Archive for Virginia Grey

Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

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You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

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Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

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Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

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S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

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Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?

The Big Nothing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by dcairns

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It’s all here in this image — the Marx Bros are behind bars. Everything is cluttered and unclear, with too many elements poorly organized, and a big empty space in the upper right. The title is slapped on top of Groucho. They can’t even find room for Harpo. This film is in trouble already.

THE BIG STORE is the second Marx Brothers film I suddenly realized existed, that I had never seen. The title came to me as I was nodding off one night, and in the morning I IMDb’d it and learned that yes, there was such a film. How can one Marx Bros fan, married to another Marx Bros fan, be so slack on such things? It’s not as if there anywhere near enough Marx Bros films in the world.

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The supporting cast: mannequins. The leading lady has no head, and nothing below the waist. Margaret Dumont is a man. Dumbrille is a bust.

Sadly, TBS is no ROOM SERVICE. It’s the last film from the Bros’ MGM period, and is a very sloppy piece of writing. Again, the studio throws in big sets and lavish musical numbers, which were never really essential — though it helps to have a glossy backdrop for the boys to demolish, I guess. But the script is pretty bad, with few memorable lines, tons of padding, and lots of downright bad visual comedy — and this from the director credited with Buster Keaton’s COLLEGE and STEAMBOAT BILL JNR.

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Groucho this time is a detective, (as he would be again in LOVE HAPPY) Wolf J. Flywheel , Chico is Ravelli and Harpo is Whacky. The recycling of names may suggest desperation (how hard can it be to come up with Grouchoesque names? Julius T. Hambone; Housely Q. Pinochle; Webster V. Grift; Morton P. Fingersmith; I’m not even trying here), and the plotting certainly does. Having selected a department store as setting, the army of writers struggle to integrate musical numbers, suspense, and comedy. The bland hero this time (Tony Martin) is a singer/songwriter who just wants to sell the store he’s inherited so he can open a conservatory, a project mooted in scene one and then basically forgotten about. A bunch of kids have been trained to play piano like Chico, a decent gag, and they’re all excited about the new conservatory: “New conservatory, new conseravatory,” they rhubarb unconvincingly. We’ll never see them again either.

Margaret Dumont is a beloved aunt, with no real role in the plot, but Groucho can romance her and annoy villain Douglas Dumbrille, which is of course essential. Dumbrille is repeating his shitheel role from A DAY AT THE RACES, but the movie has him spend an inordinate amount of time flying through the air, replace by a stand-in (or dangle-in). This movie has more wirework than a Shaw Bros wuxia. Dumbrille is joined by various colourless stooges, of which the best is Bradley Page, underplaying briskly. But he has no reason to be in the movie. The stooges multiply like rabbits, but unlike rabbits they never seem to do anything useful.

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Dumbrille’s plot to cover up his cooking of the store’s books soon involves plans for kidnapping and murder: he even hints that he’ll off Margaret Dumont after marrying her. This is all de trop. It’s not really in keeping with the world of the department store.

Neither are the songs. Groucho gets the uninspired “Sing as you sell,” which affords pleasing bits for novelty acts Six Hits and a Miss, the Four Dreamers (no MGM Marx film is apparently complete without an embarrassing reference to cotton fields redolent with ante bellum slavery nostalgia) and best by far, Virginia O’Brien, the deadpan comedy singer. Tony Martin croons a ballad and then a bit of faux Gerswhin nonsense called Tenement Symphony, performed by orchestra and choir in the store as part of… what? The “ceremony” that accompanies his selling of the store. MGM musicals shouldn’t NEED lame naturalistic excuses for characters to burst into song.

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Marion “blonde menace” Martin plays vamp, very briefly, but her vamp act consists of pretending to be a snooty music journalist. Are we outsmarting a vamp or deposing a snob? Does robbing a snob of dignity count when they’re only pretending to be a snob? And why bring her in for one skit only to forget about her?

Nat Perrin is credited with the story: he had a hand in HELLZAPOPPIN and contributed dialogue to DUCK SOUP, so I’m disinclined to blame him too much. but this is shoddy work by someone, probably a whole heap of someones. Writing visual gags for Harpo can’t be too hard, since he’s allowed to violate the laws of God and man, but he needs a sensible set of surroundings whose reality he can disrupt. Every time the movie requires him to do something, it throws in props that have no reason to be there. The usual deadly harp solo is performed in an eighteenth century room with mannequins in period garb: why does this room exist? When vases are smashed in a bit of slapstick, Dumbrille refers to them as “priceless antiques.” Why were they in a store? Why is there a moose head? Is it Chico’s from ROOM SERVICE, the one he “ate up to the neck”? What are THESE?

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A few cameos of interest (discounting the physiognomic startle effect attendant on any appearance by Dewey Robinson). Clara Blandick, Auntie Em, from THE WIZARD OF OZ, turns up as a Tony Martin fan (believable). Silent star/director King Baggot is in there somewhere. Come to think of it, “King Baggot” would make a good name for a Groucho character. And the movie ends with Charles Lane, so good in TWENTIETH CENTURY, repossessing Groucho’s ancient car, a “gag” which never actually develops beyond the fact of a car being repossessed: not a gag at all, then.

Songwriter/producer Sid Kuller is probably a bad influence on the script, as is Ray Golden, another songwriter, and Hal Fimberg is the future creator of Derek Flint, so he doesn’t seem like the right kind of guy to have on a Marx picture. The IMDb says George Oppenheimer made uncredited contributions, and he had worked on the two best MGM Marx films, RACES and OPERA, but he was about to help end Garbo’s career with TWO-FACED WOMAN the following year.

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The movie has more writers than it has Marx Brothers, which would be fine if they were fighting on the same side, but every MGM movie with the Bros. is something of a battlefield in which Thalberg’s idea of classy entertainment and Mayer’s idea of family values comes up against the very spirit of what the Marx Bros should be all about — chaos. In this movie, depressingly, MGM wins.

The Girl in the Picture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2010 by dcairns

“Strangers in the night… exchanging clothing…” as Chevy Chase sang in FLETCH. But he wasn’t thinking of Anthony Mann’s little noir romance, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT, although like his own adventure, this one features shifty rich people in big houses by the sea.

Our hero is likable dullard William Terry, a marine who suffers a serious back injury and only pulls through thanks to the inspiring letters he exchanges with a girl he’s never met. On his way to meet her upon release from hospital, he bumps into cute lady doctor Virginia Grey, and we immediately suss that he’s destined to be with her.

In the spooky clifftop house of Mrs. Blake (Helen ISLE OF THE DEAD Thimig), whose limp and German accent are never referred to by anybody, which is odd since it’s wartime and the heroine’s a doctor. But more to the point, Mrs Blake is off her rocker, and the true author of the letters she claims her daughter wrote to Terry. In fact, the daughter is an early manifestation (or non-manifestation) of the imaginary offspring made famous in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

At under an hour, this early Mann mood piece is brisk and breezy — the plot seems to have wound through more complications than the whole of INCEPTION in its first ten mins — and shares with its no-name leads a sincere, naive charm. This is somewhat compromised by the underlying assumption that childless women are likely to go crazy and start poisoning the help (Edith Barrett, another Val Lewton favourite, known around our place as “Eyes Wide Apart”). This puts it on a par with the sexual anxieties of STRANGE IMPERSONATION, another quality early Mann.

The shaky hold the film has on our conviction is loosed altogether when a character is seemingly crushed to death under an oil painting. Have you ever handled an oil painting? For a piece of canvas with a paint coating, it’s surprisingly light! But along the way we’ve had several interesting insights into marine slang — did you know that “joe” can mean “coffee”? It’s news to everybody in this film, too.