Wednesday, October 31, 2012

She-Wolf of London (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I dug out my box of the Universal legacy collection of their classic horror films from the 1930’s and 1940’s and decided to run one for Hallowe’en’en (well, what else do you call the day before Hallowe’en?). Alas, the one we picked was pretty much a dog: She-Wolf of London, included as a “bonus” in the “Wolf Man” box with the 1941 The Wolf Man, the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the 1935 The Werewolf of London (a film I’ve always thought was underrated and far better than the 1941 reboot, though it would have been even better if the originally set director and stars — James Whale, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi — had made it instead of Stuart Walker, Henry Hull and Warner Oland). Alas, She-Wolf of London was made in 1946, at the tail end of the original Universal horror cycle, and is a film so dull that I’ve never managed to sit through it without falling asleep — not in the 1970’s when I first saw (most of) it on TV, not later on and certainly not last night. On the plus side, it’s got those great old-house standing sets from the Universal back lot, lots of fog machines working in conjunction with the sets to produce the required Gothic atmosphere, marvelous chiaroscuro cinematography by Maury Gertsman and some surprisingly oblique camera angles by normally straightforward director (a boy named) Jean Yarbrough. It also has a personable cast, headed by June Lockhart as heiress Phyllis Allenby, who fears that she’s fallen victim to the “curse of the Allenbys” — that periodically members of her family change into werewolves and go out and kill people randomly. A series of murders is currently being committed by the so-called “She-Wolf of London” (the film is set at the turn of the last century) and is being investigated by Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard (Dennis Hoey, who plays the part exactly the way he played Inspector Lestrade in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies).

Phyllis Allenby lives with her aunt Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) and Martha’s daughter Carol (Jan Wiley) in the crumbling old Allenby manse, though a clumsy bit of exposition (the writers are George Bricker and Dwight V. Babcock, not exactly names to conjure with in screenwriting history) reveals that the Winthrops are not blood Allenbys at all and have no claim to the Allenby family fortune, to which Phyllis is sole heir. Phyllis is engaged to barrister (British-speak for trial lawyer) Barry Lanfield (Don Porter — incidentally Porter gets top billing on the film itself but Lockhart gets it on the trailer — was the trailer for a reissue after Lockhart got at least a bit of fame as the mother on the Lassie TV series and then on Lost in Space?), while Carol is dating artist Dwight Severn (a wasted Martin Kosleck), of whom her mom disapproves because Severn is penniless and likely to remain that way. Early on it becomes all too obvious that the “she-wolf of London” doesn’t really exist, especially since the only evidence of her we see is a normal-appearing woman, always seen from behind, with a hood up over the back of her head, and though we hear various snarling and ripping sounds as she dispatches her victims (a small boy at the beginning and an inept policeman later on) it becomes clear that this, like the contemporaneous Devil Bat’s Daughter from PRC, is another Gaslight knockoff in which the heroine is being convinced that she’s a monster for some sinister purpose — and not terribly surprisingly, the real she-wolf turns out to be Martha Winthrop, who has been drugging Phyllis every night and smearing blood on her hands when a murder occurs so she’ll become convinced she’s the she-wolf, she’ll either be arrested for the murders or put in an asylum, and the Winthrops will be able to go on enjoying the Allenby house and money indefinitely. Needless to say, she doesn’t get her wish; she ends up chasing Phyllis through the house after Martha’s own maid Hannah (Eily Malyon) learns what’s going on and Martha decides she’ll have to dispatch Phyllis ahead of schedule — so she grabs a knife, chases Phyllis with it, then falls down stairs and accidentally stabs herself, allowing Phyllis and her nice young lawyer boyfriend to get together at the end. She-Wolf of London is a nothing movie, thoroughly boring and without the appeal of the contemporary Val Lewton films — the makers seemed to be going for the nerve-wracking uncertainty of many of Lewton’s movies over whether there is anything supernatural going on or not, but they missed Lewton’s literacy and taste by a mile and also sacrificed the more visceral thrills and shocks of the classic Universal style — though it’s at least professionally made and the cast is genuinely appealing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sin Takes a Holiday (Pathé, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Sin Takes a Holiday, a 1930 production from the U.S. branch of Pathé just before it merged with RKO (though at first the Radio Corporation of America operated the two studios separately and it wasn’t until they hired David O. Selznick as production chief in 1932 that he arranged to merge the two, sensibly given what the Depression had done to the economics of the movie industry), and it contributed a lot of people who became major RKO hands over the years — including art director Carroll Clark, who gives us some stunning Art Deco interiors with those huge wood-paneled doors and would later design all but one of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films made at RKO. The cinematographer, John Mescall, would later team with director James Whale for The Bride of Frankenstein and the 1936 Show Boat at Universal, and the editor, Danny Mandell, would later work in that capacity for Samuel Goldwyn for years. The director of Sin Takes a Holiday was Paul L. Stein, a Vienna-born filmmaker who made his directorial debut in 1918 and made his first U.S. film, My Official Wife, a Russian-set drama taking place just before the Revolution, for Warner Bros. in 1926. He made this film right after The Lottery Bride, a United Artists disaster (artistic and commercial) for Jeanette MacDonald in 1930, and his next two films after Sin Takes a Holiday, Born to Love and The Common Law, were also vehicles for the star Constance Bennett, whose billing in Sin Takes a Holiday was not only over the title but actually larger than it! Written by Horace Jackson from a story by Robert Milton and Dorothy Cairns, Sin Takes a Holiday is a pretty predictable film, though clearly a product of the “pre-Code” glasnost in its easy acceptance of divorce and marital non-permanence. Bennett plays Sylvia Brenner, secretary to divorce attorney Gaylord Stanton (Kenneth MacKenna, dull as usual — he turned in a great performance in a small Howard Hughes-esque role in Charles Vidor’s excellent proto-noir Sensation Hunters but every other film I’ve seen him in he’s been stolid and unimpressive).

She’s got a decidedly unrequited crush on Gaylord, who’s in the middle of having an affair with one of his clients, Grace Lawrence (Rita LaRoy), only her husband (her third; Gaylord has already represented her in getting rid of the first two) is planning to name Gaylord as the co-respondent, and Gaylord is worried that this will kill his practice by embarrassing him publicly. He’s also worried that Rita wants to make him husband number four — and will extract from him as crippling a financial settlement as she got out of husbands one and two. To avoid all this, Gaylord accepts a suggestion from one of his wastrel friends, Richards (Louis John Bartels), that he make a marriage in name only with someone else. Richards boasts that he and his wife have an understanding that allows them to call themselves married but doesn’t require them to do anything about it: they can travel apart, they can lead largely separate lives, and they can have sex with anyone they want — which doesn’t seem to include each other. Gaylord offers precisely this sort of marriage to Sylvia, oblivious that she’s really in love with him and the sort of marriage she would want with him would be the more conventional kind in which the two people involved actually do live together, have sex only with each other, and ultimately have children. She accepts and he immediately gives her the money for a vacation in Paris, on which she’s followed by another of Gaylord’s friends, Reggie Durant (Basil Rathbone), who’s obviously after Sylvia. He puts her up in an expensive hotel (thereby giving Carroll Clark the opportunity to create another opulent set similar to the live-work space Gaylord inhabits back in New York — indeed, one practically expects the stars of Clark’s later films, Astaire and Rogers, to come swooping through it in the middle of a dance number) and encourages her to buy a lot of high-fashion clothes on Gaylord’s dime. She has her vacation, Grace does her level best to break up her marriage to Gaylord, but eventually what we knew from reel one was going to happen duly happens and Gaylord and Sylvia end up in a clinch, telling us that from then on they’re going to have a real marriage and not just a paper one.

The story is awfully pat but a director like Lubitsch might have made it genuinely interesting; Stein, who shared little with Lubitsch but his ancestry from a German-speaking country, does a few reasonably creative camera moves (including a surprising number of pan shots, a technique classic-era Hollywood almost never used in interiors) but proves unable to do much with his actors. It seems weird that in three consecutive films with Constance Bennett he got three completely different performances out of her: in Sin Takes a Holiday she underacts relentlessly — as if her idea of playing a homely woman is to speak all her lines in a monotone. She’s supposed to do a transformation from drab secretary in the opening reels to glamorous socialite wife in the later ones, but whereas Bette Davis would manage a similar transformation to perfection in Now, Voyager a decade later, Bennett just looks dull, drab and droopy on both ends of the “change” and the only visible difference is she’s dressed considerably better later on. In Born to Love Bennett and Stein seemed to overcompensate and have her overact relentlessly, and in The Common Law he finally got a balanced performance out of her; as I wrote about that film previously, “If Stein didn’t bring to The Common Law quite the same baroque visual style he had to parts of Born to Love, he didn’t let Constance Bennett chew the scenery and get away with the ultra-hammy gestures she’d used in the earlier film either — and the plot was stronger this time around, too.”

But none of these three films with Stein showcases Bennett anywhere nearly as effectively as What Price Hollywood?, the prototype for A Star Is Born she made in 1932 with Selznick producing and George Cukor directing (superbly; Cukor would turn down the 1937 A Star Is Born because he thought the story was too close, but he’d change his mind when the chance to make the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason came around). Sin Takes a Holiday is most notable for Basil Rathbone’s appearance; saddled with a “roo” moustache and appallingly ill-cast (he could do dastardly villainy and ringing heroism — well, you name me another actor, besides John Barrymore, who played both Sherlock Holmes and Richard III! — but he’s unbelievable as a lounge lizard threatening Our Heroine’s virtue), he’s still the most watchable person in the movie, and though some of Rathbone’s early talkies feature an annoyingly chipper voice, here he’s got the authoritative “Rathbone ring” that made both his Holmes movies and the best of his villain roles (notably Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood) so good and made him a star on spoken-word records for Columbia. Here he barrels ahead through the script and Stein’s indifferent direction, making an impression in spite of the thin material and Bennett’s numbingly impassive performance — as if her character thought the way to fend off his advances was to give a remarkably good impersonation of a rock. One other quirky thing about Sin Takes a Holiday: why are both the opening and closing credits printed against the backdrop of a picture of a yacht? No such boat appears in the film!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The World Accuses (Chesterfield, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The World Accuses, a 1934 Chesterfield production (which usually meant a superior product to your average independent film of the time, with a better cast, a stronger story and more advanced direction) which judging from the title and the synopsis on (from whence we downloaded it) I had expected to be a gangster movie. Instead it’s a soap opera, though a refreshingly unsentimental one for the time: it begins in 1929, when former nightclub entertainer Lola Allen is living in a lavish apartment with her well-to-do husband John Weymouth (Paul Fix). Unfortunately, all the couple’s bills are being paid by Weymouth’s bitchy mother Lucille (Sarah Edwards, who judging from her performance here would have been excellent casting as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz), who never lets a moment pass in Lola’s presence without telling her how much she hates her, how she resents her for marrying her son, and how she’s going to present her son with an ultimatum: divorce Lola or be cut off from his entire inheritance. Lola gives her husband an ultimatum of her own — either cut off relations with his mother or divorce her — and she and John go out to a nightclub, where Lola runs into some of her former friends and for the first time in months feels truly alive. Unfortunately, one of the old friends she runs into is bookie “Checkers” Fraley (Harold Huber), who was obviously one of Lola’s exes and is hoping to get her on the rebound after John dumps her for his mother’s money. “Checkers” and John have one of those absurd movie fights in which John is accidentally killed, and “Checkers” is arrested and ultimately convicted (presumably of manslaughter) — but the trial we see next is one in family court, masterminded by Lucille Weymouth, in which she manages to get Lola declared an unfit parent and win custody of John’s and Lola’s son Tommy.

Five years pass, long enough for Tommy to grow up from being a baby to being played by Dickie Moore, and he’s clearly miserable in Lucille’s huge house but Lucille has managed to succeed in one particular: she’s got him to forget about his mother. Meanwhile, Lola has settled into a job at a nursery — the kind that takes care of children, not the kind that raises plants — after she collapsed at the sight of so many children (the direction by Charles Lamont, relatively straightforward through the rest of the film, gives us a stirring montage sequence here that made Charles joke, “They’ve gone all Soviet Union on us!”), and not surprisingly writer Charles Belden can’t help but milk the irony that Lola, who was earlier declared unfit by a court to raise her own child, here is proving such a “natural” at taking care of a whole bunch of other people’s children that the nursery’s owner, Mrs. Warren (Mary Carr), appoints Lola to head it when she leaves town to visit her own (grown) children preparatory to retirement. While running the nursery Lola finds herself attracted to Hugh Collins (Russell Hopton), a radio announcer and commentator Lola meets because he’s keeping his own daughter Pat (Cora Sue Collins, who has curls in her hair but a refreshingly straightforward and un-Shirley Temple-like manner, a real surprise for a girl actress in the 1930’s!) at the nursery, but the attraction ends up on hold because on one of Hugh’s shows, right after he’s promoted Lola’s nursery as a great place to trust with your kids, he rehashes the Weymouth case and says that Lola “got what she deserved.” Then who should turn up at the nursery but “Checkers,” having just broken out of prison; he blackmails Lola into letting him stay in the nursery’s attic by saying if she doesn’t let him, he’ll reveal who she really is. Meanwhile, Lucille Weymouth (ya remember Lucille Weymouth?) has lost her fortune, not to the Depression (as one might have suspected) but through embezzlement by her crooked attorney; the shock sends her into a sanitarium and leaves her near death, and Barney Barrett (Bryant Washburn), her new (and presumably honest) lawyer, offers to take her grandson Tommy into his own home — only before that can happen he needs a place to park the kid, and you’ll never guess where … oh yes, you will, at least if you’ve seen more than about 12 movies in your life.

Tommy and Pat become what would now be called BFF’s (indeed, they seem to be headed towards one of those weird sorts of psychologically, though not biologically, incestuous relationships like the one between Victor and Elizabeth in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein), and the mutual attraction between the kids seems to be bringing the parents together even though Lola has no idea Tommy is actually her son (remember the last time she saw the kid, he was just a baby!). The crisis occurs when Tommy and Pat decide to explore the attic and come across “Checkers,” who holds them hostage at gunpoint; the kids manage to flee but their lives are imperiled because they’re hanging on to the nursery’s deeply sloping roof for dear life. Lola thinks she has talked “Checkers” into surrendering when “Checkers” hears a police siren and thinks he’s been tricked; eventually he goes out onto the roof to chase Tommy and Pat, but a police sniper manages to pick him off without hurting the kids. Lola learns at last that Tommy is her son, and Barrett says he’ll release Tommy to her custody. Needless to say, Hugh changes his mind about Lola and her morals, and there’s a charming ending scene with Tommy and Pat in twin beds in the children’s room sagely commenting on the union of their parents. The World Accuses is a rather ballsy title for so obviously a “women’s picture,” but within the limits of the form it’s a good story, effectively directed and acted and with surprisingly little sentimentality for a 1934 film in which two of the key protagonists are children — but perhaps it was still early enough in Shirley Temple’s run as the number one star of the 1930’s for her example to shape how all movie children were depicted.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wise Girl (RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Wise Girl, a 1937 weirdie from RKO that took a pretty typical trope — the fish-out-of-water meeting between two people representing polar opposites on the socioeconomic scale — and ran with it in some pretty crazy and surprisingly entertaining directions. It was shown recently as part of a TCM tribute to Miriam Hopkins, who stars as Susan Fletcher, spoiled-brat daughter of a tycoon (Henry Stephenson) who’s so powerful the town they live in is called “Fletcherville.” Fletcher père is upset that his two grand-nieces, Joan (Betty Philson) and Katie (Marianna Strelby), have been raised since the death of their parents by their uncle John O’Halloran (Ray Milland), a Bohemian artist who was living in France with the girls and their parents, and when the parents died he brought them to the U.S. and they’ve settled in a Greenwich Village boarding house which opens up onto a surprisingly lavish-looking patio (a set later reused as the New Mexico town square in the Val Lewton production The Leopard Man). O’Halloran makes a living, more or less, as a sign painter for Walker’s department store and as a “second” for another member of his artists’ colony, Mike (Guinn Williams, in a far more normal comic-relief role for him than his part as the villain in Lucky Star), who’s both a prizefighter and a sculptor. Another member of the colony is Karl Stevens (Walter Abel), a painter John knew in Europe who’s descended into alcoholism following the death of his wife. (That’s a surprise — a Ray Milland movie in which someone else is the alcoholic!)

Susan Fletcher decides to move to New York, pose as a poor starving actress, get a room at the boarding house and document that John is an unfit guardian for her nieces — only in the meantime she falls in love with John, who naturally turns against her when he finds out who she is and why she came there. It’s a pretty familiar story but the script is full of weird twists and turns that make this into a genre-bender one could readily have imagined Preston Sturges coming up with five years or so later — the credited writers are Allan Scott (who did script-polishing on most of the Astaire-Rogers musicals and brought the same charm and wit here) and Charles Norman, though according to the American Film Institute Catalog Viola Brothers Shore and Harold Kussell were assigned to “polish” the screenplay but it’s not clear whether any of their work ended up in the final film. It was also originally slated to be produced by P. J. Wolfson (Edward Kaufman ended up with the final producing credit) and to star Cary Grant — which would probably have made the film better known, at least, though Milland is perfectly credible in the role of the Bohemian artist continually undone by his pride. At one point he and Susan are hired to pose as Bohemians for a dinner party for $3 plus a free dinner — and he has her dress in a ridiculously patterned gown that is also way too big for her (and Mike, adding dressmaking to his weird mix of talents, puts pins in it to try to get it into some correspondence with her actual size) — and at another point he takes her to Mike’s prizefight, she gets offended at the beating Mike is taking from the other fighter, she grabs the other fighter’s leg, Mike punches out the referee, Susan pulls down the champion and the referee acclaims her as the winner of the bout.

It gets even weirder than that: John gets Susan a job doing a sort of live commercial for Walker’s Department Store’s products in the window of their store — and the audience that gathers snickers at the blatancy of the plugs as well as Susan’s bad delivery of her lines — and it ends, of course, in a comic catastrophe that gets them both fired. Eventually the kids are taken away from John in a family-court proceeding with Margaret Dumont — who did make some great movies that didn’t also feature the Marx Brothers or W. C. Fields — as the pompous do-gooder “Mrs. Bell-Rivington” who is masterminding the proceedings and has placed the girls in a juvenile care home pending their placement with the Fletchers in their manse, and Susan engineers John’s arrest and incarceration in the Fletcherville jail for six months (it’s the same jail set that Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant did time in in Bringing Up Baby, made six months later) with the proviso that he won’t get anything to eat or drink until he completes a painting for a New York art contest with a $2,000 grand prize. Instead of painting, the bitter John uses the canvas sent into him under the cell door to do a caricature of Susan and her father, which earns him $1,000 and a job as a caricaturist for a New York publisher. The final scene shows Susan and John in a clinch on top of the stairs in the Fletcherville mansion — the living room is so huge that any moment one expects Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and a bevy of chorines to swoop in for a production number — with the kids able to have the father-figure they love and the untold riches of the Fletchers.

As I noted above, it’s a familiar plot that was probably considered trite even then, but it’s also done with a rare sense of style (the director was RKO hack Leigh Jason but this is definitely more a Schreiber movie than an auteur movie) and Miriam Hopkins’ real-life bitchiness and determination to upstage everyone she acted with (both Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis said she was the most unpleasant co-star they ever had) actually works for this particular role. I was wondering if this was a remake of The Smartest Girl in Town (which RKO made a year earlier with Gene Raymond and Ann Sothern), which had a similar plot, but in that one it was the girl who was genuinely poor and the guy who was rich but pretending to be poor to get close to her. It was certainly a fun film, well worth seeing and a cut above what one would expect from Hopkins (who was on her way down from the “A” list) and Milland (who was on his way up to the “A” list), a hack director and a 69-minute running time. One nice little in-joke: at the dinner party she’s been hired to attend for “atmosphere,” Susan’s moods change so rapidly one of the other guests compares her to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — Miriam Hopkins had been in the Paramount Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film from 1932, playing the music-hall girl “Champagne Ivy” that gets a crush on Jekyll and is raped and ultimately murdered by Hyde (Fredric March).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

See Your Doctor (MGM short, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I settled in relatively late and watched a 1938 MGM “B” called Woman Against Woman (produced and written by Edward Chodorov, directed by Robert B. Sinclair, starring Herbert Marshall, Virginia Bruce and Mary Astor, and only 61 minutes long) on the same disc I’d recorded from TCM as also contained The Case of the Velvet Claws, Midnight Court and The Divorce of Lady X and all of which seemed to have been paired because they deal with estranged couples and have scenes taking place in courtrooms. Before it, though, TCM had shown a screamingly funny Robert Benchley short called See Your Doctor, even more delightful than most of the Benchley shorts because a) he’s playing a character — put-upon suburban husband Joseph A. Doakes (ironically “Joe Doakes” was also the name of the series Warner Bros. cooked up with actor Dave O’Brien to compete with the Benchley shorts at MGM), who is digging in his garden when he’s stung by a bee. Only his obnoxious brother-in-law (Hobart Cavanaugh) gets him scared that he might really have been bitten by a black widow spider and insists he go to the E.R. — where he’s put upon first by an obnoxious nurse who keeps tearing up his admission form and filling out a new one on the flimsiest of pretexts (the district where Benchley/Doakes lives, the fact that an out-of-towner brought him, etc.) in a grim satire of medical bureaucracy that rings true even now, then by the doctor himself (it was one of those sights where you encounter a person you know you’ve seen in a million other movies and you think, “Monty Woolley? Here?” — and it was indeed he, probably appearing in this film unbilled as a favor to his old friend from the Algonquin Round Table days), who’s trying to look at Doakes’ wound while simultaneously talking to a child patient on the phone, and in the end of course it turns out to be a bee sting, it’s already healed by the time the doctor sees it, and the doctor sends our hapless hero home. (Today, of course, he’d send his insurance company a four-figure bill!)

Woman Against Woman (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Woman Against Woman is an O.K. soap opera with comic overtones, based on a story by Margaret Culkin Banning called “Enemy Territory.” It opens with attorney Stephen Holland (Herbert Marshall) feeling immensely put-upon by his wife Cynthia (Mary Astor). He wants them to find a smaller and cozier place to live; she insists on them remaining where they are. He wants to keep Dora (Sarah Padden), the nurse who raised him during his own childhood and is now looking after his daughter Ellen (Juanita Quigley, yet another of the Shirley Temple wanna-bes that clogged casting offices in the 1930’s), but she insists she won’t work another day under the same house as Cynthia. Eventually Stephen and Cynthia have an argument and, though they’re relatively genteel about it, he insists that he’s not going to stay another night under her roof, moves out and announces his intention to file for divorce. This is complicated by the fact that Stephen’s mother (Janet Beecher) is on Cynthia’s side. But after five years (that’s how long the script tells us they’ve been married, though Juanita Quigley looks more like about eight than five) Stephen is tired of being bitched at and ordered about by his wife. He gets an assignment to argue a patent infringement case before the appellate court in Washington (not the Supreme Court, despite a mistake to that effect on the page) and while he’s there he meets Maris Kent (Virginia Bruce) and the two fall in love after a weird drinking scene in a hotel room in which they’re having a good (though Production Code-safe) time and she warbles a bit of the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — which Virginia Bruce had introduced as the bitchy second lead in the Eleanor Powell-James Stewart musical Born to Dance two years earlier. They marry — by then he and Cynthia have got legally divorced — only they have a problem: Stephen’s practice is in the small town where he and Cynthia are living, and the town’s other married women join forces with Cynthia and snub Stephen’s new bride. Eventually the cold war between them gets to the point where Stephen finds himself torn between the two women — he no longer loves Cynthia but wants a modus vivendi with her, if only so he can keep seeing his daughter — and Cynthia finally tries what would now be called “the nuclear option”: she threatens to move across country so Stephen will never see Ellen again. The film has a daringly “open” ending for the time; Cynthia backs off her threat, but then says she’s going through with it after all, and Stephen has to choose between being a presence in his daughter’s life and staying with his new wife and making the remarriage work.

In some ways Woman Against Woman is a reworking of Dodsworth, the 1936 screen adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, also about a married man torn between an increasingly bitchy wife and another woman who genuinely and selflessly loves him — though that film had cast Ruth Chatterton as the bitch and Mary Astor as the nice woman! Astor’s performance is considerably more vicious than the script necessitated — early on I joked that she was meaner than she’d been in The Maltese Falcon, in which she played a murderess — and what appeal this film has is mainly due to the fineness of the acting (and as a Virginia Bruce fan who thinks she was ill-used by the major studios — her best film by far is the 1934 Monogram version of Jane Eyre — it was nice to see her get to be the good girl for a change!) even though Herbert Marshall had played this sort of role many times before (i.e., The Painted Veil) and would play it many times afterwards (i.e., The Letter). An interesting comment on the film on pointed out the multiple marital histories of several of the personnel connected with it: original author Margaret Culkin Banning had two husbands, Herbert Marshall had five wives, Mary Astor three husbands and Virginia Bruce four. “Wow, they sure had the right cast making this one about divorce and marriage," the reviewer, "ksf-2," said.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (Vanwick, made 1958, released 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I also watched the 1958 horror film The Monster of Piedras Blancas, a knock-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon produced independently in New England and directed by Irvin Berwick, who had designed the original “Creature” makeup, felt he hadn’t got either the recognition or the money he deserved, and so decided to concoct his own story of an aquatic monster. It’s a quirky movie, with blatant visual quotes not only from Creature but from the original Frankenstein as well (the monster abducts the heroine from her bedroom, and later throws her father from the lighthouse tower the way Henry Frankenstein fell from the burning windmill during his fight to the death with his Monster), unusually well photographed for an independent production from the late 1950’s (though there’s an oddly Ed Woodian clip of a stock shot of two men running from the shore inserted into a chase scene out of the usual laziness of B-movie producers of this era, which stands out only because the rest of the film has a tightly-lit, well-photographed “studio” look to it, courtesy of Universal, who since they were near financial collapse when this film was made, were only too happy to loan out contract players and technical people to this independent production merely to keep them employed at someone else’s expense).

Berwick is perhaps a little too reticent about showing the monster — we see its hand in a pre-credits sequence, then its shadow about 40 minutes later, then its midriff and arm (holding the severed head of one of its victims!) and not until the last 15 minutes of the film do we see it full-figure — and though his actors were several cuts above Ed Wood’s, they have to do interminable dialogue scenes in which we’re given narrative flashbacks encompassing key plot points (actual filmed flashbacks would have been better, but would have blown the budget). The Monster of Piedras Blancas is one of those movies that is so tightly conceived within the bounds of its genre that it’s utterly predictable in structure and plot development — which has a certain appeal, actually; its makers acknowledged that their only intent was to scare audiences, and it probably worked back then. I’d wanted to see this movie ever since my childhood, when I read about it in a Famous Monsters of Filmland back issue from the time it was made — and again when Filmfax magazine gave a full account of its making a few years ago, and put the titular monster on its cover (in a much more brightly-lit still than anything we see in the movie itself!). My brother and I used to take turns enacting the part of the “Monster of Pious Blancas” (that was as close as he could come at the time to pronouncing the title!) and its latest victim — it’s an example of how tight a genre film this is that we could pretend to be in a movie we hadn’t seen! — and when Filmfax wrote it up, and now that American Movie Classics has actually shown it and I’ve videotaped it, it’s like I’ve finally completed an unfinished bit of my childhood. — 8/24/96


Charles and I managed to squeeze in a movie last night: The Monster of Piedras Blancas, a 1958 production from a short-lived independent company called Vanwick, after the two partners who founded it, producer Jack Kevan and director Irvin Berwick. I remember reading years ago in an article in Filmfax that this film was shot on location in Massachusetts (it was actually in California, but where in California the sources on’s message boards disagree: either the fairly well known Point Concepcion lighthouse or the lesser-known one in Cayucos, just north of Morro Bay, where the “white rocks” of the title actually do exist) and that the people involved in it had just been laid off from Universal-International (the studio was in the process of being sold to MCA and the new owners were cleaning out what they thought would be deadwood) and decided to do a film on their own that would aim at the Universal horror market, or what was left of it by 1958. It helped that Jack Kevan had actually designed the costume for the Gill-Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon and its two sequels, and so he made a similar costume for the title character of this one and actually played the monster himself. I first heard of this movie in one of the few copies of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland I ever owned, which profiled this film extensively when it was still new; my brother and I got hold of a copy several years later and pretended we were being chased by the “Monster of Pious Blancas” (the closest my brother could come to pronouncing the title) — which the last time Charles and I watched this together (over a decade ago, from a tape I recorded from AMC back when it still was a classic-movie channel) I noted was an indication of how solidly grounded a genre piece this was that my brother and I could pretend to be in a movie neither of us had actually seen. Anyway, the movie holds up pretty well — we were watching a Sinister Cinema DVD and some of it was awfully dark-looking, and I wasn’t sure whether the darkness was intended by director Berwick and cinematographer Philip Lathrop or was an artefact of the print we were watching and/or our rapidly fading old-fashioned pre-digital TV set.

It’s clearly a monster-movie formula picture, and a bit slow — we’re 45 minutes into its 71-minute running time before we finally see the monster full-figure (though the original trailer showed it, which I can’t help thinking was a mistake: I’ve always thought the best promotion for a horror movie was one which “teased” you with a bit of the monster without showing it all; instead you’ll have to pay for a ticket to see the whole thing!), and the exposition moves at the speed of a drugged camel as we learn that the village lighthouse keeper, Sturges (John Harmon), was happy and relatively normal until his wife died. Then he became an embittered recluse, hiding out in the lighthouse with only three beings for company: his daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen); his dog Ring; and the Monster of Piedras Blancas, the last surviving representative of a water-dwelling reptile called a Diplovertubron, previously thought to be extinct. The idea of a lonely old lighthouse keeper, embittered by the death of his wife, should turn to a man-eating monster for companionship is weird enough as it is, but he also gets into hissy-fits with the owner of the local store, Kochek (Frank Arvidson), when Kochek sells to someone else the “meat scraps” with which he feeds the monster and thereby keeps it from eating humans … not that that always works, since we soon learn from the local police constable, George Matson (Forrest Lewis), that there have been mysterious deaths off the coast before, besides the one he’s currently investigating in which two brothers who ran a fishing boat were found with their heads sliced off their bodies and every drop of blood drained out of them.

Eventually Dr. Sam Jorgensen (Les Tremayne, top-billed) and his assistant Fred (Don Sullivan), who’s also Lucille Sturges’ boyfriend, figure out what the monster is and what a challenge it will be either to kill it or take it alive, which Jorgensen and Fred want to do because a living specimen of a Diplovertubron or something similar will tell us a lot we need to know about evolution. Director Berwick clearly learned something from Jack Arnold’s and John Sherwood’s work on the Gill-Man movies, and though he’s not much for suspense or pace there are times when he shows an interesting eye (notably in the shots of old man Sturges glimpsed through the distorting lenses by which the lighthouse works) and he’s quite good at coming up with horrific images and not keeping them on the screen so long they become merely disgusting instead of scary. The most famous scene in the film is the one in which the Monster makes its first full-figure appearance carrying the head of its latest victim — and though just about everyone who’s seen this film remembers it, Berwick keeps it on the screen only for a few seconds, just long enough for us to register it without parading the gore in our faces. The ending is a bit disappointing — for a monster whose skin is so tough it broke off part of a meat cleaver, it’s hard to believe it could be killed merely by throwing it off the top of a lighthouse (it lands in the water, its natural element, which made me wonder whether Kevan, Berwick and writer H. Haile Chase were setting us up for a sequel) — and it utterly lacks the shards of pathos of the Gill-Man movies, but it’s still a fun film in a limited genre even though one could also readily imagine it as Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder! — 10/17/12

Monday, October 15, 2012

Midnight Court (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Midnight Court, a typical 1937 “B” from Warner Bros. that featured Ann Dvorak and John Litel (not exactly names to conjure with in Hollywood history) in a surprisingly grim tale about an auto-theft ring being led by Al Kruger (William Davidson) and his sidekick/enforcer Slim Jacobs (Stanley Fields). They get homeless teenagers to steal cars for them, then repaint them, alter their serial numbers and sell them as supposedly “legitimate” used cars. Kruger says to Slim that the only person he has to worry about is former district attorney Victor Shanley (John Litel), who thanks to Kruger’s connections was defeated for re-election two years before and is now a major alcoholic, hanging out at the skid-row place Kruger owns and getting himself busted for vagrancy and intoxication in a police raid. (The fact that the cops could just walk into a bar and bust everybody there for no particular reason is pretty chilling in and of itself.) Victor ends up in night court, where his ex-wife Carol O’Neil (Ann Dvorak) is the court reporter, but he’s bailed out by Kruger, who wants to sober up Victor so he can become the attorney for his gang. Victor goes along — screenwriters Don Ryan (who apparently was a Los Angeles reporter who specialized in covering night courts) and Kenneth Gamet depict him as so embittered by his fall that he’s willing to put his ethics aside and do whatever corrupt work Kruger wants from him, especially since it turns out to be lucrative — and in his first trial as Kruger’s “mouthpiece” he wins the acquittal of Bob Terrill (Carlyle Moore, Jr.), a basically decent kid who got caught up in Kruger’s auto-theft ring. Victor tries to have it both ways, doing Kruger’s dirty work but also courting his ex and trying to convince her to come back to him by saying he’s still basically a decent guy. He reaches out to Bob, offering to help him go to college if he straightens out and quits Kruger’s operation, but Kruger, afraid that if Bob makes a legitimate life for himself he’ll rat out the gang, has Slim kill him and fake it to look like either an accident or suicide by sticking his body into one of the stolen cars and sending it off a cliff. (This being a 60-minute “B” at the lowest end of Warners’ output, this scene is not actually shown.)

Victor is appalled, and when Carol chews him out and says he’s basically responsible for Bob’s death, he agrees and gets himself fired by Kruger. Two months later Victor appears in night court again and agrees to serve as special prosecutor in the case against Kruger and Slim, who’ve finally been busted by the police. Naturally, Kruger’s new lawyer challenges Victor’s appearance, noting that he can’t use anything he learned about Kruger when he was working for him because it would violate attorney-client privilege, but Victor convinces the judge (Joseph Crehan) that he’ll base the case entirely on things that happened after he stopped working for Kruger. Using a blank piece of paper as a bluff, Victor claims that Bob kept a list of the original serial numbers of all the cars Kruger’s ring stole and altered, and he tricks Slim into confessing that the cars were altered. Some of Kruger’s men smuggle guns into the courtroom and try to kill Victor in mid-trial, but Carol catches on and sneaks out a note to the police, who arrive in time to shoot down the gunmen instead, and Victor has both his moral redemption and his reconciliation with Carol. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this film except the way it anticipates a later (and much better movie), Party Girl (1958), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Robert Taylor as a corrupt Mob attorney (in that case Taylor is disabled — he has a limp in his leg — and he gets surgery that corrects both his physical disability and, in effect, his moral one: the idea was he turned corrupt because of his bitterness over his condition) who eventually comes clean and helps bust the Mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) he used to work for. Ray’s film is considerably deeper, richer, longer and better acted (Robert Taylor was one of those performers who actually improved as an actor once he aged and could no longer “coast” on his looks) but the two track surprisingly closely plot-wise, and Midnight Court is a nice example of the sort of reliable, professionally made entertainment the studios could do even on a “B” budget.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lucky Star (Fox, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lucky Star, a 1929 production from (pre-20th Century) Fox and the third in their successful series of films co-starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It was shown as part of the series on the depictions of disabled people in films that Turner Classic Movies is running every Tuesday this month, and it fit into the tear-jerker mold of the two previous Gaynor-Farrell films, Seventh Heaven (one of the two films, along with Sunrise, that won Gaynor the first Academy Award for Best Actress; in the earliest days the award was given for one’s entire body of work in a given year, not just one particular film) and Street Angel, both directed, as was Lucky Star, by Frank Borzage. The story began as an awkwardly titled novel, Three Episodes in the Life of Timothy Osborn, by Tristram Tupper, and was adapted into a screenplay by Sonya Levien. It was one of those early films on the cusp of the silent-to-sound transition that was released both ways, as a straight-on silent and as a sound film with a Movietone music track and four sequences of dialogue, and the listing on the film in the chapter on Gaynor and Farrell in James Robert Parish’s book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams gives credit to both the dialogue writer (John Hunter Booth) and the title writers (Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell). Alas, all that seems to survive is the alternate silent version, made for theatres that still hadn’t wired for sound, and the sole extant print was discovered in the Netherlands and both the opening credits and all the titles were in Dutch. The film was restored at the George Eastman House, and they drew on various sources, including a cutting continuity of the sound version, the source story and the Dutch titles, to write a new set of titles in English that were serviceable except for the forced rural-dialect spelling of some of the words. Certainly the film was easy to follow, and though it was a bit less path-breaking than Ben Mankiewicz and his co-host on TCM made it seem — its basic plot (a World War I veteran returns from the war with a disability and tries to resume his relationship with the girl he was seeing before he left) had been done four years earlier in The Big Parade (one of the blockbuster mega-hits of the silent era and a movie that no doubt would have still been remembered by the original audiences for Lucky Star) — it turned out to be an utterly haunting movie.

In his book on John Ford, Tag Gallagher argued that Friedrich Murnau’s signing by Fox and the success (artistic and commercial) of his film Sunrise strongly influenced Fox’s other directors, including Ford and Borzage, and while I didn’t think much of that theory when I read his book, the more late-1920’s Fox films I actually have had a chance to see, the more correct it seems to be. Lucky Star looks like a German movie of the period — the oblique camera angles, the forced perspective of the sets, the careful framing and painterly lighting, and most obviously the fact that virtually the entire movie was shot inside a soundstage even though it’s set in a rural community and quite a lot of it takes place outdoors. Gaynor plays Mary Tucker, a teenage farm girl (when the film starts she’s still 17) who’s worked nearly to death and frequently brutalized by her hard-bitten mother (Hedwiga Reicher) — obviously Mary’s dad died in the backstory and one reason mom is so hard on her (and on her siblings, though we get so few shots of the rest of the family we’re not sure how many kids there are — aside from one kid sister, Milly, played by Gloria Grey) is that they’ve got to keep the farm going pretty much by themselves. One of their few sources of income is selling milk to the linemen working on the local phone lines (so the community, though rural, is developed enough to have telephone service in 1917 — a lot of places still didn’t), which Mary is seen diluting with water so it’ll go farther. She has two large canisters which she intends to sell for a nickel to the boss of the outfit, Martin Wrenn (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, known primarily for the comic-relief roles he played in 1930’s films like Kelly the Second but here cast as the villain!), only when Martin throws the coin at her instead of handing it to her, she steps on the nickel and claims she never got it. Martin and his underling, Timothy Osborn (Charles Farrell), get into a fight on top of a telephone pole — like Rudolph Valentino and Walter Long in Moran of the “Lady Letty,” they have to flail at each other with one arm each while using the other arm and their legs to hold on — and when Timothy realizes that Mary has deceived both of them and needlessly put their lives at risk, he literally takes her over his knees and spanks her long and hard. Meanwhile, Timothy has overheard a message going out over the line they were working on that the U.S. has got involved in World War I, and both he and Wrenn enlist.

Overseas, Timothy’s legs are crushed by a water truck that overturns, and when we see him again he’s living alone in a cabin and spending his time racing his wheelchair from room to room — he’s proud of how fast he can move in it (and a shot of steam rising from a meal he's cooking in the background reveals Charles Farrell really is moving that fast in the chair; it's not fast-motion photography) — and building gadgets, some of them quite elaborate in a Rube Goldberg sort of way (including a system of pulleys by which he can lower a bucket into the nearby lake and thereby get himself water). It’s not clear how he supports himself financially, though we were probably meant to think he makes his living by selling some of his devices. When Mary first sees him — she’s thrown a rock through his cabin window as a joke — he appears in the window and carefully conceals his disability from her as long as possible, but eventually she comes in and he’s “outed.” (This gimmick was used in the 1935 film The Dark Angel — also about a returning World War I veteran, though in that case he was blind instead of in a wheelchair — and it’s possible this scene appears in the 1923 silent version of The Dark Angel, which I’ve never seen, and Borzage and his writers copied it.) She and Tim start a relationship of sorts, which leads her to dress better (thanks to some money from the sale of their farm’s produce which she keeps from her mother — something Tim lectures her about when she confesses it to him), bathe and wash her hair in eggs (a scene that led me to joke, “Tim, when you said you’d make me an omelet, I didn’t think this was what you had in mind!”). Unfortunately, Mary’s mom doesn’t want her to tie herself down to a cripple (the C-word is actually used in the titles); instead she encourages Mary to marry Wrenn, believing that he’s still in the army (they threw him out after the war ended, but he still wears his uniform), that he has money and he’ll be able to guarantee her a good life in a large city. Mary is about to go off on the train with Wrenn when Tim, who in a previous scene had practiced getting out of the wheelchair and using crutches — only to find his legs still couldn’t support his weight — tears off towards Mary’s house, then when he sees the sleigh that’s taking Mary and Wrenn to the train, he goes to the train station, and somehow he’s able to pull himself along on the crutches until the power of Mary’s love miraculously gives him the strength to walk, and the last shot of the film is Mary and Tim standing together on the tracks of the departed train, with him standing proud and tall as they embrace.

The ending of this movie has rightly been criticized as preposterous — “The scenario asked viewers to accept the adage that love can conquer all, and that this love would give paralyzed [sic — we’re never actually told the exact nature of Tim’s injury] Farrell the strength to crawl over the hill to Gaynor’s farm and then the energy to lick the equally big-framed Guinn Williams,” Parish wrote — and yet the film overall is so intense and moving, and (until that strange ending) so true to the life of a person living with a disability, that Lucky Star triumphs over its ending. Much of what makes the film great is Farrell’s performance — which, compared to his rather empty juvenile performances in the other films I’ve seen him in, Sunnyside Up and Delicious, suggests he was actually an actor more suited to the silent screen than to sound. The high point of his acting occurs when Mary changes clothes at his place so she can attend a dance at the Firemen’s Hall — where she’ll dance with the able-bodied Wrenn and give him the idea that she’d be interested in him. Farrell’s acting when she leaves him behind is utterly convincing and surprisingly understated, almost Chaplinesque in its careful delineation of pathos; he’s also utterly believable as a person who, even if only temporarily, has lost the use of his legs. (The scene in which, having fallen down while trying to use his crutches, he has to drag himself across his living-room floor and lift himself up by his arms to get back in his wheelchair is especially convincing; Farrell manages to drag his legs behind him and make them look like dead weight.) Unfortunately, Fox, the Eastman House, TCM or whoever outfitted this film with one of Christopher Caliendo’s spiky scores, relying mostly on piano, flute and harp and making the film seem considerably more dire than Borzage and his writers probably intended — and Caliendo misses one sound effect that would have made the movie more convincing: when Tim plays a portable phonograph (one he’s made himself and gives to Mary during the course of the story), Caliendo should have broken off his own music and used a record of the period instead.

Overall, Lucky Star (a title never explained in the film itself) is a great movie that could have been even better, especially if the character of Wrenn had been made less of a villain and more of a Ralph Bellamy type (ironically Bellamy himself played a person in a wheelchair in the 1935 film Hands Across the Table), the sort of man who’s a perfectly nice guy and a decent match for the heroine but who doesn’t excite or move her as much as Tim does. Even that preposterous ending could have been made more credible if Tim had been shown using one of his homemade gadgets to give himself range-of-motion exercises in his bed (if he could devise a system of pulleys and ropes to get water without having to go outside for it, he could surely have made his own exerciser from similar materials!), and if the writers had inserted a bit of exposition to the effect that whatever physical damage had been done to his legs had healed and it was only the emotional burden and the fear of failure that was still keeping him dependent on the wheelchair. (In more recent films with this premise that’s usually been supplied by two doctors anxiously discussing the case, but Lucky Star may be unique among films about disability in never showing any of the protagonist’s medical care.) Lucky Star is one of those films that could have been better, but it’s a marvelous movie just the way it is — and having worked as caregiver for a disabled man for almost 30 years (until his recent death) I can attest that the way Tim’s character is drawn, with a thin veneer of pride over a deep (if eventually overcome) self-pity, is pretty close to the real thing — indeed, between the disabled character and the domineering mother, in some ways watching this film was a busman’s holiday for me!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Warner Bros., 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the one movie in the Warners’ Perry Mason series from the 1930’s that I hadn’t seen before (in the early 1990’s I recorded all the other five from the TNT network, which was then sort of the Beta version of TCM, cursed with commercial breaks but still showing a lot of great movies from the MGM and Warners catalogs that were otherwise unavailable): The Case of the Velvet Claws, fourth in the sequence and the last with Warren William as Mason. (William played it for the first four, number five — The Case of the Black Cat — featured Ricardo Cortez, and number six, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, starred Donald Woods, horrendously miscast as Mason; I can’t help wishing Warners had given the last one to Bogart so that all three of their Sam Spades would also have played Perry Mason.) In this one he and Della Street (Claire Dodd) actually get married at the beginning of the show — by a woman night-court judge played by, of all people, Clara Blandick (who was so obscure even Aljean Harmetz, in her book The Making of “The Wizard of Oz” — in which she played Auntie Em — couldn’t find any of her previous credits) — and the gimmick is that he keeps being torn away from his honeymoon to solve a new case involving Eva Belter (Wini Shaw, wasted as usual; it’s amazing that this woman got to star in one of the most iconic moments of 1930’s cinema, as the lead in Busby Berkeley’s astonishing “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggers of 1935, but seemed ill-used in all her other appearances), a married woman who was caught stepping out on her husband with state legislator Peter Milnor (Kenneth Harlan) by a reporter for the scandal sheet Spicy Bits. She hires Mason to make the story go away and hopefully get the proprietor of Spicy Bits arrested for blackmail; what she doesn’t realize is that her own husband, George C. Belter (Joseph King), is the secret publisher of Spicy Bits. Her husband is shot dead and she’s accused of the crime, especially since she did actually shoot at him, but it turns out the real killer is Belter’s nephew, Carl Griffin (Gordon Elliott), who took advantage of the confusion after Eva’s shot missed to fire a shot with his own gun (which must have been the same caliber since the two spent shells look identical when Mason recovers them), thereby hopefully taking advantage of the fact that Mr. Belter had just disinherited his faithless wife and made his nephew his heir.

This is probably the weakest of the Warners Masons plot-wise (apparently it was butchered in the adaptation and the meaning of the title in Erle Stanley Gardner’s original novel — a piece of anti-feminist propaganda — was deleted) and was clearly yet another attempt by Warners to get their own share of the gold MGM was making on the Thin Man movies (a married detective, a case involving their high-living acquaintances and a formidable amount of on-screen alcohol consumption), and it also doesn’t help that Mason’s investigator, Paul Drake, was here called “Spudsy” and played for the usual so-called “comic relief” by Eddie Acuff. The Warners Masons are interesting movies, and the first three with William are worthwhile — The Case of the Howling Dog for a good-bad performance by Mary Astor anticipating her work in (what else?) The Maltese Falcon (she appeared with Ricardo Cortez as well and therefore made movies with all three Sam Spades); The Case of the Curious Bride for Errol Flynn’s first U.S. screen appearance; and The Case of the Lucky Legs for a genuinely witty script by Jerry Chodorov, Brown Holmes and Ben Markson (the latter two were Warners hacks but Chodorov was a major comedy writer and I suspect that, though he’s only credited with “adaptation” of Gardner’s novel, he’s really responsible for the film’s marvelous wit). Velvet Claws is much less interesting and pretty much of a loser, redeemed only by Warners’ usual professionalism and William’s élan as this more aristocratic version of Mason — though Raymond Burr’s performance on the 1950’s TV series remains the definitive reading of the character. — 11/29/07


Last night Charles and I squeezed in a relatively short movie: The Case of the Velvet Claws, the fourth of the six Perry Mason movies Warner Bros. made in the mid-1930’s and the last one to star Warren William as Mason. Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of the Mason character, disliked William’s characterization of Mason because he thought William made him too much of a gentleman — Gardner much preferred Raymond Burr, his personal choice among three finalists for the part on the 1950’s/1960’s TV show, because Burr was more convincing as the roughneck character Gardner had envisioned (my source for that story was a TV Guide article years ago and no, it didn’t name who the other two actors were) — and for the last two Warners Masons William was replaced first by Ricardo Cortez (who, ironically, had preceded him as Sam Spade by five years — Cortez played Spade in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and William played the character, renamed “Ted Shayne,” in the second version, Satan Met a Lady, from 1936) and then by Donald Woods. (It’s a pity they didn’t tap Humphrey Bogart for the last one, not only because Bogart had played an attorney quite capably in Marked Woman but it would have been nice to have all three screen Sam Spades also play Perry Mason.) The Case of the Velvet Claws was for years the most elusive of the Warners Masons because TNT, Ted Turner’s original movie channel (unlike TCM it was a commercial channel but it did give me a chance to see a lot of films for the first time, and from there I recorded a VHS tape of the 1931 Maltese Falcon that was my reference copy until a commercial DVD of the 1941 version included the previous two as bonus items), showed the other five in the series (including the surprisingly comic The Case of the Lucky Legs, actually the best in the series, and The Case of the Curious Bride, Errol Flynn’s U.S. debut, even though he was killed off-screen midway through the film and the only footage of him was a silent flashback, about a minute and a half long, at the end indicating how he died) but not Velvet Claws.

Perhaps the omission was due to the fact that Perry Mason marries his long-suffering secretary Della Street (Claire Dodd) at the beginning of Velvet Claws — he bursts into the courtroom of an elderly female night-court judge and demands that she perform the ceremony then and there, which she does — though in the next film in the series, The Case of the Black Cat, the writers either quietly annulled the marriage or, more likely, simply forgot about it and she went back to being merely Mason’s secretary. Only their attempt to get away to the Pinehurst mountain lodge is abruptly interrupted by Eva Stuart (the marvelous Winifred Shaw, a potentially major talent Warners wasted), who holds a gun on him and gives him $5,000 in cash as a retainer. What she expects Mason to do for the money is lobby Frank Locke (Addison Richards), the editor of a sleazy tabloid called Spicy Bits that digs up stories with blackmail potential and then offers to kill them if the subjects buy “advertising” in the paper, not to publish a story about rising politician Peter Milnor (Kenneth Harlan) being caught at a roadhouse with a “mystery woman.” It turns out that “Stuart” is actually Eva Belter, the wife of millionaire stockbroker George C. Belter (Joseph King), who’s secretly the owner of Spicy Bits. She was also the “mystery woman” Milnor was with that night, and that’s the real reason she wants the story spiked. At first Mason wants to return Eva’s retainer and reject the case, but he can’t do that because his sidekick Paul “Spudsy” Drake (Eddie Acuff, an infuriating comic-relief performance quite different from William Hopper’s cool efficiency in the same role in the TV show!) has inadvertently burned Eva’s bankroll while lighting a fire in Mason’s fireplace. (Grabbing what’s left of the money, Della Street uses it to light her cigarette and says, “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to light a cigarette with a $1,000 bill” — though as Charles pointed out, the bills on screen had Ulysses S. Grant’s picture on them and therefore were $500’s.)

Eva’s next brilliant move (irony intended) is to go to her husband and plead with him to kill the Spicy Bits story, but he decides to order Locke to publish the story in order to punish her — so she pulls out her gun and holds it on him, Sid Hickox’ camera discreetly dollies out and down a set of stairs, we hear two gunshots and then see her fleeing, running into one of the servants as she goes. Acting as her attorney, Mason visits the Belters’ home and finds two bullet casings, and eventually deduces that Eva’s shot missed and Belter’s real killer was his nephew Carl Griffin (Gordon Elliott), who had just learned that Belter had disinherited his wife and made his nephew the heir, and saw a chance to kill his uncle for the inheritance and pin it on Eva. It’s a clever story, based on something Erle Stanley Gardner published as a novel in 1933, though the movie never explains the title (in the book, according to William K. Everson, the “Velvet Claws” referred to “a piece of literally ‘catty’ anti-feminist propaganda”), and it’s interesting for the sheer diversity of the company credits involved: the opening copyright notice is to “Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. and the Vitaphone Corp.,” the closing credit has the Warners logo and “A First National Picture,” and the opening also featured the “Clue Club” series logo. Nicely directed by William Clemens from a script by Tom Reed, Velvet Claws is a pleasant hour-long time filler and William, as he had in the three previous films, makes a good Mason and offers a nicely different “read” on the character from the powerful but often brusque and unpleasant Raymond Burr. — 10/13/12

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Divorce of Lady X (London Films/United Artists, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Divorce of Lady X, a 1938 production by Alexander Korda for which he kicked out the jams in both budget and talent, spending lavishly to make the film in three-strip Technicolor (and though Natalie Kalmus and William V. Skall were there as color directors, cinematographer Harry Stradling and art directors Lazare Meerson, Paul Sherriff and Alec Waugh were able to create a delightful pastel look for the film quite different from the garish, overripe colors American filmmakers using three-strip produced!) and hiring some killer talent: the stars were Merle Oberon (Mrs. Alexander Korda) and Laurence Olivier, the supporting cast included Ralph Richardson and Binnie Barnes, and the writers were Lajos Biró, Ian Dalrymple, Arthur Wimperis and an uncredited Robert Sherwood. The problem was the story, a plot by playwright Gilbert Wakefield which Korda had already produced in 1933 under Wakefield’s original title, Counsel’s Opinion: Everard Logan (Laurence Olivier) is a top-notch divorce lawyer in 1938 London with a singularly low view of women (in a courtroom scene almost unbearable in its blatant sexism, he thunders, “Modern woman has disowned womanhood but refuses man’s obligations. She demands freedom but won’t accept responsibility. She insists upon time to develop her personality, and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next. Modern woman has no loyalty, decency, or justice; no endurance, reticence, or self-control; no affection, fine feelings, or mercy. In short, she is unprincipled, relentless, and exacting; idle, unproductive, and tedious; unimaginative, humorless, and vain; vindictive, undignified, and weak. And the sooner man takes out his whip again, the better for sanity and progress”) who’s just come over after what he describes as “a rough crossing” when an intense London fog means that his cabdriver bails on taking him home because there’s utterly no visibility on the road. Instead he drops Logan at a hotel where there’s a charity ball in progress — the ball has a Queen Victoria theme, which means that everyone there (or at least the women) is dressed in Victorian finery, including those ridiculously impractical hoop skirts (remember that for the film Suez, set in France during the reign of Victoria’s contemporary Louis Napoleon, the set designers actually had to widen the doorways so the costumes designed for the film could fit through them!).

During the event, the bandleader is told by the hotel manager to make an announcement that everyone at the ball should stay there for the night and give up on any thought of going home because the fog is making all the streets impassable — and the next half-hour of the film takes place in the suite Logan rented just before the hotel totally ran out of rooms and was reduced to asking their unwelcome guests to sleep on couches in the lobby. Logan is asked by the manager if he can give up his suite to accommodate four women; he refuses, but Leslie Steele (Merle Oberon), the granddaughter of a judge before whom Logan frequently appears, crashes Logan’s room and by sheer effrontery and gall manages to do him not only out of his room but out of his bed (she gets to sleep in one of the room’s twin beds while he has to sleep on the other bed’s mattress, laid out on the floor of the sitting room). The first half-hour of the film basically stays in the hotel suite and, as Charles pointed out, makes both Logan and Leslie seem such unpleasant characters we wonder why we’re watching a film about them and certainly aren’t rooting for them to get together, even though (all too predictably, given the conventions of English-speaking cinema on both sides of the Atlantic) Logan’s initial hatred for this woman turns into love, or at least a crazed infatuation. The film then mopes on to its main intrigue: Logan is visited in his office by Lord Mere (Ralph Richardson), whose wife Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) has had five previous husbands in the space of as many years. Lord Mere wants a divorce because supposedly a servant named Saunders (Gertrude Musgrove) caught her in a potentially compromising position with four men in a suite at the same hotel where Logan and Leslie had spent their night from heck — and Logan immediately believes that Leslie is Lady Mere and he’s the mystery man she was caught in the hotel room with, even though nothing really happened (at least nothing sexual). The movie keeps Logan in the dark as to Leslie’s true identity for the remainder of its 91-minute running time, using some of the same subterfuges as Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott pulled in their script for the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat, and when we finally meet the real Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) the expected fireworks from the confrontations between her and Leslie, and between her and Logan, turn out to be wet squibs. Charles summed up the movie when the scene cut to a man playing the cimbalom at a Hungarian restaurant/nightclub (Alexander Korda often filled his movies with reminders that though he achieved fame and success in Britain, his native country was Hungary, and at times his credit lists look like he was running a full-employment program for Hungarians in the U.K.) and he said, “With all the talent in this movie, it’s amazing that the cimbalom player is the most entertaining thing we’ve seen so far.”

It occurred to me that The Divorce of Lady X was the sort of film that could have been better with a more appropriate cast; the part of Logan in particular cried out for Cary Grant (a native Brit who achieved his greatest fame in the U.S.) and got Laurence Olivier, whose disgust with the whole idea of movie acting in general and this movie in particular seemed to hang over his head like a pall in every frame. It’s well known that he couldn’t stand Merle Oberon, both on this movie and the far better one they made together the following year (Wuthering Heights, filmed in Hollywood with Sam Goldwyn producing and William Wyler directing; Olivier later conceded that it wasn’t until he worked with Wyler that he realized that in movie acting less often was more and that he should tone down his gestures and intonations instead of booming every line and throwing every move “big” the way he was used to doing on stage, but he was also bitter that he wasn’t co-starring with his fiancée, Vivien Leigh, and denounced Oberon to one of his friends as “a cheap pick-up by Korda”). Ironically, Korda had produced a film of the same play in 1933, Counsel’s Opinion, with another expatriate American director — Allan Dwan on the earlier version and Tim Whelan here — and with Binnie Barnes starring as Leslie, whereas this time around she was demoted to the supporting role. Her Logan was Harry Kendall, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s marvelous 1931 film Rich and Strange (and Olivier, as the star of Rebecca, also had a Hitchcock connection!), and that might be a film worth seeing if only for Dwan’s direction: Whelan directed The Divorce of Lady X as if his characters were swimming under water, and the deadly, stately pace at which this moves completely undermines his attempts at French farce — or any other sort of humor, for that matter. The part of Leslie needed either someone more charming (like Claudette Colbert) or someone more overwhelming (like Katharine Hepburn; with her and Grant in the leads and Howard Hawks directing, one could readily imagine this movie as a comedy classic at the level of Bringing Up Baby); Oberon isn’t convincing as either a nice girl or a bitch, and while that’s not the biggest problem with The Divorce of Lady X that’s certainly one of them!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hollywood Hotel (Warner Bros./First National, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the videotape of the 1938 (release date; actually it was filmed in 1937) film Hollywood Hotel. It was Busby Berkeley’s last big-budget musical at Warner Brothers (after that he ran out his contract doing “B” movies, including a surprising number of non-musicals, then moved on to MGM, taking a cut in his own salary in hopes of once again getting major budgets to work with), and on that score it’s a disappointment — there is not one single great big production extravaganza, despite the fact that some of Johnny Mercer’s song lyrics seem to cry out for the full-scale treatment. One could only imagine what Berkeley, given the front-office O.K. and the money, could have done with the song “Let That Be a Lesson to You,” with its repeated line about being “behind the eight-ball.” At the end of the number as it stands (one of the kinds of things that would become much more common in musicals in the next decade, when, as Arlene Croce put it, “the song-and-dance impulse seemed to become pandemic,” when Dick Powell sings the song as a waiter at a drive-in restaurant and hundreds of customers come in, enthralled by the sound of his voice, and join in), a giant eight-ball rolls in and covers the face of one of the actors — and I couldn’t help but think, “This is how a Busby Berkeley number should start.

Benny Goodman and his orchestra are in it — which led Goodman discographers Warren Hicks and Russell Connor to call this the greatest swing movie ever made — which it isn’t. It might have been if they’d given the Goodman Gang more to do (and this was his most famous band, with Harry James and Gene Krupa both prominently featured before they went on to become bandleaders themselves), but all we get from them is a brief appearance in the opening number, “Hooray for Hollywood,” and a rehearsal sequence later in the film where they do part of the famous “Sing, Sing, Sing” arrangement (from the “Christopher Columbus” interpolation to the end, which at least gives us a chance to see the marvelous part of the song in which Goodman goes back to his klezmer roots during a long solo passage in which he’s backed only by Krupa’s drums) and the quartet plays a bit of an almost unrecognizable song called “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music.” With the opening theme statement left on the cutting-room floor, it’s difficult to tell what song the quartet is playing — but at least Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton got to show their African-American faces on the same screen as Goodman and Krupa, and this is almost certainly the first Hollywood musical that showed a racially mixed band. But it’s difficult to call this the greatest swing movie ever made when Goodman’s numbers are truncated while we get every damned suffocating, infuriating note of a Raymond Paige concert arrangement of “Dark Eyes” (a.k.a. “Otchichorniya” — at least that’s the transliteration in Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Hollywood Musical) that makes Paul Whiteman sound like Count Basie by comparison.

Hollywood Hotel is a movie that isn’t altogether bad — in fact, it’s quite entertaining; it’s just such a bundle of frustratingly missed opportunities that in the end it’s only moderately good. The screenplay by Jerry Wald (later a producer and supposedly the real-life model for Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run?), Maurice Leo and Richard Macaulay is actually genuinely witty, and Lola Lane and Alan Mowbray are quite amusing as impossibly hammy and ludicrously pampered and spoiled Hollywood stars (Lane’s real-life sister Rosemary is her much nicer stunt double and the female lead), while Glenda Farrell turns in one of her no-nonsense performances as Lola Lane’s much put-upon secretary. We also get a glimpse (quite a few glimpses, actually) of Louella Parsons, hosting the “Hollywood Hotel” radio program on which virtually every star name in Hollywood was compelled to appear for free, with the threat of being savaged in Parsons’ subsequent columns if they dared to say no. It’s the sort of movie that’s nice the way it is but could have been a lot better with some more elaborate production numbers (the almost surrealistic lyric of the Mercer/Richard Whiting song “I’m Like a Fish Out of Water,” which Dick Powell sings to Rosemary Lane to woo her the night he’s taken her, posing as the glamorous star, to a premiere — ending with a surprisingly suggestive scene for 1937 in which they dunk themselves in the hotel’s fountain, come up with each other’s shoes on their feet, then kick the shoes away just before the fadeout, seems to invite a grand old-fashioned Berkeley extravaganza) and with more Benny Goodman. — 1/31/98


Charles and I had a nice long evening of movie-watching last night in which we got in a feature and two shorts. The feature was Hollywood Hotel, filmed in July 1937 at Warner Bros., released in January 1938 and featured in the Warner Home Video Busby Berkeley Collection, Volume 2 which I bought to get the last two Gold Diggers movies (Gold Diggers of 1937 and Gold Diggers in Paris) and also the 15 minutes’ worth of extant footage from the first Gold Diggers movie, Gold Diggers of Broadway from 1929, included as a bonus track with Gold Diggers of 1937. Hollywood Hotel was a movie Charles and I first watched in the late 1990’s (when he still lived in a studio apartment on Centre Street in Hillcrest) and one I’d been interested in because the Benny Goodman bio-discography B.G. On the Record by D. Russell Connor and Warren W. Hicks enthused about it, calling it “the band’s — and any band’s — best film.” After seeing it with that encomium in my mind I was very disappointed; not only isn’t it Goodman’s best film, it’s not even his best collaboration with Busby Berkeley: their other movie together, The Gang’s All Here (20th Century-Fox, 1943), is far more spectacular, benefiting from Technicolor, Carmen Miranda (the marriage of her talents and Berkeley’s was made in heaven!) and — most importantly — a bigger budget for Berkeley’s spectacular production numbers.

By the time of Hollywood Hotel the market for Berkeley’s extravaganzae was diminishing — audiences were realizing that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could “say” more on a dance floor with just each other than all Berkeley’s platoons of hot-looking short-skirted or hot-pantsed chorines moving their legs to form kaleidoscope patterns — and Jack Warner responded by cutting Berkeley’s budgets and in particular the size of his personnel. Hollywood Hotel has spectacular sets rivaling anything in Berkeley’s previous Warner Bros. films — the lobby of the titular hostelry looks gigantic enough he could have staged a production number in it, and the “Orchid Room” where the Hollywood Hotel radio program was broadcast (hosted by Louella Parsons, who plays herself in the movie and who managed to blackmail all the major stars into doing her radio show without pay by threatening to write nasty items about them in her widely read column about Hollywood if they didn’t) is dominated by huge plaster orchids and it looks like the Hindenburg could have landed inside it, while the Hollywood Hotel house orchestra led by Raymond Paige is itself so large it could have successfully defended Pearl Harbor if it had been armed with guns instead of instruments. What Berkeley didn’t get to do is fill those big sets with chorus girls and maneuver them; his direction is capable enough (just before he left Warner Bros. he’d prove with the quite good thriller They Made Me a Criminal that he could make an entertaining movie that wasn’t a musical at all) and he keeps the action moving — this is one film in which he directed the whole movie and not just the numbers — but all too often the numbers seem to stop just when they’re getting interesting: when the song “Let That Be a Lesson to You” ends with a giant eight-ball rolling itself in front of Edgar Kennedy’s face, we can’t help but think, “This is how a Busby Berkeley number should begin.”

Ironically, I liked Hollywood Hotel a lot more this time around, more for the script than for either Berkeley or Goodman— who gets to do about half of “Sing, Sing, Sing” and whose racially integrated quartet, consisting of white musicians Goodman on clarinet and Gene Krupa on drums with African-Americans Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibes, was the first mixed band ever shown on film. They do a song called “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music” and the number is abruptly cut into during a rehearsal sequence in the Orchid Room (the same scene in which “Sing, Sing, Sing” is performed), obviously so it could be deleted in prints shown in the American South. Other than that the Goodman band is simply spackled into scenes otherwise featuring the Warner Bros. studio orchestra and Johnnie “Scat” Davis, a white singer-mugger-trumpet player who, like Louis Prima, obviously worked out this act because he thought “white Louis Armstrong” would be a potentially successful market niche. He sings the opening song, “Hooray for Hollywood,” with the backing alternating between the studio orchestra and Goodman’s band, which then plays “California, Here I Come” as part of the sendoff they’re giving saxophonist Ronnie Bowers (Dick Powell, top-billed), who’s won a 10-week contract with the fictitious “All-Star Pictures” studio. Later the song “Let That Be a Lesson to You” starts out as part of the Hollywood Hotel broadcast with Goodman’s band playing it and Johnnie “Scat” Davis singing it, only to dissolve into a sequence at Callahan’s Diner, where Ronnie has taken a job after his career as an All-Star contractee lasted only one day. After the Orchid Room rehearsal sequence that’s the only really extended look we get at Goodman all movie, the band and Benny are invisible until they make a cameo appearance in the final mix of “Hooray for Hollywood” with which the film ends. Two other songs, a lovely ballad called “Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks” and a hot instrumental, “House Hop,” which the Goodman band had recorded before the film was made, were filmed but not used in the final cut.

Ironically, the best element in Hollywood Hotel is neither Berkeley’s direction nor Goodman’s contribution but the wisecracking script by Jerry Wald (later a major producer), Richard Macaulay (spelled “Macauley” on the credits even though, under his correct spelling, he was one of Warners’ most prolific writers) and Maurice Leo, full of animadversions about diva-ism and the whole appalling mess stardom makes of one’s life — though the funniest wisecrack in the movie is about Ronnie Bowers when he arrives at the Hollywood airport and a publicity photographer asks if they’re really going to make a movie star out of someone that homely. “Don’t forget — they made a star of Rin Tin Tin!,” says Ronnie’s buddy, comic-relief sidekick and (eventually) manager Fuzzy (Ted Healy, making his next-to-last movie before his sudden death — Healy was the man who put together the Three Stooges as just that, the stooges in his vaudeville act, only in 1934 MGM kept Healy under contract but dropped the Stooges; the Stooges signed with Columbia and made shorts there for 23 years, while Healy went on to an interesting and varied career as a character actor, including a serious role in the 1935 horror film Mad Love, until his sudden death in 1937 shortly after this film was premiered) — to which the onlooker says, “Yeah, but at least he could bark.” (That’s a double in-joke, since Rin Tin Tin was a Warners star and his films’ profits helped the studio stay in business in its difficult early years — but those were silent movies, meaning the audiences may have seen him bark but they didn’t hear him!) The plot has All-Star’s mega-star, Mona Marshall (Lola Lane), scheduled to go to the premiere of her new movie, Glamour Girl, with Alexander “Alex” Dupray (Alan Mowbray), her fiancé and frequent co-star — only Mona has a diva hissy-fit and flees to Santa Barbara. Having advertised that Mona Marshall would appear at her career, studio head R. L. Paulkin (Grant Mitchell) hits on the idea of passing off Mona’s stunt double, Virginia Stanton (Rosemary Lane, Lola’s real-life sister) — whose own hopes for a picture career have gone nowhere since she so closely resembles Mona (a plot gimmick Warners used again in the 1943 film Thank Your Lucky Stars with Eddie Cantor in both roles) — as Mona at the premiere and having Ronnie Bowers, on his first day in Hollywood, escort her, since Alex would have recognized immediately that Virginia was not Mona.

Naturally, Ronnie likes honest, down-to-earth Virginia a lot better than he would have stuck-up prima donna Mona, and the two fall in love even though, once Mona and Alex learn of the deception, they demand that Ronnie be fired and he ends up working at Callahan’s drive-in diner for the typically irascible Edgar Kennedy, who gets to do some nice slow burns and ends up smashing most of his own dishes even though one can’t help but wish Harpo Marx would come along and wade through his lemonade again. Fired at Callahan’s, Ronnie and Fuzzy (who’d hired on as a dishwasher and run up a tab — every time something broke Callahan would say, “That comes out of your salary!” — approaching the size of the U.S. budget deficit now) are so desperately broke they have to walk to All Star Studio’s when a director there offers Ronnie a part — though it’s not an on-screen one: it’s just to record three songs as Alexander Dupray’s voice double in the Civil War-themed musical Love and Glory, his and Mona’s next film. The movie is a hit at its premiere and the stars are invited to appear on Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel radio program — where Dupray, who can’t sing a note, is going to be expected to sing his big songs from the new film. A panicky Paulkin tries to locate Ronnie to get him to do the Phantom Broadcast number and sing Dupray’s songs off-stage while Dupray lip-synchs — only Ronnie refuses to sing on a broadcast except in full view of the audience, and when he finally does agree it’s at a fee of $1,000 per song. Then Virginia, disguising herself as Mona again, lures Dupray into a car and drives him to a deserted country road and lets him out again so he misses the broadcast, Ronnie gets to show his face as he sings the big songs, and when Mona comes on to him he rejects her in favor of Virginia, he gets a big All Star contract and everyone lives happily.

 Hollywood Hotel apparently aroused the ire of the real Hollywood Hotel as well as Campbell’s Soup, the sponsor of Louella Parsons’ broadcast, neither of whom had been asked for permission to use their names (though not only Parsons but virtually the whole announcing staff of the real-life show appeared in the film — and so does ace Warners makeup man Perc Westmore, who’s shown making Virginia up to look like Mona) — and Johnnie “Scat” Davis’s antics aroused the ire of Benny Goodman. Apparently Davis managed to persuade some of the “suits” at Warners that he should be included in the song “Sing, Sing, Sing,” either by playing a trumpet solo to be spliced into Goodman’s pre-recording or by synchronizing on-screen to the solo actually played by Harry James (his film debut). They were going to shoot this in the dead of night so Goodman wouldn’t find out about it until they finished the film, but Goodman did find out about it ahead of time and said that if Johnnie “Scat” Davis either got spliced into “Sing, Sing, Sing” or synched to Harry James’ solo, he would pull out of the film and take his whole band with him. Hollywood Hotel emerges as an interesting souvenir of Louella Parsons’ radio program (though because her show, not the Goodman band, was considered the main commercial attraction we get every ghastly note of Raymond Paige’s God-awful arrangement of “Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya,” a.k.a. “Dark Eyes,” and only a brutally cut-down version of Goodman’s deathless swing masterpiece “Sing, Sing, Sing”!) and it’s got some great gags (including Mona Marshall’s incredibly nelly queen-stereotype dress designer going by the nickname “Butch”!) and nice songs by Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer (whose contribution deserves note for his dazzling, Cole Porter-ish “list” lyric for “I’m Just a Fish Out of Water,” with the deathless line, “Like Justice Van Devanter/Doing an Eddie Cantor” — Justice Willis Van Devanter was one of the Right-wing crazies on the U.S. Supreme Court that was throwing out President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation), and though it’s disappointing as a Goodman showcase it’s still nice to see bits of Benny’s two most famous bands (the big band with Harry James and Gene Krupa, and the quartet with Krupa, Wilson and Hampton) captured at their very best.

Incidentally, Goodman and his band recorded four of the songs from the film (including one, “Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks,” which wasn’t used in the final cut — according to one report, Harry James subbed for Krupa on drums on that one) with Goodman’s regular band singer, Martha Tilton, who sang them much more musically than either Johnnie “Scat” Davis or Dick Powell, and on the October 22, 1937 session the band not only recorded three songs from the movie but also did a fourth piece, “Popcorn Man,” which was slated for release March 14, 1938 and abruptly pulled from the market one week later. “All releases were recalled (most were still in the hands of distributors, not retailers),” Connor and Hicks wrote. “All labels were scrapped, and masters of the take issued and all alternate takes were destroyed.” Why, one wonders, did RCA Victor not only pull the record so abruptly but attempt with Stalinist efficiency to wipe out any trace of its existence? When “Popcorn Man” finally returned to print (courtesy of one of only about 10 copies that survived, and in inferior sound quality to the rest of the album because it was mastered from a commercial pressing rather than the lost original matrix) as part of a 1960 Goodman LP on RCA’s budget label, Camden, the liner notes hinted that there was something objectionable about the song that had led a Victor executive to order its suppression — and, given that I first acquired this LP in the late 1960’s in the middle of the sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll hippie Zeitgeist, I immediately concluded that “popcorn man” must have been 1930’s slang for a drug dealer and someone at the company had caught on that that was what the song really meant. (Yet, according to Connor and Hicks, a Jimmy Dorsey record of “Popcorn Man” on Decca went out without any hitch.) — 10/9/12