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Monday, April 06, 2020

Acting Wed Of Myriad Styles

Detective Story (1951) Heats Up A Station House

Ralph Bellamy Dictating To The Wife
I call 1951’s Detective Story the king-polyglot of acting styles, a past-present-future quilt where players from all stripe laid bounty of old and new before us. Here was early float of fresh approach to thesping, an ensemble open to vote as to whose technique worked best. The new “realism,” which really wasn’t new unless we considered Stanislavski (1863-1938) fresh meat still. His theories had lit up anew in Hollywood since the war, students of what became the Method burrowing into mainstream product as the Actor’s Studio in New York schooled more and more young players eager to get in films. Similar instruction would be supplied by California teachers, a boomlet not unlike elocution gurus that helped would-be talkie talent adjust to sound. Detective Story was safely conventional in other ways, being of Broadway origin and a hit to guarantee bidding among studios. 580 performances from March 1949 to August 1950 may have gone longer but for what lead Ralph Bellamy referred to as “horrendous” summer heat. The play had novel things to say about street-level law enforcement, its day-in-life account of a NY station house a jolt to many who barely, if at all, understood how crime fighters did their jobs. “It was the perfect play,” Bellamy recalled. Sidney Kingsley wrote it, him of Dead End fame, that a corker in the mid-30’s with a quick adapt to movies.

Horace McMahon, Les Tremayne, and Ralph Bellamy in Broadway's Detective Story

Bellamy Continues Detecting for TV's Men Against Crime (1949-1953)

I tend to think of movies in a vacuum, as if they sprang upon screens with nothing of importance as run-up. We remember Detective Story because it was a film, more critically, remains a film we have ongoing access to. The play, very noteworthy in its day, lasted no longer than a final word spoke upon stages. I don’t know if legit Detective Story is ever revived … most would argue Why? in view of the property being so imitated, perhaps improved upon, since. Yes, the drama has dated, and maybe Detective Story functions best as a time capsule, but I value, and very much enjoy it, for conflicts played out among a cast we won’t see likes of again. To reality of acting life in the day, I suggest Ralph Bellamy’s memoir, When The Smoke Hits The Fan (published 1979), where he tells of hardship run-up to Detective Story. We think of Bellamy having been on stage and screen from way back (early 1920’s) and assume he prospered by the late 40’s, maybe a weekend house, pool, sport car. After all, he was Ralph Bellamy. The book tells different. Poor Ralph (I said poor) was so bust going into rehearsals for Detective Story that he couldn’t afford food, and had to sign for meals at his NY hotel in hope the play would cash in and he could go off the cuff. Where it rained, however, it poured. Bellamy got a TV series (broadcast live to begin with) called Men Against Crime, where his detective part on stage enabled a rough same for five-years tube run (1949-1953). Episodes are on You Tube (some under alt. title, Follow That Man), each a fascinating relic of primitive vid. Like most hits off Broadway, Detective Story stayed viable for touring. Bellamy wrote how Chester Morris road-played his lead, something I’d give much to go back in time and see.

Meanwhile, Detective Story was sought for films. Everybody wanted it; few qualified, money-wise, to have it. Humphrey Bogart knew the “Jim McLeod” part would be ideal for him, and his independent “Santana” shop. Bogart being pals with Sidney Kingsley (since Dead End, where HB had earlier success) was figured to cinch a deal. Money talked louder, however, in this case Paramount’s. Fair was fair, Para staff director William Wyler stepping up. He had kicked in start dollars for Detective Story, so divined from a start how exceptional the property would be. Among hurt feelings, Alan Ladd’s stood out, him having seen press to effect he would essay McLeod, but inquiry to brass got firm no. Why use Ladd in a thing of merit when his formula vehicles reliably gave milk? It was a same slight older guard stars got as hotter names entered post-war gates (ask Tyrone Power, now second chair to Gregory Peck at Fox). Thus was Ladd soured with Paramount, his discontent shared with fan press, an indelicacy to show vivid he was fed up. A move to Warners would result. Someone asked Ralph Bellamy why he didn’t play McLeod on screens, “Reason? Boxoffice,” his swift/sure reply.

Paramount wasn’t spending like they had. No studio could by 1950. The company released 20 features in 1950, down from 29 in 1949. Etched in more-less stone was edict not to spend over $1.5 million on any negative (Variety, 1-4-50, “industry wide budget reductions of twenty-five percent,” they added). DeMille got go ahead to spend lavish on Samson and Delilah, but no one else dealt so flush. William Wyler promised he’d do Detective Story quick-time and for cheap, which he more-less would with $1.8 million the outlay. His cast rehearsed for two weeks and shooting took five. Maybe Wyler felt he needed to prove something --- newfound efficiency? --- because repeat takes typical of him were curbed this time. Kirk Douglas did the Bellamy lead, him off Champion and other heel parts, but aptitude there to be sympathetic, if strung-tight. There was censor noise over abortion as a plot point. Drop that and you might as well not make the movie, said Wyler. OK, so you’d not say the word, describe the procedure, or fully explain what all of cast-wringing was about, but despite it still being a Code world, audiences knew how to decode. Nobody talks the issue straight out, which makes me ask, Would they have in real life? People are supposed to have been much more guarded in 1951, chose words careful, stayed off sensitive topics, profanity, the rest. Did they really? I wasn’t there, so can’t tell you, and defy anyone of my tender age to say one way or the other. I’ll rest on what Wyler told Film Bulletin as his picture went into release: “My own kids want to see Detective Story, and I’m not going to let them do so.”

And now the cast: This being very much an ensemble, no one gets to hog. Kirk Douglas is the pivot, others swirling about him. He gives a Douglas performance Frank Gorshin would have loved. I find KD easy to enjoy especially where he pulls stops. Douglas had come from the stage, was “hot” by column parlance for putting muscle behind words and looking always ready to fly apart at seams. He was a “fun” actor who knew wisdom of giving folks fireworks they paid for. Douglas could do bad pictures and at least make them seem a money’s worth, always better to my mind as a louse rather than nice guy. It is others in Detective Story who merit points too long withheld for being taken for granted. There is Frank Faylen sitting quiet as a desk sergeant, his reactions mimed for most part rather than worded. And yes, he’s good …we’re happy with him around, maybe wondering why he didn’t play McLeod? (boxoffice again, but imagine FF on the road, alternating nights w/ Chet Morris --- the mind spins). Let’s step further: How about Gerald Mohr, or in-for-a-glimpse western stalwart Edmund Cobb, as McLeod? Any could have done McLeod to a brown turn by my estimate. To Frank Faylen, a great character actor who gave 1945’s best job as a mean and prissy alcohol ward attendant in The Lost Weekend, then was an albino heavy in Whispering Smith a few seasons later. Manny Farber once reviewed a Paramount picture and wondered why Frank Faylen wasn’t in it. I knew him most of my life for being Dobie Gillis’ sourpuss father, every episode a Faylen retort to sappy Dads poisoning a televised landscape. Such a great actor ends up being a “Whatever Became Of …,” life unfair indeed. Richard Lamparski looked him up for a nice profile in 1982 (“Eighth Series” among the books). Pardon this Faylen focus --- I am a fan, you see.

Wild cards of Detective Story are Lee Grant and watch-out-here-he-comes Joseph Wiseman, lit fuse reps of Stanislavski. Wiseman is a howl if you don’t let him get on your nerves too much. I wonder how he felt catching Detective Story years after the fact. Did he apologize to the family … pick up his TV tray and leave the room? Not to criticize, for his is a fun performance too (and further laurels to Wiseman as Dr. No). I wonder if he picked up tics from the Actor’s Studio (another Lee Strasberg creation?) but no, Wiseman had been on Broadway from the 30’s, but that’s not to say he wasn’t exposed to the Group Theatre and their bold bids for realism. Trouble is, most glance once at Wiseman in Detective Story and say, Oh, one of those Method nuts. Lee Grant was Method (taught by Sanford Meisner, a proponent), but by no account was/is she a nut. On the contrary, very articulate and a window to what Detective Story was like in its making. Her sit-down for the Archive of American Television recalled a screen debut in the film (she also spoke fluidly to Osborne for TCM). Grant played a shoplifter, pinched by management and now in custody of cops. Coming from the Actor’s Studio in New York and accustomed to stage techniques, she saw the camera as an “invasion” that tripped her concentration. Grant’s response was to turn her back, not realizing that the camera was “a character” alongside herself, and that she would have to learn to “love it.” Such were adjustments any stage player had to cope with, Detective Story finding spots for legit cast members Horace McMahon and Michael Strong, in addition to Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman.

Read About Him/Her in Kirk's Memoir --- A Real Eye-Opener
What I enjoy is frisson between these imports and more establishment Hollywood talent. There’s no indication they clashed, but I wonder what each were thinking. Did William Bendix sit and talk about the craft with Joseph Wiseman? Would Lee Grant have had lunch with Cathy O’Donnell? The Method was said to be the counter to declamatory acting previous generations represented, a nod to naturalism. The Detective Story ensemble could not have been more disparate. Think of Gerald Mohr, late of cheap noirs, much radio work, voice employ as “The Scorpion” in Adventures of Captain Marvel (back at beginnings, he was on stage with Bogie/Bogey in The Petrified Forest). Mohr is a marvel in Detective Story, in but brief, best of perhaps all in hindsight. What quiet authority in his playing! Character actors all have their stories, perhaps not spelled out in lights, Detective Story affording so many a chance to shine. We can imagine how rewarding this job was for each. Of note from the Lee Grant interviews, done over sixty years after Detective Story, her still able to quote back lines of dialogue. Pardon me as I struggle to recall a single thing that happened in 1960 … oh, wait … first day of school, and that but barely. The rest, pretty much a blank. Detective Story streams in HD at Amazon and Vudu. There is also a Region Two Blu-Ray listed as 1:33, 1:78, “widescreen” (which it isn’t, or should not be) … proceed at own risk.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Toward Finish of Films As a Family Habit

Weekend With Father (1951) Is Universal/Sirk On Holiday

Directed by Douglas Sirk, so why isn't it included in revivals for him? Guess Weekend With Father doesn't "speak" for the auteur, but what if it actually does, and more so than melodramas for which he's been celebrated? For all we know, Sirk had every bit the nutty family life as depicted here, Universal-International's comedy in fact autobiographical. He’s more than competent wrangling kid players and slapstick they instigate at pleasing location where much of Weekend With Father takes place. Variation on the story had been done, in fact at Universal, with Family Honeymoon and others of like ilk. U-I's was a "family" audience, as in waning days of mom-dad-kids going together to movies. That would disappear as patronage Balkanized and parents clung to TV's while youth saw increasingly junky films aimed toward them. What we've here is Patricia Neal with two boys, Van Heflin the same in girls, and how they almost miss a coupling thanks to offspring intransigence. What clicked for me was tight-wound Van Heflin tilting at fall-down comedy, way off-casting you'd not expect from a habitual drama man. Neal was much a same. Neither had notable aptitude to raise laughs, and there's where Weekend With Father happily serves the unexpected. Richard Denning is broad to bursting as gung-ho camp counselor, him singled out as odd for a love of health food. There's one segment, worth seeing the pic in itself, that shows how attitudes have changed. Seems Denning's a freak for wanting yogurt as his desert, our sympathy directed to table mates' preference for hot dogs and ice cream. The 50's were a long way back of better eating habits. Weekend With Father has turned up on TCM, merits a watch.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

How Fragile Was a Romance Image?

Boyer Takes a Brave Gaslight Plunge

Laughs On The Set --- Not In The Movie!
Watching Gaslight and began to wonder if Charles Boyer took a penalty for being so awful to Ingrid Bergman. He’s a worse monster than even Rathbones and Vincent Prices you expect to victimize wives. Anyone would figure a woman assumes risk for marrying either of these, a Love From A Stranger or Dragonwyck good as announcing Ann Harding or Gene Tierney’s mis-move from moment they meet too-clearly bad men Rathbone/Price. Type-casting was Hollywood mantra, 1944 Boyer long settled as intense romantic. So far as I know, he had not so far abused his women on screen (exception: pushed to murder of shrew wife Barbara O’Neil in All This and Heaven Too). I bet Gaslight was a shock to Boyer’s following, for never had he, or any male star, whose image was based on femme appeal, been so icy cruel. “Gregory Anton” kills in Gaslight’s back story, then manipulates “Paula Alquist” (Bergman) toward bughouse confine so he can locate jewels hid since his murder of her aunt. I think Boyer was brave for taking this 100% unsympathetic part. Had others turned it down? He was freelance and so chose, was not coerced, into being Anton. Of Metro contract group, who could/would have done it? Close candidate might be Robert Montgomery, evil in Night Must Fall and A Rage In Heaven, but he was war serving when Gaslight was made. Did women trust Boyer again after seeing him as Anton? I say this because he is that good in Gaslight. A fun watch not only for Boyer, but Joseph Cotton, lethal himself in year before’s Shadow Of A Doubt. Did servicemen seeing Gaslight in jungles and 16mm field set-ups fear for girls back home with an Anton and Uncle Charlie loose to prey upon innocence?

Directing George Cukor Trimmer Than I Recall Seeing Him Elsewhere
I checked Boyer’s post-Gaslight filmography. He was 45 in 1944, not too old to go on being a love object, but in what? There was Confidential Agent, made, I assume, before Gaslight’s impact was felt (release was delayed), also Together Again, a comedy reunion with Irene Dunne, another likely overlap. After that, there are only three more 40's star parts for Boyer, one a disaster (w/Bergman again), Arch Of Triumph, before that A Woman’s Vengeance and Cluny Brown. Latter was fun, better thought of today than then. Vengeance was maybe what women, at least the one in this movie, wanted to see visited on Boyer after the way he Gaslight-comported. Boyer by the 50’s, and in his fifties, was a character actor, no shame there, and he was fine as always, but might the lover lead thing have prematurely quit for his being so disturbingly credible in Gaslight? One woman scorned was/is bad enough … consider millions of them done so by a dream man they had trusted so implicitly. And don’t ignore male angle for cooling toward screen women: Bette Davis striding cross screen and bang-banging for opening scene of The Letter, then killing again where it suited her in later vehicles (men always the target). Crawford and Stanwyck the same. Stanwyck shot guys like skeet. Most men shun the three … for good reason? I boy-remember watching Stanwyck push Anthony Quinn into pumping works of an oil derrick (Blowing Wild), and thinking, “Does she do this in all her pictures?” It needed age and maturity before I could enjoy her (the others too) unreservedly.

Laughs Precede Intense Tie-Up Scene as Supervised By Cukor

Most stars, those protective of benign images, figured they could get away with scary departure … once. Gene Tierney did Leave Her To Heaven, then put such conduct behind her. Ronald Colman said he wouldn’t do Rebecca because onscreen wife murder could never be his thing (this at undoubted point before story change took Maxim off the homicide hook). They say censors wouldn’t let Hitchcock have the Suspicion end he wanted (Cary Grant kills Joan Fontaine), but given the liberty, would Grant have been willing to play it? I bet not. Fred MacMurray did murder in Double Indemnity, but he was single and a “wolf” besides, so maybe deserved Stanwyck for the very bad influence she was. Bogart did in a wife for Conflict openers, but he was Bogart, so here was behavior not unexpected of him. Was Boyer as Anton the most seemingly ideal husband to turn out to be a cad and killer? If so, then I regard Gaslight as historic, Boyer perhaps paying dear for being in it. Being Metro means Gaslight looks like an overstocked furniture mart, even where it was the idea for Paula/Bergman to be suffocated by décor. There is Hitchcock influence. You could mistake this as one of his were Gaslight less contrived. Anton tips off his villainy (clumsily, I’d add) by steaming up over a letter Paula comes across, this early enough in the show for us to know he’s a threat. Sort of like Uncle Charlie making a fuss over torn newspaper and the inscribed ring. The lengths writers and directors had to go to for heroines, and us, to get suspicious.

Bergman was tall and more than robust, taller, in fact, than Boyer. He’s in man-heels on their honeymoon, and for all I know, stood on platforms later in close shots. Bette Davis spoke of shock seeing him as genuine article as opposed to idol image: hair gone, a paunch, the usual disillusionment where one expects a perfect man. Still, he could make the illusion work, and we can buy Bergman flipping for him. Still, she’s a more than physical match, so it’s good they don’t come to blows (I always wondered why Bergman needed a gun in Casablanca when she could as easily wrestle those letters-of-transit away from Bogie/Bogey). One thing Hitchcock had that Gaslight needed was humor. This one is cruel and takes forever getting Paula from harm’s way. I wanted Joseph Cotten to speed up his investigation and get there sooner. Cotten by the way is sole oasis for levity, if subdued, and is he welcome as 114 minutes crawls to close and belated rescue comes. Cukor drops nice suspense devices, holding us off less for if Anton did it (murder), than why he did it. Gaslight in the end is less a “fun” thriller than a mean one. In addition to Boyer, there is snide maid Angela Lansbury, them a tag team to torment Bergman. Let’s just say I’ll watch Shadow Of A Doubt five times for every once I’d see Gaslight. Still, it’s got pluses, and good news of late sees Warner Archive out with a Blu-Ray.
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