Wednesday, February 20, 2013

City For Conquest: Cagney gets some angst

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon. Who doesn't love the films of the '40s? Click HERE and check out all of the wonderful entries about some of the greatest (and best loved) films ever made

For my money, the James Cagney of the 1930s is one of the greatest movie stars of all time. It's hard to find anyone who comes close to his personal charisma, charm, danger, grace and magnetism (not to mention talent). His cheerful amorality was irresistible and, no matter what side of the legal fence he was on, you had to love him. This was one guy who you just knew spent almost no time contemplating his navel. He was all action.

After the watershed year of 1939, Hollywood films took on a heavier tone and even Cagney, who was always fast on his feet, was slowing down a bit (although at 40 he got himself into fine fighting shape for this film).

City for Conquest is the perfect Warner Brothers story. Based on the novel by Aben Kandel, it is set in familiar Warners social commentary territory - the throbbing streets of New York City's poor, the city that rewards the strong and devours the weak. This time up, the neighborhood is Forsyth Street and Delancey.
The Story
Danny Kenny is a regular guy who is content with his lot as a truck driver. He boxes on the side and could be a champion, but Danny is not particularly ambitious.  His two passions are his girl, Peggy Nash (and who wouldn't be sweet on Ann Sheridan?) and the musical education of his talented brother, Eddie (Arthur Kennedy in his screen debut). Danny decides to enter the fight game as "Young Samson" to get money for Eddie's future. After all, the kid is not truck driver material.
Danny and Peggy share their dreams for the future
Eddie Kenny: that kid's got something
But Peggy has a passion, too. Not content to win neighborhood dance contests, she sees her name in lights on Broadway. She has ambition and is not all that pleased that Danny seems to have none. One night, at a local dance contest/beet soiree, Peggy meets professional dancer Murray Burns (well played by an oily, scene stealing Anthony Quinn). Murray promises her the fame she wants and Danny sees that, if he is to keep Peggy in his life he will have to step it up. He promises to use his fists to beat a path to success for both of them.

Could Cagney fight without Frank McHugh at his side?
So, Peggy dances, Eddie composes and Danny fights, but suffer they must. Peggy turns down Danny proposal of marriage. The lure of fame and fortune are too strong. Burns turns out to be a heal who abuses Peggy, and Danny - oh poor Danny. A shady opponent rubs rosin dust in his gloves and blinds Danny after a brutal 15-round fight. Only Eddie fulfills his dream and writes a symphony of the city, one filled with all of the heartbreak, longing and glory that Danny, Peggy and Eddie know all too well. The ending? More about that later.
Anthony Quinn comes between Jimmy & Ann
This film holds a very special place in my heart. Before I saw it (as an impressionable, tender-hearted teen) I was already a Cagney fan, but this one cemented my total adoration for him. Ann Sheridan also wowed me here and I still haven't recovered. Those first loves always stay with you to some degree. So, maybe it's not a masterpiece, but I was never one for masterpieces.

Cagney went on record saying he was quite disappointed in the film. Directed with a poetic touch by Anatole Litvak, it might have fallen short of Cagney's expectation, but it gives him a chance to give of his most moving, heartfelt and deep performances. John Garfield is already on the payroll, Bogart is rising and Brando, Clift and Dean are coming.

Chief Pleasures
James Cagney and Ann Sheridan
Cagney and Sheridan are one of my favorite screen couples. She is one of the few actresses that could hold her own with him. She had his number but was sweet on him anyway. He never got all mushy, but you knew he was crazy about her. They compliment one another perfectly and when he tells her that she will always be his girl, well, you know he means it from the bottom of his heart.

That old Warner Bothers Gang of Mine

I always feel warm and cozy when Frank McHugh, Donald Crisp, George Tobias, Jerome Cowan, Lee Patrick and Joyce Compton are on hand. I'll bet Cagney and Sheridan did, too.

Faux-Gershwin Score
That overture! Thanks, Max Steiner, for channeling your inner Gershwin and giving us that inner city heart-on-the-pavement rhapsody in blue collar (known as the Magic Isle Symphony).

Great Trivia Question
Who played Goggi Zucco in City for Conquest?
Yup - that's Elia Kazan in one of his only 2 movie roles. I've won a few trivia contests with this one!

Best Tear-Jerker Ending
So, this is how it all winds up. Danny, now nearly blind, is working at a newspaper stand. The night Eddie debuts his symphony at Carnegie Hall, Danny prefers to listen on the radio. He has sacrificed his sight for his brother's dream. 

Peggy, whose dreams have been crushed after Murray tossed her aside, approaches Danny at the news stand. Seeing his condition, she breaks down. But Danny is philosophical. He tells her that he is happy because he knew that one day she would walk up to him here; he knew that because, no matter what, she would always be his girl.
And she is. And together they listen as Eddie dedicates his music to his big brother Danny.

The Warners Gang is all there, more or less, but now it is 1940. Everything is a little darker, a little heavier, a little older. But beautiful, still. Noir is falling, and war is coming. Goodbye, old friends.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Lover's Scandal! Ingrid Bergman: Influence of Evil

Welcome to 2013 - a year of scandals at A Person in the Dark. Yes, I love movies, but I confess I am a sucker for those juicy Hollywood scandals of old.

February's Scandal: Ingrid Bergman - from Saint to Whore

It is hard to believe that this woman was once denounced on the US Senate floor as an "influence of evil." Her sin: falling in love and running off with a man not her husband. 

Now, this is Hollywood we are talking about. Let's look back: in the 1920s, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, both married to others, engaged in a hot extra-marital affair that tore both their marriages apart. They subsequently became the king and queen of Hollywood. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier began their epic love affair when married to others and Humphrey Bogart was still married when he fell for the 19-year old Lauren Bacall. All three couples were much beloved. Their romances were seen as proof of the triumph of true love against all odds (even though 2 of the 3 divorced).

Enter Ingrid Bergman in 1939, the year the Swedish beauty was introduced to American audiences in "Intermezzo: A Love Story." Her natural, healthy beauty that radiated purity was an immediate hit with the public and soon her husband, Dr. Petter Lindstrom and infant daughter, Pia, joined her in a permanent residence in Hollywood. Ingrid could do no wrong. Her career was in high gear and her image was spotless.

The Ingrid Bergman the world fell in love with in "Intermezzo"
 Like most stars, Ingrid's image was at odds with her reality. Though she was portrayed as a happily married wife and mother, the truth was that Ingrid was one lusty lass and the good doctor did not like being known as Mr. Ingrid Bergman. At some point he made a decision to spend a great deal of his professional time in San Francisco and Ingrid was free to engage in affairs with Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler and photographer Robert Capa (to name just a few). Life was a breeze for Ingrid: she was a 100% Ivory Soap Pure Saint to her public (even though she was equally adept at playing bad girls), her career was on fire and she easily managed her husband, child and extra curricular affairs. 
Ingrid in 1948's "Joan of Arc" - her last appearance as a saint
In 1949, the new "It Boy" of cinema was Italian filmmaker, Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini, a notorious playboy, was riding high on the universal acclaim of his neo-realist classics "Open City" and "Paisan." Ingrid, like so many, was enthralled with Rossellini's bold new style. She was so taken with him that she penned a fan letter and offered her services:

If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French and who in Italian knows only "ti amo," I am ready to come make a film with you.

And so she did. Rossellini promptly dropped the 5 women he was seeing at the time (including his "Open City" star actress Anna Magnani) and fell for Ingrid's charms. For her part, Ingrid fell madly, passionately in love and left her husband. And she got pregnant. All the while they worked together to film "Stromboli."
Roberto Rossellini directs Ingrid Bergman
Meanwhile, back in the USA a firestorm of criticism erupted over the actions of a Hollywood actress. Returning to Hollywood after filming "Stromboli" (and 3 months pregnant at the time), Ingrid refused to confirm her pregnancy to the vituperative gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. When rival Louella Parson scooped Hopper on the out-of-wedlock bambino in the oven, Hopper trashed Saint Ingrid without mercy.
Hedda Hopper: cross her and she destroys
Before she knew what hit her, Ingrid Bergman went from saint to slut. Outrage over her infidelity made the papers, church pulpits and even the floor of the US senate. Incredibly, politicians took the time out of their busy schedule to weigh in on Ingrid Bergman. Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado condemned her as a "free-love cultist" and "a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence of evil." Yikes! No doubt her sainted image worked against the real woman, and Ingrid had no choice but to high-tail it back to Italy. Because a nasty divorce and custody battle ensued while Ingrid was pregnant, her son, Robertino Rossellini, was born a week before the divorce became final and Ingrid and Rossellini finally married. During that same month "Stromboli" was released internationally, where, banned and boycotted, it bombed.

Like many great love affairs, this one, too, petered out. Ingrid and her Italian made 2 more children (twins Isabella and Isotta) and five more unsuccessful films before they called it quits in 1957. Ingrid said that the Swedish and Italian temperaments were not a good match.

But Hollywood loves a happy ending, and, in 1956 Bergman won her second Academy Award for her performance in "Anastasia." The award was accepted by her good friend, Cary Grant. Ingrid made an appearance at the Oscars in in 1958, where she presented the award for Best Picture. When introduced to the audience by Grant, she received a standing ovation. The love affair with the public was back on again. In 1972 a formal apology was entered into the Congressional Record.

Much ado about nothing, don't you think?

Ingrid and one of her friends who always stood by her
in one of my favorite films, "Notorious"

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Garbo vs. Gable: The Talkies Have Won

Susan Lenox (Her fall and Rise)....the fall of silence, the rise of sound
Garbo and Gable: what a pair! MGM was notoriously dense when providing Garbo with a suitable leading man, but here they nailed it.
They walk in beauty

In 1931, Greta Garbo was more than a queen of the movies. Like the empress of some remote, exotic land, she retained her air of mystery and wonder as talking pictures smashed, as Norma Desmond said, “the idols of the world.” Garbo survived sound. Her deep, accented growl complimented her image. But sound, combined with the changing tastes of depression-era audiences, also robbed her of some of her power. She moved with authority in the movie-worlds of satins and furs, of heavy sighs and sophisticated shrugs. But by 1931, audiences craved something more realistic, something grittier, something so un-Garbo.

She had proved that she could knock back a viskey with the best of them in her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930). After a few more sophisticated roles, MGM again walked the pre-code tightrope with Garbo in 1931’s Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise).
Garbo and Gable play house
Based on a scandalous book of the same name, Garbo plays an illegitimate and abused farm girl who is sold into marriage to a man she finds repugnant and who tries to rape her before their wedding. Determined not to marry the lout, she rushes off into a storm and lands in the nice comfy home of none other than Clark Gable. And here the story become unlike anything Garbo did before or since.

In 1931, the pre-mustache Gable was just beginning his long rein as the king of Hollywood. No matter how ordinary Garbo is made to look in this film, she is never just a regular gal. Can you imagine finding Garbo in your barn in a storm? Gable, however, no matter how gorgeous, always comes across natural and at ease and just an ordinary guy who happens to to look like a movie star. He is modern, she is timeless.

Mustache or no mustache - HOT
Garbo as the farmer's daughter
The story is wild, with Garbo joining a circus, living as the mistress of a crooked politician and finally chasing Gable, who has rejected her,  to the jungles of South America where both (he a drunk and she a not-quite prostitute/dancer) are reconciled. She gets to wear an array of fantastic Adrian designs and is more "regular" than she ever appeared before or since. The scene where Gable teaches her to fish is adorable. Garbo is many things, but she is rarely cute or adorable. It is great fun to see her this way.

Garbo laughs - and fishes!
Hard working circus professional

A celestial vision

So, here is Garbo, giving her usual  fine performance, looking spectacular and having a grand old time and it is Gable who, I think, dominates. He is new, he is bright and, yes, he is the future and there is no turning back.

Passing the torch

While is has been said that Garbo and Gable did not like one another, their chemistry is undeniable. So much so that Garbo was given first crack at re-teaming with Gable in Red Dust. After Garbo declined, the role went to Jean Harlow, another nod to the future. Garbo would go on to give 10 more magical performances before retreating to the realm of the gods - her true home. Gable would continue as a star of the first magnitude for another 30 years.