Archive for Joan Crawford

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”

Sadie McKee’s Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2017 by dcairns

As opposed to Robert McKee’s Story.

This piece is ALL spoilers.

SADIE MCKEE is MGM and 1934 — right on the join between pre-code and post-code. So Joan Crawford can sleep with a man out of wedlock, marry another man for money, divorce him, and still end up alive at the end, ready to win the man she always wanted (Franchot Tone, art doing its best to imitate life, life not being quite up to the challenge).

Still, MGM’s class-consciousness is apparent. Like Joanie’s early soundies and talkies (OUR BLUSHING BRIDES, OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS), the movie is indecently obsessed with analysing the right and wrong way to marry money. Sadie is the daughter of a cook who ends up a rich lady, and in the end she has her mum come and live with her — as cook. And her best friend, the inestimable Jean Dixon, clearly coded as a prostitute, is now the maid. That’s kind of odd.

That aside, what a terrific film. Clarence Brown was one of MGM’s finest directors, and though somewhat known as a woman’s director (which at MGM meant Joanie and Garbo) works wonders with the leading men. Franchot is always pretty good, of course, though he always looks like some kind of reptile — a gecko or a turtle perhaps. Mellifluous voice. By playing a blue-blood blue-nose stiff-necked moralist who’s wrong on all counts he allows the film to shake loose at least some of its Metro dignity.

Gene Raymond as a louse helps some more — great musical moments, singing “All I Do Is Dream of You.” A love rat who’s convincingly romantic, until Esther Ralston, channelling Mae West, steals him off. He’s even better than Franchot.

I like the first version best, but the second one has the marvelous DRAWER FULL OF CHORINES that slides out from the stage, like something from the morgue at the Copacobana. You didn’t know they had one there, did you? But of course they do — gotta keep the customers on ice until they can figure out Who shot who?

And then Edward Arnold, as the drunken millionaire — one of his best turns, encapsulating in quick succession how nice it would be to be drunk all the time and then how horrible it would be to be drunk all the time. Really surprising how brutal they let him get, after considerable screen time spent on establishing him as a sweet-natured souse. The only part that’s unconvincing is his reformation, but I guess they were saddled with that. He also gets a musical bit, snoozing through a great rendition of “After You’ve Gone” performed by Gene Austin and novelty jazz act Coco & Candy.

This bar is one of my favourite places in the film. The sleek Cedric Gibbons automat is pretty amazing too, like a porcelain spaceship, but the bar has Akim Tamiroff as the very enthusiastic manager. When Arnold orders champagne for everyone, Tamiroff has a giggling fit like he’s been pumped full of helium and nitrous oxide. Elated to the point almost of BURSTING. He’s a happy fellow.

Huge swathes of Joanie’s career are unfamiliar to me — one thing I’ll allow the rather shabby Feud — it’s got us watching Joan. Good as her three menfolk are in this, they’re all there to bask in her light.

Whatever Happened to Mary Jane?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by dcairns

In SUDDEN FEAR, Joan Crawford stars as Mary Jane Hudson, a name with odd resonances (she’d later play Blanche Hudson opposite Bette Davis as Baby Jane). This was made right before TORCH SONG but it’s in b&w and Joan looks much, much better, and mostly acts better.

The film suffers from an unnecessary first act — we really don’t NEED to see the lady playwright meet the dashing-yet-alarming actor (Jack Palance) and marry him. It’s like the redundant opening stuff grafted onto Cukor’s GASLIGHT, but that was rendered reasonably compelling because our heroine has to overcome some obstacles to her romance. This is just women’s weekly stuff, though it’s kind of fascinating to see two such mismatched scary intense people pitching woo. Only when we discover Palance’s dish on the side, Gloria Grahame, do we get real lusty fireworks.

The plotting from here on is intricate and suspenseful — Joan’s dictation machine inadvertently records Jack and Gloria plotting her murder — since they believe she’s about to change her will, they have a narrow window of homicidal opportunity. Much angst from Joan — it’s basically a huge long scene of her wandering around the room in torment as the recording replays mercilessly from the speakers. And then she wanders some more and tosses on the couch etc. as the recording re-replays in her head. At this point, for the only time in the film, Joan goes full self-parodic drag queen, but she soon recovers.

Now Joan, having frustratingly fumbled and smashed the record which was her only evidence, resorts to her playwright’s imagination to slay one enemy and stitch up the other with an elaborately planned scenario. It becomes clear that UNFAITHFULLY YOURS must have been an influence on Edna Sherry’s source novel — the home recording device, the elaborate killing and frame-up. And, of course, the plan goes awry, mainly because Joan isn’t evil enough to pull it off — but this makes her wholly innocent and so fate is permitted, by the Production Code, to take a hand and make sure things turn out okay after all, in an admittedly ironic and rather messy way.

The endearing nonsense is very capably directed by David Miller, otherwise best known for atrocities — the mostly-dire Marx Bros “romp” LOVE HAPPY and MGM’s pointless remake of THE WOMEN, THE OPPOSITE SEX (Now with the new miracle wonder-ingredient, Men! Esther Williams turned that one down flat, correctly declaring that the rewrite robbed the original of its all-female USP). I’ve been meaning to watch Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and this encourages me. The guy had talent, seen here mainly in artfully-framed studies of Joan’s martyred features, and dynamic use of the Palance physicality.