Sunday, March 30, 2014

Classic Movie Tourist: A Day in Hollywood

Hollywood is naturally the Mecca of every classic movie fan, but for many of us visiting in person is difficult, if not impossible. I have been reading lucky travelers' blog posts and admiring photos of the Walk of Fame for years, but last week I finally got to check Hollywood off of my own personal bucket list. It was everything I expected it to be: tacky, crowded, worn around the edges, and yet bursting with the spirit of those who made it great. Footprints and stars, glamor and squalor, the absurd and the sublime - all are there among the throngs of tourists and the endless blaring signs.

The Hollywood Bed & Breakfast
We made a comfortable camp at the Hollywood Bed & Breakfast just up the street, which allowed us to walk a few blocks into the tourist stretch when we woke early on Sunday morning. Being on Central Time, we were wide awake long before the locals got going, and we mostly saw joggers and dog walkers along the residential section. Even Grauman's Chinese Theatre was quiet when we first passed by.

Our first stop of the day was the Hollywood Museum, located in the Max Factor building. In spite of an exterior and barker that make it seem like just another tourist trap, this is a great place for classic movie buffs. The Max Factor angle actually makes for fascinating history, especially if you're interested in Jean Harlow, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, and other stars who were known for the distinctive looks that Factor helped to create. Downstairs were mildly gruesome horror exhibits celebrating Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Hammer films, and other genre icons. Upstairs we found exhibits featuring Elvira, Sonny and Cher, The Beverly Hillbillies, and just about everything else you can think of. A costume display highlighted outfits from recent movies and television shows. We spent a good two hours in the museum, but you could stay longer if you wanted to watch the entire Max Factor in Hollywood documentary.

Mel's next door to the museum was a touristy bust, very expensive and lacking in the character that made us enjoy Mel's in San Francisco. Even though Mel's offers a discount on Hollywood Museum tickets if you eat there first, I suggest you skip it and find someplace better - or at least less pricey - to eat. Sadly, some of the more iconic Hollywood Blvd. eateries were closed the day we were there.

Of course we spent time wandering up and down the Walk of Fame, and I enjoyed reciting the film careers of the stars to my utterly uninterested spouse and child. (They endure similar educational lectures from me on a regular basis.) Some homeless men had constructed a bizarre shrine on Marilyn Monroe's star that consisted mostly of McDonald's fare, including an apple pie still in the box, a handful of chicken nuggets, and some other items that they arranged with great consideration. Oddly enough, none of the homeless people ever asked us for anything, although one man called out "Welcome to Hollywood!" every time we passed him.

By the time we returned to Grauman's to see the cement, the crowds had arrived. Hoards of people jostled one another in front of the theater, but most seemed unimpressed by the stars whose names appeared next to their handprints. It was easy enough to get photos of the blocks honoring Charles Laughton, Margaret O'Brien, and Monty Woolley.

We spent the afternoon at Madame Tussauds Hollywood, which is overpriced and very touristy but also a delight for those who want to have their pictures made with Fred and Ginger, Charlie Chaplin, George Burns, and Bette Davis. The number of classic stars represented was really pretty impressive; I think my favorite was Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., but I was also thrilled to find Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. The wax figures are more fun because the museum encourages visitors to get close and take interesting pictures; props are even provided for some scenes.

The shopping center near Grauman's has little for the cinephile, although there are some eateries and a number of familiar mall staples. I found the real deal, though, at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, where I browsed movie books, stills, and posters to my heart's content. I would probably still be there a week later if my family hadn't dragged me out.

The highlight of our day in Hollywood was seeing Muppets Most Wanted at Disney's El Capitan Theatre. An organist played a Wurlitzer as the seats filled, making his way through an astonishing number of Disney tunes (he seemed to like Mary Poppins in particular). When he played the theme for The Muppet Show the audience went wild. Then, to our utter delight, we enjoyed a live performance by Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. It must have been fifteen or twenty minutes long, and the duo made their way through several songs and gags. The experience became positively uncanny when the movie started outside the very theater where we were sitting! Having co-edited two books about Jim Henson and the Muppets, you could definitely say I'm a fan, and seeing the newest Muppet movie in this setting was almost a religious experience. Afterward, we got to stroll through a display of props and costumes from the picture, including several of Miss Piggy's gowns and the tiny car driven by Ty Burrell.

Exhausted and giddy, we caught a bus back to the Hollywood B&B, where we collapsed into Muppet and movie filled dreams. My day in Hollywood was over, but the memories will stay with me for a very long time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE SEARCHERS (1956)

The darkest and most iconic of John Ford's Westerns, The Searchers (1956) also presents cowboy legend John Wayne in one of his most psychologically complex roles as a man whose attitudes and decisions clearly place him on the losing side of history. Ford offers all of the elements that serve as his genre hallmarks: Monument Valley's desolate grandeur, Wayne's rugged masculinity, and moments of domestic humor that leaven the narrative's somber tone. Many of Ford's favorite stock players bring their contributions, as well, including Ward Bond, Olive Carey, Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, and Harry Carey, Jr. The story, more or less faithfully adapted from the novel by Alan Le May, resonates powerfully thanks to Ford's approach and the thoughtful performances of the principal stars, making The Searchers essential viewing for Western fans and anyone interested in the art of cinema.

Wayne plays former Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who returns home to visit his brother's family just before they are brutally slaughtered in a Comanche attack led by Scar (Henry Brandon). The raiding party abducts Ethan's nieces, the only survivors, prompting Ethan to set out on a quest to reclaim the girls. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young man taken in by the Edwards clan, joins Ethan in the search, even though many years pass before they find any trace of Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has since grown up as part of the Comanche tribe.

Wayne's character is undoubtedly the protagonist of this adventure, but his role as hero is not so clear, especially when we understand that he means to kill Debbie in order to erase the sexual and racial pollution of her Comanche experience. Ethan harbors an intensely racist hatred for the Comanche, partly as a result of his mother's death in an earlier raid, but his decision to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War suggests other, connected prejudices as part of his basic nature. Ford also hints at Ethan's adulterous love for his brother's wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan); his dogged quest for revenge might be as much about penance for his own sins as it is about family honor, Debbie's suffering, or any heroic impulses.

The other participants in this drama have more straightforward motivations. Jeffrey Hunter's handsome features perfectly express the loyalty and sincerity of Ethan's constant companion, Martin, who takes a more progressive view of Native Americans thanks to his own racially mixed heritage. Martin first joins Ethan to save the girls from the Comanche raiders, but he ultimately stays, despite the life and love that slip through his fingers at home, to save Debbie from Ethan himself. Sisters Lana and Natalie Wood play Debbie in the bookend scenes that frame the central search, and both make the most of their brief appearances. They remind us that Debbie is a person in her own right, not merely a symbol of Ethan's failures or the unwilling embodiment of his deepest fears. The film might stir our consciences with its depiction of Ethan's deadly prejudice, but it falls back on genre stereotypes in the casting of the German actor Henry Brandon as Scar, an absolute villain who revels in showing off his collection of settlers' scalps.

Be sure to appreciate leading lady Vera Miles in a supporting role as Martin's love interest, Laurie. For more of John Ford's Westerns with John Wayne, see Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Jeffrey Hunter stars in Belles on Their Toes (1952), King of Kings (1961), and The Proud Ones (1956), but he is also remembered today as the original captain of the USS Enterprise in the pilot episode of Star Trek. You'll find Vera Miles in The Wrong Man (1956), Psycho (1960), and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, while Natalie Wood stars in Rebel without a Cause (1955), West Side Story (1961), and Splendor in the Grass (1961).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956)

Fritz Lang directed Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) quite late in his career, almost forty years after he got his start making silent films in Germany, but this courtroom noir has a lot in common with the director’s earlier pictures, especially in terms of suspense. Like M (1931), Fury (1936), and The Woman in the Window (1944), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt plays with our expectations about criminals and crime, making the assurance of its title a striking counterpoint to our own evolving uncertainty as the narrative unfolds. Legal experts might find numerous bones to pick with its representation of the judicial process, but film noir fans who like their thrillers pitch black will enjoy this twisted thrill ride through the dark, which also offers a particularly effective performance from Dana Andrews as its leading man.

Andrews plays up-and-coming novelist Tom Garrett, who wants to postpone his wedding to the stylish Susan (Joan Fontaine) so that he can prove his talent by finishing his second book. Susan’s father, Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), happens to be Tom’s former boss in the newspaper business, and he intrigues Tom with a scheme to protest the death penalty by framing an innocent man for murder. Assured by Austin that he will be exonerated before an execution can take place, Tom agrees to be the guinea pig and incriminate himself in the murder of a burlesque dancer, but he eventually comes much closer to the electric chair than he expected.

The story might or might not work as a commentary on the death penalty, given how things turn out, but it certainly succeeds at casting doubt on the whole process by which criminal cases are tried. The district attorney, Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), takes a hard line on crime mainly because he aspires to become governor, not because he has any particular devotion to justice. Tom is indicted, then tried and found guilty solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence; the idea that a jury might be persuaded to execute a man on such flimsy evidence proves their susceptibility to the ambitious attorney’s slick courtroom tactics. Our own doubts increase as we see Austin and Tom planting and documenting their clues; might Austin have an ulterior motive in playing this dangerous game? Might Tom?

If the men come off as untrustworthy, the women at least can be relied on for their honesty, even when they themselves are being deceived. Joan Fontaine plays Susan as a smart, sensible woman accustomed to being treated as an equal, so we know that no good can come of Austin and Tom’s decision to keep their whole plan a secret from her. With her elegant carriage and carefully selected clothes, Susan is the opposite of the brassy, low-brow Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols), a stripper who becomes the key witness in Tom’s trial, but Susan is also a foil to the unseen Patty Gray, the murdered girl whom Tom is accused of strangling. Patty might be the closest this movie comes to a femme fatale, but because she is already dead her influence on the other characters and the plot remains ghostly, uncertain, a matter of secondhand gossip and half-remembered history. She’s a blue-collar Rebecca, haunting the narrative until the truth comes out in the shocking final scene.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was Fritz Lang’s last American picture; for more of his Hollywood films, try Scarlet Street (1945), House by the River (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). Look for Dana Andrews in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Laura (1944), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Joan Fontaine won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), but she is also remembered today as the star of Rebecca (1940), The Constant Nymph (1943), and Jane Eyre (1943). Horror fans will recognize Sidney Blackmer from Rosemary’s Baby (1968); his earlier work includes Little Caesar (1931), Heidi (1937), and a number of appearances as President Theodore Roosevelt in films like In Old Oklahoma (1943).

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977)

As the third and final Ray Harryhausen movie to feature the legendary hero, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) arrives fairly late in the special effects icon’s canon; his last feature, Clash of the Titans (1981), would come just a few years later. While Harryhausen, working as both a producer and special effects creator for his films, still dominates the production with his expansive imagination, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger also takes note of the changing times by having a more glamorous and noteworthy cast in addition to its stop-motion stars. Patrick Wayne and Taryn Power, both the children of screen legends, take leading roles, and the stunning Jane Seymour also stars as Sinbad’s love interest. The result is a movie that belongs very much to its era but still offers plenty to entertain nostalgic Gen Xers and devoted fans of Harryhausen’s particular genius.

Patrick Wayne stars as Sinbad, who sets out on a mission to save his friend, Prince Kassim (Damien Thomas), after the evil sorceress Zenobia (Margaret Whiting) changes him into a baboon just before his coronation. Kassim’s sister, Farah (Jane Seymour), accompanies Sinbad and his crew because she alone can manage the bewitched prince, who grows more bestial with each passing day. They sail far in search of Melanthius (Patrick Troughton), a wise man who might be their only hope of restoring the prince to his true form. With help from him and his daughter, Dione (Taryn Power), our heroes then race to a climactic showdown with Zenobia in a dangerous and magical land.

As always, the fantastic setting provides Harryhausen with many opportunities to create and animate bizarre creatures. Chief among these is the baboon version of Prince Kassim, who interacts with human performers very convincingly, especially in the close quarters of Sinbad’s ship. Kassim reacts with horror to his own reflection, plays chess against human opponents, and even expresses the transformed prince’s romantic interest in Dione, a subtle and complicated concept given the limits of animation and a baboon’s face. Other notable creatures in this adventure include the metal minotaur that serves Zenobia, the gentle Trog who helps our heroes, and the fearsome sabre-toothed cat that appears during the final climax.

Nobody in the human cast is turning in a really brilliant performance, but they look good and seem game enough for the weird experience of acting against stop-motion costars. Patrick Wayne, the son of Western icon John Wayne, sports a gloriously 70s head of curls to go with his disco-era paisley tops, but he lacks the bold screen presence of a true swashbuckler. Jane Seymour is, of course, gorgeous as the princess, and Tyrone Power’s daughter, Taryn, makes a very striking blonde counterpart to Seymour’s brunette beauty. Both show a good bit of skin, but they also get to play important roles in the adventure and are not merely screaming victims to be rescued by men. Margaret Whiting might be chewing the scenery as the scheming Zenobia, but she is certainly memorable, and she has to be larger than life herself as the creator of so much magical mischief. Having already appeared in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Patrick Troughton brings experience with the Harryhausen world as Melanthius, and it’s always good to see the Doctor Who star in a different light, even if he is more or less unrecognizable under all that hair.

See The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) for Ray Harryhausen’s other adventures with the Arabian hero. Sam Wanamaker, who directed Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, was more productive in his career as an actor and mostly directed for television. Patrick Wayne appeared in several movies with his father, including The Alamo (1960), McLintock! (1963), and Big Jake (1971). Taryn Power only made a handful of films, but Jane Seymour can be found in Live and Let Die (1973), Battlestar Galactica (1978), and Somewhere in Time (1980). If you enjoy the fantasy East of the Harryhausen movies, try either the 1924 or the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

King Kong (1933) gave rise to a whole host of subsequent gorilla movies, beginning with The Son of Kong (1933), but Mighty Joe Young (1949) merits special attention because it marks the feature film debut of one of the greatest innovators in special effects history, Ray Harryhausen, who worked on the stop-motion sequences in the picture along with King Kong veteran Willis O’Brien. Those who watch Mighty Joe Young today probably do so because of Harryhausen’s involvement with the production, and his ability to invest a stop-motion character with incredible emotion and vitality is on full display in the expressive Joe. The human cast are solid in their performances, and the story is interesting if a bit overblown toward the end, but this is the big gorilla’s movie from start to finish, and Harryhausen’s Joe does not disappoint.

Robert Armstrong plays Max O’Hara, a showman who travels to Africa to promote his latest nightclub scheme, which features an African theme and live lions behind glass. There he encounters the gigantic Joe and his companion, Jill (Terry Moore), whom he convinces to travel to America in order to be the headline act at the club. Jill soon realizes that leaving home was a big mistake, especially since Joe is condemned to life in a cage, but Max is reluctant to give up his profitable stars. When thoughtless patrons provoke Joe into a violent rampage, Jill and her cowboy friend, Gregg (Ben Johnson), must escape with the big ape in order to save his life.

From his first appearance on the screen, Joe is a fascinating character. His capacity for violence quickly becomes evident, but the travelers and the audience are surprised by his gentleness with Jill, who bosses him around like an overgrown baby or an unruly pup. Joe has soulful eyes that sometimes widen with surprise or blaze with fury; we sympathize with him as a real individual, forgetting that he is a special effect when he mourns his imprisonment or lashes out during a moment of drunken panic. He can be funny or tragic, brave or bestial, depending on what happens around him. Harryhausen uses subtle changes in body language and facial expression to suggest depression, disgust, and even uncertainty, making this early creation one of his most human characters and also paving the way for creatures seen in later films like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981).

The human actors support the simian star admirably and help us to believe in Joe by their reactions to him. Robert Armstrong, a veteran of both King Kong and The Son of Kong, brings plenty of experience acting against animated apes to his role as the overeager producer, Max, but he also evinces a great talent for comedy in his scenes with Joe and an uncooperative horse early in the film. Relative newcomer Terry Moore plays one of her first really significant roles as Jill; she has a fresh-faced sweetness that justifies her gullibility as well as the strength of character to make us believe that she can handle a rampaging giant gorilla all by herself. Of the three lead actors, Ben Johnson is the most familiar to modern viewers, although Gregg is one of his first big roles, as well, and the Oklahoma cowboy functions as a gentler, younger version of the kind of Western character Johnson would go on to play. The subdued romance between Jill and Gregg is a sweetly played sidenote to the central plot, with both Moore and Johnson expressing a very G rated passion that even the youngest viewers won’t find offensive. Their one really romantic moment quickly gives way to a fiery climax involving a burning orphanage, where Joe once again dominates the screen.

Blink and you’ll miss Beverly Hillbillies star Irene Ryan in the bar scene during Joe’s big debut. Ernest B. Schoedsack, who directed Mighty Joe Young, also made The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Son of Kong (1933), and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). Ben Johnson won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Last Picture Show (1971), but he also has memorable roles in Wagon Master (1950), Rio Grande (1950), and The Wild Bunch (1969). See Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Peyton Place (1957). For more of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects, see The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Mighty Joe Young was remade in 1998 with Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton in the lead roles, but see the original first.

Mighty Joe Young is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE OKLAHOMA KID (1939)

Given its focus on the settling of Oklahoma and the founding of Tulsa, The Oklahoma Kid (1939) almost certainly has its fans in the Sooner State, but for the most part this Warner Bros. Western is a fairly routine oater, with plenty of stock characters and plot elements to amuse the matinee crowd. It does, however, boast a very unusual pair of lead actors in James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, who don cowboy hats and spurs to fight it out as the free-spirited Oklahoma Kid and his scheming nemesis, Whip McCord. Classic movie fans will find that combination hard to resist, if only because of curiosity, and the picture also offers solid supporting performances from favorites like Donald Crisp and Ward Bond. It’s by no means one of the great Westerns, but The Oklahoma Kid has enough going for it to make it worth seeing, even if it simultaneously proves that neither of its iconic stars is really cut out for the genre.

Cagney plays the footloose Oklahoma Kid, who finds his territory changing as Western expansion brings white settlers to the fertile Cherokee Strip. The Kid makes an enemy of Whip McCord (Bogart) and his gang by appropriating their stolen cash for himself, but things get personal when McCord frames an upstanding citizen, John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern), for murder, not knowing that Kincaid is the Kid’s estranged father. While the Kid’s brother, Ned (Harvey Stephens), and Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) try to use the law to free Kincaid, the Kid looks for a different kind of justice to bring McCord and his henchmen to account for their crimes.

Both Cagney and Bogart are great actors, but neither of them really looks at home on the range. They are much more credible as urban gangsters in their other movies together, like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), and in their films alone. It’s easy enough to imagine more familiar Western stars replacing them in The Oklahoma Kid and bringing more authenticity to their roles, but both performers give it their best effort. Bogart, an excellent heavy in The Petrified Forest (1936), knows how to seethe and look dangerous, even if his black outfit and oddly Victorian head of hair don’t quite suit him. Cagney plays the Kid as a typical Cagney character from this era, a mixture of menace and good humor, always occupying the vast gray area of moral territory. When he isn’t stealing things or getting into gunfights, he flirts with Ned’s girlfriend, Jane (Rosemary Lane), and sings Spanish lullabies to Mexican babies. We can believe in both the amiable Cagney and the dangerous one, even if we never quite buy the idea that he’s an actual cowboy.

The supporting players in The Oklahoma Kid prove more credible as denizens of the Western frontier, especially genre stalwart Ward Bond as a member of McCord’s outlaw gang. Donald Crisp, always reliable as a paternal authority figure, brings his usual gravitas to the role of Judge Hardwick, who likes the Kid even though they have very different views on civilization and the law. Rosemary Lane makes a pretty love interest for Cagney, although the idea of the Kid’s rivalry for her with his brother, Ned, goes mostly undeveloped, and Harvey Stephens has very little to do as Ned until the final scenes of the picture. Other familiar faces in the background include Charles Middleton, Arthur Aylesworth, and Trevor Bardette as residents of frontier Tulsa, along with the chronically uncredited Stuart Holmes in a brief appearance as President Grover Cleveland.

Lloyd Bacon, who directed The Oklahoma Kid, made a steady stream of pictures for Warner, including 42nd Street (1933), Marked Woman (1937), and Knute Rockne All American (1940). Bogart made another attempt at the Western with Virginia City (1940), while Cagney returned to the genre for Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), but it’s better to see them in their natural habitats first. You’ll find Rosemary Lane in Hollywood Hotel (1937), The Return of Doctor X (1939), and Trocadero (1944). Don’t miss the venerable Donald Crisp in the excellent Anthony Mann Western, The Man from Laramie (1955), although he is best remembered today for his fatherly roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943), and National Velvet (1944).

The Oklahoma Kid is now available on DVD from Warner Archive. Warner provided the reviewer with a free copy of the film, with no promise or expectation of a positive review.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE SET-UP (1949)

With Robert Ryan as his punching bag protagonist, director Robert Wise delivers one of film noir’s most staggering blows with The Set-Up (1949), an unsparing revelation of boxing’s dark side and the bloodthirsty nature of the crowd. Playing out in real time, The Set-Up follows Ryan’s veteran boxer through one fateful night in his career, where the violence of his life in the ring is contrasted by the anxious tenderness of his wife. The fight scenes in this movie are justly celebrated for their realism, but the heart of The Set-Up lies in the wrenching performances of Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, who press upon us the human cost of other people’s business and pleasure.

Ryan plays Bill “Stoker” Thompson, a twenty-year veteran of the ring whose manager (George Tobias) arranges for him to lose a fight without informing Stoker himself. Stoker believes that he can win the match; he pines for the moral support of his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), but she can no longer bear to see him take a beating before the pitiless mobs of spectators who fill the stands every night. Little does Stoker know that if he wins the fight he will have to face the wrath of the dangerous mobster Little Boy (Alan Baxter) and his vicious thugs.

The camera shows us two sides of the boxing world, reversing our sense of who is the more violent, the fighter or the spectator for whom he fights. The boxers, gathered in their locker room, embody dignity, resignation, and mutual respect. Even a young black boxer is treated as an equal and a brother, while a nervous first-timer receives encouragement from the battle-scarred elders. The crowd, on the other hand, pulses with murderous inhumanity; even those we most expect to show pity have none. A blind man and an old woman scream for blood as lustily as any of their peers; they care nothing for the men whose bodies are broken to provide them with a night’s amusement. As brutal as the actual fight scenes are, they are nothing compared to the monstrous appetite of the insatiable crowd.

Audrey Totter, usually associated with femme fatale roles, delivers one of the best performances of her career as Julie, who remains outside throughout the fight. Julie’s anguish reminds us that the fighters are not only human beings but husbands, lovers, fathers, and sons. Each blow that lands wounds a body loved by someone who becomes another casualty of the bloody sport. Unable to bear witness to another fight, Julie roams the city, her eyes filled with anxious hope and terrible dread. To her the aging boxer is not “Stoker” but Bill, the man she loves too much to endure the gory spectacle of his suffering. Still, she will not be spared; her reunion with Bill in the final moments of the film offers a tender but tragic coda to the cruelty that has come before.

Be sure to appreciate David Clarke in a brief but effective appearance as the battered older boxer, Gunboat Johnson. Robert Wise’s other noir films include Born to Kill (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), although he is better remembered today as the Oscar-winning director of West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). See more of Robert Ryan in Crossfire (1947), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Audrey Totter also stars in Lady in the Lake (1947), The Unsuspected (1947), and Tension (1949). Milton R. Krasner, the cinematographer who shot The Set-Up, earned seven Oscar nominations over the course of his career and worked on more than 150 films, including All About Eve (1950), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and How the West was Won (1962).

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: SHOW BOAT (1936)

James Whale is best remembered today as the director of horror films like Frankenstein (1931), but he also made the 1936 adaptation of Show Boat, the successful Kern and Hammerstein musical based on Edna Ferber’s novel. It was neither the first nor the last big screen rendition of the story; Laura La Plante starred in a 1929 production, and a 1951 version featured Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel. The 1936 adaptation is, however, generally considered the best and most faithful of the three, and it benefits tremendously from the contributions of many performers who had appeared in the original stage production, including Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson. As the director, Whale carefully balances the serious and comic elements of the expansive plot, and the end result is a moving, engaging musical that every fan of the genre ought to see.

Irene Dunne stars as Magnolia Hawks, who grows up on her father’s show boat in the late 19th century. Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger) and his formidable wife (Helen Westley) don’t agree on most issues, including their daughter’s friendship with singer Julie (Helen Morgan), and Mrs. Hawks disapproves even more when Magnolia falls in love with Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a handsome roving gambler. Magnolia endures ups and downs as she becomes a performer herself, while Julie suffers hardship and heartbreak after her racial identity is revealed by a jealous admirer.

The cast of the film is large, but nearly every actor makes the most of his or her role, and the majority of the stars had already played the same parts in earlier stage productions. Almost 38 years old when she made the picture, Irene Dunne is much too mature to play the teenaged Magnolia, but no actress could be the right age all the time in a story that spans some forty years in its characters’ lives. She gives the heroine some spunk to go along with her sentimental nature, and Dunne ultimately proves her ability to embody the many moods and moments of Magnolia’s experience. Allan Jones, with his clean cut, almost cherubic, good looks, makes a very tame version of a riverboat gambler, but of course he sings beautifully, especially in numbers like “Make Believe,” and we can see why Magnolia loves him. Charles Winninger has a great deal of fun as the perpetually upbeat Cap’n Andy, while Helen Morgan gives a subtle but heart-breaking performance as the selfless Julie. The showstopper of the picture is Paul Robeson performing his iconic rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” but Robeson also has some effective scenes with Hattie McDaniel, who plays his wife, Queenie.

The racial plot involving Julie and Steven (Donald Cook) is the most memorable element of the story, and it was certainly controversial in the 1930s, but really Show Boat is about romantic relationships and what makes them last or fall apart. We have a handful of couples to take as models or object lessons: Magnolia and Gaylord, Mr. and Mrs. Hawks, Julie and Steven, Frank and Elly, and Queenie and Joe. All have their problems, whether humorous or tragic, but the recurring theme of the song, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” argues that people can’t choose who or whether they love, even if their partners bring them unhappiness. Julie can’t help loving Steve, even after he abandons her, and Magnolia never stops loving Gaylord, despite some twenty years of separation.

Show Boat is also memorable for its musical numbers, and Whale’s adaptation works hard to retain as many of the songs as possible, although some favorites like “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” get reduced to instrumental allusions rather than full performances. The minstrel songs, particularly one where Irene Dunne appears in blackface, contrast their outmoded racial imagery with the miscegenation plot’s strikingly progressive tone, but Paul Robeson’s performance overpowers all of that with its arresting subtlety and depth, especially during his signature number. Later black-listed for his left-wing politics, Robeson gives one of the first truly great film performances by an African-American actor; his “Ol’ Man River” sums up the mingled resignation, dignity, and suppressed anger of a people enduring generations of oppression. Few, if any, movie musicals can boast a song that even comes close to matching the emotional impact of that performance.

Sadly, Show Boat would be the final screen appearance of Helen Morgan, who died in 1941. Her life story became the basis for the 1957 biopic, The Helen Morgan Story. Irene Dunne is best remembered today for films like The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948). You can see and hear more of Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera (1935) and The Firefly (1937). Charles Winninger has memorable roles in Babes in Arms (1939), Destry Rides Again (1939), and State Fair (1945). While Paul Robeson's screen career ended in 1942 with just thirteen appearances, Hattie McDaniel went on to make history as the first African-American to win an Oscar for her performance in Gone with the Wind (1939); when she died in 1952, she had played nearly 100 film roles, many of them uncredited.

Warner Archive has provided the author with a free review copy of this film, with no promise or expectation of a positive review.