‘The Blue Dahlia’ starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake

There’s nothing more joyous than discovering a new movie that you just love. On April 10, I finally watched George Marshall’s noir masterpiece The Blue Dahlia, which aired on TCM during its Oscar month. That’s because the film’s script, by Raymond Chandler, was nominated for an Oscar. I could not believe that I hadn’t seen it before.

Released in 1946, the film has all the noir traits you expect. Alan Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a Navy pilot who comes home from the war, only to find that his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), is cheating on him with nightclub owner/mobster Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). After walking out on her, he runs into a mysterious woman (Veronica Lake), who later turns out to be Eddie’s wife, Joyce. While away, Helen is mysteriously murdered. Who killed her? Was it Eddie? Did Johnny somehow make it back to kill her? Was it hotel house detective “Dad” Newell (Will Wright)? Or was it Johnny’s friend and fellow war vet Buzz (William Bendix)?

While on his journey to find out the truth, Johnny runs into a number of seedy people, as if Chandler has some kind of “quota of darkness” he needs to hit in his script.

The Blue Dahlia, which gets its name from Eddie’s club, isn’t quite as perfect as Double Indemnity or Out of the Past because it does have the wrong director at the helm. Marshall was much better at comedies than serious films, so the movie isn’t quite as dark as it could have been. Still, Marshall does an admirable job, even if he isn’t as showy as better known auteurs.

Ladd and Lake, who made several noir films together, are also a perfect match, even if Lake doesn’t come into the picture until much later than expected. Bendix and Da Silva also give really good performances in their supporting parts. I’m not sure how Academy voters saw the script as the only thing good enough for a nomination when Bendix is giving a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod.

Marshall can’t completely kill Chandler’s well-layered script, which is surprisingly easier to follow than other noirs. Whatever flaws it may have (which are few), The Blue Dahlia is still a classic noir and I’ll be watching for the next time it shows up on TCM.

‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ starring Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford

I’m currently going through the 2006 The Marlon Brando Collection, which I picked up a few weeks ago. While the set does include Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s fantastic adaptation of Julius Caesar, the rest of the films are completely new-to-me. Yes, I have somehow never seen the ’62 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. The other three films are The Teahouse of the August Moon, Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Formula.

teahouse

There is a good reason why I haven’t seen the others so far. Reflections in a Golden Eye is a pretentious, painfully slow movie from John Huston. The next one I checked out was Teahouse, which was painfully bizarre.

Based on John Patrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and directed by Daniel Mann, Teahouse is set in Okinawa just after the end of World War II. Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford) is assigned to help democratize the village of Tobiki. He has the help of translator Sakini (Brando), but quickly learns that the residents would much rather have a teahouse than a school. They would also rather have their women become geishas after Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo) arrives. Col. Purdy (Paul Ford) is so angered by the lack of progress that he later sends psychiatrist Captain McLean (Eddie Albert) to check Fisby out, but even McLean is convinced to do other things besides his assignment.

Watching this film today is incredibly uncomfortable. Brando at least tries to be more respectable than Mickey Rooney would be in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he is terribly miscast. Comedy was always Brando’s kryptonite and having to do it under all that make-up only highlights that. Supposedly, Brando spent two months in Okinawa to get accents and acting right, but he couldn’t fix his comedy skills.

It’s also sad to see Machiko Kyo wasted as just a pretty face. She starred in some incredible Japanese films, including Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Gate of Hell. In Teahouse, she does little more than chuckle and wrestle Glenn Ford.

Speaking of Ford, he’s the one consistently bright spot. His banter with Paul Ford (who is reprising his Broadway role) is particularly funny. You also end up wishing that Eddie Albert came in earlier.

The film does work on one level at least. It’s a blistering satire of America’s occupation of Japan. This actually makes it relevant today, because we still assume we can sweep into anywhere around the world and the people there will just accept democracy. Sure, the way Teahouse goes about making this point seems a bit weird, but the message is not one to ignore. We need to be more caring about the needs the people want, not what we want them to want.

Warner’s DVD of this MGM movie includes a neat featurette called Operation Teahouse, which shows the cast and crew arriving in Japan.

Teahouse was a huge success on both stage and screen with audiences in the ’50s. But it would be interesting to see this topic handled today with Japanese actors. Sadly, we’re a bit too serious today to laugh about things like occupying other countries, which might explain why Teahouse has fallen into the dustbin of history.

Anthony Mann’s ‘The Man from Laramie’ starring James Stewart

I got into Westerns through John Ford and John Wayne, but along the way, I have quickly discovered that this is only scratching the surface. While the collaboration between Ford and Wayne is legendary, there is another Western actor/director team-up that is just as important. During the early 1950s, Anthony Mann made five Westerns with James Stewart, forever changing the way audiences viewed their favorite “boy next door.” Suddenly, Stewart became an actor who had realized his full potential, thanks to Mann’s direction. He was pushed into a darker world, as Mann explored aspects of the American West that Ford never bothered to see.

The partnership was sadly short-lived. The five movies were made between 1950 and 1955, with the last one being possibly the best, The Man from Laramie. All of them are brilliant, particularly Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur, but Laramie is about as dark as a move starring Stewart can get.

Stewart stars as Will Lockhart, who comes rolling into Coronado to drop off a delivery ordered by a local store. That store is run by the Waggomans, who own much more than just the general store. In fact, patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) has bought up most of the land surrounding the isolated town. Lockhart’s real purpose for going to Coronado from Laramie was to find out who sold repeating refiles to the Apache, as the Apache had massacred a U.S. Calvary group, including Lockhart’s brother. At first, Lockhart thinks that Alec was responsible, but his investigation gets him caught in the middle of the rivalry between Alec’s wild son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the man Alec trusts to run his ranch, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). Lockhart also meets Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece. Vic is hoping to marry Barbara, but it’s clear that Barbara may actually like Lockhart when the two meet.

There’s a lot that goes on in this brisk, 102-minute film. Mann keeps the action tight, bringing his clear love of Shakespearean theater to the West. There’s family rivalry, disappointed lovers and a stranger who comes to throw a perfect situation out of whack. For anyone who has been watching Mann’s films for a long time, it’s clear that these are all themes he enjoys exploring (especially if you are – like me – a fan of his 1950 film The Furies).

Having Stewart around as a vehicle to explore these themes through makes it easier. Stewart’s career is incredible in that it allows us to actually see an actor learning on the job. He was in films for such a long time that we can see how events in his life changed his style and how he learned the craft over time. By 1955, he learned how to be in serious projects like Laramie and to use the persona he had built in the late ’30s and ’40s to his advantage. He could play with audience expectations like no one else. No matter how many times we see Stewart tackle dark material, it still seems jarring. But that’s part of his genius as an actor.

It’s not only Mann’s direction and Stewart’s performance that work so well. There’s also Charles Lang’s beautiful photography of New Mexico, so perfectly restored on the 2014 Twilight Time Blu-ray. And just like all great Westerns, there’s some fantastic supporting performances. Arthur Kennedy and Cathy O’Donnell are wonderful, as is Donald Crisp.

Perhaps I’m a bit too excited about the film at the moment, but Laramie truly should be held as one of the Top 10 best Westerns (or at least in the Top 20). It’s endlessly entertaining, but puts forth some serious questions about how far is too far to go for revenge.

The fact that Laramie is the last Mann/Stewart collaboration is noteworthy, because they walked away from the partnership when it was clear that they could still make great movies together. Perhaps they realized that they were in danger of getting stuck in a rut or that it was best to go out on a high note. But when Stewart walks off into the sunset, it’s not mourning the death of a partnership. It’s really celebrating the birth of Stewart’s second career.

The Mind Reels: 10 Personal Highlights from TCMFF 2015

danhofstra:

I didn’t get to go to the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival due to its incredibly close proximity to SXSW this year. (I still would love to know why TCMFF was so early this year… anyway…) The Nitrate Diva did this great wrap-up of this year’s festival. I hope to meet her and the rest of the incredible classic film community again in 2016!

Originally posted on Nitrate Diva:

IMG_0106 You’d think I’d turn my pass to the right side for my photo op, but you’d be wrong.

4 days. 11 movies. 5 special presentations. 100+ buttons handed out to eager film fans. 20 hours of sleep, tops.

And I loved every minute of it.

This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival took “History According to Hollywood” as its theme. However, the history went deeper than the fancy costumes on the screens or the struggles of the past that drove the plots.

First off, TCM and TCMFF do so much to keep the history of motion pictures alive, enabling people of all ages to discover the heritage of movies. I mean, where else can you see a 1898 Méliès film from a hand-cranked projector one day and a Soderbergh hit from the 1990s the next?

More and more people of my generation (and I’m 24) are exploring Hollywood history, not…

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“Gimme a whisky, aber nicht zu knapp!”: Greta Garbo’s ‘Anna Christie’ in German

MGM famously waited until 1930 to put Greta Gargo in her first talkie. The studio picked Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie as the perfect material for the first time audiences would hear her voice. They also made another wise decision, assigning director Clarence Brown to the project. Brown directed some of Garbo’s biggest silent hits, so that would also make the transition easier. Of course, it all worked out. The moment Garbo ordered a whisky (ginger ale on the side), MGM gave a sigh of relief. Despite her thick accent, audiences loved her still. Anna Christie was a big hit in the U.S. and even earned three Oscar nominations.

At the time, Hollywood commonly made foreign-language version of films for the international markets. In those days, Hollywood didn’t think of dubbing actors. Instead, they used the same sets in Hollywood and found actors who could speak the languages to fill out the roles. It worked best if the main star of the English-language version could also speak a second language.

That was the case with Anna Christie. While many of these foreign-language versions no longer exist sadly, the German version of Anna Christie does. Thankfully, Warner Home Video did include it on the 2005 DVD release of Anna Christie, so we can compare the two.

The differences are quite remarkable. Directed by Jacques Feyder (who would go on to make the Marlene Dietrich/Robert Donat movie Knight Without Armour), the German Anna is a much more fluid, vibrant movie. Brown’s film is noticeably static, with the camera clearly bound by technology. But Feyder managers to get more out of the camera and uses chiaroscuro effectively. Brown’s editing is also clunky, with scenes not quite fitting together.

One of the biggest differences is Garbo’s entrance into the film. In Brown’s film, Garbo is wearing a lighter shirt and she’s lit, but in Feyder’s, she is in all black and appears to come in through the shadows. It makes her entrance much more striking and memorable.

Garbo is also surprisingly much more at ease when speaking in German. She appears more comfortable and more down-to-earth, while her performance in English makes her feel more aloof. It’s as if she always thinks she’s better than the world she comes from in the Brown film.

While it’s true that no one can be better than Marie Dressler and Charles Bickford in their roles, it is interesting to see how different George F. Marion’s German counterpart plays Anna’s father. Marion, who originated the role on Broadway, plays Chris Christopherson as a bumbling fool just trying to do his best. But Hans Junkermann plays Chris more seriously, harping on the pathetic aspect of the character.

Still, it’s worth noting that neither film moves as brisk as they should. Both were made during the very early talkie period, when a subject that came from Broadway would often feel like a filmed play. And make no bones about it, both Annas feel like filmed plays. Feyder’s version is just a bit more pleasing visually, with a darker tone. It’s not clear if that’s just because of the quality of the print that survives and made the DVD, but that tone is much more effective.

All that said, would I really watch Feyder’s film again instead of the Brown one? I’m not too sure…considering how one has to really be in the mood to take this drama. The Brown one still has two things going for it – Dressler and Bickford. But I’m glad the Feyder version still exists. One can only wonder how many other Hollywood foreign-language movies that are lost that are just as interesting as Feyder’s Anna.

SXSW 2015 Coverage

This year, I covered the South By Southwest 2015 film festival in Austin, Texas for TheCelebrityCafe.com. It was an exhausting experience, but one of best I’ve ever had. After all, I got to meet Tab Hunter.
me and Tab Hunter

SXSW was a complete work trip for me, requiring me to constantly be writing when I found an opportunity to. I stayed for the entire time of the film festival segment and wound up writing 10 film reviews. Here’s a complete portfolio of my work for the site:

Reviews:

Film Events/Panel stories:

Interviews:

Wrap-Up story:

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.

front page woman

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.