Warner Archive Collection: ‘Front Page Woman’ with Bette Davis

Movies about journalism from the 1930s are always fun. It’s great to see how my chosen profession worked at such a frenetic pace, even before computers, the Internet and everything else that is supposed to make reporting easier. But the fact is, news has always moved faster than a speeding bullet and competitors have always been trying to one-up each other. Few newspaper comedies make that more obvious than Michael Curtiz’s Front Page Woman (1935), starring Bette Davis and George Brent.

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The film is a simple battle of the sexes, set in a newsroom. Ellen Garfield (Davis) works for one paper, while Curt Devlin (Brent) is at the other. At the start, it’s clear that Curt has always been after Ellen’s heart. So, Ellen hatches a plan – they will get married if Ellen can prove that she’s just as good a newspaperman as he is. That sounds a bit archaic in today’s world, but hey, it’s 1935… and the book the script is based on was actually called (I kid you not) Women Are Bum Newspapermen.

The case they duel over is a murder. They each try to get one step ahead of the other and Ellen gets the last laugh. Of course, she’s not really doing this to prove to herself that she’s great, but to prove to Curt that she can be a reporter. Apparently, even though she’s an independent woman, she still needs the approval of a man.

Curtiz directs the film as if he has a timer on the set, which is the case for many of his ’30s films. He has to get this entire story over with in 82 minutes and if it means creating some ellipses in the story, so be it. There’s a lot that goes on off-camera and has to be explained through headlines. But of course, the murder trial is the McGuffin of the piece, only existing to drive Ellen and Curt together. So, it’s OK for Curtiz to leave some of the dirty details on the cutting room floor.

Front Page Woman was released by Warner Archive in 2013. The disc includes a delightful trailer, with Bette and George talking about promoting the film. It’s bits like that that make me love the Golden Age of Hollywood. These two were stuck working together a lot and it’s clear that they had great chemistry on the screen.

For me, this movie was a blast. I just love ’30s comedies like these, with great talent. Plus, Roscoe Karns just kills it in every scene. He’s hilarious, as is the movie itself.

Frank Capra in Color – ‘A Hole in the Head’ & ‘Pocketful of Miracles’

When we think of Frank Capra, we instantly think of classics in black and white. It’s hard to come to grips with the idea that Capra actually did get a chance to make movies in color. His final two features were both in color and have been surprisingly released on Blu-ray within months of each other.

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After a long break from feature filmmaking, Capra returned to the big screen with A Hole In The Head, starring Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson. The film, released in 1959, starts out strikingly different from previous Capra films. Sinatra plays the womanizing Tony, who owns a rarely-occupied hotel in Miami called the Garden of Eden. He’s also a widower with a son (Eddie Hodges) and can barely pay his bills. He relies on help from his brother (Robinson), who is also trying to find the right girl for him to marry.

But eventually, A Hole In The Head becomes your typical Capra movie. Everyone gets together to help Tony out, just when all hope seems lost. That’s kind of remarkable, because either Capra knew how to find material that fit his themes perfectly, or Arnold Schumlman – who had never worked with Capra before – wrote the story with Capra in mind. A Hole in the Head is so clearly a movie that only Capra could make, even if it is in color and Cinemascope.

While A Hole in the Head was actually a hit and even won an Oscar for the song “High Hopes,” Capra waited until 1961 to make Pocketful of Miracles. The movie was a remake of Capra’s 1933 classic, Lady For A Day, the first big smash hit of his career. Lady runs just 96 minutes, but Pocketful runs a whopping 136. That is the first big problem with the movie, since Capra never really wavers significantly from the story. The big addition is Hope Lange’s character, but she really only serves to make sure Glenn Ford’s Dave the Dude doesn’t come off as a complete cad.

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Why this film exists is a bit puzzling. Ford seems to be the driving force behind it, with Capra really going through the motions to string together a likable movie. It’s not that it’s awful or hard to sit through, it’s just that it doesn’t seem necessary when the classic original already exists. Still, Bette Davis is actually pretty good as Apple Annie and Peter Falk is a riot as Dave’s right-hand man.

Pocketful proved that Capra had not adjusted to the star-driven world of early ’60s cinema, so he quit the feature film business. He lived for another 30 years, but he knew he was done. Hollywood had become too cynical for a new Capra movie.

The fact that both of these movies are on Blu-ray is a complete surprise. Fox has been licensing out MGM/UA titles to third-party labels like candy, so everything is on the table for a hi-def release. Olive Films snapped up A Hole In The Head for its first group of MGM/UA titles and included no bonus material. There isn’t even a trailer. Kino grabbed Pocketful and they at least included the Ed Sullivan-hosted trailer.

Thankfully, both films look pretty good. Unlike Criterion, Olive and Kino don’t do their own restoration work, so they rely on the materials MGM has. A single-layered disc doesn’t seem to be a problem with Hole, but Pocketful could have used some more space. Considering how weak past Kino MGM discs have looked, Pocketful is one of the better ones.

It’s really hard to recommend these films to non-Capra fans. A Hole in the Head should be enjoyable for Frank Sinatra fans, but even Glenn Ford’s fans probably aren’t going to be impressed with Pocketful. At least Capra experimented with color, even if they didn’t turn out so well.

Ranking Nominees for 2014 Best Picture Oscar

For the first time ever, I’ve seen all Best Picture nominees before an Oscars ceremony. It certainly helps that there were only eight this year, although there was no excuse for that. I’m still stunned by Foxcatcher not being nominated.

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Anyway, since I just got back from American Sniper, here’s my rankings. The links go to the ones I’ve reviewed at TheCelebrityCafe.com.

8) American Sniper
7) The Theory of Everything
6) The Imitation Game
5) Selma
4) Boyhood – Sadly, this is the only one I didn’t get to see in a theater.
3) Birdman
2) Whiplash
1) The Grand Budapest Hotel

King Vidor’s ‘Our Daily Bread’

While King Vidor excelled at large-scale productions, his smaller films are far more fascinating, especially Our Daily Bread, his sequel to The Crowd. MGM didn’t want to make the film after The Stranger’s Return flopped in 1933, so Vidor made it himself and it was released in 1934 by United Artists.

our daily bread

The film can’t hold a candle to The Crowd, but it is still an artistically unique production. Karen Morley and Tom Keene play Mary and John Sims, who can’t survive in the city any longer. So, they try their hand at farming. They are terrible at it at first, but when Swedish immigrant Chris (John Qualen) drives up, John hatches an idea. He decides to invite anyone who drives past their farm to work – not for money, but for each other. He creates his own society. The rest of the film – which only runs 74 minutes – shows just how hard it is to survive.

Our Daily Bread, which coincidentally was F.W. Murnau’s original title for City Girl, shows how Vidor insisted on holding on to as many silent film techniques as he could. One could imagine that this film could be watched with “mute” on and it would still make sense. He tells the story with such simplicity, which makes it all the more beautiful. Keene and Morley give relaxed performances, adding to the film’s naturalistic atmosphere.

Sadly, Our Daily Bread is in the public domain. It was recently aired on TCM during a Vidor tribute, but it looked pretty terrible. The only advantage of the film being in PD is that it’s readily available on YouTube.

‘Morning Glory’ starring Katharine Hepburn

Katherine Hepburn won her first Best Actress Oscar for RKO’s 1933 film Morning Glory. There was something Hollywood loved about actors playing actors on the big screen and the industry still does. Bette Davis won her first Oscar for playing an actress in Dangerous. It’s a trend that continues to this day, with Michael Keaton getting nominated for his performance in Birdman.

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Morning Glory, directed by Lowell Sherman, is a pretty straightforward and quick film, running just 73 minutes. Hepburn plays Eva Lovelace, a hopeful actress who just arrived in New York from Vermont. She figures that by hanging around the office of Broadway producer Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou), she can get a role in his latest show. The plan doesn’t quite work out, but she at least meets an older actor (C. Aubrey Smith), who is willing to teach her about acting; and writer Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who is instantly smitten by her. On the night of his big opening, Louis’ star refuses to go on stage and Eva steps up to perform beautifully.

What really won Hepburn the Oscar is a delightful scene she has while drunk. (Playing drunk also won Davis that Oscar for Dangerous.) There’s one beautiful shot of Hepburn in a chair, head resting in her hand and shadows highlighting her unique face, that instantly proves that she was a force to be reckoned with. It’s just odd to see her in the same shot with Mary Duncan, who looks like the typical actress from the early 1930s. But Hepburn establishes in Morning Glory that she is different. She is here to knock your socks off with a delightfully modern, wide-eyed performance. She’s not perfect in Morning Glory, but elements of what is going to make her great are right there.

The film also has another good performance from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I always feel like he gets the short shrift among leading Hollywood men of the 1930s. He was very good as a serious romantic lead and is paired well with Hepburn.

If there ever was an early 1930s movie that needed more time to flesh out its story, it’s Morning Glory. You get the feeling that Sherman had a stopwatch behind the camera, trying to make sure Fairbanks and Hepburn delivered their speeches in under a minute. The ending, when an older actress is suddenly introduced, also feels like a bit out-of-left-field and underdeveloped.

Still, it’s easy to say that Hepburn gave the first really great sound performance to receive the Best Actress Oscar. She’s wonderful and the film itself is pretty enjoyable too. It is only available on DVD in Warner Bros.’ 2010 set, 100th Anniversary Collection: Katharine Hepburn.

‘Dramatic School’ with Luise Rainer

Among the movies TCM ran on Monday for its birthday/memorial tribute to Luise Rainer was 1938’s Dramatic School, directed by Robert B. Sinclair. The film, based on a play by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed, pairs Rainer with Paulette Goddard.

Luise Rainer

Rainer plays young dramatic school student Louise, who her classmates think is a narcissist because she dreams up these fantastical excuses for not hanging out with them at night. In reality, she is so poor that she has to work in a factory. One of these stories – a meeting with Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt (Alan Marshal) catches up with her. Since Nana (Goddard) meets the real Marquis, she comes up with a scheme to embarrass Louise. Unbeknownst to Nana, the Marquis actually has seen Louise before, since he visited her factory once.

Louise also struggles at school because her teacher, Madame Therese Charlot (Gale Sondergaard) also doesn’t like her.

Dramatic School seems to epitomize the reasons why Rainer hated being in Hollywood and strangled by the studio system. Even after winning two Oscars, she’s stuck in this run-of-the-mill story about a girl who wants to be a star on the stage. In her final scene playing Joan of Arc, we see what Rainer really excelled at. She enjoyed heavy drama on stage and being stuck in 80-minute fluff wasn’t for her. It’s not a great movie, but was fun to watch, mostly because seeing Goddard try to be mean is kind of hilarious.

Paulette Goddard

Samuel Goldwyn Classics: ‘Raffles’ Double Feature

A.J. Raffles, created by E.W. Hornung in 1898, was sort of like Batman in reverse – an amateur who used his skills for bad instead of good. By day, he’s a suave English gentleman and a skilled cricket player. At night, he’s the best jewel thief in London.

raffles

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The most famous Raffles story, which was the plot for the 1906 play, starts with him deciding to put the life of crime behind him. However, when his friend Bunny tells him that he’s gambled away £1,000 he doesn’t have, Raffles decides to steal a necklace owned by one of the wealthy lady socialites he knows. Someone else is planning on stealing the same necklace on the same night, though and that forces Raffles to improvise.

Universal actually filmed the play twice during the silent days, including one film that featured John Barrymore in the title role. Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights and made the first sound version in 1930, with Ronald Colman as Raffles. Nine years later, he made it again, with David Niven starring. The Goldwyn sound versions both run barely over 70 minutes and were released by Warner Archive in 2014 on one DVD.

The Colman version is much more enjoyable. In this one, his romantic interest is played by Kay Francis and she’s the daughter of the rich woman he plans to rob. It was made before the production code was enforced and, while it doesn’t have some of the overly risque tones that most pre-code movies are famous for, it does have an obviously pre-code finale.

The Niven version feels a bit pointless, even if it does have Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle, The Pride of the Yankees) at the helm. Sadly, it uses the same Sidney Howard script as its basis, so the plot is exactly the same, save for a few minor details. Here, his lady love is actually Bunny’s sister. Olivia De Havilland does make it worth sitting through, since she’s very good in her few scenes.

But seeing Niven repeat the same dialog Colman gave nine years earlier makes you wonder what the point was. Why not give Niven a new Raffles story to play with? Didn’t Hornung write other stories? On top of that, a post-code ending had to be tagged on, with Raffles agreeing to turn himself in. Ugh…way to spoil the fun!

Sadly, both films have seen better days. They look like they were ripped from a VHS tape, although the 1930 version looks better than the ’39 one strangely. Since the two films are a combined 143 minutes, there’s no room for trailers on the disc.