31 December 2015
I am anxiously awaiting the departure of 2015, which has not been a good year for me. So come on 2016; I have big plans for you. In the meantime, whether you're going out on the town or staying in tonight, I wish you all a Happy New Year and thank you for stopping by to read the Tales of a Madcap Heiress. Now let's have some champagne!
29 December 2015
On Christmas day, I could be found at Film Forum laughing along with the rest of the audience at Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941).
A screwball comedy based on Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, the film is set not in a forest but in New York City where eight professors live and work together in an old brownstone, writing an encyclopedia of human knowledge. They are on the letter “S” when the youngest professor, Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), realizes that his research on slang is out of date. He roams the city looking for people to make up a research panel and winds up at a nightclub where Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is performing with the Gene Krupa Band. Potts is entranced and invites Sugarpuss to join his panel. At first she declines but changes her mind when she needs a place to hide from the DA who's looking for her in connection to her mobster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). She moves into the house with the professors and quickly changes their lives. She and Potts fall in love, and he proposes marriage. The only problem is that Joe wants her to marry him so she can’t testify against him in court. Everyone winds up in New Jersey where Potts fights Joe for the woman he loves.
The film’s leads are perfect in their roles: Barbara Stanwyck was a street-smart New Yorker in real life and looks gorgeous while Gary Cooper is especially attractive when he's in full fumbling nerd mode (which he plays so well). They are supported by some of Hollywood’s favourite character actors including S.Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Leonid Kinskey, and Dan Duryea. There’s also a great musical performance by Gene Krupa of "Drum Boogie" including a scene where he uses a book of matches to play the drums. The comedy is balanced with some tender moments and the costumes are glorious (one of Stanwyck’s gowns literally shines). And then there is the language.
Screwball comedies are noted for their witty dialogue and this film delivers in spades thanks to a brilliant script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. In the film, Cooper quotes Carl Sandburg who said, "slang is language that takes off it coat, spits on its hands, and gets to work." In this film, the language is working overtime. The erudite words of the professors are juxtaposed with the slang-filled observations of working class people creating numerous comedic moments.
Early in the film Potts realizes that his slang research is obsolete when a garbage collector comes into the house to ask the professors for some help with a “quizzola” he’s filling out for the chance to win $25. He asks them a question about how Cleopatra died. When they give him the answer, he expresses his thanks and tells them why it’s important:
Garbage Man: I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week.
Garbage Man: What a pair of gams. A little in, a little out, and a little more out...
Potts: I am still completely mystified.
Garbage Man: Well, with this dish on me hands and them giving away 25 smackaroos on that quizzola.
Potts: Smackaroos? What are smackaroos?
Garbage Man: A smackaroo is a...
Potts: No such word exists.
Garbage Man: Oh, it don't? A smackaroo is a dollar, pal.
Potts: Well, the accepted vulgarism for a dollar is a buck.
Garbage Man: The accepted vulgarism for a smackaroo is a dollar. That goes for a banger, a fish, a buck or a rug.
Potts: Well, what about the mouse?
Garbage Man: The mouse is the dish. That's what I need the moolah for.
Garbage Man: Yeah, the dough. We'll be stepping. Me and this smooch…I mean, the dish, I mean, the mouse. You know, hit the jiggles for a little rum boogie.
Potts: Please, please, not so fast.
Garbage Man: Brother, we're going to have some hoytoytoy.
Garbage Man: Yeah, and if you want that one explained, you go ask your papas.
Sugarpuss O’Shea’s language is just as colourful as the Garbage Man’s, and she’s better looking. Between her delivery and the gold dress that shows off her midriff and shapely legs, Potts doesn’t have a chance.
When he first meets Sugarpuss in her dressing room she tells him, “Okay, scrow, scram, scraw,” and he responds with delight, “The complete conjugation!”
Sugarpuss also gets some of the best lines. When she first enters the professors’ library she says, “Hey, who decorated this place, the mug who shot Lincoln?” And when trying to convince Potts that she’s getting sick and needs to stay over at the house, she asks him to check her throat.
Potts: There is possibly a slight rosiness in the laryngeal region.
Sugarpuss: Slight rosiness? It’s as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore.
When Potts attempts to kick her out of the house, he tells her, "Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body." She responds by playing on his sense of duty as a grammarian.
Sugarpuss: There's a lot of words we haven't caught up with. For instance, do you know what this means, "I'll get you on the Ameche"?
Sugarpuss: Of course, you don't. An Ameche is the telephone. On account of he invented it.
Potts: Oh, no, he didn't.
Sugarpuss: You know, in the movies.
Potts: I see what you mean. Very interesting.
She finally convinces him to let her stay when she stands on three of Professor Gurkakoff’s reference books (Potts is very tall) and shows him what “yum yum” is. The kisses send Potts running out of the room to apply a cold compress to the back of his neck.
Like when Snow White went to live with the dwarfs, the other professors are enchanted by Sugarpuss and welcome her into their lives. They begin dressing smarter to impress her and instead of conducting research, they dance a conga. They also hang on her every word, trying to understand her world. When the professors turn the tables on the mobsters and pull guns on them, Professor Oddly (Richard Haydn) tells them, “I believe…I think it is known as an “up-stick.” Bless him.
Yet the influence isn’t one-sided. Sugarpuss comes to realize that not only does she deserve something better in her life but that she’s in love with Potts (or Pottsy as she calls him). He's the opposite of Joe, and she can't seem to believe that she's fallen for him.
“I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs. And the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk. And I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk.”
The film was a hit with audiences and garnered six Academy Award nominations including one for Stanwyck for Best Actress. I think it's one of the best roles she ever played. So if you've never seen Ball of Fire, shove in your clutch and watch it now. Dig me?
26 December 2015
Clara Bow was the original “It Girl,” radiating sex appeal and epitomizing the flapper of the 1920s. What many people forget though is that she was also a fine actress. A recent screening at MoMA of a restored print of her film, Get Your Man (1927), reminded the audience of this fact.
Get Your Man opens with the betrothal between the children of two aristocratic French families (emphasis on “children”). Jump ahead 17 years and the two, now grown, are set to wed. Before they do the groom, Duke Robert Albin (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), must take a trip to Paris to pick up some family pearls to give to his bride. There he keeps bumping into the same girl—at a taxi, outside a building, in a parfumerie, and finally at a wax museum. The girl in question is Nancy Worthington (Clara Bow), a rich American on holiday. “It must be fate,” she tells him. The two tour around the museum and are accidentally locked in, resulting in their spending the night together and falling in love.
The next morning the two part after Robert confesses that he’s engaged to be married. Yet Nancy isn’t ready to give him up. She drives down to his chateau where she stages an “accident.” Taken into the house, she quickly charms everyone including Robert’s fiancée Simone de Valens (Josephine Dunn), who confides in her that she’s really in love with another man. Meanwhile Simone’s smitten father, the Marquis de Valens (Harvey Clark), proposes to Nancy who accepts on condition that he break off his daughter’s engagement to Robert, which he agrees to. Nancy’s plans almost backfire when she gets a letter from Robert stating that he’s leaving for Africa to shoot lions. Luckily some quick thinking on Nancy’s part, which involves the discovery of Robert in her room in a compromising position, soon sets everything right, and Nancy is able to get her man.
As Nancy, Clara Bow is not only attractive but smart and funny (Bow was very good at comedy). In most of her films she played working class girls but here she is wealthy and glamorous. While the film may have been just one more of Bow’s films that year for the studio (internally it was referred to as “Winter Bow”), under the direction of Dorothy Arzner, one of the first women directors in Hollywood, Bow shines. Giving her a chance to play someone different, Arzner brings out all of Bow’s best qualities in the film. Arzner was to say of Bow, “Whichever way she did it [the scene] was so right, so alive. It was like a dancing flame on the screen.”
A strong performance by Charles "Buddy" Rogers shouldn't go unacknowledged. Always charming, he may be even more beautiful than Bow in the film. There’s also some good comic timing by Harvey Clark as the besotted Marquis. And hats off to the costume designer. Bow's gowns are to die for.
The screening of the film at MoMA last month was part of their To Save and Project: The 13th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation. Bow’s biographer David Stenn was on hand to introduce the film. It was Running Wild, his book about the actress, that helped to reintroduce Bow to film fans by debunking some persistent myths (thanks a lot Hollywood Babylon) and re-examining her as an actress.
Unfortunately, some of the footage shows signs of nitrate burns and two of the six reels are missing so the version screened contained title cards and stills to cover the missing scenes. Restored by the Library of Congress, MoMA, and the Academy of Arts & Sciences, they did a fine job but it’s unfortunate that the missing scenes include the night at the wax museum (the footage ends before they're locked in). A still of the two stars asleep together gives a hint at what was probably a lovely scene.
Bow notoriously dreaded the coming of sound, believing the microphone to be her enemy. Watching her in a silent film, you realize that she was right in so far as she didn’t need to speak—her face could express volumes. All you have to do is watch her eyes to know exactly what's happening and in this film, you know from the beginning that she will get her man.
25 December 2015
21 December 2015
Ingrid Bergman by Bob Landry for LIFE Magazine (1941)
The February 24, 1941 issue of LIFE magazine featured an article titled “Ingrid Bergman Takes a Short Holiday From Hollywood.” The article was a fluff piece, featuring the then fairly new actress (she’d been in the US for less than two years and had yet to play her legendary role in Casablanca) on a ski holiday with her husband, Dr. Petter Lindström, at June Lake near the California-Nevada Border.
During the trip, she made a quick visit to San Francisco to meet with Ernest Hemingway who was en route to China with his wife, Martha Gelhorn. They discussed Hemingway’s wish for her to play Maria in the film adaptation of his novel, For Whom the Bells Toll, at Jack’s Restaurant where they enjoyed a “salad and a dry white wine” (somehow I can’t see Hemingway eating a salad). He is quoted as telling Bergman, “If you don’t act in the picture, Ingrid, I won’t work on it.” Hemingway didn't have to worry; Bergman ended up winning the part.
The article is accompanied by photos of the actress and the author at the restaurant. But I prefer the ones taken by Bob Landry of her having a snowball fight with her husband at June Lake, especially the one above. Landry captured this candid moment of the young actress moments after getting hit by a snow ball. She appears to be having a wonderful time. What a refreshing change from the normally staged studio shots of the stars. Now, don't you want to go out and play in the snow?
07 December 2015
Last week I saw Bulldog Drummond (1929) at Film Forum, part of their tribute to the great production designer William Cameron Menzies. Directed by F. Richard Jones, Bulldog Drummond was the third film and first talkie based on Sapper’s (aka H.C. McNeile) stage adaption of his 1920 novel. Bull Drummond is a perfect detective story for the screen—fast paced and action packed with witty dialogue, a likable hero with a comical sidekick, a beautiful girl, and sufficiently evil villains.
The film opens in London at the Senior Conservative Club where an elderly club member is outraged by the racket created by a waiter dropping a spoon. Seated nearby is the recently demobilized Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (Ronald Colman) and his best friend, Algy Longworth (Claude Allister). Adding to the noise by whistling, Drummond leaves with Algy for a bar where he confesses, “I've been bored too long. I can't stand it any more. I'm too rich to work, too intelligent to play, much; I tell you, if something doesn't happen within the next few days, I'll explode.” When Algy jokingly suggests advertising his availability, Drummond takes him seriously and quickly writes up an ad that’s placed in the Times.
"DEMOBILIZED OFFICER, finding peace unbearably tedious would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection."
Drummond’s soon inundated with requests but one in particular piques his interest: a Phyllis Benton has written asking that if he’s serious, then Drummond should meet her at midnight at the Green Bay Inn where she’s reserved rooms for him. Drummond, who conjures up an image of a woman who’s “dark, voluptuous, and dramatic,” asks his valet, Danny (Wilson Benge), to pack him a toothbrush and a gun and departs.
At the Inn he's waiting for Phyllis when Algy and Danny show up. Calling Algy a “meddlesome jackass,” he brushes off Algy’s concerns. “If I had wanted a body guard, I should have sent for my maiden aunt,” Drummond tells him, adding, “Why not, she’s more of a man than you are.”
Bulldog Drummond (Ronald Colman) and Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett)
Phyllis (Joan Bennett) arrives, and Drummond is delighted to find that she meets his expectations. The beautiful young woman is in a state, telling him that her wealthy uncle, Charles Travers, is supposedly being treated for a nervous breakdown at a local hospital but that the two men “treating” him, Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant) and Carl Petersen (Montague Love), are really keeping him there against his will in an attempt to get at his fortune. Drummond tells her that her tale is “rather like a penny thriller” yet promises to do whatever she wants him to do. The sudden appearance of silhouettes at the door (it’s just Algy and Danny being nosey) spooks Phyllis who runs away only to be caught by Lakington, Petersen, and Petersen’s "sister," Irma (Lilyan Tashman). Drummond naturally heads off to rescue his damsel in distress.
Once there Drummond acts nonchalant, pretending to have just been passing. The sound of a man’s cries for help (“Somebody step on the cat’s tail?” Drummond asks) prompts him to ask point blank if they’re abusing Travers. When Petersen denies it, Drummond leaves only to circle back. Announcing to Phyllis that “it’s a fine time for you to visit my maiden aunt in London," Irma lets out a wolf whistle. Expecting her gang, she gets Algy instead (Algy’s cluelessness seems to make him immune not only to the obvious but to danger as well). When Irma’s gang does rush in, there’s a brief shootout during which Drummond and his pals escape. Telling Algy to take Phyllis back to the Inn, Drummond returns to the hospital where he hides outside a window and watches as Travers (Charles Sellon) is brought into Lakington’s laboratory. Travers is given a special injection and forced to sign a paper turning over “certain securities and jewels” to Petersen. Drummond then takes them by surprise and escapes with Travers and the paper.
He brings Travers to the Inn, which probably isn’t the smartest move. The bad guys show up, and Irma is given two of her best scenes—ordering a drink ("whiskey, straight,") and flirting with Algy who is enamoured with the blonde (he keeps saying that he must get her telephone number). The bad guys demand Travers be handed over so Drummond disguises Algy as himself while he dresses up like Travers. A fight ensues and Drummond is taken while Algy, who has lost his costume, is left behind.
Discovering Drummond's charade, the bad guys tie him up and inform him that they have Phyllis. Threatening to torture her—she’s taken into a room where she starts screaming—Drummond tells them that he left Travers at the Inn (in reality he's on the way to London with Danny and Algy). Everyone leaves save for Lakington who brings an unconscious Phyllis into the room. He shows Drummond his secret “electric” door that no one can open while the “current is switched on” (it’s a flimsily looking metal door that garnered a chuckle from the audience) before proceeding to paw at Phyllis. Announcing that he’s going to put Drummond to sleep, he leaves the room to mix a potion. Phyllis wakes and frees Drummond who then struggles with Lakington, killing him in the process.
Algy rings and Drummond tells him to bring the police from Scotland Yard. The bad guys return, and Drummond locks Petersen in the room with him and Phyllis. Admitting he’s licked, Petersen asks Drummond to let Irma go and requests one last call to her. Drummond agrees, and Petersen tells Irma on the phone to “work the old circus gag,” code for the gang to dress up like the police. Drummond falls for the trick and watches as the “police” take Petersen away. When Algy arrives and gives Drummond a note from Petersen explaining what he's done, Drummond tries telephoning Scotland Yard but Phyllis convinces him to let them go and tells him that she loves him. Drummond has won the girl and saved the day.
Ronald Colman is superb as Drummond. Handsome, charming, athletic (enough), and so very, very English. The most astonishing thing about the film may be the fact that it was Colman’s first talkie. The actor had already been acting in films for a few years before he played this role. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a moviegoer hearing Colman speak for the first time in that beautiful, cultured voice.
The cast for the most part is strong including Claude Allister whose Algy is great as the film’s comic relief, Montague Love (what a brilliant name) who brings just enough likability and toughness to the role of Petersen, and Lilyan Tashman as the cool, slinky Irma. It was also a nice surprise to see Gertrude Short playing a barmaid. Thin Man fans will recognize her as Nunheim’s girlfriend, the one who doesn’t like stool pigeons. Lawrence Grant as Lakington however is a bit too over the top in his acting while Joan Bennett is utterly underwhelming as Phyllis. Bennett wouldn’t hit her stride until the 1940s when as a brunette she turned in solid performances in films like The Woman in the Window and Scarlett Street. Here the blonde Bennett just seems inexperienced and unsure of herself.
The Tivoli theatre in The Strand, London, advertising Bulldog Drummond, July 26, 1929. Photo: J. Geiger.
For a film made during the transition period from silent to talkie, it’s incredibly smooth with none of the stilted dialogues that some other films from this time suffered. There's plenty of action and Colman’s delivery helps to keep the scenes between him and Bennett from becoming overly dramatic.
As for Menzies’ sets, their size (giant doors that dwarf the characters in some scenes are juxtaposed with small, low-ceiling rooms in others) bring to mind certain German silent films. The use of shadows also serves to enhance the story. It should be noted that this was one of the first features that the great cinematographer Gregg Toland worked on (he shared the credit with George S. Barnes).
The film was well received and earned Colman and Menzies Oscar nominations. While Colman would return to the role in 1934 in Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, many other adaptations would be made with other actors playing the role. Yet none were perhaps as convincing as Colman whose performance, a New York Times reviewer noted at the film's opening at the Apollo Theater, "is matchless so far as talking pictures are concerned."