Essential: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955)

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Sometimes when you develop a special fondness for a film, you stay away from it. You’re afraid that if you go back to it, it won’t hold up or be exactly as you remembered. In this case, the opposite occurred. I found even more meaning, when I sat down to rewatch ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. The two main characters drew me in to the story.

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The relationship between Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) and Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) starts innocently enough over a cup of coffee. Ron’s taken over his late father’s yard maintenance business and he’s at the Scott home one fall afternoon pruning branches. When Cary’s girlfriend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) is unable to stay for lunch, Cary invites the handsome gardener to join her, so the food won’t go to waste. They strike up a conversation about the trees in her yard, and an instant bond forms. Their subsequent romance will become a scandal in Cary’s community.

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The film seems to be written and played for other Carys in the audience. Sirk’s storytelling is so smooth that you get caught up in it. And what people tell Cary in the movie, and what she even tells herself, seem like things a viewer can appreciate. The more philosophical speeches do not come across as preachy or unrealistic in any way. Even Sirk’s use of Thoreau is expertly weaved into the proceedings, telling us there’s a natural order in life. Especially in ways of the heart.

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Cary is struggling to let go of the past, and she is also struggling to simplify her life. For years, she’s tried to please others and has been restricted by what everyone expects. Her friend Sara witnesses the awakening of her spirit. And while Sara will remain firmly entrenched in suburbia, bound by its inhibiting code of conduct, she supports Cary’s need to break away from it. Other members of the community are not as supportive, which we see at a cocktail party in Sara’s home. Cary has decided to introduce Ron to everyone, but many of the guests are unfriendly. One old gal is downright cruel.

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Sirk likes to use reflecting surfaces in his melodramas. And we see many of them in this film, often in the form of mirrors and windows. His careful use of mise-en-scene (staging and scene composition) allows us to glimpse the internal states of characters, as their facial expresses bounce off these reflecting surfaces. In some instances, there is an added use of shadow. Or pieces of furniture and doors are used to conceal things or separate Cary from the people who are opposed to her.

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Cary’s two college-aged children think she needs a television. It will keep her from being lonely, they reason; mainly, it will help distract her when she decides to break up with Ron. While Cary was getting to know Ron, she had no desire to sit at home and watch television. But after she calls things off with him, the kids give her a fancy new set at Christmas, and she is forced to contend with this symbol of her loneliness. Again Sirk uses a reflecting surface, this time the TV screen, to display her emotions.

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Of course, the film would not have a happy ending if Cary gave in and resigned herself to being a lonely widow. When she realizes her children are moving on with lives of their own that no longer directly involve her, she knows she deserves more. She has to battle her way out of a depression that has enveloped her. It’s time to look towards the future and embrace it. At the same time, there are scenes which show Ron reflecting as well; and his own unexpressed desire to reconcile with her.

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A subplot in the film involves the refurbishing of an old mill that Ron is turning into a home. It’s a place he intends to share with Cary, if she will let him. The living room in the renovated mill features a large window that looks out on to the pond and an area where deer roam during the cold winter months. It’s Walden personified, it’s a world with natural order, and it’s somewhere that Cary and Ron can both find happiness.

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At one point Ron is hunting and falls off the side of a snowy cliff. He’s severely injured and nearly dies. The crisis rallies Cary to his side and precipitates their reunion. The children are no longer an issue. The disapproving community is no longer an issue. The only thing that matters is being together again. Heaven has allowed it, and it’s quite extraordinary.

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ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: CAPTAIN LIGHTFOOT (1955)

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Universal went to Ireland to produce this picture. None of it was filmed in Hollywood, and the scenery is must-see. And while the leads were Americans, the supporting cast was entirely comprised of top Irish actors. So the performances are particularly authentic. Even Rock Hudson, an Irish-American, does a convincing job playing the title character– a rogue highwayman in the early 1800s.

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This wasn’t the first time Hudson had worked with director Douglas Sirk, and it certainly wouldn’t be their last collaboration. By the mid-50s the handsome actor had become a household name, thanks to his appearance in Sirk’s remake of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. As a result, he is extremely confident and every bit the star. Barbara Rush is on hand as his leading lady, and she exudes great confidence in her scenes, too. Like Hudson, she did several films with Sirk.

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The beginning of the story tells us that Ireland in the early 19th century is a place “bitter with resistance against foreign rule.” In this case, foreign rule is English rule. But while the story might expectedly lapse into political drama, Sirk and screenwriter Oscar Brodney wisely keep the narrative focused on action, romance and the struggle of people to maintain their own identity. In that regard, the material is similar to Sirk’s earlier effort, HITLER’S MADMAN. However, this is not so much a tale of oppression, but a tale of overcoming adversity.

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In order to prevent the whole affair from becoming too serious, Hudson’s character Michael Martin (a.k.a. Lightfoot) is presented somewhat amiably. In fact, he’s rather foppish at times, making foolish mistakes. As a result there is comedy and lightness mixed in with the dark deeds of rebellion. Lightfoot and his pal Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow) belong to a secret society intent on overthrowing outside rule. Together they commit crimes, mostly robbing from the rich, to finance the resistance efforts of the downtrodden. And while they might be bad men, they’re not evil men. The more vulnerable aspects of Lightfoot’s character are shown when he falls in love with Thunderbolt’s daughter (Rush).

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It’s obvious the studio spent a lot of money making this film, and it’s a very entertaining romp. In some ways, it reminds me of family entertainment that Disney’s live-action unit made during this time. The characters are larger than life, and their glorious adventures are fun in a most endearing way. It’s a rousing spectacle.

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CAPTAIN LIGHTFOOT may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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.

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.