17 September 2014

Night Nurse

If you’re in the mood for some pre-code Hollywood fun (and who isn’t), then Night Nurse (1931) is the film for you. Directed by William Wellman (whose work I just realized I’ve written about a lot), Night Nurse is fast, slightly shocking (in a 1930s sort of way), and highly entertaining.

Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to become a trainee nurse but is turned away from the hospital for not having a high school diploma. After bumping into the chief of staff, Dr. Arthur Bell (Charles Winninger), on her way out (shades of another Stanwyck pre-code film, Baby Face, comes to mind in this scene), she gets her wish. Accepted into the program, she’s paired up with the gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell) who shows her the ropes around the hospital. The two become roommates and friends.

One night a gunshot victim, Mortie (Ben Lyon), comes into the hospital. He turns out to be a bootlegger and convinces Lora not to report him to the police. Charmed by the smooth-talking criminal, she agrees. Later he sends her a bottle of rye with thanks to his “pal” and when she and Maloney graduate, his is the largest floral bouquet in the room.

Now certified, Maloney gets Lora the night shift taking care of two little girls, Desney (Betty Jane Graham) and Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) Ritchey, who Lora met when they were treated for malnutrition and anaemia at the hospital. Now back home with their mother in a Fifth Avenue mansion, the girls’ condition has worsened. Before leaving Maloney, who has the day shift, warns Lora that there’s something “screwy” going on in the house.

The two girls, who had met Lora at the hospital, tell her that they used to have another sister but she got run over and that their dead father had been a nice man. But Nick the chauffeur? He scares them. They also complain that they’re always hungry.

After the children go to sleep, Lora learns that nightly parties go on in the house and that Mrs. Ritchey routinely passes out drunk. Lora is assaulted by one of the party goers and nearly raped before she’s rescued by Nick the chauffeur (Clark Gable). Later, when he asks her to pump the stomach of Mrs. Ritchey and she refuses, they struggle, and he knocks her out.

The next day she confronts Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde), the man treating the girls, about what’s going on in the house, and he tells her to “let it go.” She quits and reports her suspicions to Dr. Bell who doesn’t feel comfortable interfering with another doctor’s case. He advises her to get her job back and try to find evidence so she can swear out a warrant.

Apologizing profusely to Ranger, she’s reinstated and returns to find Nanny dreadfully weak. Unable to get Mrs. Ritchey to respond to her pleas to help her children or to get Dr. Bell on the phone, Lora resorts to trying a milk bath, an old wives’ remedy that the housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Friderici), keeps insisting saved her sister’s child. Mortie, who happens to be making a delivery to the mansion, goes on a milk run for her. While waiting to see if it’s working, Mrs. Maxwell, who’s been drinking, tells Lora that Nick is really Mrs. Ritchey’s boyfriend, and that he’s trying to murder the girls so he can marry their mother and get their trust fund.

The bath doesn’t help but Dr. Bell shows up (Mortie tracked him down) and is examining Nanny when Nick tries to stop him. Once again, Mortie comes to the rescue, threatening Nick with a concealed weapon and sitting guard outside the room while Lora offers up her own blood for a transfusion that saves Nanny.

The following day, Mortie gives Lora a lift downtown so she can give her evidence to the police. When she mentions her concerns about Nick, Mortie tells her that he told a couple of guys that he “didn’t like Nick so good.” The closing scene is of an ambulance pulling up to the hospital with the body of a man dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform.

Like any good pre-code film, Night Nurse is filled with characters with questionable morals. Lora is sympathetic to and ends up with a bootlegger. Mrs. Ritchey is a drunk and negligent mother. Dr. Ranger appears to have a cocaine problem. And violence (Nick seems to have killed the girls’ other sister, Lora is almost raped) is met with violence (Nick’s death) seemingly without any final condemnation from anyone.

Naturally there’s dialogue filled with witty wisecracks, most of which are delivered by the delightful Joan Blondell who always excelled at playing the best friend in films and tended to get the best lines too.

“I thought the hospital would burn down before I could get into it. Now I have to watch myself with matches.”

“Keep away from interns. They’re like cancer: the disease is known but not the cure.”

(To Mortie): “Oh, you make any joint look like a speakeasy.”

And then there’s the question of clothing or rather the lack of. The general rule in this film appears to be, when in doubt, have the female leads get undressed. Stanwyck and Blondell remove their clothes constantly throughout the film—when they’re trying on their uniforms, when they’re going to bed, when they’re getting ready for work. Except for an early scene in which one of the interns walks in on Stanwyck (“You can't show me a thing I ain't seen. I just got out of the delivery room.”), the two women are always alone, away from prying eyes except for those of the viewer.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is the relationship between Lora and Maloney. There’s no backstabbing or jealousy between these two. Instead they’re friends and colleagues who have each other’s back. Even the swipes Maloney makes at Mortie, Lora’s love interest, are good-natured. The dark-haired Stanwyck and the blonde Blondell visually make a striking duo on screen and their banter comes off sounding natural.

Stanwyck plays Lora as a street-smart working girl with a soft spot for children. While her maternal feelings shouldn’t be brushed aside, Stanwyck is at her strongest when she shows off her tough cookie persona, standing up to Nick and slapping one of the party goers. When she tries to get Mrs. Ritchey to help her children and the drunken woman passes out, Stanwyck looks down at her, shakes her head and says, “you mother,” before dumping a champagne bucket of water on her.

And then there’s Gable. Oh, Mr. Gable. In this, one of his first roles, Gable is young, handsome, and dangerous. Far from the charming rogue movie goers would come to love, Gable is a brute here. The only thing that takes away from Gable's performance is when he announces, “I’m Nick, the chauffeur.” It’s suppose to be filled with menace yet today the lines just come off as a bit comical. It doesn't matter because Gable simply oozes sex appeal. It’s no wonder that he would soon become a box office star.

Even though the attractive Gable is in the second half of the film, it’s the first half, set in the hospital, that’s the most interesting with its shots of the maternity ward and Lora at her first surgery. It also has one of the film's best known scenes when Lora and Maloney sneak back to their room after missing curfew. Stripping down to their slips, they are getting ready to turn in when Lora finds a skeleton in her bed (a trick played by one of the interns). Her screams bring the head nurse to the room who, realizing that they’ve been out, punishes them both with extra shifts. Lora, unwilling to sleep in a bed recently occupied by a skeleton, climbs into bed with Maloney instead. Now that’s a pre-code film.

10 September 2014

Remembering Olive

On September 10, 1920 Olive Thomas died after having mistakenly drank a solution of bichloride of mercury five days earlier. It was a terrible way for anyone to go and in Olive's case, marked an abrupt end to a blossoming career as a screen star. Already popular with filmgoers at the time of her death, we can only speculate on the other films she would have made and if she would have made the change over to talkies (of all the unanswered Olive Thomas questions, one at the top of my list is what did her voice sound like?). 

Unfortunately too many people today only remember Olive for the way she died (and most of the articles/books out there are filled with rumours and false information). I think we should remember her for what she was, a beautiful and vivacious woman who lit up the screen whenever she walked in front of the camera. 

Never seen an Olive Thomas film? You can watch The Flapper, one of her best known films, here.

09 September 2014

Brassaï at Night

"Morris column in the fog, Avenue de l''Observatoire" Brassaï (1934)

Today is the birthday of Gyula Halasz, better known as the photographer Brassaï. Born on September 9, 1899 in Brasso, Romania (then part of Hungary), he spent a year in Paris as a child when his father, a professor of French literature, taught at the Sorbonne. Moving back to the city that would become his permanent home in 1924, he worked as a journalist, spending his spare time painting and drawing. His first foray into photography came when he began working for Minotaure, an art magazine, and was asked to photograph artist studios. He was disinterested in the medium at first but had his mind changed by a fellow Hungarian, photographer André Kertész.

Now going by the name Brassaï (taken from his hometown), he became a popular photographer, often hired by major magazines. Yet regardless of his assignments, his fascination was with his adopted city at night. Walking the streets alone, Brassaï managed to capture the after-hour life of the City of Lights like no one else. In his images we see an empty bridge, a car's headlight cutting a beam across the street, an iconic Morris column covered with notices. And we witness the creatures of the night: the gamblers and prostitutes, late night revellers and lovers. As Brassaï once wrote, “Night in a large city brings out of its den an entire population that lives its entire life completely under the cover of darkness.”

"Pair of lovers, Place d'Italie" Brassaï (1930)

In 1933 he published many of these images in Paris de Nuit, a book that is still in print today. Flipping through its pages or another of his books, The Secret Paris of the 30’s, one is immediately swept back into the past, his photographs so real that you can almost smell the dirty streets. So on this occasion of the anniversary of his birth, let’s remember Brassaï by taking a look at a few more of his images of Paris at night.

"Prostitutes at a bar, Boulevard Rochechouart, Montmartre" Brassaï (1932). One of my favourites. 
And I love how he photographed the same woman more than once (see below).

"A prostitute playing Russian billiards, Boulevard Rochechouart" Brassaï (1932)

"Lovers in a Small Cafe, Near the Place d'Italie" Brassaï (1932)

"Le Pont Neuf" Brassaï  (1932)

To see more of Brassaï's photos, I recommend getting a copy of The Secret Paris of the 30's. It's been a favourite since college and is still in print

02 September 2014

Somewhere in France

The legendary picture editor, John G. Morris, was friends with some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and, most notably, Robert Capa whom he worked with at Life Magazine and Magnum Photos. Today Morris, who is 97 and still going strong, resides in Paris where he has lived since 1983. 

Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of getting to meet Morris when he came to New York to give a talk at the International Center of Photography. Accompanied by Robert Pledge, the founder of Contact Press Images, Morris spoke for more than an hour to a packed room about his life, his friendship with Capa, and his new book Quelque Part en France: L’été 1944 de John G. Morris.

Born on December 7, 1916, Morris attended the University of Chicago where, inspired by Time Inc's publications, including their new Life Magazine, he founded the student magazine Pulse. After graduating in 1937 with a degree in political science, Morris was unable to get a job so he hung around the school, continuing to edit the magazine. He told the story of how one week Life photographer Bernie Hoffman came to campus to do a piece on the university, and Morris was hired to be his assistant for the princely sum of $25. The experience made a big impact on Morris and set him down the road of photojournalism. In 1938, he moved to New York to work in the mailroom at Life where he moved his way up to picture editor.  

During World War II Morris, now a picture editor, was assigned to Life’s London bureau where he edited Robert Capa’s iconic images of the D-Day invasion (more here). In the summer of 1944, Morris accompanied photographers George Rodger, Bob Landry, Ralph Morse, David E. Scherman, Frank Scherschel, and Capa to France as a photo coordinator to cover the Allied advance into Normandy and Brittany. He brought along a Rolleiflex and shot 14 rolls of 120mm film. A few of the images were published but the rest were put away and forgotten. A few years ago they were rediscovered by Robert Pledge who helped organized them into a new book, Quelque Part en France: L’été 1944 de John G. Morris.

"Near Dol-de-Bretagne, Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany" John G. Morris (August 7, 1944)

The photos in the book show bombed out towns and empty train stations, civilians and refugees, and soldiers and prisoners of war. One chapter documents the liberation of the town of Rennes in Normandy, which contained a German POW camp.There are even a few “selfies.” Written in French, the book includes reproductions of the letters Morris wrote home to his wife, Dele, as well as a letter to Elizabeth "Crocky" Reeve, a staff member in the London office, in which he admits that "I fully satisfied my appetite for the front line by getting shot at individually, which is old stuff to guys like Capa but something new to me, even though I did grow up in Chicago."

In many instances, the photos are intimate portraits of war. There’s the image of a German soldier who could pass for a school child surrendering; a woman, suspected of collaborating with the Germans, being shouted at as she's taken away; a dead American soldier laying by the side of a road. They serve as a reminder of the real cost of war. Yet some of the images are also lighthearted like the MP kissing a girl in a field or the rail sign that reads "U.S. Army Special to Berlin On Time—As Usual." Then there is the shot of the three boys who grace the cover of the book who we learned all survived the war and lived to be old men. 

Pledge explained at the talk that when the project was first started, many of the images were unidentified. Through research and with the help of others, the pieces of the puzzle were put together. In some instances photos taken prior to the war of the towns that Morris had visited were used as comparisons; in other cases initials on the side of the frames helped Morris to recall where he had been.


That summer in France, Morris picked up a camera because he felt he needed the experience, to see what war was all about. When asked why he didn’t photograph more often he said, when you go around with greats like Capa, you don’t take pictures behind their backs (ironically there is an image in the book taken of Capa’s back as he’s taking a photo).

Throughout his talk, Morris always returned to Capa whom he first met in New York in 1939. Morris’ life seems to have always been connected to the dashing war photographer from his student days when he reprinted a Capa photo in Pulse to their working together at Life and Magnum; even Morris’ decision to live in Paris was influenced by Capa. As he put it, “Capa was my Hungarian brother.”

Morris remains interested in world affairs, particularly in US politics (he is a lifelong Democrat) and says he is still hopeful for the future. While he praised the work of some publications like National Geographic, he said that the press doesn’t always do a good job and needs to tell the truth more. He also stressed the importance of the role of the picture editor. With more publications reducing their photo staffs there is a need now more than ever, he said, for good picture editors. The ease at which people can take photos means that publications are swamped with loads of images and need trained picture editors who can sort through them and separate out the junk.

"Transport of German prisoners by American soldiers near Saint-Lo, Normandie" John G. Morris (July 27, 1944)

Finally, at the end of the talk, an audience member asked, “who is the most talented photographer you’ve worked with?” to which Morris replied, “Don’t ask me such a ridiculous question.”

An exhibit of Morris’ work is at the ICP through September 7, 2014 (more here). A copy of Quelque Part en France can be purchased here.

01 September 2014

Happy September

An eternal student, I love September's arrival with its back-to-school mentality. Everyone and everything is back so no more out of office messages, reruns of TV show, or closing exhibits. It also means that in just a few weeks, my favourite season of the year will begin (although the weather today felt like summer had just returned with a vengeance). So Happy September, everyone and for those of you in the states, hope you had a great Labor Day.

Image from here.

25 August 2014

The Liberation of Paris

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the Liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944, an event which had begun a week earlier with an uprising by the French Resistance. The arrival of the Free French Army of Liberation and Patton’s Third Army on the 25th saw the capture of the military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, and subsequent surrender of the Germans. After four years of occupation, the City of Lights was free. Covering the momentous event for Life Magazine was famed war photographer Robert Capa.

"French soldiers fighting against the Germans during the liberation of the city" Robert Capa (August 25, 1944)Capa, who had already taken some of the most famous photographs of the war, was determined to be among the first to enter the city that he had once called home. After some frustrating attempts to follow the US Army, Capa went in with General Leclerc’s French 2nd Armoured Division. Travelling in a jeep with Time correspondent Charles Wertenbaker and their driver, Pvt Hubert Strickland, Capa entered Paris shortly after Leclerc’s tank at 9:40 am.

"German troops started shooting against the parade celebrating the liberation of the city" Robert Capa (August 26, 1944)

There was much rejoicing as troops drove into the city. Parisians flocked into the streets, greeting liberators with hugs and kisses, and shouts of “merci.” Many broke into song, many cried. Sniper attacks throughout the day brought temporary halts to the celebrating but nothing could stop the jubilant feeling in the air. Capa took photos of it all, revellers and collaborators, Resistance fighters and German soldiers. The next day he rode in General Charles de Gaulle’s parade down the Champs-Elysées. When sniper bullets rang out, he stood taking photos while people ducked for cover.

Having already set up a temporary Time Inc. office at the Hotel Scribe, Capa and Wertenbaker were soon joined by fellow photographers and correspondents who continued to arrive daily. Ernest Hemingway, who had already liberated the bar at the Ritz, stopped by as well. Capa would stay on in Paris for two months before leaving on another assignment.

Capa would go on to cover the rest of the war. But he would never forget August 25, 1944, later referring to it as “the most unforgettable day in the world.”

To see more images of the Liberation of Paris, visit here.

22 August 2014

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker!

"Dorothy Parker behind Harold Ross' house" Florence Vandamm (1924)

Dorothy Parker was born on August 22, 1893 in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was a great American wit, writer, defender of civil rights, cocktail drinker, lover of dogs, and my longtime role model. In honour of her birthday, why not pick up a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker or read the interview she gave to the Paris Review in 1956. And be sure to raise a glass (or two) and say, Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker!


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