Archive for Ethel Barrymore

All of the Cromwells

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell cameos in ANN BICKERS as “sad-faced doughboy.”

I tweeted James Cromwell, actor and son of John Cromwell, to tell him about John Cromwell week, and he was nice enough to retweet me. And then kind enough to comment on my review of THE GODDESS.

Here is his Dad, in Anne Vickers, as “the lonesome soldier,” a memorable bit. Cromwell made almost as many walk-ons as Hitchcock. Lots to enjoy in this pre-code social drama on penal reform and women in the workplace. I never realised Sinclair Lewis, the original author, went in for ridicuous names — Walter Huston plays Barney Dolphin (his wife is Mona — but then, what goes well with Dolphin>), Edna Mae Oliver is Malvina Wormser, Sam Hardy is Russell Spaulding (not an African explorer), Murray Kinnell is Dr. Slenk and Mitchell Lewis rejoices in the name of Captain Waldo.

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Great montage of prison abuses, all filmed from Godlike high angle, presided over by a big floating head of Irene Dunne, regretful but powerless to intervene as she is just a big translucent head.

Apparently this movie, and SIGN OF THE CROSS, led directly to the forming of the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD for short). I guess La Dunne does have extramarital affairs and pregnancies and DOESN’T DIE, which is of course the most immoral thing of all.

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BLIND PIANISTS

Sightless ivory-ticklers abound. In THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, Herbert Marshall’s sonata serves as a kind of musical narrator for the story of Robert Young (disfigured pilot) and Dorothy McGuire (plain spinster) who discover their inner beauty under the influence of the titular love nest, which serves as a kind of stone tape, imbued with the happy memories of honeymooning couples. Sophisticated schmaltz of a higher order — each moment of crass tearjerking is balanced by sequences of surprising delicacy and intelligence, Young liked it so much he retired to a little home he named after the movie.

It’s moving and strange, which is what it ought to be. As is the Hollywood way, McGuire’s supposed homeliness is limited to a wig and unsympathetic lighting but Young’s war scars, though subtle, are actually kind of upsetting. The story has an awkward circle to square, asserting the importance of inner beauty while transforming its attractive stars back and forth between dowdied-down versions and glitzy showbiz icons. Val Lewton scribe DeWitt Bodeen contributed to the script, and it has a bit of the Lewton sense of the uncanny about it.

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In NIGHT SONG, Dana Andrews is a (convincing) pianist, embittered by his loss of sight. Merle Oberon seeks to overcome his trust issues by feigning blindness herself. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that bright idea? An impossible story premise enlivened by Hoagy Carmichael who redefines laconic minimalism, and Edith Barrymore, who acts for two.

This one is so set on being high-class and tony that it comes off a little dull, which I call The Merle Oberon Effect, but it’s beautifully made. David Wingrove says, “They show it all the time on Movies4Men. I’m not sure what kind of men they’re targeting.” Whenever I switch to that channel I get Cliff Robertson in a submarine.

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REVENGER’S TRAVESTY

In SON OF FURY, Roddy McDowell grows up to be Tyrone Power (well, there’s a KIND of continuity in that) driven by the ambition to punch George Sanders in his gloating, spud-like face. Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney provide distractions. Cromwell worked hard with Gene to scale down her thespic efforts, resulting in a simplicity that redeemed her earlier hysterical excess in BELLE STARR and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: from here on in, she knew what she was doing. Lovely Hawaian love song scenes, and Sanders gets duly walloped. But he won the next round: to Sanders’ horror, Power died of a heart attack while filming their duel in SOLOMON AND SHEBA.

Also: Elsa Lanchester runs a grog shop. I’ve never consumed grog but I would force myself to acquire the taste.

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JC did a bit of filling-in on John Brahm’s entertainingly loopy GUEST IN THE HOUSE, previously addressed here. I think the really extreme shots evince Brahm’s expressionist bent, but who knows: Cromwell was no slouch, compositionally.

Except early on: DANCE OF LIFE is one of those early talkies where we’re always observing from the wrong distance and angle, a result of all those sound proof booths crowding round the cast like Daleks. A whey-faced youth called Oscar Levant can be glimpsed through the print scratches. At last, a pianist who can see, but wisely chooses not to.

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CRIME DOES NOT

THE RACKET should be fiery and terrific, but the original play has been laden with so many unnecessary scenes, mostly expositional and undramatic, it never seems to start. Blame Howard Hughes — Cromwell did a good job of escaping directorial duties on I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a project every director in Hollywood seems to have been threatened with at one time or another. Cromwell said yes to all demands but stalled until his contract ran out, a wise course.

At least with Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, THE RACKET gives Cromwell great shoulders to frame his shots over.

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THE SCAVENGERS has sort-of interesting B-list talent (Vince Edwards, Carol Ohmart) but this Philipines thriller, from the tail end of Cromwell’s directorial career, suffers from a fairly hackneyed script and a music track that’s on random, behaving like a player piano that got hit during a saloon brawl. The dramatic cues always seem to come on seconds too late, or too early. The movie LOOKS pretty good, though, and gathers some conviction as it goes: Ohmart’s last scene has thrilling echoes of DEAD RECKONING.

AND THEN

There’s more, much more, to be enjoyed, often in convenient pairings: LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and TOM SAWYER would make a fine double-feature, as might THE FOUNTAIN (Ann Harding) and UNFAITHFUL (Ruth Chatterton), while Canadian backwoods drama JALNA could pair up with the misbegotten SPITFIRE, in which Katharine Hepburn boggles every instinct known to man by playing a hillbilly (Appalachia by way of Bryn Mawr). Tex Avery did a pretty good Hepburn caricature, so I’m imagining this crossed with his LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, La Hepburn opening doors with her prehensile toes, etc… Cromwell, of course, was well aware this casting was insane, but he was at RKO, so what could you do? Campaign for Ginger Rogers?

THE WORLD AND THE FLESH still seems to mark the moment when Cromwell really engaged with cinema, and it may have been motivated by his absolute contempt for the script, a farrago of Russian Revolution clichés and fantasies he knew to be utter bilge. Desperation breeds inspiration, and like Sidney Furie stamping on the script of THE IPCRESS FILE before making a masterpiece out of it, Cromwell energized his dormant stylistic powers, and increased in stature forthwith.

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You can lead a whore to culture…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2009 by dcairns

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MOSS ROSE is a moderately pleasing Gothic thriller, fairly predictable but enlivened by some odd casting and writing — the biggest fault in the film is also its most interesting feature. Faults are rarely as enjoyable as this one.

Peggy Cummins, the Welsh whirlwind, is Rose, a music hall chorus girl whose friend is murdered by a mysterious maniac — and by the corpse, a single flower, identified by horticulturally-inclined sleuth Vincent Price, as  a moss rose. Having reason to suspect Victor Mature, Rose behaves rather oddly — rather than rushing to Uncle Vinnie and spilling the proverbial beans, she blackmails Big Victor into inviting her down to his country home for a couple of weeks, under the very noses of his mother (Ethel Barrymore) and bride-to-be (Patricia Medina).

This is odd behaviour for a heroine. We expect Peggy to turn amateur gumshoe, following the bloody trail to the lair of the killer. Instead she exploits the crime for her own selfish ends, seeking to learn the airs and graces from miscast aristocrat Victor. The movie is like MY FAIR LADY with a body count. And indeed, the corpses keep coming, rapidly reducing the list of suspects to the point where even Scotland Yard might be able to figure it out.

Peggy Cummins is never less than endearing (except in GUN CRAZY where she’s flat-out sexy and psychopathic), and here her cuteness is enhanced by a cocker-knee accent which she rather struggles with: not that she can’t do it, but you’re conscious of the sheer effort of remembering to drop every single “H,” while adding others in so that “H” is pronounced “Haitch.” Actually, that’s how it would be pronounced in a well-ordered universe. It’s ridiculous that “H” begins with a silent “H.”

Our leading lady being a blackmailer could make for an interesting plot point if the movie had any plans for how to exploit it. If Peggy turned out to be the killer (she isn’t)… if she was a cold-blooded vamp (she isn’t supposed to be: she makes several comments about her poor dear murdered friend, invested with all the emotion actress and writers can muster)… if she was secretly working for the police (she isn’t)… One expects, in the days when the Production Code reigned supreme, that P.C. would get some kind of ironic comeuppance for her actions, but even on that score the film shows no signs of acknowledging the oddity of her scheme. Quite apart from the morality angle, it’s a little peculiar that she doesn’t feel herself to be in any danger from the man she believes murdered her friend.

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I was reminded of the Douglas Sirk noir SHOCKPROOF, based on a mangled Sam Fuller script, where the hero is a parole officer who falls for his client, helping her jump bail, leave the state, and steal a car. Despite the Production Code, all ends happily for the disgraceful pair: after they are returned to the long arm of the law, no charges are made. Sometimes the need for a happy ending could outweigh the need for crime not paying. Some filmmakers worked hard at finding clever ways to flaunt the Code, but others apparently solved the problem with sheer stupidity. SHOCKPROOF and MOSS ROSE can both pass for morality tales if you simply fail to think about them.

Direction (adequate) by Gregory Ratoff, script (odd) by Niven Busch, Tom Reed and the great Jules Furthman, whose weird hand can perhaps be detected in these oddities.

Another minor pleasure the film offers is this bridge —

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— recognizable as the same one depicted in Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT. A set which Lang claimed did not exist. Having been forbidden by Zanuck to shoot the bridge scene, Lang set about finding a way to do it in secret and for free.

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Frame grab from The Auteurs’ Notebook.

“All we had were cobblestones on the street. Then I said, ‘Ben, I saw a railing around here that looks like a bridge.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Does it cost anything?’ He said, ‘No, that you can have.’ But we needed two, so I said, ‘How much would it cost to make a second one–at my expense?’ I think it was forty dollars. I talked with Arthur Miller–he was a genius as a cameraman–and he said it was possible to light in such a way that the background gradually faded away in the fog, so we didn’t even need a backdrop. We had the cobblestone street and we had the sidewalk, on which we put these two railings. We had a lamppost in the foreground, then a second lamppost, and we hung progressively diminishing lightbulbs–say, a 100-watt, then 80, then 50, and so on; and over the whole thing we put a little London fog. We started at four o’clock in the morning–just Ben, Arthur Miller and myself–and we fixed up this whole set. […] I shot the scene and Zanuck didn’t say a damned word about it. All he said was, ‘WHERE THE HELL’S THAT SET? I want to talk to Silvey! You keep that set and we’ll shoot a whole picture on it.’ ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Zanuck,’ said Ben, ‘there was no set.'”

Quote from Lang interview in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich.

Not for the first time, we find Lang bending the facts, although the set is undoubtedly a forced perspective illusion and there’s no backdrop. It also looks like there might only be ONE “fence” — we never see two at a time.