Archive for Donna Reed

Young Men with Horns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY from a charity shop on a whim, not knowing anything about it. The DVD didn’t say who the director was, though I kind of doubted it was going to turn out to be Luchino Visconti.

In fact, it was a person called Valentine Davies, who never directed anything else. He did originate the story of MIRACLE ON 34TH ST, though, as well as working on scripts for SYNCOPATION, THE GLENN MILLER STORY and others. Well, what the hell, I got lucky with BOY SLAVES, also from a one-off feature helmer (PJ Wolfe). Thus, while the Blu-ray of ROME, OPEN CITY languishes unviewed in a drawer, I popped this second-rate biopic into the Panasonic so I could enjoy Steve Allen pretending to play clarinet.

It turned out that Valentine Davies was labouring under twin disadvantages. Firstly, nothing interesting ever happened to Benny Goodman, or at least nothing Davies could put in a film. He didn’t even fly off in a thick fog: worse, he was still around as the film was made, the last thing you want for a biopic. (Note: this is pronounced “bio-pic.” Don’t say it to rhyme with “topic” — it’s evil.)

From Wikipedia: According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

I’d really like to have seen Steve Allen say that line. He does actually have reasonably good tough-guy delivery in the few moments he’s called upon to be firm. But obviously Universal didn’t want to go there, so we have some nice examples of Goodman interacting with black musicians in a positive way, but no instance of him making an actual stand.

Valentine Davies’ second handicap was, he had no talent. Not as director, anyway. Right at the start of the film he gives us a bonafide camera angle, but that must have made him nervous because he never tries it again. Nor does he move the camera. Anyone who can leave the thing sitting rigid on sticks while Sing, Sing, Sing plays at Carnegie Hall has no cinematic feeling whatever.

Whatever filmic virtues the piece might conceivably have are hampered by the DVD being in the wrong aspect ratio. All the compositions looked, cramped, choppy and ugly, and I eventually realised it had been framed for 1:1.85 but my disc was 1:1.33. Universal generally masked off their 35mm frame to create a cheap widescreen effect, but protected themselves for TV by making sure their shots still worked with the extra space at top and bottom. I tried resetting my TV to 1:1.66, thinking this might give me a better sense of the Valentine Davies cinematic experience.

It didn’t really help much.

For all I know, I was watching a 1:1.66 chopped-down framing of a 1.1.33 chopped down framing of a 1:1.85 chopped down framing of the original 1:1.33 negative, but if so the original must have been like watching Goodman from the back row at Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, I reckon Goodman’s celebrated 1937 concert at that venue must have inspired the fictitious protagonist’s climactic gig in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, released the following year. Clearly, if only Donna Reed had had John Carradine to drive her, she wouldn’t have been late for the gig.

Best thing I can say for this one is that Allen makes a very good Goodman lookalike, and Barry Truex, son of Ernest, playing Goodman as a boy, makes a very very good Goodman lookalike lookalike.

I turned to YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, no doubt unconsciously looking for a more cinema-savvy version of the same kind of thing. Of course, Michael Curtiz provided what I sought. Though the film, based on a novel based in turn on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (with whom Goodman played), doesn’t quite have a real story as such, and the happy ending feels very artificial — you can practically see the tacks holding it on — it’s bursting with meaty scenes and star perfs, the framing is beautiful, and Curtiz glides his camera to the music to evoke jazz rapture.

Damn good role for Juano Hernandez, too.

Blind Tuesday: Guide-dog Friday

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by dcairns

MGM racism: waiting to see which one will make a remark about watermelons first.

I’ve only managed to see one of Fred Zinnemann’s short subjects made at MGM, which is frustrating: surely his CRIME DOES NOT PAY episodes will reveal something of the noir skills displayed later in ACT OF VIOLENCE. The short I did see is THE OLD SOUTH, a very peculiar piece of work indeed. Seemingly made to pave the way for GONE WITH THE WIND, educating audiences who might not know their history, it’s highly unusual for a Hollywood product of the day, since it’s rather hard to get a sense from it of what we’re supposed to think and how we’re supposed to feel. This is because the movie is terribly afraid of offending anybody, although it seems far more afraid of offending southerners than, say, black people.

Zinnemann, who I guess was only doing his job, eventually atoned by making the splendid MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, but first there was his B-movie phase. KID GLOVE KILLER is a forensic procedural that plays like a kind of 1940s CSI. Of course, it’s warmer, with a sweetly banal boss-assistant relationship between Van Heflin and Marsha Hunt. Zinnemann was pretty pleased with the results, considering, and returned to the procedural format with DAY OF THE JACKAL and, sort of, THE NUN’S STORY.

He was much less happy with EYES IN THE NIGHT, but looking at it now, it’s a very enjoyable picture. Edward Arnold plays Duncan McLean, blind detective, who,  aided by his intrepid German shepherd, Friday, and by Allen Jenkins and Mantan Moreland, investigates a spy ring storyline that somehow carries elements of MILDRED PIERCE and THE RECKLESS MOMENT. The taboo of filial ingratitude is softened by making the offending offspring a stepdaughter (Donna Reed!) and a happy ending is of course provided.

Zinnemann complains in his autobio that his blind man couldn’t remember his lines and blew take after take, while his dog was good for one take and would afterwards get nervous and hide (he faced a similar performance discrepancy with Sinatra and Clift in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which weirdly also features a character named Friday). In spite of this, the team were successful enough to appear in one more picture, THE HIDDEN EYE, directed by Richard Whorf.

The blind detective was created by Baynard Kendrick, and unless I’m misremembering, his other senses were so acute, he could read ordinary writing by running his fingertips over the print. The movie version isn’t so superpowered, but he’s a master of judo (somewhat unconvincing, when he’s played by the portly E.A.) as well as smart and quick-witted. So’s the script — it throws in a quote from Milton, a gaggle of plot twists, family melodrama, and lots of good business for the dog. The other sidekicks are somewhat underused.

O loss of sight, of thee I most complain! Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, dungeon or beggary, or decrepit age!

“Where are you?”

“In the dark. In the dark, Hanson — in MY kingdom!”

Guns blaze in the dark! ANd when I try to get a good frame of the muzzle flare, I find this surreal image — the gun arm thrust through some canvas screen, NOT part of the movie scene, presumably an attempt to get complete blackout for the effect.

Despite what Zinnemann saw as its corniness, the movie did well enough to land him an A picture, THE SEVENTH CROSS, about which much more later. Yet that triumph was followed by two unsuitable kiddie comedies, MY BROTHER TALKS TO HORSES and the other one, starring six-year-old “Butch” Jenkins — “a perfectly, normal, charming little boy, who had no talent, could not remember his lines and hated being in movies, but was made to carry on by his mother, whom he feared and adored.” Maybe this negative experience partly explains why Zinnemann became such an expert director of children. But that’s also down to his experience in documentary with Flaherty, working with non-actors but trying to capture authentic behaviour.

Zinnemann’s book is very good, though he tends to ruin his funny stories with exclamation marks and the like. By his own admission, he wasn’t the most lighthearted of filmmakers. But I like his anecdote about what happened at MGM after he started turning down scripts —

“There was a long, long corridor in the executive building — known as the ‘Iron Lung’. Entering it at one end I would see the tiny figures of associate producers in the distance, coming toward me, spotting me, turning around and disappearing into offices, stairways or toilets. […]

“A third script arrived. It was lousy. When I turned it down, Eddie Mannix, the General Manager, sent for me.

“He did not look amiable. ‘What’s all this?’ he asked. ‘You have no right to turn down assignments.’ I said it was a bad script and I didn’t know what to do with it. Mannix looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You know damn well that MGM never makes a bad picture.’ Pause. ‘We preview it; if there’s something wrong with it we fix it.’ To this day, I don’t know if he was serious, but I doubt it. Then he said, ‘You could do very well in this company, you could be a good man for us, but you’ve got to learn to do what the boss tells you.’ He mentioned the two least good directors on the lot and said, ‘Look at them, they are the two best men I’ve got; they never give us any trouble.’ I could only shake my head.”

Zinnemann was suspended, which meant his pay stopped and he couldn’t work anywhere else and the time spent on suspension would be added to the end of his contract. Suspension would last until the picture he had turned down was ready for release.

“Three weeks later Mannix called me again. He seemed embarrassed. ‘I’ve been looking for an excuse to put you back on the payroll,’ he said, ‘but I can’t find one, so I’m putting you back anyway. After all, Fleming and Brown turn down scripts too.”

Not all stories about Mannix, the ruthless studio fixer, are so heartwarming… But this is a classic Zinnemann story: it comes on like entertainment, it turns out to be full of perfidy and injustice, and ultimately it’s about human decency and dignity.

Ann Harding (left) and Donna Reed, who is the other connection to FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.