Archive for Kathleen Freeman

The Mildreds

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by dcairns

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OF HUMAN BONDAGE is, I guess, the first kind of classic John Cromwell film, in that it’s well-remembered and has a classic source (Somerset Maugham) and iconic stars. And it’s compelling. Leslie Howard plays the mug of a hero beautifully, and Bette Davis, who invents the Dick Van Dyke cockney accent, gives a fearless, fiercely committed performance free of vanity. Though her attempt at being a Londoner is somewhat hilarious, it’s detailed enough to contain hints of Mildred Rogers’ social aspirations.

Cromwell was brought to Hollywood for the talkies, his theatre experience judged useful to help with actors who hadn’t been on the stage — for his first movies, he was paired with Edward A. Sutherland, the former Mr. Louise Brooks, who was judged in need of dramaturgical support. Those early movies fairly creak — VICE SQUAD is all but unwatchable, DANCE OF LIFE seems to have been photographed from the stalls (but worth it to glimpse a nubile Oscar Levant) and CLOSE HARMONY has been lost, for now, apart from its Vitaphone disc soundtrack. But somewhere in there, maybe making THE WORLD AND THE FLESH as an excercise du style with Karl Struss lighting and framing for expressionist values, Cromwell became more visually sensitive, and OHB is full of slick effects and interesting approaches. Not all of them come off — the phantasmal visions of Bette that plague Howard are hammy and stoopid — but on the other hand the Ozu-like dialogue delivered straight down the lens is extremely effective. Maybe he got that from Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but if so, he refined it.

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“I think she’s the worst woman I’ve ever seen,” said Fiona, adding that she felt she SHOULD be able to find some redeeming traits in the “contemptible and ill-natured” Mildred, but she just couldn’t. Davis plays it to the hilt as only she could, and Howard makes you believe in his masochism. There are lovely turns from Kay Johnson (a Cromwell favourite — his first wife) and Frances Dee as the other women in his life. This Mildred creature is one of a small regiment of monstrous women in Cromwell’s pics — usually the story resolves with the beastly female being found out by those she’s deceived about her true nature (THE SILVER CORD, THIS MAN IS MINE, IN NAME ONLY) but here, Howard is fully aware of her perfidy from the start. It’s his own masochism he has to wise up to.

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Another Mildred turns up in THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS, played by another Bette, this time Jane Greer (AKA Bettejane Greer). Her first scene with the parole board has you rooting for her as she pleads with her big, doll-like eyes — then we find out her parole officer is Lizabeth Scott, which seems like an interesting concept — what if your parole officer was a noir femme fatale? But we quickly learn that Greer’s innocence is an act, while Scott is a caring professional who wants the best for her. Things take another turn when Greer sets her sights on Scott’s man, Dennis O’Keefe — and gets him.

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It’s a highly unusual drama, scripted by the interesting lady noir specialist Ketty Frings. Cromwell made it right after the masterful CAGED, and it could almost be a sequel.

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Picked up when a fellow parolee is nabbed for stealing, Greer endures a night in the cells and a humiliating police line-up which have the same noir-sadeian tint as the earlier film, aided by chiaroscuro cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST, CAT PEOPLE) and a fierce bunch of co-stars including Theresa Harris, uncredited again (see Wednesday’s post).

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The Lizabeth Scott view from the floor again (see yesterday’s post): not literally, this time, but pleading Greer’s case before a swarm of unfeeling authority figures, she might as well be flat on her back.

The particular aspect of Cromwell’s talent in operation this time, asides from his steady hand with actors, is his compositional gift — the parole board scenes are particularly sharp. Maybe it’s because I haven’t slept in 72 hours, but I think this one is a little masterpiece, and ought to be better known. Eschewing overt melodrama, making strong use of real locations in the manner that was just coming into fashion at the time, and giving Greer probably the meatiest and realest role of her somewhat truncated career, it’s mature, unpredictable and impressive on all levels (down to the unusual score by the underrated Leigh Harline).

Also: Kathleen Freeman as a young woman, and Jeff Bridges as a baby!

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“Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Magnetic Corps

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by dcairns

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I thought Curt Siodmak’s THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was going to be good corny fun, the way BRIDE OF THE GORILLA certainly is — the title promises much. But it’s false advertising, as the film contains no monster, magnetic or otherwise, unless, like THE INVISIBLE MENACE it’s one that doesn’t register on film and stays well away from the main action.

Still, Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother deserves credit for attempting something with a bit more natural dignity than his previous Raymond Burr were-gorilla romp. This one concerns the activities of America’s A-Men, the Atom Men who police crimes of a scientific nature. The premise has potential and the name “A-Men” is amusing in a good way. The stylistic approach is borrowed from all those pseudo-documentaries like G-MEN, which I tend to find stodgy and unappealing, even with the added lift of Anthony Mann directing and/or John Alton lighting. This movie has neither: it has Curt Siodmak directing and steady workhorse Charles Van Enger lighting.

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The ending, filmed in an impressive location — IMDb mentions the McCulloch Plant at Los Angeles International Airport — manages to look properly epic and science-fictional, even with stock-footage explosions spliced in,  but what impressed me most was an appearance by Kathleen Freeman as the A-Men’s switchboard operator. Completely uncredited, the great comedienne has plenty of scenes and lots of dialogue, even if she’s basically only there to make a fat joke about herself. I realized, watching her, that a major problem of 50s sci-fi is the lack of people like Kathleen Freeman in them. I quite LIKE Richard Carlson, but he stepped out of a cookie-cutter at Central Casting, and so did most of the other players. Freeman is both more realistic and more extraordinary — one of those people who makes you smile with every appearance.vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h24m59s133

REDS UNDER THE BEDROCK

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH suffers similarly from a lumpen, authoritarian and plodding sensibility — but it’s actually a British film from the untalented Irish hack Montgomery Tully — some of its interest comes from a deft use of stock footage and bit players to pull off an American setting fairly convincingly. But it’s best trait is the very opening, where a deranged scientist is discovered with his ear to the sidewalk in Las Vegas, raving about some unidentified other moving about beneath the ground “just like ants.” In a phildickian twist, the scientist is both crazy and correct, but Dick would never have settled for a storyline about a rogue Chinese general deploying digging machines to plant nukes under the USA.

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The portrayal of the Chinese baddies isn’t as bad as you might expect — it’s worse, and far crazier. The lead villains are played by Caucasians in yellowface, not because the production wanted to cast movie stars — they’re unknowns — but presumably on the assumption that the Chinese can’t act. Tell that to Chow Yun-Fat, but then retreat rapidly before he punches your face in. Here, Martin Benson tries to suggest foreignness with a clipped delivery that makes him sound like Noel Coward. There are lots of lines about “the gods,” suggesting that screenwriter Chares F. Vetter didn’t know as much about Maoism as he should have.

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The production design is hilarious — papier maché cave walls decorated with Chinese restaurant trimmings, set dressing from a Fu Manchu pic, orientalist nonsense. I like the tacky little calendar fixed to the wall, though — surely the art director was having a laugh. But if you’re a Chinese troglodyte on the wrong side of the world, you probably do want to keep track of the passing of time.

This has been a science fiction double feature for The Film preservation Blogathon, hosted by This Island Rod.

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Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.

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As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.

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By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.

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Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.

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I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…