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Friday, June 26, 2020

How To Housebreak Hoodlums

The Little Giant is Little Caesar's Comic Cousin

Several Edward G. Robinson gang subjects opened with him announcing, Boys, the rackets are through!, making me wish narrative had begun ten years before when rackets were starting. Door was unfortunately closing by 1933 on mob topic done head-on, this among tighter censorship's early victories. Robinson and Cagney would play shady for laughs or as short cut to enforcement of law, their Little Caesar and The Public Enemy stored in memory banks and not revived until years after. These were flexible enough actors to cast wider net over personas seemingly locked down after such dynamic jobs as Caesar and Enemy. Robinson/Cagney being tough this side of the law was for most as satisfactory as them shooting ways into a corner and having to die for a preordained finish. They were liked enough that fewer wanted to see that, as Warners found with conclusion of 1937's Bullets or Ballots shot both ways.

We're told on a front end that Eddie's Little Giant was a beer baron, but will carry no gat for 75 minutes this lasts. As precode comedy it clicks, but there is care to prevent Robinson committing any criminal act on camera. All in his past, we're told. Worse crooks are of high society that prey on Eddie's seek of "strictly class," Warner writers getting in licks at privileged types they blame for social ills. Did a snooty upper class go to movies, let alone Edward G. Robinson movies? I don’t visualize them arriving in furs to Strand matinees of The Little Giant. Was this a movie strictly for the proletariat? If so, I wonder how it and others from WB broke even in 1933, let alone profited (actually, The Little Giant did swell ... $181K in profit). Warner aimed later projects like Anthony Adverse and the Muni biopics at a cultivated audience they had ignored since Barrymore wore poof sleeves. But wait, there was George Arliss, to whom I figure patrons were chauffeur-driven. So, was “class” viewership given up for movies with Robinson or Cagney? Again, not a rhetorical question, I would really like to know. Maybe the two had more urgent reason to spread wings, Cagney via A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Robinson donning beards to cure syphilis. No player could last forever with a gun in his hand, any more than real people could do the same.

The Little Giant lobs at specific targets, an avenue soon closed by Code scrutiny. First are ethnic groups --- these rouse mirth from shocked modern viewers of The Little Giant --- but would they dare laugh if the film were revived in a crowded theatre? (I'm wondering too if precode festivals still happen) Modern art gets a whack, idea being that only phonies like it. Robinson was already collecting by now, a pioneer proponent of far-out stuff, so he probably had fun with this element. Eddie of late in big chips meant paying close attention to gallery catalogues sent his way, though you'd ask if dealers saw him as anything like the chump his Little Giant was. If so, I’m sure he put them right fast. How many uppity art dealers got a shock when Little Caesar turned out a more cultivated intellect than blue-bloodiest customers? Robinson tired quickly of raw parts, did them to broad effect customers liked, but fought early and regular for nuanced work. He surely got fed up by plain folk assuming he was a hoodlum like ones he played. Robinson with low-key Mary Astor is effective pairing of flamboyant star style against what we'd call modern underplaying (but hold ... Eddie could tamp down to whatever tempo scenes called for). There's a reason why Astor survived so long doing character work. She could breathe humanity into hoariest stock and play as though it were happening for real. Robinson certainly had that gift too --- there’s at least a half dozen iterations of this great actor and all are compelling. The Little Giant runs in HD on TCM and looks fine.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Bogart Busts Up a Bund

All Through The Night (1941) Pits Bad Men Against Badder Men

Gotham's German section was a hotbed of Bundist spies, says Warners in this comic-flavored thriller that opened days ahead of Pearl Harbor and declaration of war. WB as of late '41 were bulls in a pen eager to get fighting underway, that noted by Congress members determined to keep us out of war’s way and unroot those who’d have it different, like for instance, a film industry strapping on gloves. All Through The Night was Warner certainty that we’d soon be in it to win it. The town was natured to stay ahead of headlines. Timing was everything, especially with total war waiting in wings. Remember the lucky punch Fox had with To The Shores Of Tripoli? Can’t blame Warners for wanting their sup at the cup, but risk was always events turning an unexpected way that would make finished films suddenly obsolete or inappropriate. To accurately read tea leaves was to cash in big where you were right, Humphrey Bogart’s persona new-born as wise guy who saw the jam we were getting in and knew it took bare knuckles to get us out. He was prescient in All Through The Night, would be again with Across The Pacific. Why not appoint filmland Bogart and others of like clairvoyance as head generals to see an imperiled nation through?

Be assured that many saw tough guys in movies as examples to follow. The government noticed and so used Hollywood to gird a country’s loins for what they knew would be a long slog. Would the war have been winnable without movies? Food for speculation there. What would have become of All Through The Night and others if Roosevelt had declared definitely that we would not fight, and woe to those who'd incite otherwise? As things worked out, All Through The Night was a perfect warm-up for combat to come, but you have to wonder if Strand patronage wasn't tempted to head vigilante-style for nearby Yorkville to clean out perceived Nazi nests. Maybe apprehension of such an outcome made Warners salt All Through The Night with good and loyal Germans, sweet old ladies that have cheesecake waiting for Bogart as likeable, patriotic, sort-of outlaw “Gloves” Donahue, who realizes there is espionage afoot just cause the cake one day tastes funny. That is delight of All Through The Night, which like similar Lucky Jordan with Alan Ladd, gets laughter out of crisis we were head-longing toward.

Gloves is a crook we want in the neighborhood to, like Popeye, protect the weakerest and stomp out Axis ant hills. Worst of these, Conrad Veidt, Martin Kosleck, Judith Anderson, are off recent boats from Deutch harbors, good argument against any more of same emigrating here, at least before order is restored. Gloves’ is a free-lance force --- were there even police on duty here? --- if there were, Gloves never needed them. Nazi plot is to blow up Brooklyn’s harbor. Movie Huns lit fuses all over Gotham, part-time commandos like Bogie/Bogey tireless at snuffing them out. Recall Norman Lloyd as the saboteur who smirks when he rides by a disabled ship in Hitchcock’s same season thriller? Every untoward thing that happened in New York was chalked up to points scored by our enemies. I might have got suspicious in 1942 if a Coke machine didn’t work.

Humphrey Bogart was lately from The Maltese Falcon and perception of him was changing, not only among a public, but employers. You could let Bogart live through an end title and even have the girl, these denied him in most work since The Petrified Forest and a long six years in which to repeat himself. The Maltese Falcon was also birth to a stock company that would orbit around Bogart, by turns menacing or assisting him. These in support were vital to the Bogart enterprise, for where would so many of his be without Lorre, Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, then later Veidt, Helmut Dantine, a first team in again for Casablanca, Passage To Marseille? They were essential atmosphere, the threats, always a colorful background. Any Bogart could boast of an “international” cast, and formula for his bled into vehicles for others --- The Mask Of Dimitrios, The Conspirators, Greenstreet/Lorre spun off into a series of their own. The war made all these ventures believable, gave us a sense of what might be happening in Euro hotspots we’d not visit except in newsreels. Fan press told of lately arrivals to Hollywood who left family behind that may still be imperiled, so their investment in the fight was total. It had to be Bogie’s idea to use Peter Lorre late as Beat The Devil, or John Huston suggested it and Bogart said yes, by all means (he and Lorre close friends).

Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Bill Demarest As Humor Henchmen
Warners was all the more upping tempo now that worldwide conflict was imminent. Theirs was staccato pace beside stately stride at Metro and elsewhere that seemed less aware of changed times. Even Warner ad art had harried look of cut/slash graphics and sales punching your face. He's Gunning After The Gestapo! was writ across ads like crayon on sidewalks by over-stimulated youth, an audience moving in Bogart's direction as they had for James Cagney when he was starting out and linked more closely with roughhouse. High Sierra art had been used to sell "Killer" Bogart for The Maltese Falcon, ad imagery of this star stuck in one-size-fits-all category. Bogart as a could-be romantic partner was floated, but had New York gotten the word? East and west coasts seemed deaf to one another where it came to promotion, thus All Through The Night Bogie on posters with hair shaved on sides and posed like a convict busted loose. Portal Publications had an All Through The Night repro one-sheet for a dollar back in the late 60’s. It hung on my wall where originals would never likely be. That one was a honey and played Bogart fair, even as newspapers ads continued to mislead. Grassroot showmen would opt always for the safely familiar. It took Casablanca to really shift gears of Bogart selling. All Through The Night shows up at TCM in HD. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Blu-Ray turned up soon.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Cary Out Grant By Threes

Watching His Lessers Make Me Like More His Betters

Three with Cary Grant, two watched together, the other further back. Grant was freelance early enough to choose for himself over most of a career. I’m not sure he was his own best guide. Once-upon-time wife Betsy Drake told an interview how she warned Cary against so many empty pictures (including ones with her), to which she did not add how he replied, but the conversation having been in the early 50’s, you know she made valid points. Given pick Grant had of virtually any movie being made, why Room For One More, Dream Wife, or too-oddity People Will Talk? Grant is one whose legend rests on fewer good pictures than most, among legends, that is. I wonder if Drake, a brainy sort, was too perceptive to set well with Grant. Every Girl Should Be Married was an RKO I had seen years before and forgot. Having had lobby cards, the set-up was familiar, but still came surprises when it unspooled.

Here was Grant called upon to elevate weak material, and knowing it (did that happen often enough to unstring, and make more moody, a famously fussy CG?). Money was a best reason for being there from what we know of him, Grant another who came up poor and forever felt wolf-sniff at his door. Wasn’t there a story about him darning socks until there was barely thread left? Keeping in eats made him do things unworthy, or did Grant believe ones of Every Girl sort would by miracles emerge good? Howard Hughes was evidently a friend, and maybe he asked Grant as a friend to be in Every Girl Should Be Married. The movie pleases for peculiarity and remove from how people are obliged to think today. I’d like  seeing a university book it for resultant fireworks. Just that title! Is it less legitimate to ask in 2020 if every girl should be married --- or more dangerous? Maybe the better title would be, Should Cary Have Made This Movie?, because Every Girl all but endorses track, stalk, and mislead toward wedding a man, trouble Grant had in other of late 40’s comedies where women, even teen girls (Shirley Temple) painted targets on his back. Was this because Cary Grant by postwar was anointed Most Eligible of Any/All Men, besides a dreamiest?

An aunt told me when I was ten that Grant was the most handsome movie star that ever was, and I went years ascribing truth to that. Seemed he was always overrun, however, by brat kids, per early view for me of Father Goose (at the Liberty, where a ten-cent Baby Ruth was regarded higher than many movies), Room For One More, in which he marries and winds up with a passel, to which I asked, Why do that?, and Houseboat (same, w/ Sophia Loren but small compensation). Finally got to see Notorious at age fourteen, and said, Ah yes, this is my Cary Grant. Every Girl has shock value that I enjoy more than if it were funny. Drake spots Grant at a magazine shelf in a drug store where his looking at a gurgle-baby cover makes her think he’s married, signals endlessly crossed from there. She gets him at an end by trickery, but to avoid his being made an utter fool, Grant is shown as being hep all along, but … why agree to marry in the face of such red flags? Also Drake is more neurotic than comical, persistent like Maggie McNamara before there was a Maggie McNamara. We worry that fade-out Cary has gone, or been dragged, in over his head.

I Was A Male War Bride explains at least where Herman Cohen got his clever werewolf idea some years later, though there had been a first person Shoplifter, and far back as 1933, a Prisoner on Chain Gangs. To me, I Was A … anything implies humor, and so Male War Bride is funny, the best I think, of Howard Hawks comedies. Devastated Germany is again backdrop for frolic, as with A Foreign Affair out a year before. US crews went Euro after the war for greater authenticity and to loosen funds frozen by governments tired of us carrying off loot earned on site. I Was A Male War Bride opens with Cary Grant on leisurely ride through what's left of Deutsch landscape, Hawks and cameras giving us glimpse of mess a fighting force left behind. This isn't emphasized or even commented upon, as Male War Bride treads at all times lighter, though men may laugh less at continual embarrassment sustained by Grant, plus near two hour length of his ordeal. Hawks enjoyed juggle of man/woman power, even if his humor worked better as garnish to action subjects. When baked from full comic recipe, the cake could and sometimes did fall, not the case for me here, though I admit Hawks at full levity can register two dozen differing ways for as many onlookers. You may expect your guests to dig his humor, but don't be overly confidant of it.

A first half is conflicted courtship of Grant with Ann Sheridan, the second given to delayed consummation of their marriage. We get slapstick plus business with a motorcycle and sidecar, which Sheridan herself drives with Grant accompany, even in long shots, willingness I admire as it's rare for big stars to exert themselves where distant stand-ins could do as much. Hawks and writers have great sport with army protocol and senseless regulation. Now that serious mission of war was over, we could laugh at military cock-ups and personnel wanting to get hell out of it (but what of the Cold one --- did Soviets watch this and figure we could be beat?). Hawks stars were permitted ... encouraged ... to ad-lib and submit ideas, Grant an actor as auteur who could and did shape vehicles to suit instinct of what worked for him. Fact is, maybe we should call it Cary Grant’s I Was A Male War Bride. Hawks liked women to laugh at absurdity of their men, War Bride with innumerable scenes where Sheridan breaks up over Grant's discomfort. Query: Did Howard enjoy wives doing this to him at home? I bet not. Sheridan would remember War Bride as a favorite assignment, her Warner output largely scrap iron since a wartime peak (grimly photographed and made up in Silver River). She should have done a dozen for Hawks before War Bride. Think of her opposite Grant in Only Angels Have Wings instead of Jean Arthur. I Was A Male War Bride streams here and there in High-Def, a best bet since visually, it could use a boost.

Most intriguing of the Grant group was Crisis. Decidedly not a comedy, but sold like one in 1950, MGM’s campaign reflected what they wish they had over reality of a thing no one was figured to want. False labeling usually betrayed a dud picture, which Crisis isn't, but Cary Grant not doing comedy was an unnatural state, thus a trailer with whatever moments might be read as frothy, posters reading “Carefree Cary Grant On a Gay Holiday With His Lovely Bride Walks Right Into Danger.” That much was technically true where one split hairs, but exit from Crisis had to feel like leaving a dentist who promised only to polish your teeth, but drilled them instead. I will state without deeper research, and little fear of being wrong, that here is the only time Cary Grant played a brain surgeon. Crisis was directed and co-written by Richard Brooks, his first in that dual capacity. Brooks later said it was Grant who made that possible. The star is so good being serious that you wish he had done it more often. There really should have been two or three Cary Grants to satisfy varying audience appetites.

Always good, and happening too seldom, was Grant going opposite, or in opposition to, a strong male co-lead. Crisis has Jose Ferrer, nearing a peak of Broadway and elsewhere success, as a South American despot who kidnaps Dr. Grant for purpose of cutting out a tumor, procedure for which Grant is most-in-the-world qualified. They verbal spar and not in jest. Grant must have been refreshed doing work like this, to show himself, if not a wide audience, that straight performing was still an option. I enjoyed him as much here as in any six of comedies. That Crisis lost money, a rather lot of it ($680K) was less reflection on Grant than further proof of MGM feeling pinch that was sunk revenue across industry boards. I’ll note he ducked drama for a next seven years, till The Pride and The Passion, which tanked also. Everything from there to finish was comedy, or thrilling served Hitchcock light, or someone trying to be Hitchcock. Crisis plays TCM and is available from Warner Archive. I don’t see them rushing to put it on High-Def, tip-off that 2020 can’t use Cary Grant in drama any more than 1950 could. By all means order Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, a best-ever bio of the star and a same joy to read as every other Eyman book. 

6/14/2020: Up this morning to a wonderful comic by Jules Feiffer sent Greenbriar's way by Donald Benson. So yes, we do, all of us, want to be Cary Grant, but has even one among us ever achieved it?

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Jazz-Fed Frenzy at Warners!

Blues In The Night (1941) Goes Siegel Montage Mad

Among Warner pics shot on skates, Blues In The Night is a most exhilarating. Director Anatole Litvak of Euro origin made his name with a swirling camera, endless takes, and some complained, imperious attitude. Cagney didn't like him on City for Conquest, others said he wasted resource for mere purpose of showing he could. There is all that perhaps, but also Blues In The Night to tip scale and demonstrate Litvak had something, if not plenty. There was an article years ago in one of the magazines, Film Comment?, where the writer compared hopes and fate for Blues In The Night and The Maltese Falcon, Warner releases of a same season that history recalled far different from what the studio intended. Seems WB pinned bigger expectation on the Litvak project as opposed to John Huston's freshman effort. Blues has been obscured by passing time, but there's not many coming across it now who do not come away astonished.

A lot of credit is montage maker Don Siegel's as opposed to Litvak, although Siegel work was done consciously after style of the director. What Don did was 4X an already quick tempo to something like dramatic delirium, which had critics singling out his transitions, a likely surprise to him if not Warner’s. Result got  noticed on the lot, and brass boosted Siegel to direction of shorts and then The Verdict in 1946. Montages are admittedly the highlight of Blues In The Night and what most remember from seeing the film. Siegel was left largely alone to stage storms in his teacup, segues not regarded vital enough to be overseen closely, although Litvak and producing Hal Wallis each insisted on checking them first, largely an ego thing as Siegel revealed in his memoir.

The cast was off Warner secondary lists, Richard Whorf the lead (was he substitute for a John Garfield or more obvious choice?). The actor/director/set decorator/painter was stuff of the renaissance, but never resonated as a leading man. Whorf was earnest, could play conflicted, but not romantic, which this part called for, and more. The picture flew in too many directions to be coherent, being scattered in tone as any melodrama-musical-comedy-gangster mélange yet made. Warners was gearing up for pace of war and their output, already crackling, upped tempos further. If it's sample of crazy old Hollywood you want to share, begin here. Litvak was good with edits in addition to his tracking camera, so songs get pep injection like Here We Go Again, done in a boxcar and one of the marvels of group performance from the 40's. Popular band men of the day Jimmy Lunceford and Will Osborne do guest turns, the two familiar from live appearance at urban palaces where their boogie preceded film fare.

Chicago First Run
Some have tried positioning Blues In The Night as noir. It's too eccentric for that, but elements are there for the looking, and you'd not be untoward singling several out, including Betty Field as femme force for men's destruction, a noir device flogged from '41 to eternity. I'd position her character more in line with cruel vamps Bette Davis played in 30's forebears like Of Human Bondage, Dangerous, and 40's ones to come. Warners seemed to have a thing about women telling men off in most withering terms, an always unpleasant showdown you could look forward to, or dread, in most any melodrama where poor saps unwisely attached themselves to a Davis, Ida Lupino, or in Blues' case, Betty Field. Toward air of eccentricity, there is also casting of Elia Kazan and Billy Halop as band members with Whorf, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, and Peter Whitney (refreshing change as well for this player often used in heavy mode). Halop was on brief leave from Dead End Kidding, a step off a chalk line that might (should) have opened opportunity in a mainstream, but it wouldn't take. Kazan was showing again what a fine actor he was before redirecting energy behind cameras. Blues In The Night plays HD on TCM and is available on DVD.
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