Essential: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)

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TB: This weekend Jlewis continues his theme on silent action films starring Douglas Fairbanks. This time he has chosen the 1924 version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. Like the previous selection, ROBIN HOOD (1922), it’s a title I had not yet seen. So again, thanks to Jlewis for bringing these classic tales back to the forefront of our consciousness for a thoughtful discussion.

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JL: We do need to stretch our belief system here by accepting Douglas Fairbanks, a very muscular guy of forty who is built like Vin Diesel, as a sprightly teenage thief Ahmed. The 1940 version was more true to the various stories by casting Sabu and leaving any wooing of princesses to the older John Justin. Likewise, Disney’s ALADDIN, both the animated and cgi-mixed live-action versions, used younger blood. Then again, if Fairbanks could pull it off in both age and hulk’n’bulk, so could Steve Reeves later in the ’61 Italian version; both versions satisfy those who wish to see their muscle power in action shirtless.

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Fairbanks is very animated in his performance, so “animated” in fact that animators themselves often studied him methodically. There is a key moment when he rubs his tummy before stealing food and, while I am sure he was not the first actor to do this on screen, it is obvious that he is the one being imitated in quite a few golden era cartoons that I recall. (I think, but may need to be corrected, that the monkey in the Disney cartoon version does this as well.)

As with all Fairbanks, a huge chunk of the stunt work was done by him personally and choreographed with as much precision as a Fred Astaire dance number. The key opening scenes show him stealing a purse from a pedestrian by the drinking fountain, followed by him climbing up the building. It resembles a ballet in the way everything is timed perfectly. The story is quite simple, if dragged out as an epic 140 minutes… and, yes, it is dragged out longer than necessary.

We open and close with a holy man (Charles Belcher) telling a boy that happiness must be earned. In a medieval Baghdad (spelled without the “h”), Ahmed is one very happy thief whose motto is “What I want, I take.” Yet there is something missing that he can’t just steal…and that is romantic luuuuv. When he successfully barges into the great palace in hopes of stealing something mighty grand, he falls smitten teenage-style for the princess (Julanne Johnston) in her slumber.

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Later he and his buddy (Snitz Edwards) steal garments from the market to pose as a prince arriving to win her affections on her royal birthday. Yet this deception is soon revealed and he confesses the truth. Then gets thrown out of the palace despite the princess sobbing herself. She is as smitten with him as he is with her since he is the only man to touch (actually fall into, thanks to a bee and a horse getting stung) a sacred rose bush that her assistant foretold her future husband would touch in a sand prophesy.

Also he has competition for her affections. There are two princes from India and Persia (Noble Johnson & Mathilde Comont) who are presented in semi-comic fashion, along with a third: the mighty evil Cham Shang from the Mongol empire, wonderfully played in sinister straight-face by Sojin Kamiyama. My guess is that Sojin was among the hardest working Japanese actors in the business with a rather long filmography that even includes a bit part in Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI. No doubt, he  inspired Disney’s own Jafar since there is an eery resemblance.

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Cham is the primary villain of our piece but I am rather disappointed that we don’t actually see him battle sword-to-sword or fist-to-fist with Ahmed like we see Prince John and his cahoots battle Robin Hood in Fairbanks’ earlier epic. When it is decided by both the princess and the Caliph (Brandon Hurst) that the suitor who brings the rarest gift from his travels wins her, each of the trio brings, accordingly, a cure-all golden apple, a crystal ball and a flying carpet (later taken over by Ahmed in our finale). Yet that isn’t enough for her, so Cham has another alternative in order to win both her and control of the city: a secret army ready to storm the palace. Like Ahmed in the opening scenes, his motto is “What I want, I take” and he also has the support of a Mongol servant girl working inside the palace. Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong is absolutely brilliant in her Machiavellian expressions.

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While the other three genuine princes find their prizes with limited effort, Ahmed has to do it the hard way in order to prove he is not a thief but a genuine prince in heart, if not heredity. (His prize, magic “powder,” allows him to zap up people and things out of nowhere.)

The second half of the film basically resembles JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS with one wild make believe adventure following another in quick succession and this is where we are constantly bombarded with special effects galore, many years ahead of their time in Hollywood sophistication. Personally I find it all an overkill and start to doze in repeated viewings when he awakens a man “tree” and sword fights a slurposaur (trade name for alligators dressed up as dinosaurs/dragons and treated in a way that the SPCA would never approve of).

The Pegasus horse looks hokey with the wings hardly flapping, but you can not help but love the seamless blending of stylized clouds and castle tops that our riding hero leaps through. The climax when Ahmed finally wins the princess gives us a satisfactory finish with the magic carpet flying out of Baghdad with no strings apparent.

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Special effects aside, this is one of the most visually appealing fantasies of the roaring twenties and no movie memorabilia book is complete without stills. William Cameron Menzies is as much the “star” as Douglas Fairbanks here, working to a lesser degree earlier in the set designs for ROBIN HOOD and continuing post-Fairbanks with so many classics we have grown to love like THINGS TO COME, GONE WITH THE WIND and, if mostly un-credited, the 1940 version of this tale as well. The Baghdad he creates looks no more like the real locale than Venice looks like Venice in TOP HAT, being that both look mopped so clean that you can eat off of the streets, but… wow!… those geometric patterns are art deco delights that linger on your cranium long after you stop watching.

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Equally important is the cinematography, mostly supervised by Arthur Edeson of THE LOST WORLD, Universal’s James Whale horror cycle and CASABLANCA fame. He had worked with Fairbanks on a number of epics, but this one is his masterpiece. The daytime street scenes are shot so bright and from multiple angles that you can hardly see any shadows, while the interior shots and night time scenes are the total opposite with characters literally becoming shadows themselves.

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It is fascinating to watch this and the similar Arabian Nights saga, Lotte Reiniger’s DIE ABENTEUER DES PRINZEN ACHMED, an actual animated cartoon done with literal silhouettes back to back: both films emphasize human figures often submerging with the geometric patterns of their Arabian surroundings as if they are designs themselves in some vast wallpaper. No doubt some of the German Expressionism look was also starting to seep into Hollywood by this time, just as it would in a second wave in the 1940s with film noir crime sagas; yet the UFA and Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN, another I have on DVD that was made roughly around this same time and also features a warrior/dragon battle and castles galore, differs considerably in style.

The running time may be too long for some viewers. Nonetheless this is still a great silent epic worth introducing to a whole family of multiple ages, provided there is enough popcorn on supply to keep everybody alert and not restless during the multiple silent film title card readings.

Besides all of the fantasy elements that fit in well with our favorite fairy tale books, we also have a whole zoo displayed on screen: a chimp who is either unusually big for his species or is strategically shown only with short humans, along with tigers, camels, elephants and the usual horses and donkeys. It is advisable for a parental guardian to remind the little tykes not to repeat all that they observe on screen: thou shalt not use a venomous snake in a jeweled “egg” to test a golden apple’s healing powers like Cham Shang and thou shalt not partake in pick pocketing like our hero even though it looks like so much fun. In addition, there is a shocking scene when Ahmed cuts his wrist so he can write in blood a symbol over the palace door; this may potentially result in an unnecessary trip to the ER and another mess to clean off the hallway wall.

Yet all is fantasy and fun in Fairbanks Land and how can one resist that constantly smiling face of his?

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THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: ROBIN HOOD (1922)

TB: This weekend, and next weekend, I am turning things over to Jlewis. Ordinarily I will come up with a theme, or suggest movies we might cover here. But I thought it was only fair that Jlewis have a bit of free-reign to pick a few films. He decided to focus on silent swashbucklers starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

I want to thank Jlewis for choosing these titles, because I have not seen them. And reading his review of ROBIN HOOD makes me quite eager to watch it tonight on YouTube.

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JL: It’s otherwise known as DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS IN ROBIN HOOD, its copyright title, even though Fairbanks is billed last in the title credits. There is so much to discuss with this one. Where to begin? Well… let us start with some trivia fun tidbits.

It is doubtful there is an accurate tally online as to how many times Robin Hood and his Merry Men have graced movie and TV screens, but Douglas Fairbanks’ version for United Artists was likely the 7th since 1908 and certainly the first with a budget ranging somewhere between $930,000 and $1.4 million, depending on whom you ask. If the latter financial figure is correct, then ROBIN HOOD cost a bit more than Erich Von Stroheim’s FOOLISH WIVES, which got a lot more publicity over its expenses from its very panicky studio, Universal.

For a while, the castle itself, built at the Fairbanks studio on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood along with a full Nottingham town to accompany it, was the largest set constructed for a U.S. feature. It surpassed D.W. Griffith’s earlier Babylon of INTOLERANCE and remained unrivaled until Steven Spielberg’s Devil’s Tower setting for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

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After Fairbanks got over his initial shock over the expense and effort involved, he decided that it needed to be even bigger for the screen. Thus, the cinematography team of Arthur Edeson and Charles Richardson, along with director Allan Dwan and set designer Wilfred Buckland, had to use matte paintings and hanging models to expand its size. Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd was involved in some of the set construction.

There are a couple repeating performances of note. The character of Richard the Lion-Hearted had much more screen time due to Wallace Beery the eternal Hollywood Ham and scored so well with audiences that Beery repeated his role in a United Artists follow-up the following year, titled… what else?… RICHARD THE LION-HEARTED.

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Likewise, Alan Hale was such a hit as Little John here that he too repeated the role in the even more famous Errol Flynn version for Warner Brothers almost 16 years later and… again in ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST a dozen years after that. However sonny-boy Douglas Fairbanks Junior refused Jack Warner’s offer to appear in the 1937-38 filmed production because he did not want to compete with daddy’s performance, although he would later accept the role of Wallace Beery’s King Richard in a 1968 TV series.

At least 1,200 extras were used in one scene… or so they say. Most of the Merry Men were culled from the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. A stickler for getting details accurate, Fairbanks initially used his own dog Zorro for the scene of Wallace Beery’s meat tossing scene but then learned that the Airedale breed did not exist in 12th century England and cast Great Danes instead… even if they too only stretch back in European history to the 16th century. Prince John’s falcon was purchased from England for $250, which was a bargain compared to the other expenses involved.

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Its run at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, beginning October 18, 1922, was among the longest running shows of the twenties and, according to Kevin Hagopian’s Film Notes, street conductors soon got used to saying “All out for Robin Hood” when stopping there. The New York premiere was even more entertaining than the Hollywood one, with Douglas himself pulling a publicity accident that cost him an additional $5000. Although out of costume and dressed in his usual attire, he flaunted his bow and arrow technique for fans and one of his arrows went through a tailor window and hit somebody in the… well, as Forrest Gump would say, it was actually a million dollar wound even though that victim didn’t get to see the full amount.

So… how does the movie entertain today?

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Hopefully the version you watch is the latest put out by Kino Lorber with the Sherwood Forest scenes tinted in lovely green, night scenes in blue and daytime scenes in golden yellow. It does run a bit too long; the longest version supposedly being 160 minutes and the one I have seen a few times comes close to that. Yet I tend to view the Fairbanks swashbucklers, along with some of the most famous Buster Keaton comedies like SHERLOCK JUNIOR and THE GENERAL, as the “go to” silent films to introduce to those who usually won’t sit through entertainment that much older than their parents.

There is plenty of violence in many silent epics that you saw less of in the post-Production Code thirties and forties, so that can be a drawback to any “concerned” parents who allow their tiny tots to view roaring twenties fare. We get some medieval torture with Marian’s servant, played by Billie Bennett (no relation to the Australian born Enid who plays Marian), being forced to confess with her hands being scarred. Compared to the later Technicolor THE BLACK PIRATE, this is still a much tamer film with most of the action involving leaping and dueling.

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The stunts are visually impressive even today. Fairbanks took pride in doing most, but certainly not all, himself. As with all action adventures, professional stunt men were used in long shots since not even the best eyes can identify exactly who is performing. In addition, much engineering know-how is required in all set-ups so that the stunt can be pulled off successfully. For example, the classic slide down the castle curtain was achieved with an actual slide underneath the cloth. Probably the most repeated shot, covered in many retrospective documentaries, involves Fairbanks leaping onto a rising castle draw-bride. It is fun to follow this with Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese’s 6 minute ROBINHOOD DAFFY for comparison sake, with Daffy Duck doing the total opposite of Fairbanks by hitting below the draw bridge instead.

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In other Robin Hood movies, the Sheriff of Nottingham gets more attention on screen (for example, Claude Rains beautifully milked the role well in the first Technicolor version) but William Lowery doesn’t get to do much here. He is pretty much pushed to the background with Sam de Grasse’s Prince John being the main villain here. Also the character of Sir Guy (Paul Dickey) has a slightly bigger role ambushing the Earl/Robin Hood and getting him in prison temporarily as a deserter of the Crusade. Not a whole lot of Friar Tuck (Willard Louis) and Will Scarlet (Bud Geary). As mentioned before, Alan Hale was so good as Little John that he repeated his performance more than once.

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Early ’20s cinema is a lot of fun to psychologically analyze in a “battle of the sexes” sort of way, being that this time period shortly followed women getting the vote, gaining more political and financial power in society, wearing shorter skirts, bobbing their hair, smoking in public, etc. There was a curious explosion of he-man adventures at this time, with Wallace Reid cresting just above Fairbanks in box-office popularity in very outdoorsy roles (until his heroin addiction killed him abruptly).

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Such entertainment helped ease masculine anxieties at this time when many hot-blooded men were genuinely worried about the sudden changes in society, kitchen and bedroom. One can see a similar parallel in the early ’70s post-Gloria Steinem with the dramatic return of John Wayne to theater screens already dominated by gun happy Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and company. Plus, in real life, Fairbanks was married to Mary Pickford whom everybody knew wore the pants in that household.

Our hero, as Earl of Huntingdon, is initially afraid of women in the early scenes, including Maid Marian. For her part, Enid Bennett as Marian is your typical non-challenging sweetheart who does not out-stage her man on screen. Interviewed by Kevin Brownlow in the sixties, she joked “Of course, the part was not too demanding. I just walked through it in a queenly manner.” Wallace Beery’s King Richard is quite condescending of Earl/Robin Hood’s nervousness and prolonged virginity; the title cards are quite amusing to read in this regard.

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We do get an awful lot of King Richard here. While most other versions just show King Richard showing up in the final act, here we see him chewing up the scenery in the beginning, then flaunting his warrior persona on the Crusade and, after Robin Hood’s return to deal with his brother, more than enough of him in the final act to compensate for the whole time he was off screen. A little Wallace Beery goes a long, long way.

 

Essential: SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941)

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TB: This week we are continuing our theme of Sonja Henie ice skating musicals. SUN VALLEY SERENADE, considered by many to be the highpoint of Henie’s career in Hollywood, probably features a bit more skiing than it does ice skating. Henie and her athletic costar John Payne are put through the paces in what would have been a routine romantic comedy under other stars. They make the most of the script, and there are some inspired moments along the way.

This was Henie’s eighth film at 20th Century Fox. She would just make two more for the studio, before freelancing. Glenn Miller and his orchestra receive top billing alongside Henie and Payne. It was Miller’s first feature for Fox. He would make one more (ORCHESTRA WIVES) a year later before his untimely death.

JL: Saw this one decades ago but forgot a lot over the years. Revisiting it, I am impressed by all of the now familiar names in the opening credits, thanks to my gradually increasing movie knowledge. We have Hermes Pan, famous for his work with Fred Astaire, doing dance direction. Otto Lang, who made several Oscar winning shorties in addition to hit features for Fox, is credited with the ski scenes.

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TB: Don’t forget the comic relief with Milton Berle and Joan Davis. Davis had been in two previous Henie vehicles, and she had actually been given more to do in those films. This time most of the comedy is handed to Berle, who does very nicely.

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JL: I half forgot about Milton Berle being in this, although I remembered Glenn Miller’s role. Berle was already familiar to many long before his explosive TV success in 1948, but it is still fun seeing him so young here and in earlier films like the decade earlier shortie POPPIN’ THE CORK. Most of us Generation X’ers remember him with the Muppets and as a “grandfather” on several eighties sitcoms. He is essentially the second banana “buddy” of John Payne, sort of like “funny” Danny Kaye with “romantic” Dana Andrews and “loony” Jerry Lewis with “smooth” Dean Martin.

TB: That’s an apt comparison. Sometimes, like most vaudeville comedians, Berle mugs a bit too much for the camera. But his line deliveries are always fantastic. Fox put him in B comedies after this, so he really didn’t get too much exposure in big budget fare. You mentioned John Payne, who of course, is a completely different type of male presence in this picture.

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Payne was one of the studio’s hunkier actors, rugged like George Montgomery, less on the pretty boy side. Though he certainly photographs as well as Tyrone Power did. Payne’s athleticism makes him a perfect costar for Henie, and I also think Payne projects an innocence, or rather a wholesomeness, that plays well against Lynn Bari, who is cast as the shrewish other woman.

JL: John Payne plays Ted Scott, a pianist working with a struggling band with both buddies Phil (Miller) and Jerry (Berle). A lead singer giving them their break is a prima donna named Vivian Dawn (Bari) who agrees to work with them if she can date Ted, who obviously has taken a liking to her. Then all of the ease of their new fortune is disrupted when an earlier commitment Ted made to accept a refugee from war stricken Norway… whom he was expecting to be a little child, winds up being sexy grown up Karen Benson (Henie). Thus, we get the great triangle dilemma of one man juggling two women and not sure which one he loves.

TB: I think the way Henie’s character is introduced is quite uproarious. We are expecting to see a baby arrive at the airport, and certainly we are as shocked as Ted and the guys that this “baby” is one hot babe. The audience knows she is going to fall for Ted, which she does in record time, and that he’s going to fall for her, though he tries to resist her charms throughout much of the story. There’s a lot of good romantic chemistry and romantic tension in their scenes together. It’s rewarding to watch them finally unite as a couple at the end.

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JL: Yes. Sonja Henie is a lot of fun as Karen here. I actually favor this one more than ONE IN A MILLION since she had several years getting comfortable in her movie star role in between 1936 and 1941. She isn’t at all stiff like she was earlier, although her accent is exaggerated more. She displays great emotional depth when the man she loves agrees to marry Vivian but…as we all know, fate has a funny way of working itself out. For her part, Lynn Bari’s Vivian displays the pride of a lioness. His “You are the swellest girl I ever met” gets her tongue-in-cheek response of “that is what I think of me too.” That is, until jealousy takes over and she decides to abandon him. It is Karen’s job to then step in to save the day.

TB: Let’s talk about the setting. It starts in New York and there’s a sequence at Ellis Island when Karen arrives. But a few minutes later, we find out that Jerry has booked Ted, Phil and the guys to play at a resort in Idaho. Of course Karen wants to tag along, already having decided she should marry Ted. But Ted doesn’t want her to come along, and it is up to Jerry to work out a plan to sneak Karen on to the train. Jerry, for his part, thinks he has a chance with Karen and this adds to the Midsummer Night’s confusion of things.

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When they get to Idaho, we enjoy shots of skiing, skating and frolicking outdoors. The scenery is breathtaking. And scenes where they are on sleds gliding across the firmly packed snow feel authentic and magical.

JL: Sun Valley is a great ski tourist trap that was familiar to a generation of moviegoers thanks to numerous 30s-50s travelogue shorts and newsreels featuring Hollywood celebrities recreating there. Fox made some sports-reels like SNOW TRAILS around this time that utilize virtually the same footage as this feature, much like ONE IN A MILLION tapped similar shortie material of the Olympics. Their incorporation was intended to make each film feel less studio-bound, but they weren’t totally successful.

Even in black and white, you can see painted backdrops in the skating scenes along with the usual fake winter set-ups, plus some rear projection in the ski close-up shots, all made more obvious when stitched with you-are-there scenics not involving the lead stars. Olympic champ Sonja doesn’t ski on film, but another Olympic champ, Gretchen Fraser, covers her in long shots that Otto Lang supervised.

TB: There’s a fantastic musical number a bit later on, when Ted goes skiing and finds Karen on the slopes. They play a game of cat-and-mouse, while Phil and the band are back at the lodge rehearsing. We are treated to Miller and his orchestra performing a rousing version of ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo.’ Certainly one of the film’s highlights.

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JL: Glenn Miller may not be much of an actor in his supporting role, but remember that he was as popular at that time as Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé were in their own eras. His band, with Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly and the Modernaires doing vocals, initially recorded “Chattanooga Choo Choo” on May 7, 1941 for (RCA) Victor’s Bluebird label, but its release was strategically postponed to be released simultaneously with the movie showcasing it in August.

The marketing was great since the 78 rpm sold an astounding 1.2 million copies during the autumn of 1941 and right through 1942. It was #1 on Billboard when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Too bad the popular version we are most familiar with on discs does not feature Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers wowing us in both vocals and dance routines; thus, giving us a nice interracial mix ahead of its time. Unfortunately most bands were still segregated at this time and, therefore, we don’t actually see Miller perform with those stars.

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TB: Of course this is still a Sonja Henie film, and that means there will be a spectacular ice skating finale at the end. After Karen and Ted give in to the feelings that have been building between them, and Vivian has left the scene, we cut to Karen putting on an ice show. Interestingly, it is not said how this came about; but I suppose we can guess that Jerry arranged it. And now Karen is just as popular with audiences as the band is. The skating finale is certainly done indoors, because at various points during Henie’s routine, she is skating through slight puddles. Meaning the ice was melting under the hot studio lights. But it’s a great number nonetheless.

JL: The climax that closes the film is especially impressive visually against its wintertime backdrop. Skating aside, I got the impression that Fox was eager to branch her out into other types of roles to keep her relevant at the box-office. She does quite well in her comic moments with Payne dealing with her faked ski injury even if the screenwriters don’t provide particularly funny lines for her. With better material, I could see her as a potential wartime successor of great screwball blondes of the Carole Lombard mode.

TB: Yes, I think Sonja Henie did have the potential to branch out into other roles. I’m glad we spent these two weeks discussing her films. This has been most enjoyable!

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SUN VALLEY SERENADE may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: ONE IN A MILLION (1936)

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TB: This weekend and next weekend we are looking at two Sonja Henie vehicles. Her seven year reign at Fox helped to popularize the ice skating musical, and there were several imitators at other studios. People like Monogram’s Belita, and Republic’s Vera Hruba Ralston. In Ralston’s case, she married Republic studio boss Herbert Yates and transitioned into leading roles across a variety of genres. But Belita and Henie did not really transition, so when their style of movie went out of vogue, their screen careers abruptly ended.

Henie was more interested in advocating physical fitness and the Olympics, so I am sure the end of her movie career was not a big blow to her. Plus she had shrewdly negotiated with Zanuck and made enough money from those pictures to sustain her for the rest of her life.

At first I debated our covering a few Henie titles, since it could be said that she turned out cinematic fluff. But I do think there is quite a bit of talent on display and certainly a level of artistry in terms of art design, music and direction. Plus, as Jlewis discusses below, Henie’s Fox vehicles always included the top character actors and actresses.

This week we are looking at Henie’s motion picture debut– ONE IN A MILLION (1936)– and next week we will discuss one of her later projects, the sublime SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941) which is certainly a classic.

Before I turn things over to Jlewis, I want to say that I think he’s a bit kinder than I would have been. I don’t consider ONE IN A MILLION a very exciting film. It has a few dull stretches in it, but it’s a good showcase for the neophyte actress; and I think overall it retains a fair amount of entertainment value. The film we will cover next week is much better. But if you’ve never seen a Sonja Henie film before, then at the very least ONE IN A MILLION is a good introduction to her unique charms.

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JL: Obviously 20th Century Fox was not just about Shirley Temple in the mid thirties. This title makes ample use of several familiar contract players like Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers in addition to the main attraction, Sonja Henie. Also Adolphe Menjou, who was traveling from studio to studio.

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The introductory music over the title cards seems influenced by the Busby Berkeley musicals that Fox head-honcho Darryl Zanuck helped initiate earlier when he worked at Warner Brothers. There is a jolly let’s-get-right-to-it and put-on-a-show quality that fits the era, plus plenty of sarcasm regarding the not so jolly side of life.

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In the first dialogue sequence, Menjou as struggling bandleader Thaddeus Spencer aboard a train reacts to one complaint: “We are all hungry. We are all cold. In an hour, we will all be warm and we will be eating.” The response: “Yeah… each other.” There are plenty of wise cracks like this that amuse on the soundtrack, particularly from Arline Judge as Thaddeus’ wife; her main job being to smack Thaddeus across the face in words rather than hands when he gets too pompous and idealistic.

Jack Haskell gets credit for staging the “skating ensembles” and was Oscar nominated as well, but I am certain he did not have to aid Sonja Henie all that much. I find it all too tempting to compare and contrast her to Esther Williams because both had very specialized talents exploited by a major studio over an 8-9 year period. As Thaddeus describes her skating, it is like “dancing on ice”, much like Esther’s “dancing” underwater in the later MGM aquamusicals.

Sonja did very well indeed in the Quigley box office polls of the time (making the top 10 cut in 1937-39 and peaking at #3 in ’38, with just Shirley Temple and Clark Gable above her), but clearly her first love was promoting skating as a professional sport and educating the public in tours more than movie stardom itself. (Part of her dip in popularity could have been some backlash to her being too accepting of Adolf Hitler’s congratulations at the Olympics, but Fox made sure she proved where her alliances were by casting her in the anti-Nazi EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT NIGHT.)

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As Greta, the daughter of Swiss inn-keeper and ex-Olympic champ Heinrich Muller (Jean Hersholt), she aids Thaddeus’ band at a promotional event and then temporarily gets disqualified at the Winter Olympics because that may have been too “professional” of a deed to do before the tournaments.

A throwaway side-story involving a burned down hotel near the Mullers’ in Switzerland and a possible suspect, dubious “Ratoffsky” (Montagnu Love), gives us the modus operandi to bring Don Ameche’s reporter Bob Harris to Greta’s little world to become her love interest.

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In the typical boy meets girl situation, she initially rejects him after seeing him give another girl neck massage, then changes her mind as she sees how he repeatedly defends her. (He also has a photographer sidekick, but poor Ned Sparks’s wonderful comic skills are completely wasted on his boring role.)

As they say, the beauty of a vintage Hollywood studio era production is less about the story and more about the talents that make up the whole production. In this regard, many musicals of the period have an ensemble feel that may seem disjointed to some who are more accustomed to a stronger focus on one story, a lead character or special effect. Quite often what involves the lead characters is halted so that we can see some comedy or musical group perform.

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The Ritz Brothers were not quite in the same league as the Marx Bothers and the Three Stooges but there is a nice surrealistic quality about their schtick that is exploited better here than in other films of theirs. I particularly like the early scene on the train when they take off more jackets than are humanly possible to wear in order to emphasize how cold they are. Quite ambitious is their own skating Horror Boys of Hollywood comic routine dressed as the Frankenstein monster, Napoleon and Peter Lorre with a mis-mash of familiar tunes that even includes the Disney favorite “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” (and the Disney animators occasionally referenced both them and Sonja herself in such cartoons as THE AUTOGRAPH HOUND).

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Less successfully utilized is Borrah Minevitch, shown later in the film with his fellow Rascals, doing the harmonica novelty routines. The three “Melody Master” shorts that the group did for Warner Brothers are quite hilarious and well worth catching when they occasionally air on TCM, but like many of the more eccentric talents in Hollywood, Borrah was not somebody who could successfully carry a full feature film on his own. I don’t get the sense that director Sidney Lanfield and the crew knew what to do with him. We even have scenes of Thaddeus stopping his playing altogether as an annoyance, as if somebody high up in management must have felt the same?

The songs performed, including the title tune, are all… passable. Hey, it ain’t rock & roll and it is hardly swing either. Don Ameche has a nice voice, reminding me of Rudy Vallee if softer, in his rendition of Sidney D. Mitchell and Lew Pollack’s “Who’s Afraid of Love?” That one was quite a hit in its day and I particularly enjoy Fats Waller’s scat version recorded December 24, 1936 just before the movie’s release:

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Footage culled from the Movietone newsreels of the previous Winter Olympics are put to good use, yet this modest production does look very studo bound otherwise. Even the winter scenes involve the familiar indoor “snow” and painted backdrops. The final mock bull fight with the Ritz Brothers followed by one more go-around with Sonja on skates brings this adequate vintage musical fluff to a surprisingly abrupt The End. I have a feeling some modern viewers will ask “is that all?”, although I doubt thirties audiences minded at all since it was a big hit.

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ONE IN A MILLION (1936) may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: TURN THE KEY SOFTLY (1953)

TB: This week Jlewis and I continue our discussion about films that feature women trying to overcome their criminal pasts. This time we have a British story that involves three protagonists. What’s interesting here is that they’re all in prison when the story starts, and we follow them out on the day they are all released. They have bonded while inside and plan to meet up for dinner later on this fateful day to remain supportive of each other.

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While Jlewis likes the film as much as I do, I don’t think he feels it has the right title. But I happen to like the title. Mainly because they’ve been locked up all this time, and the turning of the key is significant. Also, these are still women who are soft and delicate, somehow (and miraculously) not hardened by the system.

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Yvonne Mitchell has the lead role. She played a killer in the previously reviewed SAPPHIRE, and this time she’s the victim of a con artist ex-boyfriend (Terence Morgan). She paid for his crimes. A youthful Joan Collins at the start of her career plays a prostitute struggling to go legit, in the same way Carole Lombard’s character did in VIRTUE. And venerable character actress Kathleen Harrison plays a derelict whose only serious companion in life is a ragtag dog.

JL: Jack Lee directed and Maurice Cowan produced and co-scripted this drama about a trio of women leaving prison and experiencing their first day on the outside, even reuniting at Monte Cristo for a get-together.

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The most recognizable face in the cast is Joan Collins, roughly 2-3 years before her LAND OF THE PHARAOHS cult fame and decades before Dynasty, looking eerily like Elizabeth Taylor in her facial appearance and distinctive eyebrows. She plays Stella, an ex-“lady of the evening” like Carole Lombard’s Mae in VIRTUE. Yvonne Mitchell is Monica, who was well-to-do at one time but fell for the wrong man, a burglar named David who ran out on her to save his own skin.

Kathleen Harrison plays the elderly widow “Mrs.” Quilliam. There are a few similarities here to other post-war women pictures, mostly churned out of Hollywood, such as the delightful A LETTER TO THREE WIVES even though the characters generally did not have criminal pasts.

TB: We should point out that Harrison was known for the popular Huggett family films. So she tended to be typecast in comedic roles, usually as befuddled mothers. But in this story, Mrs. Quilliam is anything but comical and her situation anything but funny.

JL: When the prison guard opens the gate, he announces “there you are, ladies, London… the biggest city in the world and it is all yours.” All three express great anticipation on their faces since they have grown accustomed to their surroundings and are being freed like children leaving “the nest” into a world that are no longer familiar to them.

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Collins’ Stella seems to have the most anxiety because she was engaged to get married to a man who promised he would be willing to wait even six years for her, but we know promises must always be questioned. Monica’s initial reaction to the outside is a particularly effective one: we hear sparrows chirping in the trees and busy traffic in the distance, sounds that she clearly missed for a while and that is enough to give her satisfaction.

TB: Yes, I am glad you brought up the subtleties of the soundtrack. Often what we see in this film is supported by natural sound or realistic background noise, things that reinforce what is going on in the narrative, even if it is not blatantly obvious.

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JL: Monica’s struggles to find employment with a criminal record are realistic ones many modern day viewers can relate to. Ultimately her honesty about her situation pays off and we as viewers are just as happy as she is when one business man takes a chance on her. (In her excitement after getting her first job out of prison, we get a nice extra touch by Yvonne the actress: she gleefully picks up a pillow on the street and gives it to the toddler in a stroller, only for him to toss it back out on the street after she leaves him.)

TB: Though Mitchell is playing the lead role and her character’s drama seems to have a bit more prominence, all three women do seem to share roughly the same amount of screen time. In that regard, it’s a well-balanced tale. But I feel Collins’ story is probably the more interesting one.

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JL: I guess some may consider Monica’s story less interesting to watch on screen than pretty-but-sleazy Stella and the strange old lady who goes home to be reunited with her dog (“Johnny” is initially thought by others to be her boyfriend), but Monica may be one that more of us can identify with…she, of course, has to end her relationship with David, but residue feelings get the best of her and she is again wooed and “bedded” by him (love how the Brits are more ho-hum about such things than the prudish Yanks) despite her attempt to leave him. Oh well. She had been in prison and had no contact with a man for twelve months so I guess everybody is entitled to a few mistakes.

TB: One thing I enjoy about the film is that while there is some cross-cutting, when they go off in separate directions at the beginning (before they are reunited at dinner), their scenes seem to complement each other.

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JL: Yes. It is interesting that we follow a key scene of Monica trying to break up with David while wearing the orchid he gave her over lunch with scenes of Mrs. Quilliam inspecting other flowers outside a shop and one very suspicious owner asking “you wanted something?” (Later she even gets Monica’s orchid.) Quilliam was put in prison for shoplifting and, despite her petty sins, she is mistreated a lot by others (but not by her two friends, of course) since she is past her prime and down on her luck. Her own daughter (Hilda Fenemore) won’t socialize with her beyond what is necessary due to Mrs. Quilliam’s embarrassing past. Johnny her dog is the one who remains faithful to her and his sudden disappearance in the city streets provides drama for the film’s final act.

TB: Let’s talk a bit more about Stella, the character that Collins plays.

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JL: There’s a nice shot of Stella looking at Susan Hayward billed on a wall-poster for a currently playing SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO: one future star, Joan Collins, idolizing an established star on screen. She wants to be a walking fashion plate and her need for such accessories like earrings are what often get her into trouble. Bob is her beau, played by Glyn Houston in a nice Average Joe sort of way, and his job as a bus conductor resembles Jimmy the taxi driver in VIRTUE, also involving a woman who previously sold her body for profit wishing to settle down in marriage despite her questionable past. Needless to say, I am less confident that she and Bob will survive as a couple as Mae and Jimmy do in the other film since she isn’t always convincing in her “I’ve changed” ways.

TB: I might disagree with this, because I do think the film shows that Stella does have a change of heart. And it’s particularly significant when she does break away from prostitution for good and chooses to go off and have a married life with Bob. She might be tempted from time to time, but I think we can assume she’s made a choice she intends to stick with for the rest of her life.

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JL: The trio later wind up together at Monte Cristo for champagne, but the story doesn’t end there. We get more with Monica trying to stop David going back to his old criminal ways. Johnny the dog gets lost in the city streets and his reunion with his mistress is… oh, I won’t spoil it. Stella needs money badly and decides to return to her “working girl” profession with an older drunk guy, not even thinking of Bob in the moment, but she soon develops a conscious and tries to become a “good” girl in the end.

To be honest, I felt these later climaxes to be a bit distracting, compared to the rest of the movie. It felt like I was watching separate movies involving the same characters and wondered if this would have worked better as two episodes of a TV show. Don’t get me wrong. It is still a very well-made movie with good performances and, typical of the Rank film empire, excellent production values.

TB: Not that I am trying to defend the film, but I think it has to be episodic…because while the women are connected due to their time in prison…it’s clear that they all have unresolved pasts to contend with, pasts that do no involve each other. Your mentioning of television is interesting. This film is sort of like an episode of an Aaron Spelling TV drama (Fantasy Island or Hotel) where they all start and end at the same place, but what happens in between is quite separate.

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JL: The scenes of David getting caught on the rooftops Hitchcock style are visually impressive with great stunt work and expert camera angles. Yet we the viewers don’t care as much for his plight as we do for the women because we have not gotten to know him all that well, apart from Monica’s perspective.

TB: I would agree with this point. David is sort of surplus to the requirements. It’s really a story about women’s empowerment. But I guess we have to see Monica finally deal with David and what David’s crimes have cost her.

JL: I also feel I need more of a reason as to the “why” he continues the career of a thief despite Monica’s pleas, which is more thoroughly explained in, to mention one example, BONNIE & CLYDE with Warren Beatty’s character discussing his dreams to Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie of starting over in a place where he won’t be recognized. This is suggested, but not explained further, with David. The problem is simply this: there are three stories competing for running time here and the David/Monica one needs the most development and doesn’t quite get it all covered adequately.

TB: Let’s discuss how the film ends.

JL: The ending is a real downer but we do get a new family started between a canine and his new human owner. It certainly would fit well in the company of many earlier doom-and-gloom 1930s French dramas like PORT OF SHADOWS a.k.a. LE QUAI DES BRUMES. As we all know, life throws us curve balls and we must just suck it up and accept what is given to us. I certainly would recommend this as an interesting drama of post-war British cinema, if a trifle disjointed in structure. That is, if you expect a certain structure in your cinema. Who is to say that it is needed when life itself is never as structured as we want it to be in the movies? Maybe the movie should have been twenty minutes longer to resolve the stories better? I don’t know.

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TB: I think the writer was trying to neatly wrap up the plots in TURN THE KEY…obviously…and yes, it’s a stretch that (spoiler) Monica would find the dog at the end. But I think all three women are meant to be part of a greater whole woman, as it were, so we sort of have Monica becoming Mrs. Quilliam. Meanwhile, Stella becomes what Monica might have been before, a woman in a stable loving relationship.

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I really love the scene where Stella chooses Bob. Because up till then it seems like she’s regressing and will end up back in prison. But she does get a happy ending, and it’s a sublime moment.

TURN THE KEY SOFTLY may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: VIRTUE (1932)

TB: This month our theme is “Her Reputation.” It means we are looking at films with female protagonists who might have a criminal past. But because they are mostly uplifting dramas, the women in these stories strive to overcome past mistakes and live a more productive life.

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TB: For our first week on this topic, we are highlighting a Columbia precode starring Carole Lombard called VIRTUE. It can currently be found on YouTube under the title GOODNESS. I should mention a bit of background about the production. Lombard was locked into a long-term contract at this time at Paramount. However, she was fighting boss Adolph Zukor about the sort of scripts that would best serve her talents.

At an impasse, Zukor placed Lombard on suspension. She promptly went to Columbia where she struck up a friendship with Harry Cohn. Cohn was eager to use Lombard to bring more prestige to his then-poverty row studio. He offered Paramount money to borrow Lombard, which meant her suspension was lifted. Lombard was able to get away from her home studio for awhile, and she was able to do material that interested her. She made several films for Columbia during the next few years. And one of them (TWENTIETH CENTURY) firmly established her reputation as a screwball comedienne.

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In VIRTUE, she is playing a much more dramatic part. And she handles the role with ease. Her character Mae is a down-on-her-luck prostitute that meets a brash but vulnerable taxi driver (Pat O’Brien). And from there, a rather interesting relationship– and sudden marriage– occurs.

JL: One of the virtues of early ’30s Hollywood is that the average feature running time was 65-70 minutes with only prestige productions being longer. This was to accommodate all of the short subjects and newsreels, occasionally double features for matinees (although this trend was more commonplace mid-decade after the consolidation of several B-studios under Monogram, Republic and the like). Thus, every storyline gets right to the point and we never get a moment of boredom.

VIRTUE, directed by Edward Bussell (who also acts in a few scenes as well), may not be a masterpiece but certainly deserves more attention than it gets since it satisfies with its speedy storytelling populated by speedy talkers.

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TB: Yes. That is worth mentioning. Both Lombard and O’Brien deliver their lines quickly. There are no belabored moments, or drawn out pauses. This gives their scenes a lot of energy. O’Brien had sort of perfected this delivery style a year earlier in the original version of THE FRONT PAGE.

JL: Carole Lombard’s Mae has been run out of town because she’s a lady-of-the-evening working in the oldest profession and only her commitment to marriage to honest and straight forward Jimmy, played by O’Brien, prevents the fire-and-brimstone crowd from getting all up in arms.

TB: I like how O’Brien’s character is a bit tough at the beginning. Jimmy’s charmed by Mae, but he’s also a bit skeptical. Probably because while driving cab around town, he’s met other gals like her before. He doesn’t intend to get burned. However, she does get a ride from him without paying.

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JL: Yes. Jimmy thinks all dames have “some kind of a racket” when he lectures his roommate Frank (Ward Bond) who is getting married. He stumbles upon Mae in his taxi and she gyps him for a free ride, an interesting introduction for a couple destined to fall for each other. Also, when back with her roommate Lil (Mayo Methot), Mae receives instruction resembling what Jimmy gave his roommate in regards to love, telling her to never fall in it and “get out while you can.” Since her earlier escape from Jimmy’s taxi involved a damaged window, Mae’s take on the subject runs like this: “yeah, try and get out. Once you are in, you’re in. It is like hopping out of a window. When you jump, you just naturally gotta keep going.”

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TB: Of course, we know our two main characters will cross paths again. Or else there wouldn’t be a love story. I like how the writers contrive to throw them back together. It’s because Mae has developed a conscience, and decides she needs to pay Jimmy for the fare, after all.

JL: She does this in front of other mocking taxi drivers. Pat O’Brien gives a great performance trying to act cynical in front of his buddies, then gets irritable when their laughter gets the best of him and snaps “shut your trap.” I call this “tough love.” He doesn’t want to show his true feelings in front of his fellow dudes but Mae clearly has him hooked.

TB: We should point out that while he might initially suspect she is a prostitute, Mae doesn’t ever confirm this to Jimmy in the beginning stages of the relationship. So he’s a little gullible and chooses to believe she’s a good girl. Obviously, because he’s hooked as you say, and he can’t admit he’s falling for a prostitute. When they impulsively marry, she has certainly given up her former life.

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JL: As I’ve mentioned before, romantic movies are less about the happiness of the couple together and more about the unusual circumstances that bring them together and the turmoil that they face when either breaking up or being tested for a possible break-up. Our happy scenes in the fair grounds with the little kisses and other expressions of affection are confined to a brief montage sequence a la CASABLANCA style. Inevitably the truth of her, um, working gal profession is unveiled when a private investigator finds her after running her out of town. Jimmy slaps her and leaves to drown his sorrows at the bar. Soon he decides to forgive her and instructs her to end contacts with her “old gang.”

TB: This is where the soap opera aspects of the plot kick into gear. We know that she won’t be able to totally disengage from the gang. And of course, this is going to cause a huge disruption in the marriage.

JL: Exactly. When another friend of hers, Shirley Grey’s Gert, needs extra cash for a doctor due to “trouble,” Mae gets scammed by her and her “p” Toots (Jack Le Rue), resulting in Mae borrowing from Jimmy’s funds being saved for a garage he wants to be co-owner of some day. Her second confrontation with Gert lands her in even bigger trouble since Toots accidentally kills Gert in a skirmish and Mae gets arrested at the scene of the crime.

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TB: I didn’t expect there to be a killing. But certainly knew there would be some sort of trouble, some sort of violence. Jimmy becomes Mae’s staunchest supporter through all of this.

JL: Fortunately, he has been tailing her and has noticed Toots in the same apartment complex where he observed his wife venturing. Jimmy ends up pleading in her defense at headquarters. In addition Toots is involved romantically with Mae’s always understanding ex-roommate Lil, who uses her feminine “wiles” to trick him into going to police headquarters. Although everything gets resolved in the end, we don’t often see relationships built on “for better and for worse” with the worst being showcased on screen. This makes VIRTUE good Depression Era entertainment that reflected real America on screen instead of the usual reel America.

TB: Great point(s). And we’re getting strong issues depicted on screen. How women struggle to support themselves; how a couple struggle to make a marriage work; friends who have their own problems; references to prostitution, economics and abortion. There’s a murder. Etc. Ordinarily, a story like this might get a bit heavy handed. But in this case, it doesn’t; and I think much of that is the way the cast pulls it off.

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JL: This is a classic example of proper casting work done in a well-oiled Hollywood studio like Columbia Pictures. Pat O’ Brien and Carole Lombard are both wise-crackers who fit naturally together as a couple. There is a natural flow to their relationship, beginning when he tells her how much he does not want to get married and she certainly doesn’t pressure him in any way, but still mentions all of those lonely single bachelors she has acquainted herself with (ahem… we can let that one slide). He may not act lonely in any way, but you sense that he is nonetheless, especially when he is away from her at the bar after their first marriage trial. Also the scene when his buddy gets him to come to her defense, we see Pat in a very untypical scene (for him as an actor) all depressed and melancholy.

TB: Anything else you’d like to mention?

JL: Not much more to add here but there are a few curios that tickle me. Obviously society was more innocent back then since doors are not locked. Mae just asks for the room number of Gert from the front office man and he doesn’t question her at all, not that Mae looks sinister in any way before she gets arrested. Yet we live in an age of tight security and so much red tape that such material like this in old movies is still surprising to us.

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Again, VIRTUE may currently be viewed on YouTube under the title GOODNESS.

Essential: SPELLBOUND (1945)

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Part 1 of 2

TB: This weekend and next weekend, our theme is Ingrid Bergman Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Star and director seemed to get along well, and they collaborated three times in Hollywood (while both were under contract to producer David Selznick). Jlewis and I will be looking at the first two pictures, SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS…though we might certainly cover UNDER CAPRICORN later.

Before we dive into Jlewis’ in-depth remarks on SPELLBOUND, I wanted to ask a few questions…

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TB: In your review for SPELLBOUND, you discuss frequent Hitchcock images. Do you think Hitchcock was recycling images or was he recycling themes that required some of the same dramatic images?

JL: Hitchcock loved to repeat visual set-ups that worked before. For example, the Statue Of Liberty (SABOTEUR) was a familiar landmark in which the unexpected happens: a villain falls off of it.

Later he did it again with Mt. Rushmore (NORTH BY NORTHWEST). A shower stabbing (PSYCHO) was followed by a prolonged strangling (TORN CURTAIN). Of course, he wasn’t always gruesome, but he knew what intrigued viewers…and shocked them ever so much without over-doing it. Hitchcock and Walt Disney as a producer were alike in that they kept revisiting something familiar that could be enhanced the second time around, but doing it skillfully enough that the average viewer only subconsciously realizes this repetition. This is why they both became the two most marketable names in American entertainment after P.T. Barnum.

The average American tends to be rather conservative in tastes, wishing to be startled and shocked just  ever so much, but also have plenty of the familiar that they think…but are not quite sure… they had experienced before. Just so they can stomach the unpredictable in digestible quantities.  This is also why Americans love sports events so much, since there are only so many ways people can chase after those familiar bouncing balls or running wheels.

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TB: Interesting. SPELLBOUND was produced in 1945. It is mostly about a female shrink analyzing and helping a male patient. Why do you think psychoanalysis was trendy at this time? Due to the war and soldiers’ trauma? This film has some similarity with THE OCTOBER MAN (especially the amnesia part) which we previously reviewed.

JL: At least partly due to the war and soldiers’ trauma. 1944-45 was a bumper crop year for such subject matter. I was watching, right after SPELLBOUND, a vintage “Crime Does Not Pay” MGM short called DARK SHADOWS that eerily resembled it in a few scenes, including the Dali moments you question. It was made at the same time but preceded the feature in theaters.  I think the film noir detective films that were popular at this time (LAURA, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MURDER MY SWEET, etc.) were very psychological too.

The main point here is that Gregory Peck’s character resembles many returning service men who were shell shocked in some way or another and the villain was hoping his amnesia would keep him in the clear for his crime. They even hinted he served in the military but I would have to re-watch to be sure.

TB: I should point out that Peck later played an amnesia victim in Edward Dmytryk’s MIRAGE (1965). MIRAGE feels very much like a Hitchcock-type film. Have you seen it?

JL: I have heard a lot about MIRAGE but need to see it still.

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TB: In your comments for SPELLBOUND, you mention Salvador Dali’s contribution to the film. Especially how his sequence had been cut from 20 minutes to around 3 minutes. How would a 20-minute Dali sequence have been received by critics and viewers? Wonder what other artists thought of it at the time. I think it would have been way too much at 20 minutes, like some of Welles’ self-indulgent hallucinogenic imagery in THE TRIAL and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

JL: I read that Ingrid Bergman was impressed by the 20 minute version. You may be right about audiences not wanting to sit through a long sequence like that. Certainly a viewer in 2020 would not have the patience. Then again, moviegoers were different back then. Many MGM musicals of the ’40s have lengthy numbers that stop the story plot in its tracks, but audiences at the time loved them all the more. Doubt an average TV and cell phone addict today could. You can also add as an example the finale to AN AMERICAN IN PARIS which runs roughly that length. The Dali sequence DID get a lot of pre-release exposure that so many coming to theaters were expecting to see it.

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TB: Last question. Do you think the glamorous/romantic angle makes the film more commercial? I wonder if a sinister treatment of the memory loss theme would have actually failed with moviegoers.

JL: I suspect that more than one ending was planned and the one chosen was the “feel good” one appropriate to post-war audiences, but I would have to research it further. STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN was released in the U.S. and Britain with slightly different endings. There is nothing pessimistic about either ending, but one ends with Ruth Roman’s character on the phone getting a resolution that all is well while the U.S. version needed to make it more obvious by showing the couple together in a jokey situation not unlike the ending of SPELLBOUND.

TB: To be honest, I’m not particularly enamored with the ending of SPELLBOUND. It reminds me of the ending of SUSPICION, where the producers are afraid of bombing with the test audience and give a somber storyline a rather artificial denouement. I would have preferred it if SPELLBOUND had a much bleaker conclusion. But that’s just me! Anyway, I think our readers are now sufficiently prepared for your full commentary on SPELLBOUND. And I will post it tomorrow.

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Part 2 of 2

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Jlewis wrote:

While it may not be Alfred Hitchcock’s all-time best, it was certainly among his most profitable in its initial release. Most of his films did well, but only a handful made the ranks of the top earners of their given year and SPELLBOUND competed successfully with THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Mind you, earning close to five million was a much bigger deal back then than it is today.

Timing had a lot to do with it. Psychoanalysis was trending in popular entertainment as many Americans tried to comprehend the brutality of a world war and all of the post-traumatic stress involving the returning soldiers. Stir in the novelty of Ingrid Bergman teaming up with handsome leading man Gregory Peck (younger than most of her co-stars), who admitted in his later years that the two cheated on their spouses during filming, and the inclusion of an ambitious Salvador Dali supervised dream sequence that got plenty of pre-release publicity in the periodicals of the time.

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Being produced by David O. Selznick (for United Artists) was an added plus since he too was going through some psychological therapy of his own and, in addition to pushing the story on Hitchcock, he even gave one of his own analysts, May Romm M.D., screen credit. However my sense is that he didn’t want the director to get quite as dark and penetrative as Hitch would have liked on account of his own struggles of grief, brother loss included. Thus, we get the usual happy ending tacked on to the finale and many scenes much more brightly lit for a noir-ish mystery of the period.

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Despite the limitations, this was still Hitchcock’s favored home turf and he would incorporate SPELLBOUND-ish elements in many of his later works. The frequent cross questioning of “try to remember” here between Bergman and Peck’s characters foreshadows Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty cross questioning Kim Novak’s Madeleine in VERTIGO. Peck’s close-up shots and later looking anguished with his face half-lit is eerily similar to how Anthony Perkins was seen in PSYCHO. One can go on with other images that got recycled later.

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The slightly implausible story involves Peck as Dr. Anthony replacing a retiring Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll, a familiar face in multiple Hitch flicks) as head of Green Acres psychiatric facility. Bergman’s Dr. Constance, who is also working there, finds him fascinating psychologically in the way he reacts strongly to four line patterns in tablecloths/clothing and bright white and it is also suggested, if not completely spelled out, that he is a wartime veteran suffering from combat stress causing amnesia. Inevitably… since this is Hollywood story telling… she also becomes romantically interested in him as well. She drops her glasses and dresses more like a lady and less like the analytical nerd who drives Rhonda Fleming’s sexually inhibited character bonkers in an early scene.

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Unfortunately she soon learns as others do that Dr. Anthony is not the real Dr. Anthony, but an impostor who mysteriously wound up in his place either due to or because of his amnesia. Since he can’t remember what he was doing before he “became” Dr. Anthony, he also can’t prove he is not responsible for the original doctor’s murder when it is officially reported. This is one common theme in Hitch flicks: one man trying to prove he is innocent when he can’t muster the proof of it. Another common theme of Hitch’s is the woman who must decide to either defend her man or fear him. Constance trusts her instincts that he is not a killer even though she isn’t 100% sure and others suspect he is; this situation reminds me of Joan Fontaine’s character in SUSPICION, among others.

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Thanks to some special therapy of hers involving a dare jump on the Vermont ski slopes, she finally gets him to improve his memory and he confidently tells Constance that his real name is John Ballantyne. He also revisits the accidental death of his brother in childhood which he forever blamed himself for. This backstory is particularly interesting due to the fact that producer David O. Selznick felt equally guilty for not saving his own brother Myron from alcoholic decline and death in March 1944, just four months before principle photography began.

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In short, John and Constance realize that he is not a killer even though that is difficult to prove to the authorities. The final act involves Constance using her psychological abilities to piece puzzle pieces together and figure out who the real criminal is, one who is well within her familiar surroundings. Yes, there is an awful lot in this story that can easily be spoiled…but I won’t. Let’s just say that older men don’t take kindly to younger blood taking over their positions. Also love conquers all.

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Like the ballet at the end of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Salvador Dali’s dream sequence made in collaboration with the legendary set-designer William Cameron Menzies was intended to be a key spectacle that, according to actress Bergman, was initially 20 minutes long and then cut down to only 2-3 minutes. Its purpose is to illustrate a dream that John describes to Constance and her friend and former educator Dr. Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov). Supposedly much that got cut was either too tedious or too offensive to Selznick’s tastes; one scene initially featured Bergman morphing into a statue and insects crawling out of her face.

Despite its limited running time, it is still as impressive to modern eyes as it was back then with its mix of animation (shadow winged creature chasing John), montages and double exposures, distorted shots of a gambling table and a particularly impressive shot of giant scissors cutting through a curtain image of eye balls, this key moment paying homage to Dali’s earlier UN CHIEN ANDALOU. Dali was currently involved in multiple Hollywood projects during this decade, including an earlier montage sequence for 20th Century Fox’s MOONTIDE and an ill-fated DESTINO project with Walt Disney.

Much has been discussed in print about the music. Miklós Rózsa’s absolutely gorgeous score is justifiably famous, but I do wonder if Bernard Herrmann (the original choice) would have been better suited since he might have been more sinister and less glamorous/romantic.

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Then again, Rózsa soon successfully moved on to even darker material like THE LOST WEEKEND and THE KILLERS. The former film was, in fact, completed during the same time this one was since both were 1944 productions postponed in their release due to producer and censorship issues. A major breakthrough with both was the use of the theremin, an electronic keyboard that added other worldly effects that would later become commonplace in science fiction fare.

SPELLBOUND is a classic and highly enjoyable but, as I re-watch it every couple years or so, I am constantly reminded that it is still a forties film made in forties Hollywood. It is not just the social aspects of the people on screen (this being the era when everybody smoked even if they were in the medical profession), but also the cinematic gimmicks. The Dali dream sequence has characters “faceless” with burlap bags that are distracting and certain props like the famous distorted wheel fall clumsily. The ski scene looks especially phony with all of its rear projection. Also because no actor could hold a hand steady for that final close-up scene with a gun turning to the audience, a large model hand prop is conspicuously used.

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A special gimmick regarding the final climax is the sudden splash of red when the gun is fired. This reportedly had to be hand cut into each print with Technicolor stock even though reprints processed later tended to miss the effect and reprint it all in black and white. Peter Bogdanovich once asked Hitch if he thought audiences even noticed it in theaters. The response was “Noooh, they just felt it.” By the fifties, this Hitch-trick evolved into what is loosely called quicker-than-a-wink “subliminal messaging,” something that all TV advertisers milk relentlessly today.

After that climactic shot, we get the usual happy kissing scene with our lovebirds, prompting a second reaction take by a train worker for comic effect (since he saw them earlier kissing like he was departing on a wartime train but then boarding together). Like STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN and a few others, I do feel a bit “oh hum” about these tacked on happy endings even though I fully understand that this is what moviegoers wanted to remind themselves of when they left the theater and not the gun scene. Otherwise SPELLBOUND would not have been the big success that it was.

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