Essential: HUNTED (1952)

Part 1 of 2

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Dirk Bogarde and Jon Whiteley

TB: Dirk Bogarde said HUNTED was his personal favorite of all the motion pictures he made, and it’s easy to see why it was such a special experience for him. I think he does a remarkable job, and nearly all his scenes occur with young Jon Whiteley. Whiteley was a novice to moviemaking but he’s a natural. Thoughts on their working relationship, and the relationship between their two characters, Chris and Robbie?

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JL: I saw at least one documentary on Dirk’s career but did not know what films were his favorites. It is a different kind of role for a leading man of romantic films at this early stage of his career, so I can understand why he liked it. Later, of course, he took on equally curious and sometimes sinister roles for Luchino Visconti and others in the more “international” period of his career. No, he does not look like the killer type, but that is based on how stereotypical killers are portrayed on screen.

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JL: Jon Whiteley is a natural, as is Hayley Mills (who will be discussed next week). However this is the only role I have seen him in. I have not seen THE SPANISH GARDENER. He reminds me of the two most famous on-screen Oliver Twists. Not Jackie Coogan, but John Howard Davies and Mark Lester. Obviously these boys contrast from spunky Hayley who is a bundle of energy and has little trouble taking care of herself. The character of Robbie constantly needs somebody’s personal care.

Chris and Robbie

TB: On screen the relationship between Chris and Robbie evolves considerably. At first, Chris is a bit rough with Robbie (not unlike the boy’s abusive adoptive father). But gradually Chris softens. It’s an unusual sort of redemption story. Would you agree?

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JL: The way Chris grabs Robbie by the arm and drags him about reminded me of the way both of my parents were with me. They were very impatient with me, even though they weren’t criminals on the run like Chris here. That is why the key scene with the boarding house lady (Jane Aird) is so important. She notices he has been through abuse and we, the viewers, know it is not on account of Chris.

TB: We do not get too much of Robbie’s backstory.

JL: From what we gather, Robbie was playing with matches and burned his stepmother’s curtains but thinks he burned down the house. Believing he is a criminal at the tender age of seven, he is running away…and winding up with another criminal that he discovered standing over a corpse. Chris is a sympathetic character we find ourselves oddly rooting for. We do not see the murder take place and are not entirely sure if it was partly an accident and partly a result of Chris getting caught up in his passions, but murder is still murder and his running away is not helping his case.

Fugitives

TB: The premise doesn’t seem like it would generate strong box office. We have a violent killer running off with a troubled boy. Initially, nobody they meet seems to suspect them of being fugitives. But things do get more difficult for them when Chris makes the front page of the newspaper. Do you find them being able to take off so easily a realistic thing?

JL: You say he is a “violent killer” but that is major problem here for me. We don’t see how the murder is committed and whether it was done in cold-blood or more accidentally. He does appear dazed and upset when we first see him as if he is trying to process what had happened. We also don’t see Chris particularly “violent” during the rest of the movie.

TB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris does not exhibit violent tendencies after the murder.

JL: Regarding whether or not the police was too slow in responding (testing our sense of realism here), what I found particularly interesting were all of the scenes of bombed out buildings that hadn’t been rebuilt after a war that ended six or seven years ago. It sent a message that Great Britain still had plenty of “rubble” to sort through and that it was rather easy for certain criminals to get a head start in their escapes.

Two lost souls

TB: I read a comment in a user review on the IMDb that I think is worth bringing up. A reviewer said “They are two lost souls traversing the countryside together. They are two people of different ages teaming up for a common cause.”

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TB: Do you agree with this? At what point, do we take the rose-colored glasses off and say you know what, this is really a story about child abduction? I think society in late 1951 when this movie was filmed, obviously was very different from society now. It would be a tough sell to make this film today and try to market it as a feel-good buddy film. Also I think people would automatically assume he abducted the boy for sexual reasons. It wouldn’t seem so innocent now. What’s your take on that aspect of the film?

JL: On the surface, it seems like Robbie has been kidnapped as a witness to a crime and his step-parents are with the police trying to find him. Yet Robbie wants to stay with Chris. It is not like Chris is mean at him at all.

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JL: We do not know all of the plot details right away, which makes the story all the more interesting. For example, we are merely teased early on who the corpse is in a newspaper Chris reads, but much later find out, after confronting his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), that he was her boss whom she may have been having an affair with. Likewise, we only much later learn, as they are staying at a boarding house, that Robbie has bruises on his body that did NOT come from Chris. No, home is not a happy place for him to be.

TB: How do Chris and Robbie relate to one another? They form a rather strong bond in a short period of time.

JL: Chris can relate to Robbie’s lack of family love. His own brother refuses to take them in, although he was still nice enough to feed them, because of his “reputation with the community.” These two are outsiders who have nobody but each other. They bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in THE DEFIANT ONES) while on the run, even if running is not the best option for seven year olds who happen to get sick… and, as a result, Chris must make the ultimate decision in the dramatic climax aboard a herring boat.

Postwar poverty and the influence of Italian neorealism

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and discuss the overarching theme. Or at least one of the main themes, which is postwar poverty. HUNTED conveys a sense of gritty realism and there’s very little sentimentality, except in a few key scenes. Robbie doesn’t smile until halfway into the story. And he doesn’t laugh until near the end. But then he gets sick, so his sunny disposition doesn’t last long. There really isn’t a lot of joy in this movie. Any specific thoughts on that?

JL: I saw a lot of similarities to the Italian imports, the neorealism of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini and future Bogarde director Visconti. One key smiling scene of Robbie eating pasta with Chris and his brother reminded me of a similar scene in the pessimistic THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which topped the Sight & Sound poll the same year this film was released to theaters and was a benchmark of sorts that many “artistic” film-makers were imitating.

TB: Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue to discuss HUNTED and what makes it so special.

Please be sure to join us for Part 2…

Part 2 of 2

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More about Italian neorealism

TB: Okay, we’re back to continue our discussion of HUNTED. When we left off yesterday, we had been discussing how the film’s director (Charles Crichton) was probably influenced by Italian neorealism. Anything else you’d like to say about that?

JL: This film is quite similar to other thrillers of the period that made great use of locales, but NOT in a tourist “pretty travelogue” sense. The Italians were presenting their country warts and all. The Brits and Yanks were impressed enough to do the same, but we do get some lovely countryside later on.

TB: Yes, good point.

JL: I am not sure if Visconti’s OSESSIONE had much of a release in the U.K. by this time and whether or not Chris Crichton and cinematographer Eric Cross saw it before doing this one. My guess is that they had only seen THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a gargantuan international box-office smash.

Memorable scenes

TB: A few scenes stand out to me. Meaning I thought they were expertly staged and acted. Number one, I loved the scene where they jump off the old bridge on to the train. It’s a nail biter.

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TB: Also, I consider the scene where Chris tells Robbie the bedtime story to be very memorable. It’s a clever way to use to reveal some of Chris’ backstory. And I think the scenes at the end are particularly effective– the part where Chris turns back the boat, and when he carries a very sick Robbie off the boat.

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TB: Did these scenes affect you, too? Or were there other moments that stood out for you in HUNTED?

JL: The train scene was great, but we get a lot of those in these types of films. I also liked all of the shots of gulls at the end.

TB: There’s a lack of background music in many of the scenes. This helps us focus on what the characters are saying and thinking. Did you notice this?

JL: Yes, there were scenes with no music but I didn’t notice it as particularly unusual, but that is an interesting perspective.

Camera work

TB: What are your thoughts on the way it was filmed?

JL: There were some great opening shots done from a small boy’s eye level. The first part of the movie showcases Robbie’s point of view; lots of low angle shots, close ups of horses startled in the city streets and adults looking down at the viewer. Later, when the emphasis shifts to Chris the adult lead, the camera compositions change.

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TB: Yes. I hadn’t considered the different vantage points, in terms of how the characters were photographed.

JL: All of the earlier shots focus on Robbie’s point of view with the camera angles presented accordingly. Also we don’t see the actual crime committed but come into the aftermath scene just as Robbie does. Therefore, we can understand why he becomes attracted to Chris and does not fear him as a murderer.

TB: The camerawork seems to change when they reach the boarding house. There are group shots, from more of an omniscient point of view.

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JL: There are also some very nice Hitchcockian set-pieces too, including the all-important railroad track narrow escape scene. One particularly good scene earlier in the movie predates Cary Grant at Grand Central station in Hitch’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Chris tries to get quick cash on a coat but the pawnshop owner gets suspicious and gets on a phone in the next room. While he pretends he is only calling a potential buyer rather than the authorities, Chris knows better. Outside the window, a cop is questioning Robbie why he isn’t in school. Like Cary’s Roger, he is not waiting around to find out what happens next.

The film’s conclusion

TB: What about the end of the movie?

JL: Love those shots of gulls flapping past herring boats, symbolizing Chris’ need to literally… fly away.

TB: The final sequence of HUNTED is very visual. The long tracking shot at the end where he brings Robbie up from the boat while the crowd and the police are swarming along the dock is certainly memorable. And things are left unresolved in a way– will Robbie go back to live with his adoptive parents, or will he be placed in a new home? What will happen to Chris and his wife?

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TB: Also, will Chris’ brother ever acknowledge him? There are a few plot threads dangling, which makes us wonder what happens next. It’s a great movie, and it gives us so much to consider.

HUNTED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

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Released six years after WEREWOLF OF LONDONG, Universal’s original entry in the series– and just two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor– THE WOLF MAN lives in infamy as one of the studio’s most popular horror films. Though initially panned by some critics in late 1941, it would prove successful with audiences and was a bigger hit at the box office than its predecessor.

While the horror of the second world war played out in real life during the next several years, horror as a movie genre evolved from serious “A” budget fare to lower budgeted whimsy and ultimately turned into a form of self-parody. But THE WOLF MAN is done in a fairly straightforward fashion…it was given more than a modest-sized budget for hair and make-up– plenty of that is on display in the form of the title character, played by Lon Chaney Jr.

Chaney Jr. had been known up to this point as the son of Lon Chaney Sr., who specialized in grotesque characterizations during the silent era. Chaney Jr. was also regarded for his role as the mentally challenged Lennie in the stage version and subsequent 1939 screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. But when he was hired to play Larry Talbot in THE WOLF MAN, the actor found his greatest role and lasting fame. His screen immortality would be assured with this iconic appearance as well as a succession of appearances in several sequels. 

Bela Lugosi, who is cast as a gypsy’s son, had coveted the lead role here. But Bela’s star was waning. Interestingly, Chaney Jr. wanted to play the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in the studio’s 1943 remake of his father’s most well-known picture, but Claude Rains snagged it.

Rains, our focus this month, takes an important supporting role in THE WOLF MAN. He’s on hand as the estranged British father of Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.). Their relationship is a Greek tragedy of sorts. When Larry becomes bitten during a brawl– and experiences the curse of a werewolf– a killing spree occurs. Only his refined dear old dad will be able to stop him and put him out of his misery forever. Otherwise a lot of innocent people will be hurt.

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Jlewis:

While it may not be Universal’s first nor best werewolf movie, those being WEREWOLF OF LONDON released six years earlier and the Polygram produced and Universal-ly distributed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON of four decades later (this is one of my personal favorites of the horror-comedy genre, with director John Landis pulling all the stops in bold creativity), THE WOLF MAN still holds up fairly well despite a somewhat simplistic storyline.

It was a big success in its day, just like the Dracula, Frankenstein and Invisible Man series started a decade earlier but, curiously, the former ’35 film was the one intended to start a franchise. The ’41 reboot was more successful at doing this, with six follow-ups made over the decade that also featured Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role even though he often shared billing with other beasties on screen.

The wonderful make-up and special effects work was credited to Jack Pierce, who also worked on the earlier version but less successfully. Still images and publicity shots dominated so many movie books and horror fan magazines in the 1960s and ’70s that many of my generation, including me of course, were persuaded that this movie must be as wonderful as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Understandably, we were often a trifle underwhelmed when we finally got to see it in its entirety.

I will get into some nitpicking of the plot details in a moment, but I first must praise the performances and production values. Not everybody is great here but nobody disappoints either. Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot who becomes the unfortunate title character bitten by a wolf-human (played clumsily by a German shepherd rather than a Pierce costumed character) and forced to metamorphose each full moon until he is finally put out of his misery by his own father, played by Claude Rains as John Talbot.

The always delightful Maria Ouspenskaya is the doom and gloom fortune-teller Maleva and Bela Lugosi plays a fellow traveler with the same entourage (also named, guess what?… Bela) whose fate predates Larry’s. Warren William and Ralph Bellamy are the usual psychiatrist and “colonel” investigator needed for such who-done-it spook fests and are, well, adequate if not spectacular.

Ditto Evelyn Ankers as the love interest Gwen Conliffe to Larry… but she eventually winds up with the man (Patrick Knowles) she was originally engaged to since Larry is prevented to have any happy ending here. Her best friend Jenny (Fay Helm) is an unfortunate early victim (by Bela, not Larry) and her demise is genuinely startling and frightening in the early part.

Again, the production values are super. Yes, the painted backdrops inside studio-bound sets and matte work involving the Talbot estate are way too obvious to us more cgi-influenced viewers of today. Lots of great fog machines at work here, making it just as fun as I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I mentioned earlier in my review of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD that the London setting was too sunshine California-based, but this imaginary European setting (supposedly set in Wales) is much more convincing to me with plenty of gothic architecture and retro automobiles on the roads. Plus plenty of overcast.

Also love the transformations done in dissolves, which do the work almost as well… if lacking a certain “wow” factor… as Rick Baker’s elaborate effects in the ’81 movie. I especially love that wonderful panning shot of muddy doggie footprints that lead to Larry’s open bedroom window, followed by human prints and the camera then stopping on a sleeping Larry’s feet. He later realizes that something happened at night that he was not aware of, but feels he is guilty for, and dutifully cleans up the evidence simply out of impulse. Lon Junior really is a great actor here and I have nothing but admiration for him in this groundbreaking role worthy of his father’s appreciation, had he been alive.

Gwen works at an antique shop where Larry flirts with her and purchases a walking stick with a silver wolf head on it. This is a key moment that I must fuss a bit here because I feel we need better explanations by more substantial characters other than pretty “oh hum, gee whiz” Gwen to explain its importance so that we later understand the whole “why” Larry is able to kill a “wolf” with it and John kill him after that.

At times, I feel that director George Waggner and screenwriter Curt Siodmak are much more interested in the production aspects rather than the story details themselves and, perhaps, more attention could have fleshed such plot-points better. Also the stock 70 minute running time may speed the action a little too much here. It is suggested that father and son have not seen each other in a while, but they bond beautifully as a good father and son should (i.e. who would not like having Claude Rains as daddy?), but there is a lot of interesting family backstory overlooked here.

Since we are profiling Claude this month, I should note that his supporting performance is good, as always, despite not having as much to do on screen as Lon. I guess his big moment of dramatic entertainment comes at the end when he repeats the same act his son did, killing a monster without realizing he is a human… and his own son to boot. Earlier in the film, he is way too subdued for the kind of Claude performances I tend to favor. Plus he and Lon look nothing alike and are hard to pass off as related, making me wonder if another actor would have been better cast in that role. Yet it does add another feather to Claude’s Universal horror cap and gets us motivated for next week’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA…

Essential: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935)

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TopBilled:

As most people know the original source material for this film comes from Charles Dickens’ last work which was incomplete at the time of his death. There is much speculation regarding how the author would have finished the story, which was one of his darkest and most nihilistic works of fiction. Universal played up the novel’s non-ending when advertising the film which arrives at its own Hollywood-type conclusion.

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Claude Rains was not the first choice to play John Jasper, the opium addicted choir master who becomes obsessed with the title character’s girlfriend. The studio initially wanted Boris Karloff who was not available. Interestingly Karloff was also the first choice when the studio was casting THE INVISIBLE MAN two years earlier. But a falling out between Karloff and director James Whale prevented that. So on two separate occasions Rains stepped in for Karloff. Karloff would return the favor when Rains was unable to appear in Universal’s proposed sequel for PHANTOM OF THE OPERA which was considerably revised and became known as THE CLIMAX (1944).

Back to Edwin Drood. David Manners portrays the title character. Though some articles online claim this was Manners’ last film, that is not true; since he would appear in five more pictures– two of them at RKO. Manners then left acting behind and focused on traveling and writing.

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Manners does not appear in the final portion of the film since the character of Drood vanishes, which gives us our mystery. Where has he gone, what has happened to him, was he murdered?, etc. These are the questions left dangling by Dickens’ unfinished manuscript.

In addition to Rains and Manners, there are other distinguished members in the cast. Drood’s girl is played by Heather Angel, and Douglass Montgomery is cast as a rival for her affections.

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British actress Valerie Hobson is also on hand as another young lass. The handsome performers are assisted by ornate sets that provide a melodramatic, Gothic-styled quality. The studio allocated a sizable budget for this production, and it shows.

When John Jasper suggests that his nephew Drood has been murdered by Neville Landless (Montgomery’s character), Landless also disappears— but then returns in a disguised form to investigate what really happened.

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John Jasper is the culprit in this version, but of course, Dickens may have intended for him to be “innocent” after all, if Drood was meant to turn up alive and well at the end. We’ll never know. But we do know that in this format, making Jasper the villain, and having Rains play the part, is very satisfying.

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Jlewis:

I first must note the delightful dream montage shots that open this Victorian era costume piece, a big budget adaptation of the famous unfinished Charles Dickens novel of 1870 that was directed by Stuart Walker. Too bad there are no audio-visual interviews with the special effects team involved in this little set-piece, since it would be interesting to know just what, exactly, was on their minds at the time that they worked on this.

Note the way the church steeple breaks up the scenery like some male anatomical part standing, ahem, upright against the sky. It is symbolic of our key Victorian Era male protagonist trying his best to keep his libido under control. Images of a girl, soon revealed as Rosa, about to marry a boy are broken up by, again, a church steeple!

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Not that this is THAT kind of film, so to speak. It soon morphs into your usual elegant English speak with costumes and period settings, typical of Dickens. Plenty of church-y music throughout. Gotta love the 19th century and all of its prudishness!

Claude Rains plays John Jasper, an opium addict who goes to church for his choir singing right after his nightmarish experiences (shown just after the opening credits) and coughs up a storm.

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Despite his addictions, John appears…at first…to be the calmer of two men obsessed with a particular Rosa Bud (no relation to Citizen Kane’s sled, played by Heather Angel).  The other is hot headed Neville Landless (Douglass Montgomerey). When the title character (David Manners), who is the one officially engaged to their shared object of desire, disappears mysteriously, we have two suspects involved.

Dickens did not reveal the ending to this who-done-it because he passed away and the book was nonetheless published incomplete to a baffled readership. Universal executives were eager to present their own made-up ending and boasted a rather ambitious publicity campaign promoting it.

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This was among Universal’s more expensive productions of the period, rivaling other studio efforts such as MGM’s DAVID COPPERFIELD. Intriguingly, this was released only a month after the other in February 1935 and can certainly hold its own against it in production gloss, even though there is no W.C. Fields involved here.

Roughly 48 minutes in, we get an uncharacteristic London storm raging Christmas-time, this being the night Edwin disappeared. Humorously, the special effects team goes a bit wonky and overboard here. The whole thing almost becomes THE HURRICANE with dramatically flooded streets and a street light toppling. In downtown London!? Oh my, oh my…speaking of storms, did you ever notice how sunshiny the recreated back-lot Londons in Hollywood always look at other times, contrasting to the real locale with its constantly cloudy overcast?

Claude does his best to ham up his role of John, making the moves on Rosa while Edwin’s case is still being investigated. In reaction, Rosa then makes a move on Neville, telling him that her engagement to Edwin was actually broken and she is confident he is innocent of foul play. Ahhh…the love triangles of drama!

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Meanwhile, John is ruthless in trying to solve the case of his missing nephew while also pursuing his other un-drug related obsession: piano playing. I kinda wish the writers milked that little detail a bit more, sort of like Bette Davis’ lace-work in THE LETTER which equally kept her calm at all times.

Wonderful supporting cast here. As a chip-chip-cheerio Major Sapsea, we have E.E. Clive. More important in his screen time is Francis L. Sullivan as Rev. Crisparkle, making another of his trademark pompous performances.  (He also appeared as Jaggers in Universal’s just previously released GREAT EXPECTATIONS, a role repeated again for David Lean’s version over a decade later.)

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Both Brit actors were occasionally imitated in vintage animated cartoons without any direct name referencing. Valerie Hobson is Helna, the equally quick-talking sister of Neville, and Walter Kingsford is another familiar of that decade’s film output, playing Mr. Grewgious.

Witty dialogue highlight hag-dressed Princess “Puffer” in John’s opium sequences, Zeffie Tilbury being quite the veteran actress at this time. “Pleasant dreams, dearie?” She tries to pin the disappearance on John in revenge after some of his provoked behavior.

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A clever twist involves Neville disguising himself as a white whiskered old man investigating Edwin’s tomb in his own way. Also the surprise of a missing corpse! Yet you can pretty much guess who the culprit is before long, since Claude’s character is the more menacing of the two suspects and the one pretty Rosa is NOT interested in. Plus we need the usual romantic happy ending that is the stuff of Hollywood, so that we can get over the dramatic suicide scene.

Overall a fun film.

Essential: THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

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TopBilled:

THE INVISIBLE MAN is probably among the top three Claude Rains films. The other two being CASABLANCA and NOTORIOUS. It was Rains’ Hollywood debut, however it was not his first motion picture which has often been erroneously reported. He had been in a silent British film in 1920, eighth-billed. During the thirteen year gap, he concentrated primarily on stage work in Britain before emigrating to the U.S.

He is superb in Universal’s THE INVISIBLE MAN. It is a role where he must rely almost entirely on his voice and the ability to bring a character to life without using his body. Fortunately Rains has the type of voice that lends itself to the imagination and it’s rather easy to envision Dr. Jack Griffin even if he is invisible.

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The screenplay by R.C. Sherriff is of course based upon H.G. Wells’ novel, first published in 1897. Interestingly, it took over 35 years for anyone to “picturize” Wells’ classic but luckily these duties were eventually taken on by director James Whale. Whale had previously directed a film based on one of Sherriff’s most successful plays, JOURNEY’S END. And after the resounding success of THE INVISIBLE MAN, they’d collaborate on two more motion pictures– ONE MORE RIVER in 1934; and THE ROAD BACK in 1937; both at Universal where Whale was basically a ‘house’ director.

Speaking of houses, Whale had previously helmed the memorable horror-comedy THE OLD DARK HOUSE in 1932 which featured Gloria Stuart. She is also in THE INVISIBLE MAN as the love interest. Critic Pauline Kael uses words like bosomy and fleshy to describe Stuart, which is somewhat ironic since our lead character is not visible and is fleshless.

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In order to convey Griffin’s fleshless qualities but still give him some semblance of a human form, we have him wrapped in clothing and bandages. His unique physicality, along with Rains’ voice, convinces us he’s real even if the overall situation is unreal. Griffin’s goal, per Wells, is to be able to go anywhere undetected and to sell his secret formula to a government leader who might use invisible armies to conquer the world. It’s a notable concept, and Wells identifies the secret formula as monocane. I should point out that there is a drug called monocaine which is an anesthetic.

The fictitious drug in Wells’ story not only causes invisibility but also aggression and madness. Rains is at his most masterful in “showing” us what a megalomaniac Griffin becomes as he unravels (pun intended).

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Universal produced a sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, in 1940. That time Vincent Price took over the lead role. Directorial chores were handed to someone else, since Whale’s career was winding down. But John P. Fulton, who devised most of the witty effects of the original, returned to provide more special effects. And although the sequel lacked the freshness of the original, there was still enough interest among moviegoers that Universal made several more Invisible films (six altogether). Also, Universal remade the original in 2020.

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Jlewis:

Jennifer Jessica Rains, the successful actress daughter of Claude Rains, recalled in a backstory documentary about the time her dad took her to a revival showing of this 1933 masterpiece in Downingtown, Pennsylvania circa 1948 and spent much of the running time explaining to her how each of the wonderful visual effects were done.

He also told her how claustrophobic he was when they made that skeletal cast of his face for the final scene, being a WW1 veteran with haunting gas related experiences (and ultimately losing much of the vision in one eye).

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Of course, it did not take long before other attendees at the showing to notice that a voice among them in the dark matched the ominous one they heard on screen! Earlier, the theater owner recognized him instantly and begged him not to pay for his ticket.

It takes a great voice to make such an, ahem, invisible performance stand out. Small surprise that Vincent Price, equally famous for his voice, also appeared in at least two of the many follow-up sequels (of sorts) in later years: THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, which took seven years to come out…and as a cameo in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN…but, oddly, not ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN in which Alfred Franz took over. Unlike Price, however, this first film marked the actual U.S. film debut of the great Claude Rains, who suffered a disastrous screen test but his voice was considered just too unique to ignore.

There is much more that THE INVISIBLE MAN has to offer. We get other still familiar visible faces.

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Playing the love interest of Jack Griffin (Claude’s title character, but she was not in the original H.G. Wells novel) is Gloria Stuart, more famous as the aging Rose a.k.a. Kate Winslet in TITANIC a full 64 years later. And as her father we have Henry Travers, the guardian angel Clarence to Jimmy Stewart in all-too-often-shown-on-TV IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE just 13 years later. Plus we get the delightfully delirious Una O’Connor who also appeared in another James Whale directed Universal classic, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, along with too many other classics to keep track of.

It also boasts one the most famous boo-boos in special effects history. Plot-wise, our star character must be totally naked in order to maintain his invisibility but the police follow his boot prints, rather than bare foot prints, in the snow. The effect was achieved in stop-motion animation with wooden feet stamping artificial snow; this being a film shot between June and August in sunny California.

Aside from that, the visual wizardry is always genuinely stunning, even in that curious but memorable scene.

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Any moving objects Bewitched-style required tremendous planning and clever use of hidden wires and strings, while the half dressed Jack required the unclothed parts to be photographed in black velvet against a black screen. Then, using multiple projectors, the whole “matting” process involved combining separately filmed strips as one image on a rephotographed reel.

This technical novelty was not new, being fine-tuned in the 1920s with such classics as the Douglas Fairbanks version of ROBIN HOOD (with a castle appearing much bigger than it really was thanks to lifted models and paintings) and the original big budget version of BEN-HUR (with mechanical “people” for the spectators of a chariot race) but really hit its stride by 1933 with both this film and the earlier KING KONG, the former combining a stop-motion animated character with live performers.

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Back to the cast, I should also comment on William Harrigan as Dr. Arthur Kemp (competing for Jack’s girl while he is out and about) who refuses to go along with Jack’s ambition to rule the world as an invisible mad man and, therefore, must pay with his own life.

It is a thankless role and one he pulls off rather convincingly and sympathetically. After all, he wasn’t doomed in the Wells original. James Whale and screenwriter R.C. Sheriff couldn’t resist bumping him off in order to counter the previous romantic rival of a “mad” scientist, Doctor Frankenstein, in Whale’s 1931 blockbuster. Before his doom, the villain even lectures his victim on how it will happen…

“Just sit where you are! (a.k.a. tied up in the car) I’ll get out and take the hand-brake out and give you a little shove to help you on. You will run gently down and through the railings. Then you’ll have a big thrill for a hundred yards or so until you hit a big boulder. Then you will do a somersault and probably break your arms. Then a grand finish up with a broken neck. Goodbye, Kemp. I always said you were a dirty little coward. You are a dirty, sneaking rat as well! Good-bye.”

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Griffin is a character who frolics in nothing but trousers, frightening a village lady, by singing “here we go gathering nuts in May” (being a nut case himself), so we are supposed to take a lot of the horrific dialogue with a daffy sense of humor. Hammy? Perhaps. Fun and exciting. Of course!

This is not a film about subtlety and, as Ian McKellen (who played James Whale in GODS AND MONSTERS) commented frequently, the director was a master at creating what the (mostly gay) audience in the 1970s would later label as “camp.” You can be over the top, but you must take yourself seriously. MOMMIE DEAREST is obviously not in the same league as THE INVISIBLE MAN but Faye Dunaway morphs into her role with as much concentration and passion as Rains here.

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Running 70 minutes, this is on par with the bulk of the major theatrical features of the early thirties, not too long to outstay its welcome and not wasting any minute on screen with added fodder.

Essential: THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934)

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I guess if I were to schedule this title at a film festival I would run it alongside ALL MY SONS (1948), the post WWII melodrama based on a work by Arthur Miller. In that one, Edward G. Robinson stars as an American businessman who profits from selling munitions during the war. His actions lead to the deaths of young men from his community who had gone off to serve. Robinson’s character becomes estranged from his son (Burt Lancaster) and by the end of the movie has been sufficiently confronted, made to feel sufficiently guilty and has sufficiently unraveled.

We have another man unraveling in THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD. This time it is a Frenchman named Paul Verin, portrayed by Claude Rains.

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He starts as a peace-loving writer who inevitably becomes involved in the battles of WWI. Paul is by his very nature a pacifist, and I suspect in his most innocent phase, represented the idealism and anti-war sentiment espoused by scenarist Jean Bart. Bart’s play in three acts and sixteen scenes ran on Broadway during the autumn months of 1932 with Rains in the lead role. Rains was so invested in the story that he persuaded the executives at Universal to purchase the property for him and adapt it to the screen.

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As the tale unfolds we learn that Paul Verin had written essays about the importance of remaining neutral. However, he has been duped by a publisher, Henry Dumont (Lionel Atwill), who is in actuality a warmonger unbeknownst to Paul. This seems conveniently ironic but here we get the crux of the drama, and Paul’s own inner conflicts escalate when he learns he’s been “betrayed” by Dumont. It drives him mad.

A subplot involves Paul’s wife Adele— played by Jean Arthur on Broadway and by a blonde Joan Bennett in the film. Adele is an ornamental social climber who pushes Paul to achieve financial success so she can escape poverty.

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She has a relationship with Dumont which on some level is over emphasized, so we can side with Paul even more and sympathize when he’s in the throes of madness. There is considerable hammering home that Paul’s been betrayed by Dumont. Plenty of reason for him to exact revenge in a most spectacular fashion.

There is some debate about whether this is a true horror film, though it does have dark tones and atmospheric touches that border on the horrific. The carnage of war carries over into Paul’s personal life and builds to a shocking final scene that is hinted at in the beginning.

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Only Rains can project such pathos on to the audience in such a commanding yet disturbing way. As we shall see this month, looking at the five different horror-tinged films that Rains made at Universal, he is a performer who mixes raw terror with virtuoso emotionalism.

***

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Jlewis:

A straight-forward drama with pacifist themes, this was made a few years after the success Universal had with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and reflected the mood of the times. “What’s a war for, papa?” asks a four year old to daddy. “It is not for you, my sweet.” In 1934, Americans were doing their best to avoid all of the rising troubles in Europe, Depression-wise and rise-of-fascism-wise.

Perhaps because it dwelt with serious political issues and was rather downbeat (with violin heavy orchestration to make it especially doom and gloom), it was not one of Claude Rains’ more successful efforts during his early career. The original play he also appeared in was equally unsuccessful but still bought by the studio with a certain optimism for success. Yet most average moviegoers favored their movie entertainment to be uplifting escapist entertainment.

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It teams Rains with Joan Bennett and Lionel Atwill, the latter a talented actor who is more infamous today for his wild sex life as referenced in Kenneth Anger’s two Hollywood Babylon books (but was it really, compared to today’s generation?). Claude plays Paul Verin, married to Joan’s ambitious we-deserve-a-better-life Adele (i.e. she influencing him to get jobs he is not emotionally committed to just so that she can keep up with the swells) and both parents to a cute-pie girl (Juanita Quigley, also appearing as Claudette Colbert’s daughter in the popular IMITATION OF LIFE at this time).

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Atwill is a successful French politician Henri Dumont who hires Paul to write anti-war articles in the early 1910s and, curiously, Paul is OK not receiving credit for them. He is also tolerant of his wife spending extra time with his boss to the opera and other places instead of being dedicated to her wifely and motherly duties. After all, Paul is more concerned about her happiness than his.

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Then greedy arms dealers get both the politician and his ghost writer to swing the opposite way against their inner consciousness.

The title is not to be taken literally. This is not THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT. Well…maybe there’s a little touch of it if we read between the lines in the final scene. Paul loses his “head,” regaining it later, by agreeing to be manipulated by others just like his politician boss. The story is a surprisingly modern…and most cynical…one if we look at the current situation in Washington D.C. these days with so many in Congress dedicated more to their donors than serving the people who voted for them. Back in the 1930s, films like this and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON were very critical of this kind of “bought by others” legislation, but these days you rarely see such films being made for, well, rather obvious reasons.

This is a story told within a story, a popular genre that peaked in the thirties and forties but only regained popularity during the FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION era. Paul tells it all to his childhood friend, now a lawyer, Fernand de Marnay (Henry O’Neill) in a bombed out Paris setting of 1915. He is now a criminal on the run and must give himself in for an act of madness.

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Overall, this whole production is a tad too lightweight for my tastes, but I love the film’s noir-ish and occasionally gothic lighting by Merritt B. Gerstad. Makes it all look more like a horror movie than the standard weepie drama it is. Love the brief scene of the little girl walking down a dark stairway even though it serves little purpose to the plot.

Not sure what exactly director Edward Ludwig and screenwriters Jean Bart and Samuel Ornitz were trying to achieve here, except to make this some kind of showcase for Claude’s dramatic talents…and it is. Claude is at his best making little speeches of great emotional conviction, like the one confronting his boss on the eve of war in 1914. It is a scene featuring “La Marseillaise” in the background, but played in a rather different context than in the much more famous Claude Rains film of 12 years later, CASABLANCA: the French people being depicted here are much more willing to go to war than merely get pushed into it.

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Oh…and Claude always makes the perfect doting daddy to little Juanita’s Lynette.

I won’t reveal what happens in the dramatic climax, which gives Claude’s Paul the chance to go…mad. There is one gruesome element that is suggested by the “satchel” Paul carries with him to his lawyer, which the film-makers leave up the viewers’ imaginations.

Essential: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

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I saw this film in one of the libraries at the University of Southern California. I was attending film school in the mid-90s, and an Israeli girl I knew was finalizing a deal with an independent production company to finance a new movie. She was a big fan of NOBODY’S FOOL (1994) which was Jessica Tandy’s last screen role. 

If I was going to write a screenplay that my Israeli friend could produce, I would probably need to write an elderly character like the kind Tandy often played at that time. These characters struck a chord with people.

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As part of my research, I watched DRIVING MISS DAISY. My first “exposure” to the film was back in early 1990, when my grandparents went to see it at a suburban movie theater outside Chicago.

I have to tell you a bit about my grandparents. My grandmother grew up in a well-to-do family during the Depression but married ‘down.’ She always had an air about her, and this wasn’t just reserved for her in-laws, but for others in her peer group that she felt were beneath her.

After my grandparents saw DRIVING MISS DAISY, they came home to tell me and my aunt about it. However, my grandmother’s comments were more about the other people in the audience. She marveled at how many of them were in walkers and wheelchairs, I guess because she thought they were largely confined to nursing homes, unlike her! 

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The film, which went on to earn the Oscar for Best Picture, appealed to a 60+ demographic. It earned well over $100 million, in 1990 dollars. No small accomplishment. Was DRIVING MISS DAISY an old folks movie? For a certain generation that identified with the story, it probably was. At any rate, I hope my grandmother enjoyed the movie although I cannot be certain, since for her it was more a chance to gawk at other moviegoers. 

As I was reading up on the film this week, I looked at Roger Ebert’s review which is a bit of a time capsule itself. Ebert references my other favorite critic Pauline Kael, describing how much Kael loved Morgan Freeman.

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Freeman made three very different films in 1989. In addition to playing Hoke the dependable chauffeur of Miss Daisy, he also played a high school principal in LEAN ON ME; and he was a grave digger turned soldier in GLORY. A versatile performer to be sure.

Ebert tells us that Tandy gives the performance of a lifetime, which I don’t quite agree with (yes, she earned an Oscar)…but I think her best performance is in A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE which we already covered earlier this month. She does a wonderful job nonetheless.

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One thing Ebert said which I agree with 150%– details about Daisy, Hoke and Daisy’s son (Dan Aykroyd) are conveyed through gestures and subtle actions, not usually through any specific dialogue. It’s a drama you have to keep focused on, or else you miss some of the meaning that is conveyed without words.

Besides the wins for Best Picture and Best Actress, the film earned plaudits for makeup and for Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his off-Broadway play. Some trivia here…Dana Ivey was the original Daisy in the first stage production. The role had also been played by Julie Harris on tour, and by Wendy Hiller in London.

In 2010 the play was revived, and that time Vanessa Redgrave was Daisy. As for Hoke, Morgan Freeman originated the role in the first stage production; Brock Peters played the character on tour; and James Earl Jones was Hoke in the revival with Redgrave. There was even an Australian mounting of the play, which starred Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. 

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Going back to my grandparents…my grandmother never learned to drive. My grandfather shuttled her around their Chicago neighborhood, from boutiques to beauty salons to restaurants and back home. Oh yes, and occasionally to the movie theater.

***

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Jlewis:

This Best Picture winner, directed by Bruce Beresford (who failed to get nominated himself) and produced by the legendary ex-Fox executive and successful Steven Spielberg backer Richard D. Zanuck for Warner Brothers, does not get much love and respect these days. Then again, few Best Picture winners do after the awards are dished out since nobody can agree on what deserves an award. In the spring of 1990, this was up against FIELD OF DREAMS and MY LEFT FOOT, along with the (strictly my opinion) lesser DEAD POETS SOCIETY and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.

Not making the top category cut were such memorable titles as GLORY (which some feel has the better Morgan Freeman performance, but gave Denzel Washington his first win), HENRY V (the memorable Kenneth Branagh version we’ve covered), THE LITTLE MERMAID (what millennial has not seen it on VHS or that all new format of DVD as a kid?), DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee’s anti-DRIVING MISS DAISY), WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (only nominated for original screenplay and nothing else) and even the constant TV broadcast favorite STEEL MAGNOLIAS (which nonetheless earned a nomination for Julia Roberts at the start of her box-office rise to fame).

Most films reflect their age, improving like fine wine or smelling like spoiled milk and more often being a combination of both. Fortunately this one has never received the kind of backlash that AMERICAN BEAUTY, the big Oscar winner a decade later, received after the Kevin Spacey controversies during the #MeToo movement, but it does provide some comparison to more widely loved winners such as GONE WITH THE WIND, suffering a bit in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and MIDNIGHT COWBOY which, despite being made by a then-closeted director who later tackled SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY, does reflect the pre-Pride era in its casual use of three and six letter F-words spoken by the lead (and supposedly heterosexual) characters.

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In regards to DRIVING MISS DAISY, it depicts a very accurate, honest and straightforward portrait of a typical inter-racial (non-sexual, of course) relationship between Jessica Tandy’s Daisy Werthen and Morgan Freeman’s uneducated, rural farm raised Hoke Colburn.

The setting is a Georgia undergoing dramatic changes between the years of 1948 and 1973. Dan Aykroyd’s Boolie decides that his mother needs a chauffeur after she drives the Hudson into the neighbor’s yard and she objects to this while constantly declaring ”I am not prejudiced.” However, the last scene at a nursing home where a 97 year old Daisy talks to Hoke one last time, we see her display a far closer bond with him than with her own son. (Curiously her late husband is never discussed despite a visit to his grave.)

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Now…some viewers in 1989 may have disliked it for being too antiquated and congenial. Viewers of 2021 are often harsher. Morgan’s Hoke puts up with a lot without complaining here, despite how Daisy initially treats him. In one scene, he just grumbles about how ”things are not changing fast enough” (paraphrasing here) outside of Daisy’s ear-range as he caters to her attending a Martin Luther King dinner speech that she did not invite him to.

Most modern viewers would expect him to say that to her face so that she will be forced to respond. Instead she continues to operate as if she did nothing wrong. Yet I must ask these key questions to all viewers: Is it better to just present people in the past acting the way they did and not necessarily the way we wanted them to? Or should they always ”own up to it” on screen so that all viewers are encouraged not to behave the same?

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Remember that we ourselves can not change our own actions in the past or the actions of those long deceased. I feel that this movie presents the past as it was rather than the way we wished it to be, but fully understands why this is often accused of being ”rose colored” for not criticizing the social norms of the past as much as it should.

Likewise, we can equally criticize how Boolie hardly ages on screen and looks to be in good health, despite his jokes at his ”Man of the Year” acceptance speech. Yet he is constantly smoking cigarettes as so many workaholic mill owner businessmen did back then and died an early age as a result. Even Betty Draper in Mad Men, if not her ex-husband, suffers the consequences with lung cancer.

It should be noted, despite her own wealth and nice living conditions, Daisy is occasionally a victim of her times, namely the antisemitism of a post-war America that should have known better post-Holocaust.

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A bigoted Alabama cop in a 1956 scene critiques Daisy for being Jewish just as he also comments on the one driving her. A decade later, her synagogue gets bombed and Hoke has to explain to her that it is always ”the same people” regardless and begins to tell her his own childhood experiences that were far worse than hers, as she still remains baffled over ”who would do such a thing?”

Daisy is a very polarizing character much like Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. You either relate to her or hate her for being so stubbornly strong willed. I personally had relatives, long deceased now, that resemble her quite a bit and I don’t necessarily view them all that harshly in hindsight. People are people dealing with the times they are living in, for better and for worse.

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I love how her house remains fairly constant in its furniture and antiques through the decades depicted, as if it is her little bubble she can retreat to when not coping well with the outside world. After an emotional breakdown when she confuses the past with the present (thinking she is still a school teacher in the 1890s-early 1900s), but soon acknowledges that Hoke is her best friend, you just know that call that he made to Boolie will not end with a positive outcome.

To be fair, Boolie tries his best to be a good son. He does care about his mother, despite never having enough time to deal with her, and tries his best to express affection for her in the way he is often kissing her on the forehead. Unfortunately, he is seldom as honest with her as Hoke often is. She is forced to go to the nursing home and lose control over her life, which results in obvious bitterness towards Boolie right to the end when she tells him to go flirt with the nurses.

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Boolie’s wife Florine (Patti LuPone) is especially fake in her over eager enthusiasm when talking to Daisy. Yes, I have known many people who behave like her, overly praising me in a way that I don’t quite buy as genuine. Daisy’s constant grumbling about her is pretty accurate, since we get that classic scene of Florine yelling at the hired help on Christmas, a non-Jewish holiday she accepts in order to fit in with Georgia high society, over the silly lack of coconut in the kitchen. This is more reflective of the real Florine that Daisy can see quite well enough with her radar vision.

I should note Esther Rolle’s supporting performance as Idella the cook and housekeeper, who dies suddenly of a heart attack while watching daytime soaps on TV. However she isn’t as interesting to me as Hoke since we only get a hint at her life outside of her job here, mostly in the large turnout at her funeral resembling Annie’s in IMITATION OF LIFE. It is a minor performance that doesn’t amount to much, but she does it well enough, portraying a stubborn woman who mirrors Daisy in her acceptance of the way things are without fighting the system.

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I noted a few anachronisms in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and saw a few little ones here too, but must still praise this production for its very keen attention to detail and getting so much of it correct history-wise. For example, a clever set of eyes can detect a few eighties model cars…out of focus, of course…in a few car-window shots here and there. This was made before computer generated imagery was done on a more routine basis to fix errors camera crews made.

My main criticism after viewing it multiple times since its release to theaters is that the story often just meanders in a series of sometimes unrelated episodes, without the strong enough threads connecting it all. Would I have liked more backstory on her late husband or discussions of Boolie’s childhood to understand the family dynamics better? Probably.

This is all about a person who was born in the Old South of 1876 and how she reacts to the changing times during the final decades of her life. Personally I feel Jessica pulls it off rather well in her Oscar winning performance. After all, it is her name and not anybody else that is featured in the main title.

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Essential: THE BIRDS (1963)

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TopBilled:

A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are overanalyzed. This one especially. I don’t want to go the obvious route and discuss Tippi Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, in feminist terms. There are plenty of scholars who have already done that. They endlessly describe Melanie’s hysteria in the movie. These same scholars also describe Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) as a man surrounded by high strung women.

Quite frankly, this type of analysis can be tedious. It could be done with any film that has a memorable heroine. Any film in which the hero is defined by the women in his life– girlfriends, wives and mothers.

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Jessica Tandy plays the matriarch in THE BIRDS, and in some ways she pulls our attention away from Hedren. Not sure if that’s because the script gives her a slight advantage, or because Tandy was ten times the actress that Hedren is. At any rate, Tandy’s commanding presence makes us sit up and take notice.

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Evan Hunter’s screenplay does a good job fleshing out the character of Lydia Brenner, so we glimpse what type of maternal hold she has over Mitch. It is a mother-son dynamic that is carried over from previous Hitchcock features.

In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Marion Lorne’s society matron indulges bad seed Bruno (Robert Walker)– all the doting, fussing and hand wringing in the world is not going to save him. A decade later in PSYCHO, the mother is physically absent (unless you count her mummified corpse), but Mrs. Bates still haunts the proceedings. She is unable to bring Norman (Anthony Perkins) back from the dark side. In fact, it could be argued that she is pushing him towards the dark side.

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In THE BIRDS Lydia is a judgmental fixture in the life of her son and by extension, she is a part of his love life, approving or disapproving each choice he makes. Tandy plays her straightforward– not as a comic archetype the way Lorne does in the earlier Hitchcock movie– so we take this woman seriously. She hovers over what happens in their seaside community as if she’s the queen bird.

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Some critics make a big deal out of the birds representing nature and how the mood of the birds is supposed to reflect the moods of the main human characters. But let me ask you something. If you and I went into a jungle and a lion attacked everything in site, would that necessarily represent my mood or your mood? I doubt it. If anything, what the animal is doing would create a specific mood in us, as we would be reacting and trying to flee such a dangerous situation. And that’s what happens in this movie.

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I also find it interesting that people had to ask Hitchcock in interviews after the film was released, what the birds symbolized. They couldn’t figure it out for themselves? Why not let the birds symbolize whatever you want them to symbolize. Or let the birds just be one big MacGuffin, an essentially meaningless plot device that propels the story forward and gives it a strange sense of cohesion.

I won’t go into the sound effects, which are generally convincing. But I would like to mention the editing. In film school, we examined scenes where Hitchcock creates a sense of identification with the characters by giving us a variety of subjective camera angles. He also uses wide angles to connect the people to their environment.

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I find these shots to be excessive and gimmicky. However, what I do find interesting is the fact that Hitchcock devised a mathematical formula when making THE BIRDS. He wanted to figure out how many seconds each shot should last during the story’s most dramatic montages, in order to build suspense.

Without some of Hitchcock’s cinematic experiments, his films might quite boring. But as it is, THE BIRDS is a real scream.

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***

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Jlewis:

Today we remember this as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s blockbusters and a key precursor to the fanatical Nature’s Fury cycle of the 1970s (a.k.a. WILLARD, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, JAWS, FOOD OF THE GODS, ORCA, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, etc.). Yet it also enjoyed a fruitful life during the decade leading up to the cameras rolling on the Universal-International lot.

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Daphne du Maurier, who previously provided Hitch with JAMAICA INN and REBECCA as original source material, published this as a short story within The Apple Tree: A short novel and some stories for Victor Gollancz Ltd in the UK.

This was 1952 and it only took a year for America to receive the first of two popular radio adaptations: the hour-long Lux Radio Theater aired on CBS on July 20, 1953 (listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMHwlqrnsgI ) with Herbert Marshall and Betty Lou Gerson as stars.

I personally favor the shorter half hour episode of Escape that succeeded it on July 10, 1954, even if Ben Wright and Paul Frees may be less fun to listen to than Herbert Marshall. It cuts to the chase, features the great state-of-the-art sound effects that the anthology series was famous for and is less preachy. (You can sample it too here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK99w-4ctAc )

The great Tiffany network also covered it a third time, but for television as part of Danger on May 31, 1955. Sadly, this is one of those lost episodes that we cannot revisit, being a live broadcast with, in my guess, more primitive special effects work than the movie. Maybe it will some day be rediscovered on some old kinescope?

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Daphne du Maurier supposedly disliked the movie, probably due to all of the changes that screenwriter Evan Hunter made with it. It is also quite Americanized, but I personally feel that the setting chosen, Bodego Bay in California, is still a good enough facsimile to Cornwall in ol’ England. In addition, a few supporting players sport British-like accents, with at least one actually from there: Ethel Griffies playing the daffy ornithologist “Mrs.” Bundy. The primary male lead, Rod Taylor, was an Australian who had always been successful moderating his accent.

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There is no denying that it is a visual feast, making great use of Ub Iwerks’ then revolutionary sodium vapor process (employed in Disney’s DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE). This allowed images of humans and the almighty feathered together in the same frame despite being shot with separate cameras at different times. Today we can see the outlines and color changes between carefully matted images much more distinctly than most ’60s audiences at the time because we are now accustomed to computer generated imagery.

Then again, not all of the effects were created in the camera or in post-production. There were some birds who performed alongside the star actress herself and, despite her own future as an animal rights activist, they were hardly friendly towards her. It was as if somebody else was directing their behavior on some subconscious level.

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Hitch was the master director, but he wasn’t always the nicest man to work with and could be quite devious. Star Tippi Hedren bonded about as well with him as hot oil with water, unlike a number of other blonde bombshells gracing the Hitch filmography. She claimed in later years that he made unwanted advances on her and, after her rejections, he tried to ruin her career. (Tippi’s daughter Melanie Griffith also had a tale to tell as well regarding a meeting with Hitch as a child.)

Now…we won’t go into all of the gossip here, but it is interesting to note just how eager he was to cast Grace Kelly in his next feature MARNIE over Tippi but, as expected, the Princess of Monaco couldn’t oblige on account of her royal duties.

As soon as filming started in March of 1962, the press was all over the production like the crows invading the children monkey bars outside the one room school-house as Tippi smokes her cigarettes. Although no mention was made of any possible conflicts between director and star, there was still some gentle teasing regarding the two.

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As if mysteriously paid by one of her agents, Tippi was dubbed the new “Grace Kelly” (imagine that!) on the December 4, 1962 cover of Look. An ominous raven tries to conceal her face with its all-black wings in some attempt to bring her smug look down some notches. Later, a smiling Hitch appeared with very docile (for him, that is!) pet crows on the Life magazine cover of February 1, 1963; his arms are stretched with a fittingly “What me worry?” look of innocence that resembled that other famous Alfred, Alfred E. Neuman, but still reminding us all of just-who-is-in-charge.

Thinking of all of this, however, makes it a fun viewing. Remember how we all were teased back in PSYCHO about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his love of stuffed birds. “I think only birds look well stuffed because they are rather passive to begin with.” Or so we think until this next film proved otherwise.

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THE BIRDS may be regarded as a highly influential horror piece, impacting the zombie genre as well as animals-on-revenge pieces of later years, but it is also a bit dated and even occasionally dull. Not only are the special effects a bit old-hat, but also the overall sense of realism. Characters behave in typical Hollywood fashion and, despite her bloody head wounds, Tippi’s makeup foundation and hair-do is flawless throughout.

Aside from the unprovoked attacks coming from gulls, sparrows and crows (with gulls and crows all together in our climactic end-of-the-human-world apocalypse scene but not much happening with the two lovebirds in the cage), we get the standard 1950s (in a ’60s film) boy meets girl fluff.

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Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner is a lawyer who works weekdays in San Francisco but lives in coastal Bodego Bay with his much, much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and an over protective and widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy, who curiously sounds almost as British here as Ethel Griffies).

A past love interest of Mitch’s, Suzanne Pleshette’s Annie Hayworth, lives in that town as a school teacher just to be near him. Since we know right away Tippi’s Melanie Daniels is the woman who is Mitch’s primary interest now and not Annie, it is obvious which lady gets her eyes pecked out in a gruesome ambush. Fortunately we don’t see that aftermath in graphic detail like we do the lonely farmer’s, a disaster that traumatizes Lydia.

Melanie as a character is introduced as the wealthy daughter of a newspaper tycoon whose rival at another newspaper often pinned negative tall tales about her in its “yellow” print.

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Thus, Mitch claims he knows “all about her” when he first meets Melanie at a San Francisco pet shop and misjudges her at first. Yet the usual romance unfolds, under the great drama of birds-on-the-attack.

One of the townspeople question if “she” is responsible for all of the avian atrocities since they first happen with her in a rowboat. The message here is that one must not judge strangers too harshly, even in a small town where everybody seems to know where everybody else lives. Eventually Lydia accepts Melanie despite being a bit distant at first, since all of them share a wartime experience (with birds if not other humans) that brings them together.

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Being that we have focused on Tandy lately, I should say she does an adequate job with such a limited role. Her husband Hume Cronyn was a friend and occasional performer for Hitch, but curiously she didn’t appear in other Hitch theatrical films, although she did make three appearances on his TV show.

Essential: THE DESERT FOX: THE STORY OF ROMMEL (1951)

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TopBilled:

I am not too well-versed on Rommel’s career or the German military strategies that were waged against the British and its allies during the second world war. But I don’t think a casual viewer watching this film needs to know all these things. The film is fairly easy to follow. Producer-writer Nunnally Johnson provides us with a nicely paced script, which is based on a biography about the famous field marshal of the third reich. The book was a bestseller and had been written by Lt. Col. Desmond Young.

Young was a member of the British Indian Army who crossed paths with Rommel, and he appears as himself in this carefully mounted 20th Century Fox production. Key passages of the story are narrated by Fox contract player Michael Rennie, who is supposed to be speaking in Young’s “voice” since these are Young’s own studies and thoughts about Rommel. Young had interviewed Rommel’s widow Frau Lucie, played by Jessica Tandy, our focus this month.

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For her part, Tandy does an effective job conveying a housewife who stands by her man all the way, even if he is standing by Hitler and they have their doubts about Hitler. Lucie and Erwin Rommel are depicted as high-ranking members of the Nazi party who ironically oppose Nazism. This characterization by Young, which is developed through dialogue by Johnson, has led to a myth of Rommel which is a subject of considerable discussion.

After all, this could be a postwar propaganda piece. A piece about a “good” German who was a close friend of Hitler’s in the early days and still led troops that defeated the Allied forces on several important battle fronts.

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But maybe it is easier to glorify the Rommels here, because we want to believe that there had to be at least one German officer and his wife who were not exactly Hitlerian puppets. One couple that was able to think critically and decide on their own terms not to support the barbarism of Der Fuhrer. Therefore, a major component of this film and its portrayals is that the Rommels are committing treason. However, it’s a form of treason that British and American movie audiences in 1951 would applaud.

Part of the film’s purpose is to generate sympathy for the Rommels. And the way James Mason and Jessica Tandy choose to play their scenes does help elicit sympathy, especially when they are interacting with a doctor (Cedric Hardwicke) who wants them to endorse a plan to kill Hitler (Luther Adler).

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Going along with such a plan would undoubtedly put the Rommels at odds with their closest associates within the Nazi party. There is even a suggestion in an early scene that the Rommels’ son might be under the thumb of the Nazis, which would make him an enemy of his parents.

This is a different sort of role for Tandy, certainly not like the venomous creature she played in A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE which we discussed last week. Also, she is the only credited female in the entire cast…though there is one uncredited woman with limited dialogue who plays the Rommels’ maid. Tandy gets a chance to stand out a bit because she is providing the only real vantage point for women that may be in the audience watching.

Shot in a semi-documentary style, we get newly staged scenes intercut with the realia of newsreel footage…all of it emphasizing the seriousness of war. At first I found this a bit gimmicky and tedious, but as the story continued I decided that I liked the flavor of actual history that the news clips provide.

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Do I think the Rommels are heroes? Well, I don’t exactly think they are like the Von Trapps in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But from a dramatic standpoint, I enjoy the irony their situation brings to the screen. Incidentally, the studio made a sequel two years later, THE DESERT RATS (1953), which is really more of a prequel. And in that later film Mason returns as Rommel, in active battle along the northern part of Africa. He speaks more German in the second film, and he is a bit more villainous. I guess we could say that’s because he hadn’t yet become a treasonous hero.

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***

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Jlewis:

“The truth is that a soldier has but one function in life, one lone excuse for his existence, and that is to carry out the order of his superiors. The rest, including government, is politics.”

So was Rommel’s motto, even as he meets his fate with the hereafter, as a possible accomplice of Hitler’s failed assassination.

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It had been ages since I saw this one and I greatly enjoyed revisiting it, even though it is no masterpiece of wartime drama. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was, of course, the primary asset of the German army in The War a.k.a. “the most celebrated German soldier since word war one.”

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James Mason gives him quite the debonair persona with no German spoken, but sophisticated Queen’s English here. Even if he was technically The Enemy, the fact that he was critical of Hitler and may-or-may-not have been involved in an attempt on his leader’s life are enough to make him a complicated villain-hero of sorts that even Winston Churchill praises in the final moment before “The End.”

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This is a very Hollywoodized biopic that still makes sure you know which country is backing it (cue all of the flamboyant patriotic music whenever American and British soldiers are on screen and over an extensive five minutes of D-Day invasion newsreel clips) but tries to present the German people and their commander in a rather sympathetic light.

This is significant since Germany was now split between the capitalistic west and the Soviet east at the time and all war movies needed a little objectivity to maintain the peace. Hitler himself, as portrayed with great hysteria by Luther Adler, was more the problem than the people under him (i.e. not that we today should hold this belief literally but it was the belief that Hollywood needed to promote at that time). Many like Rommel disliked being “clowns” in Hitler’s “circus.”

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Michael Rennie offers great narration as Lt. Col. Desmond Young of the opposing Allies side, trying to present this more temperate perspective of Germany’s greatest soldier and commander.

One wonderful aspect to many of these post-war tributes filmed in black and white is that newsreel footage, all supplied by Fox Movietone of course, can be seamlessly edited in for additional realism. Only eagle eyes can detect where the Arizona and California desert locations change over to the mighty Sahara of the North Africa campaign.

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Since the success of THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET back in 1945, 20th Century Fox had made a trademark with a distinctive you-are-there look to their cinematography, regardless whether or not actual locations for the events depicted were used. It contrasted pleasingly with the more studio-bound look of the contemporary productions of MGM, Warners and Paramount that generally just inserted a couple location clips among shots done within a set of four walls. Two years later, Fox’s stock look would change again with the arrival of CinemaScope and a return to a more studio-like, less outdoorsy look.

Occasionally, however, the studio and supervising director Henry Hathaway take the easy way out. The D-Day sequence is one primary example since little is done to recreate anything there with new sets and/or actors; instead we just get the usual extended stock footage.

Curiously the recreation of the July 1944 bombing that almost kills Hitler was shot in the early spring with limited foliage on the trees and apparently the production crew was not terribly concerned about those details. An earlier key scene shows Rommel inspecting an Atlantic shoreline fortress in November 1943 and it is obvious Mason the actor is standing in front of a huge back-screen. Good thing Technicolor wasn’t used here to make it all the more obvious.

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A most British Cedric Hardwicke is top-billed as Dr. Karl Strölin, who was still alive at the time this film was made (and would still be around for a dozen more years) since he was considered one of the “lesser” Nazis in terms of his crimes. During Rommel’s occasional “ill health” retreats at a hospital, Strölin tries to coax him into the assassination plot.

Also prominent in the cast is Everett Sloane, who is brilliantly straight-faced as Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf delivering Rommel a choice of suicide or public execution after accusations have been made against him.

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Others featured here include Leo G. Carrol (a familiar face in many Hitchcock films) as Gerd von Rundstedt, with George Macready, Richard Boone and Eduard Franz among the other higher-ups in command.

Jessica Tandy plays Rommel’s wife. To be honest, I don’t feel she is all that different in her performance here than in, say, THE BIRDS apart from the key shock scenes in that one. Don’t get me wrong. She is very professional in her role, if a bit poker-ish. My favorite moments of her are in the end when she realizes that she will never see her husband again and must pretend she doesn’t know for the sake of her own safety and that of their grown-up son.

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Essential: A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE (1948)

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TopBilled:

The title for this classic Universal film could just as easily have been SCORNED or A WOMAN SCORNED. I am sure those titles have been used for other thrillers with a melodramatic slant. In this case Jessica Tandy, our focus for the next four weeks, plays a woman who feels cast aside and neglected by the handsome male protagonist (Charles Boyer). And as we know, hell hath no fury like this type of woman.

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The story might have worked better if Tandy was playing a mentally unstable wife or hostile ex-wife. Or if there had been a huge backstory where she was his first love, things didn’t work out, and he moved on but she never got over it. Instead, Boyer has a perfectly refined wife played by Rachel Kempson who becomes ill and dies. After a sufficient period of mourning, Boyer realizes he has gradually fallen in love with a much younger woman (Ann Blyth).

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While their May-December romance is unconventional to say the least and it sets tongues wagging in the couple’s upper crust community, he seems happy with her. This drives Tandy’s character to emotional extremes since she secretly hoped he would have chosen her after his first wife’s death. She is harboring her own unrequited feelings. But since there is no real backstory, we don’t really learn how these intense feelings on her part, even came about in the first place.

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In spite of the various inadequacies of the plot, Tandy has more than enough skill to etch out a strong characterization. She gives us a portrait of a despondent woman who only wants to be loved. It is the curse of her character, Janet Spence, to be in the same socio-economic circle as Henry Maurier (Boyer). She wouldn’t have been able to avoid him if she tried, since they share a lot of the same friends and acquaintances. We’re not really supposed to root for Janet, but Tandy does such a good job drawing us in, that we cannot help but feel total sympathy for her, even when her more heinous deeds come to light.

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Ann Blyth, lovely as she may be, is the weakest link in the cast. She does not have the acting chops or experience that Boyer or Tandy bring to the proceedings. And when you put her alongside other supporting players like Mildred Natwicke, Cedrick Hardwicke and John Williams, plus Kempson, she pales even more by comparison. Still, I think Blyth projects the requisite amount of naivety.

I should add that Rachel Kempson, who plays the ill-fated wife, was married to Michael Redgrave; she being the mother of their famous offspring Vanessa, Corin and Lynn.

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The Kempson-Redgraves had left England and came to America after the war to try their luck in Hollywood. Redgrave was working on SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR at this time with Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett, also at Universal. Redgrave had met an American named Bob Michell with whom he had a long-term affair. So not only was Kempson playing a character that was replaced by her husband on screen, this was happening in real life as well…though Kempson would remain married to Redgrave until he died in 1985.

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Getting back to Jessica Tandy, she gives an electrifying performance here. And it is no surprise that she would go on to great things on Broadway, as Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s original stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn had already been contract players at MGM in the mid-40s. In fact, both appeared in Metro’s THE GREEN YEARS (1946) where Cronyn played Tandy’s father!

In the 50s, 60s and 70s Tandy would turn up occasionally in films or on television shows. She experienced a career resurgence in the mid-80s through early-90s. And eventually received an Oscar for DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989) which we will review at the end of the month. But I think she gives her very best performance as jilted, demented Janet whose ability to exact vengeance makes Cruella de Vil look like an amateur.

***

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Jlewis:

Sir Cedric Hardwick, one of the most prolific character actors of Hollywood’s golden age, ties this with another Jessica Tandy vehicle we will be profiling, THE DESERT FOX. He plays Dr. James Libbard who reports to Henry Maurier (Charles Boyer) that his hypochondriac wife Emily (Rachel Kempsen) has died. Poor Boyer. He is often the eternal womanizer and love-interest of millions and, here, he is caught in a love triangle with two other ladies: Ann Blyth’s Doris Mead and Jessica’s Janet Spencer.

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He remarries the latter because she is younger and supposedly prettier, although Janet is pretty too here in my opinion. Janet starts out as a sympathetic sounding board in a “forgive me. Henry…oh poor Emily” sort of way, but another side of her emerges later. When Henry is arrested for potential foul play regarding his first wife’s death, everybody pretends to be supportive of him.

Aldous Huxley is the author of our story here and we also get the great Zoltán Korda, a brother of Brit movie mogul Alexander, as director. Pretty prestigious billing behind the cameras here. Not that the latter’s batting average in the post-war years matched the period that begot THE FOUR FEATHERS and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. With that said, this is one of his better later offerings, if maybe less critically acclaimed at the time than CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY.

This is your standard ladies noir-ish mystery melodrama, light on plot but heavy on the drama, but it is a fun piece of entertainment vintage of the times and gives us a chance to see a younger Jessica Tandy in her prime. The Universal-International production was filmed between July and September of 1947.

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On December 3rd, her career mushroomed when she took on the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Ironically, her Tony Award win and long experience with the British stage did not get her the Blanche role in the UK version of the play later. The supervisor-in-charge, Laurence Olivier (who also, ironically, worked with Jessica earlier in at least one Shakespearean production of Henry V), cast his wife Vivien Leigh. When Warner Brothers decided to make the movie adaptation in 1950, Vivien was chosen over Jessica since she was the movie actress with the bigger box-office appeal at the time, ultimately winning the Oscar.

It is a shame that we don’t have a good film record of Jessica as Blanche, but we get a good tease of it here as she plays a tormented woman deluding herself a lot.

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A couple other tidbits about Jessica, whom we remember these days from her most famous roles in the decade preceding her passing in 1994, DRIVING MISS DAISY and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES included. She was born in London and her accent occasionally trickles into her all-American characters. She became a U.S. citizen a decade after she married Canadian Hume Cronyn.

Their marriage lasted 52 years until her death, with Cronyn living another nine years as practically foreshadowed in their co-starring TO DANCE WITH THE WHITE DOG. Although her first movie was made back in 1932 (THE INDISCRETIONS OF EVE, British), much of her career was still spent on the stage. Hollywood started giving her supporting roles in various films starting in 1944.

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Mildred Natwick plays nurse Caroline in a wonderful supporting role, deviously suggesting that Henry might have bumped off his wife with poison and Janet at first refuses to think such a thing. Or so we think. Actually I was suspecting initially that the real woman’s vengeance was Caroline’s rather than Janet’s since she is the one who is overly gleeful about Henry’s fate.

Ann Blyth isn’t bad as the new wife who knows she isn’t the only object of Henry’s affections and is at first against having their baby, attempting suicide.

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The actress is still around today, now in her nineties. She and Boyer both reprised their roles for the airwaves on Lux Radio Theatre in an episode covering the movie on March 22, 1948. Sadly this episode may be lost, even though many others from the long running series do survive.

Nice use of four leaf clovers. In 1947-48, the song “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” was enjoying a come-back on Your Hit Parade two decades after its published introduction with Russ Morgan, Alvino Rey, the Three Suns, the Uptown String Band and even Arthur Godfrey having hit versions. It also starting popping up in Warner Brothers cartoons about this time, with Bugs Bunny singing it on more than one occasion. Yes, the clover does bring Henry good luck in the end.

Essential: THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995)

Jlewis:

Introduction

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One of the films excerpted in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s THE CELLULOID CLOSET is THE HUNGER, featuring Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in cahoots in a key bedroom scene. I recall watching that on VHS with my mother in the mid-1980s. Her response: “I don’t care what they do as long as we don’t have to see it.”

At the time (as a teenager), I thought she was being very civil and kind-hearted since previous comments by her on such matters were not quite so nice. Later I often heard the exact same line from co-workers and others I associated with daily but, in these later times, my opinion was that this line was getting…well…pretty old and not so civil.

My mother intensely disliked THE CRYING GAME, also excerpted, which I took her to see in a theater in early 1993 when it was a key Oscar nominee, but I admired her for sticking it out and keeping her comments at a whisper level.

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This contrasted from a rather loud woman sitting behind me during BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN thirteen years later whom I felt should have just left if she didn’t want to see it.

Needless to say, neither of my parents were all that sympathetic to the whole el-jee-bee-tee movement but they were not completely obstinate either. After my mother died, one of her own sisters (by then in her sixties) married a woman and my father was quite open to it, attending a cruise with them after he remarried himself (to a woman, of course).

Point made: we should never sell people short, even if they are family members whom we think we know all too well. They are a microcosm of a nation at large and the United States, as a whole, underwent a lot of change during the last century and is still undergoing change.

Part 1

Something like THE CELLULOID CLOSET may hopefully become a museum piece in the future as newer viewers chancing upon it will ponder what all of the fuss was about. When it was released in February 1996, it is important to remember that same sex marriage was still over 19 years away into the future and even certain physical acts that are now taken for granted (mostly between men, not so much lesbians) were still illegal and subject to potential jail sentences in several states.

Even the terminology changed over time, both then and now. For example, the movie title was shortened from the book it was based on: Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies which was published initially in 1981 by Harper & Row when that H-word was regularly used.

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By the ’90s, the H-word was being weeded out of the vocabulary because an increasing number fighting for equal rights were against being defined on “sexual” terms. After all, the rest of the population is generally not labeled hetero-sexual unless there is a specific discussion made about what they do with others behind closed doors.

Then again, those enforcing society norms in the past were generally less concerned about closed doors than what was happening outside of them. As Russo originally noted in a full chapter of his book, much focus was put on the “siss-y”– a man who behaves too much like a woman. Since most characters tended to behave as very non-sexual on screen, they posed little threat in that regard, yet were still carefully monitored by the Production Code and allowed on screen as comedy relief for moviegoers who needed characters to feel superior towards and better about themselves.

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This was especially true during the dark days of the Depression in the early 1930s when many heterosexual men felt most vulnerable in their own masculinity since they could no longer hold down a job and be financial providers for their own family.

However Hollywood itself tended to be a gay friendly business town and a haven to a great many closeted actors and personnel who operated behind the cameras. Just that a huge chunk of the paying public was less friendly and, at best, didn’t care as long as they didn’t have to see “it.” A great deal of subject matter involving heterosexuals was also carefully monitored as well, but at least they got plenty of kissing scenes and romantic fade-outs of happily ever after.

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Only on the rare occasions would you see a same gender kiss and there had to be a specific reason for it. Examples include the two buddies surviving a war together but one dying (before anything detrimental happens between them) in WINGS, Gary Cooper’s Tom Brown taking full charge of Marlene Dietrich’s Amy Jolly in MOROCCO and, despite John Gilbert’s Antonio dying, Greta Garbo’s QUEEN CHRISTINA remembering her queenly duties.

One rather depressing note was made in the book that got repeated in the screen version but in altered words. In 28 films that Russo analyzed that were released between 1962 and 1978, during and after the period in which the Production Code lost control, 22 of them featured a major gay character who either dies from suicide or dramatic violence. While the death rate among gays back then might have been higher than straights simply due to society pressure, this screen emphasis was certainly not good for the burgeoning gay rights movement.

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Lily Tomlin, a friend of Russo’s who narrates the film that he never saw on account of his own passing five years prior, maintains an even keel throughout. We start out with a humorous montage that suggests what we are about to see may resemble WHEN COMEDY WAS KING with some hilarious highlights– like Cary Grant flapping about “going gay” in his feminine robe in BRINGING UP BABY, but the bulk of the running time involves lots of stereotyping and harsh censorship.

In regards to all of the effeminate male characters dating back to ALGIE THE MINER (1912), Harvey Fierstein admits “I liked The Siss-y. Is it used in negative ways? Yeah, but, my view has always been visibility at any cost. I’d rather have negative than nothing.” The lesbian characters were often a sinister villainess, vampire and prison inmate but Susie Bright still enjoys how “Mrs.” Danvers fondles the lingerie in REBECCA (1940).

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Some films that utilized stereotypes were actually pretty positive and forward advancing, including the Astaire-Rogers musicals such as THE GAY DIVORCEE and TOP HAT; the Production Code making sure there were no sexual references made but occasional one-liner jokes could slip through, hinting to audiences about the characters’ orientations.

Surprisingly there is no Cowardly Lion from THE WIZARD OF OZ featured here, even though Bert Lahr’s memorable song was profiled in depth in the book. Doris Day’s vehicles get a bit of mileage in this regard, whether she is dealing with Rock Hudson as a gay man playing a straight man posing as gay in PILLOW TALK or singing about secret love in CALAMITY JANE.

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Part Two

One positive if predictable stereotype that rose in popularity after THE CELLULOID CLOSET was released was the gay best friend that dominated rom-coms in the mid 1990s through mid 2010s. You see so many examples from MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING to CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Usually these were male and were important in their roles of helping the female star find her proper heterosexual soul mate, while not posing any threats since, after all, he was her boy friend in two separate words and not boyfriend as one word.

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A quick rundown of other highlights, a great many clips borrowed wholesale in too many YouTube history videos to count:

– Peter Lorre’s creepy Cairo nibbling on his joy-stick in THE MALTESE FALCON

– the memorable westerns RED RIVER (just the one questionable male scene) and JOHNNY GUITAR (a great female example)

– the boyfriend killers in ROPE

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– Lauren Bacall’s ominous and very peculiar ambiguity in YOUNG MAN IN THE HORN, also with Doris Day

– the predatory lesbian guards in CAGED and their male counterparts in the much later MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

– Sal and Jimmy’s bro-bonding in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE… and we all know who must die in the end since he is not the one dating Natalie Wood

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– Tony Curtis commenting on both SOME LIKE IT HOT and SPARTACUS

– Gore Videl cheekily commenting on how he and director William Wyler pulled the wool over Charlton Heston’s eyes in BEN-HUR

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– Shirley MacLane on THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, one of the most depressing lesbian dramas ever made, but eventually topped by others later the sixties such as THE FOX

– Susan Sarandon on THE HUNGER and its continuation of the female vampire type

– the way many popular books often got toned down quite a bit in the ’80s and ’90s in their screen adaptations despite all of advancements made previously, such as THE COLOR PURPLE (with Whoopi Goldberg commenting) and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES.

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Going back and forth in time, there are backtracks to the ’70s after the ’80s with clips that include SUNDAY, BLOODY, SUNDAY, John Schlesinger’s progressive follow-up to MIDNIGHT COWBOY (curiously not shown) with its just-accept-as-normal romantic triangle. However we only see the famous male kiss shown and not much commentary on that one (much to my surprise) even though it is as equally important to its era as CABARET.

By the early eighties, with the culmination of so much gay rights progress, an increasing number of straight actors took on positive gay roles such as Harry Hamlin, here commenting on MAKING LOVE which received high profile promotion by 20th Century Fox until a change of studio hands prompted an unfortunate curtailing of promotion and distribution.

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Another important trend that took over in the later 1980s and ’90s was the AIDS drama, most notably represented by PHILADELPHIA with Tom Hanks (again, commenting accordingly). These allowed further representation in mainstream movies while also continuing the decades-old cookie cutter formula of little to no sex or affection shown on screen and the inevitable death end result. On the plus side, it did continue the sympathetic, need-to-be-accepted theme that can be traced back to VICTIM, the landmark British 1961 breakthrough.

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One genre that is overlooked here is the porn film, which exploded in popularity during the seventies and tended to be very gay positive with its anything goes and to-each-their-own mentality. I was rather disappointed that we don’t get any scenes from Wakefield Poole’s BOYS IN THE SAND to follow the much discussed BOYS IN THE BAND or Radley Metzger’s excellent bisexual satire SCORE. Some of the art house European imports that were not always as graphic in that regard, but still pushed the envelope further than their American contemporaries, would have been nice additions as well.

During the final portion, there is a light at the end of the tunnel full of hope and enthusiasm for the future. The early 1990s sees the full rainbow emerge with a simply fabulous selection that includes MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, THE CRYING GAME, THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and BOYS ON THE SIDE.

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In this respect, this compilation piece is a nice follow-up to the previous three. PARIS 1900 and WHEN COMEDY WAS KING were engaging flashbacks to the fun times of yesteryear even though both end on a sad note: either soldiers leaving on trains for the war front or clowns getting a fade out, never to return.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! is all about the joy of singing and dancing, with a satisfying ending featuring Gene Kelly picking up his love-rose in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and Frank Sinatra giving us a send-off. Yet it too relates to an era that has passed, with the most recent movie featured in that compilation being 15 years by 1974.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET gives us dark clouds throughout much of its running time as we look backward, but then moves forward to demonstrate just how much progress has been made and still will be made in the future.

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Essential: THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974)

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***

Jlewis:

“Boy do we need it now!”

So read the slogan on the original posters put out in the spring of 1974. No, it was not exactly the best of times for America as a whole, with Watergate bringing down a presidency, the humiliation of the Vietnam War that had yet to be resolved and a Middle East crisis prompting a gas shortage. Nostalgia was reining supreme about this time with hits like The Waltons and Happy Days on TV. Anything set in simpler times decades ago was an ideal way to escape the present.

Even the studio that made this ensemble piece down memory lane had seen better days itself. There were only three other feature length theatricals aside from this one (and roughly the same number of TV productions) planned for that year’s release schedule. MGM’s head mogul Kirk Kerkorian was much more focused on his hotel in Las Vegas. As one reviewer in Variety declared: “While many ponder the future of MGM, none can deny that it has one hell of a past.”

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Frank Sinatra, the first of our hosts, is pretty direct about that past which both he and fellow host Jimmy Stewart subtly suggest on screen was not always the best of times. “Musicals were fantasy trips for the audiences of their day. For instance, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings a song and gets girl. The plots were that simple.”

… and this compilation piece basically prevents us from having to sit through these predictable plots and, instead, focus on what is most important: the elaborate musical numbers. “Some studios can claim they made the finest gangster films or the greatest horror movies, but when it came to musicals…MGM, they were the champions.”

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Of the trio of THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! vehicles, I have always enjoyed them equally but will admit that THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, PART II (1976) is slightly weaker than the others despite reuniting Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire together on screen (appearing separately in the first film but praising the other) and featuring an impressive assortment of non-musical clips that even includes James Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks.

The third one, released 18 years after the second, is arguably the best simply because the 1990s saw considerable fine-tuning of this kind of montage documentary to a state of perfection. More importantly, it includes the many fascinating outtake numbers not utilized in the final films (this being some years before DVDs began regularly including them as “extras”).

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The first one, however, gets credit for having the most stellar cast. Aside from the chairman of the board and Stewart, we also get as hosts Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly (paying a salute to Astaire), Donald O’Conner, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire (paying a salute to Kelly), Liza Minnelli and even Bing Crosby, despite the fact that he only made two films for the studio prior to this one that were made a full 23 years apart!

It also showcases the final cinematic shots of many back-lot sets used in the movies, much of it destined to be bulldozed to the ground to make way for housing developments. Sony now operates what is left of the old Culver City lot, much reduced in size.

With Jack Haley Jr. supervising, we get a pretty good sampling of the great Arthur Freed unit and the more economical offerings from Joe Pasternak and others, with the 1929 Oscar winning BROADWAY MELODY leading us off.

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Among the highlights: Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in ROSE MARIE, the over indulgent Oscar winning THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, Eleanor Powell in ROSALIE, the Andy Hardy vehicles, THE WIZARD OF OZ, Esther Williams and her “aquamusicals,” MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES with Gene and Fred together, ANCHORS AWEIGH (with Jerry Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly), THE HARVEY GIRLS, THE PIRATE, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME, ON THE TOWN, Mario Lanza belting it out in TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and the many widescreen CinemaScope productions reformatted for 70mm here, HIGH SOCIETY with Bing and Frankie together, GIGI and others.

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As Jimmy Stewart admits, not all of the musicals were that good, but the highlights were always engaging, such as Clark Gable singing and tap dancing in IDIOT’S DELIGHT and Judy Garland dedicating “You Made Me Love You” to Mister Gable in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938. Plus Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant and others trying their musical best. There is also some attempt to show racial diversity on screen even though old time Hollywood may not have presented it in quite the same proportions we have come to expect today, with Lena Horne in THOUSANDS CHEER, William Warfield in SHOW BOAT and the Nicholas Brothers dancing with Gene Kelly in THE PIRATE.

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A trivial note involves a little boo-boo in Liza’s tribute to mommy Judy Garland. As part of the Gumm Sisters, mom did not make her debut in the 3-strip 1935 Technicolor short film LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA even if that marked her MGM debut, but in a 1929 indy 2-reeler THE BIG REVUE. This was followed by a trio in early 2-strip Technicolor that were put out during the next year by Warner Brothers-Vitaphone; one surviving title, BUBBLES, is only available in black and white.

There is the problem of time restraints, which the two sequels helped rectify with additional footage. For example, we do not see the title tune presented in this first feature even though we hear it nonstop as theme background material (with the great Henry Mancini involved). We do get two other clips from THE BAND WAGON which made the song famous.

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Leonard Maltin rightfully complained about how the impressive ballet of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was edited down quite a bit in the finale, but the third feature recovered a couple scenes missed there too. The main point of this film is, of course, to encourage you to seek out all of the originals, complete in their musical numbers and, as Frankie admitted, their predictable boy-meets-girl plots.

I, for one, was influenced by this film even though I did see a couple of the features excerpted here before, not just THE WIZARD OF OZ. I probably first saw it on PBS late night in the early 1980s or so. By the time I saw the third compilation film a year or two after its theatrical release in VHS, I had seen many more of these musical features. Like the Robert Youngson silent comedy spectaculars, THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! does get you hooked and reeled-in with its icing on the cake presentation of the best of the best.

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