Archive for Charles Coburn

Bickel Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

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VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

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If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

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Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

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SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

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Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

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Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

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After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

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Male Practice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by dcairns

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THE DOCTOR AND THE GIRL is an MGM film before it’s a Curtis Bernhardt film — no glimmers of expressionism here. And what Fiona called “the worst title ever” — certainly the most generic. But it does stretch a bit at the limits of what can be said about the world in an L.B. Mayer production. Arrogant junior doctor Glenn Ford, product of a tyrannical surgeon father (Charles Coburn NEARLY in KING’S ROW mode) falls for and is humanized by Janet Leigh, who is of humble origins, mans a taffy-rotating mechanism for a living, and has a lung abscess, though you would never know those things to look at her. Surprisingly, he sacrifices his dream of neurosurgery to become a slum doctor, and finds happiness. It’s the sacrificed dream bit that’s surprising — most Hollywood confections would find a way to give him his heart’s desire twice over.

Meanwhile. his sister (Gloria DeHaven) gets pregnant out of wedlock, which means she’s sentenced to death by the Hays Code.

What’s unsettling is the glimpses the film offers us of Bellevue — Leigh only survives the place because Ford pulls strings and gets her the top surgeon — it’s made pretty clear that with a regular doctor she didn’t stand much chance. If she hadn’t been young perky and white, what chance would she have had? What chance do these characters have?

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Pow!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by dcairns

IMPACT isn’t a great noir, indeed bits aren’t much like noir at all, but I wanted to see it because it’s another film to deploy that strange noir meme, the guy who assumes a new identity working in a small town garage — see also Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Lancaster in THE KILLERS, and Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, it’s Brian Donlevy who shucks off a life as married corporate bigshot to become a grease monkey in the employ of Ella Raines, after his wife’s lover attempts to kill him and instead inflicts him with temporary amnesia.

But I found another intriguing aspect to keep me occupied as the film trundled along, not exactly riveting but oddly structured — the bucolic middle section is a very unusual feature, and the sympathetic husband inverts the James M Cain adultery-murder plotline — I detected in this 1949 movie a weird echo of 1941’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

Plotwise, the amnesia gimmick is the obvious connection, but the idea of a powerful rich dude descending to the working classes is another link. As Donlevy staggers along the railway tracks, the movie seems on a convergent line, only to divert ultimately into a not-too-exciting courtroom drama. But the cast is full of Sturges links —

Robert Warwick, a studio exec in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS plays another desk jockey here, a police captain. Most of the rest of the cast have Sturgesian credentials — Donlevy, of course, was McGinty in THE GREAT MCGINTY and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK: Charles Coburn was in THE LADY EVE; and Ella Raines played one of her earliest parts for Sturges in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO.

My old friend Lawrie, who remembered seeing Raines movies in the 40s, once said, “I was always very interested in Ella Raines, because I had heard she was a lesbian, and of course… I had no idea what that meant.”

I have no idea if Ella was a lesbian in reality (she was married twice, once for a long time, and had kids, not that any of that proves anything in this cockeyed carnival) but perhaps anxiety about her sexuality and screen persona influenced the nervousness of the studio bosses at Paramount who told Sturges that his leading lady was unconvincing as a girl next door? The resulting tensions contributed to Sturges’s decision to depart the studio, which ultimately led, alas, to his career plunging into a tailspin.

IMPACT also benefits from the presence of Anna May Wong, albeit in a somewhat thankless maid role, and Helen Walker as the scheming wife. Walker’s best noir role is as the scheming shrink in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and her best comedy role was not for Sturges but for Lubitsch, as the Honorable Betty Cream in CLUNY BROWN (see it, you may find it to be one of the best forties comedies of all). Alas, a drunk driving incident, when Walker killed a hitchhiking war veteran she’d picked up, damaged her career. Pow.

It’s a great shame, from a movie as well as a human point of view, because Walker could be dynamite on the screen.

Remember, this Friday is the SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Film Club — drop by and join the discussion!