Archive for Chris Schneider

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

The Schlub What Sends Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2020 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Chris Schneider weighs in on an obscure but fascinating semi-noir —

Once upon a time I was a teenager who learned about films from his paperback copy of AGEE ON FILM. One title I learned of was ISLE OF THE DEAD, the Val Lewton supernatural mood-piece. Another was THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a melodrama concerned with cash and adultery and death, one that’s very much a part of noir territory. You might even say, specifically, OUT OF THE PAST territory, since BELIEVE ME is 1947 and RKO and there’s music by Roy Webb as well as the presence of actress Jane Greer. All overlapping with OUT OF THE PAST, as the cognoscenti will tell you. Hell, one of the posters even employs the phrase “out of the past.”

My primary reaction has always been “Good … but not of a level with OUT OF THE PAST.” That’s still the case, but a recent TCM viewing has provoked some rethinking.

One poster for THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME shows the head of Robert Young (male protagonist) surrounded by the heads of Susan Hayward (second girlfriend), Jane Greer (first girlfriend), and Rita Johnson (wife). Young plays a no-better-than-he-oughta-be guy, an architect, who tries to hold onto both his wealthy wife and a girl or two on the side. We learn of this via courtroom testimony. Johnson finds out about Greer, and she buys Young a new job on the opposite coast. She learns of Hayward, who works in the same office, and his employment is threatened again. What Is To Be Done?

The whole screenplay, which was written by Jonathan Latimer of THE BIG CLOCK and THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, is structured around Young messing up and some female — Johnson, Hayward — stepping in to take care of the situation.

The film’s producer is Joan Harrison, associate of Hitchcock and Robert Siodmak, and there’s a case to be made that THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a noir shaped by a female perspective, one where (for once) an *homme* is fatal rather than a *femme*. Young certainly is bad news. Unlike my favorite example of *homme fatal* noir, though — BORN TO KILL — Young’s character is not dynamically bad. He’s no Lawrence Tierney. He’s just a guy who shoulda known better yet keeps getting in trouble. And yet women are still drawn to him. My nickname for the film became “The Schlub What Sends Me.”

The primary influence here, outside of generalized ‘40s zeitgeist, is James M. Cain. I forget if Agee was the first to cite Cain. But (SPOILERS AHEAD) Young gets into an auto accident with Hayward and her charred corpse is mistaken for that of Johnson, which he goes along with — very much in the POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE style of ironic fatalism. The original screen treatment, we learn from TCM, was narrated from a jail cell (POSTMAN again). And there’s stuff about water as uncontrollable fate, stuff that’s justified by Johnson’s corpse being found next to a river and accentuated by Young and Hayward doing some deep-water swimming much like POSTMAN’s Lana Turner and John Garfield.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME has Irving Pichel as director, alas, which means that it lacks the visual flourish Tourneur brought to OUT OF THE PAST. It also lacks the epigrammatic dialogue which Frank Fenton (probably) gave PAST. But it looks good and is compelling and has some fine performances. Did I mention that Robert Boyle is a production designer? Among those performances would be Rita Johnson, a good actress with an unlucky career, and Susan Hayward, who’s fresher here than in her later Stalwart Woman Warrior persona. It’s the film that gave me a taste for Hayward.

Historic note: the print of THEY WON’T BELIEVE that gets seen, these days, is usually a rerelease version that’s missing 15 minutes. That’s a lot in movie time. I gather that the missing material involves Young and Johnson at a concert running into Hayward, ending up with Hayward and Young canoodling behind a curtain. Also something about a blackmail threat to Young.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME ends suddenly, with a flourish of violence, a bit like the end of Verdi’s TROVATORE. One expects someone — perhaps Greer? — to clutch their forehead and exclaim “ … e vivo ancor!”

I saw THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME when I was young and I liked it. I watch it now and I like it. And I live on.

Country Matters

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back!
Nineteen fifty-four was the year of, among other things, A STAR IS BORN versus THE COUNTRY GIRL. Both had leading ladies — Judy Garland, Grace Kelly — in competition for the “Best Actress” Oscar. And both were dramas-with-songs where the songs were written by the same team, Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (words).
“Harold Arlen?” you ask. Utterly first-rate composer, of a stature with Porter and Gershwin and Kern, yet sporadic luck as far as movies are concerned. High-points would be THE WIZARD OF OZ and the ‘50s STAR IS BORN. And then there’s THE COUNTRY GIRL.
Perhaps THE COUNTRY GIRL Is a shade less rewarding than STAR IS BORN — I’d attribute it to the difference between directors George Cukor (STAR) and George Seaton (GIRL) — yet the distance ain’t *that* huge. Both deal with people in the performing arts. In COUNTRY GIRL, that means a former star (Bing Crosby) attempting a stage comeback with the help and/or hindrance of his wife (Grace Kelly) and young director (William Holden). Both feature an older male (here Crosby) threatening to self-destruct via alcohol. Both even contain a faux-calypso ad jingle to be recorded — though these days one only finds the STAR IS BORN jingle among the “extras.”
The Oscar went to Kelly, of course, though I — while no Judy Partisan — would call Garland the more deserving. Kelly’s eye-popping for dramatic effect is a bit strenuous, and her telling Holden “Why are you holding me? I said, *why* are you *holding* me?” shortly before their kiss is the stuff of Imogene Coca comedy. Yet one can understand how Kelly’s dowdiness-for-virtue, in the early reels, yielding to an Edith Head party dress at the end would appeal to Oscar-think. There’s an affecting two-shot, too, of Kelly hiding her face from eager Crosby to disguise the pain at Holden’s accusations.
“To me you’re as phony as an opera soprano!” jeers Holden.
WHAP! goes Kelly’s hand on Holden’s face.
“Did I forget to tell you I’m proud?” she responds.
(Note to Oscar-conscious screenwriters: be sure to include one moment where the character asserts his/her worth.)
It’s all a well-heeled adaptation, with sharp-ish moments, of a 1950 Clifford Odets’play, one which won a “Best Actress” Tony for Uta Hagen. Only it’s smoothed-out, in an up-market ‘50s Paramount sort of way. There’s still startling animal imagery in the dialogue (“What’d I bring you, a basket full of snakes?” Holden asks Kelly), but the sudden epithets are gone. We have to wait till Odets-written SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS to hear Barbara Nichols call Tony Curtis “Eyelashes.” Holden no longer refers to Kelly as “Lady Brilliance.”
There’s a different sort of music, though, in the Arlen & Gershwin numbers. They recapitulate the STAR IS BORN trick of using apparent pop-songs to talk about the characters singing them. Just as “Gotta Have Me Go With You” was about James Mason’s need for Judy Garland, the spieler number here (“It’s Mine, It’s Yours”) is about the need to believe, no matter what, in Crosby’s ability to make good. A duet with a barroom chanteuse (“What you have learned is, is: / You haven’t learned a thing” sings Crosby) is about falling off the wagon and the dubious possibility of change.
Foggy memory brought me to COUNTRY GIRL with inaccurate notions of the plot’s resolution. Not to offer “spoilers,” but … let’s just say there’s a special category of ‘50’s drama wherein ill-advised romance is resolved by one character pursuing another in long-shot. PICNIC, f’rinstance, or the PAL JOEY movie. Or what we find here.
Kelly is proficient, if a bit flat-out and obvious; Holden gives the sort of sharp-edged, cagey performance that’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen SUNSET BOULEVARD; and Crosby’s hollow-eyed, anxious performance is the biggest surprise of all. A friend likes to quote John Ford on RED RIVER to describe Crosby here, and I’ll second that: “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch could act!”
One misses, among other things, the Gene Allen designs and the Skip Martin arrangements of STAR IS BORN. Also whatcha call directorial style. But there are definite virtues to this COUNTRY GIRL— including its glimpses of populist musical theater and those who made it in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
THE COUNTRY GIRL falls short of A STAR IS BORN, in other words, but not *that* far short.
*
The cast for THE COUNTRY GIRL includes, as David Cairns would say, Lisa Fremont, Father Chuck O’Malley; Joe Gillis; and Deputy Charlie Norris … along with cameos by Ursus and Anita’s Bernardo.