Essential: TAKE ME TO TOWN (1953)

At this point in his Hollywood career, Douglas Sirk had moved from artistic-minded independent productions to routine genre assignments at Universal. Sirk would remain with the studio through the end of the decade, scoring some of his biggest hits.  Universal provided Sirk with better budgets as well as the chance to collaborate with more “A” list stars.

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TAKE ME TO TOWN is a western comedy that Sirk made as part of a trilogy for Universal. The other two films were MEET ME AT THE FAIR, starring Dan Dailey; and HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL?, with Rock Hudson. These pictures were filmed in vivid Technicolor, and they were nostalgic diversions about America at the turn of the century. TAKE ME TOWN differs from the previous two, since it does not have an urban setting. It’s interesting to see a German-born filmmaker do so well with movies celebrating the American way of life,. Of course, Sirk would take some of these ideals and subvert them in his later melodramas.

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TAKE ME TOWN stars Ann Sheridan and Sterling Hayden. There are some lovable kids and an assortment of character actors in supporting roles who are all quite memorable. Sheridan performs a lively musical number in the beginning that is aided considerably by cinematographer Russell Metty’s use of Technicolor. In fact the whole picture bursts with energy, even in some of the more pedestrian scenes where not much seems to be occurring.

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The storyline works on two levels. First, there’s an adult angle with Sheridan as a “naughty” saloon gal. She’s running from the law in much the same way Betty Grable was on the lam in THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND. Only Sheridan’s character was in the wrong place at the wrong time when her previous place of employment had been raided. She escapes from a marshal and legs it to a sleepy logging town. When she gets to Timberline she makes friends with the owner of an “opera house” (code for brothel) and quickly gains employment. She does a nightly floor show to warm up the customers, and let’s just say no opera music is ever heard.

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While performing “opera,” she changes her name to Vermillion O’Toole (so named because of her bright red hair). Despite these seedier elements, the storyline works on a wholesome level, too. A family angle occurs when Vermillion develops a soft spot for the three young sons of a widowed preacher (Hayden).

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The boys leave home one day when pa goes off logging. They’ve heard that a snooty society woman intends to become their new ma, and this simply won’t do. So they head into town to find someone more suitable to join the family.  You guessed it. They quickly spot Vermillion when they sneak into the “opera house.” They try to convince her that she should become their new ma, since she’s just so darn pretty and pa would certainly like her!

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At first Vermillion is unwilling to leave with the boys, despite bonding instantly with them. But when the marshal (Larry Gates) arrives, hot on her trail, she decides maybe going off to the country and playing mother might not be such a bad alternative. Of course when preacher Will Hall learns there’s a strange woman at his house with the boys, he says she will have to leave first thing in the morning. This isn’t proper.

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In the meantime, Will enjoys her cooking and realizes that his kids have really taken a shine to Vermillion. And the following day, when Vermillion saves the youngest one from being mauled by a bear, Will takes a shine to Vermillion, too. She’s obviously not going anywhere. Her days of singing “opera” are over, and she is going to become a proper ma to Corney, Petey and Bucket.

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The story will have a happy ending. Vermillion will become domesticated, and at some point, the audience knows she will be cleared of any wrongdoing. But what makes the story work so well is the chemistry Sheridan has with Hayden, and the rapport they develop with the boys. Also, there are a few engaging subplots.

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In one situation the marshal undergoes a transformation, deciding that life is not necessarily black and white, and there are gray areas. Plus we have the townsfolk, particularly a ladies aid group led by the snooty society woman, who dial down their prejudices and allow Vermillion a chance to prove herself. She does this during a special outdoor festival, where they stage a show with melodrama and musical interludes, to raise funds for the construction of a new church.

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Ann Sheridan seems to excel at playing maternal roles, something she didn’t have a chance to do during her years at Warner Brothers. In some ways, this film reminds me of Republic’s drama COME NEXT SPRING, where she again played a rural mother who put her kids first. Sterling Hayden also seems to excel at this material. It’s nice to see him do lighter scenes and prove he could ably take on a paternal role. He seems very relaxed and smiles a lot on camera, which goes against the persona he developed for himself in his other films. They all seem to be having a good time making this movie. Perhaps that can be attributed to Sirk’s smooth direction and Sirk’s ability to put actors at ease and elicit more natural performances.

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It should also be pointed out that TAKE ME TO TOWN was the first motion picture Ross Hunter produced on his own. He’d been associate producing, directing dialogue and acting prior to this. It was Ann Sheridan who encouraged him to take on increased responsibility behind the scenes. They’d previously done two other films together. Of course, Sirk and Hunter would go on to make less nostalgic films at Universal. But you can see how TAKE ME TOWN was the beginning of all that.

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TAKE ME TO TOWN may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: LURED (1947)

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By the time Douglas Sirk directed this picture, he’d already established himself as someone who could turn out hits in Hollywood. HITLER’S MADMAN had been a critical and commercial success; and though it did not lead to a contract at MGM, Sirk’s services were still in demand. Sirk would continue to make independent pictures in the mid-1940s for producers who released their efforts through United Artists. Several of these films starred George Sanders on loan from Fox. LURED was the third time the actor and director collaborated, and they would team up once more a decade later.

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LURED marked the first (and only) time Sirk or Sanders ever worked with Lucille Ball. Though she seems an unlikely casting, Ball fits the story quite well. The actress had just been released from her MGM contract and was now working as a freelancer. Here she plays a dancer that helps a Scotland Yard inspector (Charles Coburn) lure a Jack the Ripper-type killer out into the open. She’s the bait, so to speak.

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Ball’s character, Sandra Carpenter, moonlights as a lady detective. Part of the job means answering ads in a personal column that are written to flush out the killer. She soon attracts the attention of a suave gentleman named Robert Fleming (Sanders). He’s a London-based theatrical producer and may be the guy they’re after.

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LURED is a remake of a French film called PIEGES which was directed by Robert Siodmak in 1939. Maurice Chevalier had the lead role in the earlier version, and Marie Dea played the bait. Dea’s character had the same last name, but her first name was Adrienne, changed to Sandra in the remake. Sandra is said to be an American girl who came to London to do a musical show that folded. She stayed and found a job as a taxi dancer. One of her friends is the latest murder victim. So that’s what causes Sandra to help the police.

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Sirk moves the setting to London in order to recreate some of the gothic atmosphere associated with the Ripper case. Moving it to London also allows the director to cast some well-known British character actors in supporting roles. People like Boris Karloff, George Zucco, Cedric Hardwick and Alan Mowbray. Three of them play crooks. Although Sanders’ character calls himself a cad, he’s not a crook or a villain. In fact he’s quite vulnerable and romantic in his scenes. A love story develops between Robert and Sandra, and this pairing assures the audience there will be the requisite happy ending.

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While the tone remains somewhat comedic, thanks to Ball’s snappy line deliveries and Sanders’ sarcastic quips, the storyline is somewhat grim. Sirk and his cinematographer, William H. Daniels, make it a point to enshroud the characters in shadows when the suspense is supposed to build. At nearly every turn viewers are reminded that this is a mystery with a killer on the loose. But his true identity is kept a secret until the very end.

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Any one of the crooks that Sandra deals with could be a murderer, because they all have strange almost psychotic tendencies. Karoff is a mad artist, Hardwicke has a possessive attachment to others, and Mowbray’s involved in a smuggling operation where several pretty females have gone missing. While we surmise fairly early that Robert can’t be the killer, it’s interesting to see Sandra fall in love with him, yet not be entirely sure of his innocence.

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I think part of what makes this film work is the way it’s told mostly from the woman’s point of view. Coburn’s inspector and Zucco’s copper are there to assist Ball, but she’s the one who takes the risks and becomes embroiled in dangerous situations. The various subplots reveal insights about Sandra, and ultimately about Robert. After all she is luring a killer AND Robert into her trap.

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A recurring theme in Sirk’s films, which becomes more prevalent in his later output at Universal, is entrapment. There’s a feeling that Sandra is trapping Robert, even when she seems to reject him; and even when she is still focused on nabbing the man who murdered her best friend. The glamorous costumes she wears, and the elaborately designed sets where Sandra and Robert meet, give us a glimpse of bourgeoisie life. But the delicate elegance of this world is forever in danger of being snuffed out by a madman.

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LURED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: HITLER’S MADMAN (1943)

The background for this motion picture is quite interesting, maybe more interesting than the film itself. It’s an excellent piece of anti-Nazi propaganda. It’s a “B” film, turned out by personnel from poverty row studio PRC. Some of the people were top-tier filmmakers in Germany such as cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, and of course, director Douglas Sirk. So despite the low budget, it’s made by very competent craftsmen.

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MGM boss Louis Mayer liked it so much that he bought it from the original financiers, when they were looking for a distributor. This delayed its release into theaters, since Mayer wanted a some scenes reshot and a few more added. And also, this meant a film made on a shoestring suddenly had its budget expanded, and the end result is something I’d call a B+ (or A-) picture. Sirk, Schufftan, and one of the original producers (Seymour Nebenzal) were Germans in exile, and they depict the Nazis in a more realistic way than other films covering the same ground. The people of Lidice, Czechoslovakia are presented realistically too– the entire village of Lidice was wiped out by the Nazis.

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When the Nazis gained power in Eastern Europe and took over neighboring countries, they would station “protectors” over newly acquired regions. These high-ranking officials reported to Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Underneath them, there were other officials and town mayors. In this case, the mayor of Lidice is a man who has turned on his people and sworn allegiance to The Fuhrer. Mayor Bauer (Ludwig Stossel) is presented as a fat buffoon who doesn’t really have his people in line. And this will cause problems a short time later.

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The protectors would usually drive through the various regions under their control and if something seemed off to them, the mayor and local police would be notified. One day the protector of this region, Reinhard Heydrich (John Carradine), notices a religious assembly in Lidice. His vehicle stops, he hops out with his men, and they confront the local priest and townsfolk. Heydrich in angry, because the people do not have a permit to gather in public like this. During a quarrel with the priest, whom Heydrich is trying to provoke, the priest is shot and killed. This is the first real violence in the area. Heydrich plans to drive back through the village the next morning to see if the mayor has gotten the people back in line.

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Before Heydrich appears, life is rather idyllic. The people of Lidice may be under German control, but their way of life has not changed drastically. A resistance fighter named Karel (Alan Curtis) shows up; he’s a Czech who’s been working with American and British allies in England. He is reunited with his girlfriend Jarmilla (Patricia Morison), and he tries to convince her father Jan (Ralph Morgan) to resist the Nazis. It isn’t until Heydrich kills the priest that Jan and the townsfolk realize they need to take a stand against the Nazi regime. The mayor’s wife also sides with them, because her two sons were killed on the Russian front fighting for the Fuhrer, which upsets her terribly.

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In real life Reinhard Heydrich was ambushed along a road outside Lidice. Sirk’s film depicts that, though I think he’s taken dramatic license with some of it. This version has Karel’s girlfriend Jarmilla ride a bike into the middle of the road to slow down Heydrich’s jeep, so that Karel and Jan can get off a few good shots with their rifles.

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The real life ambush did not involve any women, and Heydrich’s death occurred much quicker. The movie drags it out for maximum dramatic effect– before Heydrich dies, we see Karel run off with Jarmilla; then Jarmilla is shot and killed by Nazi soldiers in the woods. After their love story concludes, we have a lengthy death scene for Heydrich.

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Just before Heydrich finally goes to that big swastika in the sky, Himmler arrives to see him. The movie fails to include an interesting fact about Heydrich’s death, such as how he refused to let local Czech doctors treat his injuries, since he felt they were inferior to German doctors. After Heydrich dies, the last ten minutes are devoted to a bloody reprisal against the village of Lidice. During a comical phone call with Hitler, Himmler decides to avenge Heydrich’s murder by destroying the entire village.

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The atrocities committed against the people of Lidice are staggering. Although HITLER’S MADMAN was produced during the production code era, the firing squad scenes are rather graphic. Probably because the film had been originally made at PRC. If the story had started at MGM with an American director, my guess is it would have been much tamer, more sanitized. The scenes of mass death, and the fires that level the village are expertly staged, and the movie ends on a very somber note. However, the final sequence is also presented as something meant to inspire audiences. Where moviegoers should want to carry on and fight the Nazis on behalf of those who were slaughtered that day, the 10th of June 1942, in Lidice.

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A few things crossed my mind when I watched HITLER’S MADMAN. First, I don’t think the Nazis and their underlings were ever really buffoons. I’d say they were very brutal, very calculating. Their eradicating a village was an extreme act that was in every way imaginable, a deliberate (and in their minds, justifiable) measure.

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Second, Sirk had actually met Heydrich once in the early 1930s, so it’s interesting that he ended up becoming a “biographer” of Heydrich through the art of motion pictures; one German denouncing another. Third, the event occurred early during America’s involvement in the war. Americans entered the war in December 1941. The massacre of Lidice took place just six months later, and there would be another three years before Hitler and Himmler were brought down. Fourth, it’s a powerful film that must have been very shocking for audiences, particularly the final sequence. It’s powerful and shocking to watch now, all these years later.

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Fifth, I think there is still a lot of radical militant behavior occurring in the world today, some of it in our own country; so this movie and the legacy of Lidice is just as relevant as ever. And finally, I think this is a movie you have to watch with all other distractions drowned out. It’s something where you have to embrace the propaganda, yet put it into perspective, but also realize the deeper message about the value of human life. The Nazis wanted to remove all traces of Lidice. But Sirk’s film helps Lidice live. And if you watch HITLER’S MADMAN and absorb its message, you will be helping Lidice live.

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HITLER’S MADMAN may currently be viewed on YouTube, and it airs occasionally on TCM.

Essential: ABOUT MRS. LESLIE (1954)

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Producer Hal Wallis had a multi-picture deal with Shirley Booth at Paramount. When she wasn’t working on Broadway and earning more Tony awards, she found time to appear in this production for Wallis. They only made four feature films together in the 1950s. One assumes they would wait until the actress became available; and for just the right sort of script to come along that would suit her unique talents.

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In ABOUT MRS. LESLIE, Booth is cast as Vivien Leslie, a lonely but well-intentioned boarding house owner. Her home, left to her by the late George Leslie (Robert Ryan), is located in Beverly Hills. Vivien Leslie is past her prime and has no children, but often looks after a neighbor’s teenaged daughter. Also, she has more than a passing interest in the blossoming relationship of two young boarders who work in Hollywood (Alex Nicol and Marjie Millar). It shouldn’t be said that Mrs. Leslie is an interfering busybody. She’s more of a mother hen landlady who’s genuinely fond of those that are entrusted to her care.

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While there are subplots involving Mrs. Leslie and her renters in the present day, these bits of action function more as a framing device. They allow us a deeper understanding of the title character, but the bulk of the narrative takes place in the past. We learn how she met Mr. Leslie when she was singing in a New York City nightclub. And we see, during several lengthy sequences, the lasting relationship they shared.

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Major spoiler. The twist in this story is that she was never really married. George Leslie (not his full name, just his first name and middle name) was not her husband at all. He was not a figment of her imagination, either. He was an industrialist she met, a real flesh and blood man she loved. Mrs. Leslie is so sympathetically portrayed by Booth that when we find out she had a pretend “marriage” with a man that already had a wife and kids, we can’t dislike her. In fact we only develop more sympathy for her.

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On some level Mr. Leslie is a cad, because he never mentioned his wife. The film gets around the production code, because we are shown that George and Vivien slept in separate bedrooms when they went off on trips together. She is depicted as more of a paid companion who didn’t provide sex. Also, since Vivien did not know he was married during that time, she’s not presented as being immoral in any knowledgeable way. I won’t reveal how she finds out she was deceived in case you haven’t watched the movie yet. But that’s one of Shirley Booth’s best moments.

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Vivien can’t un-love George Leslie, but she does go forward with the rest of her life. She opens a dress shop after leaving her job as a singer, and she becomes very successful in this new line of work. Later she inherits the home in Beverly Hills when George Leslie dies and attorneys for his estate want to buy her silence, to prevent his wife and children any future embarrassment.

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It has shades of Citizen Kane and Susan Alexander. But this version of the story is about a woman’s sense of value and her self-worth. The title is ironic, because she’s not really Mrs. Anyone. She’s just a boarding house owner with a very interesting backstory. She’s someone who wanted to be loved and to love others.

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Stand-out performances by women

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Ethel Barrymore as Mrs. Warren in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)

Have you ever seen an Ethel Barrymore performance on film you disliked? Me neither. She blows you away with her performances, quite literally. In THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, she plays a woman in peril who takes control of the situation. In MOONRISE she has only six minutes of screen time. But somehow she steals it from the other actors who have worked hard during the other 84 minutes. I like how she won the battle against ageism in Hollywood. She was appearing in starring roles into advanced age, and the year before she died, she was the lead in her final film.

Luise Rainer as O-Lan in THE GOOD EARTH (1937)

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Luise Rainer has the uncanny ability to layer multiple styles within the same role. She usually does drama, comedy, music and action in the course of the same film. She has a technique where she combines the work of other writers and directors and superimposes it on to her current performance. So you get a very extra-filmic experience with her, which imbues her work as a Chinese peasant woman in THE GOOD EARTH. She’s a very deliberate actress and nothing is left to chance.

Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA (1940)

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Dame Judith brings a level of precision to her performances. There are no false moments with her. She seems to think ugliness and dementedness are more interesting to the audience than beauty and normalcy. She’s probably right. She sees character roles as starring roles. While REBECCA contains her most widely regarded performance, she’s just as good as a hideous southern matriarch in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

Ingrid Bergman as Karla Zachannassian in THE VISIT (1964)

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Ingrid Bergman had ambition. She was already a star in her native Sweden, when she mastered the English language and came to Hollywood. Then, she mastered Italian and went to Rome to make films there. She was an independent spirit who had more control over her performances than many of her contemporaries. Probably, to her, acting was a science, and she perfected and patented her own special formula. She has a showy role as a treacherous diva in THE VISIT, where she shows up in a remote town, determined to bring Anthony Quinn to his knees. I think he’s still begging for mercy as I write this. 

Julie Harris as Frankie Addams in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1952)

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Julie Harris reminds me of Ingrid Bergman. I think she’s another scientific actress. She looks at all the elements, then boils it down to see what works and what doesn’t work. Even when she has a role or piece of action or dialogue that doesn’t exactly work, she uses it in such a way that brings a greater truth to the situation. I love how she puts her unique stamp on roles, regardless of genre. She never serves the plot. She uses the plot to gain insights about character and make us relate to her and what her character is going through. This technique is very evident in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. It seems like Julie Harris is bringing something from her own life into the role, but after re-examination, it’s probably Julie Harris taking something from the role and applying it to her real life.

Marie Dressler as Min Divot in MIN AND BILL (1930)

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Marie Dressler is basically a character actress who fooled everyone into thinking she was lead star material, and she was given some great roles. Like the one in MIN AND BILL, which netted her an Oscar as Best Actress. You have to be darn good to win this type of award and become the country’s biggest box office attraction when you look like you’ve just been hit by a truck. Marie’s ability to mix pathos and comedy, sometimes within the same line of dialogue, is what makes it work. We’ll never see another star like her again. And that’s a shame.

Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie in THE LETTER (1940)

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Bette Davis is good when she feels safe and when she has a good director and a good piece of material. She sort of presents caricatures of women, like Regina Hubbard in THE LITTLE FOXES and Charlotte Vale in NOW VOYAGER. But within her performances are very strong decisions about the character and the character’s motivation. She also brings an ironic sympathy to parts where she is supposed to be hardened, like the killer she is playing in the remake of THE LETTER. We might dislike the woman she is appearing as on screen, but we never dislike Bette the actress.

Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE LION IN WINTER (1968)

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Kate Hepburn hides in all her roles. She takes a line, puts some sass into it, and glibly thinks she has you fooled. And she has herself fooled half the time, then her real nature takes over, and we get this dynamic imprint of a troubled personality bursting with goodness. This happens in Kate’s films all the way through her career. She never really outgrew her childlike persona. Even when she’s playing a matriarchal royal figure in something like THE LION IN WINTER.

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

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Jean Hagen burst on to the Hollywood scene in the late 1940s. She seemed to waste no time building a resume of strong supporting roles. She could be a dependable girl Friday or a ditzy moll. She worked on many high-profile projects with top-name directors. She also was not afraid to take risks. She quit TV’s ‘Make Room for Daddy’ to rededicate herself to stage and film roles. It was not career suicide as some may’ve expected, but rather, it led to a resurgence for her in the late 50s and early 60s. Her most lauded performance, as phony Lina Lamont in MGM’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, is the real deal.

Joan Crawford as Myra Hudson in SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

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Joan Crawford was one of the screen’s most versatile, durable stars. Maybe her success can be attributed to her real-life ambition, but I think it’s an indicator of her talent. She specialized in risky parts that other actresses were afraid to take. She didn’t mind alienating the audience by playing against type and shattering everyone’s expectations of her. She was bold. Speaking of bold, the performance she gives in SUDDEN FEAR without question one of her most brilliant. There’s an incredible sequence where she realizes her husband is a murderer and plans to make her his next victim. It’s a master class in on-screen emotion, and she uses all the tricks she learned during the early part of her career in silent films.

Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in THE HEIRESS (1949)

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Her performance in William Wyler’s adaptation of THE HEIRESS is one for the ages.

Claudette Colbert as Agnes Newton Keith in THREE CAME HOME (1950)

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Claudette Colbert made a significant impact on the Hollywood film industry. She played one of the early versions of Cleopatra. Then, she became known for a series of screwball comedies she made with notable directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen. Most of these films were huge hits, and Claudette was one of the highest paid actresses of her day. In the 1940s and 1950s, she transitioned into war films and other social message dramas. She renders a moving performance as a woman separated from her husband during the war in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. And an even more involving performance in THREE CAME HOME, where she is again separated from her husband, this time on foreign soil.

Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond in MY REPUTATION (1946)

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Barbara Stanwyck never gave a bad performance. What I like about her is that she worked across many genres and she understood the trends of the business. Also, when we watch her work on screen we see the real-life Ruby, before she became movie star Barbara: a girl who survived the abuses of foster homes and is making the world see how tough she is. She breaks my heart every time. In MY REPUTATION, which was the actress’s favorite, she has a great scene where she tells off a snooty society woman at a New Year’s party. It shows what Stanwyck does so well in her best roles. I wanted to stand up and applaud her when that scene finished playing.

May Whitty as Mrs. Hughes in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)

Dame May Whitty was sweet and dangerous. In NIGHT MUST FALL she played a lovable elderly woman who fell prey to psychopathic Robert Montgomery. But in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, she was the villain, torturing poor Nina Foch. You never know if you’re watching good or evil, until you’re about half-way into one of her pictures. She takes you on a journey with her roles.

Joanne Woodward as Mary in A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966)

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Joanne Woodward turned in a lot of good performances during her long career as a leading lady. Any number of them could be spotlighted. I especially admire her portrayal of a troubled upper-class wife in Merchant-Ivory’s MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE. But I think her skill as an actress is on full display in a Technicolor western she made in the mid-60s. When her character joins a high-stakes card game, things change and true colors start to emerge. She’s playing a trickster, and it’s fascinating the way she accomplishes the character’s transition on screen.

Yvonne De Carlo as Lorena Dumont in FRONTIER GAL (1945)

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I wanted to include Yvonne De Carlo in this discussion because I don’t think she gets her proper due. Universal put her in a bunch of Technicolor westerns at the beginning of her career. And FRONTIER GAL is one of the earliest and best. It doesn’t surprise me to learn she married a stuntman, because she’s very courageous and performs all her own stunts on horseback in this film. She really loved taking risks on camera, and makes it seem easy. Not only is she better than her male costars in the outdoor sequences, but she does those glamorous musical numbers during the saloon scenes. She wasn’t dubbed. So no stunt doubles, no dubbing. She’s one of the screen’s most authentic performers. And she can do romance and comedy with ease. She deserves a greater appreciation of her many talents. She was a real star.

Jean Simmons as Charlotte Bronn in HOME BEFORE DARK (1958)

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Jean Simmons is similar to Katharine Hepburn in that she is unable to totally submerge her little girl persona in her roles. And in fact, it makes her performances more interesting. As a lost woman finding herself again in HOME BEFORE DARK, she’s fragile yet hopeful. You start to believe she had just been released from a mental institution. I think Simmons understood women who had experienced breakdowns, maybe having experienced some of this off-screen.

Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in BOMBSHELL (1933)

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Jean Harlow does what nobody else has ever done, and it’s an easy trick when you think about it. She takes a passage of dialogue, and pumps it into one long run-on sentence, spitting it out in one breathless take. Then she pivots, looks at her costar and gets ready for the next rapid-fire delivery. At the same time, she uses her mind to absorb the plight of the character and exaggerates it for comic effect. She must’ve had attention deficit disorder, way before it was ever diagnosed in people. She’s extremely energetic, sexy, funny and strong in BOMBSHELL.

Ida Lupino as Marion Castle in THE BIG KNIFE (1955)

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Ida Lupino was fantastic in so many classic films. The films she directed are just as interesting to study. She has a brilliant final scene in the independent drama THE BIG KNIFE. In fact it’s such an amazing moment that it overshadows everything else that came before. I still don’t know how she did it. Some actresses are transparent in their technique, but Ida Lupino hides her technique extremely well. As if how to act should remain a well-kept secret.

Kim Stanley as Myra Savage in SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964)

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I saved the best for last. I really don’t think the work Kim Stanley does by SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON has been topped, or can be topped, by anyone else. All her scenes are memorable in this picture. When I watch her on screen I can’t help but feel she put many hours into each scene. She’s extremely thorough. Because she has it so worked out “down here,” she is able to take the character “up there” or even further “down there.” In some instances, she is up and down at the same time. Is she layering goodness over evil, or is she layering evil over goodness? I think she’s doing both in this film, and to have someone who’s brain is so perfectly compartmentalized to do this when creating a character– well that’s a genius. She’s given the best performance of all time on celluloid.

Jane Wyman as Belinda MacDonald in JOHNNY BELINDA (1948)

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Emma Thompson as Margaret Schelegel in HOWARDS END (1992)

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Judy Holliday as Gladys Glover in IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU (1954)

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Better than BORN YESTERDAY…?

Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

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She received male in the form of Jimmy Stewart.

Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962)

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If you sit down to have dinner with this woman, you’d better have acceptable table manners.

Eleanor Parker as Baroness Elsa von Schraeder in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)

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Cicely Tyson as Rebecca in SOUNDER (1972)

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A performance you remember for years after seeing the movie.

Diahann Carroll as Elzora in EVE’S BAYOU (1997)

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Nobody holds a candle to Diahann Carroll. She’s perfectly stylish and haunting as a fortune telling witch in EVE’S BAYOU. She should have had an Oscar nomination.

Doris Day as the title character in CALAMITY JANE (1953)

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Doris Day causes quite a stir in this one. Comedy, romance, western action and music…it has everything. And when Doris sings the Oscar-winning tune ‘Secret Love,’ it is sublime.

Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl in DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)

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A beautiful performance that conveys the strength and quiet dignity of the Lakota Sioux.

Essential: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

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The relationship that develops between a British housewife (Celia Johnson) and a doctor (Trevor Howard) happens quickly and lasts briefly. Writer Noel Coward and director David Lean present two people who are needy at the same point in their lives, falling into something sudden and deep. The story takes place over the course of four Thursdays.

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They meet casually on the first Thursday, when Laura Jesson gets grit in her eye on a train platform. Dr. Alec Harvey, a man she just met in the refreshment room, helps clean it out. Initially their interaction is quite minimal. Hardly romantic. Later they end up seeing each other again outside a store. It’s another platonic run-in. He takes the afternoon off from his medical practice, and they go to the cinema together.

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Laura and Alec have such an enjoyable time, they decide to do it again the following Thursday. During the six and a half days that follow, Laura considers not seeing Alec again but does end up going. He has a medical emergency and doesn’t make it to the restaurant where they planned to dine. However, he finds her later at the train station when she’s heading home. He explains what happened and they agree to try again the following week.

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The third Thursday it become more serious. They take in another movie then enjoy a lovely drive together. Alec kisses Laura at the station before they go their separate ways. The fourth Thursday they want more. Alec’s staying at a friend’s apartment downtown and asks Laura to head over with him. She declines, then changes her mind at the last moment. Alone in the apartment, it seems as if they will consummate the relationship. But all of a sudden Alec’s friend returns, so Laura has to hurry out a back door. She feels ashamed. Yet all they’ve done is kissed, nothing else.

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Laura phones her husband and fibs about why she’s spending so much time downtown and why she can’t get home to fix dinner. She is not owning up to what’s been happening with Alec. Though, ultimately, Laura realizes it has to end. This is when Alec says he’s been offered a job in South Africa which he will take to make things easier on both of them. Neither one will leave their spouses or children to be with each other. They’re just romantic friends is all.

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It can’t be anything more, because BRIEF ENCOUNTER is restrained by the production code. It is bound by a strong sensibility and morality. Laura and Alec’s story, which is quite simple, allows us to feel powerful emotions. There is light comic relief with minor characters in the refreshment room of the train station to offset the heavier moments. And there are also scenes set in the present, where she’s at home with her husband and children, remembering the events of the past four Thursdays. And what a special time it was.

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Perhaps the most engaging part is Laura’s continual voice-over narration. We are privy to her innermost thoughts and feelings. She is telling her husband everything in her mind, but we are the ones she’s really telling. She’s a lonely soul, trying to maintain a sense of propriety but needing to reach out and connect with someone in a meaningful way.  She thinks a lot of the people she meets are idiots; she even calls herself an idiot at one point. But she doesn’t consider Alec idiotic at all.

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In one interesting sequence, Laura’s on the train home and looks out the window. She glimpses herself dancing with Alec, driving with him in the countryside again and traveling abroad with him. It’s presented as a montage, but it’s a fantasy montage. At one point the camera switches to the reverse angle of the fantasy figures dancing. Suddenly from their vantage point we see Laura on the other side of the train window. It’s a skillfully made, imaginatively conceived film. The primary setting is the train station. But it really takes place in another realm. Two hearts have been derailed but are now back on track.

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER will air on TCM the 14th of February.

Essential: MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE (1990)

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Merchant-Ivory’s MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE is based on two classic American novellas, Mr. Bridge, and Mrs. Bridge, both written by Evan S. Connell. There was a ten year gap between the two publications, and the one on Mrs. Bridge appeared in print first.

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The books are rich with detail about the Bridge family’s daily lifestyle, much of it based on Connell’s own upbringing. Connell renounces his upper class background in his stories. These two volumes serve as an indictment, a scathing look at an ultra class-conscious segment of American life that Connell knew as a child.

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He examines the lifestyles and attitudes of people he grew up with in Kansas City, Missouri, starting with his parents then splintering out to include other high society types they associated with during those years. The chapters, which feel more like vignettes, are mildly satiric. He tells us these people are grand and amusing, and also that they are pathetic and worthless.

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For the screen adaptation Ruth Prawer Jhabvala does a remarkable job, utilizing the best elements of the original source material. But of course she couldn’t include each incident, so the books are a must-read if the characters make an impression on you, which they did for me. Interestingly, Jhabvala’s screenplay contains about 30 to 40 pages of scenes that were cut from the final film. So you can see how the material might have been a bit unwieldy and not only did Jhabvala pick and choose, but director James Ivory and his partner Ismail Merchant also chose which parts of the screenplay were most vital and faithful to the spirit of Connell’s writing.

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I think what wound up in the film gives us a very good glimpse into the lives of Walter and India Bridges, and people of their ilk. In some ways, the family is under a constant state of attack. Not only because the country is heading into the second world war, but because mores are changing. So the Bridges’ brand of respectability, carefully cultured and phony on so many levels, is under siege as well. How can it possibly survive?

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The Newmans, who really seem to believe in the material, play the main couple with great precision and skill. There’s a shocking scene where Mr. Bridge lusts after his daughter Ruth (Kyra Sedgwick) and is interrupted by his wife. His reaction at being caught in such reverie is to pull his wife into a passionate embrace. However, Mrs. Bridge has her own problems, which he thinks is remedied with a glass of beer (she doesn’t drink).

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Assorted oddball characters pop up in the country club scenes. Simon Callow has a field day as a vulgar businessman who goes through women like water. The latest one is young enough to be his daughter, which means he’s living out the fantasy that Mr. Bridge keeps to himself and uses his wife to mask.

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There’s also an emotionally unhinged banker’s wife named Grace Barron (superbly played by Blythe Danner) who implodes. After years of embarrassing her husband because of her erratic behavior, she decides the only honorable thing to do is to free him from the wreckage of their marriage and have a heart attack by taking too many sleeping pills. Heart attack becomes code for suicide and everyone comments on Mrs. Barron’s “heart attack.” When Grace Barron dies, India Bridge is particularly bereft.

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Meanwhile daughter Ruth has gone off to New York to pursue her artistic ambitions. Then there’s a second daughter named Caroline (Margaret Welsh) who just entered into an ill-advised marriage with a wife beater.

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We can’t forget the Bridges’ youngest child, son Douglas (Robert Sean Leonard). He has become increasingly distant and alienated. When Douglas joins the military and goes off to fight in the war, the Bridges have even more adjustments to make.

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While it is correct to say the film as a whole is a character study, it is really not a study about Mr. Bridge. And it is not a study about Mrs. Bridge, either, though she sometimes dominates the action a bit more than her husband does. Nor is it a treatise about children or family acquaintances. It’s about the reproachable “character” of the American bourgeoisie. It’s about how people cling to each other while clinging to outmoded values. Yet despite the damning tone, Connell and the filmmakers who’ve adapted his work, somehow manage to convey the idea that the two central characters have a constant, if not strange, love.

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