Archive for Joel McCrea

These bloody women they will not stop bothering you

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Irene prepares to get things Dunne.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all misogynist on you. Just quoting Pete & Dud, while also gearing up to take a look at some of John Cromwell’s monster women.

Bette Davis (see yesterday) is probably the most awful, but she has some stiff competition. Hope Emerson in CAGED is practically a literal she-monster, and Cromwell’s noir outings featured the occasional femme fatale. But the trio of Laura Hope Crews (mother), Constance Cummings (lover) and Kay Francis (wife) have an unexpected amount in common.

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THE SILVER CORD (1933) seems to be the first Hollywood film to aim at that great American holy cow, motherhood, with Laura Hope Crews shrill and fluttering as the controlling, near-incestuous mother of Joel McCrea and Eric Linden. McCrea’s role is almost unplayable, since he has to appear blind to what kind of a family set-up he’s from, while retaining some measure of the audience’s respect — he gives it the old college try, though, and comes out better than he does in BANJO ON MY KNEE. Eric Linden was probably pre-code cinema’s pre-eminent pisspants, and is made to measure as the (even) more spineless son, easily manipulated into giving up the adorable and beauteous Frances Dee because she doesn’t live up to mama’s standards.

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A pensive, festive Linden.

It takes Irene Dunne (in one of several lead roles for Cromwell) to unmask mother, taking her down with surgical precision (Dunne is a biologist — she’s told in Scene One that she’s one of those women who CAN have a career and family, and this news is delivered by Gustav von Seyffertitz, so it is AUTHORITATIVE). McCrea STILL can’t see what’s staring him in the face until Mummy Pittypat flat-out confesses that she’s put all her romantic yearnings into motherhood, and she’s PROUD of it, goddamn it.

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Upon that same rear projection screen, KONG would roar!

The thing is a giant creaking play (by Sidney Howard), but Cromwell, working as was often the case from a script by Jane Murfin, applies long, fluid traveling shots (gliding crabwise  through those weird doorways that seem to have only half a door frame, to admit the camera crew) and takes advantage of RKO’s early facility with rear-projection for a dramatic accident on the ice. It’s not actually a Christmas film, but it’s one of several Cromwell’s suited to this time of year, with its snowy backdrops (see also MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and especially SINCE YOU WENT AWAY).

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THIS MAN IS MINE stars Dunne again (who doesn’t get enough credit as a great pre-code dame along with Stanwyck, Bette & Joan &c), battling the deliciously wicked Constance Cummings (above) who wants to steal away her husband, Ralph Bellamy (but WHY, for pity’s sake? Because he’s there, I suppose). Dunne has her delicate, piano-playing, landscape-painting hands full with all these Constance Cummings and goings.

Amusingly, this also has Sidney Blackmer, making it a kind of ROSEMARY’S BABY pre-party for Dr. Sapirstein and Roman Castavet.

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ALL OF THEM WITCHES! Dunne & Bellamy/Sapirstein, Blackmer/Castavet and Cummings.

The low-key melodrama is leavened with considerable humour, most of it from the beastly Constance’s more sensible sister, Kay Johnson (Mrs. Cromwell at the time). Describing CC as “a sort of cross between a tidal wave and a smallpox epidemic,” she keeps the whole, dignified thing from getting too self-serious. Slightly surprising third-act violence when Bellamy slugs Constance unconscious with a sock in the eye, and Dunne brains him in turn with a picture frame. Well, civilisation must be preserved.

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As in THE SILVER CORD, the villainess condemns herself out of her own mouth, destroying the illusion she’s built up, and the exact same thing happens a third time in the later IN NAME ONLY (1939). Kay Francis, at the tail-end of her career as leading lady, is hanging on to Cary Grant in a loveless marriage, because she wants not only his money but his dad’s (Charles Coburn, by some genetic prodigy of mutation). Grant meets and falls for widow Carole Lombard, lighting a nice fire under the whole scenario.

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This is the most satisfying of the three, though they’re all worth seeing. It’s like Grant and Lombard are trying to be their own dazzling movie star selves, and every bastard around them is trying to drag them down to ordinary unhappiness with the rest of humanity. Oddly, Grant shines brightest when sparring with catty Helen Vinson (another survivor of the pre-code era, with her sharp little teeth) as a subsidiary bitch. Memorable action involves the worst hotel in the history of cinema, and Francis condemning herself out of her own mouth exactly like her predecessors. A door shuts on her with awesome finality.

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Also: Peggy Ann Garner, Grady Sutton. (“Do you drink? How do you stand it?”)

 

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Tales of the Riverbank

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2016 by dcairns

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So, my enjoyment of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA led me to investigate the often-overlooked John Cromwell a bit, flipping through my heap of unwatched discs to see what I might have of his lying about. BANJO ON MY KNEE came up — Stanwyck, McCrea? What’s not to like? Walter Brennan in support? Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson? All good.

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Plus Walter Catlett in the role of Harold Lloyd’s dirty uncle.

It’s not all good, though, but it has definite pleasures. It begins with a wedding, and the impetus gained by starting with the leads already tying the knot gives a sense of plunging right in. The story world is a novel one — the main characters are Mississippi river-folk, dwelling on boats anchored to tiny islands in the great river. The only unfortunate thing about this is it brings in a lot of rowdy humour of the kind Johnson would supply to John Ford, a little of which goes a long way. As the movie goes on, preventing McCrea and Stanwyck from consummating their wedding takes quite a lot of plot ingenuity, and where that fails, the movie resorts to making McCrea an obnoxious lout. Now, it takes quite a lot to render the laid-back McCrea dislikable, but at times this movie definitely manages it.

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Brennan fulfills his allotted role as Mr. Entertainment, playing McCrea’s old dad, lugging around his one-man-band “contraption,” and there’s amusing support from Buddy Ebsen and the sullen, feisty Katherine DeMille (adopted daughter of Cecil, wife of Anthony Quinn). Tony Martin suddenly turns up. “Who the hell is that?” asked Fiona. “A bar of soap,” I suggested. But do you know, by the end, we quite liked him. But, just when he’s become more of a hero than McCrea, the movie forgets he’s there.

Theresa Harris from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Brennan’s contraption and Martin’s crooning combine to make this a kind of stealth musical. All the numbers are diegetic, performed in situations where they might be performed, and the plot to some extent revolves around Brennan’s desire to serenade his son and daughter-in-law on their first night of passion, that he might become a grandfather. The biggest number, and the one that feels most on the verge of breaking the fourth wall, is a rendition of St Louis Woman by the great Theresa Harris. I swear you can actually see the splice where this whole scene could be removed for screenings in the south, so that residents of the film’s locales wouldn’t have to be offended by the sight of a black person being talented.

In a way, music goes beyond being a feature in the film and becomes a theme, a plot point and a character.

Cromwell’s skill with striking compositions is much in evidence, so even though the surly hero and incessant brawling get you down a bit, the visuals and the music and the players sustain interest and provide lashings of entertainment, with a slightly unusual flavour. And Katherine DeMille, in a magnificently mean and moody supporting role, produces a surprising burst of wet slip action which puts Annabella in the shade. Or it would if Annabella stood next to her and crouched. Seems to be a Zanuck fetish.

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Thundering Beef

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2015 by dcairns

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A religious motto in the background establishes Joel McCrea’s righteousness — as if that were necessary! — as he opposes the villain’s hubris.

The title RAMROD was guaranteed to reduce my inner smutty schoolboy to helpless sniggering, but the re-teaming of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, with Lake’s husband Andre DeToth at the helm, merited more serious attention, clearly. Olive Films have released the picture on a good-looking Blu-ray so serious attention is perfectly possible for anyone with the cash to spare.

The movie begins with a clusterbombing of exposition, characters heaping up without much introduction, so that my sleepy self quickly started to despair of being able to follow things. Also, DeToth’s noir sensibility seemed to be inflecting everything with twistiness and ambivalence — black hats and white hats seemed apt to get swapped at any moment, and usually lovable or at any rate amicable actors were already sliding out of place into shadowy terrain — Veronica Lake seems spoilt and stroppy, Charlie Ruggles is severe and inhumane, Joel McCrea drinks too much, Donald Crisp is a vacillating lawman, Preston Foster is a power-hungry cattle baron and Lloyd Bridges… well, that guy always did a nice turn in psycho hoodlums, so it’s no surprise to find him sneering from the sidelines.

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The exposition was so deep after a few minutes of in media res backbiting that I was expecting a noir flashback to give us a second go at understanding things, but this never happened. In other respects, though, this is far more noir than western. Moral certainty is filled full of lead early on and never rises from its sickbed.

Gradually I perceived the fault lines running through the town and family at the film’s centre — think Mann’s THE FURIES, another western by a noir specialist with ranchers as Borgia-gangsters, fraught father-daughter relationships, violent passions and murderous politicking. McCrea, despite a token alcohol problem and an inability to decide between the two leading ladies, does preserve his righteous image, but it takes a little more of a shaking up than usual.

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Maybe that’s part of why McCrea disliked the film. He also didn’t care for DeToth either personally or professionally — he didn’t like all the beautiful elaborate tracking shots winding through it (“John Ford didn’t need that”) and felt DeToth’s relationship with Lake harmed his ability to direct her. He told Patrick McGilligan, “When you work with the director’s wife, this is for the birds. Because he’s not going to be tough with her, you know, or she’ll kick his ass when he gets home at night.”

Mind you, I saw DeToth in person, and though he was in his nineties at the time, it was hard to imagine anyone kicking this bullet-heated Hungarian cyclops’ ass.

Those snaky tracking shots and crane shots are very gorgeous, animating the scenery (DeToth always liked to seek out less familiar locations for his westerns) and making the environment more than just backdrop. He pulls off some punchy compositions too, frequently boxing Lake in as if he wanted to build a protective house around her.

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It’s a really interesting role for Lake, maybe the only femme fatale she ever got to play? — and the outcome is interesting too, because she’s not punished for her various crimes and manipulations, other than not getting her man at the end. She wins everything else, with an outcome that’s almost a Revenger’s Tragedy until you reflect that a surprising number of nasty characters are still walking around, either partially redeemed or simply judged not important enough to be worthy of Stern Western Justice.

Early on, Lake blows her top at her father, who’s been trying to fix her up with the wealthy cattle king as husband. Her rebellion against him emerges in a startlingly bitter and aggressive tirade, which seems both utterly sympathetic and too real to be just acting. Lake, who had been pushed into movies by her mother, renamed and restyled and boxed in, lets rip at this parental figure who’s trying to plot out her entire life for her with a fury that’s surely authentic. DeToth reported that she hated movie acting, but it sure looks like she’s getting something out of this scene.

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Oh, also, her character name, Connie, is her own real name. Veronica was her mother’s name.

So I loved the hell out of this. A western without the more clichéd visuals and without the cosy moral certainty. Particularly good work from Don DeFore as the most ambiguous character of all, the womanizing cowhand who is loyal yet a traitor, murderous but just, bad but noble. His schismatic nature is magnified across the whole movie. Amazing.

Ramrod [DVD]