Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is an unconventional comedy directed by Preston Sturges. Not a great hit in its day, the movie has since seen a renewal of interest and is considered by many to be one of Sturges’ greatest films. I, however, consider it to be a confusing mess. Like most of my movie posts, this entry contains spoilers. Let me say up front that I read a few things about this film before seeing it. As a film buff I knew this was a film I should have seen years ago; references to “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the character name “Mr. Smearcase” pop up in my little world with regularity. One of the first things I read said that this film was, in a way, Sturges’ attack on Capra-esque films where the everyday man overcomes personal adversity. Sure enough, one of the first things director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) says he wants to do is make a serious film, “something like Capra”. Sullivan is known for his comedies like “Ants in Your Pants of 1939”. Sullivan has decided he wants to film a socially-conscious movie based on a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a title referenced by the Coen brothers for their 2000 film — that is to be an examination of the poor in this country and an “answer to Communism”. Studio executives tell Sullivan that he’s ill-equipped to explore the subject. Sullivan is a product of a rich family and Ivy-league education and … Continue reading

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon was, of course, a novel before it was a film. Written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1930, the novel was used as the basis of a film three times between 1931 and 1941. The first film, “The Maltese Falcon” (1931), starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, two mainstays of the silent era who managed to make a relatively smooth transition to talkies. The 1931 version of the movie was made in the pre-code days before the Hays office clamped down on so-called indecency, and therefore is notable for its many sexually suggestive scenes. Due to Hays code restrictions, the film could not be re-released until the 1960s except in edited form; when it was re-released, it was given the new title “Dangerous Female” to avoid confusion with the 1941 “Maltese Falcon” film. (The Warner Bros. DVD release of the film restores the original title.) Possibly because the 1931 film could not be re-released, Warner Bros. made a second version of the film in 1936, this time called “Satan Met a Lady”. Starring Bette Davis and Warren William, this second film based on the Hammett novel featured several plot changes, including a focus on humor rather than mystery and a ram’s horn instead of a falcon statuette; the film was a flop. In 1941, first-time director John Huston made “The Maltese Falcon”, again for Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart in a role that would define film noir detectives for decades, the film is considered an American classic. … Continue reading

Gloria Grahame

Much of my information on Gloria Grahame comes from the excellent book Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio. I definitely recommend this book for fans of Grahame. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found online in several stores. Grahame was a beautiful, troubled actress with a unique style that made her perfect for the part of the femme fatale, a role she most famously played in “The Big Heat” (1953). In that film she plays Debby, the sarcastic, childish, narcissistic girl of mob henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). After Vince scalds half of her face with boiling coffee, Debby seeks out revenge, nudged none-too-subtly by officer Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is also out for revenge. According to Suicide Blonde, director Fritz Lang was a tyrant on the set. He always needed a scapegoat to pick on during filming, and Gloria was the scapegoat on “The Big Heat”. Jocelyn Brando recounted that she was treated poorly, too, at one point being forced to do about 25 takes on a single short scene where she feeds her husband Dave a piece of dripping steak; Lang was never satisfied that Brando was dripping the juice just right. The stressful work environment may have actually helped Grahame flourish as an actress, as her characterization was well-received by most critics of the day. Curcio says of her performance, “One would have to look back to Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early seventeenth century to find a character … Continue reading

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953, dir. Fritz Lang) is the quintessential classic 1950s film noir. The film begins, as they say, at the beginning: The suicide of a police officer and his hard, greedy widow looking to cash in while the body is literally still warm. She reads the cop’s suicide note and calls crime boss Mike Legana. The dead man apparently was on Legana’s payroll, so the widow blackmails Legana with the note. Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is quick on the scene with the rest of the officers and a coroner. No one’s too concerned about the suicide, not until Bannion makes a stink. He interviews the widow and becomes more suspicious. Since the audience knows she’s up to no good, at first it doesn’t occur to us to wonder just why he is suspicious. We think perhaps he’s possessed of terrific instincts, or maybe this is a bit of a contrivance, and move along. Sure there’s something more to the suicide of a fellow cop, Bannion is excited when an unknown woman calls his home to tell him she knows something. He meets the woman, politely referred to as a “barfly”, and asks her hard, direct questions in front of a bar crowd that any experienced police officer would know is not friendly, not to him or to the woman. The barfly told Bannion that her boyfriend, the married cop who killed himself, had no reason to commit suicide. She’s sure was murdered. Bannion doesn’t trust the … Continue reading

Goldwyn: The Man and His Movies (2001)

Based on the excellent A. Scott Berg biography Goldwyn: A Biography, made-for-TV documentary “Goldwyn: The Man and His Movies” (2001) tells the life and career of Samuel Goldwyn, legendary movie producer. The book, published in 1989, is a lengthy and detailed account, while remaining highly readable and entertaining. Berg was also one of the credited writers of this documentary, as well as occasional interviewee. Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t compare to the book at all. There’s not much about Goldwyn I can tell you from this documentary that you can’t find almost anywhere online, so I’ll sum up: Born Schmuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw in 1879, as a teenager he walked across Europe to emigrate to London. It was there he Anglicized his name to Sam Goldfish. He earned money — his daughter says relatives told her he stole the money to afford ticket fare — to sail to America, but he got off the boat in Canada to avoid immigration officials. Again, he walked on foot from Canada to New York City and eventually landed in Gloversville, New York, where Goldfish became a successful glove salesman. One day while walking to his office, he stopped in a movie theater and immediately decided the film business was for him. He convinced his brother-in-law, Jesse Lasky (a former vaudevillian) to invest in films with him. Together they hired playwright Cecil B. DeMille to direct their first film, The Squaw Man. The film was a success and their company soon merged with Adolph Zukor’s … Continue reading

Wings (1927)

Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in Wings (1927)   Eighty years ago today the silent movie classic Wings premiered to general audiences. Wings, directed by William Wellman and starring Clara Bow at the height of her career, originally premiered on April 12, 1927, at the Criterion Theater in New York, four months before its general release. Wings is about two young men, Jack (Charles Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who sign up for military service as pilots in the U.S. Signal Corps during WWI. However, complications arise through a classic love quadrangle: Mary (Clara Bow) loves her neighbor Jack, but the poor boy is oblivious. He’s in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), so much so that he doesn’t realize she and David are lovers. Just before he leaves for the war, he visits Sylvia and mistakenly believes a locket she’s intended for David is actually for him. Sylvia doesn’t have the heart to tell Jack that the locket was for David, and lets Jack take it. David and Jack end up in basic training together, along with comedy relief Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel). Now, I know it’s not cool to like El Brendel, but I can’t help but be charmed by the little guy. He was the personification of the goofy Vaudeville ethnic performer, and his trademark line “Yumpin’ yimminy!” wouldn’t elicit even a chuckle today. What viewers need to remember, though, is that Brendel was a relatively fresh face in 1927. After a career on … Continue reading

The Other Side of the Rainbow

The Other Side of the Rainbow With Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol by Mel Tormé is an account of his time as composer and musical adviser on the 1963 television series “The Judy Garland Show”. The book, published just one year after Garland’s death, has become rather infamous for its catty tone and inaccurate portrayal of the show and the star. I recently bought and read the original 1970 printing of the book (as pictured) after hearing how horrible Tormé was to Garland. Perhaps in 1970, this book was the height of tastelessness, but here in the super-futuristic year of 2007, one hardly blinks an eye. There’s nothing he says about Judy that we haven’t already heard a dozen times over. That said, Tormé’s self-serving faux innocence is immediately apparent. A full two chapters are devoted to Tormé fussing about whether he’ll take the job on “The Judy Garland Show” or not. He discusses it with his manager constantly, and even after learning the show is a huge media event and prestige piece for CBS, he still thinks the show will hurt his career. Tormé, who misses no opportunity to beat his own drum, says he’s in a bit of a career slump because of that darned “three-chord” rock and roll. He approaches publishers with his songs, but they all sadly turn him away, telling him, “Your songs are good, Mel. Too good.” I assure you I am not making this up. Tormé’s naive, clutch-the-pearls-in-surprise attitude permeates his every … Continue reading

Wife Vs. Secretary (1936)

With a title like “Wife Vs Secretary”, one would expect a standard 1930s “woman’s weepy” starring Kay Francis, George Brent, and lots of inappropriate haute couture for everyday wear. Instead, this 1936 film is a charming blend of romantic comedy and drama, fast-paced and with lots of lively dialogue. The film opens with a butler preparing for the day. When the butler goes to wake a second butler, we realize that the man of the house, Van “V.S.” Stanhope (Clark Gable), is so rich that his butler has a butler. V.S. and his wife Linda (Myrna Loy) meet for breakfast — remember, the married rich in 1930s films never slept in the same bedroom — and flirt and coo like newlyweds. V.S. has recently been on an extended fishing trip, and a worried new maid inspires Linda to scold her, saying, “Whether Mr. Stanhope touches his trout or not is no concern of yours.” This fun, entendre-laden dialogue peppers the entire film. The trout in question reveals beautiful diamond jewelry, planted there by V.S. for his lovely wife. V.S., owner of a fashion magazine, returns to his office. There we meet Helen “Whitey” Wilson (Jean Harlow), Stanhope’s indispensable secretary. When Linda arrives to visit Van’s office with Van’s mother in tow, trouble starts. V.S.’ mother is suspicious of a beautiful platinum blonde secretary that Van has given a pet name to. Later, when Linda and V.S. — and yes, I did get the “versus” pun on his name — are … Continue reading

Murder By Television (1935)

Like most of my film entries, this post contains spoilers. “Murder by Television” is a public domain mystery movie, shown occasionally on TCM and available in various compilation sets. This 1935 z-grade flick starring Bela Lugosi is a well-known cult favorite. My first impression of the movie was that it was a very early talkie, possibly made in 1929 or 1930. I was surprised to find it was made as late as 1935; many of the bad elements of early sound movies are present in this low-budget film. There was little music in the soundtrack and I swear I saw props that were hiding microphones. The entire movie was shot with static cameras and stiff-as-a-board actors plastered to their marks. The majority of the characters were rich white folk sporting formal dress and fake British accents. As you can see, they managed to get a cast of men who all look alike. Bravo. There’s quite a bit of confusion about the plot in online reviews of “Murder by Television”, and it’s no wonder. The plot, simply put, stinks. The film is a convoluted whodunnit with what I suppose is a hint of science fiction thrown in the mix, although I am perhaps too kind. The movie begins with James Houghland, an inventor who has created what is essentially satellite television. Arthur Perry (Bela Lugosi) is apparently Houghland’s representative, and knows that some sneaky capitalist swine want to buy Houghland’s invention and make gajillions of dollars. Perry tells the capitalist swine … Continue reading

In the Background: Richard Simmons

Fitness guru Richard Simmons once told A&E’s Biography that he spent time in Italy in his early 20s, and was a bit actor in the 1969 film Fellini Satyricon, an epic tale of decadence and bloodshed populated by hundreds of extras with unique faces and surprising bodies. It’s no surprise that a young, doe-eyed, very large young Simmons would be cast as one of these human decorations. Continue reading