Bernard Herrmann: Tension Through Music

Even if you have a passing knowledge of classic films, you know who Bernard Herrmann is. OK, there might be a chance that you don’t know his name, but you certainly know of his music. Today, Herrmann is best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, although it was actually Orson Welles who brought him to Hollywood.

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Herrmann scored Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941, but he also scored The Devil And Daniel Webster that year and competed against himself. He won for The Devil and it was his only Oscar win. He competed against himself again in 1977, when his scores for Brian De Palma’s Obsession and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver were both nominated.

Oddly enough, Herrmann was never nominated for his most famous works. His scores for Hitchcock are now legendary and forever linked to the images the Master of Suspense gave us. Herrmann understood Hitchcock like John Williams understands Steven Spielberg today. That’s partly why the scores after for Hitch’s films after his break-up with Herrmann feel like pale imitations to the sounds we hear in North By Northwest or Psycho.

The composer is the subject of an upcoming documentary called Lives of Bernard Herrmann, which is being directed by Brandon Brown and features an interview with classic film aficionado Alec Baldwin. He also interviewed Herrmann’s eldest daughter, Dorothy, to get some unique insight into Herrmann. While his music has always spoken for him, this film should help introduce Herrmann as a person to many and not just as a name in the credits. It also explores why his work has been such an inspiration to today’s composers. Brown is hoping to complete the film by Summer 2016 and is raising funds on Indiegogo. You can donate right here!

#NoirSummer: Nicholas Ray’s ‘A Woman’s Secret’

One of the joys of this Summer of Darkness has been to learn that film noir comes in all shapes and sizes. Since there’s no definitive be-all-end-all definition for the term, what a film noir is to one person might be different to another. A Woman’s Secret, directed by Nicholas Ray and based on Vicki Baum’s novel Mortgage on Life (which is actually an insanely great title), pushes what we expect from noir.

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Perhaps the only thing that makes the 1949 film – the third Ray directed that year – a traditional “film noir” is the fact that it begins with the shooting. Only at the very, very end of the 85-minute movie do we finally learn the truth. And bizarrely enough, the truth and the lie give us the same answer. Former singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) did shoot her protege, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). So the real question is, did she intend to shoot her.

At first, Marian tells everyone that she did try to kill Susan. However, piano player Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) knows that Marian would never try to kill anyone, so he tries to convince Inspector Jim Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) of the truth. What makes this different from other noir films is that it’s much lighter and even takes us to Paris at one point. But Ray and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (co-writer on Citizen Kane) keep some of the common threads. We hear stories from different perspectives and there’s extra twists along the way.

Without giving too much away, A Woman’s Secret surprisingly does have a happy ending. Marian doesn’t actually go to the electric chair for a crime she didn’t commit. Even though Susan should have died, she doesn’t. Luke actually gets the girl he wants. It definitely feels like a cheeseball ending that no character in the film really deserves.

That said, it’s a fun film thanks to the turns by its leads. O’Hara is perfectly cast as Marian, taking charge when she needs to, while Douglas brings enough wit to carry the film. Grahame’s character undergoes the biggest changes, swinging from “little girl in the big city” to a femme fetale who’s playing everyone while still in bed.

A Woman’s Secret is by far not a great movie, but fans of the stars in it will enjoy. There’s not much for Ray fans though, sadly. It doesn’t have much of his subversive charm or unique perspective on behavior found in his later films.

The stars from my Grandparents’ perspective

I’m a third generation movie fan. My maternal grandparents were movie fans. While I never met my mother’s mother and I was far too young when her father died, they are still teaching me the magic of movies. Whenever I visit my uncles, I dig through the VHS collection and always seem to find new movies to see. Last time I was there, I saw this bizarre Clark Gable/Norma Shearer movie called Idiot’s Delight. It’s a pretty odd movie and, one day, I’ll have to pick up the Warner Archive DVD.

My grandmother was an autograph hound. She was like those women you see screaming at the movie premiere at the beginning of Singin’ In The Rain. Even though she was in Boston, the Hollywood stars still visited and she also wrote to get signed photos.

We have three or four little books filled with autographs from the stars of the 1940s. Some of them are remarkable, others are nearly faded beyond recognition. But the very fact that I can touch books that were also touched by the people in movies I watch is fascinating to me. It makes you realize that these were people, not just figments of our imagination. My absolute favorite is the Katharine Hepburn autograph.

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Here’s a very formal signature from Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s sister and his Yankee Doodle Dandy co-star:

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My grandmother’s movie memorabilia collection also includes some cool programs, which can really help you understand how every aspect of going to the movies used to be an event, especially if it was a “big” movie. Here’s the program for The Song of Bernadette. This must have been for a roadshow engagement after the Oscars, since it does mention Jennifer Jones’ Oscar win, I believe.

Loving film really is in my blood, even if it took me awhile to discover it once I moved beyond just Star Wars. I never met my grandmother, but I feel as if seeing these autographs, I do in some small way.

‘It’s Always Fair Weather,’ Except When It’s Not: The Musical Gets Cynical

Welcome readers to Movie Mania Madness and thanks to the Classic Movie History Projects hosts Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Fritzi of Movies, Silently for this event. Flicker Alley is also sponsoring it, so check them out (and buy their awesome Chaplin Mutual set). This is my first contribution to a blogathon, so thanks to everyone for welcoming me to the fold and a chance to write about one of my favorite musicals and one that certainly has historical importance.

Three war buddies arrive home after World War II and since they each lead very different lives, they probably won’t see each other for years. So, they commit to meeting again in 10 years, only to discover that their 1955 selves are much different from their 1945 versions. It’s a story of disappointment and the importance of coming to terms with yourself. But it certainly doesn’t sound like the idea for a musical, which makes It’s Always Fair Weather one of the most unique musicals ever to come out of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit.

On its face, It’s Always Fair Weather should have just been a sequel to On The Town, with writer Betty Comden and Adolph Green looking at how the lives of their three sailors turned out. They even had Gene Kelly starring and co-directing with Stanley Donen. But something happened along the way. Their script and songs became cynical, embracing the idea that youthful dreams don’t always become reality. A subplot mocking television creeped in, which only seemed fair because it was being made in Cinemascope, a process that only existed to keep television down. Kelly went along with it all, probably because of his sour mood at the time. Things were getting worse for him before they could get better in the mid-1950s, so why not make a movie that encapsulated that.

Kelly stars as Ted, who served in the army with Doug (Dan Dailey) and Angie (Michael Kidd). They all have big dreams after coming home from the war. Ted wants to be a lawyer, Doug dreams of studying painting in Paris and Angie wants to become a gourmet chef. In a traditional musical, things may have gone like they dreamed, but It’s Always Fair Weather goes in the opposite direction. Ted became a boxing promoter with gambling problems. Doug went into advertising, dealing with stress at work and at home. Angie is stuck owning a burger joint in Schenectady and has a large family.

Even though their lives have changed, they still meet up at their favorite bar 10 years after the war ended. Not only do they learn that nothing went right, but they also learn that they hate what they all became. Still, it is not the disappointment that interests Jackie (Cyd Charise), who works at Doug’s ad firm. Looking like she popped out of the more beloved MGM musicals, Jackie falls in love with the romantic idea about the reunion of three “friends” and insists that they appear on television for another reunion.

It’s Always Fair Weather came out at such a unique point in American history. It’s 1955, the heart of the Eisenhower age and the Cold War is just getting started. The Korean War ended two years ago and McCarthyism hadn’t quite died down yet. In this environment, musicals were already dying out, as manifested by the fact that MGM wouldn’t let Kelly film Brigadoon in Scotland the year before. But musicals were still supposed to be escapism from all this. If moviegoers wanted to face reality, they saw films with Marlon Brando (who coincidentally, only appeared in Guys and Dolls in 1955) or James Dean or Westerns with John Wayne. You don’t go to a musical starring Gene Kelly for a dose of realism.

It also comes in the face of the idea that American men came home from wars to lead happy lives. Today, the reality of post-war life is more publicized, as we hear about issues at VA hospitals or rising veteran homelessness. But in the post-World War II society, the fact that not all men had a family to come home to right after the war and a job that made them happy wasn’t talked about. And if it was – again – it wasn’t expected to be the subject in a musical.

Kelly was forced to make the film in CinemaScope. While he’d already starred in Brigadoon, that was directed by Vincente Minelli. Donen had also previously worked in CinemaScope on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But Kelly began to embrace the wide frame, playing with what they could show. Cinematographer Robert J. Bonner, Kelly and Donen often show the audience three scenes in one shot to give us the simultaneous feelings of the men. There’s even the fantastic “I Shouldn’t Have Come” scene, when they squash and stretch the frame into corners of the full image.

There’s one truly glorious, classic MGM music moment in the whole film – “I Live Myself,” but even this reveals something different in the songwriting from Comden & Green. Kelly’s character doesn’t sing about how beautiful and lovely Cyd Charise is. Instead, he sings about himself. This is an “all about me” musical even in its brightest moments. Cynicism while still sweet. And just after that, we have Dan Dailey’s showstopping “Situation-wise,” another self-centered song about how his character is tired of the life he leads. (Michael Kidd’s solo song – about how hard it is to raise a full brood of children – was cut from the final film and appears on the DVD.)

Even in the end, It’s Always Fair Weather refuses to end in the way old MGM musicals used to. Sure, Kelly’s character gets the girl, but everyone still has to move on and live their lives. It’s a happy ending in the sense that at least no one died. But it ends with three guys realizing that you don’t have to be best friends to love each other. It was also proof that the “musical” is not a genre, but a medium to use to tell a story, even a serious and cynical one.

#NoirSummer: ‘Woman on the Run’ with Ann Sheridan

Woman on the Run, directed by Journey Into Fear‘s Norman Foster, had its TCM debut on the first night of “Summer of Darkness,” following Nora Prentiss. Both starred Ann Sheridan and was a wake up call for me – I need to see more Ann Sheridan.

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In his introduction, noir expert Eddie Muller said that Sheridan hoped that Woman on the Run would revive her career. Even though she was only 35 at the time, her career was practically over when Warner Bros. dropped her. Even though the San Francisco-set Woman on the Run is actually a forgotten noir gem, I have no idea how she thought this movie would help her. It’s practically a B-movie, running 75 minutes and featuring no big stars. Sure, Dennis O’Keefe was a workhorse, but he isn’t exactly a major star. And the film’s plot isn’t exactly something to be proud of. But it does highlight her acting skills. She spends about 90 percent of the movie in a trenchcoat, so we don’t get distracted by the body that made her the “oomph girl.” However, she looks a lot like Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai.

The story – written by Foster and Alan Campbell – begins with a random guy witnessing a murder. When police arrive, Frank (Ross Elliott) learns that he saw a witness who could have put a gangster in jail. Nervous for his own life, Frank runs off. The police hope to enlist his wife, Eleanor (Sheridan) to find him, but she’s uncooperative. Instead, she would rather help reporter Daniel (O’Keefe) find her husband because he’s going to pay her. Along the way, Daniel tries to woo Eleanor, but she’s falling back in love with Frank as she solves the clues he’s left for her. It’s a good thing that she didn’t fall in love with Daniel though… but I won’t spoil it.

Even though Sheridan wanted this to be a showcase for her, the best part of it is Robert Keith’s hilarious performance as Inspector Ferris, who is on the case. His back-and-forth with Sheridan is often priceless and his scenes with Eleanor’s dog provide the movie with some much-needed comic relief. I’d have rather seen a movie where Eleanor was forced to work with Ferris the whole time.

Like the best of film noir, Woman features a really interesting finale. Everyone in the film gets together at an amusement park, with a horrific roller coaster ride as the climax. Sadly, in an effort to get this movie over with as soon as possible we don’t get to see Ferris’ ultimate victory.

Again, I can’t say for certain why Sheridan thought this incredibly unglamorous role would revive her career. Perhaps she thought it would do for her what Mildred Pierce did for Joan Crawford and what Double Indemnity did for Barbara Stanwyck. Sadly it didn’t work. She only lived until 1967, dying after a battle with cancer and appeared in very few films after Woman on the Run.

Hopefully the film will now be part of TCM’s regular noir days outside the “Summer of Darkness.” You can watch the full film below:

#NoirSummer: ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I am participating in TCM and Ball State University’s #NoirSummer course. Of course, since I also have a job (which requires writing about movies anyway, but I digress…), I can’t actually sit and watch all 24 hours of films noir that are being shown every Friday on TCM in June and July. Sunday morning is my usual “DVR Theater” period, when I catch up on a movie or two that I recorded during the week. This morning, I went with the 1940 RKO classic Stranger on the Third Floor, directed by Boris Ingster.

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Since the film itself is insanely brief, running at just 64 minutes, I’ll keep this post brief. Although Peter Lorre is top billed, the real stars of the film are John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet.

McGuire plays Mike, a reporter whose testimony convicted Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) for a murder he didn’t commit. When Mike realizes that his neighbor was killed, he lets his guilty conscious consume him. However, he did see a mysterious man (Lorre), who might have been the killer. His girlfriend Jane (Tallichet) convinces him to go to the police instead of running away and she goes off to find the mysterious man.

Most of the film is rather mundane, but the trip through Mike’s mind as he is overtaken by guilt looks like something out of a German expressionist film. And Lorre’s demented turn as the stranger keeps you engrossed, especially seeing how he torments Jane at the end.

Made in 1940, this is a very early example of film noir (remember, the U.S. hadn’t even entered World War II yet). It doesn’t have some key elements and it’s easy to see that there’s no femme fetale. Its ending might also seem a little too rosy. Had this been made a few years later, Joe probably would have actually been executed (like Dan Duryea’s character in Scarlet Street) and the Stranger part probably would have been built up. But when you’ve got to get the story done in an hour, extra fluff has to get cut. It does help a bit that the Stranger is so mysterious that we too might think that he only exists in Mike’s mind.

Stranger on the Third Floor aired on June 5. You can get it on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection.

TCM Vault Collection: Boris Karloff – Criminal Kind

As everyone knows, most Hollywood stars aren’t born overnight. They had to work really hard for several years before finally getting that breakout role. For Boris Karloff, it was over a decade of hard work before 1931 changed his life. He had been making movies since 1919 (just look at his insane IMDb profile) before Universal Studios cast him as Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein. From that point onward, Karloff became a horror icon until his death in 1969.

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Before 1931, Karloff was typecast as the random bad guy, thanks to his gaunt looks and quirky British accent. During the early 1930s, he had a contract at Columbia and the movies he made during that period provide the well for the 2013 TCM Vault box set Karloff: Criminal Kind. With just three movies in it and only one movie worth revisiting, it is a mixed bag.

Anyone buying the set should do so mostly to see The Criminal Code, a 1931 Howard Hawks film that stars Walter Huston. It was based on a Martin Flavin stage play that Karloff had performed in, and he reprises his role in the film. The film is an exciting indictment on the prison system and politics, with poor Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes) stuck in the middle. Huston plays the prison warden, stuck with that job after losing in the election for Governor. Huston was always underrated – it seemed like talkies came in too late for him to be seen as a romantic hero, but he always found interesting roles. (He’s really great in the early Frank Capra movie American Madness.)

At least in The Criminal Code, Karloff has a major supporting role. But in the next two films in the set – Rowland V. Lee’s The Guilty Generation (1931) and John Francis Dillon’s Behind The Mask (1932) – Karloff is probably on screen for a combined 10 minutes, if that. So are these films still worth watching? Well, if you bought the set, you might as well check them out.

The Guilty Generation is a nice curiosity as a punchy, 80-minute gangster epic that wasn’t made at Warner Bros. Leo Carrillo is really the standout as the patriarch of the Palmero family. Karloff has a bit part as the patriarch of the Ricco family and a super young Robert Young is incredibly miscast as Karloff’s son.

However, Behind The Mask is a weird movie that you’ll watch once and never again. At least it’s only 68 minutes. This one finds Karloff teamed up with Edward Van Sloan (who was in Frankenstein, too) in a narcotics ring. It actually has a faint hint of early noir, with double-crosses left and right, but the story (written by future Capra collaborator Jo Swerling of all people) moves too fast to be effective or memorable.

While Karloff’s name is on the cover, I found the set to be a better presentation for Constance Cummings, who would go on to star in David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. She stars in all three of these films and is not only gorgeous, but surprisingly good. If only her leading men were better.

The only bonus feature on the set is an overall introduction by Robert Osbourne on The Criminal Code‘s disc. There aren’t even individual TCMdb articles for the other films. There are galleries, but nothing too exciting.

You really have to be into Karloff to want this set. If you are a Hawks fan though, I would recommend getting it cheap for The Criminal Code. It’s an important and good look at his early sound career, around the time he made Scarface (which included Karloff).