Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ending April on a Ginger Note

April is coming to an end, and I just realized that a few entries this month have focused on Ginger Rogers. In fact, this blog will be spending a lot more time lavishing attention on La Lovely Rogers. Here's a photo of Ginger and mega-rich lothario Howard Hughes (1905-1976) at a no-doubt sophisticated Hollywood nightspot, circa 1937. Hughes, ever the aviator, was flying high, having broken the transcontinental airspeed record in January, 1937. Ginger was also soaring in her own career, as she completed Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire, as well as Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn, and was working on a film with James Stewart, Vivacious Lady, which I've been a raving lunatic about getting released on DVD. In fact, Vivacious Lady is currently #58 on Turner Classic's list of requested movies not on DVD. So click the link and vote.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Discovering Ginger Rogers

Ginger Rogers. It’s hard to believe that five years ago I was so dopey as to believe that she was the untalented half of the Astaire-Rogers partnership. I just didn’t see her appeal. She didn’t have any musical showcases of her own to spotlight her talent, she didn’t sing outside of her movies with Fred and only a bit in her earlier, Busby Berkeley musicals, where she was a stock player. Her decision to pursue mainly dramatic roles made me wonder what it was Rogers was running away from. If she was so talented, how come she didn’t do musicals of her own?

Another example of me being a dope and not checking the facts.

In 2006, Turner Classic Movies had their “Summer under the Stars” theme. So, while on a day off from the salt mines, I decided to give Rogers another look—signs of my slow-as-a-glacier maturity, no doubt. I began my day with Stage Door (1937). Ginger is a wisecracking chorine trying to make it big in theatre. She traded sarcastic remarks with no less than Katharine Hepburn and Gail Patrick—she had me right there! Ginger was so good! Her timing, her inflections on how she delivered the lines at a rapid-fire pace and yes, she hoofed it, too! She looked oh-so cute in top hat and short shorts and was stunning in her evening dress. She also emoted in her scenes which required pathos, and she’s effective as a major player in Stage Door—no small feat with Kate Hepburn as one’s co-star. Armed with newfound respect and interest for Ginger, I settled in for a glorious day with my new movie crush.

Later in the day I had my second great Ginger moment, which was in Weekend at the Waldorf (1946). This is a post-Astaire film and Rogers looked even more glamorous and beautiful as her movie star character was supposed to be. She was clearly the center of this Grand Hotel-sized cast and she wore a fantastic white dress that definitely caught my attention. Her performance was equally good, as she was a more mature character, definitely in the “ever after” period of a romance; something we wouldn’t see in her films with Fred Astaire until 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway.

In the next few years, I would become quite the Ginger Rogers admirer, even if her personal life and views weren’t exactly fascinating. I like her for what she does onscreen and it only took two movies for me to realize how timeless her appeal is, how Ginger’s performances don’t grow mannered and stale over the decades. After all, movie buffs are still enchanted by the work she and Astaire put up on the screen over seventy years ago. That’s not likely to fade away anytime soon, is it?

I also realized why Ginger had to purposely remove herself from the musical genre--she had to in order to strike out on her own. Otherwise, she would have been forever associated with Fred Astaire. Of course, that happened anyway, but at the time she became a box office heavyweight on her own, even winning an Oscar for 1940's Kitty Foyle. I just hope that Ginger’s solo career will get more notice and evaluation. She was the only star of her caliber to sing, dance, and excel at both comedy and drama. You’d be hard-pressed to find many of her better-known contemporaries who could claim the same distinction.

Now, excuse me I have to continue waiting for
Vivacious Lady on DVD…

From Ginger, with Love: I can dream, can't I?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Philip Marlowe on Film: Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

“This past spring was the first that I felt tired and realized I was getting old. Maybe it was the rotten weather or the rotten cases I’ve been getting lately--chasing after women’s husbands then chasing after the women to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am getting tired and growing old.”

~Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) in Farewell, My Lovely

In 1975, Robert Mitchum played private investigator Philip Marlowe for the first time in director Dick Richards’
Farewell, My Lovely. The film tries gamely to convey the weary mood of Raymond Chandler’s second novel. Plot wise, FML is largely faithful to the book, but adds its own excellent, hardboiled dialogue as well as some slight departures that don’t screw up those who cherish Chandler’s novel. No doubt inspired by the success of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Farewell, My Lovely isn’t up to the level of its source material, or anywhere near the level of the masterpiece that is Chinatown, the movie it is most often compared to, but has enough merit to make a worthy addition to 1970s Neo Noir as well as in the adventures of Philip Marlowe.

Synopsis: Private investigator Philip Marlowe is working on two cases. The first is finding one Velma Valento, the missing girlfriend of Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), who’s just released from the pokey after serving a seven-year stretch for bank robbery. The other has our hero trying to discover the killers of a client who was murdered when Marlowe accompanied him on a routine job to pay the ransom for some rare, stolen jade.

Farewell, My Lovely was among the first entries in the Film Noir style that I ever saw. I was immediately taken by the gloomy, weary atmosphere that a Film Noir--or “Crime Drama” as I still prefer to call movies of this type—represented. Dark deeds done by nasty people and a city in decay, an ineffectual and corrupt police force, and the lone knight with an outdated code of honor that is nevertheless all he has. I loved it. And I’m still surprised today that so many films, regardless of the decade, have some variation on that theme. Farewell, My Lovely remains a favorite film of mine, and one that has been on my DVD wish list for some time.

Seeing the movie again recently, however, and having read the book numerous times in the past ten years, I can see that even the great Mitchum wasn’t perfect as Marlowe, and the film drops a few characters, as well as adding a few of its own. I guess it was an attempt to make Marlowe less cynical and more sentimental. He pals around with a newsie, who also helps Marlowe out after the latter’s run-in with brothel owner Frances Amthor (in a brutal, but actually quite amusing scene; not in the book; The strict Hays Office rules no longer applied in 1975, and the movie is allowed to guess what Raymond Chandler might’ve done had he been able to write the book as a true crime novel), and Marlowe feels beholden to a mulatto child because he feels that the boy’s father died because of information he gave the detective. Though not in the book, the relationships are right in step with Marlowe’s character and they are worthy character interpretations. I would stop short of leveling 1970s-era I’m Okay, You’re Okay charges at the movie, but it differs enough from the novel enough and it interests me to point out the differences, as is always the case between the print and film mediums. The following minor narrative elements contained in the movie are not in Raymond Chandler’s novel:

Joe DiMaggio’s hit steak. Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940; “Joltin’ Joe’s” 56-game hitting streak took place in 1941. The movie obviously takes place in summer, 1941, because Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union (mentioned in the film) began on June 22, 1941. The film most likely uses the hit streak as a way of threading together the narrative and the passage of time. I like it, but it’s not in the book. Chandler would use World War II in an effective manner in his 1944 Marlowe novel, Lady in the Lake.

Characters not in Novel: The newsie, Tommy Ray and his family, and Frances Amthor are not in the novel, though Amthor is a psychiatrist and a man, and has Marlowe locked away in a mental institution rather than a brothel. There's also a nasty, malodorous indian thug who gives Marlowe pain and grief, but he's absent from the film, too. The movie also omits the rather superfluous character of Anne Riordan, but that’s no big loss.

The main attractions here are the performances. I’ve said many times before that plots are never my main interest, and that characterizations and performances always take center stage in any movie I watch. Robert Mitchum’s take on Philip Marlowe is rock steady. He’s not as peppy as he is in his next portrayal of the detective, in 1978’s
The Big Sleep, but he’s just too happy for my tastes. The Marlowe of the books ruminates over the decaying of civilization and his best wisecracks get delivered without him seeming pleased with his ability to do so. I enjoyed watching Mitchum and liked his display of frustration as one misfortune after another befell him, but I hold my belief that no actor ever played Marlowe to perfection. It’ll be my eternal gripe until the job gets done. I may have to wait a generation or two. By the way, in Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum biography, Baby, I Don’t Care, there’s a hilariously disgusting anecdote relating to the suit Mitchum wears and originally tailor made for actor Victor Mature in the 1940s.

The other quality performance is given by
Sylvia Miles, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as alcoholic former chorus girl Jessie Florian. Although her part is trimmed for the movie, Miles makes us remember her because she is so heartbreakingly sad; a woman lost in her loneliness and faded ambitions that never came to pass. Her reenactment of her pathetic stage show is embarrassing but it’s effective in showing some dimension to the character. The book gives Florian a better showcase, but Sylvia Miles brings the essence of the sad, forgotten Jessie Florian in her brief time onscreen.

Like so many films I enjoy, Farewell, My Lovely features a fine music score. This one's by David Shire. Shire, (The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3) nails the imagined sound of Film Noir with his haunting main title written with the weary, romanticized sound associated with the detective genre, even if that jazz-inflected feel was not present in the original 1940s crime dramas; that sound came later, after Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Henry Mancini’s A Touch of Evil. Popular culture always portrays Film Noir as having a slow, smoky and jazzy musical accompaniment, yet when watching 1940s Film Noir, the music is a marked contrast: very loud, melodramatic, and European. It a gradual "Americanization" seeing as these films were made in Hollywood by European directors and European composers who drew on their own classical backgrounds. Farewell, My Lovely is influenced more by the latter association of jazz with crime dramas of this type.

All in all, Farewell, My Lovely does an admirable job in attempting to put across the weary, tired-out Los Angeles and its most famous resident private eye, but like every take on Raymond Chandler’s world, it succeeds more as a way of enjoying Robert Mitchum’s take on the weary private eye, but those who know and love the books will still think this movie just misses. Yet the film contributes characters and situations that serve to populate Marlowe’s world with the types of people you’d expect to find in a Raymond Chandler novel, and given the author’s limited output—should have read about, too. Farewell, My Lovely is worth seeing---many times.

Credit Where Due: Images courtesy of

Monday, April 13, 2009

Taking a Break

It's Spring Break! I need to go and join Ginger by the pool for a little while (I think she's in-between husbands). There are a few entries I'd like to take the time and work on, including one for the Silents and Talkies blog in May. Give me a week or so to recharge and I'll be as good as new. In the meantime, stay cool everyone!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Husband & Wife Detectives: Star of Midnight (1935)

In the comments section of the Husband and Wife Detectives entry, Hollywood Dreamland reader Brian Sheridan mentioned the 1935 William Powell-Ginger Rogers Thin Man-style mystery, Star of Midnight. In Star of Midnight, Powell is a lawyer and amateur detective who is asked to find a friend's missing girlfriend. The movie is often dismissed as a lightweight misfire, but with those two stars, I will be tuning in! It should be noted that Powell and Rogers technically do not play husband and wife, though they are soon to be married, but who cares? She and Powell were near their peak in 1935.

"Just because I like to solve a mystery once in awhile, everyone thinks I'm Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, and The Sphinx all rolled into one."

~Clay 'Dal' Dalzell (William Powell) in Star of Midnight

Star of Midnight features William Powell as lawyer Clay "Dal" Dalzell who is well known in New York for his expertise in criminal law but also revered for his ability to solve tough criminal cases. Dal's friend Tim Winthrop comes to him and asks Dal's help in finding his girlfriend, Alice, who had vanished a year ago. When a gossip columnist named Tennant is shot in Dal's swank (and I do mean swank!) apartment, Dal must once again take the case to clear his name and find out who the killer is. Dal's fiancee, Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers) works with him on the case. The complete synopsis is here, complete with spoilers, but one of the things I place the least emphasis on in movies like these are the plots, which are often indecipherable the first time around, at least to me!

This was clearly RKO's attempt to cash in on the Thin Man film, which had been an surprise hit in 1934. No doubt the prospect of Powell co-starring with RKO's box office champ Rogers had the RKO bigwigs seeing dollar signs in their dreams. But RKO's entry into the Thin Man sweepstakes has a lot to offer fans of the earlier film. Powell's Dal Dalzell is a sophisticated New Yorker, with a swellegant apartment complete with his loyal butler, Swayne (Gene Lockhart), and an amazing bathroom including a barber's chair and toilet (unseen, of course) which plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" when someone sits on it! Much of the film takes place in Dal's apartment and with a stellar RKO set by Van Nest Polglase, it's easy to see why; it's gorgeous!

Dal's world is very much in the Thin Man mold, as the amateur sleuth has a steady stream of cocktails flowing at home as well as at the King Charles Hotel's bar. Girlfriend Donna matches him every drink of the way, as well as in witty repartee. In fact, Star of Midnight finds Ginger's Donna every bit Powell's equal here, unlike Nora Charles, who often had to meddle in her husband's cases. Dal even refers to Donna as his "partner"; that's uncommon in 1930s cinema and it was refreshing to see. Initially, I was concerned that the Powell-Rogers chemistry might not be so hot, but about forty-five minutes in, I realized that things were quite good between the two stars, as if they had finally gotten used to one another after an inauspicious beginning. Their rapport is nowhere near the Powell-Loy level, but then, no one's is. Still, it's a shame the two stars never worked together again.

I'd recommend Star of Midnight to anyone who loves what I call the "Husband and Wife Detective" genre. Fans of the Thin Man series as well as RKO features will marvel at the beautiful sets, and of course Ginger Rogers is quite a sight to behold. She's not at her most beautiful ever, but that would come soon enough.

I hope this comes to DVD soon. TCM's voting as of this writing is 145 votes and the movie ranks 494 on their list, so go and vote for Star of Midnight! It's another healthy dose of 1930s wit, glamour, and Thin Man-esque mystery.

Update: Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has an entry on Star of Midnight.

They'd Peak in 1936: William Powell and Ginger Rogers in 1935's Star of Midnight.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Susan Hayward Pic of the Day

After a decidedly macho post yesterday, I thought we'd bring things back to a more tender-hearted level, yet still retain a western theme. This photo from the November 11, 1949 LIFE Magazine session features some famous redhead with a lot of attitude. I should mention that it was fifty years ago today that Susan won her Oscar for her performance in I Want to Live!

"Deadshot" Susan: Brooklyn, New York's most notorious old west outlaw.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hour of the Gun (1967)

Hour of the Gun (1967) is director John Sturges' (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) retelling of the incidents and characters of his own 1957 film, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas portrayed Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, respectively, in the previous film. Ten years later, it’s James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards (1922-2000) as the tuberculosis-ravaged Doc Holliday. As for the rest of the cast, Sturges (1911-1992) initially chose to reuse the actors who played Earp’s brothers from the previous movie, but as it turned out, none of them were available (including Star Trek’s DeForest “Dr. McCoy” Kelley), so the director went with both actors of young, promising talent (Jon Voight; Steve Ihnat) and tried-and-true veterans (Robert Ryan; Albert Salmi; William Windom) to fill out his cast. The movie is largely seen as a flawed, below-average effort from one of Hollywood’s “action” directors, but what fails to get mentioned is how well the movie works as a tale of friendship and loyalty.

“Get this through your heads. If this was the east, I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”

~Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) in Hour of the Gun

The movie begins with the October 26 1881 gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona that served as the climax to all the previous movies on the subject. After the gunfight is over, we get a deliberately-paced account ("slow" to the movie’s detractors) of the events that took place after the famous battle. There’s much political maneuvering between the Earps and the powerful, patriarchal Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan), who manipulates the fragile western law. (I'd wager that if Ryan's Clanton had lived in New York, he would have run Tammany Hall). Ryan doesn't have much screentime, but he carries enormous presence in his scenes, and his character’s power is felt, even when he's not there.

The political underhandedness gives way to the Earps and the Clanton gang waging a war of attrition, knocking each other off in brutal fashion. However, I prefer the wonderful character interplay between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday over the traditional narrative elements and gun blazing action of Hour of the Gun. The character dynamic between Earp and Holliday indicates that this was a "Buddy Movie" decades before that term was coined.

“I don't care about the rules anymore. I'm not that much of a hypocrite.”

~Wyatt Earp (James Garner) in Hour of the Gun

There’s nary a trace of sunny and affable Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford in James Garner’s Wyatt Earp. When Wyatt’s brother, Morgan (Sam Melville) is murdered and dies in his arms, Wyatt becomes a dark avenger with vengeance running hot in his heart. It’s a disturbing portrayal unequalled in Garner’s career. Only his other western roles of this period (1966’s
Duel at Diablo, 1970’s A Man Called Sledge) come close to comparison in terms of a nasty Garner characterization. Earp’s one mean S.O.B., a facet of his persona not really touched on the character until Tombstone (with Kurt Russell as Wyatt) and 1994’s Wyatt Earp, when Kevin Costner played the lawman. Costner's Earp was hurt by tragedy and not very likable, but Garner’s Earp is frightening. He’s cold, callous, and boiling with rage—except for the relative warmth in his scenes with Jason Robards’ Doc Holliday.

“I'm just educating myself. I've never been on the right side of the law before. I want to see how much good it does you when you are.”

~Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) in Hour of the Gun.

Compared to Earp’s obsession with vengeance, Jason Robards’ Doc Holliday is the calm, reserved member of the tandem and he gives a gem of a performance. You won’t find Robards’ take on the character on many favorites lists, but I’d be so bold as to state that Robards gives the best portrayal of Holliday ever put on film. Robards’ low-key, wryly humorous take on Holliday is the perfect counterbalance to the rigid, humorless Wyatt Earp. Robards delivers the film’s best and most telling lines. He is as much an observer and commentator as he is a participant in the bloody events depicted in the film. Holliday has done his share of killing and now that he nears death, has nothing but his loyalty to his best friend Earp to keep him going. Robards’ rough, boozy voice and wiry frame add genuine flavor to his portrayal of Holliday, and he looks like the sick man that Holliday was. Robards is infinitely superior to the effete and bafflingly over-praised caricature that Val Kilmer popularized in Tombstone. I don’t know if anyone agrees with this opinion of Robards' or Kilmer’s Doc; judge for yourself.

Besides Garner and Robards, the other standout element of Hour of the Gun is the music. When watching the movie, listen to how well Jerry Goldsmith's score works within the film. It’s often understated and subtle but propels the action along when needed (and sometimes this movie needs it). The film’s opening with the Earps and Holliday heading to the gunfight plays out with Goldsmith adding tense, deliberately-paced underscore of the film’s main titles, (of which a “hipped up” 1960s-style version is available on the album). There are dark, ominous passages and delightfully melodic portions of the score that all succeed in enhancing the action sequences. One musical cue (not on the album) is a comparatively "happy" piece. It plays when Wyatt comes to visit the dying Holliday. It’s understandable why it was left off the original LP, as it’s in cheery contrast to the rest of the alternately moody and action-packed score. But it’s the sensitively scored scenes between Earp and Holliday that make this music so special. Goldsmith fashioned a malleable main title that has several wonderful variations.

Hour of the Gun is primarily recommended for those already familiar with the other more famous Wyatt Earp films, especially Sturges’ earlier Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). Both the previous films add depth to the character relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and this movie adds yet another layer. For the fine character interaction between Earp and Holliday, Hour of the Gun is a better movie than its reputation suggests.

Hour of the Gun will air Wednesday, June 3 on Turner Classic Movies (USA).

Recommended Reading: Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. By Glenn Lovell.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Poll Results: Libeled Lady (1936)

The votes are in! The majority of you voted the all-star, 1936 screwball comedy Libeled Lady as your favorite non-Thin Man William Powell-Myrna Loy comedy. There wasn’t much competition, as the results clearly show. Here is the vote tally of the twenty-seven brave souls who dared to speak out:

Libeled Lady- 16
Love Crazy- 5
Double Wedding- 4
I Love You Again- 2

Synopsis: When an heiress (Myrna Loy) sues a newspaper, its editor (Spencer Tracy) must postpone his wedding to his feisty fiancée (Jean Harlow) and get a charming roué (William Powell) to play Romeo in order to catch the heiress in a compromising position to get her to call off the suit. Much hilarity ensues…seriously.

I can understand why Libeled Lady won. It’s got all the elements for success. Besides the Powell-Loy chemistry, there’s the addition of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow and a winning script. Those are but two reasons why MGM was the greatest studio of them all. Metro could put together a dazzling array of stars, provide some great writing and the result is another of the Golden Age’s great laugh fests. Yet this movie probably isn’t very well known outside of classic movie circles. But who cares? We, the annointed few, know about Libeled Lady’s goodness and we can partake in the mirth and merriment of William Powell flopping about in a rough stream while learning to fish in one of the great comic sequences of his career. The film also comes in what has proven to be the finest year that any movie star ever had. In 1936, William Powell appeared in Libeled Lady, My Man Godfrey, The Great Ziegfeld, After the Thin Man, and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. Powell was Oscar nominated for Godfrey and The Great Ziegfeld won Best Piucture. I challenge anyone to find an actor or actress from any era who had a better year than Powell did in 1936. In the meantime, Go. Watch Libeled Lady. Now.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gail Patrick: Deco Dame, Part VII

This, Part VII of our monthly tribute to 1930s star Gail Patrick, will be the last entry until more of her films surface on DVD or get aired on Turner Classic Movies, as so few are available, particularly those films in which she was the lead. In the meantime, I'll join her for some of that ale she's got waiting for me. Gail's costar in 1940's The Doctor Takes a Wife, Ray Milland, is every bit as annoyed as I am that this dark-haired beauty is so inadequately represented on disc.

Where's the Love: Ray Milland stews over the paucity of Gail Patrick titles on DVD.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Turner Classic to Add Commercials, Edit Films

From Yahoo! News (Eighteen Minutes Ago)- In the face of crippling competition from rival movie channel AMC and pressure from stockholders, premium cable network channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has announced its intent to radically alter its program format and will include commercials and substantially edit its films' content beginning in 2010, says TCM director of programming, Harlan Poole. "It's been disappointing these last several years, watching our numbers drop exponentially as the competition [AMC] knocks the proverbial ball out of the park. AMC's admittedly brilliant programming tactic of airing content-gutted non-classics like Roadhouse, Project X, and the Halloween movies has been the coup de grace that necessitated the change." Poole went on to say that onscreen host Robert "Prima Donna" Osborne would be transferred to a ceremonial post as "Director of Old Stuff" and would retain his windowless, basement-level office in Havre, Montana, where Osborne's introductions are filmed. No word on whether TCM's loyal viewers will accept this as an April Fool's Day prank...which it is!