Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Classic Hollywood: On The Set

A much happier picture than when the cameras were rolling.  Humphrey Bogart, wife Lauren Bacall,
Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor on the set of KEY LARGO (1947)
Paulette Goddard visits James Mason on the set of ODD MAN OUT (1947)
Claude Rains watches as Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid play
chess on the set of CASABLANCA (1942)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Man I Married (1940) Joan Bennett Says 'Nazi Go Home'

1940 saw an increasing tide of anti-Nazi sentiment in Hollywood and though the United States wasn't officially involved in the European war, studios were walking a fine line between creating films denouncing German leader Adolf Hitler and trying to keep a neutral stance. Producer and head of 20th Century-Fox Darryl F. Zanuck took the plunge in the anti-Nazi arena with an underrated melodrama called The Man I Married. On the face of it, the movie seemed to be a tabloid feature with an alternative/ working title of I Married a Nazi, with matching melodramatic poster art promising a flick wrought with sensationalism. But to dig a little deeper, filmgoers found a movie presenting an apt description of Germany at the time just before World War II.

Joan Bennett plays Carol Hoffman, a chic New York art critic who is married to German born Eric (Francis Lederer). The couple, along with their small son Ricky, travel back to Eric's homeland in 1938 to attend to family business. Germany is going through major changes with the Fuhrer at the helm and Eric quickly falls under the spell of the Third Reich, with help from an attractive uber Nazi female (Anna Sten). The fanatacism of the Nazi movement in the late 30's is deftly illustrated. Propaganda, huge political rallies and martial law are all on board, including a disturbing scene where Czech citizens living in Berlin are forced to pick up garbage in the street while armed soldiers watch and mock them.

The Man I Married was Bennett's first film for 20th Century-Fox under her new non-exclusive contract with the studio. The actress had ended her professional involvement with producer Walter Wanger while extending her personal one (the couple married in early 1940 after a long term affair). She was just embarking on the second, more interesting season of her career, as a brunette. After years as a blonde, immersed in ingenue roles, she changed her hair color to a sultry dark shade and saw a vast improvement in her choice of film parts.

Critics ran the gamut on Joan's performance in The Man I Married. A Variety review claimed: "Bennett is excellent as the educated American wife who sees through the schemes of Nazism," while New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote that Joan "might have brought more vitality and internal conflict to her role; as it is, she does little more than model dresses and express incredulity." He definitely was correct about modeling dresses as Travis Banton, the coutour master at Paramount during the early and mid-Thirties, outfitted Miss Bennett in the top 1940 vogue. It is also true that the actress' dramatic range was limited but her presence was surefire.

Fox contract player Lloyd Nolan plays an amicable war correspondent named Kenneth Delane, who opens Carol's eyes to the dangers and horrors of the Nazi regime. Austrian born Francis Lederer does a good job taking Eric Hoffman from affable, charming German-American to enraptured Nazi zombie. George Sanders was originally cast for the part but was still tied up on the set of Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and was unable to commit. One wonders what the suave yet snide Sanders could have made of this role. Otto Kruger, Maria Ouspenskaya and moppet Johnny Russell round out the cast.

A slick, glossy movie, The Man I Married is, nonetheless, worthy of its period in film timeline. The actors give fine performances and the script is fun (perturbed Bennett to newly ordained Nazi husband: "Heil heel!"). By the way, watch for that ending which I'll bet you don't see coming for a mile away. Danke Schoen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Man of Her Own (1932): Gable & Lombard, Love [NOT] at First Sight

The love story of screen stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard is legendary. A physically beautiful couple, who fell in love and married at the peak of their careers, reigned as one of Hollywood's highest profile couples and eventually met with tragedy upon Lombard's death in a 1942 plane crash at the age of 33. No Man of Her Own, filmed and released in late 1932, is famous as the only film in which the appealing duo starred together. Yet the irony is that they weren't a couple at the time, nor did they want to be.

Getting the film onto the screen was a story in itself. The original script was based on a bestselling 1932 pulp novel, written by none other than RKO horror producer Val Lewton, when he was a struggling commercial hack. It was called No Bed of Her Own and bought by Paramount Pictures as a potential vehicle for studio newbie George Raft and its reigning diva Miriam Hopkins. With loose living and prostitution as some of the general themes in No Bed of Her Own, an adaption to film was problematic, even in pre-Code years, and Paramount decided to keep the title but go with a completely different story written by Edmund Goulding and Benjamin Glazer. By the time the proverbial dust settled the title was also found unpassable to the Will Hays office and it too was changed, albeit only slightly, to No Man of Her Own.

Who would have thought that fate would have chosen Marion Davies, film star wannabe and mistress of multi-gazillionaire William Randolph Hearst, to bring about the only screen pairing of Gable and Lombard (sources say they were extras in at least one picture during the 1920's). Davies was making a picture for MGM eventually called Going Hollywood and wanted the number one box office crooner at the time, Bing Crosby, as her co-star. Hearst persuaded studio boss Louis B. Mayer to make a trade with Paramount, where Crosby was under contract. For this illustrious switcheroo Mayer had to offer up big ticket star power and after 1932's Red Dust with Jean Harlow and Strange Interlude with Norma Shearer, Clark Gable was MGM's male star on the rise.

Meanwhile, back over at Paramount, Miriam Hopkins would have no part of the film if Gable received top billing (which was part of the deal) and Carole Lombard, a member of the studio's stable of up and coming stars was cast instead. Although he had been quite chummy with Crawford and Harlow back home at MGM, Gable was relatively indifferent to Lombard during filming and she reciprocated the feeling. She was still very much married to big man on campus William Powell and Gable to wealthy/older/less attractive Rhea Langham (not that that fact had hindered earlier indiscretions).  When the film wrapped, Clark gave his blond co-star a pair of ballerina slippers with a note reading, "To a true primadonna." Carole, not to be outdone, presented him with a packaged ham with his photograph plastered on the front. It was all in good fun and caught on camera for everyone to see.

In this serio-comic pre-Code Gable plays Jerry "Babe" Stewart, a hot shot gambling cheat who can turn a card as well as a lady's head. When the law gets too close to his shenanigans, he lays low in podunk where he meets the local librarian, Connie Randall (Lombard). Connie has the small town blues and an itchin' to see what's out there. They get married on the flip of a coin and Connie goes back to the big city with her groom, unaware of his shady dealings (pardon the pun) and instead believing he works on Wall Street. Trouble steps in when the blonde bride discovers Babe's secret and tampers with his deck of cards. You know the old saying, lucky at cards unlucky in love. Well count it here in spades (pardon again).

Filmed in late 1932, more than a year before the Will Hays office would enforce tougher censorship restrictions, No Man of Her Own offered several opportunities for the risque in its dialogue. When his recent paramour clings to him like a vine on a tree, Gable's Babe responds, "Listen kid, that thing you've got on is pretty thin but I've got tough skin, see, and I don't feel it." Whew!

After filming was complete Gable went back to MGM and Lombard stayed on at Paramount for a while, her reputation as a gorgeous comedienne skyrocketing with each passing year. It wouldn't be until the mid to late 1930's until they began the affair that would eventually lead them to marriage and super couple status in Tinsel Town. As Clark Gable once said, "It is an extra dividend when you like the girl you've fallen in love with." No Man Of Her Own here.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Sea Wolf (1941): An Unsung Warner Brothers Classic

"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven" ~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

Edward G. Robinson is best known to filmgoers as a movie heavy. In fact, the gangland saga Little Caesar (1930) is the film that made him a star and subsequent gangster roles, both sinister and comedic, made him a superstar. In 1941 he took all that experience playing hoodlums and tough guys and wrapped it together in the character of Wolf Larsen in Warner Brothers' The Sea Wolf.

Larsen is a complex figure, both in the film and the 1904 book by American novelist Jack London on which the screenplay is based. Robinson pulls out all the stops to show the character's depth of savagery. He is primitive in his brutishness, while his intellect is of a high caliber, a dangerous combination. His cruelty knows no bounds and is only exacerbated by his intelligence. He is the tyrannical captain of the "Ghost", an aptly named schooner off the San Francisco coast at the turn of the 20th century with a crew comprised of scurvy misfits and cut-throat criminals. Among this motley assortment are Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), survivors of a wrecked passenger ship who are picked up by the Ghost. Van Weyden is a soft spoken author of fiction, Webster an escaped convict with a major chip on her shoulder. On board they join George Leach (John Garfield), a rebellious lad who is one of many criminals on the lam who has found refuge as it were on the sloop, Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart) the drunken and pathetic ship's physician and Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald) the vessel's galley mate, a nefarious imp with an obnoxiously wicked laugh.

The sadistic skipper takes no prisoners when dispensing his brand of brutality and perverse sarcasm. When Lupino's Ruth is dragged on board, she is near death and requires a blood transfusion. Larsen bullies Dr. Louis into performing the procedure, the hung-over surgeon's hands in a constant state of the shakes. When the operation is successful (with Garfield's blood), the recovered Ruth (lone female aboard the ship) finally makes an appearance on deck, unaware that she has betrayed her past in a moment of delirium. Nervously, she makes her way through the filthy, lecherous crew toward captain. At first he is polite and treats her with dignity, waiting until she is baited into a semi-sense of security and comfort before lowering the boom and bellowing out her secret to the gaffows of all on board.

An early 20th century illustration of the character Wolf Larsen

But she is handled with kid gloves in comparison to the treatment the ship's doctor is given. Louis Prescott is a raging alcoholic and can no longer practice on shore, hence his presence on the Ghost. He drowns his sorrows and regrets in mug after mug of hooch. When he successful saves Ruth, he is filled with pride and a renewed sense of confidence, cleaning himself up and demanding to be called Dr. Prescott, instead of being addressed with no respect whatsoever. He takes his complaint to Larsen, who assures him that he and the entire crew will give him what he deserves. Wolf takes him out to the group of ragamuffin sailors where, instead of heaping upon him the honor the physician longs for, he mocks him and kicks him down a set of steps, yet again to the uproarious laughter of the company. Refusing to live in a constant state of ridicule and desperation, Prescott climbs to the top of the mile high mast and jumps to his death, but not before exposing Larsen's secret to all below.

Much of the focus in The Sea Wolf, however, centers around the relationship between the seafarer and the intellectual Van Weyden. In the weak bodied Van Weyden, Larsen found both a physical punching bag, as well as a mental sparring partner. Forcing him into servitude as a cabin boy, Wolf takes control (the thing he thrives on) of yet another being in his self styled universe. Taking as his motto, Milton's quote from Paradise Lost, "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n", Larsen has created and extended to those around him his own hellish domain. Of all the characters, these two extreme opposites are alone together at the end of the film.

Warners had purchased the film rights to the novel in the late 30's, as a possible project for its top serious actor Paul Muni. When initial plans didn't pan out it stayed on the back burner until 1940 when Edward G. Robinson was cast as the blackhearted captain and the studio's top adventure director Michael Curtiz was slated to direct. Casting for George Leach wasn't as simple. Warners offered the role to another of it's top gangsters, George Raft, but Raft thought it too small a role, saying in a letter to producer Hal Wallis: "My dear Mr. Wallis, just read Sea Wolf [script]. You told me in your office [that the role of Leach] would be a fifty-fifty part. I'm sorry to say that it is just the opposite." This from the man who also refused the lead roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, propelling Humphrey Bogart to stardom. Others considered for the secondary but meaty role of Leach were Bogart and Arthur Kennedy until a studio up and comer, John Garfield was chosen.

The cast was superb, as was the production staff behind the camera. Sol Polito's atmospheric cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s haunting score were a perfect complement to Curtiz' brisk pacing. In a year filled with top quality entertainment, Oscar time was tight, but The Sea Wolf did garner one nomination for Best Effects, Special Effects. The film is arguably a masterpiece at just under 90 minutes. Newly installed fog machines, first used the previously year for Errol Flynn's latest swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, added even more gloomy, stifling ambience. Tying all these elements together was Robert Rossen's literate and forceful script.

As the subtitle of this post states, The Sea Wolf is an unsung classic. Many have never seen it and others only heard of it, which is unfortunate, because for those who love older films, especially those with a distinctive Warner Brothers stamp, this film is a great example of all that is good about classic Hollywood. It doesn't have the glamour of the Flynn spectacles but that sparkle wouldn't feel at home on this schooner anyway.


Related Posts with Thumbnails