When costars reunite

Answering a question about Tyrone Power, George Sanders once said, “He was just someone I knew. One knew lots of people. Every film is like an ocean voyage, a transatlantic crossing. You swear you will meet each other again. But you never do.” And while it’s true some costars don’t cross paths again, there are notable exceptions.

In 2016, photographers were on hand when Billy met Meg. They first met when he was Harry and she was Sally.

Jack Oakie was always the life of the party. In this photo from 1971, he is seen having a drink with his old costars John Payne, Cesar Romero and Fred MacMurray.

Dean Jones went for another ride with Herbie in 1998. There had been a lot of oil changes since their last film together.

Sometimes costar reunions are better than expected. When Fay Wray first worked with King Kong, she had a lot of fear. But on the 50th anniversary of their classic movie, she was much more receptive to his charms.

Essential: GASLIGHT (1940)

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This month I am looking at psychological thrillers and starting with the original film version of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Gas Light.’ Gaslighting is where a victim’s mind is manipulated into believing things that are not true. Specifically in Hamilton’s play, the heroine’s sanity is related to the levels of light in her home– which can be looked at literally and figuratively. Hamilton’s story resonated with audiences, and he had a hit on the London stage in the late 1930s. It was even more popular on Broadway in the 1940s with several long-running productions.

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In the summer of 1940, British National Films released the first screen adaptation, starring Austrian actor Anton Walbrook and English actress Diana Wynyard. Both performers already had strong reputations, and they give memorable performances. MGM remade it several years later, with French actor Charles Boyer and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman taking over the main roles. But I think the earlier production with Walbrook and Wynyard is superior for reasons I will cover below.

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What makes the 1940 version of GASLIGHT so extraordinary is the intensity with which Walbrook approaches his character. There’s an unrelenting hardness his portrayal of a bigamist-murderer; and at the risk of comparing him to Boyer, he brings a much fiercer interpretation to the screen. His passion is a form of brutality that can only be unleashed violently. He doesn’t seem to despise his bride like Boyer does in the remake; instead, she is an object– a strange fetish in his desire to gain power and get off on that power.

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But Walbrook’s work is only half of it. Wynyard perfectly balances his brutal behavior with her own soft, exquisite suffering. Anyone who watches both versions will see that Ingrid Bergman is mimicking Diana Wynyard’s best scenes. However, Bergman lacks the softness and delicate quality that Wynyard displays. She is oddly valiant, because she believes her suffering is noble and believes it will ultimately bring dignity to her husband. If she fails to elevate him through her own pain, then she fails herself. It isn’t until she finally realizes all the destructively heinous things he’s done that she reluctantly agrees to aid in his arrest.

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The cruelty she experiences at his hands is almost nothing compared to the heartbreak that comes when she must face the failure of the relationship as a whole. This is something Bergman really doesn’t seem to tap into at all. The second film is about her liberation. But the first film is about her failure, and I think it is more thought provoking.

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GASLIGHT was directed by Thorold Dickinson and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Coming up in October

When costars reunite…reunions are about catching up on old times, especially in Hollywood.

RKO superstars…a two-part column about the studio’s biggest and brightest talents.

“Forgive me for I have sinned”…classic movie confessions.

Biker flicks…some people were born to be wild.


Agee’s horror reviews…
critic James Agee comments on Val Lewton’s productions.

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Join me in October!

Recommended classics vol. 10

ONE NIGHT OF LOVE (1934)

The first fifteen or twenty minutes seem clichéd and the sets are sparsely furnished to indicate the humble origins of Grace Moore’s character. But it gets better once the musical selections are played. The sets also improve as her character becomes more successful in the opera world. Moore is a very strong vocalist, and in some ways, she’s even better than her contemporary, Jeanette MacDonald. The extended scene halfway into the picture where she performs Bizet’s Carmen is excellent.

The film is also helped by the casting of Lyle Talbot as a would-be suitor, Jessie Ralph as the maid, and Jane Darwell as Moore’s mother. The leading man is played by Italian actor Tullio Carminati and his interpretation of the Svengali-like manager is quite good. The finale, where he encourages her to overcome her stage fright and she sings from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, is exquisite and triumphant.

*****

LIVING ON VELVET (1935)

For anyone who doesn’t know what the title means, it’s certainly spelled out in the picture’s story. It’s fairly interesting the way George Brent’s character explains his ideas of “living on velvet” to his wife, played by Kay Francis. They both suffer a lot in this film, but since this is a melodrama geared for female audiences, her torment is designed to be a lot more noble than his. Warren William, billed over Brent, appears as the couple’s best friend, in more of a supporting role; he probably suffers too but his reduced screen time doesn’t allow us to glimpse his particular turmoil and neurosis.

For the most part the performances are sincerely played, and the woman (Helen Lowell) cast as Kay’s impatient aunt is particularly good. Some of the denouement doesn’t make sense in the last few minutes, because a character who was supposed to die is suddenly allowed to live (per Jack Warner’s wishes). Even if said character had died, I am not too sure how it would have reinforced a point the writers were trying to make. Maybe it was all supposed to lead to a realization that pain and suffering can somehow be erased, once you stop living on velvet.

*****

EASY LIVING (1937)

Jean Arthur is enjoyable in many films and makes motion picture acting look effortless. But it must be said that she gives a particularly extraordinary performance here. She more than makes up for Preston Sturges’ script, which is dated– by modern standards, and probably when it first was shown back in the late 1930s. As always with a story by Sturges, the humor is over the top. But Arthur and her costars are able to inject much-needed doses of realism.

Mitchell Leisen’s superb direction helps, and his background in art design pays off handsomely, since the plot involves relocating our gal from a run-down apartment to a posh hotel suite. The hotel set is elaborately decorated, and it fosters the illusion that in these digs, life is easy to live.

Essential: THE PROUD REBEL (1958)

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THE PROUD REBEL was made in the late 1950s by Samuel Goldwyn Jr. It came along at a time when TV westerns were quite popular, but it offered something that could only be found on the big screen– a sweeping story about post-war life told in Technicolor. At this stage in their careers, the two stars were no longer playing young romantic leads, and what develops is essentially a mature romance with an interesting historical backdrop.

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Alan Ladd is cast as an ex-Confederate soldier heading north to Minnesota after the Civil War. Except for his pride, he has lost much of what he once had. Traveling with him is a young son (Ladd’s own real life son David) who is now mute. Due to traumatic shock, the boy hasn’t uttered a word since the end of the war. It is the elder Ladd’s hope that they might find a doctor in the Midwest with a cure. But when they speak to a physician (Cecil Kellaway), they’re told the boy’s inability to speak might be psychological, not physical.

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Outside the doctor’s office, they get into a fight with some men trying to steal the boy’s dog. This leads to an arrest and quick trial. A judgment is rendered against them, and a $30 fine is imposed, but they have no money to pay it. A solution presents itself when a farm woman (Olivia De Havilland) steps forward. She will provide lodging for both of them, if they do jobs on her land to pay off the fine. Soon tender feelings are shared between the two adults while she forges a special bond with the boy.

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The film presents several unique character studies, and the situations are simple but realistic. We watch southerners exposed to prejudices in Midwestern territory, and we also see a conflict escalating between De Havilland and a neighbor sheep baron (Dean Jagger). In addition to this, there is hope the boy’s voice might be restored if he undergoes an operation. As the story unfolds, it is clear the two Ladds have found more than just a temporary refuge with De Havilland. They’ve found a place where they belong, a place they can call home.

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THE PROUD REBEL was directed by Michael Curtiz and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

The production code and profanity

In some old movies and TV shows, it’s obvious characters would swear on screen if they could. But because of the production code, there is no profanity– not even in war films, where one might expect to hear it.

By the way it was General Patton who made this statement: “You can’t run an army without profanity…an army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a ****-filled paper bag.” (I’ll let you figure out the four-letter word.)

Recently I watched a 1942 MGM comedy-drama starring Marjorie Main. If you’ve seen TISH, you know why I’m mentioning it. One of the running gags is that she cusses when she gets frustrated. Every time she cusses, a maid is right behind her with a swear box, and she has to deposit a few coins. We believe a pig-headed woman like Main would use colorful language. And the scriptwriters find a clever way to indicate she’s swearing. They just have her mumble a bunch of made-up words, which do not violate the code, but clearly let the audience know she isn’t speaking like a lady.

Usually we can guess what a character really means to say. In an episode of a classic sitcom, Lucille Ball ends up in a vat stomping grapes with a rough-looking Italian woman. It’s obvious the two gals have moved beyond formal introductions, when a fight occurs and they start tossing each other around. Lucy isn’t allowed to say what is clearly on her mind. That might be too shocking, so the episode just ends with a single word that gets the point across:

I suppose a TV network in the 1950s didn’t want to offend its audience. Though as General Patton and Marjorie Main’s Aunt Tish would agree, it’s a bear to watch your tongue in polite company.

Another look at Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck was directed by some of the best. She worked with Frank Capra five times, which certainly benefited her career. And she was in films made by William Wellman, Mitchell Leisen, Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder. She gave extraordinary performances while collaborating with these men. But there were some roles that didn’t work out so well. She was always decent, even in the misfires. All Stanwyck’s movies were imbued with her customary style and her professionalism.

But why did she agree to make ESCAPE TO BURMA? Perhaps it was the chance to reunite on screen with Robert Ryan. She previously worked with him on CLASH BY NIGHT, and they shared a strong chemistry. But the BURMA script was mediocre at best, and to be honest, her technique leaves a lot to be desired in this picture. Maybe she knew it was a routine programmer and nothing she might do could elevate it.

When she is supposed to register surprise or terror or confusion, anything that erases the smile from her character’s face, she resorts to shouting her lines to convey the emotion. There is some attachment to the character and the character’s situations, but overall, it just sort of falls flat.

One gets the same feeling watching her in Republic’s THE MAVERICK QUEEN, which she did a short time later. Probably she was drawn to the role because she liked doing westerns. In some ways, playing a tough-minded gal on the frontier must have reminded her of ANNIE OAKLEY, a part she did twenty years earlier.

This was something she could do easily, but again, she doesn’t seem to take the character in any interesting direction. The performance lacks a real meaningful emotional core. Ultimately, she turns in an acceptable performance as THE MAVERICK QUEEN, but it would appear to be work that is beneath her talents.

Not every attempt in front of the camera came off as it should have. Barbara Stanwyck still remains a legend, but perhaps we can look at her more realistically now. It’s like Walter Neff no longer seeing Phyllis Dietrichson for the first time.

Essential: RUN FOR COVER (1955)

Like last week’s essential BROKEN LANCE, I’ve chosen a classic that pairs a Hollywood vet with a rising star. This time instead of Spencer Tracy & Robert Wagner, we have James Cagney & John Derek in RUN FOR COVER. It was Cagney’s first western since 1939’s THE OKLAHOMA KID. The story is different from what we typically see in 50s frontier sagas, with its heightened melodrama and slightly ambiguous morality.

The moral center is compromised by a young wanderer played by John Derek. Cagney meets him in the opening sequence, and they bond quickly when they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and get blamed for a train robbery. After they’ve been arrested, Cagney clears up the confusion at the sheriff’s office and stops a mob from lynching them.

We learn two things right up front. The sheriff is woefully inadequate and about to be fired by the leading townsfolk. Plus Derek would have preferred to rob the locomotive and run off with the loot. He has no definition of right and wrong, or any qualms about getting what he can for himself. The only thing that humbles him, partially, is a leg that gets crippled in a shooting.

This is where Cagney decides to intervene. As a good Samaritan, he will mentor and guide the young man; to turn him into a respectable law abiding citizen. But there is foreshadowing which suggests Derek’s good side may not win out. So it becomes a tale of how much Cagney tries to do while dealing with the reality that Derek is probably a bad seed who cannot be reformed.

What makes it compelling is how determined Cagney plays it. He becomes the new sheriff and falls in love with the daughter (Viveca Lindfors) of a Scandinavian farmer. And while settling down and establishing roots in the community, Cagney continues to be drawn to Derek and remains focused on straightening out the boy.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are very powerful. Out on a manhunt to bring some killers to justice, Cagney realizes his protege is also a killer at heart. He has to face the situation head on in a violent confrontation. In the last scene, Cagney comes back to town with the dead body of his young pal. He tells his girl and the others how the boy died a hero. Is he delusional? Or does he believe that in death a man’s soul and his reputation are one in the same and should be held in the highest regard no matter what?

RUN FOR COVER was directed by Nicholas Ray. It is available at the Paramount Vault page on YouTube.

Women out west

Sometimes we watch films that do things to us. I’m not sure exactly what these things are. But the story grabs hold, and it pulls us into a deeper sort of meaning with it. This happened to me recently when during sleepless hours I pressed ‘play’ and WESTWARD THE WOMEN came up on my screen.

One name caught my attention in the opening credits– MGM’s Dore Schary. A few years earlier, he had produced RACHEL AND THE STRANGER at RKO, another chronicle of a woman who went west and found a husband. WESTWARD THE WOMEN tells the tale of a group of mail order brides and how they are led across the country by two guides played by Robert Taylor and John McIntire (McIntire later had the lead role in Universal’s western television series Wagon Train). Halfway to California, McIntire’s character gets killed off by an attacking band of natives, so Taylor becomes the sole driving force.

One of the women is a pregnant widow who delivers a baby along the journey. And there are violent encounters with savages; things like harsh weather conditions; broken wagon wheels; injured horses; steep mountain trails; runaways; hysteria; and fear– they all come into play. But this is more than a series of calamities contrived by filmmakers to heighten drama. It’s a story about grit. Perseverance.

Although some of the women have breakdowns, they bounce back and recover. Even Taylor’s character nearly falls apart several times– shooting those who cause problems; whipping women that disobey (he marries the most defiant one at the end); and he’s generally resolved to fits of anger and uncontrollable outbursts.

We are glimpsing how tough American life can be. For the women, it’s an extreme portrait of survival on the western frontier– a rite of passage through hell. There is a happy ending for those who manage to reach the final destination safely. And indeed, the last sequence, where they’re all getting married, is tender and decent. But this is just the beginning in a way. And most significantly, as the narrative concludes, we’re left with a sense of realness many other films don’t even come close to representing.

Essential: BROKEN LANCE (1954)

As the opening credits play, cattle moves from one end of the screen to the other. This means two things– we are seeing the vast property of a land baron; and we are seeing it in CinemaScope.

After the credits end, we cut to a prison where young Robert Wagner is being released. He had been incarcerated for three years, and on his way home, he stops off at a government building in town. Inside the lobby, there’s a huge portrait hanging, and he pauses to look at it. It’s the image of Matthew Deveraux (Spencer Tracy), his deceased father. Next, the young man is confronted by a trio of older half-brothers (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman), and it’s not exactly a warm reunion. They have a deal in mind to send him away.

We learn about his relationship with a young girl (Jean Peters), as well as his mother (Katy Jurado), a squaw who went back to live with her people. Interestingly, the character Wagner portrays is named Joe. Five years later on Bonanza, Michael Landon played the half-breed son of a huge ranch owner, and he was also named Joe. Probably the weekly television series was inspired by this panoramic big screen western. And panoramic is the word for it. Filmed on location, BROKEN LANCE is an expansive, scenic and realistic looking outdoor drama.

As we flashback to life at the Deveraux ranch three years earlier, we see Tracy as the imposing patriarch. He’s the center of everything, and his three older sons resent his control over their lives. There’a scene where he metes out a punishment for his two middle sons, after they had been caught rustling his livestock. They’re greedy and twisted in their rebellion. Immediately, we can tell the Deveraux ranch is a giant place with a giant set of problems.

Wagner is not at all like his older siblings; he’s the tender heart of the family. He has some romantic moments with the girl he loves, but because he’s the son of a native woman, obstacles stand in their way. The next morning, there are other issues when old man Deveraux discovers a nearby copper mine is poisoning the water supply. A showdown ensues and in a violent turn of events, gunfire erupts and the mine goes up in flames.

This leads to a lawsuit with the owner of the mine, and in court things only go from bad to worse. Joe has been assigned blame for the standoff that destroyed property and injured many men. As Deveraux watches his youngest boy go off to jail, the three other sons take over the ranch, which they quickly begin to sell off to outsiders. Deveraux is not one to sit idly by and lose everything, so he goes after his worthless offspring to stop them; but he dies while riding the range. What might seem to be a typical 50s western on the surface is something that plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy. The long flashback ends, and by this point, we have realized Spencer Tracy’s character is a frontier version of King Lear. There isn’t much left when Robert Wagner comes home– except a score to settle with his brothers for what they did to him and their pa.

BROKEN LANCE was directed by Edward Dmytryk and is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.