTown with Big Sam, wearing Melanie’s old clothes and associating with the darkies! Thank God for Melanie’s relatives, who have taken care of little Beau.

That Scarlett – it was all her fault! Her loose ways and contempt for decent society had corrupted her brother. Mammy must be getting very old. Surely, now that Scarlett was back in Atlanta she would be in need of a good housekeeper…….

Will India's plan to ruin Scarlett progress or will she forget what story she is in? Will Scarlett and Rhett get back together? Will Big Sam and Ashley elope to Paris with Scarlett's new hat? Will the meds kick in soon?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reconsidering: On the Waterfront

This post is dedicated to Renee H., who gently persuaded me that this film is worth giving a second chance.

"On the Waterfront" is one of those movies that I did not not love at first sight. Once upon a time I had an aversion to: Marlon Brando, 1950s black and white movies with jarring, jazzy scores, and movies that are relentlessly downbeat and ultra-ugly-real. So, you can see how I might not have been enchanted with this film.
And then there is Elia kazan and that whole House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) naming names thing.

I am not one to analyze the nuts and  bolts of a film. I'm not expert at dissecting the mechanics. For me, the measure of a great film is how lost in the story I become, how much I care about the fates of the characters, and how much it might speak to something deep inside of me. In this respect, I wholeheartedly reverse my position and say this is a great film, but I do have reservations.

The Cast
From every main character to every uncredited performance this film is expertly cast.
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, the bum/longshoreman who could have been a contender, but now contents himself with doing the bidding of corrupt union leader Johnny Friendly, is quite perfect. I still don't come easily to him, but there is no denying the sensitivity beneath the brute. His Terry Malloy is a complete person.
Eva Marie Saint as Edie, the sister of the whistle blower who is lured to his death by Terry, is an angel of the slums. It is hard to believe that a few years later she would be out-sexing any of Hitchcock's blondes in "North By Northwest." She is the heart of the story, the innocence and righteousness that has not yet been corrupted by life on the waterfront.
Karl Malden as the re-energized activist priest Father Barry is my favorite character and my favorite performance in the film. The death of Edie's brother gets him out of his church and into the faces of his parishioners. Malden's Father Barry is warm, compelling and brave. Once he believes in his cause, he is wholly committed and there is no turning back. He is, after all, on the right side of justice.
Rod Steiger plays Terry's older brother, Charley. Poor Charley. He is the saddest character in the film. He sold his soul and his kid brother for a place at Johnny Friendly's side. His later regrets cost him his life.
Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly is a powerhouse - so charming when you do things his way, so deadly when crossed.

The Score
Okay. It's perfect. It's Leonard Bernstein. That's all.

The Story
The screenplay by Budd Schulberg, is based on a real life whistle blower who courageously exposed corruption within the Longshoreman union. It is a story of power, conscience, courage and the dignity of work. And this brings me to thing that has always bothered me about this film. Terry Malloy is hailed as a hero who named names. He was certainly a hero, because he sought to bring justice to those with no voice and to take his one chance to right some terrible wrongs (and avenge the death of his brother and Edie's brother).

Here's where that pesky back story creeps in. Kazan and Schulberg were both friendly witnesses to the HUAC, but it was that committee that was the real-life Johnny Friendly whose favor resulted in employment. The Communist party never controlled who worked and who didn't, but the blacklist that emerged as a result of the hearings sadly did. Lives and careers were ruined because those whose names were named were denied the right to shape up and get that precious job ticket. Those who did not name names may object to the film's phrase of "D&D"( deaf and dumb) when questioned by the Feds. Those who refused to testify might have thought otherwise.

At the end of "On the Waterfront" the men go back to work and now only the boss is standing between the men and a day's pay. But the boss is never kind and benevolent. He is the reason for the need for the labor union in the first place. Who will speak for those men now?

"On the Waterfront" is a delicious, complex, confounding and beautiful film. Taken at face value, it is a tale of personal conscience and heroism against a mob. Scratch the surface and we ask: are Schulberg and Kazan condemning HUAC? Are they assuaging their guilt? Are they justifying their actions? Only the viewer can decide. That is why I will have to view this film again.

Thanks, Renee!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Loving Film With an Open Heart

I have a dilemma. I profess to love movies. Many interests in my life have come and gone with varying degrees of passion, but my love of film has never wavered. It crept into my heart at an early age and remains strong to this day. But I have this little problem....
Richard Haydn - one of my favorite cinematic snobs - am I like him?
When it comes to creativity and movies, I've always considered myself to be democratic. I figure that a lot of people went through a lot of trouble to create something, so, even if I don't like it, I should respect it. If there is one thing I never wanted to be, it's a "movie snob." Now, if you, dear reader, are one, please, please forgive me. I utterly respect your right to cinema snobbishness. Here I want to address what I consider to be my own insidious snobbishness. Somehow it has crept into my heart and I want to perform an exorcism now!
Movie Snobbishness - GET OUT!!!!!!!
Since I started blogging about classic film, I find myself going to the movies less and less. Instead, I am immersed in TCM and DVDs. Consequently, I am rather clueless about the current shows at the multiplex. Worse, I find myself turning my nose up at the latest offerings without having seen them. Unforgivable.

Now, I will probably never be someone who loves "The Hunger Games" or the "Twilight" series. But, millions do love them and isn't that what the movie-going experience is all about? As a movie-lover, shouldn't I be glad that so many are finding enjoyment and excitement and entertainment in the medium I love? 

This feeling of oncoming snobbishness really hit home last year, the year of "Midnight in Paris," "Hugo," and "The Artist." These three films lured me to the theater and I must admit I was so happy to see these wonderful films with an audience. I had forgotten what a pleasurable experience it is to share a laugh, a gasp and a sigh. Since so many people I knew had seen these films, I was thrilled to be able to discuss them. But they didn't get all the cinematic historical references in "Hugo" and "The Artist" and I found myself taking a smug and superior tone and acting a bit like this guy behind Woody Allen:

Okay, I wasn't quite that bad, but I realize that if I don't make some changes, I might be in danger of joining the ranks of the movie snobs.

So, like Charles Foster Kane, I think I need to set forth a "Declaration of Principles" (movie-snob-wise, that is):

1. Don't knock it before you've seen it.
2. Get off of your butt and go to the movies at least once a month. There are great artists out there that you are missing.
3. Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's bad.
4. Understand that even if you don't like it, someone else might and that the love of film keeps the medium alive.
5. It's all about the joy and the entertainment, so stop turning your nose up!
6. Interest in the current is a road to appreciation of the past (look at the interest in silent films sparked by "The Artist").
7. When someone is enthusiastic about a film, LISTEN to them; listen for the excitement and the pleasure in their voice, rather than trying to figure out if you are going to give it a thumbs up or down.
8. Not every movie has to be a classic.
9. Don't forget that movies are supposed to be fun, so have fun!

I'm determined to give it a try. This is not to say that I could ever abandon Chaplin, Keaton, Cary Grant, Cagney or Garbo, but I don't want to be entombed in the past. The great thing about the classics is that they will always be there. No matter how unsure life is, you can count on them. That will never change. And I am nothing if not loyal to my old, true friends.
The ecstasy of movies - now and forever.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Three on a Match: The Original Sex and the City

Once upon a time there were three (later four) girlfriends who lived in the big city. One was fun-loving, but good-hearted, one was career minded (and not man-minded), and one was the rich girl who thought all she wanted to do was get married, but learned later that all she really wanted to do was have sex, drink booze and do drugs.

In the new millennium, this could be Carrie Bradshaw, Miranda Hobbes, and Charlotte York/Samantha Jones of "Sex and the City". In 1932, it was Mary Keaton, Ruth Wescott and Vivian Revere of "Three on a Match." While the gals of the new century get to whoop it up over Cosmos and a variety of boyfriends, the ladies of 1932 have to pay. And yet, some things never change because, being women, they all pay a price. Being a dame on the lose in the city has always been tough on a girl's psyche, not to mention her lingerie. The end result: tears and regrets for some, a child for others, and the arms of a "Mr. Big" for the jackpot winner. Though they are generations apart, both stories are, at heart, ones of friendship, sexuality, a woman's life in a modern metropolis and her vague dissatisfaction with her role in society.

Mary Keaton/Carrie Bradshaw
While Carrie Bradshaw explored the life of a single, professional woman of style in the city from a writer's point of view, Joan Blondell's Mary Keaton viewed it from the vantage point of the showgirl (that working girl that was just one societal rung above that other kind of working girl). Mary had to do a stint in reform school for her youthful cheekiness, but she was a tough little survivor with a tender heart who made her way in the world with a cheerful outlook and an eye out for a nice dress and her own "Mr. Big."
both Mary & Carrie like unusual headgear

Ruth Wescott/Miranda Hobbes

Being a single career woman is never easy, but at least Miranda got to be a lawyer. Poor Ruth, the smartest girl in the class, had to settle for a secretarial position (I'll be she ran the office). While Miranda had more material success, both she and Ruth struggled with society's look of pity on the poor, smart, self-sufficient - UNMARRIED -woman. Forget the fact that both women were lovely. Bette looked kick-ass in her bathing suit and slip, but her brains relegated her to the sexless pile and her prize at the end was to raise another woman's child while Mary got the father.
no matter how hot you look,
if you have brains you have trouble attracting men

Vivian Revere/Charlotte York - Samantha Jones
Oh Vivian - you had it all. Just like Charlotte, you were brought up to be a lady. Just like Samantha, the siren song of men, booze and illegal drugs called to you. But, while Samantha mostly had fun with it and Charlotte's good-girl upbringing kept reeling her in, Vivian threw it all out the window for a handsome and fun-loving stud. Married to a loyal, but boring drip, she followed her - um - heart (or whatever body part was talking to her) and left hubby behind. She did show some motherly instincts and took Junior with her, but the sex and booze and drugs interfered with her parenting skills.
both Vivian and Samantha took pride in their linens
If Viv had lived in the new century, she would have either hired a full-time nanny or left Junior with his dad and embraced her latent party girl. She could have kept this up well into her 50s with good skin treatments and a personal trainer. Instead, she spent her days coked up and passed out. There was no way she would be allowed to be rehabilitated. And so, in a final act of heroic motherhood, she must die while Samantha Jones lives to party on into her golden years.
a scream is a scream is a scream ... or is it?

Mr. Big or The Elephant in the Room
Oh, there has to be a "Mr. Big" for every little girl, doesn't there? And so, in our pre-code pre-feminist day, there was Warren William. Here, he is a rich stuffed shirt. You can't blame Viv for being bored and you can't blame clever Mary Keaton for snatching him and the big bucks after Viv hits the pavement.
Mr. Big gets the pick of the remaining litter and selects the
sassy showgirl with the heart of gold for his bed
and the girl with brains to raise his kid. Life is good!
At least sisterhood prevails for the SATC women: through their many trials and many men, they remain friends. In 1932, two women remain friends while one lies splattered on the sidewalk, never knowing that one friend married her ex while the other became her son's nanny. Nice work, ladies.
No matter how daring our 1932 or 21st century darlings were, the core moral of the tale barely changes: don't be dissatisfied, little girl. Instead, find happiness in the arms of your own Mr. Big. Believe it, my dear, and you will weep and continue to keep looking for stories that promise that ever elusive happy ending.
Once upon a time there were three (or four) glamorous
girlfriends who lived in the city and they wanted
all of the good things life has to offer.....